The Round Table
New York: 16 January 1864


  IT is noteworthy that, while we are in the midst of a war which, in its magnitude and its issues, must dwarf all the wars of two centuries past, we are also holding a literary carnival. If all the literary demonstrations were confined to battle lyrics, or to diluted solvents of the genius and anti-slavery spirit which gave to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its amazing power, we might credit the present intellectually activity to a simple war fever. But this is by no means true. We have elaborate discourses upon the essentials of Christian doctrine; we have a grandiose theory about the intellectual development of Europe; we have Alger's book, with its immense bibliographic research, upon a future life; we have tales from our most popular poet, which carry the horrors of Torquemada and the blithe singing of the Birds of Killingworth to thousands of winter firesides; we have novels without number—subtle essays upon the conduct of home life—prose pastorals, redolent of the farm—pastorals in verse, upon which the great war casts only a lurid and reflected light.

  Nay, it would almost seem that those books whose topics were most foreign to the war were most cordially welcomed; and in this sense we construe the gushing approval which has met those sweet and tender poems—so full of all homely fragrance—which have come to us under the sign-manual of Jean Ingelow. And Mr. Longfellow's "Day of Sunshine" will surely be read thrice where his lyric of the "Cumberland" is read once.

  How shall we account for this?

  The conviction is fixed in the minds of all thinking men that the war-work must be wrought out to its issues—be they what they may. All those who deplored its beginning, who doubted its efficacy, who questioned its conduct, have long since, with but few scattered exceptions, yielded assent—whether cordial or compelled—to the inevitableness of its progress, and to a recognition of the sword as the arbiter of our conflict. At all hands, war is accepted as the present normal condition of the nation. And it is not, therefore, from any latent sense that the great contest is needless or wearisome, or dreadful in itself, that we welcome so cordially the poets who sing to us of green fields, or carry us to quiet country villages—not from any sudden change or faltering of purpose, that we turn a deaf ear to stories of battle, and take the arm of some deft rhymer, and forgetting our deepest though (for very relief)

"We two walk till the purple dieth,
And short dry grass under foot is brown;
But one little streak at a distance lieth,
Green like a ribbon to prank the down."

In fact, we are disposed to believe that it is by reason of the strength and solidity of our conviction that war, with all its bloody possibilities and its dread uncertainties, is now a part of the national faith, that we give hearty greeting to any waif of peaceful music which the blithe poets may sing to us, or to any pleasant story of the romancists, or to the discursive talk of the metaphysicians.

  Convictions upon the great question of peace or war being definitely settled, we want such excursory play of thought as shall cheat us of our anxieties. The public faith having once gained its needed stand-point, wants no further incitement from "lyrics" or other explosive utterance. Full cost being once measured, and decision established, there is no need for any provcatives of enthusiasm. That day has gone by. Those who could be influenced by such, in any literary shape, have yielded long ago, and those who could not, have yielded to the march of events.

  Those who write now to stimulate a war spirit are like laggard drummers, who beat a needless reveille when the army is already afoot, and far down upon the front. Those too, who weary us with talk about tyrannous slaveholders, and the hate we ought to bear all Southrons born, are too late in the day. On all these points we have been worked up long ago to the due level by pioneers who cast their sarcasms when to cast them cost opprobrium. Let us say, as kindly as we can, to those who cast them now, that they are traveling an old road, and all the pikes are down. All


that you may say on that score are only truisms, which at this day it costs you nothing to repeat—nothing politically, nothing socially. If it did, perhaps we should have less of such talk.

  When once the policy of war has become the established determination of a great people, all incentives to increased hatred of the foe are the impertinences of cowardly and ungenerous minds. And of a piece with these are those critics who must see in the current literature a sublimation and urgency of the war feeling, or else a latent treachery. We must confess that we do not share in this punctiliousness; with that adhesion to the political necessities of the time which good citizenship demands, we rejoice in the lucubrations of any author who weans us away from thought of our solemn duty as executioners of the law, and relieves the terrible necessities of our office, by his pleasant memories of a better day that has passed, or his forecast of a better day to come.

  That war, with all its enormities, is a present duty, we try to recognize like men; but that this status is permanent, or one about which it is necessary to keep illuminating torches constantly ablaze, we cannot believe. The flame of war is broad enough in himself. Every day it licks, with wrathful tongue, around our hearthstones. Every cripple, hobbling about railway stations, is in himself a lyric which the poets cannot match. From all this it appears to us that our convictions are too fixed, and the war too vital, for present literary illustration.

  Again, we have had, for two years past, a surfeit of newspaper reading. We have been overladen with the events of the hour. Our heat has been in them, it is true; we have been sharp-eyed for the names of sons and brothers breveted or promoted to the rank of dead heroes. We have read of battles as we never read of them before, no matter who was the limner. We have worried over the miserable Herald type until our eyes grew faint; we have forgotten any possible extravagances of the Tribune in its clear typography—who cares for political shades of opinion when he is on the search for the name of some cherished one, killed, wounded, or missing, at the last battle? But how soon the interest of great battles is gone; there is a feeling (God grant it be true!) that no more are to be fought; the correspondents have retired to winter quarters. The generals have all been sketched by friendly hands. We know them as we know our book-keepers or our next-door neighbors. What wonder, then, that after two years of silence, we welcome the doctors and romancists? What wonder that we incline to a little diversion of thought, and give most cordial greeting to those who lead us away from our anxieties?