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  • The Sacrificial Enterprise:Negotiating Mutilation in W. D. Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes
  • Joseph Darda

What at the end of the nineteenth century did it mean to reclaim the Civil War? It is a question that forms the foundation of W. D. Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). In her influential work on Hazard, Amy Kaplan suggests that the text negotiates New York City through the production of a manageable foreground and an “unreal” background, a distinction meant to control social conflict and produce common ground amidst difference.1 More recent criticism takes up Kaplan’s claim to consider what the construction of this “line” might suggest about the text’s political undercurrents. There is a general sense of agreement that Hazard is as radical as it is conformist, as idealistic as it is pragmatic.2 But this tension is not just a product of Howells’ conflicting political commitments; rather, it arises from the incompatible claims to the meaning of the Civil War that he stages around Union veteran Berthold Lindau’s missing hand. Susan Mizruchi notes that it is the act of sacrifice, “what is given up,” that makes the social possible.3 The coherence of the foreground depends on the erasure of the background. In Hazard, the disremembering of Lindau’s mutilation is the principal sacrifice through which the social is constructed. Yet his “empty sleeve” also represents the most real threat to this order. In reorienting A Hazard of New Fortunes around Lindau’s missing hand, I first discuss the importance of soldiers’ bodies to Gilded Age culture in general and to realist fiction in particular. I then consider Lindau’s mutilation as a target of sacrificial rites that he himself complicates and contests. In conclusion, I address Mizruchi’s and Michael Elliott’s assertions that U.S. multiculturalism finds its origins in the postbellum era. The fictional negotiation of [End Page 210] Lindau’s hand sheds light on this proto-multiculturalism as an arrangement that reroutes but does not lessen the sacrifice of cultural others.

Civil War Bodies and the Sacrificial Enterprise

In Specimen Days (1882), Walt Whitman recalls tending to a soldier on his deathbed in a Washington, D.C., hospital during “the gloomiest period” of the Civil War. The resident surgeon, standing beside the soldier, tells Whitman that he has not seen one soldier die in fear during the war. To this, the poet asks,

What have we here, if not, towering above all talk and argument, the plentiful-supplied, last-needed proof of democracy, in its personalities? Curiously enough, too, the proof on this point comes, I should say, every bit as much from the south, as from the north. … Grand common stock! to me the accomplish’d and convincing growth, prophetic of the future.4

Whitman’s declaration represents a common sentiment in the latter decades of the century. The Civil War became justifiable according to the logic of American exceptionalism, transforming more than a half-million deaths into proof of the nation’s singular status. American exceptionalism is, Donald Pease points out, as much about what the United States lacks as what it possesses.5 The political doctrine and ideological framework of exceptionalism articulates the U.S. as a classless nation, lacking the class antagonisms and feudal traditions of Europe. Whitman’s representation of martial death epitomizes this belief in homogenous U.S. selfhood, as a “grand common stock” sacrificing for the shared future of the nation. His and others’ myth-work facilitated, of course, the reunification of North and South after 1877.6 But it is also important to consider, to which Whitman’s scene suggests, that it took place through a careful construal of soldiers’ bodies.

Yet it is far easier to mythologize a dead and nameless solider, as Whitman does, than one still able to debate the meaning of his “sacrifice.” Lisa Long argues that in the 1880s and ’90s the Civil War was reclaimed as the beginning and basis of modern senselessness, conjuring the specter of race suicide, and thus a principal site of cultural and political contestation.7 In particular, accounting for Civil War bodies became a central means of “rehabilitating” the body politic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5103
Print ISSN
1540-3084
Pages
pp. 210-229
Launched on MUSE
2014-03-23
Open Access
No
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