Foreword | September 01, 1989
Foreword to 12.3
This issue contains several items of raw experience, most of which come out of momentous events in American history from the last one hundred fifty years: An overland journal by a forty-niner; the amazing diary of a young Massachusetts soldier in the Civil War; correspondence describing the last desperate days of the Modoc Indians in California during the 1870’s; a remarkable poem by an AWOL soldier residing in a mental institution during the Vietnam War; and an interview with Esther Jane Rohrer, a ninety-eight-year-old whose clear memories stretch beyond the turn of this century. The Scopes Trial cartoons are by Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, who received two Pulitzer Prizes during his forty-five year career with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Why is a literary magazine publishing such historical items? There is a reason for it, arising from our hope for a breath of fresh air in the future of literary discussion.
Diaries, histories, reminiscences, letters, and certain works of philosophy are long-established genres of literature, but increasingly over the last half-century literary critics and literary editors have focussed on the belles lettres, excluding writing that might be thought to be didactic or “formless” or too simply connected to events in the real world.
The established body of American Literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries comprises mainly histories, sermons, biographies, religious poetry, reminiscences, and political philosophy. Due to their strong orientation toward aesthetics, however, modern critics have demoted these genres to a “junior branch.” Literature is assumed to have such an attenuated connection to the world outside itself that it is misleading to discuss both at the same time. The belles lettres is its own singular world. Formalists assume that an author is like an alchemist or nuclear reactor, totally transforming elements of the world into elements of literature. What goes in does not come out. The history that inspires, say, a novel, may be interesting, but it is finally irrelevant to a serious critical discussion of the novel. Here all that “really matters” is what the writer has done with these primitive materials, and the way the final, pure artifact is put together—its words, structure, style, generic identity, and so on. Formalism runs so deep in the literary culture of the last fifty years that it is almost our ethnic identity. We are all Formalists, even those who write mad books of Deconstructionism to deny it. Deconstructionists hate the old church, the old identity, yet their views often seem like manic mimicry of the old ways.
I hold the prosaic view that authors frequently write out of fact or experience, no matter how they may alter it. When novelists or poets talk about their work, they naturally discuss the experience behind it. They are inspired by what they see or do or read about, and by what personally/concerns them. Their writing is impelled by measurable forces, and these real-world materials do in fact remain inside the final work. They are not utterly transformed, as a by-the-book Formalist might have it, or weirdly mauled out of all recognition by the coercive protocols of writing, as a Deconstructionist might.
As recently as the nineteenth century, the novel was thought to be dangerous, destroying the minds of its readers by inspiring unhealthy fantasizing and unreal thinking. Novels were felt to be mildly unsavory, at best—the same attitude that many today have about television. Thus, well in the 1800s, novelists wrote prefaces emphasizing the accuracy, truth, or factuality of their works. Today such apologies sound quaint. Perhaps at some time not far in the future so will the modern insistence on the”purity” of the act of literature.
Common sense tells us that part of the value and substance of a work is its resonance with the world—not just with themes and recurrences but singular episodes, as well. One of the questions that people ask over and over is “What was it really like?” Documents like the ones here presented for the first time answer that deep curiosity. They have “literary” value because they describe events crucial to our past in gritty detail, through the language and sensibilities of the day. They can take us places we’ve never been before, and tell us things about the world that we didn’t know.
Civil War bugler George Sargent didn’t know a comma from a period. His vocabulary and grammar were primitive. Yet even more compellingly than Red Badge of Courage—one of my favorite novels of all times, written by one of my favorite authors—his diary describes what it was like to be in the field during the Civil War, and how the young heroes (on both sides) handled the terror of that world.
William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This issue is dedicated to that idea, and to the hope that history may become a better understood aspect of literary studies
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