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Civil War Literature and Nationalism

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 136-139 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0017

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In his 1962 assessment of Civil War poetry, Edmund Wilson’s impatience with the rhetoric of nationhood led him to dismiss Civil War poetry as so much “patriotic journalism” and to praise instead poets who developed a “more personal kind of self-expression” by ignoring the war altogether (Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman) or approaching it only obliquely (Sidney Lanier). By 2012, it has become impossible to imagine that any study of Civil War poetry would not engage questions of nationalism. Coleman Hutchison and Faith Barrett each illustrate the gulf between 1962 when Wilson valorized the personal over the political and 2012. Each cites Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) to illuminate the way Civil War poetry expresses the relation between literature and nationalism. Each demonstrates with close-readings how texts shaped and were shaped by contexts of production, circulation, and reception.

Although Confederate nationalism has received substantial scholarly attention, especially following Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1988), its associated literature has suffered neglect. As Hutchison observes, most scholars have concluded that “there wasn’t much of the stuff, and in any case it wasn’t very good.” Without addressing quality, Hutchison demonstrates that “the Confederacy gave rise to a robust literary culture.” In examining this archive as a test case for Anderson’s account of modern nation-building, Hutchison looks deeply at a few instances, as compared for example with the broad survey approach taken by Michael Bernath’s Confederate Minds (2010). Much more extensively than Bernath, Hutchison emphasizes the international context of Confederate nationalism and its literature. Literary criticism, poetry, and popular song alike provide Hutchison’s evidence for the idea that the Confederacy was a “nation struggling to write itself into existence.” Examinations of the pro-Confederate, London-based periodical The Index and especially the long running Southern Literary Messenger demonstrate the importance of literary criticism. (Chapters on poetry and song will be discussed below in conjunction with Barrett’s study.) Readers may wish that Hutchison had also devoted a chapter to the genre of popular history—for example, Edward A. Pollard’s series, which began in 1862 and culminated in 1866 with The Lost Cause. Other genres bear disproportionate weight in his argument, as in the chapter on the Confederate national novel. By Hutchison’s count, only seven original book-length works of fiction were published in the Confederacy during the war, and of these only one seems to have been popular enough to support claims of cultural influence: Augusta Jane Evans’s Macaria; or, the Altars of Sacrifice (1864). This text sold some twenty thousand copies (about as many as The Scarlet Letter sold during Hawthorne’s lifetime). Memoir, which emerged out of Confederate nationalism after the demise of its state apparatus, is represented not by the numerous examples that promoted a Lost Cause ideology but rather by an anomaly, Loreta Janeta Velazquez’s The Woman in Battle (1876). Whereas previous work has focused on gender, Hutchison’s new approach to this text by way of nationalism maps Velazquez’s geographical “restlessness” onto the international context of the Confederacy and the war.

Barrett approaches the question of nationalism through poetic form, particularly “voice-effects”: modes of address, pronoun usages (actual or implied), song-like structures, and similar formal features that specify an audience’s relation to a text. Working in the vein of historical poetics opened by scholars such as Paula Bennett and Virginia Jackson, Barrett reminds us of the prominence of poetry and song in mid-century American culture. Arguing that the war reshaped American poetics as poets discovered new permeability in the conventional “boundaries between ‘civic’ and ‘private’ stances,” Barrett asks us to reconsider the definition of lyric subjectivity we have inherited from modernism. Chapters address popular song, soldiers’ poetry, and the work of several poets: Julia Ward Howe, Frances Harper, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Henry Timrod, Sarah Piatt, George Moses Horton, and Herman Melville.

The studies have two archives in common, Timrod’s poetry and the popular song “Dixie.” Hutchison presents Timrod’s 1861 “Ode on the Meeting of the Southern Congress,” later re-titled “Ethnogenesis,” as a paradigmatic instance of Confederate literary nationalism, for its...



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