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“No poet ever invented such a scheme of curse….” (John Jay Chapman)

September 29, 2009

“The Civil War,—that war with its years of interminable length, its battles of such successive and monstrous carnage, its dragged-out reiterations of horror and agony, and its even worse tortures of hope deferred,—hope all but extinct,—that war of which it is impossible to read even a summary without becoming so worn out by distress that you forget everything that went before in the country’s history and emerge, as it were, a new man at the close of your perusal;—that war was no accident.

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William Lloyd Garrison

It was involved in every syllable which every inhabitant of America uttered or neglected to utter in regard to the slavery question between 1830 and 1860. The gathering and coming on of that war, its vaporous distillation from the breath of every man, its slow, inevitable formation in the sky, its retreats and apparent dispersals, its renewed visibilities—all of them governed by some inscrutable logic—and its final descent in lightning and deluge;—these matters make the history of the interval between 1830 and 1865.

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Antietam Battlefield, the dead.

That history is all one galvanic throb, one course of human passion, one Nemesis, one deliverance. And with the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 there falls from on high the great, unifying stroke that leaves the tragedy sublime. No poet ever invented such a scheme of curse, so all-involving, so remotely rising in an obscure past and holding an entire nation in its mysterious bondage—a scheme based on natural law, led forward and unfolded from mood to mood, from climax to climax, and plunging at the close into the depths of a fathomless pity. The action of the drama is upon such a scale that a quarter of the earth has to be devoted to it. Yet the argument is so trite that it will hardly bear statement. Perhaps the true way to view the whole matter is to regard it as the throwing off by healthy morality of a little piece of left-over wickedness—that bad heritage of antiquity, domestic slavery. The logical and awful steps by which the process went forward merely exhibit familiar, moral, and poetic truth. What else could they exhibit?” (Selected Writings of John Jay Chapman, 6-7).

The passage just quoted is from Chapman‘s brilliant biography of William Lloyd Garrison; it is one of Chapman’s finest paragraphs. The sentences arise—it seems hardly appropriate to say that they are built, so inevitable does the unfolding progress feel—out of an intricate series of parallel clauses and phrases, many of them so recursively embedded in the clauses that precede them as to make the extrication of any single one of them an act of vandalism. The reader must take the passage whole, or not at all. Two metaphors integrate and control the writing here: the metaphor of a storm, and the metaphor of a dramatic tragedy. The storm begins, imperceptibly, in the “vaporous distillation” of the breath of “every American”; no man, no woman, lives without giving vent to it; it involves us all.

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Battlefield dead, Antietam.

And out of this vapor, over the course of thirty-five years, condense “clouds” that “inevitably” darken the skies, until a “deluge” falls upon a nation “cursed” by its own wickedness. The war had, for Chapman, a moral necessity—even what must be called an Old Testament sort of necessity—just as it had for Lincoln in the Second Inaugural Address. And Lincoln becomes, in Chapman’s vision, the Christ-like sacrifice finally demanded of a guilty nation from “on high,” as by a final, purifying bolt of lightning. The Civil War can be interpreted—can be said not to have been “an accident,” and to contain “poetic truth”—precisely because it has the unity, and the terrible, pity-inducing perfection, of a dramatic “tragedy.” Sophocles could not have done it better. Notice how Chapman’s tone varies in this passage, from hyperbole (the war was “involved in every syllable which every inhabitant of America uttered or neglected to utter in regard to the slavery question between 1830 and 1860”) to an almost winking sort of understatement (“a little piece of left-over wickedness—that bad heritage of antiquity, domestic slavery”). He is most comfortable, as a prose writer, with exhortation and invective, but within that sphere he has real range and nuance, even in passages like the one before us here, which work at the absolute height of intensity. In this he resembles no one so much as Garrison himself.

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John Jay Chapman as a young man.

Later, in but one of many unforgettable paragraphs in the book, Chapman sketches out a portrait of the abolitionist that might well have been drawn from his own dressing-table mirror: “We must imagine Garrison,” Chapman writes, “behind and underneath the machinery and in touch with all the forces at work, writing away at his terrible Liberator—fomenting, rebuking, retorting, supporting, expounding, thundering, scolding. The continuousness of Garrison is appalling, and fatigues even the retrospective imagination of posterity: he is like an all-night hotel: he is possessed: he is like something let loose. I dread the din of him.” Never in the history of American biography has an author been better matched with his subject than in Chapman’s William Lloyd Garrison.

N.B.: For another entry in this blog pertaining to the Civil War, click here. For other entries in this blog having to do with Chapman, click here.

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