American Literature Civil War Literature, 1861–1914
by
John Casey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0102

Introduction

The US Civil War (1861–1865) still serves as one of the milestones in American literary history, commonly representing the dividing line in survey courses and reference works on 19th-century American literature. Civil War literature often includes nonfiction genres such as diaries, letters, and memoirs. Their inclusion within this category is due to the perception cemented by critics such as Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore (1962) and Daniel Aaron in The Unwritten War (1973) that the war produced considerable historical writing but little fiction of great literary merit. Although this view is currently disputed, history remains a preoccupation of scholars writing on the literature of the war. Of particular interest are questions about how national history is created through collective memory as it is represented in the culture of the period. Civil War literature has also been used to gauge attitudes in the era toward race, gender, ethnicity, class, and the justifiability of war. The consideration of nonfiction texts as literature along with the historical questions asked of the fiction written in the Civil War era has led to a significant amount of interdisciplinary scholarship and has raised useful questions about the relationship of history to fiction.

Primary Texts, 1861–1914

Fiction with the US Civil War as its setting or theme is still being written in the present day. The following subsections include a list of literary works published during the Civil War era, the period of living memory from the start of the war to roughly the beginning of the First World War in 1914. After this period, the tone and purpose of writing on the Civil War changes sufficiently to consider it part of a different literary movement. Primary texts written after 1914 are not included in this article for that reason. This article does include, however, some texts that were written in the Civil War era (particularly life writing) but were not published in book form until later in the 20th century. Texts and editions have been chosen based not only on their significance, but also on their availability. Although 20th-century scholars have uncovered a considerable amount of popular fiction written during the Civil War era, much of that writing still remains inaccessible to general readers unless they have access to physical archives or subscription databases. The primary texts in each subsection are by no means meant to serve as an exhaustive list but rather as a starting point for examination of the wide variety of cultural production stimulated by the war. Nonfiction genres are here considered as primary texts, following a longstanding tradition in scholarship on the Civil War era.

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