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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 869-870

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The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 . By Alice Fahs. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. 2001. xi, 410 pp. $39.95.

Never has the Civil War seemed less "unwritten" than it does in the hands of Alice Fahs. A cultural historian with an eye for unusual texts, Fahs has uncovered caches of neglected wartime publications as well as "cheap" literature sometimes so sensational that it has never been retrieved for long enough to be dismissed. In addition to war poetry and subscription histories, memorial volumes that commemorate the deaths of officers, and later boys' books, her venturesome study surveys such forgotten wealth as broadsides, cartoons, story papers, comic valentines, and illustrated patriotic envelopes, some depicting the "contrabands" who are the book's recurring concern. Although Fahs thus looks most often to the vigor of what she calls "commercial literary culture" in the North, she is also resourceful in seeking out Southern newspapers and magazines that somehow eluded paper and ink shortages, at least until drafted printers and editors let the Southern Illustrated News or the Southern Punch or the Magnolia; A Southern Home Journal languish. From the wares of railway bookstalls to the subscriptions of itinerant agents and a host of other neglected networks, this volume traces the littered course of words and pictures that would bind the battlefield demands of warring nations, North and South, to the shifting priorities of readers and the narratives they consumed.

The Imagined Civil War sees a marketplace dynamic, termed a "complex synergy between patriotism and commerce" (15), bringing a newly coalescing nationalism home to readers in unexpected ways. "In sentimental soldier literature," Fahs writes, "it was not an abstract notion of country that made the individual deaths of soldiers meaningful but the reverse: the suffering and deaths of soldiers themselves provided a new way of understanding a previously abstract nationhood" (119). The result was a personalized war enabled by, say, Winslow Homer's souvenir Life in Camp cards or James Redpath's series of "Books for the Camp Fires" in a lively print market that transformed national allegiance into individual sacrifice and turned the "United States" [End Page 869] into narrative. Commercial culture suddenly helped plot a new nation as never before, a marketplace magic that both confirmed the preeminence of domestic values and extended their sway to new heroes in Union blue. As the work of Elizabeth Young, Jim Cullen, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Louis Masur, along with my own, has likewise demonstrated, the Civil War was immediately and distinctively read with a recurring concern for emancipation, sentimental conventions, and the bottom line.

For good reason, then, Fahs begins her study with an overview of contemporary literary culture and the war's early days before examining soldier literature, domestic priorities, emancipation's consequences, wartime humor, sensational venues, juvenilia, and the Civil War histories that foregrounded "the market value of memory." Consistently, these discussions move in curious directions. The Civil War humor Fahs surveys, for example, arises less from backslapping than from disgruntlement, while the soldier boys she examines in print are caught between a regimental loyalty to Uncle Sam or Father Abraham and a yearning for earlier homes where fathers are noticeably absent, as in the campfire favorite "Just before the Battle, Mother." That song, like so much else Fahs considers, is publicly available and yet privately reassuring, bound to conventions and yet heartfelt. In the same vein, this study provides an unusually deft assessment of Southern slaves as "contrabands of war," a term that became popular throughout the North because it suggested property as much as liberty and thus failed to shake minstrel stereotypes while adding the "additional layers of reference and complexity" that Fahs is careful to assess (154).

Among the many opportunities so intelligently explored, Fahs does miss the chance to reckon more than sporadically with soldier audiences. As David Kaser's Books and Libraries in Camp and Battle has documented, many soldiers stuck in camp for long stretches...


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pp. 869-870
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Archived 2005
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