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War No More

The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914


Cynthia Wachtell


Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010

Hardback. xi + 233 p. $35.00. ISBN-13: 978-0807135624


Reviewed by Claire Parfait

Université Paris 13



The thirteen chapters of this well-written and highly-readable book cover not only the “antiwar impulse” between 1861 and 1914, as the title indicates, but also the literature that celebrated war and its heroes.  While scholars usually ascribe to the First World War the rise of the antiwar genre in both Britain and America (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975, for example), Wachtell contends that such a genre was already “solidly established—if far from universally accepted” [9] in the United States in the decades that preceded the First World War. Her work therefore aims to provide a necessary corrective.  

The work is divided into two parts. The seven chapters of part 1, entitled “Writing the Civil War,” examine the writing of the war while the fighting was actually taking place, before focusing on several writers, most notably Herman Melville, John W. De Forest, Walt Whitman (though lesser-known authors are also discussed). This part ends with an overview of writings on the Civil War published later in the century, by, for example, Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce, among others. Because of the feeling that the Civil War was waged for a good cause, antiwar protest was remarkably scarce during the war years.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier—an abolitionist—produced patriotic verse rather than antiwar literature. Wachtell’s main point here is that during the war years, even writers who denounced the horrors of war in their personal writings were careful not to express their misgivings in their published work, in order to avoid lowering the morale of the troops and of their readers. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, writers such as Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce provided horrific accounts of the bodily and psychic harm wrought by war. By then, the Civil War was far behind and changing literary tastes had made realism acceptable. 

Part 2, “The Changing Ways of Fighting and Writing War,” is shorter than the first part, and consists of six chapters, beginning with an examination of transformations in war technology since the eighteenth century.  It then goes on to analyze the related alterations in war writing. In so doing, Wachtell invokes some of the same writers—Bierce and Crane, for example—as well as Mark Twain and others. Her study includes a survey of antiwar literature to late-nineteenth-century wars and the pacifist movements on the eve of World War I. Her conclusion offers a brief overview of twentieth-century antiwar literature in America. 

Chapter 1 sets the scene by examining three different interpretations of the same battle, the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (19 September 1863): a journal entry drafted at the time by a Union soldier, an idealized depiction of the battle in a poem penned by a young woman from Texas shortly after the event, and an 1889 short story by Ambrose Bierce, who had participated in the battle and uncompromisingly depicted the horrors of war for civilians as well as soldiers. While the diary was not meant for public view, the other two works, Wachtell contends, were intended to help shape the meaning of the Civil War for readers, and embody what the author calls the “struggle [] to define the moral meaning of the Civil War for contemporary readers” [21]. War literature produced during the war itself attempted to idealize and romanticize events, but by 1889, it had become more realistic and more critical of the war. Chapters 2 to 7 detail that change. 

Chapter 2 is devoted to Civil War poetry which, on both sides, celebrated patriotism and heroism in a “defiantly antimodern” way [26], in part by using an outdated vocabulary. As Wachtell notes, “The Civil War, to judge from many of the most popular works of poetry, was fought with weaponry straight out of the Middle Ages” [27].  Poetry glamorized the war and provided readers with the sort of struggle they wanted to read, however far from the truth it was. Chapter 3 examines Walter Scott’s influence on Civil War writings, again from both the Union and Confederate sides. After all, both soldiers and Civil War writers had been raised on Scott’s novels, hence the numerous references to chivalry, heroic deeds and noble deaths in poems and stories about the war.  

Wachtell then turns to the “dissenters”: Melville, De Forest, and Whitman. The three men were conflicted about the war, since they supported the Union and at the same time acknowledged the horrors of war. Wachtell makes a convincing case that these writers offered a somewhat different picture from the idealized and sanitized war of popular magazines and books, even while they did to some extent censor themselves, partly in order to avoid alienating readers. Their writing on the Civil War met with little success, for their work departed from the war literature of the time.  

Wachtell first discusses Melville [chapter 4] and notes that when he produced a volume of war poems in 1866, his literary career had already suffered a decline, both in popular and critical reception. In his earlier books, he had unequivocally condemned war as barbaric, and described it as butchery. Yet he made an exception for the Civil War, which he saw as a clear opposition of right and wrong. The ensuing inner struggle of the writer, however—between a “just” war and the horrors of war—can be read through Melville’s editing of a poem he published during the war. The 1866 volume failed to attract readers and was poorly received by critics, largely, Wachtell argues, because it refused to prettify war. Chapter 5 looks at De Forest who, like Melville, refused to sentimentalize death and the war, which he had seen at very close range as an officer in the Union army. De Forest wrote about soldiers who suffered from blistered feet, consumed large quantities of alcohol, and whose priority, as he explained to his readers, was not to perform heroic deeds, but rather to survive. This was a time when “an outpouring of sentimental literature,” as Alice Fahs has noted,(1) sought to comfort the nation by giving meaning to anonymous death, and this was achieved by countless poems and stories focusing on the deaths of individual soldiers, in often-protracted death scenes largely inspired by the death of Little Eva in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Wachtell points out, this was a comfort that De Forest (and Melville before him) refused his readers, whether in his essays published in Harper’s or in works such as Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). De Forest’s rendering of the horrors of war, totally at odds with the sentimental literature of the day, was in many respects quite modern. The editors of Harper’s, in which Miss Ravenel was serialized, attempted to sanitize De Forrest’s account of the war (and Wachtell quotes from a letter by De Forest to the editors, in which the writer concedes that changes may have to be made in order to suit a family magazine, but grumbles that verisimilitude will suffer from such alterations [76]) before deciding not to serialize it after all. Harper and Brothers did publish the novel in book form, however, but it sold poorly. 

What is particularly interesting in Wachtell’s account is, first, the contextualization of these writings, but also the fact that she examines the publishing and reception histories of those works that went against the grain of conventional wisdom respecting the war, works that failed at least partly for that very reason. She frequently draws parallels between those dissenters and twentieth-century writers whose description of war is close to that of Melville and, especially, De Forest. The latter was brutally candid about his war experience (even if, as he pointed out in a letter to William Dean Howells, he did not dare tell “the whole truth” about battle [78]), and Wachtell indicates that it was not until its reissue in 1939, some seventy years later, that Miss Ravenel was praised by critics.  

Unlike De Forest, Whitman (chapter 6) did not take part in battle; unlike Melville, he saw its horrific results up close, as a visitor to military hospitals. Whitman’s private and public writings evidence a deeply-conflicted man, who expressed his misgivings about war only in his private writings, while maintaining an upbeat tone about the war in his published work. Between the conventions of romanticism and the need to keep up the morale of the troops and the nation, the war could not be described in realistic terms. As Whitman put it, “the real war will never get in the books” [87]. The best and most striking example of this is the contrast between a poem entitled “A Battle,” which Whitman wrote in his diary, and the revised version which was published as “The Veteran’s Vision.” In this revised version, as Wachtell deftly demonstrates, “the war has been domesticated” [93]. This self-censorship can be attributed to a number of causes, including the fact the writer did not wish to antagonize his readership. Yet, as Wachtell makes clear, this was no mere mercenary self-censorship by Whitman, but rather it was mixed with patriotic concerns, and a desire to ease the nation’s pain as well as his own. Whitman had a difficult time finding a publisher for his war poems, Drum-Taps, and eventually had to publish the volume at his own expense.  A contemporary newspaper ascribes the failure of the work to the circumstances of its publication: it received no promotion, and was not readily available. 

Chapter 7 looks at the postwar decades, and at the change in war literature: far from romanticizing the Civil War, writers such as Harold Frederic, Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce provided gruesome depictions of battlefields. Indeed, Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (1895) as well as Bierce’s short stories—with their graphic descriptions of wounds on the battlefields—seemed to provide the literary counterpart of General Sherman’s famous saying, “War is hell.” Bierce in particular made no effort to spare his readers. Yet times had changed, and the readership was now more receptive to such realistic depictions.  Indeed, by the 1890s, “Verisimilitude had become a selling point” [108]. Crane’s Civil War novel was a popular and critical success, while Ambrose Bierce’s realism was praised by critics, before being censored during World War I for fear it might lower the morale of the troops. 

Part 2 comprises six chapters. In chapter 8, Wachtell focuses on “improvements” in war technology since the American Revolution. She examines the way changes in weaponry and warfare altered war literature. Indeed, the increasing sophistication of weaponry led to a vision of war that had more to do with mass slaughter than with the gallant heroism ascribed to soldiers in earlier wars, or, as Wachtell puts it, “The expansion in the size of armies and the introduction of new weaponry imperiled the romantic view of war as a sphere for demonstrating individual heroism” [118]. Hawthorne, visiting Washington in 1862, remarked that the improvements in war technology would put an end to heroism as machines took over from soldiers [chapter 9]. Interestingly, as Wachtell points out, Hawthorne’s essay about warfare technology was published in the same issue of the Atlantic Monthly as an article that praised the ironclad warship, the Monitor, about which Hawthorne expressed misgivings. Melville and Longfellow voiced similar concerns over the ironclads, which they saw as embodiments of the potentially-devastating union between science and war.

In chapter 10, Wachtell looks at Twain’s anti-war stance in his account of his brief militia experience during the Civil War, his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and other writings. For Twain, no war was ever justified, and the evolution of war technology just made war more deadly—Wachtell links Twain’s mistrust of war machinery with his own failed experiments as an investor in new inventions, such as the typesetting machine that brought him close to bankruptcy. Chapter 11 examines the war novels of the 1890s, highlighting the use of industrial and technological imagery in war novels. Thus Crane’s Red Badge soldiers are similar to factory workers, and the fast pace of industrialization in the late nineteenth century can be heard in Crane’s novel. In The Captain of Company K (1891), by Joseph Kirkland, a Union veteran, Civil War soldiers are mere cogs in the war machine. Other writers, however, celebrated the advances of science and technology as eventually spelling the end of war. One such writer, Frank Stockton, described in an 1889 work an American-built weapon so destructive that the mere demonstration of its power sufficed to avert war.

Chapter 12 looks at accounts of the Spanish-American war and the ensuing war in the Philippines, using the examples of Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Crosby to highlight the pro and antiwar reactions to the 1898 war. Thus Roosevelt celebrated the romance of war and steered an uneasy course between exalting individual heroism and acknowledging that future wars would be fought by men skilled at handling increasingly-sophisticated war machinery. Ernest Crosby, on the other hand, violently attacked war and imperialism, which were also denounced by influential figures such as William Dean Howells. Unlike his predecessors, however, Howells’s literary reputation did not suffer from this antiwar attitude, nor did it affect the sale of his works, a sure sign that “antiwar writing had become acceptable, if not quite mainstream,” by the beginning of the twentieth century [167]. Pacifism, which had long been the almost exclusive province of Quakers, gained ground apace at the same time, with a proliferation of peace societies and the growing hope that war could be brought to a definitive end. In chapter 13, Wachtell focuses on the peace writings of philosopher William James and of socialist George R. Kirkpatrick, both of whom expressed deep anxiety at the technological improvements and increased killing power of modern war technology. 

Wachtell concludes with an overview of American antiwar writing in the twentieth century, calling attention to the unprecedented rise in antiwar literature between the two world wars, and the continued stream of antiwar literature after World War II. The “true apotheosis of American antiwar literature,” however [185], came after the Vietnam war. Books critical of the war were showered with literary awards and vastly popular. The new hero was a disillusioned man, an “alienated antihero” [186] whose only glory was to survive. Meanwhile, as Wachtell notes, wars keep being fought and antiwar literature keeps being written… 

War No More is well organized, easy to follow and informative, drawing upon a wealth of primary and secondary sources. All in all, it makes for a very good read. Wachtell is to be commended for her systematic look at the larger picture, her historical and literary contextualization of the writers and of the works she mentions. She also offers a stimulating interweaving of textual analysis together with a scrutiny of the material circumstances of the publication and promotion of the works, as well as their reception. The many eye-opening parallels to war novels of other places and times are equally enlightening. The book will be of interest to both history and literature experts, as well as to book historians, and specialists of 19th-century American studies and the Civil War in particular. One weak spot in Wachtell’s analysis is, however, the author’s failure to include the important scholarship of David Blight, an unexpected omission inasmuch as Blight’s seminal 2001 work, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,(2) deals with the same period, albeit from a different perspective, as Watchell’s War No More.  __________________

(1) Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

(2) Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2001.





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