Benjamin Cooper, Veteran Americans: Literature and Citizenship From Revolution to Reconstruction, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. Paper. ISBN: 9781625343314. $27.95. <https://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/veteran-americans>
Benjamin Cooper’s book Veteran Americans: Literature and Citizenship from Revolution to Reconstruction joins a growing field of scholarly research on veterans and their experiences in the aftermath of war. It is (in fact) the first book in a new series, Veterans, being published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
The argument of Cooper’s book is best summed up in a quote taken from the Epilogue where he describes a visit to Khe Sanh with his father, who was a sergeant in the US Marines and served in Vietnam.
“The fundamental civil-military divide that coincided with the origins of the American Republic and became hardened by the literary practices and realities of nineteenth-century print culture has not eased much since. Civilian observers and writers have always struggled between wanting to remember and not wanting to remember (never forget, but let’s just move on already), and veteran authors have often responded by representing themselves as a forgotten minority who must constantly defend themselves from civilian ignorance and mistreatment (my freedom tastes different from yours)” (Cooper, 183).
Cooper begins his book with a sweeping analysis of what it has meant culturally to serve in the US military from the nation’s founding up until the 20th century. He then proceeds to move in each chapter through a select group of authors and wars in the nineteenth-century intended to prove his point that veterans from the Revolutionary Period to Reconstruction felt that “my freedom tastes different than yours.” He also attempts to show the links between veteran writing in this period and the already existing genres, showing how former soldiers used readily available tropes and narrative devices in order to be seen by the nation they sacrificed to defend.
In the first chapter, Cooper analyzes the links between the captivity narrative and prisoner of war writings from the Revolutionary War. He examines Mary Rowlandson’s story of her capture during King Phillip’s War (1675-78) by a First Nation’s coalition army lead by the Nashaway people and compares it to Colonel Ethan Allen’s narrative describing his capture by the British Army in the Battle of Long-Pointe (1775) near the Quebec city of Montreal. Cooper blends in a variety of other prisoner of war narratives to show that Allen’s use of the captivity narrative as a literary basis for his work was not unusual but a recurring technique in these early nineteenth-century works. They were an attempt to get the nation to acknowledge the debt it owed (literal and figurative) to soldiers of the Revolutionary War.
Chapter two examines the growth of veteran memoir and how these memoirs inspired the writing of fiction by authors such as James Fenimore Cooper. This chapter uncovers the problem with the ‘peoples war’ interpretation of the Revolutionary War, which attempts to elide the service experience of regular soldiers, militia, and civilian paramilitaries in that conflict. Veteran memoirs of the Revolution steadfastly assert that regular soldiers gave more than most to ensure the successful outcome of the war and deserved better treatment at the hands of civilians. This chapter also shows the difficulties veterans faced taking charge of their own narrative at a time when a new generation (in the 1820s) was becoming interested in a heavily mythologized version of the Revolutionary War.
Chapter three focuses less on a genre or author than it does on two concepts: the hoax and skepticism. Cooper shows how writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville capitalized on readers fascination with scams designed to delight and defraud a gullible public. Blended into this are stories about veterans such as Charles Cummings (Civil War veteran of the US Army) and Israel Potter (a veteran of the Revolutionary War). Cooper also adds the Mexican War into the mix in this chapter as a further example of how and why the public struggled to recognize who was worthy of recognition as a veteran and who was not.
Chapter four attempts to address the experience of Civil War veterans in self-representation largely through the writings of John William De Forest (a US Army veteran and novelist). Here we see the well-known trope of the ‘real war’ (taken from Walt Whitman’s famous quote in Specimen Days that “the real war will never get in the books”). De Forest struggles to get that ‘real war’ and (in particular) the veterans’s experience of that war on the page but feels that not only can he not do so in terms of literary technique but that he lacks an audience willing to read it even if he could.
The conclusion tries to move the narrative to the present day, making links between the literary trends analyzed in the prior chapters and our own times. The epilogue that follows is more like an acknowledgement, showing the author’s indebtedness to his father (a Vietnam War veteran) for his topic and passion for that topic.
Cooper’s book succeeds best as a new study of Revolutionary War veterans and the literature inspired by that war. I found myself surprised by how little I knew about some of the narratives and events in that period, particularly as a I grew up in Vermont just a 10 minute drive from where Ethan Allen lived and a hours drive from where he was captured outside Montreal. I would highly recommend anyone working on early American history and culture to read the first two chapters of this book for an excellent analysis of that war and its aftermath.
Where the book falls flat, however, is in its attempt to expand the scope of its analysis to other wars. Cooper jumps around so much after chapters one and two that the reader starts to become ‘unstuck in time’ (to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut). I had trouble keeping track of whose writings he was analyzing and what time period that writing was responding to in chapter three. Chapter four was like seeing Gettysburg through a speeding car window. The conclusion and epilogue can’t be faulted as they are similar to most books on veterans being written today, trying to engage in ‘strategic presentism’ to generate readership in our own war torn age.
Veteran Americans is an important addition to the growing field of Veterans’s Studies but is should serve as a cautionary tale to scholars (myself included) on the limits of analogy. Now that a significant body of research exists on the veterans experience it is necessary to move beyond looking at similarities to a more granular examination of the differences between different wars and different types of military service.
Particularly needed at this time are studies examining the difference in how the US remembers ‘small wars’ and more conventional conflicts such as WWII. An acknowledgement that the Revolutionary War and the Civil War were both ‘civil wars’ is also needed to shift how scholars analyze the remembrance of those conflicts. Women are finally being recognized as full fledged veterans but much work remains to be done on non-combat veteran narratives.
Hopefully the new Veteran Series at the University of Massachusetts press will serve as a venue for this new scholarship. I look forward to reading the next book they publish.