I’m having a splendid time with Edmund Wilson’s book about the literature of the Civil War, with the strange title of ‘Patriotic Gore’. It comes from a song of the Confederate South, “Maryland, My Maryland”: “Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore and be the battle queen of yore…”
At a White House reception, President John Kennedy asked Wilson about the book and Wilson told him to buy a copy.
I find this book very helpful because Wilson takes the time and trouble to read huge ponderous tomes and give us the essence. I”ve tried reading ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ several times, but it’s just too ponderous.
Wilson reads all the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and all her letters and her biography and gives us a summary and some telling insights. For instance, he observes that God Almighty seems to speak through the voices of her African American characters, probably because the Beecher family had an elderly black servant who often quoted scripture.
He also reads all the letters of Harriet’s husband Calvin Stowe, which are very interesting indeed because Calvin has visions of other-worldly phantoms exhibiting “all possible combinations of size, shape, proportion and color” but most usually the human form. One pleasant looking face visited every night in his youth, peering through an unfinished place in the wall. Stowe named him Harvey.
Once Harriet missed a train and returned home unexpectedly. She sat down in the living room, but Calvin didn’t notice her until she laughed, because he thought she was one of his phantoms.
This book also has great portaits of Francis Grierson, Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and, of course Abraham Linoln, as well as lots of Southern writers I haven’t got to yet.
In his discussion of Lincoln, Wilson cuts through the lore that depicts “a folksy and jocular countryman swapping yarns at the village store or making his way to the White House by uncertain and awkward steps.” And he has some fun at the expense of Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.
“There are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg,” Wilson writes.
Far from getting at the real Lincoln behind the lore, Wilson says Sandburg has merely assembled a kind of album of Lincoln clippings.”It would, however, be more easily acceptable as a repository of Lincoln folk-lore if the compiler had not gone so far in contributing to this folk-lore himself. Here is Sandburg’s intimate account of the behavior of Lincoln’s mother, about whom almost nothing is known:
“‘She would croon in the moist evening twilight to the shining face in the sweet bundle, “Hush thee, hush thee, thy father’s a gentleman!”
“‘She could toss the bundle in the air against a far, hazy line of blue mountains, catch it in her two hands as it came down, let it snuggle to her breast and feed, while she asked, “Here we come — where from?” And after they had both sunken in the depths of forgetful sleep, in the early dark and past midnight, the tug of his mouth at her nipples in the grey dawn matched in its freshness the first warblings of birds and the morning stars leaving the earth to the sun and dew.'”
Wilson also cites a passage where Sandburg describes Lincoln’s feelings about Ann Rutledge another figure in Lincoln’s life about whom we know almost nothing:
“”So often all else would fade out of his mind and there would be only this riddle of a pink-fair face, a mouth and eyes in a frame of light corn-silk hair. He could ask himself what it meant and search his heart for an answer and no answer would come. A trembling took his body and dark waves ran through him sometimes when she spoke so simple a thing as, “The corn is getting high, isn’t it?”‘”
Wilson can’t resist commenting: “The corn is getting high, indeed!”