Posts Tagged Civil War
Greetings from Chicago!
Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance. In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus. One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall). Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window. A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal. It’s very hard to focus in my office. I’ll be glad when they’re done.
Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing. I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out. All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment. This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive. Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing cost in housing, healthcare, and services. Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring. And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment. Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior. But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin. I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”
In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests. For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for? You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans. I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves. My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way. It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war. Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming. Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war. In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain. Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen. These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.
Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming. One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus. Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict. In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period. Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.
All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil. Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture. As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape. Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone. Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity. Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States. One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.
Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book. As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture. Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.” Farming and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century. The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.” Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.
But what takes root and how? What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not? This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle. When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration. Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants. Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.
I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment. Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship. (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.) William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason. In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.” He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).
The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US. I will share what I learn with you on this blog. I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems. If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.
Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.
Until Next Time….
Greetings from Chicago! If you’ve followed the news, you know that it is not a great time for higher education in Illinois. Hopefully the situation is less chaotic in your state. These are challenging years for scholars in literature and language and we need to organize more than ever to advocate for the importance of what we do. I hope this year’s conference in Hartford, Connecticut will help energize NEMLA members to keep up the good fight.
Last month I promised to provide my readers an sketch of my current research. If you’ve perused my blog or (hopefully) read my book, then you know my current interest in the lives of soldiers after war. In an essay I just completed for a collection on gender, war, and the U.S. military I highlight the semantic distinction between calling someone a “soldier” and calling someone a “veteran.” The former suggests a person still in uniform while the later leads us to assume that military service is a part of their past. Although it is hard to parse the difference sometimes between these words in scholarly discourse let alone in the general public, noticing and maintaining this distinction is an important part of my work. These words serve as a reminder that the legacy of war is not simply measured in treaties and deaths. The legacy of war walks all around us. Calling someone a veteran implies an open-ended commitment to creating meaning. Calling them a soldier places them within a clearly defined frame of reference and distances them and their service from society.
I’m not totally clear on how these insights might apply to naval personnel. One of my students, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, pointed out to me that my work emphasizes ground troops more than sailors. He also reminded me that two of our nation’s longest wars don’t have many recognized battles at sea, the Cold War and the current War on Terror. His observation is a reminder to me that when a scholar is paying attention to one set of connotations it is possible to miss another. It’s also an excellent example of why the term veteran makes a society so uneasy. The story is still be written through conversations between those who served, liked my student, and those who did not, like myself. Guilt sometimes makes us long for myth. It requires less introspection.
My interest in veterans began with a much larger interest in the metaphors we use that take on a mythic status through repeated use. It wasn’t until I was pretty far advanced into my research that I realized what I was doing was classic American Studies work along the lines of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx. Veterans became my metaphor turned myth, a blank slate upon which society could project its hopes and fears. The next phase of my research will involve examining a myth closely associated with that of the veteran in United States culture, at least up to the Second World War–the Yeoman Farmer.
At this point in the conception of my latest project, I’m focused on analyzing two images. The first is the Winslow Homer painting, The Veteran In a New Field, that graces the cover of my book New Men and also appears in chapter two. Homer’s painting serves as the bridge between my previous research and this new area I’m exploring. In that image we see the soldier casting his uniform jacket down on the earth, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing to reap a seemingly endless field of wheat. The problem with this image, as I mention in my analysis of the painting in New Men, is that the solitary labor imagined in Homer’s image was not the reality for men in the nineteenth-century United States. Machinery had already begun to take on much of the harvesting work once undertaken by human power. Furthermore, in those communities that still relied solely on human labor for harvesting, more than one man would be needed to cut and bundle the grain. Homer’s painting thus evokes for viewers a myth that they know is a myth but still feels powerful. Solitary labor in the earth as part of a simple chain of production, distribution, and consumption. This pre-capitalist world was all but dead in 1865. However, the viewers wanted to believe not simply for the sake of their national values, which depended on the Yeoman Farmer and all he represented, but also because it represented an image of war smoothly turned to peace. The sword changed to plowshare (Isaiah) and the warrior come home to toil in the earth (Cincinnatus).
I wondered looking at that image why so many veterans returned from the war would choose a life of toil on small homesteads, especially those who had no prior connection to the land. My answer seemed to be that it was a healing myth. A way home from the battlefield and a visual assurance to civilians that the war was over.
The second image comes from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters From An American Farmer. (Note: Here I am citing the Penguin Edition, 1981.) Imagined as a series of letters explaining America to those in Europe, his third letter, “What is An American?,” provides a powerful verbal metaphor. That of people as plants moved from one soil to another:
“In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together…Urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (Crevecoeur, 68-69).
Farming provides a healing myth for the returning veteran. It also provides in this instance a way to imagine the connection of immigrants to their new home. “Ubi panis ibi patria” (69). Where your bread is there is your country, Crevecoeur proclaims. How much better that bread when it is made from wheat grown on your own land. Suddenly you feel “rooted” to your surroundings and begin to flourish.
Soldiers toiling for the state. Immigrants tilling the soil. The two are cut from the same cloth. Both are attempts to answer the question that has puzzled decades of U.S. citizens, What is an American? Each of the images (verbal and visual) that I have cited above lay claim to the same answer. Till the soil and then you will understand. Then you will be rooted to the land and will be one of us.
Obviously there are limitations to this metaphor. But I’ve gone on long enough.
That’s all for this post. In my next entry I will give a recap of this year’s NEMLA convention. Hopefully I will see some of you in Hartford.
Until Next Time…
How we represent veterans matters. This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect. To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature. Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact. Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are: “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”
The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War. In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.” He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:
“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children. He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).
Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.” But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency? The writer assumes we already know.
Perhaps we do. But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness. Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men. So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature. Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:
“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away. Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain. By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).
There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.” More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article. The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain. Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.
In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue. Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s. This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks. But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations. One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal. He says:
I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so. I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens. All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt. Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place. Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.
So where does this leave us? How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?
I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are: Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered. Remember that not all veterans are the same.
Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group. For what is a myth but a form of stereotype? If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way. If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service. Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support. The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers. There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know. Army life is one of those things.
My research on veterans has been driven by a number of questions. Foremost among them has been how we as a culture choose to represent veterans in the United States. Naturally the answer to this question depends upon the war discussed. Conflicts far distant in our imagination take on a mythic status. Minute Men and the civilian militia dominate our mental portrait of The Revolutionary War while Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still loom large over the United States Civil War. World War Two remains framed by the “Greatest Generation” label associated with it by former news anchor Tom Brokaw. The Vietnam war is only slowly beginning to mythologize as its veterans advance in age and the war fades from living memory.
Part of the reason I chose to write a book on veterans of the Civil War was the challenge associated with attempting to recover the actual lives of veterans who fought in one of our nation’s most mythologized conflicts. Moving beyond the statues of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank that stand in town squares throughout most of the United States, I wanted to know: What had soldiers of the Civil War survived? How did they understand it? How did non-combatants understand them? What I discovered was that the Civil War served as a turning point in the way veterans were understood in American culture. It set in motion ways of understanding former soldiers that remain influential today.
We tend to take for granted that veterans are different from civilians. This assumption was not widely shared until the late nineteenth-century. Military service was a skill or craft and participation in a war one of the many events that took place in a man’s life. The unique nature of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the country, marked the soldiers who survived this conflict differently from their forebears. In the last years of the war, the pace of combat also changed leaving soldiers psychologically scarred by events they did not have time to process until much later in their lives.
Civilians viewed the growth of the veteran as a distinct social category with apprehension. On the one hand, they were viewed as wounded warriors in need of civilian care and sympathy. On the other, veterans were a potentially destabilizing force to society. For every image of a pathos laden amputee returning to his family in Civil War era newspapers and magazines there was also a tramp, addicted to alcohol and drugs and never quite able to get his life together after the war. In spite of the gender assumptions of the era, it did not seem clear at all that war made men. Instead it seemed to unman them or remake them into something vaguely monstrous.
Time passes and the details change, but the Janus-like figure of the veteran as victim or threat remains. They are two different ways of looking at soldiers and yet they are inextricable from each other. Perhaps the best example in our own times remains the film First Blood (1982). John J. Rambo is a special forces veteran of the Vietnam War. Most viewers of the film will readily remember the action sequences as Rambo unleashes his military training upon a small town in the pacific northwest. What often gets forgotten, however, is the somber way in which the film begins. Rambo is a tramp. We first see him hitchhiking with his battered field jacket and pack. He is looking for fellow survivors from his unit in the war. His travels bring him to the pacific northwest where he discovers that another comrade has died since the war, this one of cancer. Not long after this depressing discovery, Rambo is confronted with a Sheriff who attempts to get him to leave his town. He rebuffs the Sheriff’s attempts to push him back on the road and gets arrested. Rambo is mistreated in prison and memories of the war emerge. Suddenly he sees himself as a P.O.W. in North Vietnamese captivity. Rambo escapes and engages in an epic battle with local law enforcement and the national guard. It is only when his former commander comes to “take him home” that the violence ends and peace is restored to the small town.
One doesn’t often expect to find a parable contained in a popular film, but First Blood is the veteran parable as we’ve inherited it in perfect form. Initially an object of pity, it takes very little effort for Rambo to become a threat. He has brought the war home with him and disrupted the lives of those far removed from it. Only by removing him can peace be restored. A soldier once, he is a soldier forever.
A better film in many respects than First Blood, winning six Oscars, The Hurt Locker (2008) nonetheless helps to perpetuate the “soldier once, soldier forever” theme. Bomb technician Sergeant William James is the protagonist of this film. Far from being a tramp, he is instead presented as a reckless adrenaline junky. James pushes the limits with each mission and in the process risks getting himself and his team blown up by a bomb. When he returns from his combat rotation, James attempts to readjust to civilian life with his family. We see him cleaning the leaves from the gutters of his home, helping his wife chop vegetables for dinner, watching the baby, and helping his wife shop at grocery store. In most of these tasks we see James attempting to feign some interest. We even see him filled with greater terror at the overabundance of the U.S. supermarket than he ever exhibited on the war-torn streets of Iraq. Uncomfortable at home, James re-enlists and the last we see of him he is leaving a troop transport at the airport for his new base.
Surprisingly, few have noted the significance of the name William James being used for the protagonist of this film. Nineteenth-century U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a proponent of a “moral equivalent of war.” Like most of his contemporaries, James wanted to believe in the man-making power of military service. At the same time, however, he had seen how the Civil War had scarred his younger brothers Wilky and Bob. James wondered if the uplifting aspects of the soldier’s life could be separated from the ugliness of war. The Hurt Locker has no such interest in war’s moral equivalent. Nevertheless, it does, like James’s research, remind us that war is not the soldier’s problem. It is a shared concern for the society that creates armies and sanctions war. In the end, this is what our current metaphors seek to evade. War is many things, but at its heart it is a social pathology rather than an individual malady.
No image can do justice to the full range of experience in any person’s life. Veterans are people with all their faults and virtues. They are also complex texts for a society to read and interpret. Unlike dead soldiers they talk back. Their stories bend and twist down many roads, assaulting our assumptions about ourselves and our world. That’s one reason why we continue to search for the right metaphor.
This morning a post showed up on the C-19 Listserv for nineteenth-century Americanists that linked to a Daily Mail article on the efforts of two technicians to colorize Civil War era photographs.
You can read the article and see samples of their work here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2446391/Amazing-Civil-War-photographs-created-colorist-bring-eras-heroes-characters-life-color-time.html
I have to admit that seeing these well-known photos in color was fascinating. Especially interesting was the ability to see the color of the landscape (indicating season) and also the tint of the uniforms. We talk so much about the “blue” and “grey” and yet most of the imagery we have of them is black and white.
But I am also wary of the notion of improving history through technological advances rather than simply using it to store documents in an alternate format for preservation purposes. This is something that could potentially be a lot more damaging to the archive than Ted Turner’s ill-fated effort years ago to colorize classic cinema.
Postscript: A Civil War scholar responding to the C-19 listserv post a few minutes ago reminded me in his comments that photographs were hand colored in the 19th century. So again the technology is not the issue here. It’s the motive. Why color these photographs?
Have any scholars commented on the theoretical implications of color in historical documents? What is the real psychological difference between a document in color vs. one in black and white?
I know when I teach film in my literature courses, black and white films tend to be perceived by some students as boring and other as more authoritative (cinema rather than film). I call it the “black and white” effect. I wonder if this is true of print documents and photos?
Call for Papers:
The American Civil War and Reconstruction
Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association
National Conference 2014
April 16-19, 2014
Marriott Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile
The Civil War and Reconstruction Area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association is calling for papers on the American Civil War and Reconstruction for its national meeting, April 16-19, 2014 (Wednesday through Saturday) at theMarriott Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile. Papers are welcome from a range of disciplines, and may explore any topic or “reading” of the War. Past presentations have included such diverse subject areas as literature, photography, art, newspapers and journalistic history, counterfactual history, battle reenactments, music, politics, battle narratives, guerilla warfare, film, historiographical issues, women’s narratives, war games, secession politics, African-Americans at war, modern pop culture, memory and memorializing, battlefield preservation, and material culture. Suggested special topics for this year could include slavery and politics, Northern intellectuals at war, Lincoln and the Spielberg film, military politics, The 150th Commemoration and the Politics of Commemoration, and the cultural legacy of the War.
Acceptance of your paper obligates you to appear and make an oral presentation of your paper. Sessions run for ninety minutes, and each presenter receives fifteen minutes, depending on the number of papers in each panel. Please plan to stay within this time limit. Graduate students are welcome to submit proposals. Whole panel proposals are also welcome
Please send an abstract of 100-250 words to:
Dr. Randal Allred,
Department of English,
Brigham Young University Hawaii,
55-220 Kulanui St.,
Laie, HI 96762
Please include in your proposal your address, school affiliation, e-mail, and telephone number.
Also, please submit your proposal online at http://pcaaca.org/national-conference-2/proposing-a-presentation-at-the-conference/
Deadline for submissions is November 1, 2013. For more information, go to http://pcaaca.org/national-conference-2/
Call for Papers
High Water Mark of War: The Battle of Gettysburg in Fiction and Film
45th Annual Convention, Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA)
April 3-6, 2014
Host: Susquehanna University
Often regarded by scholars as one of the major turning points in the United States Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg has attained an iconic status in American literature and culture. Twentieth Century southern writer William Faulkner claimed in his novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) that “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” Living with the legacy of defeat, white southern males imagined (in Faulkner’s view) a time when General Pickett had yet to lead his charge and the South still imagined it could win the war. Northern writers such as Michael Shaara also turned to Gettysburg for a wide variety of reasons. In Shaara’s case, the struggle at Gettysburg provided moral clarity that was sorely lacking in the Vietnam War era.
This panel will address the question of what actually happened at Gettysburg and how those events were reshaped over time to create distinct ‘legacies’ of that battle and the war of which it was a part. Questions to consider include but aren’t limited to: How is race addressed (or not) in portrayals of the battle? What role do civilians play in representations of the battle? Is battlefield heroism portrayed in a straightforward or ironic light? Does a particular narrative of the battle seem to say more about its own times than the Civil War era?
Film scholars are encouraged to submit proposals for this panel. Papers that examine the civilian experience of the battle are also sought.
Please send your abstract of approximately 250-300 words along with a one page CV to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2013
Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable. For a full list of NEMLA 2014 conference sessions visit:
My research has had me reading a lot over the past few months about trauma, specifically combat related trauma. As I prepared my remarks for a presentation at the New England Modern Language Association (NEMLA) conference a few weeks ago on this subject, I was particularly struck by the conundrum presented to scholars by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
On the one hand, PTSD has now made a vast field of study possible in non-medical and non-scientific disciplines that simply was not there prior to the 1980s. Without PTSD’s seemingly stable foundation, it’s hard to imagine “trauma studies” finding much ground in academic and public circles. Yet, on the other hand, PTSD prevents us from seeing and understanding a wide range of responses to horrific events that simply do not fit within its paradigm.
These thoughts came to me most strongly in relation to Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Union General’s Personal Memoirs (1885) played a minor though significant role in my dissertation. His experience of combat was so different from that of front line soldiers such as Ambrose Bierce and Sam Watkins that I hesitated to include him in the same chapter with those authors. Our current conception of trauma seemed to exclude him from the kinds of troubled and troubling memories that marked much of Watkins’ and Bierce’s work.
Nonetheless, I persisted in my curiosity at what impact (if any) combat trauma had on Grant’s narrative. What I found in his chapter on the battle of Shiloh rewarded my persistence.
On the night after the first day of battle Grant says:
“During the night rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter. I made my headquarters under a tree a few hundred yards back from the river bank. My ankle was so much swollen from the fall of my horse the Friday night preceding, and the bruise was so painful, that I could get no rest. The drenching rain would have precluded the possibility of sleep without this additional cause. Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the log-house under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering. The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.”
Throughout most of Grant’s memoirs, he maintains a firm hand on the narrative. Even though Grant wants his readers to see him as a man driven by the dictates of fate (“Man Proposes God Disposes” are the first words of his text), his narrative technique is strictly controlled by the author. It is only in rare moments such as the one above that Grant drops his public persona and we gain a glimpse at the ordinary man behind that name.
What we see is a man who may not fit the paradigm associated with PTSD. However, he is clearly touched by what he has witnessed, so much so that he writes about it over 20 years later. Grant is confronted in that log-house with the consequences of military command. He doesn’t like what he sees.
Would it cheapen what soldiers at the front line experience to consider this trauma rather than simply garden variety guilt or regret? I don’t know. It’s still an issue I’m puzzling over as I consider the traces of war in Civil War veterans’ writing.
What I do know is that it’s time for scholars to find a way to talk about trauma that doesn’t automatically gravitate towards PTSD.