Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


 Literary Criticism Review    



The Unwritten War:
American Writers and the Civil War
By Daniel Aaron
University of Alabama Press, Reissue, 2003
Soft cover, $26.95 (385 pages)
ISBN: 0817350020



A joke I’ve told so often in class that my students have begun to finish it for me:

Q.  How many Southerners does it take to screw in a light bulb? 

A.  Three.  One to screw in the bulb and two more to sit around and talk about how the old one was better.  

The joke is funny not only because it exposes our besetting sin of nostalgia, but also because it points toward one of the great weaknesses of that nostalgia: it frequently has as its object a false picture of the past.  One light bulb is, after all, no different from another.  Idealizing the past often means forgetting its problems. 

Daniel Aaron’s contention in The Unwritten War, his survey of American literary responses to the Civil War, is that a desire to forget is largely responsible for the fact that, despite inspiring mountains of novels, essays, poems epic and lyric, short stories, letters, and diaries, the Civil War has never produced a “masterpiece.”  Aaron claims that, with the possible exception of Faulkner and, to a lesser degree, some of the Agrarians, America has yet to produce any artists capable of producing the kind of balanced, objective, and artistic treatment of the Civil War that would qualify as a masterpiece.   

Almost before the last shot of the war was fired, critics North and South complained about the literary world’s failure to do justice to the war.  Aaron suggests a number of explanations for the lack of any truly balanced artistic accounts of the War.  One is what he calls “spiritual censorship,” by which he means, presumably, the kind of religious prudery that made it nearly impossible in mid-nineteenth century America to deal in polite letters with the drunkenness, lice, disease, sodomy, butchery, massacre, cowardice, and insubordination that were part of the war experience.  Aaron also suggests that the nineteenth-century “feminization of culture” that produced Hawthorne’s “damned mob of scribbling women” and their largely female audience meant that the American popular literary establishment was not especially interested in a non-romanticized version of the War.   

Most of the major male writers of the second half of the nineteenth century had personal reasons for either avoiding the subject of the Civil War or for treating it with corrosive irony.   Aaron’s chapter on these men is entitled “The ‘Malingerers,’” making reference to the fact that although most of the great male writers of the postwar period were old enough to have participated in the War, most avoided it, either through taking advantage of personal connections or simply “lighting out for the territories.”  Among them are Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells.  The roster of these “malingerers” is instructional for understanding why the latter half of the nineteenth century never produced an “epic” or even-handed response to the Civil War.  Given the experience and intellectual predispositions of these men, it is hardly surprising that none of them produced a sweeping epic treatment of the Civil War.   

Not all of the forgetting was determined by the constraints of gender; sectional loyalties also worked to produce the amnesia that blocked the production and reception of disinterested treatments of the Civil War.  In the South, military defeat and the nearly unbearable sacrifices that preceded it made impossible any clear-eyed exploration of Southern motivations for or conduct of the war.  Instead, the mythologizing of antebellum South as an Edenic Paradise and of the generals of the Confederacy, particularly Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as paragons of human development, began even before the war was over.  Southern writers covered over the bitterness of their defeat with what Henry James called “the syrup of romanticism.”  The “moonlight and magnolias” school of literature that emerged from this process advanced the historical amnesia that still grips many in the South regarding why and how the South participated in the Civil War.   

Northerners, anxious to re-open southern markets for manufactured goods and frustrated over the lack of progress in resolving “the Negro problem,” were also more than willing to forget the whys and the hows.  Northerners, perhaps even more fully than their Southern counterparts, bought into the antebellum myth, snapping up cartloads of romanticized nonsense like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, full of burning plantation houses, buried silver, and gray-haired old darkies longing for the good old days of cotton picking servitude.  The popularity of such works with Northern audiences led many to observe that although white Southerners lost the shooting war, they had been winning the literary war ever since.  Such work, Aaron implies, is unable to rise to the disinterestedness necessary to create a masterpiece. 

That Aaron is even willing to talk in terms of “masterpieces” and to make value statements about literature identifies him as a member of an older generation of literary critics.  The book was originally published in 1973 and in some ways shows its age.  For any literary scholar educated after the mid-seventies, Aaron’s unabashed willingness to make sweeping aesthetic value judgments will be either a breath of fresh air or damnable heresy, depending on the degree to which one accepts contemporary academic dogma regarding the political nature of all aesthetic judgments.  If you are committed to your aesthetic relativism, you would do well to skip The Unwritten War.    

However, for any unreconstructed antediluvian out there clinging to belief in an objective difference between good and bad books (or nostalgic for the good old days of literary criticism), Aaron’s The Unwritten War is worth a look.  Put it on your bookshelf next to Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, another fine work of old-fashioned literary criticism that explores the effect of the Civil War on American literary history.   

Although Aaron’s aesthetic judgments are often questionable and are often pronounced without adequate supporting evidence, the work is still worthwhile, particularly given its scope.  Aaron covers most major American writers from Emerson to Faulkner in about 300 pages.  Aaron is a skilled prose stylist and the book remains readable by any non-specialist interested in American literary history. 


Edwin McAllister
Southern Scribe Reviews

© 2003, Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved