The war’s brutality changed American literature for good.
What is the best American Civil War novel? may be as unanswerable as “What is the meaning of life?” Ever since Appomattox, critics have argued about which The question fictional accounts of the war come closest to capturing the truth—whether it be the individual experience of a soldier, civilian or slave, or the collective experience of a nation that was torn apart and put back together again. Even so, from the vantage point of 150 years, a canon of Civil War literature has emerged that tells the story of what Lincoln called “the great contest” from nearly every angle—perhaps just as well as the history books.
“The American Civil War changed everything,” says Robert Hicks, author of the Civil War novels Widow of the South (2005) and A Separate Country: A Story of Redemption in the Aftermath of the Civil War (2009). “There is both a sweetness and a bitterness that is born out of the war. It shows up in books as it showed up in the lives of the those who survived.”
The first great novel of the war, many have argued, was actually published before it even began—Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This immensely popular novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, is widely credited with stoking the fires of abolition. According to Stowe family legend (and often repeated as fact), President Abraham Lincoln remarked upon meeting the book’s author, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Just as the war dominated the memoirs, slave narratives, poems and art produced in its aftermath—by such notables as Ulysses Grant, Walt Whitman, Mary Chesnut and Winslow Homer—so too did the war appear in American fiction, and in fact had a transformative effect on the literary style of the time. According to scholar Randall Fuller, author of From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, the war forced authors to convey “new, uncomfortable truths.”
Whereas prominent novels of the early 19th century were more romantic in tone and subject matter, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Last of the Mohicans The Scarlet (1826) Letter (1850), novels written after the war took on a more raw and realistic timbre. In the post-bellum decades, the nation was concerned with Reconstruction, westward expansion, industrialization and Indian wars—all of which presented fction with a more diverse set of challenges and characters than had been seen previously. The language became less fowery. In his 1962 book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Edmund Wilson says the shift in literary tone was encapsulated in November 1863, when President Lincoln followed Edward Everett’s forgotten two-hour speech at Gettysburg (which evoked “the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet…”) with a two-minute speech for the ages.
Reunification of the country also gave rise to a stronger sense of what it meant to be American; in 1868, the first reference to the concept of a “Great American Novel” appeared in an essay by John William De Forest, a Civil War veteran and author of one of the first post-bellum war novels, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion From Secession to Loyalty (1867). Magazines flourished during this time too, and many novels were first published in serialized form.
Even when the war wasn’t explicitly addressed, it hung around the edges of certain post-bellum novels like a specter. Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, which originally appeared in two volumes published in 1868 and 1869, is a novel of the home front, where the war takes the patriarch of the March family away from the household. It also illustrates how young women like Jo March could have ambitions beyond simply marriage and motherhood. In the next two decades, a former Confederate militiaman named Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote several classic novels that satirized and skewered the antebellum South. Although it is also not a war novel per se, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is indelibly shaped by the issues that led to war. The novel chronicles Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River in antebellum times with a slave named Jim, where they must deal with the established laws governing slaves and property.
A common sentiment among literary critics is that the next great milestone in Civil War fiction didn’t appear until 1895, a full generation after Appomattox. That year, despite never having fought in battle himself, a young writer named Stephen Crane published a novel so evocative of the real thing that many readers assumed he was a veteran. That novel, The Red Badge of Courage, details the psychological journey undertaken by a young Union soldier named Henry Fleming, as he deserts his unit, confronts his cowardice and eventually returns to carry its fag.
“For me the greatest work of fiction about that war remains The Red Badge of Courage,” says Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989). “The young soldier’s education in brutality is the essential story of why we are mistaken to ever call any war veteran ‘a survivor.’ I served my country during the Vietnam struggle. What I saw and learned 40 years ago still constitutes a daily sacrifice.”
Where Uncle Tom’s Cabin was weighed down by the sentimental language typical of antebellum fiction, Red Badge was taut and spare, evocative of the realism and hard-fought wisdom the country was bringing into the 20th century. “They were worn, exhausted, having slept but little and labored much,” Crane writes. “They rolled their eyes toward the advancing battle as they stood awaiting the shock. Some shrank and flinched. They stood as men tied to stakes.” Gurganus says Ernest Hemingway, the undisputed king of 20th-century economical prose, owes Crane a debt of gratitude.
Red Badge is a classic bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel that chronicles the protagonist’s journey out of youth and into maturity. It could also be seen as a metaphor for a young nation that once accepted slavery but ultimately fought a war that purged it from the country once and for all.
“I think that good writing is about transformation,” Hicks says, “and I can think of few books that show that transformation better than Henry Fleming’s character.”
Union veteran Ambrose Bierce’s haunting short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is also a highly venerated piece of Civil War fiction from this period.
On the cusp of the new century, Kate Chopin in 1899 published novel set in Louisiana whose protagonist, Edna Pontellier, struggles against the social mores that prevailed in the South. Although the book doesn’t The Awakening, an early feminist deal with the war directly, Chopin’s work is emblematic of the growth in Southern literature that occurred in the postwar years and flourished in the early 20th century as a way to either reclaim or repudiate the Lost Cause. As the forlorn Ashley Wilkes laments in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, “Perhaps—I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.” Although Wilkes surely echoes the sentiments of many of GWTW’s readers, he is stuck in the past in a way that even Scarlett O’Hara ultimately finds frustrating.
Gone With the Wind appeared to immediate critical and popular acclaim in 1936, a watershed year that also saw the publication of William Faulkner’s Civil War novel, Absalom, Absalom! Although critics now acknowledge the book’s racism and Southern clichés, Scarlett has long been celebrated as a strong, albeit flawed, female character who worked hard to solve her own problems during a time of war and upheaval.
“Gone With the Wind is sometimes derided but the book created and retired certain Southern stereotypes with stubborn roots in reality,” Gurganus says. “‘Mammy’ is a servile cliché but she also wields great power in the O’Hara–Butler households. Rhett is the resourceful scamp and Ashley a weak-willed aristocrat. Scarlett herself is the most believable character, being the most flawed. Scarlett is all flaws! The South I grew up in was a matriarchy that let its men think otherwise.”
Where Gone With the Wind was a smashing success, Absalom, Absalom! had only limited commercial appeal when it was published (although it gained widespread respect and helped earn its author a Nobel Prize for Literature). Where GWTW is a more straightforward, linear narrative, Absalom is complex and fragmented story told through ample flashbacks and dark digressions, making it a classic work of Southern Gothic literature. Yet both books are strongly evocative of their time and place, and tie back to the works that preceded them while laying groundwork for the many more Civil War novels to come.
Even today, the Civil War remains natural fodder for storytellers. Well-known Civil War novels published in the 80 years since Windville (1955), Michael Shaara’s include MacKinlay Kantor’s The Killer Angels Gone With the Anderson- (1974), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), Donald McCaig’s Jacob’s Ladder (1998) and many more. And there have been notable parodies such as The Wind Done Gone, a 2001 GWTW rebuttal by Alice Randall and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith, published in 2010. According to Tim Morris, a literature professor at the University of Texas-Arlington who has compiled an online bibliography of selected Civil War novels published in the past 150 years, the number of novels being published on this subject has seen a surge in the 1990s and 2000s, with no sign of abating.
Paulette Jiles, author of Enemy Women (2002), sums up the war’s appeal for authors thusly: “It went on for four years and there were nearly a million casualties. Slavery was abolished, an entire area of the country was invaded, and in general it was all big and very noisy. Plus the fact that the personalities involved were riveting. Hot and furious people, cities burning down and so on and so on.”
For Geraldine Brooks, author of the Pulitzer-winning novel March (2005), her retelling of the period in Little Women from the father’s point of view, it was Cold Mountain—itself a modern classic influenced by the Greek epic poem The Odyssey—that inspired her to write historical fiction. “I began thinking about idealists at war—these Quaker Abolitionists— and that brought me to a reconsideration of Alcott’s memorable idealist at war, the father of the little women, away ministering to Union forces,” Brooks says. “Until then, I’d never considered that this beloved classic of my childhood was, in itself, a kind of Civil War novel, albeit one that dealt with the home front.”
The 1990s, according to Morris, was the decade of the “series Civil War novel,” which saw a trend in which characters and events are carried through from book to book, as in the work of Jeff Shaara (see above). Literary serialization, of course, goes back to the 19th century. Everything old is new again, forever and always, so authors keep going back to fight that war. As for its enduring appeal, Brooks says, “I can only fall back on Gertrude Stein’s observation: ‘There will never be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War.’”
Kim O’Connell has a bachelor’s degree in literature and a master’s degree in historic preservation. She writes frequently about history, architecture and other topics.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.