- Civil War Nurse Narratives, 1863–1870 by Daneen Wardrop
Scholarly and critical attention to the literature of the Civil War has had a checkered history. The war has been considered a cultural hiatus, its narratives mostly soldiers’ and officers’ memoirs, its poetry largely sentimental, and the publication of its literature frequently in the hands of Hartford subscription publishers whose products were dismissed by established trade publishers in [End Page 393] New York and Boston. The foundational studies of American literary studies barely mention the war or its literary output. For Van Wyck Brooks in The Flowering of New England, 1815–1865 (1937) and F. O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), the Civil War is at most a spectral presence. Not until the centenary of the war did its literature receive a robust critical assessment, Edmund Wilson’s magisterial 1962 Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. But even merely to skim Wilson’s table of contents is to discern gaps. While there is a chapter on three Confederate “ladies,” Louisa May Alcott receives only one oblique reference. Indeed, Wilson’s judgment, with which he begins the book’s introduction, is that fiction and poetry did not thrive but popular, personal, and public writing did.
Our recent marking of the war’s sesquicentennial, however, finds us at a different moment. Forty years of feminist scholarship and criticism have recovered forgotten texts, expanded the literary canon, and revised canons of judgment. Likewise, decades of cultural studies approaches, with their appreciation of the widest possible range of discourses, have been infused throughout literary studies. One result has been careful critical attention to women’s writing during, after, and about the war. A foremother was Mary Elizabeth Massey’s 1966 Women in the Civil War, but more recent studies include Alice Fahs’s 2001 The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 and Jane E. Schultz’s groundbreaking 2004 Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America.
Daneen Wardrop’s thoughtful and carefully researched book joins this conversation, building on Schultz’s groundbreaking archival research to theorize about the nurse narratives’ rhetorical purposes and designs. Wardrop focuses on seven books, some canonical and others not, written by Union women engaged in military hospital work and published between the middle of the war and 1870. While some of these works, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, have received extensive critical attention, others, such as Julia Dunlap’s Notes of Hospital Life, which was published anonymously (Dunlap’s authorship was not confirmed until 2010), have not. This “first wave” of published nurse narratives, Wardrop argues, is fresher and less clouded by nostalgia than later works (5). Analyzing narrative and rhetorical tools that nurse authors employed, Wardrop asserts that by appropriating many of the strategies of antebellum social reform movements, these authors engaged readers who might otherwise have been shocked by women’s providing health care for strangers outside the home.
Wardrop argues for these texts’ literary as well as social value. She outlines the social contexts of these narratives, including women’s rights, interracial interactions [End Page 394] (inflected, but not necessarily eased, by abolitionist commitments), and the development of a national character through nineteenth-century Americans’ reading of biographies and memoirs. Her rhetorical analysis acknowledges public oratory’s role in the nineteenth century, as well as the space that Northern women had already carved out for themselves in the public sphere (like the temperance movement). Wardrop finds in each of the seven writers rhetorical strategies to engage readers by conversational indirection and deflection as well as narrative immediacy.
Wardrop devotes a chapter to each of the narratives. In the first chapter she offers new insights on Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, analyzing how Alcott rhetorically developed rapport with her readers, navigating between her optimistic disposition and the horror she witnessed. Of particular value is Wardrop’s attention to Alcott’s versions of her...