This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library)

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On Isolation and Literature

“The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

In a field between Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek in the fall of 1862, more than 21,000 men would die in a single day. In a photograph taken by Matthew Brady of the battle’s aftermath, which in the south is named after Sharpsburg and in the north is referred to by Antietam, there is a strewing of bodies in front of the Dunker Church maintained by a sect of Pennsylvania Dutch Baptists. In their repose, the men no longer have any concerns; in the photograph it’s difficult to tell who wears blue and who wears grey, for death has never been prejudiced. Americans had never experienced such destruction before, such death, such a rupture from what they had defined previously as normal. If Americans had been cursed with their own erroneous sense of exceptionality in the decades before the Civil War, believing that suffering was something that only foreigners were susceptible to, then that carnage temporally availed them of their self-superiority. Drew Gilpin Faust writes in This Republic of Death: Suffering and the American Civil War that the “impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.”

The United States was unprepared for the extremity of this thing—22,717 young men dead in a day—with almost a million perishing by its end. Faust writes that “Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first-century counterparts,” though if the state of exception demonstrated by the war proves anything, it’s that nobody should be so sanguine concerning his privileges. One survivor of Antietam, a member of the Massachusetts 15th named Roland Bowen, castigated a friend who wanted ghoulish details of the battle. He writes in a letter that such images “will do you no good and that you will be more mortified after the facts are told than you are now.” Such suffering couldn’t be circumscribed by something as insignificant as mere words, nor was it the task of Bowen to supply such texture in fulfilling his friend’s prurient fascination. The task of putting words to this horror belonged to somebody with no allegiance to anything as crass as the literal, and paradoxically it wouldn’t come from somebody who was actually witness to the horrors. A year before Antietam’s blood-letting, and a 31-year-old woman sequestered in a 970-square-foot room in a yellow wooden house in Amherst, Mass., would presciently write on the back of an envelope that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,/And mourners to and fro/Kept treading – treading – till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through.”

Emily Dickinson is American literature’s most significant recluse. She is our hermit, our anchorite, our holy isolate. Despite Dickinson’s self-imposed solitude, first limiting herself to Amherst, then her family’s house, and finally, finally living only in her own bedroom where she would speak to visitors from the half-opened door, her poetry is the greatest literary engagement with the trauma of the war. She was a spiritual seismograph, transcribing and interpreting the vibrations that she detected through the land itself, and though she never saw the battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg, never even leaving Massachusetts, her 1,789 short lyrics are the fullest encapsulation of that event, even while it’s never specifically mentioned—though lines like “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” evidence her mood.

Only a handful of her poems were published in Dickinson’s own lifetime, normally anonymously, with a notable example being a few lyrics included in the 1864 anthology Drum Beats whose proceeds went to Union veterans. The war’s apparent absence from her poetry is incongruously proof of its presence, for as Susan Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson, the “Civil War broke something loose in her own divided nature.” Other figures like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville produced brilliant poetry about the war as well, but the absence of explicit language about battle-field deaths in Dickinson’s verse is a demonstration of Bowen’s warning that mere reportage “will do you no good.” She isolates not only herself, but the meaning of her poems, from the brutal reality of that American apocalypse—such isolation mimics the brutality of the event all the more completely. “I have an appetite for silence,” she wrote, for “silence is infinity.”

Within the cocoon of that silence, Dickinson made herself a conduit for the blood-sacrifice then taking place; despite being in solitude, she was not solitary; despite being isolated, she was not an isolate. There are two ways of producing literature; from her multitudinous contemporary Whitman there was the gospel of extroversion, the smithy of the crowd whereby the throngs are the source of his energy and the “sidewalks are littered with postcards from God.” His engagement with the war was visceral, forged in Washington D.C.’s hospitals where he tended to the injured. Dickinson’s poetry of seclusion was more abstract, but no less pertinent, and from her introversion a different variety of poetry could be produced. Dickinson is too often reduced to mere recluse, she is transformed into a crank sequestered in an attic, but she was actually a brilliant performance artist for whom the process was as integral as the product. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor writes in The Art of Solitude that there is more to that state “than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art…When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Dickinson’s isolation wasn’t just how she crafted her verse, in some sense it was her verse.

“Interiority” is one of those literary critical jargon terms that is overly maligned, for it expresses something useful about this quality of consciousness we share, a term for the many mansions in our head. There is a breadth and width to the human experience—and the experience of the human experience (if I’m to be meta)—that only “interiority” can really convey. Douglas Hofstadter writes in I Am a Strange Loop that “what we call ‘consciousness’ was a kind of mirage…a very peculiar kind of mirage…Since it was a mirage that perceived itself…It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called ‘consciousness’ lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing.” Such an ex nihilo self-creation can only take place alone, of course. And in her solitude, Dickinson, like all hermits, made the very substance of her thoughts a living work.

Some people, perhaps most people, live their life on the outside, all thoughts conveyed in a running monologue to the world. But the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. Such is the idealism of Dickinson when she claims that “To make a prairie…The revery alone will do.” Isolation is the hard kernel of literature. Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing, traceable back to our inherited numinous sense and the thread of expression that intimates works hidden, all that we shall never read but that nonetheless radiate outward into the world with beauty.

A history of isolation is a history of literature, albeit a secret one. Historically we’ve valorized men of action, but it’s people of seclusion who just as easily move the Earth. Think of Christ’s Lenten vigil in the Negev, the way in which Satan tempted him and the Son of God so easily resisted, the Lord kept company only by silence and perdition. Isolation is a counternarrative of human existence; for every vainglorious general like Alexander the Great conquering until the ends of the Earth, there is the philosopher Diogenes living naked in an Athenian pot and imploring the former to get out of his sunlight. Emperor Qin Shi Huang can be answered by the sage Lao-Tzu riding off by himself unto the west, and every bishop and pope can be matched by the Desert Fathers and anchorites. For every Andrew Carnegie, there should be a Henry David Thoreau in his Walden cabin. Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied).

In fiction, there are the recluses damaged by their toxic loneliness: think of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in her filthy, tattered wedding dress sadistically toying with Pip and Estella, or of the psychically diseased anonymous narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground who can intone that “To be acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.” For all of the sociopathic recluses, biding their time under floorboards and going mad in attics, there are also positive depictions of isolation. Daniel Defoe’s titular character in Robinson Crusoe, ship-wrecked upon a desert isle and thus forced to recreate civilization anew, has often been understood as a representative citizen of hard-working, sober, industrious modernity, whereby “We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.” Something similar in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, when writing of the isolation of the Alaskan wild he could declare that there is an “ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such a paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” Isolation, however, is far more than a subject authors describe now and then.

Few religious traditions are lacking in the hermitage or the monastery, at least in some form. Among the ecstatic Hasidism there are stories of rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov who lived at least part of his life as a hermit, and according to tradition, the second-century founder of Kabbalah Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai resided in a cave for 12 years as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, exploring mystical secrets. When he could finally leave, bar Yochai’s focus was so intense that he was able to smite people with his eyes. Christianity potentially adopted monasticism from the esoteric first-century Jewish group the Essenes, and from the Desert Fathers onward, men who lived their lives sitting atop tall columns or who would meditate among the sands of Sinai, would develop a full-fledged system of religious seclusion. The wages of silence have defined the life of figures as varied as the nun and sacred composer Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century to the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton in the 20th For Merton, to be silent was to be radical; in Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, he explains that his vows are “saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus.” Hermits are replete in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, as much as in Judaism and Christianity. To be a hermit, to make sister or brother with your own isolation, is to commit a profound act of courage. To have no company other than yourself can be dangerous. As the 12th-century Sufi Muslim hermit Al-Ghazali said, “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged every abyss.” What’s brought back from the emptiness at the beating heart of every ego is something ineffable, and only privy to those willing to look for it.

BBC reporter Peter France asks in Hermits: The Insights of Solitude if it is “possible that solitude confers insights not available to society? Could it be that the human condition, even the ways we’re related to each other, is better understood by those who have opted out of relationships?” Certainly there has long been a religious tradition of answering that question in the affirmative; a literary one as well if we think of authors like Dickinson and Thoreau as psychological astronauts who returned from inner space with observations not accessible to those of us enmeshed in the cacophonous din of everyday social interaction. In a more modern sense, imagine the singular focus, the elemental personality, the bare simplicity of Christopher Thomas Knight’s life. From 1986 until 2013, the North Pond Hermit of Maine’s Belgrade Lake’s pushed the stolid and taciturn New England personality to extremes, living alone on campgrounds and surviving from pilfered supplies and burglarized cabins, while only once speaking the single word “Hi” to a hiker sometime in the ‘90s.

When finally apprehended by local police, the harmless eccentric supposedly told the officers that he thought Thoreau had been a “dilletante.” A voracious reader, Knight had consumed Walden and thousands of other books, often on the subject of solitude, and if he found Thoreau lacking, he saw great value in other works. Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and of course the collected poetry of Dickinson were all held in high esteem by the hermit. Journalist Michael Finkel recounts his conversations with Knight in The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, whereby the dedicated Mainer claims that “solitude bestows an increase in something valuable…my perception. But…when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for.” Stripped of all of the socially constructed, arbitrary, imposed, and chosen definitions of the self, Knight had become a singular consciousness, an aggregate of experience divorced from the humdrum job of applying meaning, significance, or gloss to the fact that things happen one after the other. “To put it romantically,” he said, “I was completely free.” Knight had become, in a manner, God.

Nomads as these are cracked, their extremity such that they dance on the precipice of either saintliness or madness. When journeying to the center of one’s own mind, care must be taken not to lose it. Knight was able to return relatively unscathed from both the chill New England forests and from the solitary experience of only having himself for company for almost three decades, but he is in some sense lucky as regards extreme hermits. For example, there’s Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild, who followed Jack London dreams into the Alaskan brush, where the aspiring naturalist’s decomposing corpse would be discovered next to his extensive diaries in a broken-down bus that he’d been living in. Krakauer writes about how for McCandless, to hike alone was to “constantly feel the abyss at your back,” where the “siren song of the void puts you on edge,” yet as with Knight, a type of elemental solitariness emerges as well.

For McCandless, existence could become “a clear-eyed dream,” wherein a “trancelike state settles over your efforts.” A danger with dreams however, for it’s never clear to the dreamer himself just how clear-eyed they actually are, so that the zealotry of a McCandless that confuses the echoes in his own mind for other voices can easily transmogrify into a different type of hermit. Witness the former mathematics-professor-turned-recluse-turned-domestic-terrorist Theodor Kaczynski. In Walden, Thoreau claimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s clearly not identical to Kaczynski’s claim in his anarcho-ecological manifesto Industrial Society and its Future that “almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not,” but there are some resonances. A special type of wag would claim that the Unabomber was simply an angrier Thoreau with a chemistry set, but they both arguably are examples of not unrelated strains of American antisocial individualism, albeit with incredibly different outcomes. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude,” wrote Francis Bacon in the 17th century, “is either a wild beast of a god.”

Thoreau would be instrumental to any cultural accounting of isolation; from a literary perspective he’s the most obvious of hermits in our national tradition. His biographers Robert D. Richardson and Barry Moser note in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind that the hermit “argued with himself in his journal…about his need for solitude versus the merits of society,” an incredibly American argument, and as the authors note, his conclusion was also particularly American: “He came down repeatedly for solitude.” Thoreau’s understanding of solitude derived from that sense of the frontier, that desire for unlimited elbow room that distinguishes this country from the Old World. When my wife and I used to live in Massachusetts, it took less than half an hour to drive to the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin on the shores of that glacial pond, and it’s understandable why he chose to spend a few years there pretending to live off the land. It’s an exceedingly pleasant space, and his example spoke to some sort of romancing of solitude that exists deep within my Pennsylvania soul.

I’m a city boy who grew up in a house that was so close to our neighbor that we could hear when that gentleman sneezed, and I’ve lived in apartments since I was 18, yet I harbor some delusion that if given half a chance I’d live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nobody. A foolish dream, but my rightful inheritance as an American. The author of Walden is the primogeniture of that particular counter-cultural vision—it’s not wrong to see him as a kind of proto-hippie, living off the land and spouting mistranslated versions of the Upanishads, the grandfather of both John Muir and Edward Abbey. But the boot-strapping, the rugged individualism, the obsession with industriousness—Thoreau is a proto-survivalist as well. When he writes in an 1847 diary that “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” it sounds more a creed for somebody with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag decal on their truck as much as somebody with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on their Volvo. As our favorite hermit, Thoreau is in some manner the patriarch of us all, both left and right, liberal and conservative, anarchist and libertarian. He proves that Americans are nothing so much like each other, especially when we’re alone.

Thoreau isn’t our only reclusive writer. Gravity’s Rainbow author Thomas Pynchon eschews almost all media spectacle and refuses to update his author bio from a senior yearbook picture (though he did do a voice on The Simpsons); Harper Lee retired after To Kill a Mockingbird from Manhattan to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she supported the local high school drama club; and Cormac McCarthy living rugged and without punctuation in a New Mexico trailer only broke his silence to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as one does, when the book club read The Road (he has since been more chatty). For most supposedly hermit authors, the reality might be more prosaic; as an irate Pynchon told CNN, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”

No accounting of literary isolation can credibly ignore J.D. Salinger whose The Catcher in the Rye, despite read less frequently by adolescents today than it once was, remains the Great American Teenage Novel. Within The Catcher in the Rye there are intimations of that profound desire to be left alone, with its main character Holden Caulfield ruminating that “I’m sort of glad that they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” Salinger’s biography has an unmistakable romance, the scion of the Upper East Side who was feted by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, a brilliant enfant terrible who produced perfect short stories and the immaculate novel with which he’s most associated, only to retire to rural New Hampshire, reject all media and appearances, and yet continue to prodigiously write until his death in 2010.

His last story appeared in The New Yorker in 1966, yet according to journalist and novelist Joyce Maynard in At Home in the World, her memoir about her affair with Salinger in 1972 when he was 53 and she was only 18, he “works on his fiction daily,” claiming that since he’d last been published he’d written two more novels. By the time of his death, Salinger had written 13 more. His dedication to the craft itself was pure—in a rare interview with The New York Times in 1974 Salinger said that “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing…I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” The purest form of composition. Upon his death, journalists discovered that the residents of Salinger’s New Hampshire hamlet fully knew who he was, but helped to mislead gawkers from tracking down the author. Katie Zezima writes in The New York Times that “Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, [and] nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store.” Keeping with a venerable New England sentiment that perhaps both Knight and Thoreau would recognize, a woman quoted in Zezima’s article says that his neighbors did “respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.” It’s unknown if any of them read those 15 novels.

Solitude and quiet are often figured, albeit in perhaps fewer extreme examples than Salinger’s method, as integral to the process of composition. Susan Sontag opined that “One can never be alone enough to write;” Ernest Hemingway said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life;” and the Romantic poet John Keats enthused that “my Solitude is sublime.” Peruse the rightly celebrated author interviews in The Paris Review, and you will discover that a space carved out for the self’s sovereignty is one of the few things that unite writers with their varying schedules, methods of research, and editorial eccentricities. The private John Updike, fully inhabiting the 9-5 ethos of his suburban Pennsylvania middle-class youth, wrote his novels in a rented office above a restaurant in Ipswich, Mass.; Wallace Stevens composed his poetry in the quiet of his own head, pounding out the scansions in his steps as he walked to his job in a Hartford, Conn., insurance office. Isolation can take many forms, not all of them literal, but in the pragmatic necessity of a writer needing a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously described it, there need be, well, a room of one’s own.

Woolf’s formulation was of course gendered; her point throughout A Room of One’s Own was the way in which the details of domestic responsibility (among other factors) contributed to the silencing of women. In short, if you don’t have the dedicated space and the leisure time in which to write in peace, you’re not going to be writing in peace. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard says as much in The Poetics of Space, noting that the house is “psychologically complex,” whereby “the nooks and corners of solitude are the bedroom.” Living collectively dampens the interior a bit, which is why the privacy of an individual space becomes instrumental in producing individual works. “The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone,” Bachelard writes, “furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could success in achieving completely.”

A direct causal relationship could be drawn between the architectural development of independent bedrooms in the early modern period and the evolution of the novel, the literary genre that most aggressively displays subjectivity. Like all things we take for granted, the bedroom, or the office, or the study, and all places of individual and solitary repose have their own history. Bill Bryson explains in At Home: A Short History of Private Life that the “inhabitants of the medieval hall had no bedrooms in which to retire,” and that “Sleeping arrangements appear to have remained relaxed for a long time.” The word “bedroom” itself didn’t exist until well later; Bryson writes that as “a word to describe a dedicated sleeping chamber… [it] didn’t become common until” the 17th century, the exact period in which the novel began to emerge.

People wrote long narratives before the novel and the bedroom, and for that matter there have always been venerable forms of collaborative writing as well. Yet the possibility of privacy and solitude—not just for a St. Jerome sequestered in his study or a Trappist whose taken his vow of silence—arguably contributed to certain literary forms that not only require isolation in their production, but in some sense mimic a type of isolation as well. To argue that writing requires quiet is in some ways too prosaic an observation. Writing is silence—writing is isolation. By shielding themselves in the cocoon of composition, writers are in some sense able to create rooms of their own, wherever they happen to be writing. Writing can function as its own type of sensory deprivation, an activity that can erase the outside world in the construction of a new internal one. Think of Stevens lost in his rhythmic reverie pounding out poems on his way to the office, or of James Baldwin writing Go Tell It on the Mountain in a busy Parisian café. Being ensconced within the process of writing, letting yourself become a conduit for words (and wherever they come) is a type of armor against the outside world; it’s a form of isolation that can be brought with you wherever you go.

Which is also true of reading, the only cultural medium that is purely mental and can be done in any situation, circumstance, or setting, and that if we’re considering its non-digital forms can be rapaciously consumed free of any outside interference, a universe cordoned off in a book. Reading a book on the bus or a subway, in a Starbucks or on a park bench, is a manner of building your own room within the public. It’s the profoundest type of privacy there can be as you generate an entire new reality alongside the author of the words you’re reading. When language was primarily an oral form, it was delivered collectively, and there is great power in that. But the proliferation of wide-spread literacy several centuries ago, the promulgation of affordable print, and the development of book forms like the 15th-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius’s innovation of the cheap and portable octavo form made it possible for people to dream with their books not just while sequestered in a monastery, but anywhere that they pleased, from the encampments by the side of Renaissance Europe’s roads to a New York City taxicab.

Alberto Manguel describes the innovation of silent reading (which becomes common in late antiquity, in the fourth century around the time of St. Augustine), whereby readers could “exist in interior space…[where] the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.” When I argue that the history of literature is the history of isolation, I mean something more than writers often require solitude, or that the hermit is a popular figure to be explored in fiction. Rather, the deep vein that runs through the experience and definition of both reading and writing is precisely the sort of solitude of that Manguel describes. Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.

If there is something special about seclusion, about quiet, about aloneness that defines our literature, if something about isolation defined the shift from oral cultures to written ones, then perhaps it’s in the imitation of that original Author who was the first to compose in quarantine. Judaism’s God was distinguished from His pagan colleagues by being a singular creator-being, from forming His world not out of raw materials in collaboration with a pantheon, but of His own singular volition from nothing at all. Nobody could have been more isolated than God in the beginning, and no literary work emerging from that aloneness more powerful than all of existence. Such a model, of creation ex nihilo, is the operational essence of literary composition, a medium that requires no performers and no audience and exists only in the transit from one mine to another (and not necessarily even that).

As Dickinson approached her death, she asked her sister Lavinia to immolate her correspondence, but disregarded instructions concerning the poetry, assuming it didn’t even merit mention. It appears that Dickinson never intended her work for publication, that the author and audience were one, the purest form of poetry conceivable. Lavinia recognized their brilliance, which is the only reason that we’re able to read them today. What’s remarkable isn’t that they were almost destroyed, but that Dickinson’s poems survived at all. How many comparable works were penned by names unknown, by women and men innumerable? How much is written and read in glorious isolation never to extend to an audience beyond its creator? What shall be written in the coming days and weeks and months of isolation, existing only for the delight and glory of its creators, and none the less for its impermanence? In the end all works are immolated. Even that of the Creator’s shall be deleted. That Book’s glory is no less because of it.

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