Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Review by Jenny Richards
A House Divided: The Poetry of the American Civil War is a BBC Radio 4 programme examining the relationship between American poetry during and after the Civil War, focusing both on how the war affected the poets of the late 19th century, and the part that poetry played in the propaganda surrounding the war. This may be useful for those taking modules in American literature, poetry or history. The poets discussed include, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Henry Timrod, Herman Melville, Julia Ward Howe and George Moses Horton.
The programme is presented by the American novelist and essayist, Allan Gurganus, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a particular interest in the literature of the American South. A reminiscence of his childhood in the South, amidst buildings torched in battle only ninety years previously, and his family history on opposing sides of the war, just three generations ago, is a testament to the significance the Civil War still has in the American psyche today.
Faith Barrett, a 19th Century American poetry Anthologist, speaks about the popularity of poetry during the Civil War. Appearing in newspapers and read at school programmes and lectures, poetry permeated many aspects of American life in both the North and the South and thus became a medium of expression that was accessible to a range of different American voices. The programme features several examples of these different voices; poets of different races, genders and ethnicities, writing at different times, show the reverberations of the war’s impact in every cross-section of American society and the different reactions to it.
New England poet, Susan Howe contributes to the discussion, examining the religious rhetoric of poetry on the sides of both the Confederacy and the Union that served as propaganda to boost their morale and righteousness throughout the war. In contrast to this bellicose enthusiasm however, poets such as Whitman and Dickinson approach the topic in ways that are more subtle, abstract or critical of the war, each considering the significance its violence, death toll and devastation had for the meaning of human life.