Fifty years ago this spring, the great literary critic Edmund Wilson, author of classic intellectual histories of Marxism, French symbolism, English literature of all kinds, and many other subjects, published one of the most important and confounding books ever written on the American Civil War. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War both offended and inspired its many reviewers and readers in 1962, when America was celebrating the Civil War Centennial, and it is still likely to dismay as well as enlighten the serious-minded student of the central event of American history. A mythic and sentimental Civil War is still abroad in our culture; reading Wilson anew during these sesquicentennial years will puncture those myths as it explains why they persist. Before or after 1962, no one ever wrote a book quite like Patriotic Gore and it deserves a rereading in our own wartime.
Wilson was an intimidating, irresistible writer. Experts in English departments can argue the point, but he was the preeminent American literary critic/historian of the 20th century. Born in Red Bank, N.J. in 1895, the son of a stalwart Republican father who was a successful lawyer and an occasionally institutionalized depressive, and a deeply caring mother who wished he would be more athletic, Wilson went to boarding school, where he cultivated a love of literature, and then to Princeton, where he graduated in 1916. When the United States entered the Great War, he enlisted in the Army’s ambulance corps, spending much of 1918 working in a hospital complex in Northeastern France. That experience behind the lines of the Western Front, but immersed in its horrible results—his jobs were burying the dead, attending to gas victims, and preventing suicides on the mental ward—shaped Wilson’s moral view of war for the rest of his life. He openly opposed World War II, and by 1960 had become so fiercely pacifist and so discouraged with the Cold War and its proliferation of nuclear weapons that he refused to pay his taxes.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Wilson wrote prolifically in nearly every genre, including fiction, social criticism and the nonfiction essay, autobiography, and especially literary history. Almost no part of world literature remained beyond his interest. Wilson would chart a plan of superhuman reading and research, spend years in the literary mines of his own imagination, and then produce classics such as Axel’s Castle (1931), a study of French symbolism and modernism, and To the Finland Station (1940), his massive intellectual history of ideas of social justice from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as a brilliant series of portraits of writers and suffering artists (especially Karl Marx) trying to change the world with their pens. To grasp the structure and purpose of Patriotic Gore, one should first read Wilson’s Finland Station. There we see him endlessly pursuing the meaning of the actor in history, and above all, the question the nature, trajectory, and meaning of History itself.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Wilson began to systematically read fiction, memoirs, and speeches of the Civil War generation. “I have been reading up the literature of the Civil War—some of which is wonderful,” Wilson wrote to his friend John Dos Passos in 1952. Some of his discoveries should be “classics,” he complained, but suffered obscurity because “the Civil War has to some extent been a taboo subject.” Southerners, he maintained, refused to read “Northern books,” and too many Northerners sought to “forget the whole thing.” He sent Dos Passos a list of books he thought should be required in schools and colleges. A year later, he wrote to another friend: “It was not a period when belles-lettres particularly flourished. … But I don’t know of any other historical crisis in which everybody was so articulate.”
In the ’50s Wilson wrote to many friends about his sudden amazement at finding so many good Southern writers and military memoirists on both sides. “My greatest surprise has been Sherman’s book,” he wrote, “I had had no idea that he was such an interesting character—rather complex, even a little unbalanced.” When Patriotic Gore finally appeared in 1962, it was this element of sheer surprise for so many reviewers and readers that gave the book its unique place in the Civil War Centennial period.
Patriotic Gore is really two books in one, and it has always been read and criticized that way. The first is the Introduction, a mesmerizing if troubling manifesto, which Wilson wrote at the very end of the process in 1961, and in the midst of various Cold War crises in the world. The second consists of 26 chapters, analyzing the works and illuminating the lives of approximately 30of the writers Wilson had discovered. The book endures because it is an unprecedented, and as yet unmatched, literary history, and because of its often sparkling, if controversial, personal judgments, both historical and aesthetic.
Wilson’s Introduction has been called everything from shocking to naive to brilliant; some considered it unpatriotic, even un-American. Wilson delivered a blunt and sustained critique of the Cold War and of war itself. In the postscript for a book of collected essays from the ’20s and ’30s, The American Earthquake (1957), Wilson explained his opposition to American involvement in World War II, and rehearsed for his performance in Patriotic Gore. He suggested the moral equivalence of Nazi mass murder and American carpet-bombing of cities and the use of atomic weapons to kill civilians. “The Nazis smothered people in gas-ovens,” Wilson wrote without hesitation, “but we burned them alive with flame-throwers and, bomb for bomb, we did worse than the Nazis. …” One can imagine how this was received in Eisenhower’s America of 1957, in the wake of McCarthyism and in the midst of Cold War fear of nuclear attack.
In every nation Wilson had come to see the same impulse: “the irresistible instinct of power to expand itself, of well-organized human aggregations to absorb or impose themselves on other groups.” The same “sub-rational reason” lay at the root of both the conquest “of the South by the North in the Civil War, of Germany by the allies.” With this degree of cynicism, one wonders how Wilson managed to find brilliance, humor, and even the sublime in so many Civil War writers.
As Wilson finished Patriotic Gore he was very discouraged by the Cold War, by nuclear testing, and U.S.-Soviet saber-rattling. In the summer of 1961 he unloaded on Alfred Kazin: “the U.S.A. is getting me down … I don’t see how you still manage to believe in American ideals and all that.” Wilson seems never to have gotten over his experience of 1918-19 in those French hospitals.
The alienation Wilson felt from what he called the “United States of Hiroshima” produced a belligerent, blasphemous screed against his country’s sense of history, and especially its foreign policy. Some of his historical judgments and moral equivalences can still seem disturbing today. But it is not merely a perverse diatribe full of prickly opinions; at times it is a weirdly brilliant exposition of “anti-war morality.”
Wilson scorches all forms of nationalistic pieties, all excuses for mobilizing societies for violence, all manipulations of history to justify conquest. Recalling a Walt Disney nature film in which a sea slug devours smaller sea slugs by natural instinct, he urged a “biological and zoological” approach to the human obsession with war. We should ignore the “war aims” pronounced by nations, he suggested, and understand that the “difference … between man and other forms of life” is that man has invented what he calls “morality’ and ‘reason’ to justify what he is doing. …” “Songs about glory and God, the speeches about national ideals,” insisted Wilson, are only the “self-assertive sounds which he [man] utters when he is fighting and swallowing others.”
A direct condemnation of humankind’s “war-like cant” could hardly have been more provocatively fashioned than in Wilson’s infamous “sea slug” metaphor. He spared no one in the withering assault, not the French in their revolution nor the Russians in theirs. He judged Americans, if anything, the worst offenders: They were “self-congratulatory grandchildren of a successful revolution” whose “appetite” must be fed by ever more self-aggrandizing slogans such as the “American Dream, the American way of life, and the defense of the Free World. …” Wilson rejected virtually all ideological reasons for war.
Most of all, Wilson wanted Americans to admit that historically, they had been “devourers” too, experts at fashioning mythic reasons for collective violence. He surveyed America’s ever-replenishing theory of manifest destiny, in which he included the North’s “repression of the Southern states when they attempted to secede from the Union. …” Indeed, he offered an explanation of the coming of the Civil War borrowed almost completely from the Lost Cause tradition, accented with his own brand of biological determinism. Northerners’ concern to preserve the Union, he maintained, had nothing to do with freeing slaves. When the “militant North” (meaning abolitionists) made a “rabble-rousing moral issue” out of slavery, it provided what all wars need— “myth” and “melodrama” for which men are willing to die. In language no diehard Lost Cause advocate of the turn of the 20th century nor neo-Confederate of the early 21st could improve upon, Wilson said Lincoln’s government sought to “crush the South not by reason of the righteousness of its cause but on account of the superior equipment which it was able to mobilize and its superior capacity for organization.” Wilson is one of those rare writers who can be at once profoundly wrong and equally interesting.