- To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War by Faith Barrett
Faith Barrett’s To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave takes its title from the first lines of a Civil War–era Dickinson poem: “To fight aloud, is very brave —/ But gallanter, I know / Who charge within the bosom / The Cavalry of Wo —” (vi). While Barrett’s ambitious and foundational work sheds light on a broad spectrum of Civil War poetry, extending well beyond the usual suspects like Dickinson and Whitman into work by Confederate and Union soldiers, Southern poetry of varied persuasions, and Melville’s still underexamined Battle-Pieces, Dickinson’s argument for the value of introspection resonates powerfully through Barrett’s writing. To Fight Aloud applies the language of lyric theory to a canon that is often read largely for its historical value, and in so doing it models a means of discussing the diverse work of this era as an interrelated canon.
As Barrett demonstrates persuasively, conceptual and formal depth is as present in the songlike verse of newspaper and popular writing as in the more traditional literary canon. What Barrett calls “voice effects,” or figures of address, work dramatically to claim different types of audience, from the “writerly ‘I’” to the “collective national ‘we’” (10). Figures like apostrophe, exclamation, and “the songlike techniques of repetition and refrain” likewise stage compromises between poetic introversion and public rallying cry (10). A significant component of Barrett’s project is to use an analysis of these “voice-effects” to undo the traditional perception of Civil War poetry as introspectively shallow, arguing that all the writers she examines “move back and forth between writing from the self and writing to and for the nation” (11).
The study is organized thematically, moving with facility across a broad range of published and unpublished writers and mapping a foundation to a field that is still understudied and undertheorized. For students and scholars of American women’s writing, Barrett’s analysis of the role that women played in mediating the war will be particularly useful. Indeed, the role of women even informs Barrett’s treatment of men’s writing circles. In the chapter on soldier poets, for instance, gender is at the crux of the argument, as Barrett analyzes [End Page 141] the differing treatment of women—mothers, sisters, significant others—in the war poetry of Union and Confederate soldiers. “Confederate soldiers’ poems,” she argues, “seem to link women much more closely and directly to the violence of combat than Union soldiers do, signaling the mutually supportive relationship between masculine and feminine roles in Confederate nationalist ideologies,” while the distance of women from the battlefield in Union poetry “unsettles the conventional patriotic argument that Northern men are fighting to preserve the invaluable freedoms of the family and the home” (85). Other chapters deal more directly with women’s voices, examining how gender inflects the Union ties of Julia Ward Howe and Frances Harper, considering Dickinson’s and Whitman’s respective efforts to speak for the nation, and comparing the poetic techniques of Southern antislavery writers Sarah Piatt and George Moses Horton with those of Confederate Henry Timrod.
The ambitious aim of Barrett’s project is to read the literary landscape of the Civil War and all its overlapping parts—popular songs, journals of unknown soldiers, historical events, and the poetry of an unusually wide range of published poets—as an interconnected fabric. At its best, the study moves seamlessly among history, language, and literary reference, crafting readings of individual works that are both linguistically subtle and firmly grounded in a broader context. In her reading of Dickinson’s “Color — Caste — Denomination,” for example, Barrett introduces the Irish draft riots, the death of Colonel Shaw of Massachusetts, and the ethnic “counting” behind draft quotas as a grim context for Dickinson’s wordplay. Of the word “Denomination,” Barrett notes, “The word ‘nation’ also hovers within the larger word, designating this act of naming or classifying, and underlining...