- Literary Cultures of the Civil War ed. by Timothy Sweet
Edited by literary scholar Timothy Sweet, Literary Cultures of the Civil War contributes to the ongoing scholarly endeavor to reinterpret old works and incorporate new ones. The first two sections build on recent efforts to revalue African American voices and revise interpretations of Melville’s and Whitman’s wartime poetics. The attention to understudied figures, including a number of female writers, continues in the third section of essays, which centers on issues of nationalism and regionalism. Throughout the volume, the authors attend to persistent themes of violence, the body, citizenship, freedom, and realism, resulting in a rich collection of essays on literature in the Civil War era.
In the section on African American literary cultures, Jeremy Wells analyzes Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s observations of black song in Army Life in a Black Regiment. Wells shows that Higginson used language in ways that elided authorial presence, troubled the relation between subject and object, and moved toward national inclusivity. The other essays explore black literary cultures more directly. Christopher Hager explains the ways in which African American soldiers used literacy to assert political presence and claim emancipation’s promises. In line with his prior work, John Ernest demonstrates that while William Wells Brown’s Negro in the American Rebellion bore methodological similarities to the celebratory histories of figures such as George Bancroft, his narrative challenged the racial and racist components of those national histories. These and other essays in the collection build on recent studies analyzing representations of black bodies in the Civil War such as Lisa Long’s Rehabilitating Bodies (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
The second set of essays reexamines the Civil War era writings of Melville, Whitman, and William Gilmore Simms. Sweet provides a close reading of Battle-Pieces, stressing Melville’s engagement with vernacular poetics and demonstrating that his attempt to constitute the people as “critical citizen-readers” was undone by the multi-vocal nature of Melville’s patriotism (113). Samuel Graber finds more coherence in Whitman’s Drum-Taps and his Sequel to Drum-Taps, which, Graber argues, constituted Whitman’s nationalistic response to British anti-Unionism. Graber proposes that Whitman’s poetic vision of a new race born from the blood of Union soldiers displaced the narrative of African American emancipation. These essays indicate the force of straightforward reconciliatory narratives, underscoring David Blight’s contention in Race and Reunion (Harvard University Press, 2001) that these narratives trumped the story of emancipation.
Reunification efforts took numerous forms, as Coleman Hutchison shows in his essay on Simms’s War Poetry of the South. He argues that Simms, [End Page 103] in light of post-war reunion, attempted to present southern sectional poems as regional. Hutchison’s piece provides a nice transition to the third set of essays, which focus on nationalism and regionalism. Simms’s editing efforts were more straightforward than those of the Union soldiers who seized and repurposed southern presses. As James Berkey demonstrates, the soldiers revised Confederate poems and redacted Confederate ads to depict the Confederate Army as the enemy but also to anticipate the South’s eventual readmission. Berkey’s clear explanation of these uncertain editing efforts is followed by Jane E. Schultz’s cogent analysis of Confederate nurse Kate Cumming’s move from sentiment to realism in her wartime journal.
The essays, which range in approach from historical to literary, succeed more often than not, though some of them suffer from methodological juxtapositions; otherwise interesting speculative readings seem overly convoluted when contrasted with more straightforward but no less insightful analyses. Such is the case with Shirley Samuels’s essay, in which she makes a tantalizing but tenuous link between Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar and the Kansas border wars. Despite these instances of methodological discord, this multi- and interdisciplinary volume offers much to scholars of American literature and the Civil War, providing illuminating reinterpretations of canonical works and shedding light on underappreciated literary cultures.