Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What like a Bullet Can Undeceive!

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What like a Bullet Can Undeceive!

Article excerpt

"HOW SLOWLY OUR LITERATURE GROWS UP!" Nathaniel Hawthorne groused in 1845, never imagining that soon a bloody conflagration would catapult the country's literature out of a protracted adolescence. Gertrude Stein, writing almost a hundred years later, saw the Civil War as having pushed the fledgling nation smack into the 20th century, thereby making the United States the "oldest country in the world."

Stein's perspicacious hyperbole aside, the great writing that came out of the Civil War had its roots in the period just before it, a period of violence, dissent, discomfiture, and fear. As early as 1845, Frederick Douglass was proving Hawthorne right; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a book very much about the difficulty--and necessity-of growing up in a country that kept an entire people ignorant, childlike, subjugated. Then the pacifist Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, in one of his best and tightest lyrics, "Ichabod," decried Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster's treacherous support of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. It was as if an era of presumed integrity had ended, which perhaps it had; certainly, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was calling it into question. And her polemical bestseller appeared just as Herman Melville was cracking open the novel with a far-reaching, far-sighted story about whaling in which the main character drily asks, "Who ain't a slave?"


Yet the war also goaded writers into a new, unsentimental understanding of form, of content, and of the country. For America was a scribbling nation, never more so than during the war, and not just because of the upsurge in cheaply printed books, illustrated weeklies, magazines, telegraphic dispatches, and patriotic poems, but because of the countless journals kept by those who tended the sick and wounded, the innumerable letters of soldiers to family and friends, the reports of generals in the field and of politicians on the stump, and the printed casualty lists that read like a doomed inversion of the catalogue of Americans Walt Whitman had celebrated in his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass.

"The old forms rattle," Ralph Waldo Emerson said in 1861; this was especially true for writers such as Melville. Turning from fiction to poetry to encapsulate what war had wrought-its flickering confusions, horrors, and mendacities--Melville now sought the "plain" phrase and "apt" verse, as he wrote in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), "More ponderous than nimble; / For since grimed War here laid aside / His Orient pomp, 'twould ill befit / Overmuch to ply / The rhyme's barbaric cymbal." The consolations of Longfellow's rhymes were not for him. Or, as Melville exclaimed in the poem "Shiloh: A Requiem," "What like a bullet can undeceive!"

Hawthorne, too, was vexed to nightmare by the conflict ushered in with the shots at Fort Sumter. These were the last years of his own life, though he did not know that; what he did sense was that he could not write a new novel, as he told his publisher, William Ticknor. In 1862, he and Ticknor went to Washington, D.C., to see the war firsthand; the result was not a book but rather Hawthorne's Swiftian essay "Chiefly About War Matters,' published in The Atlantic Monthly. Satirizing the foibles both of human kind and, more precisely, the Northern readership of the Atlantic, this unequivocal and corrosively antiwar tour de force incorporates within it the objections of Hawthorne's editor, James T. Fields, in a series of editorial footnotes, written by Hawthorne in the voice of a dull-witted Massachusetts patriot who misunderstands the author's satire or condemns it as improper. Had Hawthorne lived until the end of the war, and had he continued to write essays, the New Journalism of the next century would have seemed tame beside them.

Emily Dickinson was also ahead of the curve, for her lyrics were already a Kafkaesque distillation of beauty, horror, and unremitting candor. …

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