War Writing

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War literature is always late. The most famous novel about the Civil War, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), was published thirty years after the end of hostilities. Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914), a veteran of the Civil War, explains why in "Chickamauga" (also published late, twenty-five years after the war). At the center of this stark, grotesque short story is an encounter between a young child and a soldier creeping away from the battlefield who has had the bottom half of his face shot off, leaving a red, fringed gap between his upper teeth and throat. The child, unaware of what has happened and imagining he is part of a great new pantomime, tries to mount the soldier like a horse. The dying man wrestles the child off and tries in fury to communicate something to him, but the child, we soon learn, is a deaf mute. He could not understand the message even if there was a tongue to produce it.

The deep shock of combat produces silent, stunned witnesses and shattered veterans. The story they need to tell is urgent, strange, and desperate for expression but also, like all traumas, difficult to put into clear or adequate language. In Windy McPherson's Son (1916), Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941) represents the war talk of Civil War veterans as "mysterious mutterings," "chattering and shouting," "blustering," and "raving." "No real sense of [the war]," he writes of this failed communication, "has as yet crept into the pages of a printed book" (pp. 12–14, 23, 16).


Whether or not the reality of the Civil War could ever be expressed, as Anderson doubts, many tried. Up through the 1890s the Civil War remained at the center of the national literary imagination as the culture tried, slowly, to work through its collective trauma. Key popular works of this period include, among others, Memoirs of William T. Sherman (1875); Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885); Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) by Bierce; Century Magazine's war series (mid-1880s); short stories such as Mark Twain's "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (1885) or Henry James's "The Jolly Corner" (1908); Ellen Glasgow's The Battle-Ground (1902); and Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823–1886) revised her Civil War diaries for publication between 1881 and 1884, twenty years after the events recounted therein transpired; they were published posthumously more than a decade after that. (A full version of her diaries was published under the title Mary Chesnut's Civil War in 1981.)

Twenty-five thousand American soldiers had served in the War of 1812, 50,000 in the Mexican-American War. By the end of the Civil War, an estimated 2.5 million had fought. The numbers of dead and wounded in the Civil War dwarfed anything seen before or after. Much of the literature written in the late nineteenth century tried to grapple with the war's inhuman scope. How can you ever begin to understand something so vast? How can you tell the story of something when it is itself composed of more stories than can be counted?

Writers in this period tried a variety of approaches. Some tried, like Bierce in "Chickamauga," to cut away all of the background and to pick one brutal, vicious detail that could stand for the whole. Others, like Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), worked their hardest to capture all of the details. His Personal Memoirs is an attempt to collect all the information he can, as accurately as he can, of the war as he experienced it. Dying painfully from cancer as he wrote the book, Grant sought to achieve a sense of personal control in the present by asserting encyclopedic narrative mastery over the uncontainable traumatic past. Hundreds and hundreds of pages full of body-count charts and battle reports and copies of correspondence stand as a testament to his stubborn refusal to admit that it could not be done. But try as he might to comprehend the whole, Grant was always doomed to failure, as he well knew.

Few works reveal the necessity of failure as dramatically as Mary Chesnut's diaries, which like Grant's Personal Memoirs seek to create an encyclopedic account of the war, but this time from the perspective of a female war refugee instead of a male battle commander. Recording the details of her domestic world from a period of plantation wealth and security to a final collapse into chaos, Chesnut's writing simultaneously attempts to preserve the world she loved in all its idiosyncrasies (the songs, the customary meals, the courtships) and to bear witness to its disintegration.

In contrast to both Chesnut and Grant, whose insistent belief that their stories could be told produced impossibly long documents, some writers like Henry James (1843–1916) chose to tell a story about untold and, indeed, untellable stories. In "The Jolly Corner," Spencer Brydon searches the New York home he has inherited from his family to find the ghost of his alternate self, the self he would have been if he had remained in America as a young man and had fought in the war. When he finally finds the ghost he is overwhelmed and terrified and retreats into a faint. All the stories he could have lived, all the things he will never know, all the experiences he will never understand—it is all revealed to him finally in the face of a specter so damaged and inexplicably aggressive that Brydon's only possible response is to close himself off from the overwhelming knowledge by losing consciousness. What happened to this veteran who haunts us? We can never know.


As literature memorialized, the government imperialized. In 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) gave a speech in Chicago entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." This widely distributed talk (published in book form under the same title) attributed the strength of U.S. democracy to the character-building challenges of frontier life, and closed with the foreboding reminder that the frontier had disappeared. The U.S. Census Bureau had announced the closure of the internal frontier in 1890. Many believed that the key to continued U.S. prosperity and growth could only be found in new frontiers and in new waves of expansion. They pointed for evidence to developing economic troubles stemming from overproduction and to the significant labor upheaval manifest most dramatically in the Haymarket Square Riot that took place in Chicago in 1886. Expansionist policies received further justification from a combination of Social Darwinism, whose logic presented a stark choice between lethal decay or growth through competitive acquisition, and the tradition of Manifest Destiny, which imagined U.S. imperialism as an extension of liberty for all. As a final ingredient, young men dissatisfied with the constraints of Victorian culture and longing to match the heroism of the Civil War generation were eager to hear news of strenuous adventures abroad. In the three decades following Turner's speech, the United States vigorously pursued its perceived national interests by making military interventions into Cuba, China, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico.

The Spanish-American War (1898) was the most celebrated of these ventures. The important writing from this war was inspired by journalism, and the key journalist was Stephen Crane (1871–1900). As a correspondent for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World he saw combat at Guantánamo, Las Guásimas, and San Juan Hill. In his dispatches from the front he represented the war as noble, thrilling, and ruggedly gallant. The stories he wrote after, collected in Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (1900), are little different. In "The Price of the Harness" Crane describes a young staff officer leading his troops into battle. On their way they pass a wounded Cuban whose cries of agony alert the men to the bloodshed and death that await them on the front line. But the officer does not pause, Crane writes. He continues forward with "fidelity and courage."

And so this young officer in the shapeless hat and the torn and dirty shirt failed to heed the wails of the wounded man, even as the pilgrim fails to heed the world as he raises his illumined face toward his purpose—rightly or wrongly his purpose—his sky of the ideal of duty; and the wonderful part of it is that he is guided by an ideal which he has himself created, and has alone protected from attack. The young man was merely an officer in the United States regular army. (Pp. 1020–1021)

It was "a splendid little war," as Secretary of State John Hay put it (Zinn, p. 302). It lasted only four months and produced only 385 U.S. battle deaths. Seeing themselves as the liberators of the oppressed Cubans, Americans had managed to join together in a unified and decisive exercise of national power that effectively banished from memory the divisive trauma of the Civil War.

It was not only nationalism, however, but also racism that fueled U.S. military enthusiasm. Jack London (1876–1916) wrote a short story, "The Unparalleled Invasion" (1914), that purports to tell the history of a nearly apocalyptic contest between the white races and China in 1976. The narrative engine of the story is a series of arithmetic tallies: How many Chinese people are there in the world in 1970? 1975? Today? When it becomes clear that "there were more Chinese in existence than white-skinned people," the narrator declares, "the world shivered." War is inevitable, because China's ever-expanding population threatens to overflow into Europe and the United States. The white races, facing an enemy that not only badly outnumbers them but also, as the narrator emphasizes, does not value life, seem doomed. But in New York City a scientist named Jacobus Laningdale comes up with a solution. A great truce between nations is called so that a mysterious attack can be organized. Glass tubes are dropped all across the cities and villages of China, releasing deadly biological agents: smallpox, scarlet fever, yellow fever, cholera, and the bubonic plague. China is reduced to a "howling wilderness" and is resettled happily according to a "democratic American programme" (pp. 113, 120). Afterward, the nations gather together in Europe and draft a treaty promising never to use such inhumane tactics against one another.

Widespread popular comfort with the use of lethal force notwithstanding, U.S. militarism also generated vigorous internal opposition. The peace movement grew rapidly in the two decades preceding World War I, and there were notable public condemnations of imperial ventures. But one of the strongest expressions of U.S. antimilitarism, Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" (written in the early 1900s) was not published until after Twain's death in 1910 because of the author's fear of public criticism. The brief and angry story describes how patriotic masses preparing for an unspecified war threaten those who dare to raise questions. It also puts into bitter words the hidden content of the country's collective prayer for God's loving blessings on its own army:

Help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst. . . . Stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of Love, of Him Who Is the Source of Love. (Pp. 159–160)


The United States entered World War I in 1917, three years after the conflict had begun in Europe. The cost to America in blood and treasure was shocking: 50,000 battle deaths and billions of dollars. But the cost to Europe was truly unfathomable: more than 50,000 British troops were killed or wounded in the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone. Well over twenty million soldiers and civilians died during the four-year war.

The important American literature of this war—by Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, E. E. Cummings, and others—was not published until the 1920s. Two early works by John Dos Passos (1896–1970) and Edith Wharton (1862–1937) do merit attention, however, even if they are not generally counted among the great works of either author. The sharp contrast between these books offers a unique look at the range of attitudes toward war that prevailed in this period. Edith Wharton's The Marne (1918) tells the story of Troy Belknap, a rich young man who, having fallen in love with France during his regular visits as a child, enthusiastically volunteers to serve its cause as an ambulance driver. The novella, related from Troy's idealistic point of view, offers a satirical look at the wealthy and secure Americans who seem incapable of understanding the gravity of war. One American trapped in Paris by the German advance complains of the difficulty of travel: "We've really spent enough money in Europe for some consideration to be shown us" (p. 18). Later, Wharton describes "happy American children" sending sugar-plums to Belgian war orphans, "requesting to have their gifts acknowledged" (p. 33). American pacifists are criticized as well. After the sinking of the Lusitania, Wharton writes, they "crept back into their holes" (p. 45) The one attitude not explicitly criticized is Troy's. His belief in the heroism and romance of combat survives personal loss and a battlefield wound. "A world which no one would die for," he says, "could never be a world worth being alive in" (p. 44). In the end, he is overjoyed to have participated in the battle of the Marne. As his friend Jacks exclaims: "You lucky kid!" (p. 125).

Dos Passos's One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1920) follows the exploits of Martin Howe, another young American who has enlisted in the ambulance corps. This, however, is a story of bitter disillusionment: initial joy at going to France is quickly extinguished by the experience of battlefield insanity. "God!" Martin exclaims. "If there were somewhere nowadays where you could flee from all this stupidity, from all this cant of governments, and this hideous reiteration of hatred, this strangling hatred" (p. 81). The only thing good and reliable in Dos Passos's account of war is the bond among soldiers, among those who have shared the terrible initiation. As one character points out, Martin and his friends are in important ways much closer even to the German soldiers who suffer like them than to their fellow citizens at home. Indeed, the real enemies in this and all wars are not the men facing the guns but rather the lies that brought them to confront each other on the battlefield in the first place. "First we must fight the lies," one soldier concludes at the end. "It is the lies that choke us" (p. 169).

See alsoCivil War Memoirs; Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant; Philippine-American War; The Red Badge of Courage; Spanish-American War; Tales of Soldiers and Civilians; Weaponry; World War I


Primary Works

Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry. Edited by J. C. Levenson. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Dos Passos, John. One Man's Initiation: 1917. 1920. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969.

London, Jack. "The Unparalleled Invasion." In Curious Fragments: Jack London's Tales of Fantasy Fiction, edited by Dale L. Walker. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1975.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. Edited by Jim Zwick. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Wharton, Edith. The Marne. New York: D. Appleton, 1918.

Secondary Works

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Dawes, James. The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Fredrickson, George. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Woodward, C. Vann. Introduction to Mary Chesnut's Civil War, by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States, 1492–Present. New York: HarperPerennial, 1980.

James Dawes