“The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction” by David Madden, Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95
This collection of reviews, excerpts and opinion pieces is subtitled “Readings and Writings from a Novelist’s Perspective.” It is as a writer that David Madden is best known. He has written 11 novels, including “Sharpshooter” (1996), a Civil War novel that was well received. He was the founding director of the United States Civil War Center during his 24 years as an English professor and writer-in-residence at LSU.
The Civil War has always been an important interest for Madden, and he dips into his extensive writings on the subject for some gems in this collection.
The best short history of the Civil War? Madden includes his essay about Fletcher Pratt’s “A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire.” In a piece titled “On James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades,” Madden finds that it is the questions that McPherson poses that are important, not the answers.
New civil wars are always beginning or about to begin, and by understanding America’s own great intersectional conflict, “We can deal with these wars from within and without more effectively if we understand why men and women fight them.” McPherson’s work provides a template to reach that understanding, Madden asserts.
Madden goes on to examine classes of Civil War fiction: William Faulkner’s “Absolom, Absolom!”; a forgotten “major” novel by Joseph Stanley Pennell; the more recent “Nashville 1864: The Dying of Light” by Madison Jones; O. Henry’s Civil War works; and the works of father-son writers Michael and Jeff Shaara. He then presents some excerpts from his own “Sharpshooter.”
Madden’s observations are entirely his own opinion. He does not admire Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” long considered a classic of the genre. Madden has used gallons of ink on the subject over his many years (he is now 82), and his opinions remain relevant.
As he offers his own insights on writings from and about the Civil War and Reconstruction, Madden pleads for more input from other nonhistorians: He asked his optometrist if he related what he read about the Civil War to his own profession.
“I asked the same question at every opportunity, and I received similar answers when I asked my insurance agent, my accountant, and my physician.”
The Civil War, he argues, affected every facet of American civilization, like a web that touched each part of society in both South and North, and should be examined by experts in every area to reveal its continuing influence.
“By understanding the war and reconstruction, we can understand ourselves in the world today, both our dark problems and our bright prospects,” Madden says in the preface to this collection.
That web, that tangled web, now has caught up many Americans in arguments about flags and symbols, monuments and names. Madden has picked an appropriate time to promote his argument.