Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War

Synopsis

War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The American Civil War was a particularly prolific muse--unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers' intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Stephen Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.

Elegantly interweaving military and literary history, Cushman uses some of the war's most famous writers and their works to explore the profound ways in which our nation's great conflict not only changed the lives of its combatants and chroniclers but also fundamentally transformed American letters.

Excerpt

I always have admired William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs. Second only to his friend U. S. Grant among Union military heroes, Sherman lacked an effective filter between his brain and either his mouth or his pen—which renders him both fascinating and eminently quotable. I have quoted the Memoirs in various things I have written and frequently urged others to explore their pages. If asked a year ago whether I had a good command of the text, I would have answered in the affirmative. Then I read Stephen Cushman’s essay that appears here, an exercise that yielded great enjoyment but also left me chastened. The analysis breathed such new life into the Memoirs, and into Sherman himself, that I wondered how I could have missed so much.

All of the chapters in Belligerent Muse inspired similar reactions. Amid the welter of books on diverse aspects of the Civil War published over the past two decades or so, there is nothing quite like this work. Cushman places himself in the tradition of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962), George M. Fredrickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (1965), and Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (1973), which is accurate in some ways but a bit deceptive in others. Most obviously, Cushman takes more seriously, and knows far more about, the military side of the conflict than any of those three authors. That is important for one who writes about William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—as well as about Abraham . . .

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