These historic sites remind me that this month marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Given that, I thought it would be fitting to review the greatest contemporary literary books published during the war. To my surprise there wasn’t one exceptional novel published during this time.
Perhaps the most influential book of its time, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was written prior to the war. When she first met Abraham Lincoln, he reportedly greeted her with some version of, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” Another famous classic, “The Red Badge of Courage,” that many people think was contemporary was actually published 30 years later. And author, Stephan Crane, wasn’t even born until about seven years after the war ended.
A recent Boston Globe article puzzled over why the Civil War did not produce any great works of contemporary literature. Present and past critics agree that there wasn’t a poem or novel that captured what the war truly meant and felt like. However, one scholar now theorizes that the war eventually changed what American authors such as Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson and Melville believed and how they wrote.
While not a novel, I believe one of the most famous contemporary written pieces was a speech that became known as the Gettysburg Address. On November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln began, “Four score and seven years ago…” and with approximately 272 words stated that the people who died did not die in vain and reaffirmed the notion of equality. Sometime later while reflecting on his speech he said, “I failed, I failed, and that is about all that can be said about it.” Perhaps we can only understand the impact of what we write in hindsight.
So, it seems to me that the writers who captured the many facets of the Civil War were not well-known authors but a diverse group of people: slaves, women, men, camp followers, generals, nurses, Underground Railroad workers, the president, soldiers, spies etc. They recorded their experiences and feelings in diaries, letters, songs, speeches and newspapers. Unfortunately, a number of people were illiterate so we will never read their stories.
I think we owe all of these writers a debt of gratitude for allowing us insight into their world – a world that was to become ours.