Fiction as Reconstruction of History: Narratives of the Civil War in American Literature

The War That Never Goes Away: The Significance of the Civil War for the Cultural Imagination in the United States

Despite the overwhelming body of academic work on the Civil War produced in the United States (and beyond) most of the American public (as well as the international audience) has been exposed to it through cultural texts such as novels, poems, songs, motion pictures, TV series, and documentaries. Hence the Civil War has been regarded “A War that Never Goes Away,” as most convincingly suggested by American historian James McPherson in his ground breaking studies on the Civil War and its significant impact on American society. Even a cursory glance at the presence of the Civil War in both public and academic discussions in the past century reveals that the growing temporal distance to this historical event itself has increasingly resulted in ongoing controversies about the representation and evaluation of this war as a fundamental matrix for the self-perception of American society.

On the one hand, the rapidly growing number of publications about this event in academic disciplines such as history as well as in literary fiction and literary criticism since the 1980s is indicative of the particular relevance of the Civil War in the present cultural discourse. On the other hand, visual media have provided important impulses for an intense public conversation about the Civil War as the conflict that was decisive for the political, social and cultural past of he United States. Documentaries such as The Civil War (1990) by Ken Burns or TV series like North and South (based on John Jakes’ 1982 novel) as well as movies like Summersby (1995) and Cold Mountain (2003) have contributed to renew and broaden the interest in the Civil War. Moreover, headlines such as “Revising the Civil War” (Newsweek, October 8, 1990), “The Crossroads of Our Being” (The Nation, December 3, 1990) and “The Civil War Comes Home” (Time, October 8, 1990) on the front covers of national magazines like Newsweek, The Nation and Time in response to Burns’ documentary are manifestations of this widespread interest. At the same time, these headlines demonstrate the direction that the more recent discussion has taken, namely a reconsideration of the Civil War in the light of crucial issues related to a redefinition of cultural and national identity at the backdrop of shifting political, social and cultural configurations in American society. It is in this context of a prevailing interest in the American Civil War that literary texts take a prominent place in terms of quantity—since the 1980s the number of Civil War novels has steadily risen—and more importantly, in terms of offering fictional projections that speak to the contemporary public interest in reevaluating the war as a symbol of reaffirming political and social ideals of America.

Yet the abundance of print and visual texts published before, during and after the end of the Civil War has been met with a longstanding critique of its quality. For decades historians and literary critics have more or less adhered to Walt Whitman’s observation in his Specimen Days (1882) that “the real war will never get in the books . . . .” As a result this dictum about the Civil War as an “un-written war” (as Daniel Aaron echos Whitman in his study The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War [1962]) has contributed to an unbalanced perception of this part of American literature by critics, and has led to the fact that Civil War literature was widely marginalized from or located at the edges of the literary canon. More recent studies have demonstrated, however, that the war triggered an enormous body of war-related texts that have rarely been explored such as poetry, sentimental stories, sensational war novels, war humor, adolescent stories, war songs, and anecdotes. As Alice Fahs in The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 (2001) conclusively elaborates, these war-related texts were often either overlooked or dismissed by critics due to their nature as popular texts. Their impact on shaping the cultural politics of the war, however, was remarkable as they were easily available to readers in the North and South via various formats, e.g. newspapers, weeklies and monthlies, pamphlets, song sheets, and cheap weekly “story papers.”

In the final analysis, the contradiction between the positions advanced by Aaron and Fahs is obviously grounded in different conceptions of the literary canon, with Fahs strongly advocating an opening of narrow boundaries of canonization. Moreover, the different views on canon restrictions reflect a more principal discrepancy in the theoretical assumptions underlying the reading of Civil War literature. In order to understand this discrepancy a closer look at the major theoretical approaches seems to be useful since it will not only help to explain the epistemological positions that have informed the debates about the relationship of literature and history in general but also shed light on the methodological implications relevant for exploring the problem of fiction as reconstruction of history.

Based upon a fundamental critique of traditional hierarchies of histories about literature, Hayden White, Michael Foucault and Stephen Greenblatt in particular have put forward concepts that suggest a radical revision of the practice of historical criticism. In his essay “What Is an Author?” (1997), Michael Foucault introduces a model that conceptualizes history as discursive practice that discards the notion of history as “direct mimesis” and instead views history as a construct which evolves through successive forms of discourses. In a similar direction Hayden White in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987), radically revises traditional concepts of history by proposing a view that defines history itself as a narrative or a narrative sequence.

These arguments not only have had a lasting impact on the critical debates on the writing of history per se but have been highly influential on literary studies as well. In an effort to apply these ideas to the discipline of literary criticism, Stephen Greenblatt has further advanced the concept by suggesting that if history is to be theorized as representation of language, then literature as narrative—by taking interpretation beyond mere formalist aesthetics—also needs to be read in the context of power relations and cultural coordinates. Consequently, a conception of history as discourse dismisses the notion of a hierarchy of history over literature as both are perceived as products of language manifesting themselves likewise as narrative constructs.

The theoretical assumptions of this radical revision of the relationship of history and historicity of literature have particularly influenced the premises of new historicism, a critical movement founded by Stephen Greenblatt in the early 1980s (Genre 15, 1982). In his own studies of the English Renaissance, Greenblatt substantiates the critical practice of new historicism by situating the literary text in its “historical matrix” and thereby uncovering the interdependencies of literary and historical dimensions in an effort to demonstrate “how collective beliefs and experiences were shaped, moved from one medium to another, concentrated in manageable aesthetic form, offered for consumption [and] how the boundaries were marked between cultural practices understood to be art forms and other, contiguous, forms of expression” (Greenblatt, 5).

This theoretical approach proves to be particularly productive for exploring fictional reconstructions of history since it enables a reading of texts that locates fictional narratives in a broader cultural context and thus understands literature as historically situated practice.

The Unwritten War? The American Civil War as a Theme in American Literature

At the backdrop of this theoretical discussion, a closer look at selected narratives of nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature will serve as a context for discussing major characteristics of the literary representation of the Civil War. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) will serve as the central texts here as they reveal in a remarkable way fictional constructions of history as a discourse on the respective cultural situation of American society. The specific interest informing my reading of these two texts addresses the following question: In which way do these texts thematize the sectional conflict of the Civil War as constitutive for definitions of cultural self-perceptions of the United States, e.g. how do these texts stage literary narratives in terms of reconstructions of a usable past? While primarily fictionalized as a just war against slavery in the first Civil War novels, published in the period during and immediately after the war, it became a “tragic mistake” in the majority of texts printed in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

This shift in the fictional discourses on the conflict from a highly sentimental representation of the antebellum South as a society of grace and cultural superiority (as manifested, for instance, in Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia, 1887) is accompanied by thematic aspects of reconciliation of the divided nation as early as the late 1860s. John William De Forest’s novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), for example, stages such a model in a fascinating way. The novel takes the sectional conflict as a starting point for a reflection about the national status quo and offers an imagery of the conflictual parties by constructing the two central characters—Union army officer Colbourne and Southern lady Lillie Ravenel—as representatives of the national divide. Their initial problematic relationship—staged in the text by various melodramatic narrative elements—eventually ends in marriage. Whereas on the narrative level the plot of the novel appears to be rather predictable employing narrative strategies of the historical novel, the thematic level establishes the marriage as a symbolic gesture of reconciling the antagonism of the national conflict. Thus the Civil War is ficitonalized as a crucial moment of regeneration of the American nation (Fluck, 160), as an opportunity for a new political and cultural beginning that in the novel’s logic is grounded in a strong belief in civilizational progress.

The human suffering caused by the war is foregrounded in powerful and drastic images in De Forest’s text for the first time and since then has proved to be one of the immanent aspects of thematizing the Civil War in nineteenth- century American literature. Earlier, Walt Whitman, in his poems “The Wound-Dresser” and “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” (1865) as well as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865/66), had made an attempt to describe the nature of the war and its psychological impact on the American people without questioning the legitimacy of the war itself. Quite contrarily, Whitman as an enthusiastic proponent of the Unionist idea and strong opponent of slavery most forcefully called on America’s men (in the North) to participate in the war, as is manifested in his collection of poems “Drum-Taps” (1861).

Like Whitman, American short story author Ambrose Bierce used his own experience as a soldier to write about the war. A collection of stories entitled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians was published in 1891—thirty years after Whitman’s Civil War poems. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, Bierce joined the Union army as a volunteer. Yet Bierce’s literary representation of the war differs from Whitman’s in decisive ways. His images of the war construct the conflict between the Northern and Southern States not only as a contradiction in rhetorics of the political camps but speak to the bloody reality of the war. In his short story “Chickamauga,” collected in the volume Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, Bierce articulates this scepticism about the purpose of the war (and life in general) in shocking images of soldiers cruelly disfigured after battles.

In contradistinction to these war images, Southern authors of this period treat the Civil War in a completely different manner. Authors such as John Esten Cooke and Sidney Lanier, in their novels Surrey of Eagle’s Nest (1866) and Tiger-Lillies (1867), obfuscate the reality of the Civil War to a great extent by adhering to nostalgic and romantic images of the (old) South and its military and political representatives. These novels particularly employ narrative patterns of traditional historical fiction (as in J. F. Cooper’s novels, for instance).

In summary, a list of major themes depicted in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature about the Civil War would include the subsequent topics:

  • the Civil War as a tragic mistake that resulted in the decline of a superior (Southern) society (Thomas Nelson Page)
  • the Civil War as “the red business” (Walt Whitman)
  • the Civil War as a chance for a new beginning (Margaret Mitchell)
  • the Civil War as a trauma for the South (William Faulkner)
  • the Civil War as ending the horrors of slavery (William Styron)
  • the Civil War as destructive to individual physical and psychological well-being (Stephan Crane, Charles Frazier)

(Re)Writing the Brotherly War: Selected Narratives of the Civil War

If the Civil War as a literary theme in American literature in the nineteenth century seems to be underrepresented, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895) certainly stands out as an exception. This text is remarkable for two major characteristics that result in a narrative of fictionalizing history which differs from earlier literary representations of the war in many ways.

First of all, Crane’s story fictionalizes the Civil War as an event possessing symbolic relevance by distancing the plot from the actual conflict of 1861–1865. Thus the text does not construct the war as an event of the now but of the past in an attempt to reconstruct the war as a paradigm of searching for meaning and orientation in the America of the Gilded Age.

By doing both: investing the Civil War with symbolic capital and refraining from thematizing the war as an epochal conflict between two different stages of civilization, the text exhibits a narrative strategy that departs from the genre conventions of the traditional historical novel. Instead it makes use of literary modes that primarily serve to reveal intense emotional responses and, more generally, the psychological state of individuals. Hence, what we get in Crane’s story is not a description of the war as a grand struggle of the North against the South but the intimate and subjective world of thought of the young protagonist Henry Fleming as he searches for an explanation of a war that supposedly was to make him a man and hero.

The novel by Stephen Crane, then 24 years of age, was published at a time when the Civil War in the American public discourse was primarily celebrated as a heroic commitment and sacrifice of the veterans, and the battles of the war were reevaluated as an opportunity to overcome national separation. As Nancy Kaplan convincingly argues, this reinterpretation is particularly informed by the fact that in the post-reconstruction period after 1877 the evaluation of the war advocated in historiography as well as in domestic fiction contributed to banning the political nature of the conflict from the collective memory of American society (Kaplan, 80).

Such an evaluation also served to disguise social tensions of the Gilded Age caused by economic and social contradictions after the Civil War. It coated them with rhetorics of national unity on the one hand, and redefined international and external conflicts that America had to face in the following decades as national challenges on the other. Crane’s text, however, questions such an interpretation of the war and dismantles its distorted value system through the character of Henry Fleming. Whereas this character is first introduced as an adolescent enthusiastically volunteering to fight in the Union army, this eagerness gradually vanishes as he goes through a profound crisis in terms of his belief in the ideals of the war as postulated by society. The images of the war battles created in the text projecting a “singular absence of heroic poses” (Crane, 86) are devoid of any notions of heroism and chivalry as commonly staged in popular fiction—and degrade the significance of the war as it was propagated in the Gilded Age:

Presently he began to feel the effects of the war atmosphere—a blistering sweat, a sensation that his eyeballs were about to crack like hot stones. A burning roar filled his ears.Following this came a red rage. He developed the acute exasperation of a pestered animal, a well-meaning cow worried by dogs. He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time. He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers . . .

Buried in the smoke of many rifles his anger was directed not so much against the men whom he knew were rushing toward him as against the swirling battle phantoms which were choking him, stuffing their smoke robes down his parched throat. He fought frantically for respite for his senses, for air, as a babe being smothered attacks the deadly blankets. (Crane, 85)

In addition, the war scenes do not evoke any associations of the battles as holy memories such as Alan Trachtenberg in his book The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (1982) claims to be valid for war photography. Quite the contrary: Crane’s images of the war and the battle dead in The Red Badge of Courage recall a trauma of the past that seems to have vanished from the national consciousness.

The scenes in which Henry encounters dead soldiers most powerfully reveal these images:

He lay upon his back staring at the sky. He was dressed in an awkward suit of yellowish brown. The youth could see that the soles of his shoes had been worn to the thinness of writing paper, and from a great rent in one the dead foot projected piteously. And it was as if fate had betrayed the soldier. In death it exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends. (Crane, 70)


Near the threshold he stopped, horror-stricken at the sight of a thing. He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip. (Crane, 101)

Crane’s text strongly undermines commonly held views of the Civil War as reflected in popular Civil War novels of the 1880s and 1890s by rejecting any gestures of harmonizing or resolving the sectional conflict. In contrast to earlier Civil War novels that sketch subplots in order to establish fictional sites for reconciling opposing interests, Crane ignores such narrative moves in favor of questioning swift reconciliatory gestures, as the following scene underlines. Here, Henry Fleming makes the acquaintance of a soldier of the Confederate army:

At one part of the line four men had been swooped upon, and they now sat as prisoners . . . . One of the prisoners was nursing a superficial wound in the foot . . . . Another, who was a boy in years, took his plight with great calmness and apparent good nature . . . . The third captive sat with a morose countenance. He preserved a stoical and cold attitude . . . . The last of the four was always silent and, for the most part, kept his face turned in unmolested directions. From the views the youth received he seemed to be in a state of absolute dejection. Shame was upon him, and with it profound regret that he was, perhaps, no more to be counted in the ranks of his fellows. The youth could detect no expression that would allow him to believe that the other was giving a thought to his narrowed future, the pictured dungeons, perhaps, and starvations and brutalities, liable to the imagination. All to be seen was shame for captivity and regret for the right to antagonize. (Crane, 205–06)

Of course, the badge of courage takes a central place in the literary conception of the novel. As a visible wound acquired in the battlefield this “red badge” symbolizes courage and masculinity both major constituents of the moral value system dominating the society that Henry Fleming was brought up in. This badge was considered an award achieved through a brave and manly act of patriotism that ensured the unanimous acknowledgment by the community. Henry Fleming, Crane’s adolescent protagonist (referred to in the text as “the youth”) is eager to meet these expectations of society by complying with this ritual of initiation into manhood, and he eventually “earns” his “red badge,” albeit in a different manner. He does not receive his wound in the battlefield but rather accidentally when he escapes from the battle and hides in the woods nearby. By constructing such an ironic reversion, the text drastically undermines the idealized value orientations of the heroic soldier that dominated the public discourse on the Civil War in late nineteenth-century America.

The specific narrative design of the text is the key for fictionalizing history as a critical discourse about the present (not the past) state of American society at the close of the nineteenth century. In this imagery, the Civil War is a metaphor of political and ideological contradictions that have been substituted by a patriotic conformism in the service of strengthening the national unity of the country. Crane’s brilliant literary strategy enacts sequences of sensory impressions of his main character Henry Fleming which in the end evolve into a remarkable image of an individual’s existentialist experience of war. Consequently, the text emphasizes the emotional and reflective responses and reactions to the war rather than the physical action in the battlefield. This particular depiction of experience is achieved through placing the protagonist in a specific position vis-à-vis the plot: Henry’s longing “to see,” to perceive the reality of the war with his senses as well as his continuous reflections about his own place and role in this war make him an observer rather than an agent. Such a construction of the literary character moves the act of observing to the foreground and indeed elevates it to the actual subject matter of literary discourse.

Stringing together the highly subjective impressions of his protagonist in building the literary architecture, the text ultimately results in a fictional account that completely refrains from providing a coherent explanation. Rather, deciphering the war is limited to the individual perceptions and interpretations of the protagonist that are primarily directed to question the validity of central moral values about the war that his community and society sanctioned.

In fictionalizing topical societal issues of Crane’s America, The Red Badge of Courage employs a narrative model of decontextualizing that abstains from providing a concrete temporal and local setting in order to address the discontinuities and contradictions in American cultural self-definitions in the Gilded Age.

As mentioned in the introductory remarks above, the Civil War indeed takes a prominent thematic place in twentieth-century American literature, particularly since the 1980s. This claim might be surprising at first glance, since the Civil War as an historic event then already dated back more than 110 years. The prevailing significance of the war in American literary discourse can be explained by the far-reaching changes in the political, social, and cultural premises that have informed the reception of the Civil War both in scholarly and public discussions in the U.S. since the 1960s. First of all, in the 1960s, American historiography began to reconceptualize its scholarly interests in and theoretical approaches to the Civil War and the era of Reconstruction by addressing new issues, such as the role of abolition, the significance of slavery, and questions of race and gender—issues that were growing out of larger critical debates in the fields of cultural and literary studies. Secondly, as late as in the 1980s this new interest in the Civil War was additionally spurred by revisionist projects in disciplines such as historiography, cultural studies and literary criticism that scrutinized earlier readings of American history in the context of a critical deconstruction of the canon and in an effort to include hitherto marginalized voices in the study of the war.

At the backdrop of the political and social movements of emancipation, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, American literature at the same time (re)discovered the Civil War as a central cultural conflict in American history and society. As a result, fictional texts of the Civil War from then on offer more complex discourses of reevaluating this profound conflict of the past in the framework of the controversial debates about definitions of American culture(s) in the present.

Before the 1980s, American literature had produced relatively few novels (and with varying degrees of literary quality) that specifically thematized the Civil War. A list of better known examples of such novels would include Margaret Mitchell’s best seller Gone with the Wind (1936; Pulitzer Prize 1937), MacKinley Kantor’s Andersonville (1955; Pulitzer Prize 1955), Shelby Foote’s Shiloh (1952) and The Civil War: A Narrative History (1958, 1963, 1974) as well as Robert Penn Warren’s Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War (1961), William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1973). Since the 1980s, however, new Civil War novels have been published on an annual basis, including, among others, highly praised titles such as Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus (1989), The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War by Howard Bahr (1997), By Blood Possessed by Elena Santangelo (1999), and The Other Side: A Novel of the Civil War by Kevin McColley (2000) as well as E. L. Doctorow’s The March (2005). Cold Mountain (1997; National Book Award in 1997) by Charles Frazier certainly belongs to an outstanding group of contemporary Civil War novels. It shall serve as a case study here for exploring the question of how twentieth-century literary fiction constructs narratives about history. In his novel, Frazier tells the story of Inman, a carpenter from the South, who is treated in an army hospital in Virginia for severe injuries that he received in the battle of Petersburg in 1864. His experience as a soldier fighting for the Confederate army in the battlefields of the Civil War as well as the bleak prospect of having to go back to the war after convalescence cause him to leave the hospital illegally and thus to desert the army.

Fuelled by a strong longing for his native country, Inman begins the journey back to his home at Cold Mountain, a mountain region in North Carolina. Still suffering from the pain of his injury, he walks through the South a few months prior to the end of the war and encounters various groups of people: escaped slaves and treks of displaced whites, chased away from their farms by the Union army, as well as marauding gangs and head-hunters of the home guard searching for deserters on behalf of the Confederate army. At the end of his long and dangerous escape, Inman reaches Cold Mountain and is reunited with Ada, the woman he fell in love with shortly before he went to war. They spend a few days of happiness together before Inman leaves again, this time for the North, to hide until the end of the war. On his way, however, he is caught by the home guard and shot dead while attempting to flee. At the backdrop of this plot, Frazier constructs powerful images that run counter to the myths about the Old South—myths that are sustained, for instance by Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind and the film based on the novel, and that since the 1930s have prevailed as stereotypes in the American public consciousness (and beyond) until today.

Similarly to Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Frazier’s novel uses a narrative strategy of individualizing war experience in order to stage a discourse that deconstructs idealized moral concepts of the war and its combatants. There is, however, a decisive difference between Frazier’s protagonist Inman and the Union army soldier Henry Fleming with regard to the attitude towards these moral values: While Henry does grasp the contradictory nature of these values, he still submits to them, even though his initiation to become a heroic soldier and man is based upon a lie. In contrast, Inman appears as a literary character that is thoroughly disillusioned due to his gruesome experience in the war and hence deliberately chooses to desert the war altogether, thus taking an active stance against the ideology of false patriotism and nationalism.

The images of the war in this novel, sketched as retrospective fragments of Inman’s reflections about the war and the South, forcefully dismantle any positive values about the war whatsoever on three levels of discourse. On the first level, theses images evoke highly impressive reflections of the battles and the shocking brutality committed by human beings under the conditions of war:

The wounded Federals moaned and keened and hummed between gritted teeth on the frozen field and some called out the names of loved ones. To this accompaniment, the poorly shod of Inman’s party climbed over the wall to yank the boots off the dead. Though his own boots were in fair shape, Inman made a late-night foray onto the field simply to see what the day’s effort had accomplished . . . . Later, many hours after midnight, Inman looked into one of the houses scattered about the field . . . . Inman walked through the house and out the back door and saw a man killing a group of badly wounded Federals by striking them in the head with a hammer. The Federals had been arranged in an order, with their heads all pointing one way, and the man moved briskly down the row, making a clear effort to let one strike apiece do. (Frazier, 8–9)

The second level of literary discourse deconstructs various myths about the political and military leaders on both sides of the war. They are shown as despots rather than wise father figures. At the same time, this disenchantment of the legendary heroic generals is linked to the question of how collective moral values are being politically instrumentalized:

Old Lee, not to be outdone, said it’s a good thing war is so terrible or else we’d get to liking it too much . . . . Even back then, early in the war, [Inman’s] opinion differed considerably from Lee’s, for it appeared to him that we like fighting plenty, and the more terrible it is the better. And he suspected that Lee liked it most of all and would, if given his preference, general them right through the gates of death itself. What troubled Inman most, though, was that Lee made it clear he looked on war as an instrument of clarifying God’s obscure will. Lee seemed to think battle—among all acts man might commit—stood outranked in sacredness only by prayer and Bible reading. (Frazier, 8)

Finally, on a third level, the text establishes a notion that goes beyond the idea of the Civil War as a singular historical event and that questions war in general:

It was simple enough to tell fortunes if a man dedicated himself to the idea that the future will inevitably be worse than the past and that time is a path leading nowhere but a place of deep and persistent threat. The way Inman saw it, if a thing like Fredericksburg was to be used as a marker of current position, then many years hence, at the rate we’re going, we’ll be eating one another raw. (Frazier, 16)


Inman fared on through this territory, criticizing its every feature. How did he ever think this to be his country and worth fighting for? Ignorance alone would account for it. All he could list in his mind worth combat right now was his right to exist unmolested somewhere on the west fork of the Pigeon River drainage basin, up on Cold Mountain . . . . (Frazier, 65)

In addition to these imageries of the war, Cold Mountain delineates an extensive panorama of the social and political contradictions as well as the decay of the South at the time of the Civil War.

By staging Inman’s escape from the war as a long and agonizing journey with encounters of people of different racial, ethnic, socio-economic and educational background, Frazier enacts a plot structure that offers differentiated insights into the history, culture, and moral state of Southern society at the close of the Civil War depicted through literary images of individual experience. In this way, the text creates metaphors that evoke vivid associations of the symptoms of the political and cultural dissolution of the Old South as a social system.

Besides Inman, the character of Ruby is exemplary for Frazier’s narrative strategy of individuation that assigns genuinely distinctive dimensions to representatives of the South. Raised in a poor white family, Ruby displays the personality of a pragmatic and self-reliable woman that exposes the highly cultivated and sophisticated manners of Ada, her Southern aristocratic counterpart, as artificial and meaningless, as the following scene demonstrates:

Money’s not it, Ruby said. Like I said, I’m not exactly looking to hire out. I’m saying if I’m to help you here, it’s with both of us knowing that everybody empties their own night jar. Ada started to laugh but then realized this was not meant to be funny. Something on the order of equality, was Ruby’s demand. It seemed from Ada’s point of view an odd one. But on reflection she decided that since no one else was lined up to help her, and since she had been tossing her own slops all summer, the request was fair enough. (Frazier, 52)

In the final analysis, the story of Inman in Cold Mountain enacts a discourse about the South that reconceptualizes the social and cultural coordinates of Southern society in terms of their significance for the individual. The historic event of the Civil War, however, serves as the triggering moment in the narrative for exploring individual notions of identity as well as for inquiring moral concepts of a past society through the lens of contemporary America.


As manifested in the readings of the selected novels, the Civil War continues to take a significant role in fictional reconstructions of history. This role is primarily based on the nature of this fratricidal war as an epochal conflict in American society that radically revealed the contradictions and discrepancies in regard to national self-definitions. It is in this sense that the Civil War can be read as constitutive for conceptualizing American culture in the past and present. The fictional narratives of the Civil War in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature thematize the shifts in societal discourses about this conflict at the backdrop of the respective cultural concepts and thus invent unique stories about history that reflect the continuities and discontinuities inherent in the contemporary controversies about defining America.

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1962.

Bierce, Ambrose. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San Francisco: E. L. G. Steele, 1891.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: D. Appleton, 1895.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, 12427. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Fluck, Winfried. “Realismus, Naturalismus, Vormoderne.” In Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte, ed. Hubert Zapf, 154–217. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 1997.

Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiation: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Kaplan, Nancy. “The Spectacle of War in Crane’s Revision of History.” In New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell, 77–108. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Newsweek. October 8, 1990, 5864.

The Nation. December 3, 1990, 69596.

Time. October 8, 1990, 78.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.


Select Bibliography


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Faulkner, Harold Underwood, and Tyler Kepner. America: Its History and People. Part 1. War Department Education Manual 218. Washington: Harper & Brothers, 1944.

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Lowry, Thomas P. The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Meltzer, Milton, ed. Letters from the Civil War: A Documentary History of the Great American Conflict. New York: Thomas Y. Cowell, 1989.

Murphy, Jim. The Boy’s War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War. New York: Clarion Books, 1990.

McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Perman, Michael, ed. Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction: Documents and Essays. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1998.

Potter, David M. Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.

Ray, Delia. Behind the Blue and Gray: The Soldier’s Life in the Civil War. New York: Scholastic, 1994.

Tindall, George B., and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. New York: Norton, 1989.


Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. New York: D. Appleton, 1895.

Doctorow, E. L. The March. New York: Random House, 2005.

Finseth, Ian Frederick. The American Civil War. An Anthology of Essential Writings. New York, London: Routledge, 2006.

Fletscher, William A. Rebel Private: Front and Rear. New York: Penguin, 1908, 1995.

Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Hansen, Joyce. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl. New York: Scholastic, 1997.

Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. New York: Ballantine, 1974.

Literary Criticism

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1962.

Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War. Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Lively, Robert A. Fiction Fights the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Madden, David and Peggy Bach, eds. Classics of Civil War Fiction. Tusccaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.


Andersonville. DVD. Directed by John Frankenheimer. 1996; Turner Home Entertainment, 2004.

Cold Mountain. DVD. Directed by Anthony Minghella. 2003; Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.

Glory. DVD. Directed by Edward Zwick. 1989; Sony Pictures, 1998.

God & Generals. DVD. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. 2003; Warner Home Video, 2003.

Gone With the Wind. DVD. Directed by Victor Fleming. 1939; Warner Home Video, 2000.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. DVD. Directed by Ken Cameron. 1994; Allumination 2004.

Ride With The Devil. DVD. Directed by Ang Lee. 1999; Universal Studios, 2000.


Reinhard Isensee has earned his Ph.D. in American Literature from Humboldt University in Berlin. He has been a faculty member at the American Studies Program at Humboldt University for many years and has taught lectures and seminars on various topics of American literature, culture, and history. He pursued his post-doctoral research in 20th-century American adolescent literature and completed his Habilitation in 2001. It was published as The Other Reader: Erzählkonstruktionen im Jugendroman der USA seit den 1960er Jahren, Frankfurt am Main 2003. With a particular interest in transatlantic and transnational issues, Reinhard Isensee has more recently focused his research on visual media with a special emphasis on the cultural work of digital media. His recent publications include Picturing America: Trauma, Realism, Politics and Identity in American Visual Culture, Frankfurt am Main 2007 (coedited with Antje Dallmann and Philipp Kneis) and Transcultural Visions of Identities in Images and Texts: Transatlantic American Studies, Heidelberg 2008 (coedited with Wilfried Raussert). Dr. Isensee has repeatedly held guest professorships at colleges and universities in the United States and in Europe.

Suggested Citation

Isensee, Reinhard. “Fiction as Reconstruction of History: Narratives of the Civil War in American Literature.” American Studies Journal 53 (2009). Web. 22 Jun. 2024. DOI 10.18422/53-05.


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