Friday, February 19, 2010

Scars to Prove It: The Civil War Soldier and American Fiction

Scars to Prove It: The Civil War Soldier and American Fiction, Craig A. Warren, Kent State University Press, 2009. x + 223 pp. paper, $34.95.

Reviewed by Will Kaufman, University of Central Lancashire. Review entitled I Wuz There, Where Wuz You? on H-CivWar, (February, 2010)

The following is several paragraphs of a longer review.

Craig A. Warren's study is an ambitious attempt to establish the relationship between Civil War fiction and historical sources--in particular, veterans' narratives--on which this fiction is based. The aim is to explore the ways in which "authors of fiction have embraced, celebrated, resisted, and rejected those published reflections, while in pursuit of their own artistic and cultural objectives" (p. 5). The designation "ambitious" refers to Warren's gamble, which is to reduce the possible range of thousands of fictional sources to only seven novels: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), Caroline Gordon's None Shall Look Back (1937), William Faulknr's Absalom, Absalom! (1936)_ _and _The Unvanquished _(1938), Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (1974), and Howard Bahr's The Judas Field (2006).

Warren approaches Crane's novel as an exercise in inclusion: it is a project to wrest the Civil War narrative away from those veterans whose memoirs "represented a formidable obstacle to any nonveteran wishing to write about the war" in the last two decades of the nineteenth century (p. 10). In this regard, Crane was staking his claim against the narrative ownership of Wilber F. Hinman, Alonzo F. Hill, John D. Billings, Frank Wilkeson, and Warren Lee Goss, among others; but Crane was also up against "a climate of nostalgia and martial exaltation," although "his powers as a writer far exceeded those of most former soldiers" (pp. 18, 23). Warren points to Crane's use of irony--which early readers either missed completely or which infuriated those who had perceived it--arguing that Crane was actually being faithful to veterans, such as Sam Watkins and Andrew B. Wells, who had themselves employed irony to demythologize or deflate the windier reflections of the literary generals. Ultimately, Warren argues, it was Crane who "shaped expectations for writing about the war" (p. 36).

In his exploration of "the triumph of the individual" in Shaara's The Killer Angels, Warren points to the "circle of myth, fiction, and history" growing out of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's The Passing of the Armies and perpetuated in Shaara's novel (p. 119). According to Warren, other narratives by Edward Porter Alexander, Jubal Early, John Bell Hood, James Longstreet, and Arthur James Lyon Fremantle all filter into The Killer Angels, which Warren argues contains "the entire Civil War between its covers" despite its exclusive focus on the battle of Gettysburg (p. 129). Shaara's "compressions of history," Warren argues, enable a fictional account of "democratic America's triumph over Old World aristocracy" (p. 135). Warren also presents The Killer Angels as a reflection of the postwar Reconciliation movement of which Chamberlain was an example, "a Northern hero who understood the war beyond the emancipationist vision" (p. 147).

Warren's concluding chapter on the "haunted veterans" in Bahr's The Judas Field examines what the author calls "an excellent example of how recent Civil War fiction has responded to the human legacy of America's twentieth-century military conflicts" (p. 162). Warren demonstrates how Bahr, himself a Vietnam veteran, "at times borrowed from the memories of twentieth-century veterans in order to add texture and authenticity to his picture of Confederate soldiers" (p. 162). What yokes the Civil War and America's twentieth-century wars together is the shared sense of "outwardly 'ordinary' lives" concealing "'a dark current of memory and violence'" (p. 166). The Judas Field thus provides a hearkening back to the novel that begins Warren's study, The Red Badge of Courage, enabling a circular critique that, for the most part, works well.

Text Source: H-Net, University of Michigan

1 comment:

Susan said...

Looks like a good book to read. Looking forward ...