Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 18. Personal Memoirs, North and South

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXI. Political Writing Since 1850

§ 18. Personal Memoirs, North and South

One of the characteristics of literature in America since the war has been the increasing number of personal narratives, autobiographies, memoirs, and diaries. Many of these arise from a desire to tell one’s relation, however humble, to the great conflict and its heroes—a desire which possessed all classes and conditions from the commanders of armies to Mrs. Keckley, the coloured serving woman of Mrs. Lincoln. Others have an aim primarily political, to recount policies and movements in which the authors participated. In the latter class a few have preeminence. Hugh McCulloch’s Men and Measures of Half a Century (1888) is invaluable for financial history and its sketches of conditions in the West. John Sherman’s Recollections of Forty Years (1895) is likewise important for financial measures, and is also an uncommonly good revelation of political opportunism. S. S. Cox’s Three Decades of Federal Legislation (1885) is notable for a lengthy account of reconstruction in the Southern states, which was written by Daniel Reaves Goodloe and inserted without explanation of authorship. G. S. Boutwell’s Sixty Years in Public Affairs (1902) is entertaining for its sketches of public men, and is also illustrative of the limitations of mind and training in the average American politician. Inimitable are the Reminiscences of Benjamin Perley Poore, with their intimate sketches of men and events around Washington for half a century. The Autobiography of G. F. Hoar (1903) reveals a blind devotion to party in a soul of unquestioned integrity. Surpassing all other narratives by contemporaries is the Diary of Gideon Welles (1911), Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln, rich for the light it throws on personalities and animosities in the cabinet and on political conditions in 1866, and revolutionary in its interpretation of Andrew Johnson.

While Northern politicians vied with each other to tell their story, the leaders of the South, with the exception of the military men, were singularly silent, Alexander H. Stephens’s Prison Diary and John H. Reagan’s Memoirs (1906) being the only intimately personal accounts by the political leaders of the Confederacy. But so personal in tone as to make them almost autobiographical are Fielder’s Life and Times of Joseph E. Brown and Dowd’s Life of Zeb Vance, and the writings of E. A. Pollard, a Richmond editor during war time. Humorous, but accurately portraying certain types of Southern character, is Charles H. Smith’s Bill Arp So Called, a book which in a period of economic depression and political disappointment had the power to make Southerners laugh. Among the Southern malcontents who had no sympathy for secession, two left accounts of their opinions and experiences. “Parson” Brownlow, who was expelled from Tennessee early in the war, published in 1862 his Sketches of the Rise and Progress of Secession, replete with quotations from the contemporary Southern press. A few years later a Virginian, John M. Botts, made Southern policies the subject of denunciation in his Great Rebellion (1866) and started a memorable historical controversy by declaring that Lincoln had offered to surrender Fort Sumter provided that the Virginia convention of 1861 would adjourn without taking action on secession.

Closely related to the autobiography were the reports of newspaper correspondents and tourists. These were especially noticeable between 1865 and 1876 when the economic and social upheaval in the South was a subject of general interest. Of this literature, some was “inspired,” notably the reports made to President Johnson in 1866 by B. C. Truman, Carl Schurz, and General Grant. Other contributions to this class of writing were Whitelaw Reid’s After the War, Sidney Andrew’s The South Since the War, and J. T. Trowbridge’s The South, all published in 1866. More notable were the books of two former abolitionists, J. S. Pike and Charles Nordhoff; the former left a memorable description of the barbarism of negro rule in South Carolina in his Prostrate State (1874), and the latter gave a valuable account of Southern conditions in his Cotton States in 1875. The personal experiences of a Northerner during his residence in the South were the basis for the novels of A. W. Tourgee, and of similar character is A. T. Morgan’s Yazoo, or On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South.

Hardly had the Civil War ended when other questions, in addition to those involving theories with respect to the nature of the nation, claimed public attention. Of these four were of primary importance and were productive of a new trend in political thought: civil service reform, tariff reform, the currency, and the farmer’s movement.