- Dis-covering Confederate Literature
In the teaching and study of US literature, and especially US literature of the South, the period between 1861 and 1865 can resemble a great void. Thanks in no small part to the two best-known works devoted to its study—Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962] and Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War [New York: Knopf, 1973]—the imaginative literature of the Civil War has long been viewed as subpar, the war itself as, at best, inadequately written. This long-standing assessment of an impoverished war-era literature has contributed to a literary historical narrative that views the Civil War period as significant primarily for its transitional qualities. Characterized by dizzying social, economic, demographic, and technological changes, the story goes, the war years laid a crucial foundation for such emergent literary forms as regionalism and realism. Thus, important works came in the wake of the changes the Civil War put in motion, but few works worth teaching or studying were produced during the period itself. This interpretation particularly holds for the Confederacy, where the scarcities and political necessities of wartime are believed to have turned the creation of “good” imaginative literature into a nearly impossible luxury and the creation of propagandistic and jingoistic doggerel a national obligation.
It is precisely the received view that “Confederate imaginative literature is not worthy of extensive consideration”  against which Coleman Hutchison argues in his important and groundbreaking work Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America. Certainly, Hutchison is following in the footsteps of such recent critics as Kathleen Diffley [Where My Heart Is Turning Ever: Civil War Stories and Constitutional Reform, 1861–1876 (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1992)]; Elizabeth Young [Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999)]; Lyde Cullen Sizer [The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850–1872 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000)]; and Alice Fahs [The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001)]. These critics have challenged the heretofore intractable narrative of a war that was [End Page 114] either “unwritten” or badly written, attempting from various vantage points to illuminate the complexities of Civil War literature, both Northern and Southern, and the cultural work it performed. Hutchison breaks new ground, however, by focusing exclusively on the literature of the Confederacy. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and acutely intelligent, Hutchison’s work makes a persuasive case for the importance of Confederate literary discourse in all of its variety and in all of its “intricacies and ambivalences” . Hutchison also makes a case for the significant part that Edgar Allan Poe played in the long and complex history of that discourse, which was born long before the Confederacy itself. Although Poe died more than a decade before the war’s explicit onset, his work at the Southern Literary Messenger, as Hutchison makes clear, played a crucial role in the effort to make the South a viable force in the American republic of letters. That effort would emerge with particular urgency, and specific political purpose, during the war itself.
Like Alice Fahs and Michael T. Bernath [Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010)], Hutchison is interested in bringing Confederate literary culture to our attention. But, more specifically, he wants to recognize Confederate literature as literature and subject it to close analytical scrutiny. Observing that conventional (and often unquestioned) ideas about quality might well have blinded us to the literary dimensions of this work, Hutchison takes the ambitions of his texts seriously, “ask[ing] literary questions of the literary texts of the Confederacy” . Hutchison never sidesteps the often-troubling political and ideological content of the texts he examines, but that content, he insists, should not obscure the fact that these texts...