Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cynthia Wachtell's "War No More"

Cynthia Wachtell is the author of the new book War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and an assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University in New York City.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to War No More and reported the following:
Page 99 of War No More is the final page of the chapter about Walt Whitman’s Civil War writing. It is a short page. That is to say, there is not much text on it. The one full paragraph reads:
Only in his writings published long after the war, most extensively in Specimen Days, did [Whitman] publicly weigh other interpretations of the conflict and hint at his own dismayed response to the carnage. The seething hell of the real war – the realist’s war – would never get in the books. At least, it would never appear in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Those three sentences pretty well capture what I have to say about Whitman and also hint at what I have to say about the Civil War generation of writers as a whole.

During the Civil War years and the decades that immediately followed, the war was written about in a highly conventionalized and sentimentalized way. Men fearlessly breasted battle’s waves. They died as heroes on the battlefield. They were promptly buried in tidy graves. That, at least, is how things were presented on the pages of popular literature.

There was little tolerance for writers who challenged this highly romantic and sanitized way of writing about war. Yet within their private and public writings, certain authors – including Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman – did dare to question the morality of war and to record their horror and dissent. As I show in my chapter on Whitman, he penned some of the most overtly antiwar lines of the entire Civil War generation, but he did so almost entirely within the privacy of his own diaries.

In late 1862 Whitman traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, soon after the North was defeated there in battle. In Fredericksburg he encountered “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening” outside an improvised field hospital and saw discolored and bloated corpses of soldiers left, as yet, unburied. Profoundly disturbed, Whitman wrote in his journal, “O the hideous damned hell of war.” But he did not include the line, or other lines like it, in his published poetry.

As the nineteenth century wore on and the modernization and mechanization of war became ever more evident, antiwar writing gained in popularity. Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Ambrose Bierce, wrote their share of unsettling antiwar works. And America’s turn-of-the-century wars in Cuba and the Philippines invited even more dissent. Ironically, on the eve of World War I, antiwar literature and pacifism had never been more popular in America.

That’s the quick take on War No More’s short page 99. Walt Whitman kept his darkest thoughts about war to himself. Later generations of American antiwar writers did not. Sadly, the “hell of war” continues.
Visit the War No More website.

Writers Read: Cynthia Wachtell.

-Marshal Zeringue