Slate’s highly variable arts coverage gets a lift from David Blight’s excellent reevaluation of Edmund Wilson’s magisterial Patriotic Gore, his 1962 study of Civil War literature and personages. Besides an incisive chapter on Lincoln’s prose style which proved educational for me a decade ago, Wilson includes a meditation on the forgotten figure of Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president and author of one of the few manifestos of racism and separatism published by a statesman of the first rank. Like admirer Gore Vidal, Wilson in the early sixties was so disgusted by the ways in which the United States used his tax dollars to fund a national security state that this distemper sometimes led him to entertain muddled crushes on men who, as he wrote, “”will not accept domination.” Thus, despite Blight’s emphasis on Patriotic Gore‘s willingness both to dispel cliches about the Civil War and to embrace how myths — what Wallace Stevens would call supreme fictions — sustain us, Wilson’s admiration for Stephens leads him to accept that the war’s casus belli was “states rights.” Never mind the Confederate “constitution” — here’s Stephens himself: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Patriotic Gore matters most as a barometer monitoring the dips and erratic swells of concision and pungency that are Edmund Wilson’s hallmarks as a critic. If his prose is less lyrical than Alfred Kazin’s or his intelligence evinces less of a philosophical bent than Lionel Trilling’s (although the first third of To The Finland Station suffers most from this failing), it has some of the virtues that Wilson saw in U.S. Grant’s own style: impassivity, imperturbability, “his persistence in a prosaic tone combined with a certain abstractness.” This observation on the trouble with Henry Adams is right on, the kind of shrewdness for which I’ve strived as a writer:
You feel that he is constantly shifting between a mood of ironic malice at the expense of the sordid era to which Grant’s presidency has given free rein and the consciousness of a personal inadequacy that he fears is his own fault. His writing looks clear on the page, but when we begin to read one of his books, we soon realize how sinuous his style is and how uncertain are the ideas it conveys, how treacherous its irony becomes…
This is my kind of pith.