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Classics of Civil War Fiction.

This collection of essays by various hands covers fourteen books of fiction written on the war - all novels except Ambrose Bierce's Tales (189l) - including "the era of causes before and the era of effects afterward" (p. 10), from John W. DeForest's Miss Ravenel's Coversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) to Ross Lockridge's Raintree County (1948). In an introduction the editors provide a "brief survey of criticism on Civil War literature" (p. 5), pose "some general questions" (what criteria might one use to choose the best novels about the war" [p. 7], for example), and discuss the contributors to the volume and their essays, and, in general, explain, justify, and defend their own "quality choices" (p. 4).

Some questions may arise about these "choices" and other matters. What is a "classic," anyway? The editors never really define the term. They believe that they have chosen the "best" Civil War fiction, but are The History of Rome Hanks and Raintree County, to mention only two of their selections, "of the highest rank and class," to cite one dictionary definition. There will, of course, always be disagreement about the relative merits of literary works, but few critics today, I suspect, will readily grant that the two novels cited above are "classics" of Civil War fiction. Daniel Aaron, the author of the essay on Raintree County, for instance, forthrightly admits that the novel "is hardly the classic Ross Lockridge felt sure he had written but one of those good/bad books difficult to categorize in which the gold and the brummagem are fairly evenly mixed" (p. 212). But if such works of "mixed" quality are included, why does Gone With the Wind (1936) fail to appear? The editors freely acknowledge at the same time that it is, in the "consciousness of most of the public ... not only the greatest novel about the war by a southerner, but the greatest by anybody" (p. 22). (Aaron characterizes it as a "popular classic," p. 212.) The chief reasons, according to the editors, seem to be that the historical novel (i.e. "romance") is "an inferior genre" (p. 19) and that the novel's characterization is "shallow" (p. 72). Despite such possible flaws and without the technical highjinks of Rome Hanks or Raintree County, Gone With the Wind can hold its own with either novel in narrative, scene, and memorable characters, and is at least as admissible to the collection as DeForest's Miss Ravenel and surely more so than DuBose Heyward's Peter Ashley (1932) or John Peale Bishop's Many Thousands Gone (1931).

About some selections, of course, there can be little argument: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Evelyn Scott's The Wave (1929) - a book recently beginning to receive critical attention it has long deserved, Andrew Lytle's The Long Night (1936), William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Allen Tate's The Fathers (1938). Three of the essays on these novels are among the best in the collection. James Cox on The Red Badge, Robert Penn Warren on The Long Night (a contribution written for an earlier occasion), and Lewis P. Simpson on Absalom, Absalom! offer penetrating introductions to and discerning considerations of these books. Simpson's piece is especially thought-provoking in its use of Huckleberry Finn to throw light on Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!

An essay on a novel not so fully recognized as "classic" should also be mentioned, George Garrett's discussion of Mary Johnston's The Long Roll (1911). Both author and book have been long forgotten, but Garrett brings them back to life and sends the reader to the novel to see if it is indeed "better writing about men at war than anything in The Naked and the Dead (or anything in James Jones for that matter) or the work of Tim O'Brien" (p. 87). And he is right. I have just reread The Long Roll and concluded that it would be hard to find any fiction about the war more graphic or more sensitive to the movement of troops and the confusion of battle from the point of view of soldiers or officers in the field than the account in the novel of Stonewall Jackson's campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere in 1861-63.

Classics of Civil War Fiction, in sum, is a mixed achievement. Aside from the problem of which works to include, it is not entirely successful or consistent in the quality of its essays. As is usually the case with such collections, some essays are much better than others. It is a worthy project in its, effort to make the reader think about those works on the war that really matter, to send readers back to good books long out of print or forgotten, and, best of all perhaps, to stimulate more and better fiction about the war and the times immediately before and after.
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Author:Moore, Rayburn S.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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