WACHTELL: War No More (2010)

War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 by Cynthia Wachtell. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 0807135623. $35.00.

Even the most casual student of the Civil War frequently encounters Walt Whitman’s canonical statement from Specimen Days that “the real war will never get in the books.” While historians of the conflict tend to seize upon Whitman’s words both as a lament and an intellectual spur to pick up his doffed glove, the poet’s original intent was starkly different. “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors… of the Secession war,” he wrote as a preface, “and it is best they should not.” The full reality of the “Secession war” simply was too ugly to contemplate without filters. “The actual soldier of 1862–’65, North and South,” he continued, “with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be” (Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, Philadelphia, 1882, 80, 81).

Whitman’s reluctance to reveal to his readers the totality of the “seething hell” of “the real war” he saw in the hospitals is at the heart of Cynthia Wachtell’s War No More. Challenging modern authors such as Paul Fussell who view World War I as the watershed moment in the emergence of an antiwar tradition in American letters, Wachtell goes back to Whitman’s “Secession war” to find its uncertain origins in the “corrections, deletions, and substitutions” of a handful of familiar authors, almost exclusively white and male, who trimmed their public words for American readers and editors who seemingly craved nothing but spread-eagle nationalism and tales of glory (7). They still failed to find an audience.  Only a growing awareness of the killing potential of the new military technologies the war incubated, Wachtell asserts, coupled with ugly new conflicts at the end of the century, found them attentive readers in later decades, laying a solid foundation for Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Generation.

Wachtell begins by agreeing wholeheartedly with Mark Twain about the pernicious effect of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels on American literature. “The Civil War generation was drunk on Scott,” she asserts in a memorable phrase (34). While many soldiers blue and gray soon recognized that Scott’s depictions of war were phantasms, successful authors returned to his well again and again for clichés they then unleashed on a civilian audience aching for American Ivanhoes. Faced with that reality, more conflicted authors faced hard choices about what to say. For Whitman, it meant “self-censorship and circumspection” in his public lines, while confining his real misgivings and growing horror of war to his diaries. Herman Melville, whose antiwar beliefs openly informed his popular early novels, simultaneously grappled in every published line with his support for this particular war. Wachtell’s close reading of Melville’s revisions finds great meaning in, for example, his decision to substitute one word for another, such as the starker “dead” for the more literary “slain.” John William DeForest, the former soldier who wrote openly about drunken comrades and the grisly horrors of the hospital, later admitted that even he pulled his punches in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. No one at the time, the author concludes, was willing to print the whole truth about just how horrific the Civil War really was.

Yet something changed. Within a generation, readers were gobbling up Stephen Crane’s apparently realistic Red Badge of Courage, while some at least embraced Ambrose Bierce’s pitch dark tales of death and cruelty. Why? Wachtell points to a growing fear of new military technologies, in her telling stretching from Billy Yank’s rifle musket to breachloaders and on to the Maxim gun, that created an audience for truer depictions of war. Nathaniel Hawthorne had briefly evinced his loathing for impersonal, mechanized war-making as embodied in U. S. S. Monitor, but Wachtell finds its full flowering in Twain’s absurdist recollections of his brief military career and especially in his Connecticut Yankee’s creation of a medieval military-industrial complex. The Spanish-American War and subsequent guerrilla war in the Philippines cemented an antiwar tradition that thus predated the trenches of the Great War.

Readers interested in the literary war not only will recognize Wachtell’s cast of characters from high school American lit, but through standard works on Civil War literature from writers such as Edmund Wilson and Daniel Aaron. In comparison to those scholars’ books, the antiwar slant aside, War No More will seem both familiar and rather thin, as well as firmly tilted northward. The author’s knowledge of the Civil War and American history more broadly sometimes appears slight as well. No historian who has spent much time reading soldier letters and diaries, for example, would ever assert that soldiers in their letters home usually avoided the ugly side of war. Nor did American publishers censor negative information about the armies, much to the chagrin of many generals. Wachtell’s chapter on the advance of military technologies, the power of the rifle, and the subsequent need to construct fortifications, meanwhile seems designed simply to induce apoplexy in historians such as Earl Hess. Reid Mitchell’s Civil War Soldiers (New York, 1988) would have added much to Wachtell’s discussion of the imagery of soldiers as cogs in an industrial machine. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders did not charge up San Juan Hill, and Eli Whitney did not invent a successful system of interchangeable parts for weapons.

Yet all of those problems aside, there still in the end is much to admire in War No More. The introduction, in which Wachtell writes of the reality of war and the language authors have used to obfuscate its ugliness and describe the indescribable, ought to be required, cautionary reading for anyone setting out to write about battle. Nor does the author emulate Whitman and shy away from her own antiwar sensibilities. As the Civil War Sesquicentennial moves ahead through its first year, War No More finally offers a timely reminder that not everyone in 1861 saw “the glory of the coming of the Lord” in the massing of troops. Indeed, as Cynthia Wachtell reminds us, Julia Ward Howe later became an ardent pacifist.

Kenneth W. Noe is Alumni Professor and Draughon Professor of History at Auburn University, and the author of Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861.

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