"Realities and Myths of War: Review of Jozef Pecina's The Representation of War in Ninenteenth-Century American Novels" by Zuzana Buráková
Zuzana Buráková is assistant professor at Pavol Jozef Safarik University in Košice, Slovakia. She teaches courses on the topics of literary theory, the history of American literature, and American ethnic literatures at the Department of British and American Studies. She is co-author of the monograph Reflection of Trauma in Selected Works of Postwar American and British Literature (2010, Pavol Jozef Safarik University) and has published papers in the collections Gender in Literature (2013, Pavol Jozef Safarik University) and Growing Up a Woman (2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing). Her research interests include Jewish American literature, trauma studies, and the works of Cormac McCarthy. E-mail:
The Representation of War in Nineteenth-Century American Novels
University of Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, 2015
American literature is abundant with books of different genres depicting war and its changing nature, from its traditional heroic depiction such as in James Fenimore Cooper´s The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821) to more realistic ones such as in Stephen Crane´s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), or critical and often even absurd ones such as in Kurt Vonnegut´s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) or Joseph Heller´s Catch-22 (1961). Since the publication of Tim O´Brien’s semi-fictionalized memoir The Things They Carried in 1990, we have seen the emergence of different types of war narratives in the forms of war dramas, war memoirs, and war graphic novels, and as Wallis Sandborn claims “the war novel as a literary genre in American literature is more prominent than ever” (Sanborn, 12). In his book titled The Representation of War in Nineteenth-century American Novels (2015), Jozef Pecina sets out to discuss the origin and history of the genre of the American war novel. Pecina is known in Central European circles of scholars for his research on peculiar and unknown works. He focuses on the forgotten genres of 19th-century American literature, such as war comics, antebellum plantation romances, and urban and sensational fiction. His monograph on the nineteenth-century war novel is an excellent sample of his research in lesser-known fields.
In his introduction, the author outlines several goals he aims to achieve in his work. His primary aim is to study how different nineteenth-century American authors approach the depiction of war as a historical and political concept in their novels. The author states very clearly that his intention is not to cover a wide range of war novels; instead, his research focuses more on the novels which mark the most pivotal stages of the development of American literature in the nineteenth century. While the depiction of war in American literature in general is a well-known and popular topic of research, Pecina’s book fills a research gap by focusing on lesser-known novelists and drawing interesting comparisons between these largely-forgotten authors and the canonized ones. Moreover, his comparison of the authors is complemented by his examination of the historical periods in which the novels were influenced by the authors´ personal battlefield experiences, which he considers to be indispensable for ensuring the quality of war novels.
The second aim of the book is to examine the depiction of reality and what exactly constitutes battlefield realism in the genre of the war novel. Pecina uses memoirs, diaries of war veterans, and the research of military historians and psychologists to provide an insightful look into what he calls “the battlefield of realism” (5) in American war novels of the nineteenth century and poses questions about the authenticity of battle scenes in the works of individual authors. In addition to these two main aims, Pecina also examines the impact of crucial historical events on the development of American literature in general and ruminates on the elusive definition of the war novel genre, which has been altered on the basis of whether the emphasis was on heroism and honor or on a more realistic depiction of the horrors of the war.
The book is divided into seven chapters discussing a variety of different ways of treating war in literary works from either romantic or realistic perspectives, complemented by Pecina’s detailed knowledge of the historical and cultural contexts of each specific period. Each chapter is divided into several subchapters, which focus on the analysis of specific literary works as well as their authors and respective historical time periods.
A good example of the first aim of the monograph is the first chapter, in which Pecina discusses selected fiction by James Fenimore Cooper and by John Neal, a nineteenth-century writer who is now almost completely forgotten. The chapter addresses emotional, heroic, and patriotic depictions of war through which authors tend to romanticize the brutality of the conflicts. The first part of this chapter focuses on Cooper´s romantic treatment of the war and its contrast with the more realistic war novels that appeared after the Civil War, and reveals how idealizing Cooper’s depictions were. The author focuses on what literary scholars consider to be the first war novel, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), and draws comparisons with John Neal’s Seventy-Six, or, Love and Battle (1823). Pecina concludes that, since both authors depict battles as heroic and glorious, a new perception of war was needed (31). In the second part of the chapter, Pecina emphasizes Neal’s contribution to the history of American literature by placing him between two models of historical prose: one being stories inspired by Sir Walter Scott´s historical romances and the other by the works of the genre´s most famous representative, Cooper. According to Pecina, Neal is a crucial character in American literary history because he rejected the European—in other words, Scott´s—influence and attempted to create a literary model which would come to be considered distinctly American. Neal´s contribution to the American war novel thus lies mainly in his experimentation with a new style of writing, as he believed that the best language for prose is the language of feeling or colloquial prose.
As for the changes in the depiction of war, the transition from the antebellum period towards the carnage and trauma which the Civil War brought to the country is reflected in the shift from romantic treatments of war to the beginnings of American realism in literature. Pecina demonstrates this move through John William De Forest´s contribution to a more realistic portrayal of the battlefield in his autobiographical works, such as Miss Ravenel´s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) and A Volunteer´s Adventures: A Union Captain´s Record of the Civil War (1946). De Forest is considered by many literary critics to be a pioneer of realism in American literature (33), as Pecina states in an extensive chapter about his influence on the war novel. He refers to other literary critics of war such as Eric Solomon (1986), Phillip Barrish (2011) or Edmund Wilson (1962).
Pecina elaborates well on the return of the influence of Sir Walter Scott on the genre of historical and war novels, and on the literature of the American South in particular, through the fiction of John Esten Cooke in the chapter titled “Southern Writing about the Civil War.” Cooke was a writer from the American South whose works gradually evolved from popular colonial period romances to addressing more realistic themes. However, as Pecina observes, his changing style failed to win the praise of literary critics. Even though the Civil War remains one of the most well-documented wars in American history, there are few among this large volume of writing that rank among the celebrated works of American literature (67). Pecina notes that one of the reasons for this is that most American writers of that period did not participate in the war personally, which was reflected in the lack of literary quality of their works. Pecina discusses this idea in contrast to the works of Mark Twain, Henry Adams, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. He concludes the chapter by stating that in the case of all four authors “an important role in their absence was certainly played by the lack of self-confidence, diffidence and a mechanism of self-defense and all four of them felt guilty for their failure to participate in the most important event of the nineteenth century United States” (76).
The monograph concludes with the examination of one of the most representative authors of the war novel, Stephen Crane, and his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Pecina’s profound analysis of the novel with an emphasis on the elements of realism is complemented with the author’s analogy with De Forest’s aforementioned novel, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). Stephen Crane paved the way for the war novels which appeared in the twentieth century, even though, as Pecina maintains, John William De Forest was a pioneer of writing about war in a realistic way prior to him.
Pecina draws innovative conclusions in each chapter of his monograph by connecting the historical and literary contexts of American war literature. Such connections make the book more interdisciplinary than the usual theoretical works on American literature. Not only does he answer questions about the origins of the war novel in the American literary context but he is also able to justify America´s obsession with the topic of the Civil War, which has inspired all kinds of different literary genres. The Civil War has, according to Pecina, inspired numerous studies of memoirs and diaries of war veterans, research of military historians and psychologists and even today provokes new insights into the events of the nineteenth century (106). Perhaps Pecina´s next monograph could expand more on the emergence of lesser-known literary genres influenced by the American war novel. Overall, this book is an excellent blend of rigorous historical research combined with extensive literary expertise that can serve as essential source material to both historians and literary scholars.
- Barrish, Philip. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Sanborn, Wallis. 2012. The American Novel of War: A Critical Analysis and Classification System, Jefferson: McFarland.
- Solomon, Eric, ed. 1986. The Faded Banners: memorable Writings of the Civil War. New York: Promontory Press.
- Wilson, Edmund. 1962. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. Boston: Northeastern University Press.