The novel by Stephen Crane, then 24 years of age, was published at a time when the Civil War in the American public discourse was primarily celebrated as a heroic commitment and sacrifice of the veterans, and the battles of the war were reevaluated as an opportunity to overcome national separation. As Nancy Kaplan convincingly argues, this reinterpretation is particularly informed by the fact that in the post-reconstruction period after 1877 the evaluation of the war advocated in historiography as well as in domestic fiction contributed to banning the political nature of the conflict from the collective memory of American society (Kaplan, 80).
First of all, Crane’s story fictionalizes the Civil War as an event possessing symbolic relevance by distancing the plot from the actual conflict of 1861–1865. Thus the text does not construct the war as an event of the now but of the past in an attempt to reconstruct the war as a paradigm of searching for meaning and orientation in the America of the Gilded Age.
At the end of the Civil War two very different plans forreconstructing the nation were offered. Had Lincoln lived perhapshistory would have different. The assassination of Lincoln, however,left the vulnerable Andrew Johnson, a Southerner and former slaveowner with no college education, President. Could he live up toLincoln's ideals? Would he be allowed the opportunity? That is thequestion.
After the Civil War congress was controlled by a group called the"Radical Republicans." Lincoln was able to control them and hadproposed a plan for reconstruction that looked to treating the Southmore like a lost brother returning home. Lincoln looked toreconstruction as a time of healing. The Radical Republicans,however, looked at reconstruction as an opportunity to teach theSouth a lesson and to punish them. In 1866 Congress passed the whichcalled for rather draconian Reconstruction measures. Lincoln vetoedthe bill but thedebate raged.
History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008. “The Civil Rights Movement And The Second Reconstruction, 1945—1968,” (December 05, 2017)
As mentioned in the introductory remarks above, the Civil War indeed takes a prominent thematic place in twentieth-century American literature, particularly since the 1980s. This claim might be surprising at first glance, since the Civil War as an historic event then already dated back more than 110 years. The prevailing significance of the war in American literary discourse can be explained by the far-reaching changes in the political, social, and cultural premises that have informed the reception of the Civil War both in scholarly and public discussions in the U.S. since the 1960s. First of all, in the 1960s, American historiography began to reconceptualize its scholarly interests in and theoretical approaches to the Civil War and the era of Reconstruction by addressing new issues, such as the role of abolition, the significance of slavery, and questions of race and gender—issues that were growing out of larger critical debates in the fields of cultural and literary studies. Secondly, as late as in the 1980s this new interest in the Civil War was additionally spurred by revisionist projects in disciplines such as historiography, cultural studies and literary criticism that scrutinized earlier readings of American history in the context of a critical deconstruction of the canon and in an effort to include hitherto marginalized voices in the study of the war.
At the backdrop of this theoretical discussion, a closer look at selected narratives of nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature will serve as a context for discussing major characteristics of the literary representation of the Civil War. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) will serve as the central texts here as they reveal in a remarkable way fictional constructions of history as a discourse on the respective cultural situation of American society. The specific interest informing my reading of these two texts addresses the following question: In which way do these texts thematize the sectional conflict of the Civil War as constitutive for definitions of cultural self-perceptions of the United States, e.g. how do these texts stage literary narratives in terms of reconstructions of a usable past? While primarily fictionalized as a just war against slavery in the first Civil War novels, published in the period during and immediately after the war, it became a “tragic mistake” in the majority of texts printed in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
In the final analysis, the contradiction between the positions advanced by Aaron and Fahs is obviously grounded in different conceptions of the literary canon, with Fahs strongly advocating an opening of narrow boundaries of canonization. Moreover, the different views on canon restrictions reflect a more principal discrepancy in the theoretical assumptions underlying the reading of Civil War literature. In order to understand this discrepancy a closer look at the major theoretical approaches seems to be useful since it will not only help to explain the epistemological positions that have informed the debates about the relationship of literature and history in general but also shed light on the methodological implications relevant for exploring the problem of fiction as reconstruction of history.
Teaching with Primary Sources MTSU Civil War Resources The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Library of Virginia Civil War Research Guide Reconstruction Library of Virginia
As manifested in the readings of the selected novels, the Civil War continues to take a significant role in fictional reconstructions of history. This role is primarily based on the nature of this fratricidal war as an epochal conflict in American society that radically revealed the contradictions and discrepancies in regard to national self-definitions. It is in this sense that the Civil War can be read as constitutive for conceptualizing American culture in the past and present. The fictional narratives of the Civil War in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature thematize the shifts in societal discourses about this conflict at the backdrop of the respective cultural concepts and thus invent unique stories about history that reflect the continuities and discontinuities inherent in the contemporary controversies about defining America.
83Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 529–547. For a full-length biography of Chairman Smith, see Bruce J. Dierenfeild, Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987): Allen quotation on page 158. This quotation is often attributed to Speaker Sam Rayburn; see Thurber, “The Second Reconstruction”: 531.