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Sentimental Poetry of the American Civil War



Sentimental Poetry of the American Civil War


Marjorie Jane Trapp

Doctorate of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Mitchell Breitweiser, Chair

In her book The Imagined Civil War, Alice Fahs makes a compelling case that Daniel Aaron's seminal claim about the Civil War --- that it was unwritten in every meaningful sense --- misses the point, and, in so doing, looks in the wrong places. Fahs, along with Kathleen Diffley, claims that the American Civil War was very much written, even overwritten, if you look in the many long-overlooked popular periodicals of the war years. I will take Fahs's and Diffley's claims and push them farther, claiming that the Civil War was imaginatively inscribed as a written war in many of its popular poems and songs. This imagined war, or the war as imagined through its popular verse, is a war that is inscribed and circumscribed within images of bounded text and fiction making, and therefore also within issues of authorship, authority, sure knowledge, and the bonds of sentiment. I will look closely at some of what I consider to be the more interesting topoi found in these war poems in order to think through what is being said and why in this huge amount of understudied and underread material. A number of critics have charged that American sentimental writing of the nineteenth century utterly elided the Civil War (Godey's Lady's Book's failure to mention the war even once is held up as the most prominent example of this lacuna). I am proposing that, more than mention the Civil War, these popular sentimental poems made it a text to be bound and read again and again.

I submit that not only was the war exceedingly written, it was very often written with writing explicitly in mind, with tropes of reading and writing playing a large part in the imagery of these poems. These popular, anonymous, and forgotten poems image forth the war as a readable text, using highly text-based images (letters sent home, letters found on dead soldiers' bodies, casualty lists read aloud, "unjustified" injured bodies, epitaphs, engraven hearts, bloody feet leaving lines to be read on the land), and, after the war, anthologist after anthologist claims in prefatory material to be making meaning of the war through making a book of the war's poems. I will show how this war was not only written, but written in such a way as to make the war and its sacrificed bodies texts themselves, texts that would be deployed postwar in an effort at reconciliation and bonding through rereading.

I will look at ways the mode of sentimentality intersects with war concerns, with the new concerns of this war (e.g., ways of getting and reading news, ways of memorializing the dead who die and are buried far from home, ways of being on the home front, ways the land absorbs bodies, ways bound books can bind their readers together as citizens). The violence of war is sentimentalized and domesticated in these popular poems. Violence (toward bodies, toward the land, and toward comforting notions of family and country) actually becomes a text (something bound, contained, codified, and interpretable). The radical upheaval and violence of the war becomes a poem, and within the poems the violence becomes letters, lists, lines on the land, and bodies that can be read and (re)traced. This verse made meaning of the war by translating the inexplicability of war into bounded and (largly) explicable texts.

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