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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 5th, 2003


 

The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War

by Daniel Aaron

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This book, published in 1973 and out of print for several years, has now been reissued. Although a valuable survey of the literary legacy of the Civil War, a subject of staggering cultural and historical importance, the book will always be overshadowed by one of the very few masterpieces of American literary history and criticism, Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, written eleven years earlier, which explored the same territory (albeit in a far more idiosyncratic fashion). Aaron, now a professor emeritus at Harvard, explicates the impact of the war on writers from Hawthorne and Melville to Faulkner and the Nashville Agrarians (his assessment of the Agrarians is by far the shallowest and most hostile chapter in the book; generally this liberal Yankee is at a loss when he strays below the Mason-Dixon line). Yet he very oddly neglects the two greatest writers of the war itself Lincoln and Grant. And although his analyses of individual authors are often keen, he stumbles badly in his overall thesis. In his introduction he states, "One would expect writers ... to say something revealing about the meaning, if not the causes, of the War," and he argues implicitly throughout his book that in fact "writers" by which he means fiction writers and poets failed to do so. But why would we look to imaginative writers, as Aaron does, for what he calls "historical insight"? The Iliad, after all, is hardly an exposition of the meaning and causes of the Trojan War. Aaron is clearly disappointed in Ambrose Bierce when he writes that Bierce's "response to the War had always been intensely personal, never philosophical"; but isn't a personal response precisely what we want from a writer of essays and short stories? Puzzled that novelists and poets neglected to approach their subject as historical philosophers (and, it would seem, annoyed that they failed to impose on the war the "meaning" he finds in it), Aaron offers a nebulous, and what we would now characterize as a PC, explanation: "Race," he asserts, "blurr[ed] literary insight." He uses the fact that African-Americans figured only marginally in the literature of the war as evidence that writers were psychologically resistant to confronting the racial aspect of the conflict (which to him is its central aspect). The "literary dearth," Aaron avers, "is to be accounted for by the blocking out of race." Well, maybe. But Aaron himself seems to be lacking in historical insight: the preoccupations of the present, he ought to know, should not be exported to the past.


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