English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Thirteen-- Conflict and War

Walt Whitman (1869)

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in assignment thirteen is war and conflict.

This assignment asks you to read war poems written by two nineteenth-century authors – Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane – and stories written by two authors who lived and wrote at the turn of the last century – Ambrose Bierce and William Dean Howells. This literature reflects the authors reactions to the American Civil War as well as the Spanish-American War.

Walt Whitman was deeply affected by the Civil War as were most Americans of his time. After rushing to Washington, D.C. to search for news of his wounded brother George, Whitman began volunteering much of his time as a nurse to the wounded soldiers who filled the hospitals of the capital. Although dedicated to the Union cause, Whitman's war poetry generally avoids the bitter partisanship that drove much writing at the time For useful information about Whitman's experiences in wartime Washington, read "Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's Civil War Hospitals," an informative article by Angel Price.
Ambrose Bierce served as a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Based in San Francisco where he knew writers such as Samuel Clemens, Bierce became well-known as an eccentric and skeptical journalist/author. He is most often remembered today for his psychological Civil War story " An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." His mysterious disappearance in Mexico has been dramatized in the contemporary film Old Gringo.

Ambrose Bierce

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells was a prolific writer, publishing many important novels in the late nineteenth century, but his contribution to American literature is perhaps most important as a theorist who helped define American realism and as an editor whose thoughtful reviews helped establish the careers of writers as diverse as Samuel Clemens and Edith Wharton. "Editha" expresses Howells dismay at America's arguably imperialistic involvement in the Spanish-American War. It also reminds us that pacifism was a widely supported political position in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mrs. Gearson, the pacifist mother in "Editha," is reminiscent of Julia Ward Howe, the author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," who in 1870 started Mother's Day as protest against war. Read her Mother's Day proclamation from that year.

Stephen Crane's "War Is Kind" was written at the time of the Spanish-American War and like Howells' "Editha," Crane's poem satirizes the easy gingoism of this age, a historical period when the United States was starting to emerge as a world-class power. Crane's view is made bleaker by his belief that man is not protected by some beneficient God not guided by clear moral authority. The Stephen Crane Society maintains a site with extensive links to information about the author.

Stephen Crane

updated: June 15, 2018