Edmund Wilson is a sort of classic “Great Man” of American Literary scholarship, alongside Harold Bloom, Lesley Fiedler, Henry Louis Gates, and others. This is his “magnum opus” according to many commentaries I read, unless you believe that one of his other ridiculously long books of scholarship like To the Finland Station or Axel’s Castle happens to be his magnum opus. This book is a long (around 800 pages) history and reading (kind of in the old style) of Civil War literature leading up to, and following after the war, but mainly encircling the war years by about 25 years in either direction. A good book of literary criticism generally offers one of two things: an appealing reading of books and texts that really make me want to read them or a reading of texts that makes me very glad I haven’t read them, and now feel I don’t have to. This book does both.
I can walk away from this book with a renewed interest in the war memoirs of Grant and Sherman, which I both did and didn’t have, and especially with a eye for the context of both. For example, I learned here that Grant, somewhat beleaguered and destitute, and dying, after his presidency was reluctant to write his memoirs until he shared the details of a possible contract with Mark Twain, who scoffed at the amount and went on the secure a much larger amount for him, and helped to set up Grant’s family after his death. I learned that Sherman had a very different approach.
I learned that literature written during and about the war is almost comically bad, maudlin, or nonexistent. This is something I know a little myself from research and from other texts that illustrate this. But here Wilson dives in, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe and ending with Oliver Wendell Holmes. It’s a very white book (Wilson is a very white man) so it’s limited in its over all scope, and he’s focusing on texts that are either about the war, comment on the war, or are by figures wholly associated with the war. So even at 800 pages it’s rather incomplete. But where it’s focus does lie, I find a lot to agree with, and having saved me from reading what really often sounds like a lot of garbage, I am glad for.