Optimism and Pessimism in Writing During the Civil War Era Essay

During the Civil War unit, we discussed many different types of authors. Some were cynical and pessimistic, while others were very optimistic, almost to the point of Transcendentalist. Three Civil War era writers that varied from pessimism to optimism included Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. Ambrose Bierce, also known as “Bitter Bierce,” was a writer in the 1800’s that wrote about war and the tragedy that comes along with it. Being a realist, Bierce wanted to reveal the horrors of war to the world. He mocked other war stories that glorified war, and tried to prove the point that war is terrible.

In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Bierce enforces the idea that war should not be considered a great thing that is an honor to participate in, but it should be considered a burden and a sorrowful hardship. In this short story, Peyton Farquhar, a southerner, is getting hanged after trying to force northern soldiers off of a bridge. A main theme of this story is that America, “home of the free and land of the brave,” will never truly be free until the war is over. This story is an example of Bierce’s cynicism because it is shown that war brings only death and destruction.

Unlike many fairytale stories where the protagonist escapes near-death, the hopeless Farquhar is executed at the end. Even though this story is more realistic, it’s much more pessimistic than most stories. Before Farquhar died, he was thinking about the “frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war,” in which soldiers accept this glorified statement without even considering the brutality of war. This is a more cynical view of how Americans fighting in the Civil War thought it was an honor to fight and that it was full of glory.

Bierce proves that war is bloody and disastrous, rather than a great thing like it used to be viewed as. In another one of Ambrose Bierce’s works, The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce provides cynical and pessimistic definitions of words rather than their true meaning. For example, when he states, “Year (n) – A period of 365 disappointments,” he is expressing his pessimism towards life. In another definition, “Consult (v) – To seek another’s approval of a course already decided on,” Bierce is showing his cynical, realistic side by criticizing many people’s actions.

This example explains how many people make a decision, but try to get approval from others so that he or she feels better about their actions. Another pessimistic writer was Mark Twain. Though not necessarily as dark as Bierce, he developed a very cynical attitude as he aged. Twain, while very witty and humorous, was also very sarcastic and criticized many things. In a quote by Twain himself, he states that an optimist is a “day dreamer more elegantly spelled. ” This is clearly proof that Twain was a realist and criticized optimists who wanted the world to be something that it wasn’t.

In The Story of the Bad Little Boy, Twain satires Sunday school stories that one will always be punished for doing bad things. The Story of the Bad Little Boy is a much more realistic, though exaggerated, story that expresses the fact that the bad aren’t always punished. While this story is witty and sarcastic, it is very cynical towards how people think the world is. For example, the main characters, Jim, once climbed an apple-tree to steal apples, but “the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. The sarcastic humor in this story is that Twain states everything that did not happen to Jim, but what would have happened in Sunday school stories. Jim lived his life doing bad things and not getting in trouble. He grew up and entered politics, becoming very successful. One day, as the story states that he “raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality. ” Twain was expressing his cynical feelings toward what untrue things children are taught in this story, since they are too optimistic and unrealistic.

In another one of Twain’s stories, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain ridicules adults’ morals, as the two children in this novel knew much more about right and wrong than their elders. Overall, Twain was very cynical towards society and its values. He incorporated his opinions into many of works, as previously mentioned. During the Civil War era, not all writers were extreme pessimists, though. One last writer, in contrast to the prior, was an optimist. Walt Whitman, a poet, was a local color writer that was known for unusual techniques like free verse, freedom of subject matter, freedom of diction, and freedom of structure.

These aspects of Walt Whitman’s writing are what made him unique and memorable. Whitman, while mostly remaining an optimist throughout his life, was a bridge from the romantic writing to realistic writing. Whitman was often so optimistic that he was referred to as a transcendentalist. During Whitman’s romantic writing period, he made a collection of poems in his book, Leaves of Grass. In this book he celebrated human life and culture. In his poem, “O Me! O Life! ” Whitman stated, “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. This is an example showing that Whitman was optimistic about civilization, that he believed everyone and anyone could make a difference in the world and that every person in the world was important. As Whitman drifted into his realistic period, probably due to the Civil War, he began to write war poems. In “Beat! Beat! Drums! ” Whitman speaks out to Americans to help them realize that the glorified Civil War was not all that it was cracked up to be. He wanted America to know that it would be a long, hard war.


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