English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
In the late 1980s when Paul Fussell was defending the use of the atomic bomb in World War II, he did so on the grounds that he was a soldier. He knew better because his experiences in the war told him the bomb was necessary. Reactions to Fussell were quick to reject his sense of a personal knowledge of war, and such repudiations were nothing new. When Daniel Aaron claimed the Civil War was left unwritten, he had to overlook scores of novels, short stories, and personal essays written by soldiers who were deliberative artists in their own right, men and women whose contemporary silencing has continued into the present day. Aaron and other commentators have found instead novelists such as Stephen Crane and William Faulkner, artists of tremendous ability to be sure, but also men born well after the combat they wrote about. Such authors are the amanuenses of war writing, as were James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Herman Melville earlier in the nineteenth century. My dissertation traces an alternate literary history of American war, one written by soldiers from the early republic through Reconstruction. The soldier's authority has been largely misunderstood in the discussions we have about war's imaginative literature, yet nineteenth-century soldier voices comprise one of the most forlorn and vitriolic genres of American literature. The intransigence of the trauma shared by many early soldier authors forged a veteran aesthetic that undermined the placating fantasies of civilian memory and power. My introduction begins by charting the range of critical and ethical positions within war literature and veteran studies. I delineate the cultural origins of civilian distrust and suspicion of soldiers beginning in the early national period. As a textual study, I examine America's first drama, Royall Tyler's The Contrast, to demonstrate how early on in our national literature soldier authors and their personae were similarly excluded from the country's larger moral communities. Tyler and his protagonist, the Revolutionary war hero Henry Manly, read as two complementary strands of the early soldier's voice. They both wanted to understand the process by which becoming "an unpolished, un-travelled American" was more than a rejection of European manners and traditions. Tyler came to learn that becoming an American also implied a civilian embrace of the vexed military ethos the emerging nation was nurturing, an ethos that ridiculed soldiers such as Manly during peacetime and segregated them during periods of open war. My first chapter explores the nature of this detachment in Revolutionary prisoner-of-war narratives. Captivity narrative scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has assumed that literary tropes of captivity have always worked to transform Anglo captives such as Mary Rowlandson into enlightened political subjects. When scholars have written about Revolutionary prisoner-of-war narratives at all, they have quietly subsumed military captivity within this larger discussion of dignity and selfhood. Yet prisoner-of-war narratives written by Ethan Allen, John Dodge, and Thomas Dring: among others) deserve to be read somewhat apart from this well-worn tradition of Anglo captivity narratives. Revolutionary soldier narratives are typified by the captive's ultimate foreclosure from psychological and political freedom. Their representations of military captivity do not celebrate isolation but rather meditate on the purposes of violence and the soldier's custody--how it is that the early soldier's state of imprisonment worked not to discipline or convert, but rather to suspend and separate the soldier from the larger moral and political communities of the young republic. The subsequent failure in Jacksonian America to recognize the soldier's silent suffering organizes my second chapter on soldier memoir. Revolutionary veterans only began publishing their war memoirs in the late 1820s in response to the shifting memories of the war that emphasized both the exemplary hero as well as the shared sacrifice of "the people." There was little rhetorical room for the regular Continental soldier to stake his claim. Aging veteran Joseph Plumb Martin published his Narrative in 1830 after repeated applications for a federal pension were denied. Martin's memoir inaugurates a moment in American life writing stretching from the 1820s through the Mexican-American War that I term the soldier appeal. Similar to David Walker, second-generation veteran literature was a species of literary appeal licensed by extreme suffering. This literature was political protest at the same time it was also an inchoate trial run at soldier community in the United States. In the words of nineteenth-century noncombatants, war was oftentimes represented as a lesson and a promise, whereas war in the words of soldiers frequently reads as an angry angel of history, always looking back, always at face with the memory of unpleasant things. My third chapter interrogates civilian memory of soldiers between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars through the lens of the historical war fiction of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Cooper's The Spy associates the memory of war with the unfortunate martyrdom of John Andre, a British spy executed for his complicity in Benedict Arnold's treason. By representing war's participants as spies and confidence men rather than as suffering soldiers, The Spy worked to democratize antebellum memories of war. As a product of its speciousness, Cooper's novel unwittingly removed regular soldiers such as Joseph Plumb Martin from the collective memory of war. So too would Herman Melville in Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, and Battle-Pieces. This chapter ultimately concludes that Cooper and Melville were symptomatic of a larger civilian oblivion of the soldier's voice before the Civil War, and that both writers contributed to this national amnesia at the same time they grew to be unnerved by it. In the final chapter, I recognize the myriad soldier-authors who wrote about the Civil War as it was happening. Only months after Appomattox, Harper's Weekly held an essay-writing contest for disabled veterans of the recent war. The contest was a great success, but none of the entries were ever published. This suppression serves as a capstone to the entire project by asking how the soldier's voice came to be discounted after the most traumatic war of the century. A more visible soldier-author, John William De Forest, wrote while still in the service what would become an 1867 novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. Readers likewise did not read him, and I attribute his anonymity to the fact that De Forest wrote the fragmented and disillusioned war experience he knew, not the national memory others quickly condensed, bought, and sold in the popular romantic fiction of national reconciliation. His emotionally detached gaze at battlefield gore, I conclude, is a more significant factor than we usually acknowledge in the subsequent rise of American realism.
Cooper, Benjamin, "Writing American Soldiers: Nineteenth-Century Varieties of Military Experience" (2010). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 844.
Permanent URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.7936/K7X63K19