How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.
Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:
“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”
Gilpin Faust adds:
“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..
“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”
You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.
© 2009 Janice Harayda