How far have we come since the Civil War and its aftermath? Judging by events this past year in Memphis and this past weekend in particular, issues divide us still, and they're far from abstract.
Related issues confronted America's prominent writers in the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War — among those writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Louisa May Alcott. Each was changed — as individuals and as writers — by the war, and each is the subject of Randall Fuller's From Battlefields Rising (Oxford University Press). But there is a bigger issue at stake here, and it's spelled out in the book's subtitle: "How the Civil War Transformed American Literature."
Fuller, of the University of Tulsa, won the 2011 Christian Gauss Award for literary scholarship from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and scholarly Battlefields certainly is. Don't be misled, though, into thinking that the book is off-limits to the general reader. In fact, as Fuller said by phone, he rewrote it with a larger audience in mind after encountering a number of people, including his own students, who expressed interest in how the Civil War altered not only a nation but its writers as well. In the course of his research on one of those writers, it altered Randall Fuller too.
"He was never my favorite as an undergraduate and graduate student," Fuller said of Walt Whitman. "I'd always read the Whitman of before the Civil War and found him too full of bluster, his poetry a case of too much grandstanding. But when I began to read and think about his war career, my view of him changed completely. I now love the Whitman of the Civil War period as a man who deeply loved his country and who ended up writing extremely moving poetry of the soldiers who'd been wounded or killed. He'd seen firsthand the aftermath of Fredericksburg. He'd nursed the sick. That experience changed the direction of his life. It changed him as a writer. I had a sea change with Whitman too."
The Civil War was a sea change in American literature as well. As Fuller shows in From Battlefields Rising, the war called into question the high rhetoric of Emerson. It brought Hawthorne to a creative standstill. It ignited in Melville a tragic vision. It produced an outpouring of poems from the reclusive Emily Dickinson. And it nearly ruined the well-being of Alcott. Simply put, the "actual" replaced the metaphysical in American letters. Or as Whitman worded it, after his years tending to the sick and dying: "I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife, tried by terrible, fearful tests, probed deeper, the living soul's, the body's tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art."
This then is decidedly not the transcendentalist speculation that had occupied thinkers, especially in New England, in the earlier 19th century. Nor was it idle speculation when, a few years ago, Randall Fuller walked the grounds at Shiloh, a site with its own chapter heading in From Battlefields Rising.
In our conversation, Fuller recalled that visit to Shiloh as a moving experience, one that brought into focus how palpable the Civil War was for Americans even off the field and how profoundly it marked the lives and the work of its writers and the generation of writers to come. Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Ambrose Bierce were among the writers who, to quote Fuller, "participated in an epic reimagining of the war" — who looked on the Civil War as "tragic farce, a sick joke that belied the lofty rhetoric of writers and politicians from the previous generation." Fuller calls them "avatars of a new literary realism that would dominate American letters."
Of today's younger generation: "If you're teaching 19th-century American literature to 18-year-olds, the Civil War can seem to them like a war that Homer wrote about — ancient history," Fuller said. "But the more I've talked to students about the war's effect on American writers, the more I've been surprised by their interest. The legacy of the war is very much with us. I want all of us to see just how 'present' the war is still."
Randall Fuller will be at Rhodes College on April 11th to deliver a lecture titled "Walt Whitman's Civil War" at 7 p.m. inside Hardie Auditorium in Palmer Hall. For further information, contact Scott Newstok at firstname.lastname@example.org.