The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

Remembering the Civil War in Children's
Literature of the 1880s and 1890s

Alice Fahs

In 1888 the immensely popular boys' author Oliver Optic (William Taylor Adams) decided to write a series of Civil War novels for boys, saying that "the call upon him to use the topics of the war has been so urgent, and its ample field of stirring events has been so inviting, that he could not resist."1 Optic had already had a long and illustrious career as a boys' author, with numerous series such as the Yacht Club Series and the Onward and Upward Series selling handsomely for his longtime Boston publisher Lee and Shepard. By the turn of the century his publisher would boast that Optic had sold an astounding 2 million copies of his various juvenile works.2

For a popular author of juvenile works such as Optic to turn to the Civil War was not surprising; in the late 1880s adult fiction about the Civil War was also seeing a major resurgence, as numerous publishers capitalized on a revitalized public interest in the war. The famous 1884–87 Century magazine series of articles, stories, and reminiscences about the war, for instance, was an important sign of and a catalyst for this burgeoning popular culture of Civil War memory. This adult trend had its counterpart in the world of juvenile fiction, as numerous authors picked up their pens to reinvent and reimagine the war, whether in mainstream hardbound novels, in dime novels published as cheap pamphlets, or in stories published in weekly "story newspapers" such as Street and Smith's New York Weekly.

What makes Oliver Optic particularly interesting and instructive is that he had already published a group of popular Civil War novels for boys during and immediately after the war. These were what his publisher labeled the "Army and Navy Stories," and they included six volumes about two brothers, Tom and Jack Somers, one of whom was in the army, the other in the navy. Immediately popular when published from 1863 to 1866, these stories portrayed boy heroes engaged in exciting adventures facilitated by the new nation-state at war.3

Optic was not alone in publishing boys' war books during the Civil War.

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