- From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature
It goes without saying that, either through its immediate effects or long-term consequences, the Civil War shaped the lives of a generation of Americans. That it also transformed American literature, as this book’s subtitle claims, may seem like overstatement, but English professor Randall Fuller, without explicitly asserting so, credits the war for the noticeable shift from romanticism to realism. In an engaging narrative, From Battlefields Rising presents a group portrait of the North’s literary giants as they sought to understand and find meaning in a war that promised to fulfill some of their most cherished principles of union, liberty, and the dignity of humankind but that instead shook those beloved ideals with its unfathomable cost in lives.
Although he attempts to be as thorough and inclusive as possible when surveying the northern literary scene, Fuller tells the stories of five chief and well-known characters—Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. The suffering of war altered Walt Whitman’s poetry from the optimistic verses in Leaves of Grass celebrating the human body to grisly descriptions of amputated limbs and mangled flesh. His personal experiences as a nurse tending wounded soldiers in Washington’s hospitals noticeably aged him and permanently weakened his health, but it also provided a modicum of hope that the nation’s wounds could be healed, albeit through the North and South’s shared experience of death. The ubiquity of death demolished Ralph Waldo Emerson’s characteristic optimism and not only caused him to question whether the holy war to end slavery truly would result in national progress and redemption but also prevented him from allowing his only son, Edward, to enlist. In contrast, Nathaniel Hawthorne doubted the righteousness of the conflict from the outset, was uncertain as to what the fighting was really about, and speculated that African Americans would receive no immediate benefit from the struggle. The harsh realities of war stifled his creativity and in his mind rendered romantic fiction obsolete; this death of romance prevented Hawthorne from finishing his last novel [End Page 630] before he died in 1864. Similarly, Herman Melville found that the accepted forms of conventional Romantic poetry could not convey the brutalities of war, and his 1866 Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War explored the “competing perspectives, contradictory interpretations, [and] unresolved conclusions” of the conflict (195). But after four years of fighting, the reading public had little interest in pondering ambiguities or complexities that called into question the North’s moral certainty and self-righteousness, and the critical reviews and tepid sales of Battle-Pieces doomed Melville’s quest to revive his literary career. In the seclusion of her room, Emily Dickinson composed roughly eight hundred poems during the war, ruminating about death, wrestling with survivor’s guilt, and searching to understand the designs of the God whom she regarded as distant from and insensitive to the needs of humanity. If a common thread united these five figures, it was that they found the literary forms of the past inadequate to represent the nature of death in the Civil War—the previously incomprehensible scale of the slaughter, the horrendous mutilation of bodies, and the impersonal mechanization of killing.
On the whole, Fuller crafts a flowing narrative that makes for enjoyable reading. He does not engage any specific historiographical debates but seems satisfied with telling a good story. Although perhaps not a major problem, the book might have benefited from incorporating Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) into the conversation about the unprecedented problem posed by Civil War dead. The final chapter would have been more accurately entitled “Death” rather than “Heaven,” for after the introductory paragraphs about Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar the chapter deals primarily with death. “Heaven” might have been a more appropriate title had Fuller discussed the hundreds of Protestant ministers who envisioned Abraham Lincoln firmly...