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In the theater of war: Grant and Sherman walk out of ‘Hamlet’ in Nashville in 1863

I read Edmund Wilson’s "Patriotic Gore" many years ago, but as part of my current book project, I picked it up the other day to review the chapter on how the Civil War changed the dominant American prose style from florid and lengthy (for example, Edgar Allan Poe) to the plain usage we now associate with Hemingway and newspaper op-ed articles.I read Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore many years ago, but as part of my current book project, I picked it up the other day to review the chapter on how the Civil War changed the dominant American prose style from florid and lengthy (for example, Edgar Allan Poe) to the plain usage we now associate with Hemingway and newspaper op-ed articles.

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I read Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore many years ago, but as part of my current book project, I picked it up the other day to review the chapter on how the Civil War changed the dominant American prose style from florid and lengthy (for example, Edgar Allan Poe) to the plain usage we now associate with Hemingway and newspaper op-ed articles.

I’d forgotten how much I liked sections of the book. There is a lovely anecdote about when Sherman visited Grant in Nashville at Christmastime 1863. Sherman, who loved good theater, hauled Grant off to a performance of Hamlet, but was underwhelmed by the acting. Sherman became “so indignant at the butchery of the play” that he began grumbling loudly that they were “murdering” it. Finally he became so disruptive that Grant told him to leave.

However, checking this out, I came across another account that said that, yes, Sherman did criticize the play, but that they left after the audience became rowdy, when Hamlet was speaking to the skull of Yorick, and a soldier yelled out, “Say, pard, what is it, Yank or Reb?” At that point, this account says, Sherman suggested they go find an oyster house, which they did.

Image credits: Frans Hals/National Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons; Mathew Brady/The Photography Book (Phaidon Press: Londo, 1997)/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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