There has never been a better time to study the literature of the American Civil War. The last two decades in particular have seen a remarkable outpouring of scholarship on literary works written during and about this seismic event in U.S. history, from single-author studies to broader analyses of themes, images, and ideas circulating within the publishing networks on both sides of the conflict. Influential monographs such as Faith Barrett's To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War (2012) and anthologies such as Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller's "Words for the Hour": A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry (2005) testify to the growing interest by scholars and students of American literature in the poetry of the Civil War.
Enriching this vibrant scholarly field by showing how mid-nineteenth century American poets responded to key events of the war, Eliza Richards offers us new insights and discoveries based on years of archival research, meticulous close readings of poems, and a true talent for reading poetry against relevant cultural contexts of the time. Richards is not by any means a newcomer to the field of Civil War literary studies. Having previously read her highly original and influential articles on the wartime poetry of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, I and many others eagerly awaited the release of this book.
Battle Lines is well worth the wait. Drawing on a wealth of knowledge and an impressive range of primary sources, Richards examines five "case studies" (15) demonstrating how Civil War poets used and modified poetic traditions, tropes, and conventions to construe and memorialize specific events of the war. In five chapters along with an epilogue and an introduction, Richards identifies and explains major "collective poetic practices enabled by the conditions of the Civil War" (17). Most notably, she shows how individual poets adjusted their practices to comment on and reflect new developments in mass media networks.
Each of Richards's five chapters highlights one or more major military events of the Civil War: the battles of Fort Donelson, Antietam, Fort Wagner, the siege of Charleston, and the naval battles of Hampton Roads and Mobile Bay. Within contextual frameworks of history and culture, she closely reads poems by canonical Northerners such as Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson; poems published anonymously in wartime periodicals; and poems by writers who enjoyed popularity in their time but are now largely forgotten. Several of her chapters also include discussion of some Southern poets, but as Richards makes clear in her introduction, the South's severe disruption of national information and communication networks during the war prompts her to privilege the circulation of Northern poetry. She therefore treats Southern Civil War poetry only "when it marks a point of direct engagement with Northern poetry" (15). By tracing networks of poetic response that formed around major battles or events of the war, she treats a wide range of textual and visual documents that are often quite diverse in style and format, but she also makes persuasive and nuanced claims about key developments in Civil War poetry. Rather than merely opening up new archives of texts for future study, Richards shows how specific discursive networks during the Civil War drew on shared vocabularies, tropes, and stylistic traditions to respond to, process, and commemorate the events of the war.
In Chapter 2, for instance, Richards shows how Northern readers, reporters, and writers framed the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) by invoking and adapting autumnal and pastoral imagery from past poetic traditions. Working with an impressively wide range of sources, she closely reads poems by John Greenleaf Whittier, Charles Morris, Lucy Larcom, Elizabeth Akers Allen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and John James Piatt, along with anonymous poems published in Northern periodicals in the battle's aftermath. These poems, she persuasively argues, conversed not only with one another but also with visual representations of the battle such as sketches in illustrated newspapers of the time and the Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner, James Gibson, and Matthew Brady:
Alexander Gardner, "Killed at the Battle of Antietam" (1862), albumen silver print on card mount (Library of Congress)
In addition, she writes, the poems reflect the influence of journalistic news coverage and essays such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.'s "Doings of the Sunbeam" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1863), which specifically treats wartime photography and the Battle of Antietam. As Richards notes, many of these poems and writings reflect a keen awareness of the central irony permeating the bloody outcome of this particular battle. Since the battle took place in a cornfield that was ready for harvest, news reporters and others covering the battle and its aftermath quickly circulated the image of the "ghastly harvest" (55) to convey the horror of the devastation wrought there. And yet, as Richards shows, while many Northern poets may have shared the tropes they used to portray the Battle of Antietam, they used them in greatly different ways to question, affirm, or adapt broader narratives of the larger meanings and legacy of the battle--and by extension of the war. Linking Dickinson's poem "The name -- of it -- is 'Autumn'--" to Holmes's essay, Richards writes:
What a comparison of these two distinctive writers adds to the contemporary critical picture is a sense of the ways in which nineteenth-century viewers gathered and synthesized information from multiple sources: from the history of art, from technical study of photographic processes, from literary history, from newspaper reports about the war, etc. (89)
Such an approach to literary study requires extensive archival research as well as considerable knowledge of nineteenth-century American poetic forms and traditions. Battle Lines undeniably includes both.
In organizing and synthesizing information from such varied sources, Richards wisely avoids the temptation to offer easy master narratives or sweeping claims that a particular kind of poetry originates from the war. Instead, her five case studies stand on their own as analyses of specific discursive communities during the war but also support her larger argument about the literary traditions inherited by poets of the Civil War.
In her epilogue, Richards shows how Stephen Crane's war poetry of the 1890s mourns the loss of the collective poetic practices that she describes in the preceding chapters. The brevity of such a coda necessarily limits what Richards can accomplish, of course, and while she offers innovative and important readings of several poems by Crane, she will disappoint readers looking for an overarching assessment of postbellum poetry that rivals what Battle Lines accomplishes for Civil War poetry. But readers disappointed in this way will miss the larger point of the epilogue. By contrasting Crane's war poetry of the 1890s with the war poetry of the 1860s, Richards underlines her argument that the consolidation of mass media shaped collective poetic responses during the Civil War.
Without a doubt, Battle Lines will quickly prove itself required reading for anyone interested in the literature, culture, and memorialization of the Civil War. It will also interest scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, history, print culture, and book history. Packed with details, examples, and anecdotes about literary production and consumption, this book shows how poetry, visual media, and news reports interact during the Civil War. As an invaluable contribution to the scholarly study of Civil War poetry, Battle Lines can serve as a model for further monographs in its scholarly rigor, originality of argument, and command of the material it treats.
Vanessa Steinroetter is Associate Professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, KS.