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Friday, January 18, 2013

The “Mud March” of the Army of the Potomac (January 20, 1863)

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State 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; the third will appear this spring).

After its bloody defeat in December 1862 the Army of the Potomac settled down for the winter around Falmouth, Virginia, on the north bank of the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg. Aware that several of his subordinates were actively intriguing for his replacement as the army’s commander, Ambrose Burnside was determined not to sit still for long. He issued orders calling for a march westward, looking to cross the Rappahannock upriver from Fredericksburg and outflank the defensive line held by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The movement commenced on the morning of January 20, 1863. That night it began to pour. High winds whipped through the army’s columns and camps, rendering it impossible to set a fire or erect a tent, while the heavy rains continued to fall. “You have no idea of how soon the roads turn from good to bad here in Virginia,” wrote Lieutenant Theodore A. Dodge, the adjutant of the 119th New York Infantry. “A clayey soil is hard and the very best for marching on in favorable weather, but let it rain but an hour and troops and wagons march over the road, and the mud is worse than anyone who has not be in Virginia can conceive of.” Yet the rain did not stop. The mud swallowed wagons and cannon as soldiers struggled to make their way through the quagmire. As Dodge observed, “The horses sank into mud up to their bellies, and it is said down near the river you sometimes have to put sticks under the mules’ necks to prevent their being engulfed in the very slough of despond.”1

Burnside called off the movement on January 22, but it took his men several more days to make their way back to their previous encampments. He faced ridicule, scorn, and pity from generals, officers, and soldiers. “I never felt so disappointed & sorry for any one in my life as I did for Burnside,” George G. Meade wrote. “He really seems to have all the elements against him.”2 Exacerbated by the increasingly mutinous behavior of several outspoken subordinates, Burnside traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln. He gave the President a choice: either punish the generals opposing his continuance in command or replace him with someone else.

Lincoln chose the latter course, and in the process rewarded one of Burnside’s most outspoken critics, Joseph Hooker. Months of whispering behind the backs of Burnside and George B. McClellan had paid off for the man they called “Fighting Joe.” But the President was not deaf to the dangers posed by insubordinate commanders. “I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator,” Lincoln wrote to Hooker. “Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.” The President also observed that there was one more thing Hooker might keep in mind. “I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you,” Lincoln warned. “Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.”3 Less than four months would pass before Hooker would have cause to agree.

1 Theodore A. Dodge: Journal, January 21–24, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (Library of America, forthcoming, 2013).
2 George G. Meade to Margaret Meade, January 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.
3 Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It.

(This item is 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)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Charles Baxter on the “moments in any Sherwood Anderson story that you just can’t forget”

Charles Baxter, author of five collections of short stories and five novels (including The Feast of Love, a National Book Award finalist) spoke with us about the recent publication of Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, which he edited for The Library of America.

As a fellow writer, what do you admire most about Sherwood Anderson’s stories?

Anderson had a remarkably acute understanding of lives in which a fundamental wish or need had been frustrated, even when there had been some other apparent successes. His characters are nearly all self-divided. They’re the sort of people—the streets are full of them—who end up talking to themselves in public. He had a good visual sense and was able to present his episodes with great visionary clarity. There are moments in any Sherwood Anderson story that you just can’t forget, like the mother in “Mother” who, ambitious for her son to be a writer, prays that he “be allowed to express something for us both” and then, in an afterthought, prays “And do not let him become smart and successful either.” That’s funny, and terrible, and true. She wants him to become somebody but not to become a success, a big shot. Anderson could be very shrewd about such moments.

You’ve called Anderson a Midwestern writer and reflected on a particular Midwestern contribution to American writing, a tradition into which you place your own work. What do you mean by this?

In the Midwest of Anderson’s time, public and private lives were constantly out of alignment, “out of whack,” as my relatives would have said. What you showed in public was not what you often felt in private, and what you felt, or knew, in private, you could not say. You can find this division anywhere, but it typically arises in places where reticence is given great value, where open spaces separate people. It creates a poetry of gestures and inflections and shadows. I recognized Anderson’s people from my own life, the way they carried around something unspoken that was precious to them. You can see remnants of Anderson’s dramatis personae in the work of other contemporary Midwesterners like Garrison Keillor, too. Interestingly, my sense of these matters is that Anderson’s work is more highly valued now in Europe than it is here.

Why do you think the short story was such a congenial form for Anderson?

He wasn’t a systematic thinker. Life wasn’t made up of long chains of cause-and-effect for him. Instead, in Anderson’s world, life consisted of a series of moments strung together. Also, his characters tended to be impulsive; they’re very poor at making plans. If you have impulsive characters on the one hand, and if you believe in luminous moments on the other, you’re going to find yourself writing short stories. As a form, it’s a natural fit.

What do Anderson’s stories have to say to contemporary readers? Why read Anderson now? What keeps him fresh?

It’s become a truism to say that in an era of social media, when everything is revealed by Twitter, etc., there is no privacy anymore, that anybody can say anything about his or her life. If that’s the case, then Anderson’s world is finished. But it’s not finished at all, in fact. Maybe the central story in Winesburg, Ohio, which is about walking away from commerce for the sake of something more meaningful, is still with us. The world of commerce can still seem like a crippling beast to young people. The HBO series Girls, written by Lena Dunham, is Winesburg, Ohio, updated for the twenty-first century, and is about a young woman who has escaped from Michigan, moved to Brooklyn, and wants a life different from the one destined for her in the provinces. She wants to be a writer! Anderson would have recognized the central plot of that series in an instant. He was the one who took out a patent on that plot. He knew it inside out.

Was it difficult to make a selection from the uncollected stories? How did you decide?

Very difficult. I gave the stories the test of time. I read through all the uncollected stories repeatedly and then just waited to see which ones lodged themselves most firmly in my memory. In any Anderson story, there can be moments of great awkwardness, but you make your way through those moments to the great visionary set-pieces. Those you don’t forget.

Do you have a favorite story in the volume?

“The Corn Planting,” because so few people know it or have ever read it. Everyone knows “Death in the Woods” (or they should; Jim Harrison says it’s the greatest American short story) or “Hands” or “The Egg” but no one knows “The Corn Planting,” which is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read about the nature of grief.

Free! Downloadable audio versions of ten selections by Sherwood Anderson, read by acclaimed storywriters Charles Baxter, Robert Boswell, Deborah Eisenberg, Patricia Hampl, Siri Hustvedt, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Antonya Nelson, and Benjamin Taylor.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Harvey Shapiro, poet and New York Times editor (1924–2013)

Poet and editor Harvey Shapiro died earlier this week, on January 7, at the age of 88. Shapiro had a storied career, publishing a dozen books over the course of six decades. For forty years, until he retired in 1995, he worked for The New York Times; he was editor of the Book Review from 1975 to 1983. A frequent and beloved presence at The Library of America headquarter offices and at events, he edited Poets of World War II for the American Poets Project series; the anthology was both a critical and commercial success, with nearly 18,000 copies in print.

As the obituary in The New York Times recounts, Shapiro played a role in the publication of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous pieces—only to face insurmountable resistance from his own colleagues at the Times:
In the early 1960s, as an editor at The Times Magazine, Mr. Shapiro made what was almost certainly his most inspired assignment. Reading about one of Dr. King’s frequent jailings, he telephoned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The next time Dr. King was in jail for any significant period, Mr. Shapiro suggested, he should compose a letter for publication.

In April 1963, while jailed in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King did just that. But according to several published accounts, including Carry Me Home (2001), Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning chronicle of the civil rights movement, Mr. Shapiro was unable to persuade his superiors at the magazine to print it.

“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which endures as one of the canonical texts of the civil rights movement, was published instead in The Christian Century, The New Leader and elsewhere.
During World War II, Shapiro flew 35 missions over central Europe as a B-17 radio gunner based in Italy. (The photo above, reprinted in Poets of World War II, shows him standing next to his plane.) One of the many poems based on his war experiences, “Battle Report” (originally published in 1966 and included in the WWII volume), describes how the war still haunted his dreams:
In this slow dream’s rehearsal,
Again I am the death-instructed kid,
Gun in its cradle, sun at my back,
Cities below me without sound.
That tensed, corrugated hose
Feeding to my face the air of substance,
I face the mirroring past.
There will be a tribute to Harvey Shapiro this Sunday, January 13, on The Next Hour, airing on WBAI (New York) at 11:00 a.m. Janet Coleman, the program’s host, will lead a discussion featuring poets Hugh Seidman and Bill Zavatsky, Library of America editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien, and author Maggie Paley.
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