How do we use words to tease out the “real” that history strives to capture? Listen to my conversation with Stephen Cushman, as we consider the historian’s art through Cushman’s book, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. In addition to critical scholarly work on poetics and form, he has published five collections of poetry, and another book on the Civil War, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. That is the Battle of the Wilderness, the bloody field of which Cushman lives in close proximity, where it has prodded him over the years to reflect on the history that flows unheeded through our lives, until, at moments, it erupts.
In Belligerent Muse, Cushman is interested, and points us with gentle precision, to the act of writing: thinking, deliberating, trying out words and phrases, composing the scene—as the main event of the text, and perhaps the main event of history itself. How do we get the world into words? That is the underlying provocation of our hour-long conversation. Along the way, we ask about the stakes and challenges of such a feat, as well as what constitutes a success and what a failure in the terms of “history.” In citing Walt Whitman’s famous assessment that “the real war will never get in the books,” Cushman places stress on the books. Surely something has gotten in the books. And so, during our conversation, we ask how the “real” of experience, if not representable in a positive, delimited sense, is made real through how exactly it leaves its imprint in our words. We reference examples Cushman uses in his book—which include the well-known speeches of Lincoln, the prose and poetry of Whitman, and the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, as well as the largely forgotten memoirs of Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—and touch on themes such as the individual as representational, the effects of a literary culture in writing history (and reading history as something other than fiction), and the place of ambivalence, or the unknown at the core of the historical methods search for truth. “The real” is, finally, not fully containable by any one writer or work. Eventually, words are all that remain. As Cushman so deftly demonstrates, we can all strive to discern how they drag along the material traces of the past, and better attune ourselves to the real with which those words stand aquiver.
Michael Amico holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation, The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: The True Story of the Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy of the American Civil War, is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of“You Can Tell Just by Looking: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He can be reached at
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