- Words of War
The American Civil War is an event burdened with the weight of words. It is common for historians to state that 65,000 books have been written about the Civil War; recent sesquicentennial commemorations have only added to that number.1 The interpretation center at Ford’s Theatre features a 34-foot tower composed entirely of books on Lincoln, though these represent only a small measure of the 15,000 books written about the martyred president. As a person who confuses her generals and doesn’t know the difference between a rifled musket and a Parrott rifle, I find this cacophony of words—and the seeming impossibility of saying something new—intimidating.
Historians don’t seem to feel this way; indeed, the Civil War seems to be an event that can and perhaps must be endlessly retold in order to understand what the United States was and is. Yet the war’s literature has suffered a different fate. Daniel Aaron’s still-influential 1973 study of Civil War literature, tellingly titled The Unwritten War, rather infamously argued that writers failed to “say something revealing about the meaning, if not the causes, of the War.”2 Aaron was simply repeating what scores of others had insisted since the Civil War’s end: that Walt Whitman was correct in his famous prediction “the real war will never get in the books.”3 There was something too difficult in getting the reality of the war, the “indescribably intensified time,” as Henry James called it, into words that could make sense of the all-consuming conflict.4 In short, even those who write book-length studies of Civil War literature can at the same time contend that, while the Civil War has always been a Historical Event, it was not and likely never will be a Literary One. For decades, literary scholars argued that the historical and national import of the war stymied aesthetic representation.
My own work joins other recent scholarship that seeks to recuperate the reputation of Civil War literature, a recovery enabled by astonishing historicist and archival work that reorients the bounds of war literature to focus on unexpected texts and unlikely authors—on anonymous stories published in local magazines, poems penned by soldiers, and souvenirs collected on battlefields.5 This new wave of scholarship suggests that the Civil War has not been so much unwritten as unread. [End Page 228] Writers had not failed in meaningfully representing the conflict; rather, scholars had lacked an archive and an interpretive lens through which to read this extended archive, such as those provided by historicist approaches.
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Further, I suspect there’s a reason for this critical failure evident in the generic conventions of writing about the Civil War. In my survey of American literature written during and after the war, I’ve often found an impasse in the texts themselves, a moment of recognition that telling the war is a nearly impossible task. James flags this difficulty as arising from the tension between private experience and the very public war: “The case [of his experience of the war] had to be in a peculiar degree, alas, that of living inwardly—like so many of my other cases; in a peculiar degree compared, that is, to the immense and prolonged outwardness, [End Page 229] outwardness naturally at the very highest pitch, that was the general sign of the situation” (243-44). Private lives thrust into the public theater of a war that threatened the nation’s livelihood—this is the aporia that so often haunts literature of the American Civil War. If Henry James, who lived through the war, whose brothers fought in the war, couldn’t reconcile this chasm between inward and outward selves, how can we hope to understand the war some 150 years after it ended?
For James, understanding the war came through moments of what he calls “contact” with scenes of that war: visiting a Newport convalescent hospital for war veterans, for example, and seeing the camp of his brother Wilky’s Massachusetts regiment...