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Reviewed by:
  • Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts ed. by Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman
  • Kristen Treen (bio)
Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. 312. Cloth, $48.00.)

It is no secret that the relationship between historical and literary scholarship has occasionally been strained. These tensions, as Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman point out in their brief introduction to Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts, emerged with the formation of the major disciplinary associations of the 1880s. It has variously loosened and tautened ever since, with the “fluctuating attitudes of literary scholars . . . toward the appropriate uses of history in their work and . . . fluctuating attitudes of historians during the same span toward theoretical models and nomenclature adopted by literary scholars” (3–4). Gallagher and Cushman’s collection of nine essays—all written by scholars associated [End Page 286] with college and university history departments—doesn’t propose to reunite these two warring factions, although they quite rightly suggest that there is more that unites than divides textual scholarship on both “sides.” Their project aims instead to augment a recent spate of literary histories of the Civil War, such as Coleman Hutchison’s History of American Civil War Literature (2015), in the hope of drawing new conclusions regarding “iconic writings that [have] influenced many generations of readers and scholars” (1). The pieces in this volume, they assert, “should point to enriching complementarity of the kind the editors hope to advance with respect to Civil War writing, not to the competitive territoriality of academic colonies squabbling over borders” (4).

This introductory positioning is somewhat oblique: neither an outright call for interdisciplinarity nor a rigid defense of disciplinary boundaries, what seems to be proposed here is a form of analysis that differs from, but shares the concerns of, recent literary histories of the war. At times, it’s hard to gauge whether this amounts to methodological fluidity or evasiveness. The word “writing” in the volume’s title speaks to the collection’s inexplicit methodology and its tendency to hover hesitantly over those long-contested disciplinary borders. Taking in memoirs and journals, histories, an autobiography, and one novel, the intriguing selection covers a wide range of genres by Confederates and Federals, members of high command, civilians, writers black and white. Notably, the collection favors works that hold “documentary value as supporting evidence for historical and biographical narratives” (2): Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx (1887); the memoirs of Generals Jubal Early, Joseph E. Johnston, William T. Sherman, and John B. Gordon alongside Edward Porter Alexander’s military accounts; and the diaries of Charlotte Forten and Mary Chesnut. The inclusion of Loreta Velasquez’s autobiography and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–69) may seem incongruous, but it bespeaks the editors’ ambitions for analysis alert not only to evidence and authenticity, but also to the “fluctuations in tone or voice,” “structure and expository strategy,” and publication histories central to understanding the lasting significance of these “iconic” works (2).

At their most attentive, the best essays here demonstrate a richness of interpretation that close engagement with a piece of writing, on its own textual and historical terms, can produce. Sarah E. Gardner’s razor-sharp inspection of Mary Chesnut’s reading habits reveals the complex fabric of literary reference that inspired Chesnut’s own compositional practices. Elizabeth R. Varon offers a compelling, archivally minded account of Joseph T. Wilson’s history of African American military service, drawing on appeals and affidavits from Wilson’s pension records to chart [End Page 287] how his personal history of service and suffering influenced the myth-busting politics of The Black Phalanx. Elsewhere, Stephen Cushman’s meticulous page-turner of an essay delves into the writings of Generals William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston to explore their mutually shaping accounts of the war’s much-neglected second major surrender, at Greensboro, North Carolina. Tracing turns of phrase and of feelings across letters exchanged during the surrender, and in the later organization of their memoirs, Cushman reveals the peculiar forms of literary warfare and camaraderie...