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Analysis of Civil War Era Literature

The human affinity for the personification of concepts, objects, and ideals is uniquely fascinating. Collectively, the citizens of the United States have done a particularly admirable job of assigning a human persona to this relatively young democratic experiment. With all its historical backgrounds, cultural influences, moral venalities, and philosophical contradictions, it is amazing that a principal ideal has ever been able to be assigned by the “American collective”. Yet, this nation endures, declaring an allegiance to this “Lady Liberty”. However, these complexities are what allow such a concept to even exist. Much like individual beings, the United States grows and matures with age. Lady Liberty, understood as a metaphor for the American collective, was forced into a position of traumatic maturation brought forth by the Civil War. This concept can be best captured through the works of Edgar Allan Poe as a stand-in for the United States before to the war, Nathanial Hawthorne as a representation of the country before and during the war, and Walt Whitman as the literary embodiment of our nation before, during, and after the war. Now, one of the primary reasons I choose to equate the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Whitman is because each of their lives create a fascinating sequence in the context of American literary history. Poe’s life ended prior to the start of the Civil War. Hawthorne existed in the literary arena in the years leading up to the war and wrote up to the end of his life during the height of the conflict in 1864. Finally, Whitman lived, worked, and wrote before, during, and after the war, providing the greatest amount of context among the three. This allows for a fascinating progression of historical context among these authors.

There has never been a time in which this country has had a singular impression of national belief or understanding. The United States has always been defined as an amalgamation of various influences and backgrounds that surmounts to a clash of beliefs, that at its core, works to keep this nation honest. Call it idealistic, but this will always be a country that forgives the debts of its forefathers, while still learning from its mistakes. With each passing generation, a clean slate with a somber respect for the past. However, this then raises the question: if the United States is such a smorgasbord of jarring ideals, how can there be an “American Collective”? Unfortunately, there truly cannot. The best that can be done to understand the overarching consensus of the population, is by looking at our culture. Granted, the solution to this problem is limited by the same restrictions that raised the issue in the first place. Given the diversity that is what defines the United States, that also means that the country is marked by a complex tapestry of differing cultures. Some would describe this as a paradox. I, however, view this as an opportunity to gain a stronger understanding of this “collective” ideal. By viewing the values of the Protestant families of New England, the immigrant neighborhoods scattered throughout New York City, and the aristocratic practices of the Southern elite, one could truly get to know Lady Liberty. With that, for the sake of this paper and the topics discussed, a very niche portion of the population with be explored. It must be made clear, that this will in no way be representative of the entirety of the United States, and when terms like “the American collective” are used from this point forward, only a small fraction of the public is being referenced; more specifically, Northeastern men of a white background.

So, why choose Poe as a representative of the U.S. prior to the Civil War? On paper, he would not seem to be a particularly strong candidate. After all, he did spend the majority of his youth in England. It is my conjecture, that this disconnection from the politics of the nation is what allows him to perfectly function as a metaphoric vehicle to the attitudes of many Americans at the time. At his best, he was a quiet critic of slavery, using his work to create a complex narrative of the amoral practices of the countries elite. At his worst, he was an apathetic observer, doing his best to make a living. This indifference in the name of personal survival and financial advancement, it quite representative of a large portion of the American population in the years leading up to the Civil War. The same can actually be argued of the nation prior to most military conflicts. It is not until the time for peace has passed, are people willing to prevent a war.

It is imperative to reiterate that much of what has been said up to this point are founded in generalizations. There was nearly a century of written rhetoric that was setting the stage to the events that would lead to the Civil War; all of which from differing, if not contrasting perspectives. From anti-slavery novels like The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano written in 1789 or abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator” which began its circulation in 1831 to “anti-Tom” novels which were written and popularized as a response to Stowe’s notorious work, it was quite evident that this horrible blemish on the nation was on the minds of many. Then, somewhere in the mix of all of this, Poe was releasing incredibly popular works that seemed to be void of any political meaning. It could be argued that some used this as an escape from the growingly contentious attitude of this time; some could say he appealed to those more fascinated with far larger ideas than those involving the political climate. An example of such a work would be “The Masque of the Red Death”. Now, many have tried to insert some form of political agenda into this work, but at its core, this is simply an allegory about death. However, Poe does not explore death as a tangible notion in this macabre tale. Instead, he treats it as both a literal and metaphoric exploration into what it means to die. He examines the meaning of gaining all that one can have while alive and the frivolity of it all once that last breath leaves your body. “He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” He paints this final end in such a poetic, almost romantic manner than treats death more like the painting of a picture. It’s odd to think of such a story as an escape from real life but I suppose that is what happens when a person is living on the cusp of a civil war.

Another story of Poe’s that I find to be worth mentioning, which also happens to be one of my favorites, is “The Tell-Tale Heart”. This story differs from the previous one discussed because a more definitive contextual meaning can be assigned to the work. I find this to be an incredibly internalized story that functions more as an exploration into the individual and less with a society. “The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears…” The guilt that slowly consumes the unnamed narrator is completely his own. It is not brought forth by an external being and his ultimate admission is in no way forced. I feel as though a comparison between this short story and the American public can quite easily be drawn. Within in the context of allowing slavery to happen for hundreds of years, it would not be unreasonable to assume that there was at least a small portion of the population that silently gestated in a state of growing guilt.

Moving on to our next great American writer, a juxtaposition should be observed between the works of Hawthorne before and during the war. Of which, I found it incredibly useful to compare The House of the Seven Gables, which was written ten years before the start of the war, and his essay “Chiefly About War Matter”, which he wrote shortly before his death. Hawthorne possessed an intriguing amount of insight when writing his 1851 novel. Early on in the story, he made it quite clear that the theme of generational consequence was going to be a prevalent theme. Such thematic elements can be seen through the cures that was brought on by the misdeeds of Colonel Pyncheon and the subsequent death of his relatives. “…old Colonel Pyncheon meant to be the house of his descendants, in prosperity and happiness, down to an epoch far beyond the present, - under that roof, through a portion of three centuries, there has been perpetual remorse of conscience, a constantly defeated hope, strife amongst kindred, various misery, a strange form of death, dark suspicion, unspeakable disgrace…” This is particularly relevant considering the historical context within the nation, given that the consequences of the most undeniably immoral business practices that built the country’s economy was finally catching up. Hawthorne also establishes a motif of decay throughout his novel, which can be equated to the decayed sense of patriotism in the country at that time. In many ways, The House of the Seven Gables, is a novel that is defined by systematic rotting. Everything from the outside world to the family confined within the walls of their aging house, grows consistently worse with time. A similar argument could easily be made by the American collective at this time. In fact, no matter which side of states’ rights, and by an obvious extension slavery, an individual was one at this time, a declaration that the fabrics of the county was in the process of steady decay. One could say that both the changing attitude towards slavery was a sign that the country was imploding on the “values”, whereas another could just as easily declare that the fact that slavery was even still a practice was a prime example that the nation was not evolving at the rate that it should have been.

Undoubtedly his most overt depiction of the Civil War, Hawthorne’s aptly titled essay “Chiefly About War Matters” was his controversial, and surprisingly complicated, account of the conflict. Seemingly semi-satirical at times, this essay appeared to sympathize with the South while simultaneously promoting the war efforts of General George B. McClellan. Many critics found the essay to be confusing, full of contradictions, and at times just plain catty. “Secretary Seward, to be sure,—a pale, large-nosed, elderly man, of moderate stature, with a decided originality of gait and aspect, and a cigar in his mouth,—etc., etc.”Which once again raises the question: how is this representative of the American collective. I believe that, on some level, this functions as a very practical vehicle for the culture towards the war at this time. Rarely, there are times in history when an indisputable truth is presented before a society. Unfortunately, I would argue that this was one of those times but many people over the course of the past 150 years, and even up to this day, would beg to differ.

Finally, we reach Whitman. A man who was present from the beginning, persisted through the thick and the thin, and held out long enough to see it all through. His works can be clearly mapped from years before the war and many years after. Because of this, we can see the change within a man, the change within a nation, as a result of a great schism and a painstaking attempt to put the pieces back together. Whitman was a very different man that lived in a very different country upon the release of Leaves of Grass; and a painful transition can be observed as the years progressed. The poet of 1855 was filled with a youthful optimism that the republic that he adored would be able to remain as one. Such a sentiment can be seen in “Song of Myself” through Whitman’s use of themes and symbols. It is quite evident that this great American poet hopes to convey a strong sense of individualism but in ways that differ from Poe. However, this value that is placed on the singular is used to exemplify the importance of a functioning democracy. Much like the republic that Whitman cherishes, within the poem, it is through one voice (the narrator) that many are allowed to be heard. From the start of the very first stanza, this sentiment can be observed. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, \ And what I assume you shall assume, \ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It is fascinating because this poem both functions as a mode of depicting the American collective at this time, while also operating as Whitman’s vehicle for preserving the republic. I believe that this is a sentient that many Americans possessed at the time; in the very least Abraham Lincoln.

By the start of the Civil War, though tonally similar, there was an intertextual shift in Whitman’s poems. Specifically, I am called to think of his 1861 poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”. Written at the start of the war, it is clear that he is trying to have his readers develop an understanding of the implications of such bloody conflicts. It should be noted that Whitman spends the majority of the poem describing the people that will be effected by the turmoil of battle. “Beat! beat! drums! -blow! bugles! blow! \Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets; \Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? no sleepers must sleep in those beds…”. He paints such a detailed picture of life, only to hit the audience with such hard imagery of death. Which in many ways is archetypal of American life at this time; people worked vigorously to focus on living, only to be reminded of death around every corner. It is this abruptness of this reminder of the final consequence of battle that truly brings makes it mark on the reader.

During the course of the war, Walt Whitman would continue to write a number of poems about the events that engulfed the lives of everyone in the country. Possibly his most powerful poem that best represents the changing mindset of the American collective can be seen in his work “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”. It is in this poem that Whitman describes, without hesitation, the true impact of war. He does not do so by taking sides. Nor does he declare any political preferences. Plain and simple, he describes the faces of three dead soldiers laying at a Union campsite. “Then to the third--a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory; Young man, I think I know you--I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself; Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.” By the fifth year of this war, the United States had witnessed the death of nearly 2% of its population, approximately one million men. Lady Liberty had watched her sons fight and kill each other, and as a result had grown weary of watching. Walt Whitman, along with the American people, we’re tired of watching his country-men die and he was more than willing to say it.

Following the war, Whitman led a quiet, yet fulfilling lifestyle. Primarily living in Camden, NJ, he mostly worked on revisions for Leaves of Grass. I am citing this time in Whitman’s life as a means to describe the refectory nature that would be prevalent in the American culture and politics in the years following the Civil War. In the context of this discussion I am going to refrain from using the term “reconstruction” and instead describe this time at the “reflection period”. This is not to say that Whitman didn’t produce any new material, nor does it mean that the country didn’t advance as a society. Quite the contrary in fact. In addition to revising his most famous works, Whitman added many new contributions to it as well. Likewise, the United States witnessed a massive evolution in its make-up as a result of its introduction into the age of immigration, and even witnessed unprecedented advancements in technology.

Put simply, thanks to the detailed and dedicated works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Whitman, a complex timeline of American society has been woven through lyrics and prose alike. I now have had the realization that these writers not only capture the attitudes of a very specific portion of the population at that time but also exemplify the various ideals and values within that group of people. Poe was marked by an indifference towards the state of the nation that could only be explained through apathy or denial. Hawthorne explored the implications of what it could mean for a nation to be at war with itself, and was unfortunate enough to never get to see its conclusion. And then there was Whitman. A man who looked towards the future as things were getting bad. Searched within his own past to figure out how to make them better once he found himself in the heart of great pain. It will always be impossible to fully understand what was going through the minds of every single American as they witnessed their republic ripped apart before their very eyes, but in the very least we can gain insight into some of the things they may have been reading during that time.