When the country was still quite young and change was ever-imminent, our great America wasn’t always so great. This budding country lacked its own culture, and every single work produced by its inhabitants was rooted to an earlier version from its mother Britain. Much of our nation was devoid of literary culture and education. We were often looked down upon by other countries flourishing with their own trademark foods, goods, and customs. Very few prominent writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson were able to create a base example of what an American literature might actually look like.
Prior to the Civil War, there were almost no published American authors, as the United States was more inclined toward English texts, which were less expensive. Reading and writing had just begun to trickle down to the middle class, making literature much more popular among the common man, as rates of literacy rose tremendously. The multitude of uses for literature once the Civil War began caused an even larger development. During a time of great change and conflict, America began a period of immense literary thirst.
Before the Civil War started, literature had only recently become a more regular piece of daily life. At first only the wealthiest could be expected to know how to read and write. However, as the nation approached the time of the Civil War, the lower classes were also expanding their education by becoming literate. The common man started to take more of an interest and a stand in the goings on of the country- for the most part, learning how to read allowed them to keep up with the happenings from around the nation. Literature was also serving a more entertaining purpose.
Fiction grew in popularity, but infamy too. “American statesmen and leaders were fearful of fiction. They accurately understood its subversive power: fiction empowered individuals; it catered to people’s passions, fancies, and whims, which threatened republican ideas of order and rationality,” (Stauffer 237). As this quote explains, many politicians believed that fiction would lead to chaos and revolution. Literature has always had the power to plant a seed in our minds, and this was no different during the time of the Civil War.
Still, these opinions did not keep novels from finding a place in most households. Mostly middle- and upper-class women were the audience for this type of reading material. Fiction, spreading rapidly, became one of the most popular types of literature in this era. Literature before the Civil War was mainly centered on functionality. Literacy had just begun to grow, so the people who learned to read had to have a reason for it. The most common reading material of the time included religious reading, instructive reading, newspapers and magazines, and “reading for escape” (Salisbury).
The best method of escaping for bored housewives or even the common man was a novel. As previously stated, these fictional stories had just begun to boom in popularity. Religious reading mostly included bible study, common for the average Christian household. Newspapers and magazines were crucial for spreading news, and when the nation found an efficient way to broadcast information, people snatched them up. During a time when you couldn’t turn on your flat screen television or pull out your iPad for news updates, newspapers were essential to society.
Finally, guides were another usual form of reading material. Stay-at-home wives collected cookbooks and mothering manuals by the shelf-full. All these types of reading provided some function to those who read them, which displays how the country used literature in a very confined manner. The Civil War had a big impact on literature, but literature also had a large impact on the Civil War. For example, the movement against slavery was intensified by passionate works of literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
These novels helped to spark an interest in the subject for many more people, particularly those of a higher class, who then began to encourage the movement. Literature needed to change in numerous ways. When the war began, letters would be used to keep families in touch with soldiers. News would become more biased and exaggerated depending on its origin (North vs. South). Many children created care packages and wrote letters to soldiers, which gave the men at war some hope and knowledge of the outside world. In 1864, Harper’s Weekly published a story about a young girl named Lula who wished to write a letter to a soldier.
That letter wound up in the hands of Daniel P. Fleming- a man who had no family to write to. “Lula’s letter came when he felt forsaken—desperate—and saved him” (Diffley). Their correspondence created a magnificent bond that carried Fleming throughout the war, and impacted both he and Lula for the remainder of their lives. Literature served a great purpose in the Civil War, and its growth did not stop there. When literature grew in popularity, it had a plethora of effects. It both helped and hurt our country. On one hand, it led to the letters that kept the spirits of our soldiers high.
On the other, it produced media that exaggerated truths and spread lies. Since the North and South had greatly varying opinions at the time, their news sources also greatly varied. Each would produce its own version of the truth, and neither would be completely honest. This sensationalism only continued to spread, which became its worst in the 20th century. Not all of the effects of literature’s changes were completely bad, though. Novels allowed people to escape the awful experiences they were going through, if only for a little while.
Writers became more successful and American authors had more of a chance as American writing took over the aforementioned British literature. Essays and stories meant to rally the nation during war kept each side unified, even as the country itself split in half. Literature was, perhaps, a great factor in keeping the United States from permanently disbanding. Literature impacts a lot in our lives today: it is a tell-tale sign of the amount of education one receives, it determines a lot of our viewpoints on many issues, and it can even affect the choices you make.
This was true during the Civil War era as well, but this took off mostly at the time of the Civil War itself. Before the war, literature had only just begun to spread. It was quite obviously linked to social class as well, as the upper classes were known to have a much higher percentage of literacy than the lower classes. Also, British works became less popular, while American authors prospered. With novels on the rise with the common woman, literature asserted itself as an everyday piece of life.
This was reinforced by the use of newspapers, magazines, and books that provided instruction and recipes. Literature took off right before the start of the Civil War, in part causing it. Certain literary works had a strong impact on society, creating controversy and drawing the boundary between the North and the South. Literature also played a huge role in the lives of many soldiers during the war itself. It not only kept the soldiers motivated by giving them something to look forward too, but it also connected them to the outside world and reminded them of all the people they were fighting for.
Literature helped to both keep this country together and tear it apart. While the printed media was not always as honest as it should’ve been, and the letters did not always keep the soldiers motivated, it is impossible to argue that literature went through an incredible change during the Civil War. Literature will always be a part of our lives, and this rang especially true during this time of struggle, which unlocked an appetite for literature that our country had never known before.