Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wachtell: "WAR NO MORE: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914"

[ War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 by Cynthia Wachtell (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). Cloth, notes, bibliography, index. 246 pages. ISBN:978-0-8071-3562-4 $35]

Although Civil War themed writing comprises the vast bulk of Cynthia Wachtell's War No More and will be the only material discussed on this venue, it should be mentioned upfront that antiwar writings pertaining to other conflicts leading up to the Great War are also included in its pages. It should also be realized by the reader that the term 'antiwar' writing is utilized here in a broad sense, differentiated from forms of 19th century pacifist literature (e.g. tracts produced by small religious sects and others) deploring warfare in all circumstances. Whatever moral conflicts many of these men had with the means and human cost of the war, most remained ardent public supporters of the Union cause.

Wachtell begins her study with three views of the September 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, seemingly using the trio as representative of the evolution of Civil War writing trends, which began with participant journals [in this case, that of Captain Allen Fahnestock] never meant to be published. At the same time and for public consumption into the near future, sanitized celebratory poetry appeared, often written by those far removed from the battlefield [like Texas teen Mollie Moore]. Finally, arriving decades later when the reading audience was more receptive, were the more shocking "antiwar" works characterized by bitter irony, explicit gore, and unredeemed sacrifice [see Ambrose Bierce's horrifying short story "Chickamauga"].

Wachtell notes that much of the population, north and south, could trace their romantic ideals of warriors and warfare to the immensely popular writings of Sir Walter Scott. Using Herman Melville's poetry compilation Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, John William De Forest's novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty and poet Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps, Wachtell demonstrates to what degree the reading public, during the war years and beyond, rejected works attempting graphic battlefield imagery and antiwar sentiment. Through her research into the public and private writings of these individuals, Wachtell discovered that these writers practiced a large degree of self censorship. Even so, Battle-Pieces was an abysmal commercial failure, Miss Ravenel's Conversion was rejected in serial form, and Whitman despaired at the lack of popular recognition his work received.

Another of the book's great themes is literary despair over the industrialized nature of the Civil War and the impact of modern weaponry. A particularly good chapter examines Nathaniel Hawthorne's private concerns over the aims of the war, questioning deeply whether the war should even be fought. The grandson of a Revolutionary War naval officer, Hawthorne also joined Melville in worrying about the direction of sea warfare and man's place in it, as navies transitioned from the graceful sailing vessels of old to the big gun, steam belching, armored behemoths of the present and future. Other writers worried about technology as well, and Wachtell discusses, among others, the prevalence of industrial imagery in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Mark Twain's imagined futility of future wars in the face of rapid mechanization.

The book is well structured thematically, and, while a familiarity with the specific prose and poetry works discussed inside would undoubtedly be helpful, it is not a necessity as the author reproduces relevant passages throughout. A quibble I have with the book is its overwhelming reliance on northern literary figures. If this was forced by a dearth of southern material, I wished to hear about it. It also does not examine postwar readership in a sectional sense to see if the antiwar reading tastes of those residing in the former Confederate states mirrored the same progression as the victorious northern public. But these are only minor criticisms of what is a well presented literary-historical study of 19th and early 20th century war writing.

Other CWBA reviews of titles from this publisher:
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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