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Was the Civil War a Mistake?: Fifty Years of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 361-375 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0049

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In 2012, the American Civil War sesquicentennial continued. We were prepared for the panels on secession, Sumter, and Shiloh, and of course the books in preparation for the 2013 salute to the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer caught a few off guard, but it too had precedent: in the centennial, moviegoers watched Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), a horror-filled Confederate revival where Yankees were “gruesomely stained in gushing blood color.” In April 2012, though, an important anniversary passed nearly unnoticed: Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War turned fifty. Since 1962, scholars have grappled with this epic. Wilson put a question mark where, today, few believe there is a question—Was the Civil War a mistake?

When Patriotic Gore first appeared, the shape and tenor of Civil War research was in the midst of a decade’s-long shift. Many scholars had seen the North as unjust, brutish, and mean and the war as a fight over nationhood. But by the 1960s, in the wake of World War II, the abolition of slavery started to emerge in the work of white American historians as a fateful event. Wilson published Patriotic Gore at a key moment—the Civil Rights Movement had turned a sharply focused lens on American race relations and, soon, the conflict in Vietnam did the same for American militarism. Through 816 pages, Wilson spoke to both of these concerns—his grand American opus was progressive in its certainty that the war was a mistake and was reactionary in its belief that, though slavery was wrong, it had little to do with the conflict. He accomplished this in a bombastic introduction that spoke to the causes and consequences of the Civil War, and with an inspirational catalogue of nineteenth-century American authors.

In the twenty-first century, Patriotic Gore serves as a weigh station to inspect war, peace, freedom, and slavery in Civil War scholarship and celebration. Upon publication, however, the work, which Wilson wrestled with for fifteen years, helped to revive his reputation as one of the great twentieth-century American intellectuals—a broad-minded commentator who approached subjects as a psychologist, historian, and literary critic. Patriotic Gore’s readers learned, for example, that the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, suffered “physical handicaps” that “seem also to have impeded his relationships with women”; that a historical view of Robert E. Lee helped situate his “classical antique virtue, at once aristocratic and republican”; and that Harriet Beecher Stowe “has a particularly exasperating habit of first narrating some episode at length, then telling it all over again in a letter or conversation” (pp. 391, 335, 33).1 As advertised on the dustwrapper, the book united “two lines” of Wilsonian thought: “literary criticism” and “social analysis.”

The standard position on Patriotic Gore is that, when it was published in 1962, it was instantly acknowledged as a masterpiece. There is ample evidence to support this view. Daniel Aaron believed the book profound: “Like the productions of other original men of letters, Patriotic Gore discloses unwelcome truths about ourselves and our country, but it also uncovers and discovers what we forgot or never knew about our literary culture.” Robert Penn Warren christened it “a work of art” in which “experience, imaginatively conceived, imposes itself on us” and suggested that it “may become a classic.” “Surely no book among the hundreds being published during what Wilson appropriately calls ‘this absurd centennial,’” said Southern historian Lewis P. Simpson, “will do more to rebuke the nonsense of platitudinous oratory and the false tumult of mock battles and to reveal the human dimensions of one of the great tragedies of modern history.” The New York Times all but sanctioned the book with three reviews over a four-day stretch at the end of April. And in Britain Robert Conquest wrote that Wilson’s “new, huge (over eight hundred pages) ‘studies in the literature of the American Civil War’ is typical of his genius on all counts.”2

For years after the book’s debut, writers, from academics to journalists, continued to note Patriotic Gore as spellbinding, insightful, and important. When historian Marcus Cunliffe appraised...

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