By the end of 1862, English translations of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables began to appear in North America. Though the novel, released in five volumes, received mixed reviews in the North, Southern critics were very receptive, ironic given Hugo’s staunch antislavery views (Masur 2013). John Esten Cooke, an aid to the maverick Confederate cavalry general J. E. B. Stuart, wrote, “[The novel] had been translated and published by a house in Richmond; the soldiers, in the great dearth of reading matter, had seized upon it … The soldiers, less familiar with the Gallic pronunciation, called the book ‘Lee’s Miserables!’ Then another step was taken. It was no longer the book, but themselves whom they referred to by that name” (Cooke, 1864). This appears to be a recognition that a narration of war requires what Elisabeth Bronfen describes as individuals (troops) standing in “for political ideas and nation … individuals whose personal involvement renders abstract conflicts concrete” (Bronfen 2012, 4). The personal war narratives found in Civil War epistolary forms were similar to the way that the characters in Les Misérables were stand-ins for the larger moral questions Hugo posed for a post-Napoleonic/post-Revolutionary France, as in both cases a narrative of nationhood (on a large stage) is infused with pathos by being transmitted by human participants (on a small stage).


Cultural Memory Narrative Strategy Western Front Union Army Panoramic Vision 
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  1. 1.
    For further reading on horror concepts of “terror” versus “horror” and “the gruesome or the grotesque,” see Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (New York: Everest House, 1981).Google Scholar

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  • John Trafton

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