The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865by Alice Fahs
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,… See more details below
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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.
Southern Literary Journal
"[A] sparkling study. . . . The most intriguing aspect . . . is its discussion of magazine stories and books written for children which not only shaped their perceptions of the earthshaking events of their youth but also influenced their worldview as adults during the postwar era."
James McPherson, The Wall Street Journal, 'Five Best Books on the Civil War away from the battlefield'
"[Fahs has] managed to give us new and valuable insights into the wartime South, and her treatment of Northern popular literature is a signal contribution to our understanding of Civil War America.
(New York Times Book Review)"
Fahs has illuminated a fresh aspect of America's greatest drama.
(The Washington Times)
"The Imagined Civil War provides a much-needed perspective into the mental lives of northerners and southerners who tried to understand a world that was engulfed in violence and death, and changing in ways that few could have imagined.
(North and South)"
"By illuminating a critical aspect of American popular thought during the period of sectional conflict, Alice Fahs adds considerably to our historical knowledge of the Civil War era.
(Civil War History)"
Immensely valuable. An important contribution even to overburdened Civil War bookshelves.
(Journal of American History)
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The Imagined Civil WarPopular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865
By Alice Fahs
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2003 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionNow 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 during the past four years, under the inspiration of the times through which we have passed.-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 and articulated attitudes toward race and, ultimately, portrayed and helped to shape new modes of imagining individuals' relationships to the nation. Feminized war literature, for instance, explored the nature of new connections between white women and the nation in hundreds of stories, articles, and cartoons appearing in popular magazines and weeklies. Much of this literature demanded recognition for women's allegiance to the nation, arguing that white women's war-related experiences constituted authentic participation in the war-and in the "imagined community" of the nation-on a par with that of male soldiers. Similarly, illustrated weeklies explored the new, postemancipation connection between African Americans and the nation in stories and illustrations that featured black soldiers (but not, significantly, black women). Northern wartime boys' war novels portrayed boys' new allegiance to the nation through the medium of individualized adventures and exploits that emphasized the excitement of war. In a different key, war humor both north and south explored the limits and problems in the new links between individual and nation. All these different forms of popular war literature participated in a cultural conversation concerning the evolving relationships between diverse individuals and the nation in wartime.
Popular war literature reveals that a discussion of the meanings of the war occurred across a much wider range of representations than is usually thought to be the case. A study of these wartime writings and illustrations forces us to expand our ideas of the cultural meanings of the war. Many writers have assumed, for instance, that Northern imaginative writers chose to avert their eyes from the subject of race in wartime and failed to center racialized themes in their fictions. African Americans "figured only peripherally in the War literature" of canonical writers such as Hawthorne and Melville, Daniel Aaron has noted. Yet the pages of popular literature reveal a very different picture: issues of race were omnipresent in the major Northern illustrated weeklies throughout the war, revealing an intense preoccupation with the changing status of African Americans in American life. Likewise, Confederate popular literature showcased numerous illustrations and poems concerning African Americans throughout the war. Popular literature also explored women's experiences of the war in ways not true of canonical literature. Turning to the pages of popular literature allows us, in short, a more inclusive view of literary representations of race and gender in wartime.
Popular war literature also adds an important chapter to cultural histories of the war that have focused primarily on elites, canonical writers, and Northern and Southern intellectuals. By "popular" I mean a wide and inclusive range of Civil War literature that cannot be summarized simply with the label of "low" to distinguish it from "high" literature. The high-low dichotomy, shaped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of categorizing and organizing cultural authority, is often retroactively applied to mid-nineteenth-century culture in ways that readers, writers, and publishers would not have recognized at the time. Harper's Weekly, for instance, which reached a broad audience of more than one hundred thousand readers during the war, was neither obviously "high" nor "low" in its content or its audience. Nor were the illustrated histories of Benson J. Lossing, who styled himself a "popular historian." Likewise, the Southern periodical the Southern Illustrated News was published in a cheap "story paper" format but was not therefore "low" literature; rather, it included work by some of the most prestigious poets in the South, such as Paul Hamilton Hayne. In other words, distinctions between "high" and "low" often obscure as much as they reveal within nineteenth-century literary culture.
This is not to say that authors, readers, and publishers did not make hierarchical distinctions among literary forms. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, published under her own name in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly but used a pseudonym in publishing fiction in cheap story papers that she regarded as less respectable venues. Clearly she assumed-quite correctly-that the Atlantic Monthly had higher literary status than the Flag of Our Union. George William Curtis, political editor of Harper's Weekly, commented that the Weekly was "not altogether such a paper as [he] should prefer for [his] own taste" but also recognized that he could reach a broader audience through its pages than in "a paper of a different kind." The Southern periodical the Magnolia Weekly spoke of the "higher regions of literary art" and the "less reflective region of popular lore." All these commentators made hierarchical distinctions among literary forms, yet the fact remains that a broad range of literary forms defied easy categorization on a high-low axis during the war. Popular literature often occupied a "middle" status that incorporated elements of both high and low.
"We must build up a popular literature of our own," the Magnolia Weekly asserted in 1863. This study examines literature that was intended to appeal to a wide public, from stories published in Harper's Weekly to war poetry in newspapers to cheap dime novels to song sheets. Much of this popular literature was published by obscure authors about whom little is known, or it was published anonymously, pseudonymously, or with initials that provide tantalizing-but often insoluble-clues to authorship. Taking its cue from such popular literary conventions, this study focuses less on authors than on published works. Further, as it is fundamentally interested in the multiple ways in which the war was imagined into being, it primarily concentrates on belles lettres, including poetry, short stories, novels, songs, and histories. It does not discuss drama, a popular art form during the war but rarely a popular form of literature. Nor does it consider personal reminiscences of the war or specialized religious, educational, military, and political war publications such as war sermons, textbooks, military guides, and partisan political pamphlets, though these were part of the larger print culture of the war as well. And although this study is attuned throughout to the racial politics of popular literature, it does not examine publications specifically devoted to emancipation, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society's National Anti-Slavery Standard or Douglass' Monthly.
The "imagined war" of my title includes both published works and the creative acts of the writers, readers, and publishers who produced them. By "imagination" I mean to include both individual inspiration and the "imaginative dimensions" of events, or the "context of thought and expression that suffuses individual and social life." Part of this context was a public literary culture in both the North and the South in which literature was valued as a vital part of personal and civic identity. Early in the war, for instance, patriotic newspaper poetry by ordinary citizens was widely hailed both north and south as an appropriate response to the events of war. Declaimed on numerous public occasions, this public poetry was also part of a shared oral culture of rhetoric and oratory, or "democratic eloquence." Such public war poetry was part of a wider understanding of the war as a literary event: far from literature being separate from the experience of the war, it was accepted as an appropriate, expected, and often deeply felt part of that experience.
If popular war literature was part of a shared public culture, it was at the same time a highly visible part of a shared commercial literary culture. In Northern cities, anyone who bought a newspaper at a newsdealer's shop or passed a railway bookstall saw-and perhaps purchased and read-cheap story papers and dime novels, many of which featured war stories. In rural areas, subscription canvassers for popular war histories brought the popular literature of war right to the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of readers. Popular war songs, "piled up by the gross on counters" for sale, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes, were "dinned in our ears by all manner of voices until they have made spots on our ear-drums like those the drumsticks made on the drum-head." War literature was even available in saloons, one contemporary observer tells us. And in the South, popular war poetry and stories appeared in daily newspapers as well as several new Confederate journals.
The economic, social, and cultural practices of this commercial literary culture are an important part of my story, for they not only helped to determine whether a work was published but also helped shape its content and reception. As my first chapter shows, the material conditions of publishing were strikingly different in the North and South at the beginning of the war. Not only did the North dominate all aspects of publishing economically, but it dominated literary taste, too-at least according to the many Southerners who decried this fact. At the outbreak of war many Southerners agreed that they had for too long been dependent on Northern books and periodicals and that their new nation demanded a new national literature as well. Yet by 1864 many commentators sadly agreed that they had been unable to achieve this goal. "Are we a literary people?" the Southern Punch asked; it concluded, "More in sorrow than in anger, we answer: it is to be feared we are not."
The undeveloped state of Confederate publishing on the eve of the war, combined with the severe economic hardships of the conflict itself, including shortages in paper, ink, printing presses, and personnel (in short, everything needed to produce a successful publishing industry), meant that Southerners were unable to rise to the high hopes of the early war. Yet it was not only economic hardships that limited Confederate literary nationalism. Ironically, though the Confederacy broke free from the North politically, it was unable to break free of the North's literary influence. Spurred by the war, many Southern authors and publishers produced new stories, poems, and books. But Confederate literature tended to imitate Northern forms-indeed, the stridently anti-Yankee periodical the Southern Illustrated News, which prided itself on its "pure" and original Confederate literature, reprinted several war romances from Harper's Weekly, without attribution, as Southern stories.
This was a particularly egregious and, to be fair, unusual example of literary thievery. But the fact that a Confederate periodical could publish a Northern war romance without changing more than a few names indicates a set of shared literary sensibilities that overrode even the divisions of war. Other indications of these shared sensibilities abound: both a Northerner and a Southerner claimed authorship of the popular poem "All Quiet on the Potomac," and Southern author Agnes Leonard based her popular poem "After the Battle" on a Northern story of the same title by Virginia F. Townsend. Many popular songs, such as "When This Cruel War Is Over" and "Who Will Care for Mother Now?," circulated widely in both the North and the South. Some songs, "written, composed and published by Yankees," were "palmed off upon the people as Southern productions," the Magnolia Weekly noted with dismay. Northerners and Southerners also read the same popular literature from England and Europe during the war, including Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, M. E. Braddon's Eleanor's Victory, and Bulwer Lytton's A Strange Story.
This study explores the imaginative dimensions of shared Northern and Southern literary sensibilities by examining several themes and genres of popular war literature. It does not argue that there was a unified "American mind" discernible in popular war literature or a unified "American imagination"-both modes of approaching literature that are artifacts of an older, consensus-oriented school of American studies. But it does recognize that there were a set of shared rhetorics in popular war literature and argues that it is crucial to understand how Northern and Southern popular literary cultures were alike in order also to understand their differences.
The shared rhetorics of Northern and Southern popular war literature had everything to do with the specific cultural, social, and economic practices of commercial literary culture. At the start of the war authors, publishers, and readers all assumed that the war would be represented within an established set of literary categories drawn from an antebellum literary tradition characterized by a "dramatic rise in the number and variety of imaginative texts." That tradition included all the genres discussed in this study, from sensational novels to romances to sentimental poems to popular histories, all of which set up a number of assumptions about the way in which the war could and should be represented. Many of the specific conventions of war literature had also been shaped during the Mexican War of 1846-48, which inspired a number of dying-soldier poems, sensational novels, humorous verse, songs, and patriotic poetry that later provided a set of templates for Civil War literature. Indeed, several Civil War writers, including James Russell Lowell and William Gilmore Simms, had published war literature during that previous war.
Only weeks after the start of war in 1861, illustrated weeklies such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper began publishing columns labeled "war humor," "war romance," and "thrilling incidents of the war," all categories of thought that were both mapped onto the war and helped to produce its cultural expressions. As Charles Royster has commented, "Conventions of popular literature shaped many Americans' expectations when war began."
We can see some of the assumptions behind these different genres of Civil War literature in an 1866 volume of "anecdotes and incidents" of the war that asserted that "the sober History, the connected Narrative, and the impassioned Story" were all appropriate means to "exhibit and commemorate" the events of war. The historian had "gathered together and woven into thoughtful chapters the documentary materials and official details of the Struggle," this volume asserted, while the "poet's genius [had] lent its inspiration to the charm of glowing and melodious rhyme," which would "not cease to be the keynote to warm the sympathies and rouse the heart to greater love of patriotism, freedom, and justice." At the same time "the pen of romance" appealed to "more gushing sensibilities" by providing "its most touching story of mingled pathos and horror," a "well-wrought tale of heart-trials." "All these have their appropriate place" and "their peculiar usefulness and adaptation," this commentary concluded, before asserting that its own usefulness would lie in providing yet another category of war literature in a volume of "the most thrilling, racy and wonderful incidents" of the war. Such commentary asserted the appropriateness of a spectrum of war literature ranging from the "official" to the "gushing" to the "racy."
Excerpted from The Imagined Civil War by Alice Fahs Copyright © 2003 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Filled with rich insights. . . . By illuminating a critical aspect of American popular thought during the period of sectional conflict, Alice Fahs adds considerably to our historical knowledge of the Civil War era.Civil War History
Meet the Author
Alice Fahs is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.
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