The Literature of the American Civil War | Newberry

The Literature of the American Civil War

Thursday, December 12, 2013Friday, December 13, 2013

9 am to 3 pm

Dr. Justine Murison, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Chicago Teachers as Scholars

In his memoir Specimen Days, Walt Whitman declared, “the real war will never get in the books.” It may be more accurate to say, however, that Civil War literature, including Whitman’s own writings, though written, often still remains largely unread. The traditional American literary canon often omits much of what was published and read during the Civil War and Reconstruction, hopping from the canonical figures of the 1850s (Melville, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Whitman himself) to late-century realists like Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. Civil War literature, though, potentially challenges certain accepted stories we tell about the relation of the nation to its literature. Did antebellum writers known best for romance and transcendentalism abandon those attachments in the face of war, and if so, why? How did the material realities and ideological debates of the war constrict and shape what was published. Can we even categorize this literature, especially the literature of the Confederacy, as “American literature”? By reading a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from the era, along with scholarship on the Civil War, we will consider how Civil War writing changes the broader narratives we tell of American literary history and perhaps, ultimately, they will allow us to consider Whitman’s more profound point—whether literature (or any cultural medium) can ever truly capture the reality of war.

The program is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Cost and Registration Information 

Registration opens September 12, 2013.

For registration information, please contact Charlotte Wolfe Ross at