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Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War Paperback – September 17, 1994
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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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
“[Patriotic Gore] 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
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The book begins with a controversial 23-page introduction in which Wilson presents his own understanding of the Civil War--and of all modern wars--as well as of Abraham Lincoln. Even though he was born and raised in New Jersey, Wilson saw the Civil War as an imperialistic war of conquest on the part of the North, hypocritically justified by the "rabble-rousing moral issue" of slavery. In his view, Lincoln was an "uncompromising dictator" comparable to Lenin and Bismarck. Wilson's position is thought-provoking, to say the least; but it also helps prepare the reader for his dispassionate handling of all the writers he discusses. To him, they are not representatives of a noble cause and a despicable one but rather a group of perceptive men and women swept up in a catastrophic social crisis and trying to understand it as best they can. This perspective confers upon "Patriotic Gore" a rare compassion for and sympathy with the people of the era, regardless of their allegiance.
As for the title, it was taken from the poem "Maryland, My Maryland," written early in the war, and refers to the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore during which Southern sympathizers attacked a Massachusetts regiment en route to Washington,
As Wilson states in the Introduction (a fascinating glimpse into Wilson's personality and politics), Patriotic Gore deals with about 30 individuals who left a lasting record of their experiences of or involvement in some aspect of the Civil War. Of course, he treats the memoirists, like Grant and Sherman, and the lesser known Mosby and Taylor. Notably, both Grant's and Sherman's memoirs recently have been re-issued by Library of America, both make excellent reading, and Wilson's comments on all are most insightful. Similarly, and partly due to the Ken Burns series, Mary Chesnut and her enormous diary have become reasonably well known to this generation, and Wilson's chapter on three southern woman diarists is equally strong.
In fact, Wilson's skills never flag. He has a wonderful chapter that more than does justice to Harriet Beecher Stowe and might even drive one to attempt Uncle Tom's Cabin. He also does as much as can be done with John De Forest, George Cable, Sidney Lanier, and a host of lesser lights. As always, Wilson is informed (he seems to have read everything these folks ever wrote), perceptive, entertaining, and skillful in mingling excerpts of his subjects' writing, telling biographical and historical detail, and his own analysis and commentary. The excerpts are especially useful because almost no one will have read much, if anything, by most of these writers. And therein lies the one weakness of the book. Wilson has done a remarkable job. He has reviewed, summarized and made sense out of a generation of writing that today is largely (and, on artistic grounds, often justifiably) ignored, and he has made it all as interesting as possible. To steal a line from another reviewer, he has read it so we don't have to. Actually, this is a little harsh. I enjoyed this book greatly and from it compiled a list of volumes that, given an eternity, I'd like to read, but probably won't. This is a pretty high recommendation. My only caution is that you either have to love Edmund Wilson, be a dedicated student of the Civil War period, or be desperately searching for a Ph.D. thesis subject to read about such luminaries as Thomas Nelson Page or Albion Tourgee.
Edmund Wilson throws in so much stuff and you don't always know where the stuff is going or whether it had any purpose in the book.
I was especially disappointed with the early pages dealing with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Wilson seemed to have a lot of information and a lot of opinions but he didn't seem to know how to tie it together or relate it to the Civil War, the patriotic gore he supposedly was writing about.
Ditto with the sections on Henry James.
The book however really starts taking off when Wilson starts writing about the writers who actually responded to the war -- Grant and Sherman for example in their memoirs.
Those chapters and the chapters about the South after the Civil War are the best things in this book and worth the time you spend searching for them.
The sections about the Southern fiction of the reconstruction period really are important and lead Wilson into a great discussion of what the South is now and how the North has contributed to the racism that we are all still dealing with.