- War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861–1914
In this short study, Cynthia Wachtell proposes a reconsideration of American antiwar literature from the outbreak of the Civil War to the eve of World War I. An initial chapter on three responses to the Battle of Chickamauga sets the scene. In his unpublished wartime journal, Illinois [End Page 447] captain Allen L. Fahnestock offered a detailed chronicle of the bloody battle that left “our army badly demoralized” (17). In stark contrast to Fahnestock’s realistic account, a poem published by Texas teenager Mollie Moore titled “Chickamauga” traded grim realism for “euphemism and romantic flourish,” Wachtell explains (18). Sixteen years later, Union veteran Ambrose Bierce—who had fought in the battle—published his celebrated short story, “Chickamauga.” While Moore had placed a war hero at the center of her poem, Bierce’s terrifying tale centers on the experiences of a six-year-old deaf-mute boy, who stumbles onto the battlefield. Like most of Bierce’s war fiction, this story presents the Civil War as “horrific and utterly unredemptive” (20). This, then, is the fundamental framework of Wachtell’s argument. Most Civil War fiction and poetry, like Moore’s saccharine verse, romanticized the conflict, while the “real war” as experienced by men like Fahnestock never seemed to “get in the books.” But while the dominant culture clung to romantic portrayals of the war’s horrors, a handful of contrarian voices joined Bierce in rejecting war as a glorious and manly exercise.
Much of Wachtell’s analysis concentrates on the usual suspects: Melville, Whitman, De Forest, Hawthorne, Bierce, Crane, Twain all get their due. Readers familiar with the foundational work on Civil War fiction by Edmund Wilson and Daniel Aaron will find no large surprises here, although Wachtell offers valuable brief summaries and some innovative analysis.1 One thread concerns the ways in which these authors navigated a world of changing literary tastes as well as gradually evolving notions about warfare. De Forest—who Wachtell cleverly describes as a “loose cannon on the literary battlefield”—flaunted romantic conventions in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, but contemporary readers demonstrated little interest in the novel’s grim realism (73). Whitman, who famously predicted that the “real war will never get in the books,” seemed intentionally to sanitize his wartime writings, perhaps in the name of patriotism. Wachtell compares unpublished passages in Melville’s “Inscription for the Dead at Fredericksburgh” with the published version, concluding that in his careful editing Melville was pursuing a literary compromise between romanticism and realism. But insofar as Melville refused to “pander to popular taste” in his war poetry, he also failed to find an appreciative audience (59). He ended up burning many of his war poems, and when his collected Battle-Pieces sold a mere five hundred copies, Melville retired his pen for good.
Wachtell’s most important contributions to the scholarship on anti-war literature concern those authors who wrote in the decades between [End Page 448] the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. Critics have commonly traced modern antiwar literature to the powerful international responses to the horrors of World War I, which were followed by equally eloquent commentaries on World War II, Vietnam, and other modern conflicts. The honor roll of authors who raised serious questions about warfare after World War I is long, including Dos Passos, Hemingway, Remarque, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, O’Brien, Caputo, and many, many more. These modern writers generally combined literary excellence with contemporary popularity, whereas the handful of Civil War–era writers who questioned war more broadly seemed to sacrifice one or both virtues when they wrote about their own war.
In the half century after Appomattox, new dissenting voices emerged. Some, like Bierce and Twain, had seen Civil War fighting and continued to process those experiences in their writings decades later. Others, most notably Stephen Crane, applied late-century realism to reconsider the sectional conflict. In Wachtell’s view, the literature...