Robert Penn Warren’s Wisdom

Every once in awhile I pull out my now mangled copy of Robert Penn Warren’s The Legacy of the Civil War.  I don’t think there is another Civil War book that has had more of an influence on my overall interpretation of how the war fits into our collective memory.  His wonderful distinction between the South’s "Great Alibi" and the North’s "Treasury of Virtue" continues to resonate in new books and the relentless public commentary in magazines and newspapers.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from the book.

"The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.  Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history.  Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense."  (3)

"In defeat the Solid South was born–not only the witless automotism of fidelity to the Democratic Party but the mystique of prideful "difference," identity, and defensiveness.  The citizen of that region "of the Mississippi the bank sinister, of the Ohio the bank sinister," could now think of himself as a "Southerner" in a way that would have defied the imagination of Barnwell Rhett–or of Robert E. Lee, unionist-emancipationist Virginian.  We may say that only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality."  (14-15)

"We are right to see power, prestige, and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War.  But is is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and roading capability." (49)

"History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that.  It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond.  It modifies our complacency to look at the blurred and harrowing old photographs–of the body of th e dead sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg or the tangled mass in the Bloody Lane at Antietam." (50)

"The Treasury of Virtue, which is the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War, may not be as comic or vicious as the Great Alibi, but it is equally unlovely.  It may even be, in the end, equally corrosive of national, and personal, integrity.  If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed.  He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history." (59)

"The Great Alibi and the Treasury of Virtue both serve deep needs of poor human nature; and if, without historical realism and self-criticism, we look back on the War, we are merely compounding the old inherited delusions which our weakness craves.  We fear, in other words, to lose the comforting automotism of the Great Alibi or the Treasury of Virtue, for if we lost them we may, at last, find ourselves nakedly alone with the problem of our time and with ourselves.  Where would we find our next alibi and our next assurance of virtue?" (76)

"The word tragedy is often used loosely.  Here we use it at its deepest significance: the image in action of the deepest questions of man’s fate and man’s attitude toward his fate.  For the Civil War is, massively, that. It is the story of a crime of monstrous inhumanity, into which almost innocently men stumbled; of consequences which could not be trammeled up, and of men who entangled themselves more and more vindictively and desperately until the powers of reason were twisted and their very virtues perverted; of a climax drenched with blood but with  nobility gleaming ironically, and redeemingly, through the murk; of a conclusion in which, for the participants at least, there is a reconciliation by human recognition." (103)

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