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Ashes of the Mind

Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 18651900

Martin Griffin
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Ashes of the Mind
    Book Description:

    The memory of the American Civil War took many forms over the decades after the conflict ended: personal, social, religious, and political. It was also remembered and commemorated by poets and fiction writers who understood that the war had bequeathed both historical and symbolic meanings to American culture. Although the defeated Confederacy became best known for producing a literature of nostalgia and an ideological defensiveness intended to protect the South’s own version of history, authors loyal to the Union also confronted the question of what the memory of the war signified, and how to shape the literary response to that individual and collective experience. In Ashes of the Mind, Martin Griffin examines the work of five Northerners—three poets and two fiction writers—who over a period of four decades tried to understand and articulate the landscape of memory in postwar America, and in particular in that part of the nation that could, with most justification, claim the victory of its beliefs and values. The book begins with an examination of the rhetorical grandeur of James Russell Lowell’s Harvard Commemoration Ode, ranges across Herman Melville’s ironic war poetry, Henry James’s novel of NorthSouth reconciliation, The Bostonians, and Ambrose Bierce’s short stories, and ends with the bitter meditation on race and nation presented by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s elegy “Robert Gould Shaw.” Together these texts reveal how a group of representative Northern writers were haunted in different ways by the memory of the conflict and its fraught legacy. Griffin traces a concern with individual and community loss, ambivalence toward victory, and a changing politics of commemoration in the writings of Lowell, Melville, James, Bierce, and Dunbar. What links these very different authors is a Northern memory of the war that became more complex and more compromised as the century went on, often replacing a sense of justification and achievement with a perception of irony and failed promise.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-099-4
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    The broad theme of this book is the literature of Civil War memory in the North from 1865 to 1900 in the shape of works by five authors who can be described as Northerners by virtue of birthplace, upbringing, and cultural identity. Four were adults during the Civil War, two older (James Russell Lowell and Herman Melville) and two younger, one of whom fought in the war (Ambrose Bierce) and one of whom did not (Henry James), and the fifth was born a few years after it was over (Paul Laurence Dunbar). In the texts I examine in this study,...

  5. 1 Cambridge Interiors: Lowell’s Commemoration Ode
    (pp. 29-64)

    Two poems of moderate length, each remembered in a different way and mirroring the rise and fall and rise of its respective author’s literary reputation, appeared in the months immediately following the end of the Civil War. James Russell Lowell read the first version of his “Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865,” on the date memorialized in the poem’s title, and in November 1865 Walt Whitman published his brief collectionSequel to Drum-Taps(the first poem of which was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) along with the longerDrum-Tapscollection, the latter having been withdrawn...

  6. 2 A Strange Remorse: Melville and the Measure of Victory
    (pp. 65-93)

    The publication of Herman Melville’s collection of poetryBattle-Pieces and Aspects of the Warin August 1866, almost ten years after his last work of fiction,The Confidence-Man, had appeared, was not the same kind of ceremonial unveiling that James Russell Lowell’s commissioned piece had enjoyed. There was certainly no equivalent commemorative and communal occasion on which the book was first presented to the public, and Melville had little or no access to the kind of cultural network of recommendation and dissemination to which the Commemoration Ode, as a poem stamped with something of the institutional imprimatur of Harvard, could...

  7. 3 The Road from Memorial Hall: Memory and Culture in The Bostonians
    (pp. 94-133)

    Henry James’s first substantial artistic engagement with matters of nation, division, and memory – and his last until the “Richmond” chapter ofThe American Scenein 1907 – appeared almost twenty years after the end of the Civil War.¹ Later still is his reference to James Russell Lowell’s Harvard Commemoration Ode – a text that James returned to read many times during his life – in the moving and elegiac passage inNotes of a Son and Brother, composed almost fifty years after the war ended.² James never reviewed Lowell’s poem at the time of its public unveiling, with the...

  8. 4 Bierce and Transformation
    (pp. 134-174)

    The fiction writer who seemed to be haunted by the memory of the Civil War to a greater degree than any other of his generation was Ambrose Bierce. For Bierce, this condition was not a matter of a contaminated political legacy or the fear of a morally dysfunctional national imaginary such as that which overshadowed Melville’sBattle-Pieces. Rather, it was rooted in something we have come to grasp, almost to be casually familiar with, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the persistence of a traumatic memory of combat experience within the psyche of the individual veteran. The stories that Bierce...

  9. 5 Paul Laurence Dunbar: Memory and Memorial
    (pp. 175-208)

    From the double-edged approbation of William Dean Howells’s introduction to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s first substantial collection of poetry,Lyrics of Lowly Life, in 1896, through Langston Hughes’s confidently ambiguous reference to a “major (albeit minor) poet” in his 1966 essay “Two Hundred Years of American Negro Poetry” to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s tentative recruitment of Dunbar to the ranks of “signifyin(g)” African American artists who set out to undermine European aesthetic paradigms in his 1988 studyThe Signifying Monkey, a certain line of perhaps subconscious evaluation of Dunbar emerges repeatedly. The implication of these critical assessments is of an artist...

  10. Coda: Long Road
    (pp. 209-220)

    Why memory? The question is worth raising. As I argue throughout this book, literary texts are a form of memory that walks a thin line between the subjectivities of individual experience (and their imaginative reinterpretation) and the public dynamics of collective memory and commemorative politics. Some of that argument is explicit, but much of it is woven into the readings of the individual texts. One particular objection to my basic approach, however, might be expressed as follows: despite its usefulness as a way of describing certain cultural phenomena, collective memory is nothing more than a metaphor, a conceit, and evidence...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 221-258)
  12. Index
    (pp. 259-265)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 266-267)