- To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War by Faith Barrett
Scholars have spent a surprisingly short period of time tending to Emily Dickinson’s dynamic and characteristically oblique responses to the greatest historical trauma of her lifetime, the American Civil War. As recently as 1981, a critic as perspicacious as David Porter could claim that “there is no Civil War in the flood of poems from the war years” (115). However, in the nearly 30 years since Shira Wolosky’s extraordinary Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, the “great internecine conflict” has become a dominant topic in the scholarly conversation around Dickinson’s engagement with her own historical moment. (See especially Faith Barrett’s “Public Selves and Private Spheres.”)
One can imagine a number of reasons why it took Dickinson studies so long to come around to a topic of such clear critical interest—not least of which are assumptions about Dickinson’s purported lack of interest in the world that never wrote to her. Yet, Dickinson is not the only poet whose Civil War era poetry has suffered long years of neglect. Indeed, until very recently there has been no book-length study of the poetry of the American Civil War. The first such volume, Faith Barrett’s To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave, is both hugely winning and hugely important. Barrett has provided the critical framework through which Civil War poetry will be read for a generation or more. In the process, she has also made a signal contribution to the study of Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, and a host of other nineteenth-century American poets who mustered with the “Calvary of Woe.”
Barrett’s painstaking and much anticipated book highlights the “vital role” poetry played in “developing and disseminating the ideologies of national identity” during and immediately after the American Civil War. Her unifying [End Page 128] claim is that poetry became “the central literary site for [an] exploration of the changing relationship between self and nation” during this “poetry-fueled war” (2-3). In building this argument, Barrett examines the “rhetorical platform” from which a diverse group of poets—Northern and Southern, male and female, white and black—addressed local, regional, and national audiences (2). In reading tensions between the collective “we” and the personal “I,” Barrett identifies a “new permeability between ‘civic’ and ‘private’ stances,” which, in turn, came to inform and inflect all subsequent American poetry (11).
This formally-minded study is particularly interested in those poetic “voice-effects” that render intelligible poetry’s “dual status as written and spoken word,” namely apostrophe, first- and second-person pronouns, repetitions, refrains, and the like (10). As Barrett rightly notes, that dual status ensured that poetry emerged as one of the preferred—if not the preferred—genre through which the Civil War was both experienced and expressed. The poems Barrett studies here were indeed “Words for the Hour.”
Throughout To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave, Barrett’s methodology is that of the case study and the comparison. With its beautifully contextualized close and comparative readings, the book is fundamentally dialogical or colloquial: with the exception of a final chapter on Herman Melville, all of the book’s chapters treat two, three, or four poets. While this produces a great number of moving parts, Barrett proves a refreshingly clear writer and an elegant rhetorician. There is no welter on these pages, in no small part because Barrett has a genius for choosing the right poem by representative poets.
The book’s strengths are, then, legion. Chapter One brilliantly sets up the “hand-in-glove relationship” between poetry and popular song. Although this chapter’s readings are the least original in the book—in truth, several other scholars have studied “Dixie,” “Let My People Go” (“Go Down, Moses”), and “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—Barrett makes a cogent case for the interdependence of poetic and musical cultures during this period. Similarly, Chapter Two’s treatment of soldiers’ poems reintroduces a woefully understudied topic and archive. In rescuing...