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The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War

Hailed by Allen Tate as “one of the greatest works of scholarship in this century in the combined fields of American literature and American history,” The Unwritten War, first published im 1973, is the final volume of Aaron's trilogy on the hopes and failures of American liberal thinking and writing. It casts a jaundiced look at a cast of major and lesser writers who experienced the Civil War first-hand or observed it from a distance and who, by and large, failed to grasp its essential character. Aaron’s wide-ranging narrative begins with George Templeton Strong and ends with William Faulkner. It considerably complicates an optimistic view of American history in which a strengthened nation emerged from the cathartic bloodshed of the Civil War purified and ready to forge ahead to face a new but different series of trials. “The war kept throbbing in Faulkner’s South” (preface to the 1987 edition). At the heart of Aaron’s argument lies a concern with the invisibility of black Americans in Civil War literature. While Aaron stops short of identifying the “blocking out” of race as the only reason for the dearth of literary masterpieces about the Civil War, he does point out the irony that such a period of national convulsion, with such a lasting impact, left most writers at a loss for the right words and blinded by bias. A sentence by Freud quoted in Aaron’s introduction might serve as a motto for the entire book: “The shrewdest people will all of a sudden behave without insight, like imbeciles, as soon as the necessary insight is confronted by emotional resistance.”  


In his review for the New York Times, Quentin Anderson saw The Unwritten War as the capstone of Daniel Aaron’s lifelong project, which was, in his opinion, remarkably cohesive: “Mr. Aaron has steadfastly maintained, despite the continuing erosion of political awareness and dedication among writers, and the diversion of critical energies into new criticism, myth criticism and so on, the possibility and value of seeing thinkers and writers in the context of their engagement with society and politics. He has tried to keep alive the hope of the Progressives for rational institutional change that would fulfill the original promises of a society of free men.”