Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Unfamiliar War reclaims the importance of romanticism in American representations of the Civil War. According to almost one hundred and fifty years of critical consensus, the sentimentalized forms of popular poets failed to convey the horrors of Shiloh, and the romantic novel could not do justice to the body counts of Antietam. Critics valued instead realism's mimetic depictions of individual experience. This project goes against this approach, arguing for Civil War literature not as a failure, but rather as an effort to use romanticism to make sense of traumatic experiences. Revisiting romanticism's indirect depictions of violence portrays the mode not as escapist but rather as the most productive way for Americans to work through the pain of war and its aftermath. The critical arguments against this function are anachronistic evaluations of how we represent violence imposed in the years following the war. The post-bellum shift to realism marks not a move toward confronting the war but a repression of the very mode that shaped American understanding of the conflict. Thus we need to reread American realism for its inculcation with romanticism and attendant avoidance of violence.