Fighting the Good Fight

Fighting the Good Fight

Today we share the conclusion to our fiction roundtable here on Muster, by our guest editor, Sarah E. Gardner. You can read all of the roundtable reviews by clicking on the links in her introduction. We hope you’ve enjoyed these reviews as much as we have here at The Journal of the Civil War Era.

“With the contemporary world rocking about their ears, American novelists seem bent on deserting the chaotic present for the past,” critic John Chamberlain wrote in 1938. “But the past that is luring more and more of them is no never-never land of shining order and fixed shared values; it is, rather, the chaotic period of the American Civil War, when society was cleft as it is today.”[1]

What was true in 1938 holds true in 2018. Sort of. I have no sense that writers in the 1930s evaded their present—economic depression, political unrest at home, and war clouds looming on the horizon—any more than writers in the first two decades of the twenty-first century seek to retreat from their present moment. Now, as then, writers turn to the past, at least in part, to encourage their readers to contemplate the world they inhabit.

The pressing question we are left with is whether, and to what degree, cultural production affects political change. Consider the conflicted emotions of a young wife whose husband was serving in the Union Army. In 1864, Lizzie Boyton Harbart, who in previous correspondence with her soldier-husband questioned his continued service in the Union Army, had reevaluated her position:

You have countless noticed criticisms upon a new book called “Peculiar”– the hero of the book being a slave, named by his master “peculiar institution.” I read it last week and it is given me more intense views of that most enormous evil of the nineteenth century, American slavery […] that I have ever read before–and when I closed the book and […] thought of all the attendant evils upon slavery I thanked God that I had been called on to give him who is dearer to me than all to a war that will eventually produce its overthrow. Sometimes I feel very brave, feel as though I could if called to do it give you up forever to my country.[2]

Lizzie had struggled with the overwhelming dread she felt when she imagined her husband dying in combat. And she still struggled when she wrote this letter. She thought she could bear the pain of his death. But she wasn’t sure. “At other times,” she confessed, “love obtains the mastery of patriotism. Selfishness predominates over love for country and I weep bitter tears at our separation and feel that if you were once more with me a whole world of wars could not–should not take you hence. It is not that I love my country less, but you the more.”[3]

This was movement, but maybe not enough. As Carole Emberton wrote in her review of Underground Airlines, Benjamin Winters challenges his readers “to imagine what true resistance would look like and how far they might be willing to go to achieve it.”[4] How far might Lizzie Boyton Harbart go? How far might we? Works that challenge the dominant narrative do just that. They lay the ground work, but they do not guarantee the results. To be sure, a novel had recalibrated Lizzie’s thinking about the scourge of slavery. Beyond that, though, tough to say.

What kind of work are we asking Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo or James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird do? Are we expecting too much?

We are well attuned to the cultural hegemony asserted by texts that carried outsized influence, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It is easy to forget that it engendered hostile reviews at the time of its publication. Malcolm Cowley’s review, which appeared in the New Republic, was particularly condescending. Mitchell’s novel, he puckishly wrote, told of “the callousness of the Carpetbaggers, the scalawaggishness of the Scalawags, the knightliness of the Ku Klux Klansmen, who frighten Negroes away from the polls, thus making Georgia safe for democracy and virtuous womanhood and Our Gene Talmadge – it is all here, every last bale of cotton and bushel of moonlight, every last full measure of full Southern female devotion working its lilywhite fingers uncomplainingly to the lilywhite bone.” Although this reading of the past was “false,” “silly,” and “vicious,” Mitchell wrote with abandon, unafraid of inevitable comparisons to more talented writers.[5]

When Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Ralph Thompson, a daily critic for the New York Times had this to say: “Here is what seemed to be when I reviewed it last year (and still seems to be) a good but overstuffed story,” he recapped, “grammatically clumsy in certain spots, historically clumsy in others, dominated by a pair of freaks named Scarlett and Rhett, and worked out with an assortment of stock-company Southerners. – and it wins not only a couple of million admirers … but the privilege of going down in history as the most distinguished novel in the year of our Lord 1936.”[6] Thompson’s disgust was palpable. But his views carried no weight with general readers. The novel’s popularity came at great cost.

Gone with the Wind was a scorched-earth text that, for a time, wiped away all other imaginary versions the Civil War. Critic Heyward Broun noted the irony of Mitchell’s claim to have written about a civilization and a culture that “have been blown from the face of the earth.” Mitchell’s fans, who raved about Gone with the Wind, Broun feared, guaranteed that publishers would continue to churn out novels written in the same vein. “You are going to get a great parcel of Southern novels from now on,” he concluded. “And on.”[7] He was spot on, of course. Although others penned Civil War counternarratives in the 1930s, none captured readers’ imaginations like Gone with the Wind.

How much of what Broun wrote in 1936 still holds true? Exciting new work appears and is reviewed favorably and prominently in the leading media outlets. But who reads the Times Book Review or listens to NPR? And how much weight do reviewers carry in an age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews? These are difficult questions to answer, perhaps especially so for those of us who believe (or want to believe) in the transformative power of literature. One wonders whether fifty years from now, when we mark the Civil War’s bicentennial, we will still have these conversations, as if on a repetitive loop of commemoration and violence.


[1] John Chamberlain, “Books,” Scribner’s Monthly 103 (May 1938): 82.

[2] Epes Sargent, Peculiar, A Tale of the Great Transition (New York: Carlton, 1864).

[3] Lizzie Boyton Harbart to William S. Harbart, Crawfordsville, Indiana, 15 March 1864, in the Elizabeth Boyton Harbart Papers, Addenda, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

[4] Carole Emberton, “A New ‘Alternative’ History: Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, October 26, 2018,

[5] Malcolm Cowley, “Going with the Wind,” The New Republic 88 (September 16, 1936): 161.

[6] Ralph Thompson, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, May 5, 1937, 24.

[7] Heyward Broun, “It Seems to Me,” The New York World-Telegram (September 19, 1936): 19A. See also, Sarah E. Gardner, Reviewing the South: The Literary Marketplace and the Southern Renaissance, 1920-1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Sarah Gardner

Sarah E. Gardner is Distinguished Professor of History at Mercer University. She is currently writing a book on reading during the American Civil War.

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