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Collisions of Conflict

Studies in American History and Culture, 1820-1920


Jerzy Sobieraj

This book explores and analyzes the problems and challenges that have resulted from the Civil War, Reconstruction, slavery, and segregation in North America. These painful chapters in American history have continued along racial and regional lines and are of particular interest today when the USA are for the first time governed by an African American president. The postscriptum extends the main narrative by focusing on selected writers’ activities and fiction during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
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1. The Civil War and the Writer

Between 1861 and 1865, many American writers, those who had already established their reputation and those who were to acquire it in the near future, were involved in matters of national conflict. Some observed the Civil War and commented on it in their various writings, such as Emily Dickinson; some were also soldiers fighting on the battlefield, as Ambrose Bierce. Some, apart from reporting the war or alluding to it in their poetry or fiction, actively helped the cause they supported, such as Walt Whitman, who worked for some time in Washington hospitals helping wounded soldiers. Southern writers included Mark Twain, Henry Timrod, and some lesser poets, such as Moses Horton and Sarah Piatt, but the majority of the writers represented were Northerners. These included such canonical poets and authors of fiction as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ambrose Bierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, as well as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Bret Harte.

There are many critical opinions about the quality of Civil War literature, ranging from Edmund Wilson’s dismissive attitude towards the poetry (470) to the treatment of the war as “a defining moment for American poetry” (Barrett 293), especially for Whitman. Irrespective of critically judging the quality of Civil War literature, it must be said that such a tremendous national tragedy could have been expected to produce more literary...

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