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Fw: REVIEW: Fahs, _The Imagined Civil War_

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  • Ray Ortensie
    ... From: Harris, Robert To: Sent: Tuesday, October 01, 2002 11:07 AM Subject: REVIEW: Fahs, _The Imagined Civil
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2002
      ----- Original Message -----
      From: "Harris, Robert" <HarrisR@...>
      To: <H-CIVWAR@...>
      Sent: Tuesday, October 01, 2002 11:07 AM
      Subject: REVIEW: Fahs, _The Imagined Civil War_

      > Published by H-Civwar@... (September, 2002)
      > Alice Fahs. _The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North &
      > South, 1861-1865_. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. xi + 410
      > Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN
      > 0-8078-2581-6.
      > Reviewed for H-Civwar by Lisa A. Long (lilong@...), Department of
      > English, North Central College
      > Seeing Anew Civil War Popular Literature
      > The success of Alice Fahs in _The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature
      > the North & South, 1861-1865_ rests in her ability to see anew what has
      > always been right in front us: the vast number of novels, short stories,
      > news reports, poems, songs, histories, children's fictions, and other
      > ephemera the Civil War inspired. Fahs refuses to fall prey to the dire
      > pronouncements of earlier critics such as Daniel Aaron and Edmund Wilson,
      > who encouraged us to see Civil War literature as naïve, partisan, crude,
      > hasty-in short, as just plain bad and thus implicitly unworthy of extended
      > scholarly study. Though Fahs' method is firmly historical, she follows in
      > the tradition of literary scholars such as Jane Tompkins in her refusal to
      > pass judgment on popular literature; rather, she attends to the crucial
      > "cultural work" accomplished by the war's print culture. In conveying her
      > fascination with and respect for this literature, Fahs has created an
      > important intervention in Civil War history.
      > Given, as Fahs herself notes, the tremendous "outpouring" of popular
      > literature across genre and region during the Civil War, it is clear from
      > the outset that she has set herself an enormously ambitious task. Fahs
      > heroically tackles the complex relationship between northern and southern
      > literary culture; explores the many forms of popular print culture ranging
      > from histories to stationery; examines both the symbolic and the
      > registers of literary production; and looks at how popular culture
      > race, gender, and national identities. In her introduction she claims
      > popular war literature "participated in a cultural conversation concerning
      > the evolving relationships between diverse individuals and the nation in
      > wartime" (2). In her efforts to examine the Civil War's popular
      > in its totality-and to consider genre, region, economics, and identity
      > politics in each of her chapters-Fahs can only paint that "cultural
      > conversation" in broad strokes. In this regard I find Fahs' title
      > of a misnomer: one might be led to believe that the nature and complexity
      > of "imagining" would be at the core of this study; rather it remains
      > implicit. While I applaud Fahs for her focus on the popular, I am not
      > as to how cartoons and history books, for example, are imagined similarly,
      > or whether or not they imagine in the same ways.
      > However, the breadth of Fahs' research is distinctive. For example, Fahs'
      > first chapter powerfully examines how the material circumstances of
      > publication and distribution of literature during war-time affected its
      > content. It is clear here and throughout the text that Fahs is thoroughly
      > familiar with the many periodical publications of the war era. For
      > in her discussion of the South's lack of publishing resources and reliance
      > on northern literary culture Fahs weaves together quotes from the
      > Weekly_, the _Southern Literary Messenger_, and the _Southern Field and
      > Fireside_, introducing the thick layering of diverse primary sources that
      > she employs throughout. At the same time, she mines the private
      > correspondence of key actors such as southern writer Paul Hamilton Hayne
      > order to elucidate how pecuniary matters influenced writers (p. 34). The
      > chapter similarly ranges to descriptions of sheet music, stationery,
      > souvenir cards, games, etc. One of Fahs' most original observations here
      > that the war became "visual" in the North in a way that it could not in
      > resource-poor South (p. 47).
      > In her next chapter on the war's popular verse, Fahs helps her readers to
      > see distinctions among a seemingly homogeneous and unimaginative group of
      > poems. Indeed, Fahs cites a war-era poem that itself satirizes the
      > "banality and even absurdity" of war-era poetry (p. 75). Rather than
      > attending to the metaphoric language and imagery of the verse, Fahs
      > nevertheless helpfully divides poems into sub-categories in this chapter
      > (battle calls, flag poems, hymns, images of Christian soldiers, etc.). Her
      > text emerges as a useful taxonomic tool in this and similar chapters.
      > In writing a history book about literature and literary culture, Fahs has
      > entered a disciplinary interstice that invites reviewers to assess her
      > familiarity with nineteenth-century literary criticism. Her lack of
      > in-depth engagement with that criticism is most evident to this literary
      > critic in her chapters on poetry, the sentimentalized soldier, and the
      > feminized war. Recent literary scholarship has questioned the coherence
      > utility of traditional categories such as "sentimental" and
      > "feminized"-categories that seem to be a priori concepts in Fahs' text.
      > the "The Sentimentalized Soldier" Fahs argues, paradoxically, that the
      > "highly conventionalized and typologized" sentimental soldier registered
      > public's insistence on "individual, personal meanings" of the war (p. 94).
      > Again, she marshals a dazzling variety of sources to make her case,
      > a speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Poetry of the War," that asserts
      > that literature forged links between the home front and battle front (p.
      > 101). Yet many scholars, such as Phillip Fisher and Karen Sanchez-Eppler,
      > have complicated the apparent meaning of the sentimental witness Fahs
      > is central to renderings of hospital suffering.
      > Similarly, Fahs' chapter on women's literature seems not to take into
      > account fully the ways in which recent work such as Elizabeth Young's
      > _Disarming the Nation_ complicates simple dualisms between masculine and
      > feminine, public and private realms, home front and battle front concerns.
      > Indeed the title of Fahs' chapter, "The Feminized War," reaffirms old
      > notions that war is inherently masculine and, then, that when women
      > take it on it is transformed. Issues of gender transgression are taken up
      > more aggressively in Fahs' chapter on "The Sensational War," where she
      > explores the way that the instabilities of war were often expressed as a
      > sexual threat against vulnerable women who, as often, used the
      > of the time to transcend their circumscribed roles. In this latter
      > Fahs also reinvigorates her discussion of the economics of popular
      > literature, showing how the war facilitated the development and sale of
      > "cheap novels."
      > Fahs's later chapters on depictions of African Americans, children's
      > fiction, and war-era humor are original and effective work. In
      > Fahs offers a sophisticated consideration of the way that popular war-era
      > representations of African American men registered the ambivalence of
      > northerners towards black military service and emancipation, and the
      > of white southerners to reinscribe antebellum stereotypes. What is most
      > effective here and in her subsequent reading of Civil War humor is Fahs'
      > weaving of textual and visual primary sources; for example, she uses the
      > famous _Harper's Weekly_ illustration, "A Typical Negro," to argue that
      > transformation of African Americans from property to citizen was
      > (p. 171). Fahs continues in this vein in her chapter on war humor, where
      > she shows how political and publication pressures informed the humorous
      > verse and cartoons of the era. Though her claim that humor allowed for
      > repressed dissent is conventional, Fahs sheds light on an extended and
      > brutal culture of war humor that is so often eschewed in favor of more
      > sentimental war literature.
      > In her final chapters Fahs explores how popular literature made material
      > links between the war and post-war periods. In her chapter on juvenile
      > fiction, Fahs contends that the proliferation of boys' war fiction made an
      > "important link to a postwar juvenile culture that stressed adventure and
      > excitement" (p. 258). While Oliver Optic, Horatio Alger, and the other
      > authors of boys' fiction Fahs examines might be more familiar to readers,
      > her reclamation of the little-known girls' book, _Dora Darling, the
      > of the Regiment_, is notable (p. 275). And in "The Market Value of
      > Fahs once again encourages us to look afresh at what has always surrounded
      > Civil War scholars-those ubiquitous tomes of Civil War-era histories.
      > chapter offers a useful catalogue of those texts and includes some
      > material on subscription practices during the war and in the immediate
      > post-bellum era. Most interesting are the implications of this chapter
      > historigraphy: Fahs implies that the (il)legitimacy of war histories
      > the battleground over what constituted valid history writing. Given how
      > much war-era material she has taken on, Fahs' "Epilogue" can only gesture
      > towards the legacy of the war's popular literature in the post-bellum
      > What I like best about this impressive book is that Fahs refuses to offer
      > easy answers, looking for "imagined differences" (p. 9) as often as she
      > notes rhetorical similarities between northern and southern literary
      > culture, sensation and sentiment, antebellum and war-era literary
      > productions. etc. As she concludes, the war "invited a diverse spectrum
      > ordinary people to imagine themselves as part of the conflict" (p. 311).
      > Fahs has produced a study that is itself diverse and suggestive, a
      > well-written book that highlights crucial and previously overlooked texts.
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