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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Scars We Carve: Disruptive Bodies in Civil War Literature

  • Author(s): Johnson, Allison Marie
  • Advisor(s): Colacurcio, Michael J
  • et al.

"`The Scars We Carve': Disruptive Bodies in Civil War Literature" examines the presence of physical forms, marks, and scars in periodical literature produced during and shortly after the war in order to illuminate the ubiquity and significance of bodies in the literary record of the war. Presenting substantial archival evidence of how American civilians and combatants interacted with and represented the physical effects of war, this dissertation focuses especially on the disruptive bodies of injured and maimed combatants, African American soldiers, and war-torn women. The critical consensus on Civil War literature emphasizes the effacement of the individual in sentimental narratives of nationhood, sacrifice, and reconciliation. This study refutes and complicates such readings by demonstrating the rhetorical and discursive power of bodies touched and shaped by war. Though sentimentality did persist and many writers continued to write about war deaths in the same way they wrote about non-war deaths, a large number of Americans resisted reintegrative, reconciliatory, and apologist narratives, underscoring instead the effects of the war on individuals. The destruction and upheaval of war disrupted and complicated traditional ways of understanding and depicting death and wounding; in many texts created during the war, soldiers' bodies refuse to rest quietly beneath the sod and missing limbs talk and tell of horror and suffering.

The first chapter documents the ubiquity of female personifications of the Union and the Confederacy, examining the ways in which gender and nationality interact and intersect to assert that symbolic femininity is central to both sides' understandings of the conflict and its stakes. The second chapter proposes a new way of reading Whitman's Civil War poetry and prose, asserting that the bodies of dead and dying soldiers fill his pages, refusing to be ignored, silenced, or reintegrated into sentimental and reconciliatory conceptions of death and decay. The bodies of African American soldiers, the subject of the third chapter, disrupt and reject antebellum stereotypes of powerless slave bodies. Beginning with an analysis of literary and artistic depictions of slaves published during the first years of the war, the chapter traces the development of black men from slaves to soldiers to citizens in popular literature and visual culture. The left-handed penmanship contest that forms the focus of the final chapter also provides tangible evidence of the effects of war. Reading contest entries produced by amputees in conjunction with periodical poetry and prose focusing on amputation and its ramifications, this chapter underscores the centrality of the marked and maimed soldier body to the way in which soldiers and non-combatants understood and wrote about military service.

"The Scars We Carve" brings to light a significant body of Civil War literature that disrupts or rejects narratives of reconciliation and records the horrors of war. In numerous poems and stories of the war, the individual body and its component parts, marked by violence or imbued with rhetorical power, testify to the "great evil" of war, the issues at stake in the conflict, and its lasting influence.

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