What If the Pen Was Mightier Than the Sword? Civil War Alternate History as Social Criticism

Abstract: Alternate histories about the American Civil War seem ideally set up to explore the possibilities and tensions of social criticism through art and literature. Counterfactual stories about the war easily invoke contemporary issues of inequality and exploitation, and they are part of a genre—alternate history—that has traditionally lent itself to social commentary. Yet while scholarship on alternate history has captured the presentist orientation of many alternate histories in the fantasy-nightmare dichotomy, these categories appear reductive as a reflection of the layered and intriguing forms social criticism takes in Civil War alternate history. This article examines two examples of this genre that position themselves as political statements. Frank Purdy Williams’s largely forgotten novel Hallie Marshall: A True Daughter of the South (1900) subverts major literary traditions of its time to mount a counterintuitive critique of capitalist exploitation. Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) is both a scathing critique of American racism and a multilayered satire on the distortion of history in popular culture. Both works use the conventions of alternate history as conduits for critique and provocation, which makes the revelation of their ideological investments ingenious but perhaps dangerously circuitous.

In 1900 New York, a small press published a now obscure novel called Hallie Marshall: A True Daughter of the South. The novel is a peculiar fantasy, the premise of which borrows from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889): An industrious manufacturer from New England wakes up from a nap to find himself inexplicably transported to an idyllic alternative South—called the ‘Southland’—that won its independence in 1865 and remained a society based on slavery. The main character, a typical free-labor Yankee, meets Hallie Marshall, the personification of Southern hospitality and feminine grace, with whom he falls in love. He also becomes acquainted with her father, a gentleman planter and passionate proponent of the Southland’s society based on interdependence and benign paternalism. The Yankee’s hosts introduce him to their society with the explicit goal of converting him to their philosophy of life and labor in order to erode his loyalty to the North. When they succeed, he is faced with the choice of staying in ‘paradise’ or returning to preach the gospel of the Southland in the Northern states.

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