In a recent class, one of my professors asked an intriguing question about the nature of Civil War Era art and literature. Why, to this day, do we not have any great art or literature derived from the Civil War? While I cannot fully answer this question, I would like to look at some of the Civil War novels of the past century that I have read and discuss how they have influenced my interpretation of the Civil War.
Let’s look at Gone with the Wind, a best-selling novel that has, shall I say, swept the nation by force since its publication in 1936. I have a soft spot in my heart for Margaret Mitchell’s dramatic novel, after all, it’s what made me fall in love with the Civil War at a young age. My mother even condoned this obsession of mine with my own Scarlett O’Hara doll for whom she and I made Scarlett’s famous curtain dress. It’s a ‘problematic fave,’ or, if it was something I could eat, Gone with the Wind would be a “sin-namon” roll because as a student of the Civil War I’ve been taught to disregard the unhistorical “Lost Cause” sentiment of Mitchell’s book. While I understand the historical inaccuracies and subjective tone of the novel, the icon that this book has become – with the help of the movie starring the dramatic Vivien Leigh and that heartthrob Clark Gable – intrigues me. It says much about Civil War historical memory. Mitchell romanticizes the South and overlooks the racial issues of the war because of the era in which she wrote the novel. The popularity of the book today may suggest that this “Lost Cause” romantic mythology of the Civil War still runs rampant in our society today. I would argue that as long as it gets people hooked, we can correct them later as to the real history of the war.
In eighth grade, my class was “forced” to read The Killer Angels, published in 1974 by Michael Shaara. I was the only one in my class who gobbled this up, but I would not call it a sin-namon roll. I respect Shaara’s novel in its depictions of the various thoughts and struggles of Civil War officers, North and South, at the Battle of Gettysburg. It made me truly appreciate these men as strong leaders who cared about their cause and the lives of their men fighting for it. While he is criticized for leaving out specific parts of the battle, Shaara made a deep impression on me. In fact, he solidified my plan to go to Gettysburg College and study the Civil War in depth to better understand these men and the difficult choices they made over 150 years ago.
Because of my expanding interest in the Civil War, my mother and sister recommended I read John Jakes’s North and South trilogy. Similar to the story of Winfield Scott Hancock and Louis Armistead, the boys struggle to maintain their friendship through the splintering bonds between the Union and the newly formed Confederacy. Jakes was influenced by the “brother-against-brother,” “friend-against-friend” themes of the war and his narrative gave me another interesting perspective on Civil War memory through literature and film. Having successfully finished Jakes’s tome of a trilogy, I read Cold Mountain next. At first I was not so keen because it did not seem like a real Civil War novel. Yet, especially after re-reading it for a class at Gettysburg, I realized how well Frazier depicted the struggles of a North Carolinian rural mountain community as a consequence of the war, including the devastation of economic collapse, the brutality of the Confederate Home Guard, and women’s evolving roles in society. Cold Mountain’s realistic, yet heart-breaking story left a strong impression on me as I continued to read Civil War fiction.
My professor was not the first one to express the lack of great literature on the Civil War. Many of my fellow Civil War nerds have commented on the subject. So, I decided to read various Civil War fiction novels this summer to add my own opinion into the mix. Now that I have a pretty firm foundation on the Civil War, I read these novels more critically. Tara Conklin’s The House Girl has been on many book club lists over the last year or so. While it is not set during the war itself, Conklin paints an interesting pre-Civil War perspective of the institution of slavery. She narrates the life of a mulatto house girl whose master is actually her father. This was not uncommon, and Conklin portrays the heroine’s difficult status well. She also brings ancestry into the equation as the modern-day main character researches the slave for a court case. I appreciate Conklin’s willingness to tackle modern day issues, including the question of reparations for descendants of slaves. I’m intrigued to read more about these court cases in my own studies.
I just recently finished Geraldine Brooks’s March, which is based on the father from Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. Many might not remember that the father was fighting in the Civil War while his little women learned nineteenth century etiquette and struggled to fit into their expected roles as young Victorian women. I adored this book and felt I could relate to these rich, yet familiar characters—especially as someone whose mother named her daughters after two of the four little women. I commend Brooks for her research and creative writing. She suitably depicts the themes of a common soldier’s life, including their religion, attitudes towards slaves, and the honor and duty the men felt for their wives and children and country. While not a War and Peace of the Civil War, Brooks, in my opinion, deserves recognition for composing an meaningful story of the war.
When I first read most of these novels, I did not understand the concept of historical memory; but it is fascinating looking back now and recognizing where each one fits in the historiography of Civil War memory. My own journey through Civil War fiction has been quite enlightening as a student of the Civil War. While this is my own take on Civil War fiction of the last century, I am intrigued to see how others answer my professor’s question about why we lack Civil War classics in our literature. What do you, our reader, think of his query? I encourage you to voice your thoughts in the comments below.
Other suggested readings:
The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane
Shiloh, A Novel (1952) by Shelby Foote
The Kitchen House (2010) by Kathleen Grissom
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You (2012) by Peter Troy
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1868.
Brooks, Geraldine. March. New York, NY: Viking Press, 2005.
Conklin, Tara. The House Girl. New York, NY: William Morrow and Co., 2013.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
Jakes, John. North and South. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1982.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1936.
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Philadelphia, PA: McKay Publications, 1974.
19 thoughts on “My Journey Through Civil War Fiction”
E. L. Doctorow’s, The March, is also an excellent Civil War novel. Like all Doctorow novels, this one has a beautifully realized and memorable cast of characters whose paths repeatedly cross during Sherman’s March to the Sea and through the Carolinas. Can’t recommend it enough!
Do not forget Across Five Aprils. Another book that introduced me to the love of the Civil War.
William Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Multiple narrators inform a contemporary student of the per-civil war, war, and post war conditions of a plantation in northern Mississippi. If this counts as civil war fiction, the there is at least one “great” civil war novel.
I’ve been meaning to read it. I love Faulkner. I could definitely see Absalom, Absalom! as a great Civil War novel
The story is told in flashbacks narrated by Quentin Compson to his Harvard University roommate. I recommend it highly, but unlike Quentin, I want you to finish your studies. Reading the book will also explain why a fictional character has a real memorial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:QuentinCompsonPlaque.jpg .
I love Sound and the Fury, didn’t realize Absalom was about Quentin!
In James Gould Cozzens – Children and Others – there is one Civil War short story, It portrays a group of NJ soldiers going into action for the first time at Bull Run. It was really masterful.
Best Civil War novel – Ben Ames Williams – House Divided, followed up by the sequel – Unconquered. I read it while in college, and several times since. published in 1947.
Widow of the South. It’s about bringing the Franklin, TN dead to the McGavock family cemetery at Carnton.
Widow of the South by Robert Hicks is astonishing and haunting. I read it several years ago and bought a copy at Gettysburg last summer.
I highly recommend Robert Olmstead’s “Coal Black Horse”, published in 2007. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/352676.Coal_Black_Horse
While quite recent writings, the trilogy of novels by Ralph Peters really challenge if not transcend the Shaara books. Cain At Gettysburg is the first and it is splendid.
Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor
I recommend Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles. It’s set during the war in Missouri and is about the trials of a young woman imprisoned in a Union prison, who then finds her freedom and has to make her way back to her home. It’s gritty and realistic.
I don’t understand how your professors could miss Whitman’s Drum Taps and Melville’s Civil War poetry. Oh wait – because no one reads poetry.
Hi Tom. Thanks for your comment. Another of our authors recently wrote a blog piece examining Whitman’s expression of masculinity in Drum Taps. Check it out!
And as for art, haven’t you seen Winslow Homer’s great Civil War paintings? Philistines, everywhere.
Glad to see commenters mentioned Across Five Aprils and Coal Black Horse. MacKinley Kantor’s Long Remember is worth a read. Diaries, while the opposite of fiction, can offer the same reading pleasure. The Children of Bladensfield reads like fiction, but is taken from diaries and letters.