Sunday, 25 July 2010

Cynthia Wachtell: War No More

Cynthia Wachtell's War No More comes with a handily descriptive subtitle: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature 1861-1914. Wachtell traces that impulse through many of the major American writers of the period: Melville, Whitman, Twain, William James, Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, etc. The Civil War, and the ways in which it is subsequently remembered, take up most of the book, although Wachtell gradually looks ahead to the technology-driven apocalypse of the First World War. She is especially effective at describing the power of weaponry during the period and its increasing ability to mutilate and destroy the human body. The extent to which the poetry of 1914-18 was foreshadowed by writings from and about the American Civil War is conspicuous throughout.

My chief criticism of what is otherwise a valuable and highly recommended book is that Wachtell sometimes misjudges her audience: she says what she is going to say, says it, then says what she has said, running through this pattern several times in each chapter. Even so, this is a noble fault, which at least makes the argument easy to follow. Part of her case is that the anti-war impulse, during the Civil War, is self-censoring. Whitman, for example, saves his most horrific and sceptical descriptions of the Civil War for notebooks and poem drafts, and does not suffer them into print. And Melville, more outspoken than Whitman, is largely ignored (according to Wachtell) because of the unpopularity of his views.

Short chapters on such huge authors cannot go far, which is why Wachtell is most impressive when writing about a lesser-known figure like John William De Forest, who served in the Civil War, and regretted not having taken part in 'one of the greater battles, such as Gettysburg or Chickamauga', but who wrote with unusual candour about the experience of combat. His novel of 1867, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, loudly broadcasts its author's own loyalties even through its title, but Wachtell's account and sensitive quotations suggest that it amounts to more than a victor's smugness. For example, a soldier is shot while reading a newspaper: 'The ball had struck him under the chin, traversed the neck, and cut the spinal column where it joins the brain, making a fearful hole through which the blood had already soaked his great-coat.'

Wachtell expertly demonstrates how the great authors expose the pro-war platitudes of the age. Given that her study stops at 1914, she has less need to consider the possibility of anti-war platitudes. Her conclusion acknowledges a general shift in the American consciousness:

As a nation of readers, we have gone from idolizing the valiant hero to idolizing the alienated antihero. We have gone from being a nation of romantics to a nation of skeptics. Even so, wars continue to be fought.

While puzzling over this paradox, Wachtell seems to imply that Americans today are ethically better and more enlightened (at least in respect of attitudes to war) than their 19th-century predecessors. Yet 'Americans continue, all too frequently, to engage in war'. Why should a democratic nation consistently frustrate --- and have the power to frustrate --- the will of its people? Could it be that, for all our fine rhetoric and our hand-wringing artworks, we share our humanity with our ancestors? Homer represented the pity of war and the glory of war as equal and mutually-reliant truths. There may be times, such as during the Civil War, when one of those truths needs to be emphasised in order to address an existing imbalance in public discourse. But I am not persuaded that anti-war writers are wiser than Homer.


  1. Re: your final paragaph. I'm anti-war in life though admiring of brave soldiers and selfless sacrifice and post-war re-evaluations and all of it. I'm also American and, oddly, I lived in Izmir, Turkey in the Fifties (my dad was Air Force stationed there; he and I later battled for a decade over Vietnam and other U.S. incursions).

    One historic local tradition opined that "Homer" was born in a suburb of Izmir, on some February 2nd (my birthday too)... Now, how this possibly non-existent, or even multi-person, epic poet got assigned such a time and place remains a mystery.

    Beyond such probably boring footnotes, however, it's one thing for you to argue that Homer and the ancients offer a more balanced view of reality, history, humanity, and war--all likely true--and a misguided other to suggest that modern-day anti-war sentiments are foolishness.
    Should we not endeavor to put an end to war? ("Ain't gon' t' trouble war no more" fills out her title, I believe.) Would you espouse the notion that the too-recent savagery of the Balkans, or the callousness of terrorists routinely murdering civilians, or the stupidity of relying on drone bombers and private contract thugs is somehow a more noble (or at least more pragmatic) attitude than being opposed to war?

    Surely it's clear that American democracy has become a sham, a nation of impoverished intellect, jobless and social benefits-less citizens, and money- and electronic devices-driven daily existence. We have thieving bankers, heartless insurance companies, failing infrastructure, anti-tax poltroons defeating social justice, a right-wing activist Supreme Court, elections rigged and stolen, the best Congress money can buy, corporate lobbyists with all the bucks to make sure that each Congress "behaves"--and a poorly advised President who should be Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King combined but instead functions like a Woodrow Wilson or more-voluble Calvin Coolidge...

    Oh well, it is just another academic study. She published so she won't perish (unless we all do). Why fret?

    Feel free to delete this rant; must have forgotten to take my meds...

  2. I didn't say it was foolishness, Ed. I did say (or at least imply) that anti-war art is often (not always) propaganda of the sort that someone like Wilfred Owen would probably have deplored. It's more interested in a prefix than in art. And, as Auden noted, it doesn't seem to have any kinetic force in the world, unfortunately.