Writing the American Civil War

BA Seminar / Spring Semester 2014 / English Department, University of Zurich ///

In an interview with filmmaker Ken Burns the author and historian Shelby Foote once said: «Any understanding of this [American] nation has to be based on an understanding of the Civil War. The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.»

In this seminar we want to look at how the Civil War (in which more Americans lost their lives than in any other war) has left its mark on the literature and culture of the United States and continues to do so up to this day. However, we will also look at how the war itself was accompanied, influenced and propelled by both literary and political writings, as well as by paintings, photographs and songs. Thus, one of the aims of this seminar is to acknowledge the Civil War not only as a horrific historic event but also as a war of and in media. Similar to those «repetition compulsions» described by Sigmund Freud, which force the veterans to relive endlessly their experiences as soldiers, so too the discussed texts, films and images will need to be seen as uncanny continuations of war by other means.

Among the materials to be discussed are Harriet Beecher Stowe’s «Uncle Tom‘s Cabin», Stephen Crane’s «The Red-Badge of Courage», speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the war photographies by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, short stories by Ambrose Bierce, poems and prose writings by Walt Whitman as well as films like «The Beguiled» (USA 1971) by Don Siegel or «In the Electric Mist» (USA 2009) by Bertrand Tavernier. Our main theoretical reference points will be Sigmund Freud’s writings on war and Walter Benjamin’s «Critique of Violence».


18.02.13 Introduction

I. All is Cursed

25.02.13 Excerpts from Ken Burns’ «The Civil War»

04.03.13 Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

11.03.13 * Writings by Frederick Douglass

18.03.13 * Walter Benjamin: “Critique of Violence”

II. The Beautiful Horror of Battle

25.03.13 * Sigmund Freud’s Writings on War

01.04.13 * Civil War Photographs

08.04.13 Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage

15.04.13 * Selected Speeches by Abraham Lincoln

III. Haunted Forever

29.04.13 Don Siegel. The Beguiled (USA 1971)

06.05.13 * Short Stories by Ambrose Bierce:

“What I Saw of Shiloh”, “A Horseman in the Sky”, “Chickamauga”, “One of the Missing”, “A Resumed Identity”

13.05.13 * Walt Whitman: Selected Poems and Prose

20.05.13 Bertrand Tavernier. In the Electric Mist (France/USA 2009)

27.05.13 Final session

The participants will be asked to give presentations on the following topics:

Slavery in the United States;
Frederick Douglass, from slave to leader;
The abolitionist movement;
The legendary Robert E. Lee;
The Battle of Fort Sumter;
The Battle of Gettysburg;
Lincoln’s politics;
Women in the Civil War;

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