The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

IV. The New South: Lanier

§ 19. The Confederate Army

Then came the cataclysm of Civil War, and with it for Lanier a period of storm and stress that tossed him this way and that for a dozen years. At the outbreak he was enthusiastic at the prospect of a South more wealthy than history had yet seen. Macon, he thought, was to become a great art centre whose streets were to be lined with marble statues like unto Athens of old. At the close of the college year he, like nearly all the other teachers and the students of Oglethorpe, enlisted for service. The war itself was not an unmixed evil to Lanier. Although he saw some exciting service as a signal-man along the James River, he was for three years allowed ample time for study and for cherishing that passion for the very highest which grew with his years. He now began to contemplate a literary life as his vocation. To his father he wrote in 1864, “Gradually I find that my whole soul is merging itself into this business of writing, and especially of writing poetry.” He began his novel, Tiger Lilies, and sent several poems to his father for criticism. In 1864, however, he was transferred to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he served as signal officer on the blockade runners. In November he was captured in the Gulf Stream and sent to Point Lookout Prison in Maryland. There he continued to play the flute, which won him the friendship of Tabb. He busied himself with German poetry, but the prison conditions were so loath-some as to induce a breakdown in health. He came out emaciated to a skeleton, and when he finally reached Macon in March he fell ill and lingered near death for two months. Thereafter his life was an unavailing search for health.

The fact that members of his family “who used to roll in wealth are, everyday, with their own hands ploughing the little patch of ground which the war has left them, while their wives do the cooking and washing,” did not disturb him. What he felt most keenly was the intellectual stagnation of the South. Already in 1866 he was, with characteristic breadth and lack of prejudice, writing thus to a Northern friend:

  • You are all so alive up there, and we are all so dead down here! I begin to have serious thoughts of emigrating to your country, so that I may live a little. There is not enough attrition of mind on mind here to bring out any sparks from a man.
  • Even among these untoward surroundings he continued to foster his literary ambitions. In another letter he continues:
  • We have no newspapers here with circulation enough to excite our ambition, and, of course, the Northern papers are beyond our reach. Our literary life, too, is a lonely and somewhat cheerless one; for beyond our father, a man of considerable literary acquirements and exquisite taste, we have not been able to find a single individual who sympathized in such pursuits enough to warrant showing him our little productions—so scarce is “general cultivation” here.
  • I am thirsty to know what is going on in the great art world up there; you have no idea how benighted we all are. I have only recently begun to get into the doings of literary men through “The Round Table” which I have just commenced taking.
  • That journal not only satisfied his thirst for the doings of the great world but helped to foster the national spirit which he was to voice more clearly than other poets of his section, and to fire his own ambition for a literary career. Several of his earlier poems appeared in its pages.