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Civil war lit

April 14, 2011

Craig Frehman in The Boston Globe:

One April night in 1861, almost exactly 150 years ago, Walt Whitman decided to go to the opera. After watching a performance of Verdi, he walked into the New York air — and into a world that had changed completely. Paper boys were “rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual,” Whitman would later write, and he bought one of their extra editions and began reading it under the lamps of the Metropolitan Hotel. The previous day, Southern forces had fired on Fort Sumter. America’s Civil War had begun.

Over the next four years, this war would become the most disruptive and transformative event in American history — something that was true in Whitman’s time and remains true in our own, as we begin marking its sesquicentennial this week. It’s no surprise that, in the intervening years, no other event has attracted more writers (or sold more books). But what is surprising is that the Civil War did not produce any great works of contemporary literature.

This has puzzled critics and readers from the beginning. “Our war,” William Dean Howells wrote in 1867, “has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.” In “Patriotic Gore,” his classic 1962 study of Civil War writing, Edmund Wilson echoed Howells’s concern. When it comes to the Civil War, there’s no poem or novel or even author who leaves us saying: This is the one who got it right, who captured what the war meant and what it felt like. [More]

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