Neglected Pages Show Conflict as It Was Imagined

Article excerpt

This strange and touching book, like a trick mirror, shows reality with purposeful distortion. It depicts the Civil War as it seemed to the nation engaged in it, as seen in the popular literature of the time.

Alice Fahs' "The Imagined Civil War," which grew out of a dissertation on the relatively narrow subject of New York publishing and the war, expanded when she discovered the great volume of unexplored and less explored popular writing that the conflict produced.

Fading slowly in depositories all over the country are troves of cheap novels, newspaper pages, magazines, poems, pamphlets, songs and periodicals, most of them overlooked because of what they are - propagandistic, hastily assembled works of the day, neither accurate nor worthy of the serious historian.

The subject is fascinating: the evanescent publications, meant only for the moment or the week - the 1860s version of today's supermarket tabloids - that were read and then forgotten 140 years ago. Fascinating because the author finds enduring truths and themes that have evaded historians and novelists who are still waiting, unsatisfied with "Gone With the Wind" as the great literary epic or novel of the Civil War.

Such a work has not been written, and may never be. Perhaps its time has passed forever. But, Miss Fahs says, far from being an "unwritten war," the Civil War catalyzed an outpouring of war-related literature that has rarely been examined: war poetry, sentimental stories, sensational war novels, war humor, war juveniles, war songs, collections of war-related anecdotes and war histories - literature that often has been designated, then dismissed, as popular.

Unfortunately, the author, with a kind of dogged determination to be thorough and scholarly, piles example on example and source on source - like so much wood on a wagon - while the reader seeks the discriminating hand that guides to what is most important and significant among her discoveries.

The author, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, proves beyond any doubt that both sides sought to glorify their soldiers, customs and beliefs and condemn the other. More surprisingly, she proves that both sides were thoroughly racist regarding American blacks and that both presented a cheerful, patriotic front to the world, no matter how things were really going at the front.

It's said that only in World War II did the concept of total war involving armies and civilians emerge as a grim reality. But Miss Fahs' research shows that total war, at least in the South, was a matter of fact. Both Southern and Northern armies seem to have avoided civilian massacres, but looting, burning and destruction of property were common, and popular literature used lurid tales of such acts as powerful propaganda.

Both Northern and Southern writers, editors and publishers poured out a flood of material during the war years, from pure propaganda to doggerel. But from the very beginning, the more industrial North had much the better of it.

Not only were Northern presses, paper mills and transportation systems undamaged, while those of the South were first threatened, then sundered and finally destroyed, the bitter last two years of the war saw a lack of even the most basic materials, such as paper, to produce news sheets, pulp novels and song books.

Miss Fahs classifies her sea of materials into various channels as a way of ordering a confusing flood. People, she points out, could talk or think (or write) of little else than this extraordinary chain of events that set the nation against itself. People gathered, just as we do before the television news on a momentous day, to hear the events of the day. But then the news was usually read aloud from a copy of a newspaper - but people did it every day. Bulletin boards were everywhere in public spaces; newspapers were devoured for every scrap of news. …