Writing the Civil War

[Boston Globe]

In this week’s Boston Globe — and exactly 150 years after the start of the Civil War — I’ve got a feature on the war’s impact on American literature. For pretty much all of those 150 years, people have been wondering why the Civil War didn’t produce any great contemporary works of literature. What gets overlooked in this is the number of great authors who did live and write during the 1860s: Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and more. The history of American war writing stretches back at least to 1638, when Captain John Underhill chronicled the Pequot War in Newes from America. I learned that in Cynthia Wachtell’s excellent War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature. Still, the focus of my feature is Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature. Taken together, Wachtell and Fuller’s books suggest that, while the Civil War lacked a true literary masterpiece, it did clear the way for the antiwar writing we recognize today.

I want to expand on two things I didn’t have space for in my feature. First, the role of photography in the Civil War. Plenty of scholars have argued that this newish medium — notably through Mathew Brady’s 1862 gallery of Antietam — went a long way toward making the Civil War the grisly, realistic, and transformative experience it so surely was. But Fuller connects this idea to literary authors. While in Washington reporting “Chiefly About War-Matters” (the essay remains a great read and can be found here), Hawthorne sat for two visual portraits. The first (pictured above right) was a painting by none other than Emanuel Leutze, who remains best known for his Washington Crossing the Delaware and Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. The second (above left) was a photograph by Alexander Gardner, the Brady photographer who supplied many of the Antietam shots.

The contrast between these two portraits gets at how transitional this moment was for visual culture.  But it also gets at the difference between painting and photography — a difference that played out in the war coverage, where, for the first time, people could choose between the sanitized, sentimental drawings in publications like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and photographs. When the New York Times wrote up Brady’s gallery, it praised its “terrible reality and earnestness.” “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets,” the Times continued, “he has done something very like it.” Hawthorne looks a lot better with the help of Leutze. The same was true of the Civil War’s violence.

Second topic: Walt Whitman’s taste in opera. At the start of my feature, I tell the story of Whitman walking out of the opera on the night of April 13, only to learn about the attack on Fort Sumter. Scholars love this anecdote for all the obvious reasons, but they disagree on the show Whitman attended. Most say it was Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. But a few, like Mark Caldwell, in his cultural history New York Night: The Mystique and Its History, say it was Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix. Curious, and wanting to get this right, I emailed Professor Caldwell to ask him why he went with Donizetti.  In a gracious and detailed reply, he explained that according to the listings Verdi was a matinée on April 13, while Donizetti was an evening performance on both April 12 and April 13.

Now, the news about Fort Sumter arrived in New York via telegraph on the afternoon of the 12th. This means neither show matches up perfectly with Whitman’s own account of hearing the news — an account he wrote more than a decade after the fact. Professor Caldwell told me he placed more weight on Whitman’s description of reading the news at night than on his specific mention of the 13th of April. That makes perfectly good sense. I did some more reading around — I didn’t see anyone air this debate out fully, though someone surely has — and decided to put more weight on the documented lag between telegraphs and newspapers and on Whitman’s ability to kill a few hours in Brooklyn. I hope that makes sense, too. Either way, Whitman had seen more than 20 opera performances before this one. He would have been happy with Verdi or Donizetti or both.


2 thoughts on “Writing the Civil War

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