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Civil War, Aftermath, and American Literary Realism

Dr Thomas Ruys Smith, University of East Anglia, UK Imagining America

Thomas Ruys Smith

on 4 December 2013

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Transcript of Civil War, Aftermath, and American Literary Realism

Civil War, Aftermath, and American Literary Realism
Imagining America: Week 11
Ralph Waldo Emerson, August 1861:

"The war […] has assumed such huge proportions that it threatens to engulf us all – no preoccupation can exclude it, & no hermitage hide us."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, April / May 1861:

“When the times have such a gunpowder flavor, all literature loses its taste. Newspapers are the only reading. They are at once the record and the romance of the day [...] So much for war and books.”

Literature in wartime?
Harriet Beecher Stowe, November 1861:

"Who could write stories that had a son the send to battle, with Washington beleaguered, and the whole country shaken as with an earthquake?"
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1861:

“The war continues to interrupt my literary industry, and I am afraid it will be long before Romances are in request again, even if I could write one.”

George William Curtis,
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine,
August 1861
Louisa May Alcott, November 1861:

"Mr Field [James T. Fields, editor of the
] says he has enough Mss on hand for a dozen numbers & has to choose war stories if he can, to suit the times. I will write "great guns" Hail Columbia and Concord fight, if he'll only take it for money is the staff of life & without one falls flat no matter how much genius he may carry."
Whitman, "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books" (1882-3)

"Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors […] of the […] war; and it is best they should not […] [T]hat many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interferences, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties […] with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans […] [T]he untold and unwritten history of war – [is] infinitely greater […] than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be […] buried in the grave, in eternal darkness."

New York Times,
October 1862:

"We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. [...] Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them on our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery, hangs a little placard, ‘The Dead of Antietam.’ Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action [. . .] It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But it is so."

Oliver Wendell Holmes,
The Atlantic
, July 1863

"We have now before us a series of photographs showing the field of Antietam and the surrounding country, as they appeared after the great battle of the 17th of September. These terrible mementos of one of the most sanguinary conflicts of the war we owe to the enterprise of Mr. Brady of New York. We ourselves were on the field upon the Sunday following the Wednesday when the battle took place. It is not, however, for us to bear witness to the fidelity of views which the truthful sunbeam has delineated in all their dread reality."

Oliver Wendell Holmes,
The Atlantic
, July 1863

"Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were alive but yesterday. Many people would not look through this series. Many, having seen it and dreamed of its horrors, would lock it up in some secret drawer, that it might not thrill or revolt those whose soul sickens at such sights. It was so nearly like visiting the battlefield to look over these views, that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented. Yet war and battles should have truth for their delineator."
William Dean Howells,
Atlantic Monthly
, July 1867:

"Our war […] has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely."

Antietam, September 1862
Antietam, September 1862

Dead, wounded, and missing: 22,717
Illustrated Journals

Alfred Waud
Harper's Weekly
Stephen Crane,
Red Badge of Courage
Rebecca Harding Davis
"Life in the Iron Mills",
Atlantic Monthly
, April 1861
"Life in the Iron Mills":

“Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries:
I want to make it a real thing to you.”
Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, her sister-in-law, April 1862:

"Will Sue please lend Emily 'Life in the Iron Mills.'"
Eric Sundquist (
American Realism: New Essays,
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press [1982], vii):

"No genre - if it can be called a genre - is more difficult to define than realism, and this is particularly true of American realism."
Sharon M. Harris (
Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism
, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991):

Rebecca Harding Davis,
Bits of Gossip

"That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was."
Rebecca Harding Davis,
Bits of Gossip

"For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation [...] We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with the orotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention."
Rebecca Harding Davis,
Bits of Gossip

"I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields."
William Dean Howells,
Criticism and Fiction

"Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material [...] [L]et fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know; let it leave off painting dolls and working them by springs and wires; let it show the different interests in their true proportions; let it forbear to preach pride and revenge, folly and insanity, egotism and prejudice, but frankly own these for what they are, in whatever figures and occasions they appear; let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere—and there can be no doubt of an unlimited future, not only of delightfulness but of usefulness, for it."
William Dean Howells,
Criticism and Fiction

"[Jane Austen] was great and [her novels] were beautiful, because she and they were honest, and dealt with nature nearly a hundred years ago as realism deals with it to-day [...] Jane Austen was the first and the last of the English novelists to treat material with entire truthfulness [....] The art of fiction, as Jane Austen knew it, declined from her through Scott, and Bulwer, and Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte, and Thackeray, and even George Eliot, because the mania of romanticism had seized upon all Europe, and these great writers could not escape the taint of their time."
Rebecca Harding Davis, "A Story of To-Day",
Atlantic Monthly
, October 1861

"My story is very crude and homely [...] I expect you to call it stale and plebeian [...] I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it."
Mark Twain to William Dean Howells,
January 21 1879:

"It is all such truth - truth to the life; everywhere your pen falls it leaves a photograph . I did imagine that everything had been said about life at sea that could be said - but no matter, it was all a failure and lies, nothing but lies with a thin varnish of fact - only you have stated it as it absolutely is. And only you see people and their ways, and their insides and outsides as they are, and make them talk as they do talk. I think you are the very greatest artist in these tremendous mysteries that ever lived. There doesn't seem to be anything that can be concealed from your awful all-seeing eye."
"Contemporary French Fiction",
North American Review
, 1858
Democratic Vistas

"I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us [...] What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men [...] The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism [...] In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain."
"The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper" (1895)

"Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record [...] A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are - oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that."

Twain on Scott, 1903:

"I lie here dying, slowly dying, under the blight of Sir Walter. I have read the first volume of Rob Roy, and as far as chapter XIX of Guy Mannering, and I can no longer hold my head up nor take my nourishment. Lord, it's all so juvenile! so artificial, so shoddy; and such wax figures and skeletons and spectres. Interest? Why, it is impossible to feel an interest in these bloodless shams, these milk-and-water humbugs [...] . Can you read him? and keep your respect for him? Of course a person could in his day—an era of sentimentality and sloppy romantics—but land! can a body do it today?"
Mark Twain to William Dean Howells,
January 21 1879:

"It is all such truth - truth to the life; everywhere your pen falls it leaves a photograph . I did imagine that everything had been said about life at sea that could be said - but no matter, it was all a failure and lies, nothing but lies with a thin varnish of fact - only you have stated it as it absolutely is. And only you see people and their ways, and their insides and outsides as they are, and make them talk as they do talk. I think you are the very greatest artist in these tremendous mysteries that ever lived. There doesn't seem to be anything that can be concealed from your awful all-seeing eye."
David E. Shi,
Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 45:
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