The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865

The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865

The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865

The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865


In this groundbreaking work of cultural history, Alice Fahs explores a little-known and fascinating side of the Civil War--the outpouring of popular literature inspired by the conflict. From 1861 to 1865, authors and publishers in both the North and the South produced a remarkable variety of war-related compositions, including poems, songs, children's stories, romances, novels, histories, and even humorous pieces. Fahs mines these rich but long-neglected resources to recover the diversity of the war's political and social meanings.

Instead of narrowly portraying the Civil War as a clash between two great, white armies, popular literature offered a wide range of representations of the conflict and helped shape new modes of imagining the relationships of diverse individuals to the nation. Works that explored the war's devastating impact on white women's lives, for example, proclaimed the importance of their experiences on the home front, while popular writings that celebrated black manhood and heroism in the wake of emancipation helped readers begin to envision new roles for blacks in American life.

Recovering a lost world of popular literature, The Imagined Civil War adds immeasurably to our understanding of American life and letters at a pivotal point in our history.


Now there may be those who would save me all trouble by the assertion that there
has been no real poetry produced during the war. I hope to convince you that there
has been a great deal of good readable verse, and some genuine poetry written dur
ing the past four years, under the inspiration of the times through which we have
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Poetry of the War,” 1865

“The real war will never get in the books,” Walt Whitman wrote in his 1882 Specimen Days. For years, historians and literary critics alike accepted Whitman’s remark as a central truth of the Civil War: the war was the “unwritten war”—the title of Daniel Aaron’s influential 1973 study—because no masterpiece resulted from this most dramatic of conflicts in American history. “The period of the American Civil War was not one in which belles lettres flourished,” Edmund Wilson affirmed in his classic Patriotic Gore.

This book starts from a different premise. Far from having been an “unwritten war,” the Civil War catalyzed an outpouring of war-related literature that has rarely been examined: war poetry, sentimental war stories, sensational war novels, war humor, war juveniles, war songs, collections of war-related anecdotes, and war histories—literature that has often been designated, then dismissed, as popular. Appearing in newspapers, illustrated weeklies, monthly periodicals, cheap weekly “story papers,” pamphlets, broadsides, song sheets, and books throughout the conflict, such literature was often widely distributed, sometimes to hundreds of thousands of readers in the North and to a smaller separate audience sometimes reaching thousands in the South.

In both the North and the South, popular war literature was vitally important in shaping a cultural politics of war. Not only did it mark the gender of men and women as well as boys and girls, but it also explored . . .

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