Read Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War by Edmund Wilson Free Online
Book Title: Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War|
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Reader ratings: 5.4
The author of the book: Edmund Wilson
Edition: Oxford University Press, USA
Date of issue: 1962
ISBN 13: 9780195006667
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 835 KB
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Patriotic Gore (1962) is the big book of Wilson’s final decade and in the dust jacket photo he looks just the toothless, growling old cuss one meets in “The Critic in Winter,” Updike’s worthwhile review of the late journals. Wilson spent his last summers in a decaying corner of Upstate New York, alone in the stately pile his wife refused to live in for more than a week at a time. The windows of the place were an anthology of friends’ verse, Wilson having got Auden and Nabokov and others to inscribe panes with a diamond pencil. Over one of the fireplaces hung an old Civil War musket that he would seize and brandish at the damned kids who liked to drag race past his property. His country amusements were drinking and reading through the dead of night. He would sit up in the library swallowing martinis while chewing through the entire Comédie humaine. “Balzac, though Wilson laments his ‘preposterous’ improbabilities and oppressive ‘murkiness and squalor,’ becomes the critic’s faithful companion, novel after novel, like a raffish buddy indulged for his irrepressible vitality by a superior, more serious friend.” “As the shadows close around him in these journals,” Updike finishes, “Wilson seems, with his Balzac, his martinis, and his night thoughts, grouchily at home.”
That’s a striking picture but I’ve wandered far from what I want to say. Which is that the author of Patriotic Gore is the young Wilson, the Wilson of the 1920s. The disillusioned WWI veteran, the fellow traveler. It is appropriate, and no paradox, that the writer who wanted to remove the war from “the old plane of morality”—who in a polemical preface reduced the victorious Union to a “sea slug” “gobbling up smaller organisms through an orifice at one end of its body”—who claimed to find “in most of us an unreconstructed Southerner who will not accept domination”—was not a ruined and romancing prince of the Cotton Kingdom, but a bourgeois born in 1895, into one of those affluent Northern households whose library was a shrine of Lincolnania, where also the “thick pair of volumes” of Grant’s Personal Memoirs “used to stand, like a solid attestation of the victory of the Union forces.” David Blight calls Wilson’s father “a stalwart, civic example of the post-Civil War Republican Party—a good railroad lawyer, strong on business and the tariff, patriotic and devoted to the republic that had prevailed in the 1860s against the rebel South.” Wilson rebelled against not just household gods (first to reverence, then to take for granted, and finally to scorn, whatever they happen to be), but the whole Gilded Age, with its political complacency, natural to the victorious side of a civil war; its corporate gigantism, and government of Big Business, by Big Business, and for Big Business; its specious humanitarianism, an imperially instrumental sentimentality that reaches perfection in President McKinley’s excuse for annexing the Philippines (“to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died”—the Filipinos who had been absorbing Catholicism from the Spanish since the 1600s), and which was doubtless sickeningly familiar to the young Wilson shipped to France in 1917 with a fatuous war-cry ringing in his ears (“To make the world safe for democracy”) and a canting confidence that America only makes war to liberate the oppressed.
How do you remove the war entirely from “the old plane of morality” when a militarily decisive group of participants was fighting for the most basic human rights—fighting, in some cases, to liberate their own families? Easy—you ignore that group. The famous flaw of Patriotic Gore is the absence of any black writers other than Charlotte Forten, a young Salem, Massachusetts schoolteacher who like many of her colleagues went south, freighted with secondhand readers and donated clothing, to civilize freedpeople in the Union-occupied zones. Her diary seems a valuable account of the double consciousness and unceasing anxiety of a black girl living in very white Salem; and once south, in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, she garlands the white colonels of black regiments, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the soon-sacrificed Shaw, with interesting, inscrutable innuendoes that may indicate actual moonlit trysts, or else an overworked fantasy life. But while very interesting, as a token Forten is inadequate. At first, I assumed Wilson ignored the black freedom struggle because the slaves were, for him, but the sentimental dressing of the Northern war engine. The Helpless Innocents of propaganda, crying out for Intervention, forerunners of the Cuban freedom fighters massacred by Spain, of the French milkmaids and Belgian nuns ravished by the spike-helmed Hun. But Wilson praises Whitman’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” and Higginson’s account of freedpeople singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” for their presentation of proudly civic, self-determining blacks, far more lifelike than “the slave in chains who has become a stock property of anti-slavery literature.” Well, Wilson, if you enjoy militant expressions of black political will, where is Frederick motherfucking Douglass? Douglass thrashed the locally renowned “slavebreaker” hired to tame him, sailed away north clutching the Columbian Orator, and crisscrossed the North in 1863 exhorting black men to join Lincoln’s Federally-sponsored slave revolt: “By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow countrymen; by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and South Carolina, I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave”; “the arm of the slave…the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder!” Wilson’s neglect of Douglass occasioned a sharp exchange at the centennial symposium Princeton, Wilson’s alma mater, hosted in 1995. Randall Kennedy got into with it Arthur Schlesinger and C. Vann Woodward. At the transcript’s pitch of acrimony Toni Morrison rises majestically—could she rise any other way?—from the audience and proceeds to locate and so expiate the “unease [which] has crept into this gathering at the intrusion of race and the possibility of racism into our discussion about Edmund Wilson.” Morrison nods to Kennedy’s point but calls Wilson a “grand man of letters” who could write damn well what he pleased. The “burden of inclusiveness” is one she herself found irksome. I substantially agree with Morrison. Wilson is so brilliant, he gets away with murder. Hence the 5 stars.
But before I praise Wilson, I must finish bitching about him. Most annoying is his conceit that he is nobody’s fool, even as he advances many of the intellectual fashions of his time and indulges nostalgias common in his generation. Wilson dismissed Nabokov’s disdain for Lenin as something conditioned by class and circumstance, aristocracy and exile, while thinking his own youthful admiration of Lenin anything but: brave and anomalous and oh so laudably unlikely in the son of Republican corporate lawyer. Like Strachey, Wilson sneers at the late Victorians while idealizing their immediate predecessors. Patriotic Gore contains some lovely Currier and Ives prints of the antebellum order—“the world of early America just after the Revolution—loose settlements and pleasant towns growing up on the banks of great rivers and on the edge of mysterious wilds”—a rustic republic, bucolic and contented, whose doom is the day “the cities of the East expand, with their tightening reticulation of railroads, their landscape-annihilating factories.” He calls the death of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens “the death of the old political South—the South of Jefferson and Madison, of Randolph, Calhoun and Clay, of the landowners’ and merchants’ republic, of the balance of power in Congress, of the great collaboration and the great debates.”
Lovely prints, yes; static idylls which imply that the United States might not have become a rapacious power; that because the South was defeated, the South was benign; that because the big slave-owners surrendered the “rod of empire,” they never wielded or wanted it. It seems to me that a really relentless skeptic, such as Wilson fancied himself, one who owed no deference to any text or creed or national myth, would have found no utopia in the American past—would have seen the Civil War as simply the replacement of an obsolete, aristocratic style of rapacity, an old model of exploitative expansion, with one newer and better suited to the democratic conceits of the mid-19th century. The filibustering expeditions which in the 1850s set out, with the tacit approval of federal authorities beholden to proslavery interests, to invade and annex Cuba and Nicaragua, did so in a style as old as Cortés. Those aspiring planters sallied forth as had the conquistadors. They were commoner captains and would-be squires in search of dense concentrations of slaves, whose elites they would destroy and replace with themselves. That’s how the colonies of the Americas were largely founded—exceptions include New England, and, crucially, the Northern belt of the United States heavily settled by New Englanders and by white refugees from the static slave oligarchies. In the wake of the American Revolution, in the age of radical Democracy, that North produced a new agent of empire, the white settler-farmer. The unleashed Everyman, well-armed and self-transported (before the war a Conestoga wagon; after, a railway ticket), his activities of expansion and expropriation and, yes, of genocide having the alibi of Progress, of Liberty, of A Farm of One’s Own.
Thunder on! stride on, Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke!
I have witness'd the true lightning, I have witness'd my cities electric,
I have lived to behold man burst forth and warlike America rise...
(Whitman, "Rise, O days")
Wilson could have damned the Northern leadership of American expansion without romancing the South or whitewashing its own dreams of a Caribbean empire for slavery, simply by arguing, as Dominic Lieven has, that indigenous peoples probably had more to fear—though not much more—from hordes of common settlers than from small, merely parasitic bands of would-be aristocrats:
In contemporary White consciousness aristocratic imperialists and, still more, slave-owners enjoy little sympathy. By contrast, the farmer-settler, Everyman’s ancestor, is admired and even romanticized. From the point of view of the subjected indigenous peoples this makes little sense. An imported aristocratic ruling class was generally either assimilated (as in England) or ultimately marginalized and expelled (as in Ireland). Indigenous society and culture was much more likely to be destroyed in the long run by a mass of alien colonists, particularly if its land was expropriated.
But I’ll stop. I’m in deep waters here, and bored by my own review. What’s Lieven doing in here? Chalk it up to a bottle of wine and all my books being within reach; to last night's manic associative buzz. The historiography of Patriotic Gore is baldly reactive, petulant, distorted by a need of Utopias, alternately cynical and starry-eyed (much like To The Finland Station), and at points little more than a hodgepodge of Lost Cause tropes that might have shocked Wilson’s father’s generation, but which were in 1962—shit, in 1915, when Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation at the White House—solidly mainstream, and shortly passé. Wilson’s humanism, though, is a thing to treasure. Patriotic Gore is something great; and mine is a mean summary. It is simply the most vivid book about the American Civil War that I have yet read. Whitman’s Specimen Days, his sketch album of army camps and vigils beside hospital cots, is the saddest, and the most beautiful; and Mary Chesnut may yet rock my world; and the pleasures of Foote loom like Proust’s; but for now Patriotic Gore is tops. Opening it, you hear the dead.
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Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary and social critic. He is considered by many to have been the 20th century's preeminent American man of letters.