The period of the American Civil War was not one in which belles lettres flourished but it did produce a remarkable literature which mostly consists of speeches and pamphlets, private letters and diaries, personal memoirs and journalistic reports. Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861-65 in which so many people were so articulate?
When Edmund Wilson wrote those words in the fall of 1961, the literature of the Vietnam War had yet to be written, but his point remains well taken. Patriotic Gore is a remarkable survey of Civil War literature, encompassing generals, society ladies, and novelists alike. The readings of these works are suffused throughout by Wilson's literary attentiveness and--occasionally--flashes of humor. Of Abraham Lincoln, for example, he writes, "There has undoubtedly been written about him more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe; and there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg."
Certainly one finds the books and personages that one would expect to find within these pages--Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Mary Chestnut--but there are plenty of revelations for those who are not already intimately familiar with the period, such as the possible debt the realism of The Red Badge of Courage owes to the novelist John De Forest, or the charming erudition of Confederate general Richard Taylor. The editorial board of the Modern Library determined Patriotic Gore to be one of the 100 best nonfiction works of the 20th century. Whatever one thinks of the list as a whole, nobody who reads this book can begrudge the board that decision. --Ron Hogan
“Our American Plutarch . . . a great book. It was not only the greatest single performance of Wilson's unique career as a man of letters. . . it made the passion that went into the war, and into the disillusion that followed it, more affecting than any other contemporary book on this greatest of national experiences.” (Alfred Kazin)
] has long enjoyed a special and respected place as one of the most remarkable and readable books about the greatest tragedy in American history.” (C. Vann Woodward)