Mike's Reviews > This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust
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's review
Jan 04, 2011

it was ok
Read from January 03 to 04, 2011

Not as good as I had hoped. Faust's writing is concise and artful on a sentence-by-sentence basis; however, the flow is often clunky and sophomoric. The rapid, not-at-all seamless shift from evidence to analysis to evidence to analysis reminded me of helping fellow students edit papers, not reading a groundbreaking history.

As for the subject matter, I felt like it was a pretty standard, tried-and-true narrative of grief and mourning being projected onto the Civil War. I doubt much of the psychological trauma, the crisis of meaning, or the struggle of faith were particular to the era, because they aren't; the insights into general bereavement or religious doubt are not insightful or unique (e.g. of course one needs a tangible body and face to "realize" his or her grief for the loved one; of course patriotism is used a surrogate for religious fervor).

To the book's credit, the aspects that meditate on specificities of death and dying in the Civil War are fascinating: the rise of embalming, the demand for national cemeteries, agencies for missing people conning the bejesus out of naive mourners in New York City, and of course the SCOPE of the tragedy itself. But sadly the book all too often strays from this to reiterate the all-too-obvious, e.g. reconciling a benevolent god with a violent war, or the need for spiritualism and the existence of an afterlife to comfort the bereaved. These crises of thought were not unprecedented phenomena in 1860, and granted the book needs to focus on them to make its point, the attention given to them made for some dull, sometimes repetitive, often uninteresting portions.

Lastly (and this is more of a question than a concern), the book spends a lot of time quoting poets and authors like Walt Whitman, Emerson, and Melville, and treating their responses to the war as key representations of the psychological zeitgeist. I suppose a history book that is dealing with a nation's sentimental education should be excused a little for taking fiction-writers' quotes and making them the voice of a nation's people, but this made me a little uncomfortable. Isn't that sort of evidence a few degrees more separation than desired? I don't know.

I'm sure for Faust it was a difficult task to take individual tribulation and articulate it as a historical movement, and for me she succeeded sometimes and failed in others. The chronicling of personal processes on a national level, even one as rudimentary as grief, will always undermine the more-fascinating arrays of diverse human experience. And man does this book gather steam when it gets specific. All in all, an okay book.

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