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Friday, October 12, 2012

Jane Hirshfield on Czesław Miłosz, (California) Poet

Come, Thief
by Jane Hirshfield
(Knopf, 2011)
Jane Hirshfield, who published her seventh book of poems, Come, Thief (Knopf), last year, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with this appreciation of the life and work of Czesław Miłosz, whose Selected and Last Poems: 1931–2004 Ecco Press published in 2011.

In 1936, at age twenty-five, Czesław Miłosz wrote this poem:
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Wilno, 1936
(tr: Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee)
In 1991, in “Capri,” he wrote:
I reach eighty, I fly from San Francisco to Frankfurt and Rome, a passenger who once travelled three days by horse carriage from Szetejnie to Wilno.
(tr: Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)
Between those two poems, a changed life. Between those two poems, a changed world.

In late 2002, at ninety-one and returned to Poland from his long self-exile (ten years in Paris, then forty as professor and poet in Berkeley), Miłosz wrote this small poem in his notebook:
I pray to my bedside god.
For He must have billions of ears.
And one ear He keeps always open to me.

(tr: Anthony Miłosz)
Reading this in English eight years after the poet's death, I was struck by its curious “bedside.” A translator’s note explains: the original adjective means “near-at-hand,” “handy.” The Polish words for a first aid kit, a home-library reference book, and hand luggage all use some form of podręczny. This would, then, be not the distant and fearsome God of Judgment, but the rescuing one who knows every sparrow that falls, and the poem points toward a fully-felt fulcrum of balance: its god is local and large, intimate and immense, able to carry in a small, household form something vast, life-saving, and essential. Even the typography holds dual vision: the “g” of “god,” is lower-case; the pronoun is “He.”


Czesław Miłosz was a writer who thought much about the large. He pondered history, philosophy, religion, and, throughout his life, the central question of suffering. Yet he remained all his life a poet whose descriptions and affections were ultimately tuned to the small, the visibly near—a vanishing world slips into the vanishing body of a hare. Abstraction, ideas pried loose from those who lived and held them, were—he had witnessed—murderous. A lifelong Catholic, he could write without embarrassment of the Eternal, while remaining equally a poet of preservation and memory: of a pleated taffeta dress, a childhood river, a Warsaw librarian dead in the war, a snake, a cat. He loved debate, but also to eat, and to look. A meal had its lamb, its olives, the wood of its table, its view. An overheard conversation between women in a museum cafeteria might be conscripted into a poem of delight in our “tiny, tiny my-ness.”

For four of his nine decades, what was local, intimate, and at-hand to Czesław Miłosz was California and his Tudor-style storybook cottage on Grizzly Peak. One prose book is titled Visions from San Francisco Bay—his daily view. And so, because it is biographically true, and because he was a poet of the podręczny—of what is near to the hand—this poet of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland was nonetheless a poet of whom we might say also: of California.

Some facts. Born in 1911, Miłosz spent his youth in the forests and farmlands of Szetejnie, Lithuania, a member of a Polish-speaking landholding family in a place where historical borders had long been fluid. He died in Krakow, Poland, at age 93, in 2004. In between, he attended university in Vilnius, traveled to Paris in the 1930s, watched as a member of the Polish resistance during the Second World War first the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and then of the larger city. He came to America first as a postwar diplomat serving the Washington D.C. embassy. After he defected, first leading the life of an émigré writer in Paris, he found a home in America, teaching in relative obscurity in the Slavic Languages Department of the University of California, Berkeley—until the Nobel Prize in 1980 procured him both that rarest of perks, a personal parking place on the Berkeley campus, and fame.

The locating of poets isn't an act of mine-stake claiming. Poets’ words are community property, and poems need no passports to pass through borders. Miłosz took U.S. citizenship, but addressed himself as “voyager” in one poem, and in another wrote to his “faithful mother tongue” (Polish), “You were my native land: I lacked any other.” We cannot unmixedly call him an “American” poet. Yet he wrote in a Polish magazine of “my fraternity of California poets.”

Miłosz was fluent in Polish, French, and English, learned Lithuanian, Russian, and some Yiddish in childhood, traveled widely (mushroom hunting in forests wherever he could). He served as ambassador between the world's literary traditions, including in his anthology A Book of Luminous Things translations of poems from Europe, Asia, North and South America, Scandinavia, and the Near East.

The word “cosmopolitan” has many definitions. Some speak of the cosmopolitan as “free from local, provincial, or nationalist ideas or prejudices”; others say simply “belonging to, at home in, all the world.” For naturalists, the word means “globally at home”—humans, then, must be, along with ants and termites, a biologically cosmopolitan species.

We don’t ordinarily think of the cosmopolitan in terms of Walt Whitman’s “kosmos,” yet it seems here somehow apt. Walt Whitman was the one poet Miłosz praised entirely without demurral. Each was a poet of breadth-embrace and a seemingly omnivorous appetite for the detailed actual. You can see the slip-hem of this in the way Whitman cannot speak of himself as “kosmos” without naming himself simultaneously a poet of particular place: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” “Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son.” In these couplings is the same balance of large and local we find in Miłosz’s bedside god. Each time Whitman names himself universally capacious, he cannot seem to help issuing also a Morse Code tap on specific ground.


Perhaps I am trying to sketch here a premise too complicated for such a brief form as this virtual Library bookshelf. But Miłosz, a poet of almost incalculable range, continually reminds us also that poems, and poets, live in the small, in the local and comic recognition, in the living and perishing real. We do not, cannot, live in general; even exile takes place in a place, a deck overlooking a Bay, on which a poet with extravagant eyebrows turns the pages of a New Yorker for its cartoons. We breathe the air that is near to us, scented with redwoods and lemons, or with the exhaust of refineries, power plants, airplanes, wars. If a poet in exile continues writing, he or she will be sustained by that air and that place, and will become of it.

Let me close then with a poem by Czesław Miłosz scented with the smoke of California's cedars, which holds in its stanzas each of the places of affection here seen: Berkeley; Poland; his “place” among persons of letters, with both the hope of lasting and the acceptance of disappearance. Even the afterlife is landscape: mountainous, physical, wooded and ridged. This poem holds also history, politics, the devastation of the Second World War, the contemplation of aging and death. It breaks into almost incoherent fracture, an “omnium gatherum of chaos,” and feels its way back by effort of thought; Miłosz’s moral universe is always recalibrated by a self-judgment more severe than his judging of others. And then: the poem’s late shift into the altering “you” of direct address—for me, among the most moving and intimate gestures of all twentieth-century poems—in which Miłosz declares an abiding faithfulness to the place of his truest terrestrial citizenship: the multitudinous, flickering, humanly known, and altering earth he will leave.

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.

You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning
    of the world.

And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.

You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.

Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

(tr. by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)
All of the poems cited in this post appear in Czesław Miłosz: Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 and are used with permission from Ecco Press.

Jane Hirshfield contributed a remembrance of Miłosz to the book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz (2011). Miłosz once wrote about her work: “A profound empathy for the suffering of all living beings—it is precisely this I praise in the poetry of Jane Hirshfield. . . . In its highly sensuous detail, her poetry illuminates the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness. She is among the most outstanding of my fraternity of California poets.” Reviewing Come, Thief in The Washington Post, Steven Ratiner observed, “Hirshfield’s verse involves a deepening attention to every aspect of human experience, from the dailiness of our lives to the most ineffable moments.” Dwight Garner cited her Kindle Single, The Heart of Haiku (2011), as “so good” it awakens you to “what feels like the promise of a new genre.” About Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998), Gary Snyder wrote, “These expansive, fearless essays are on the basics of—not poesy in any small sense—but mind, wit, stalking, silky focus, the eros of knowledge, the steely etiquette of art.” In 2012, Hirshfield was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.

Jane Hirshfield reads and discusses “Winter” by Czesław Miłosz

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (includes an excerpt from Miłosz’s ABCs)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An interview with Gary K. Wolfe: why the 1950s were the golden age of the science fiction novel

Photo by Amelia Beamer /
Locus Magazine
Gary K. Wolfe, author of Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, spoke with us about the recent publication of the two-volume boxed set of American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which he edited for The Library of America.

When and how did you first discover the writers and books collected in this set?

I’m reasonably certain I first read all these novels before I was fifteen, since I was of the generation that more or less came of age with 1950s science fiction. Something that seems to be a common experience among young science fiction readers, probably true even today, is that we quickly develop a sense not only of our favorite writers, but even our favorite publishers, anthologists, and cover artists. By the time I’d been reading science fiction for a couple of years, I knew that my tastes veered toward Ballantine Books, and those wonderful Richard Powers covers (one appears on the Library of America boxed set and another on the jacket of the 1953–56 volume).

I returned to these authors later when the study of science fiction became part of my academic work, and then again when I was rereading to make the selection for this two-volume set. Obviously, some writers and titles stood up better than others, but I was a bit pleasantly surprised at how well some of them not only stood up, but gained added resonance in perspective.

What makes the 1950s the golden age of the science fiction novel?

“Golden age” is probably a term that takes on different meanings depending on which generation of science fiction readers you talk to. A fan named Peter Graham is said to have originated the widely-quoted claim that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve,” and there’s probably something to that.

The most common usage, however, came about in the 1950s and pretty clearly reflected the attitudes of readers and writers of that generation. For them, the “golden age” commonly referred to the 1940s, the decade or so after John W. Campbell Jr. assumed the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction, when major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, and others developed their reputations.

The 1940s was a crucial time for science fiction’s development, but it wasn’t a golden age of novels. That wasn’t possible until there was a substantial market for them, which didn’t develop until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when major publishers began to take note of the genre, possibly spurred on by the rise of paperback books and the demand for new material. It suddenly became possible for writers—whose previous markets had mostly consisted of pulp short fiction magazines—to conceive a full-length novel and expect to find a publisher for it, and possibly even a decent advance. This was more true in the U.S. than in England, it should be noted, which had a slightly different literary history for science fiction.

Did you have any principles or guidelines in mind in making the selection of the novels?

We began with some obvious ground rules, such as defining the 50s as the years 1950–59. My own rule was that the novels we selected should be genuine 1950s novels, meaning that they were conceived as novels and not novel-length works assembled from earlier short stories. A number of important SF works published during the 1950s—Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Clifford Simak’s City, James Blish’s The Seedling Stars—were actually story collections with some connective material added, or what are sometimes called “fix-ups.” My feeling was that such works actually represented the short fiction of the 1940s rather than the novels of the 1950s.

Beyond that, we tried to avoid a too-obvious “greatest hits” collection. Instead, we wanted a variety of SF themes and a variety of ways in which these works informed, or were informed by, the ongoing dialogue about science, technology, and society that was quite lively during that decade. It would be possible to fill a volume with nothing but nuclear apocalypse tales, for example, but that could lead to a distorted view of the field, and would ignore the ways in which science fiction grappled with other issues, from religion (A Case of Conscience) to consumerism (The Space Merchants).

How would you recommend these novels to readers who aren’t knowledgeable about SF or regular readers of it?

I often hear complaints from non-readers that some modern science fiction can be challenging, or that it’s difficult to find an accessible entry point for reading it. It’s true that SF has developed a sizable number of conventions and tropes that can be confusing to the uninitiated; sometimes even the way SF uses language can be daunting. These novels were written when SF was still in the process of developing those conventions and usages, and thus can provide both a solid grounding and a convenient entry point. I also hear from a number of people who read science fiction when younger, but moved on as they grew older. For them there may be a nostalgia factor—although that really isn’t the point of the collection—and it may provide an opportunity to re-examine some of those youthful passions in perspective.

How would you recommend the set to avid SF buffs?

Science fiction is old enough by now to have several generations of fans, and in each generation are those who want to “read back” into the history of the field before they began reading it. I’ve met a number of readers, already in their 40s, whose first experiences with the genre date from the cyberpunk period, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for example. They might be interested in discovering how Gibson echoes some of Alfred Bester, or what popular contemporary writers like Connie Willis or Neil Gaiman learned from Robert Heinlein or Fritz Leiber. This is one of the reasons I think the website accompanying the set is so important; the essays by contemporary writers offer an opening into the archaeology of the genre, as well of evidence of its continuing influence. In addition, I believe the novels themselves stand out as good SF even by today’s standards.

Do you have a favorite novel in the collection?

I suppose like most readers, my favorites change over time. The novels which most affected me when younger were probably Sturgeon’s More Than Human and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, in that order. I think they hold up pretty well, as does the satire of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. But the first novel I selected for the collection was Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which is capable of thoroughly surprising readers even today.

The online companion includes appreciations of the novels by contemporary SF novelists—Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Peter Straub, Connie Willis, and others. How has contemporary writing been influenced by the novels from the 1950s? What’s the relationship between the classic works collected here and the contemporary literary scene?

I think those contemporary writers speak better for themselves than I could hope to, and I’ve already mentioned how some of the tropes and conventions of the field were very much still in development during the 50s. What has surprised and delighted me over the last several years is the degree to which the work of contemporary writers not directly associated with science fiction—Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Margaret Atwood, etc.—has been informed by works like these. We’re beginning to see a broadening of literary ancestry, if you will, expanding beyond the traditional canon to include not only science fiction, but the crime and noir novels which The Library of America has also recognized in earlier collections.

It’s a little harder to gauge the impact of the ideas in these novels in the wider popular culture, but it’s interesting to note how the pastoral post-apocalyptic settings of novels and films like The Hunger Games or new TV series like Revolution echo the setting of Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, or how satires of the advertising field like Mad Men echo elements of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants.

What’s the most fun/interesting discovery you made while working on the online companion?

It was surprising to discover how much audio and video material was available, including several radio and TV adaptations of works by our authors (not necessarily the novels themselves) which are on the website. These give a sense of how science fiction appeared in other media during the 50s, of what its pop-culture surfaces looked like in an era before the advent of big-budget CGI epics. For me the most delightful discovery was the wide-ranging audio interview with Leigh Brackett, which is full of fascinating bits about her Hollywood career as well as her SF and mystery writing.

The novels collected in the set are over half a century old. In what ways are the issues/themes/fears they are grappling with still our own?

Well, nuclear anxiety certainly hasn’t gone away, as the current concerns over Iran indicate. But it’s changed focus; instead of fears of a global nuclear apocalypse waged by superpowers, it’s shifted toward terrorism and rogue regimes. The power of intrusive advertising and media is still a topic of much public discussion, although it too has shifted, from TV and newspapers toward social media and the Internet—something SF more or less missed the ball on (although SF has never been all that successful in actual predictions, which was never what it was about in the first place).

But the most effective science fiction, like the most effective fiction, is about more than topicality, and science fiction can also provide powerful literalized metaphors for more universal concerns such as identity, alienation, even revenge. Budrys’s Who? may be very much a Cold War novel in terms of its topicality, but its central issue asks what our identity is comprised of—how we would prove who we actually are if challenged. Sturgeon’s More Than Human, like much of his fiction, is about how damaged or alienated outsiders can become part of a larger whole. Even Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, perhaps the most fable-like tale in the set, deals quite literally with diminishment and loss, and (spoiler alert, perhaps) offers no scientific or technological “fix” for its protagonist’s existential condition.

Where should The Library of America go from here? What’s the next logical project?

The 1950s was a crucial and transformative decade in SF, but it would be overreaching to claim that it represents the entirety of the ways in which SF has contributed to American literature. I can see three possible future directions. One involves recognizing the ways in which short fiction was crucial to the development of the genre prior to the 1950s, especially in the 1930s and 1940s (or even earlier), when many of the standard templates and tropes of the genre were developed. Another would be to look at later decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s, when significant new voices—Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, etc.—radically changed the literary tone and ambitions of the genre. A third, obviously, would be to recognize individual writers in the manner in which The Library of America has already recognized Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. Two writers who have passed away within the last couple of years and who would be strong candidates are Ray Bradbury and Joanna Russ.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Billy Collins, Pete Hamill, Philip Levine, Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, many others at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival

Johnny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, and Pete Hamill
Jonny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Joann Jovinelly
More than ten thousand booklovers reportedly attended the seventh annual Brooklyn Book Festival, which packed readings by 280+ authors onto more than 100 panels between 10 AM and 6 PM on Sunday, September 23. While all the readings were free, multiple concurrent events meant no one person could attend more than seven or eight, fewer if you cared to patronize any of the 100 outdoor stalls hosted by publishers, authors, journals, and associations in the square outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz annually awards the “Bobi,” the Best of Brooklyn, Inc. Award, to an author whose “outstanding contributions to literature reflect the spirit of Brooklyn.” This year’s recipient, Pete Hamill, joined previous winners Paul Auster, Walter Mosley, and Edwidge Danticat in participating in the festival.

“Brooklyn is my Old Country, my true home place,” said Hamill, in accepting the award, “the place that shaped me, the place where I learned to read, to listen, to fill myself with visions. The place of music and laughter and decency, punctuated now and then by tragedy. I will carry that Brooklyn with me to my grave.” Asked at a panel where the ideas for his novels came from, Hamill replied, “Anywhere. Walking the dog or overhearing a conversation on the street.” If you read the notebooks of Henry James, Hamill observed, that’s what you will find. “He wrote down something that happened during the day. Then he would explore possibilities. What if the person were a woman rather than a man?”

Many other authors had advice for aspiring writers during Q&A’s following their readings. The “Fiction Triumvirate” panel at cavernous St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church featured authors Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead. Reading from her story “Black Dahlia & White Rose,” Oates imagined monologues from two aspiring actresses, Norma Jeane Baker and Elizabeth Short, victim of one of California’s most infamous, unsolved murder cases. “How is it that one person becomes Marilyn Monroe and the other becomes the Black Dahlia? That gets to the heart of the great mystery, the phantasmagoria of our existence.”
Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, Bernice L. McFadden at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Kathryn Kirk
McFadden read from Gathering of Waters, her novel based on the gruesome 1955 murder of Emmett Till. In response to the question “what was the most difficult part of writing,” McFadden replied, “I don’t have a linear process. It’s very spiritual. I know when the end is coming because I get very emotional. Then I have to sit down and work it all through.” Oates, by contrast, said that she “has to get the last line first.”

Whitehead published his most recent novel, Zone One, a year ago, which may explain why his “reading” was more performance art. He intoned the book’s first line, “He always wanted to live in New York,” four times—each time breaking off to riff on the agony of writing (“If you remembered what it was like, you’d never do it.”) , his wife’s reaction to his novel, Sag Harbor (“I liked Lila Mae in The Intuionist better.”), seeing Clockwork Orange at age eleven, and the mystery of R2D2 (“The first Star Wars had the Death Star, light sabers, and hyperspace but couldn’t give R2D2 a voicebox?”) until he was out of time. When it comes to his work habits, however, Whitehead described a very structured routine: “I work up on an outline and plot an assignment for each day, from beginning to end, so I know where I’m going.”

Other panels also offered privileged insights into an author’s work. The “Poets Laureate Past and Present” panel featured Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate 2001–2003), Philip Levine (U.S. Poet Laureate 2011–2012), Tina Chang (Brooklyn Poet Laureate) , and Ishmael Islam (New York City Youth Poet Laureate). After reading his poem “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska,” which begins “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago,” Collins noted that when poet Howard Nemerov was asked to make up a word to “fill a hole in the language,” he came up with the verb “to azaleate,” meaning “to commiserate needlessly with some visitor about a local natural phenomenon that they either missed because they arrived too late or will miss because they are leaving too early.” Collins then confessed, “I couldn’t have written my poem without that word in the background.”

Levine prefaced his reading of “Black Wine” with a personal revelation:
This reading is a kind of experiment and this poem is about the same experiment and the experiment is sobriety. This is the first reading in about seventeen years that I’ve given sober and for that reason will probably be the worst. . . It may work and then I’ll keep doing it.
Listen to Philip Levine read “Black Wine”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes pieces by Pete Hamill and Joyce Carol Oates); American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes two poems by Philip Levine); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an essay by Colson Whitehead)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Aaron Sheehan-Dean on the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862): “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail”

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

Writing in the 1880s, when Americans of all stripes busily commemorated the Civil War, veterans of Perryville decried the lack of attention paid to the battle. “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail,” wrote Captain Marshall Thayer of Michigan’s Second Cavalry, “’deserves more than a contemptuous notice.’” 1 Thayer’s concern about historical memory echoed a strange silence on the day of the battle. A rare atmospheric phenomenon called an acoustic shadow hovered over the main battleground for much of October 8, leaving the Federal commander, Major General Don Carlos Buell, ignorant of the titanic struggle going on only miles from his headquarters. Buell heard no musket fire at all and what little cannon fire reached his tent suggested a minor duel. Irritated, Buell demanded that whoever was responsible “stop that firing” and then sat down to an early dinner. 2 Buell planned to engage the enemy on October 9, but Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had attacked instead, and the half of Buell’s army that was engaged barely hung on through a day most veterans would describe as their worst in the war.

What Buell missed hearing was a long and violent effort by Bragg’s Army of Mississippi to eliminate the main Union presence in Kentucky. The fighting, according to all concerned, rivaled the worst of the war’s most notoriously bloody battles. Sam Watkins, the famous Confederate memoirist described the gritty tenacity of the fighting:
We were soon in a hand-to-hand fight—every man for himself—using the buts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back . . . and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire, which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons. 3
As Thayer urged, the battle needed to be remembered for more than just its brutality. The central Kentucky bluegrass town of Perryville, about fifty miles southeast of Louisville, was an unlikely spot for a major engagement, but it proved a key moment in the Civil War. In mid-1862, Bragg, along with Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, mounted a offensive through Tennessee and into Kentucky (paralleling Robert E. Lee’s offensive into Maryland at the same time). The high point came on October 4, when Bragg prematurely inaugurated a Confederate governor for Kentucky, a divided state but one with a strong majority of Unionists. Only hours after installing a governor, Bragg abandoned Frankfort, the state capital. Although Bragg’s attack at Perryville nearly destroyed the Buell’s army, his own confidence was shaken and his army seriously weakened by the effort. After the battle, Bragg retreated further, moving all the way back into Tennessee and abandoning Kentucky to the Union. This proved the essential feature of the campaign. As Abraham Lincoln had already noted, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Thanks to the tenacity of Buell’s soldiers and a disorganized, poorly led Confederate western command, Union-held Kentucky stayed in the game.

1 Marshall Thayer, quoted in Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), xiv.
2 Noe, Perryville, 215.
3 Sam Watkins, “The Battle of Perryville,” in The Civil War: The Second Year of the War Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2012), 596.

(Cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

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