Book Review: From Battlefields Rising
Note Bene: One of the ancillaries of having a history blog was receiving, from time to time, a review copy of a book from its publisher. Well, although the aformentioned blog is now dormant, I still occasionally receive books and I think offering the occasional Sunday review seems appropriate. Life is more than politics and culture wars and sometimes taking a breath and writing about something else–and throwing it up here–is worthwhile all its own. At least, I hope you all agree.
From Battlefields Rising: How The Civil War Transformed American Literature, by Randall Fuller. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, NY, 2011.
Fuller’s aim is to explore how the Civil War affected leading writers of antebellum America such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. Sometimes we forget how clustered these writers were: all in the Northeast, particularly New England, and many in Concord, MA. This geographic closeness had some influence on their philosophical and political views, too.
Chiefly, most of these ‘transcendentalists’ (if not all) were avidly abolitionist. Most had advocated for this cause and, at the outbreak of the Civil War, were sure of both its rightness and the relative ease–so they believed–with which it would be attained. Their moral clarity would become clouded to one degree or another as the casualties mounted and the war dragged on. Fuller investigates these various crisis’ of conscience and the questions that arose.
For instance, at the outbreak of the war Walt Whitman was attempting something of a literary comeback. A pair of young Boston publishers had sought him out to publish the next edition of his Leaves of Grass (something he would update throughout his life), which had opened with his poetic paradigm shifting “Song of Myself.” It was from this “Song” that Whitman seemed to draw inspiration for much of his latest work–poems that ruffled Victorian-era feathers and substantiated Whitman’s notoriety. Yet, his infamy was shortlived with the outbreak of war. The reading public became interested in news and writings that dealt with it and little else. Even the various writers of the time found their focus shifting and Whitman’s own optimism about the war was permanently affected by the tragedy of the Battle of Bull Run, which would resurface in his writing again and again.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was also profoundly affected by the war. A writer of romances who had been abroad for many years, he returned to Concord, Massachusetts in the months preceding the war to find a changed and radicalized town. For while he certainly agreed with abolitionist goals, he didn’t approve of their approval of John Brown and his actions. Unlike the rest of Concord’s leading lights, Hawthorne felt, according to Fuller:
Brown’s actions…begged questions of morality that were too easily obscured by the transcendentalists’ lofty rhetoric. How could the man’s admirable vision of slavery’s wrongs ever justify his murderous actions? Didn’t the deaths of soldiers, innocent bystanders, and his own men negate the righteous imperatives Brown felt he represented? And how could responsible thinkers so blithely excuse these consequences?
Hawthorne simply couldn’t relate. He published an essay in the Atlantic, “Chiefly about War-Matters” that posed many of these same questions and caused a ruckus amongst his neighbors. As Fuller explains, the essay was accompanied by critical footnotes by the Editor–who was Hawthorne himself! No one was immune to Hawthorne’s problematic probing. As for his career, Hawthorne had returned to Concord with hopes of completing another great novel, but he found trouble focusing because of the war and eventually gave up hope of completing it. He died shortly thereafter. As Fuller eulogizes, “For Hawthorne, the war…had doused a fervent literary imagination, ended an illustrious career.”
Others were affected in varying degrees and in different ways. Emily Dickenson watched her male acquaintances and relatives march off to war and her poems came to include more references to the conflict and its results: death and maiming. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in the wake of the burning death of his wife, turned to translating Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was itself written during a period of civil war in Tuscany. Herman Melville actually participated in the war, briefly (and the episode would influence his Billy Budd, a Sailor many years later), but he spent most of his time compiling his Battle Pieces, in which, according to Fuller, “[He] insisted…the war might have been avoided if both sides had been less rigid and unyielding in their convictions.” The work was published a year after the war (1866) and sold less than 200 copies. As Fuller no doubt correctly surmises, “Tired of war, Americans were certainly not interested in ambiguity or self-questioning.”
The literary and personal insights provided by Fuller are interesting and provocative. One can’t help but trace the war-time evolution of these writers’ feelings, thoughts and works and compare them to those of the contemporary media and even ourselves. There is also some solace to be gained from learning that even literary giants who supported as modernly uncontroversial a cause as the abolition of slavery would have flawed conceptions about the ease with which it could be accomplished and would come to have some reservations concerning the vehicle by which it was ultimately attained. In short, they were human, just like us.