Dimitri’s Imaginary Lost Cause

I’ve been reading Dimitri’s so-called analysis of historians who concentrate on interpreting the evolution of the Lost Cause movement and I find it humorous at best.  I say this as someone who has published more than one article on the Lost Cause in well-regarded academic journals and who is familiar with the historiography.  In both Part 1 and Part 2 the reader is introduced to the as-yet-to-be-defined "centennialist school" and commentators such as the writer Eric Hobsbawm and the philosopher Karl Popper.  Unfortunately, nowhere does the reader get an example from the literature or the historians who concentrate on this particular area of Civil War history.  Instead we get the following jibberish:

A close reading of the attacks on Lost Cause beliefs suggest a consistently
Hobsbawmian approach. The LC is seen as a manipulation; it apparently represents
the conscious invention of traditions; it offers a calculated shading of
history-as-truth; it seems intended to serve an alibi function for the modern
white South, etc. These are the commonest lines of argument one sees in anti-LC
polemic. I’m not suggesting that our critics of the LC are Hobsbawm readers but
rather that they are manifesting a universal analytic tendency toward conspiracy
theory.

I guess one way to attack an argument is to rely on the old strawman approach – throw in some generalizations and vague terminology and stir until you come up with what appears to be an informed analysis and give the reader the sense that the enemy has been vanquished.  The problem is that the literature on the Lost Cause is much too broad to characterize in such a way.  Does Dimitri really think that he can lump into this vague characterization historians such as Gaines Foster and Charles R. Wilson, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Blight who take very different approaches to the study of the Lost Cause?  Instead of quoting extensively from Karl Popper why not try to lay out an argument by actually referring to a published study?  I’m more than happy to debate Popper or any other philosopher that is brought to bear on the study or writing of history.  But why is this necessary?  If you want to comment on Civil War history then do so.  I could go on, but what’s the point.  My guess – based on his posts – is that Dimitri isn’t sufficiently familiar with the literature anyway.   

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2 thoughts on “Dimitri’s Imaginary Lost Cause

  1. Brooks Simpson

    I’m going to set aside the discussion about “centennialist” versions of the war to focus on a key characteristic of the Lost Cause approach, which is that it is an explicit use of a constructed version of the past to bolster and justify certain present agendas (or not-so-present-anymore [but not entirely gone] agendas). Hard to claim it’s a conspiracy, as the authors built on each other’s assumptions, were not contemporaries, etc. But one can see a refined notion of Lost Cause themes in the work of Douglas Southall Freeman and Shelby Foote, two different writers who were interested in different parts of the war, each with his own distinctive hero, and Foote far more than Freeman in explicit denial of issues of race and slavery.

    It is clear to me that there are also themes in the work of Bruce Catton, who looked to the war as a unifying experience that dealt in ham-handed ways wit the issue of slavery and race, and that work is different from that of James McPherson, who hangs his narrative much more clearly on an interaction of military and political agendas. I see Stephen Sears’s early work as a rift on the themes of Catton, T. Harry Williams, and Kenneth Williams, especially on McClellan, just as I see Peter Cozzens as reviving the Army of the Cumberland “we don’t get no respect” view of history. Sears has said virtually nothing about Grant; his fascination with Hooker fascinates me; what links him with McPherson/Catton/Williams/Williams is a common take on McClellan, just as McPherson/Catton/Williams/Williams also celebrate Grant and Lincoln (sometimes in different ways).

    As a reader, I’d guess that the centennialist view is pro-Lincoln, sees a smooth escalation from reunion to emancipation, presents Lincoln as a prudent Radical, is skeptical and sarcastic about McClellan, and sees Grant as a military man above politics, contra McClellan. There’s nothing about the West in this view, and guys like Sherman don’t fit.

    Read Dimitri’s posts on the Lost Cause, substituting “centennialist” for “Lost Cause,” and tell me if it doesn’t at times approach intellectual autobiography. :)

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Brooks, — Thanks for writing in on this one. Your point re: Freeman and Foote is right on target and points to the difficulty of generalizing about Lost Cause proponents. The point that the Lost Cause was used in part for ongoing political concerns and suggests why a closer examination of the evolution and continued acceptance of its assumptions is worthwhile. Gary Gallagher has a very interesting essay on the Lost Cause as understood by Jubal Early and D.S. Freeman in his book, _Lee & His Generals in Confederate History_. Neo-Confederate organizations clearly have a political agenda at work behind their propping up of so-called “black Confederates.”

    Dimitri is on fairly solid ground when he focuses in on the way that Catton, Nevins, Sears, and McPherson characterize McClellan. I fervently believe that it is useful to throw deep-seated beliefs into question in our historical discourse. The fundamental flaw in Dimitri’s “analysis” is that he picks up on these little McClellan strands and thinks he has a sufficient reason to label a new school of thought. His comments on McPherson are a perfect example of this sloppy kind of analysis. Dimitri’s generalizations about McPherson – based simply on a very limited reading of his scholarship – is laughable.

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