“Now one scholar has come up with a new angle on this very old problem. In “From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature,” Randall Fuller reminds us that the 1860s featured as talented a cohort of American writers as any decade could ask for — authors now known and loved by only their last names: Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Melville. Fuller carefully details how these writers experienced the war in their daily routines, their family lives, and their interlocking friendships.
What this group portrait reveals is that, while the Civil War may not have led to any lasting works of literature, it had a profound impact on the most important writers of its era. The war changed what they believed and how they wrote. After the shots at Fort Sumter, the North came quickly and patriotically together — “flush’d in the face,” in Whitman’s words, “and all its veins fiercely pulsing and pounding.” But Fuller suggests that Whitman and his literary cohort soon became uncomfortable with this kind of certainty, even though they had played a large part in putting that certainty into place. America’s first generation of great writers began experimenting with new literary forms, and began questioning their most dogmatic assumptions about the morality and effects of war.”