Randall Fuller is the Herman Melville Distinguished Professor of Nineteenth-Century American Literature at the University of Kansas and the author of Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists; From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature; and The Book that Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. Currently he is working on a book about Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and the treacherous world of London theater. His articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature have appeared in American Literature, American Literary History, Early American Literature, New England Quarterly, and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He received his PhD from Washington University. (Updated April 2020)
Dr. Fuller gave this lecture during our "American Writing on the Civil War" teacher workshop on February 3, 2012. A video of Dr. Fuller’s lecture is available in our digital repository.
I am going to talk in somewhat general terms about the overarching idea of American literature in the Civil War, but I think we need to acknowledge up front that there are always two difficulties for us as teachers—whether junior high, high school, or college—to begin with. The first difficulty, it seems to me, is how to get students interested in the past, in history. As we all know, in our culture now, especially through the internet, it seems like everything is in the compelling, urgent, hyper-important present. So, for my students, if you want to talk about history, you talk about a movie made in 2003. If you are interested in ancient history, you talk about the 1990s. You know what I am talking about. So one of the things that is really difficult but incredibly important whenever we discuss literature or history in the past is to somehow convey to students that these folks that we are looking at were not some exotic species from another world or planet; they were people like us, and they, in many ways, had the same kinds of concerns and troubles and issues that we have.
If you can get them to think a little bit like that, then you can begin to imagine just how traumatic, how devastating, how monumental the Civil War would have been in their lives. A wonderful scholar, who is now the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, wrote a book about death and the Civil War. One of the things she points out that I think is really worth considering and bringing up for your students is that over six hundred thousand Americans died in the Civil War, which is more than any war in the United States, and which is more than all of the wars combined. But if you were to extrapolate that into today’s numbers, if you were to say the United States would have a Civil War right now based upon the population, the equivalent of six million people would die, given how much the population has grown. You could almost have your students look around the classroom and say, if you guys were fighting for the Union at least one out of ten of you would die. If you were fighting for the Confederacy, somewhere between one out of three or four would die. So there is a way in which the Civil War—and it’s hard for us to get our minds around—affected everybody in the nation at the time. It was impossible not to know somebody, at least in the more populated areas from probably Kansas to the East, who was not wounded, maimed, or killed in the war. In many cases, that person was also a member of the family. So the first difficulty is just getting students’ heads around the fact that this war happened on a devastating scale amongst people just like them.
The second thing, which is a little more difficult, it seems to me, is to try to convey why literature might have seemed so important to these people. The thing I want to talk about today is a) how literature helped spark the Civil War and then b) how the Civil War changed that very literature. But it is important to realize how significant American literature was in the first place to the majority of Americans in the antebellum period, in the nineteenth century. Ask your students sometime: if they traveled to another country, how would they feel if that country did not have its own television stations, did not have an internet presence, did not have its own movies, that everything it got culturally came from another country. I am guessing that they would in some ways subtly consider that country to be a little inferior, at least culturally. That was the case of America in the nineteenth century. There is a great essay that was published thirty-three years before the Civil War by a guy named Sir Sydney Smith . . . called “Who Reads an American Book?” What Smith wanted to say—he was writing this in an English literary journal at the time, with a lot of cultural snobbism and chauvinism—he said, America is kind of interesting. It is doing something worth remarking on in its political system. They are experimenting with this thing called democracy. It may or may not work out, but they have no culture whatsoever. Whenever a writer in America tries to write a novel, he is essentially copying Sir Walter Scott. Whenever a poet in the United States tries to publish a poem, he or she is essentially copying—name your favorite British poet. The idea was that Americans do not have their own culture. They are a people devoid of literary culture. Therefore, they are really not quite up to the standards of civilization as understood by English and European folks.
Why is that important? Well, it was enormously important to Americans who read and felt a sense of cultural inferiority, who themselves felt, you know, it is true, we are not really producing a culture in the same way of, say, England that has Shakespeare or in the way of Italy that has Dante. We do not have that yet. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom you may know, but whom I am guessing you do not teach very much in high school because he is extraordinarily hard to teach. There are great examples of people who read Emerson at the time who said things like, you know, I read the essay. I was engaged by the essay. I flipped through, but, as soon as I closed it, I had no idea what he was saying. That is a really typical response that Emerson provoked not only in my students but from the very beginning. He always provoked that. But he is important to us in American literary history for a couple of reasons. The most important of which is he articulated what an American literature might look like. He said in a series of essays and in his first book, Nature, published in 1836: American literature does not need to even look across the Atlantic at Sir Walter Scott. We have a completely different experience. We have a different political environment. We are much more self-determined. Obviously these things may be debatable, but this is Emerson’s take on things. As a result, we are going to create something unlike Europe that is distinctly our own. In his essay called “The Poet,” he said the poet in America is not going to be a European poet who is bound by metrical regularity. The poet in the U.S. does not have to write in iambic pentameter. The poet in America does not have to rhyme. Why should we be hung up with those European conventions that are really kind of imprisoning and constricting? The American poet will, Emerson says, not worry about making meters but will create “metre-making arguments.” What he means by that is the American poet will simply describe the world as he sees it or she sees it, and that will become a new kind of poetry.
The reason Emerson’s theorizing about American literature is important is because it sparked, especially in New England and New York, a wave of disciples and imitators and people who tried to live up to Emerson’s ideals. I am not going to talk about people like Harriet Beecher Stowe or Emily Dickinson or Nathaniel Hawthorne . . . but all of them were influenced by Emerson to varying degrees. The most interesting fellow, I think, who is inspired by Emerson and whose career takes a radical turn in the Civil War is Walt Whitman. . . . [Whitman’s poetry] does not look like any other poetry I am aware of. It is conversational. There is not a kind of rhythmic meter going on. In fact, Whitman writes these extraordinarily long poetic lines. They seem to go off the page. They just go on and on and on. They catalog endless activities and objects in the American world. Where that is coming from is Emerson. Whitman said famously, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” What he meant is: he knew he wanted to do something with poetry; he considered himself a kind of artistic figure, but it was when he read Emerson’s “The Poet” and other essays that he began to see what he might be able to do. What he wants to do, following Emerson’s advice in “The Poet,” he wants to become the poet of America. Now, I know I looked pretty carefully at your teaching standards, and I know that, alas, poetry is ranked below fiction, and I am aware of that, and when I meet with you in our smaller groups we will focus on fiction. The reason I am looking at poetry now is not so much for you to take that into the classroom as to give you an example in a very compact way of how the Civil War changed the language. I think we can do that really nicely with Whitman’s language. So that is why I am going to look at poetry.
Before I do, I would like to suggest that another difference between United States literature and a lot of literature that was in Europe (and another person who was behind this difference was Emerson) was that American writers felt like they wanted to change their readers. They wanted a moral revolution to happen inside the readers. They did not just want you to read one of their books and to be entertained by it—although every author wants to entertain a reader to some extent—they wanted you to read their work—whether it was Emerson, whether it was Thoreau’s Walden, whether it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—they wanted you to read those things and have a conversion inside yourself that would make you behave in a different way when you had finished. At the end of “The American Scholar,” Emerson, in fact, says that the role of the American scholar, and by that he just meant anyone who thinks or writes, the role of that person is to convert the world. That desire to convert the world fit very nicely into a pressing ethical, moral dilemma that the United States was confronted with: the problem of slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe says, I didn’t really write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. God wrote through me. God wrote it, and what God wants to do is to get everybody stirred up about the problem of slavery and to want to abolish slavery. I believe very strongly that, in many ways, the Civil War would not have happened in quite the way it did if there had not been this group of New England authors who were writing very passionately about the problem of slavery and the need for abolition, and who expressed a willingness, if the South would not change their ways, for New England just to secede. We always think about the South seceding, but Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, sometimes Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a variety of other folks said, you know, what would be best is if New England seceded because then we would not have to deal with this problem of slavery, of this moral taint that is ruining the country.
James Russell Lowell, a poet of the time and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly . . . said, as an editor, I am going to do everything I can to try to abolish slavery, to try to influence public opinion through my magazine in such a way that people will say: slavery is wrong, let’s end it. In the very second issue of the Atlantic Monthly, he published an article called “Where Will it End?” and that article simply said, the United States has lost its ideals and can only be saved by the abolition of slavery. Now, again, your students may say: So what? What is the big deal? It is just an article. Articles cannot do anything. Lowell said that the war before the firing on Fort Sumter was a war of words and the pen. What he meant was what had to happen before the North and the South clashed together in that epic battle that lasted four years was that public opinion had to be mobilized and energized in such a way that one group of people—and it was a minority; a very small percentage of people said, slavery is wrong; let’s fight over it. Another group of people, the South, disagreed.
So, based upon Emerson’s writings and then a whole cohort of other American literary figures, you have got a very heightened rhetorical situation in the United States where both sides are fired up and are basically writing articles in support of or against each other and fairly large audiences are reading those. That is the backdrop for Walt Whitman, who has this incredibly ambitious idea that he wants to be the national poet. Let’s just say, for instance, that this side of the room is the South and leans towards Southern sympathies . . . and let’s say this side of the room is the North. The North is incredibly complex with some folks wanting a secession from the Union but also some folks wanting all kinds of different accommodations with the South. What Whitman wanted to do as a poet in the 1850s was to throw his arms rhetorically around all of you. He wanted to say, you guys are the nation. I am the national poet. I am going to try to describe all of us. I am going to say what it is like to be a Southerner, what it is like to be a Northerner, what it is like to be an escaped slave, what it is like to be a Native American who is married to a trapper. I am going to try to encompass everything that is going on in this incredibly dynamic and chaotic place called the United States. I am going to do that because I want to be the poet of America. I want to be our nation’s Dante, or I want to be our nation’s preeminent poet and the way I know I have succeeded is if all of you read my book and agree more or less that I have captured what it is like to live in this place and what it is like to be an American. It is a very ambitious goal. I love the ambition of Whitman to say: I am going to be the poet of America. I am going to embrace you, and you are going to embrace me. Well, it did not work out quite that way for a while. Not everyone embraced Whitman as much as he had hoped, but that is the project that he had.
The reason I mention it is because, imagine if you are the person who wants to be the poet of America and who wants to create a poem about America and imagine if America no longer exists. What I am talking about, of course, is the firing of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, which officially begins the Civil War. The United States is no longer the United States. They are the divided states. You guys are way over here now, and you guys are way over here, and, in fact, we are about ready to embark on an incredibly bloody four-year war that nobody could anticipate the cost of. What do you do if you are the self-proclaimed poet of America? Your whole project seems to have fallen apart because now your audience is divided and fractious.
What did Whitman do? I think one of the things Whitman did at first—and this is conjectural—I think he actually considered enlisting in the Union Army. He has got this really interesting journal entry about a week after the fighting begins where he says, “I hereby swear off meat, alcohol, and will only eat vegetable foods, and will take better care of my body.” It does not say, “I am going to enlist in the army,” and maybe he did not mean that, but I have always had this suspicion that one of the things he is thinking about is, maybe I am going to get geared up and I am going to enlist. But he does not. The person that he knows who does enlist is his younger brother, George Washington Whitman, who is a carpenter in Brooklyn. Within a week of the firing on Fort Sumter, Walt Whitman’s younger brother George Whitman signs up and begins a four-year career in the Union Army that will take him from one major battle to the other and that will have him wounded multiple times and will have him finishing up the war in a Confederate prison. In fact, when he gets home, he suffers from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder and what at the time was known as soldier’s heart. He sleeps with a gun down in the parlor. He cannot sleep at night very comfortably. He is agitated a lot of the time. He is a part of a unit that began with 160 men. By the end of the war, there are only twenty-some left, and he is one of them. One of his friends said, “George, you are the luckiest man I ever knew,” because he gets shot, he gets captured, but he just keeps going.
In December 1863, right in the middle of the war, Whitman, who had written some really propagandistic poems about the war to date, is sitting at breakfast with his mother. He opens up a New York newspaper, and, at the time, newspapers would have a black border around them to list those who were wounded and killed in battle. He is reading that, and he sees the name George Whitman, Fredericksburg. He gets up from the table and immediately catches a train down to Washington, DC, where there are numerous hospitals that have been set up in tents and bars and the U.S. Patent Office. There are so many wounded from the war at that point that they’re just converting every building that it makes sense to into a hospital. He goes from hospital to hospital to hospital saying, have you seen my brother George Whitman? Nobody has. Being flighty like a poet, he is almost immediately pick-pocketed, and he has no money and he’s in Washington. He borrows money from somebody, and he takes the train from Washington, DC, over to Fredericksburg—not a very far journey. He shows up at the aftermath of a battle where George was wounded, and he begins taking notes in a little notebook that he had made for himself. He describes the trees that have just been mown down like with chainsaws, except instead of chainsaws it was with artillery and bullets. There are dead horses lying all over the place, mules and horses, pack animals, the ground has been churned up by artillery, and in clusters all over the place are little groups of men who have been wounded but not wounded so badly they need to go to the hospital immediately. Whitman almost immediately discovers his younger brother, who has been wounded in a minor way with a shot in his cheek. . . . They have a reunion, and they hug. Whitman is very glad that his brother has survived, but his brother then takes him around and introduces him to all of his friends, the people that he has gotten to know in the Union Army. Again, in his notebook, Whitman writes down the stories of these men. That night, he goes to sleep, and in the morning he wakes up and takes a walk outside of his tent, and he sees three bodies that are lying on the ground and that have been covered with a blanket. At that moment, he once again writes in his notebook what will be his first Civil War poem that is based on the experience of the Civil War. . . . It is called “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Grey and Dim,” and this is a poem that you could teach to your students and they would be able to get it quite easily. . . .
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
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 is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
I read that poem to you because that kind of poetry was impossible for Whitman before he actually had the experience of going to Fredericksburg, just as the kind of literature that would emerge out of the Civil War was impossible before the experience of the Civil War. From a biographical point of view, what happens with Whitman is he is so moved by this experience and event that he will go and spend most of the rest of his time during the war tending to young men in the hospital. That is the Whitman we know, the guy who would go around and write letters, bring candy, and would try to cheer up young men who had been wounded.
I would just end by saying that what happened to the Civil War, what happened to American literature, is a kind of chastening, a sense that maybe we should focus less on our ideals and more upon the day-to-day lives of actual living human beings. If the American literature that Emerson had summoned into being in the 1830s and '40s helped galvanize opinion that led to the Civil War, the Civil War in turn changed what that literature would be, and this poem by Whitman is just an example of that.