The Imagined Wars

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 (2001) offers many ways to put current Iraq and Afghanistan war literature in focus. Just taking her nine chapters in order, I’ll quote two sentences from each that make claims about Civil War literature that may still ring true today.  I’ve also added comments of my own that I hope begin to help us sort out the truth and relevance of Fahs’ ideas.

Popular Literary Culture in Wartime: “From the start of the war many readers, writers, and publishers in both the North and South assumed that the war was a literary as well as military event, one that would inspire a new linking of individual and nation within poem, song, and story. Few would have admitted that market considerations played an important role in both encouraging and limiting expressions of patriotism in poetry and prose.”

Comment:  There really hasn’t been a “popular” Iraq and Afghanistan war literature in the way Fahs describes poems, songs, and stories saturating the Civil War print marketplace.  Entertainment/artworks about the current wars have appeared only intermittently, and their artist-creators from what I can tell have expressed themselves sincerely in ways that have seemed most suitable to the ideas they’ve been trying to convey.  The high regard of veterans, their fellow artists, and most intelligent, loyal readers seems to drive them more than the dollar.  Now if there was actually any kind of money to be made by telling contemporary war stories, things might change.

The Early Spirit of the War: “Increasingly, the lived, personal experience of war became the subject of war literature. Although ‘war-songs’ and ‘battle-calls’ were published throughout the conflict, they were supplemented with an extensive literature that insisted on the primacy of the individual experience of war.”

Comment:  I think this is true.  It’s a long way from Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” in 2002 to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2012.

The Sentimental Soldier: “Yet by 1862, and then in increasing numbers as battle deaths mounted during 1863 and 1864, popular poems that asserted the importance and individuality of the ordinary soldier began to act as a counterpoint to poetry that stressed the subordination of individual interests to the needs of country. Sentimental stories and songs also focused intently on the individual experiences of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield and in the hospital, especially imagining that soldier’s thoughts at the moment of death.”

Comment:  This one’s hard to figure out.  Certainly death, killing, injury, pain, and loss are front-and-center subjects of contemporary war literature, but what is Fahs driving at by calling such business “sentimental”?  That has the ring of a sneer to it, and yet for most of us (I would say), exploring the human experience of mortality and suffering are exactly what literature should be doing.

The Feminized War: “In both the North and South throughout the conflict, a feminized war literature put white women center stage in the war, demanding recognition not only of women’s contributions to the war effort but also, as the war wore on, of their intense suffering. In doing so, such literature did not displace the importance of men in the conflict, but it did sometimes ask for equal recognition of women’s sacrifices, thus contributing to the diversity of claims to the war’s meanings to be found in the pages of popular literature.”

Comment:  Women are starting to appear in contemporary war literature, too, both as fighters and as spouses, friends, lovers, and family members affected by war.  But one of Fahs’ points is that Civil War literature was intensively market-driven, and that authors shaped stories to appeal to a huge female readership.  Is this still true today?

Kingdom Coming: “As in so many other Northern stories and novels of the war, the achievement of black heroism was, ironically, most easily imagined through sacrificial death. Nevertheless, the imagination of black heroism within popular literature marked a new phase in representations of African Americans.”

Comment:  Seemingly not an issue in contemporary war literature, but the absence or token inclusion of minorities in current war art and literature is curious, as I discussed in my post on Toni Morrison’s Home.

The Humor of War: “Instead of merely reaffirming the values of patriotism, discipline, obedience, and endurance, war humor acknowledged that sloth, laziness, cupidity, disobedience, and negligence were also among the values associated with the war. Most of all—and most transgressive of the heroic norms of patriotic literature—war humor made the simple but profoundly subversive point that war was ridiculous.”

Comment:  Bring it on!  More Colby Buzzell, more Ben Fountain, more David Abrams, please!

The Sensational War: “Although it has often been suggested that the war acted as an impetus for the development of realism in American letters, popular wartime literature reveals that the experience of war acted just as much—if not more—as the impetus for the development and wide dissemination of adventurous romance, the domain of ‘cheap’ novels…. Strongly linked to melodrama in language, plot, and characterization, sensational literature emphasized a world of moral certainty composed of dastardly villains and spotless heroes, and of pure good and evil.”

Comment:  Not such a problem today, but that’s because there really isn’t even a low-brow, pulp, popular, or “cheap” war literature market anymore. Everything that I’m aware of aims high; no one’s writing stories that gleefully depict the warzone as a realm for the uncomplicated killing of bad guys and other adventures.

A Boys’ and Girls’ War: “Yet war-related novels written for and marketed to children were subversive of antebellum familial ideals in several respects. They were attuned to patriotism and entertainment, nationalism and individualism, obedience and adventure.”

Comment:  How have the Iraq and Afghanistan wars been explained, represented, and marketed to youths?  Now that would be an interesting subject for study.

The Market Value of Memory: “As these shifts in popular literary culture remind us, memories of wars are far from static or permanent…. Whereas during the war Northern women’s experiences on the home front or African American soldiers’ exploits had been imagined as a form of participation in the war, increasingly only men’s experiences in battle counted as the ‘real’ war.”

Comment:  Too early to tell, but Hollywood’s interest in SEAL Team 6 and other special forces might be an indication that this dynamic hasn’t changed.

I hope these snatches of Fahs’ book intrigue you like they do me. Her “provocative-but-plausible” idea per page index is off the chart, in my opinion.  I have a little bit more to say about Fahs in a future post, and also plan to look at some of the scholarly work on the literature from other wars to see what they have to offer.

Wheat fields, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.
Wheat fields, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

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