Civil War Narratives: Is There A Problem?

I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history.  Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history.  As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge.  That is clearly not his problem:

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit  rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative.  And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest.  I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath. 

Still, I find it difficult to explain the almost "pathological" obsession Dimitri has with James McPherson’s Battle Cry.  It clearly is for him the paradigm example of a bad narrative:

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry.  There are two problems with this view.  First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series.  The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln.  My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine. 

What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship.  Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair.  Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read.  The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives.  In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake.  In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this.    My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam. 

In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers.  Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising. 

So, is there really a problem?

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3 comments… add one

  • John Maass Dec 28, 2006

    This post I agree with 100%, and have thought along these lines for quite some time. In fact, I quit reading CIVIL WAR BOOKSHELF months ago because the swipes at McPherson became too frequent and, well, unkind. I’m no huge fan of JM, but like you I can’t see whatthe big problem is with his work. I have also found the defense of McClellan on that blog to border on the absurd at times. It is also interesting that Dimitri’s blog does not allow comments. If he did, I suspect he would read a number of comments his readers might make in which they disagree with his condescending remarks on McPherson, McClellan, Civil War narratives in general, etc.

  • Justin Felux Dec 28, 2006

    I am likewise baffled by Dmitri’s obsession with McPherson. Personally, I think McPherson rendered a great service to history by writing _Battle Cry_.

    I have heard Dmitri complain that _Battle Cry_ breathed new life into old intrepretations that were really “on their last legs.” In the narrow case of McClellan, maybe this is true.

    But what Dmitri fails to appreciate is that _Battle Cry_ also put the nail in the coffin for many Lost Cause notions that still had a grip on the popular imagination in America.

    Growing up in a backwater town in South Texas, I was taught in high school that the Civil War was all about “states rights” and had nothing to do with slavery. The North only won because of overwhelming numbers and resources, slavery was about to die a natural death, Lincoln was a tyrant, etc.

    Essentially every Lost Cause myth you can think of is still being taught to thousands of kids all across this country. In _Battle Cry_, McPherson resigns all of those myths to the garbage bin of history. And for a work like that to be read by such a broad audience is a very good thing.

    Dmitri is typically not very clear in what he is trying to say, but from what I can gather, his objections to narrative are all misguided. He says that people who got into Civil War history by reading _Battle Cry_ are the exception. It seems to me the opposite.

    For example, when you listen to Dr. Prokopowicz’s “Civil War Talk Radio,” you notice that practically every scholar he interviews says that they got into Civil War history by reading Bruce Catton (who is infinitely inferior to McPherson).

    I also find it odd that even in Dmitri’s most heated McPherson rants, he only mentions _Battle Cry_. One would get the impression that it’s the only book he ever wrote. Dmitri never comments on _For Cause and Comrades_, or McPherson’s work on the abolitionists, or _Drawn with the Sword_, which are all fine pieces of original scholarship.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2006

    Justin and John, — Thanks for the comments. I would love for Dimitri to explain some of the points that were raised in your comments. The point that McPherson’s _Battle Cry_ provided a necessary corrective to Lost Cause explanations that purport to explain the cause of the war are very important. They are much more important compared with how we interpret McClellan’s generalship. I’ve read Rowland and Rafuse and I still think the guy was incompetent.

    Dimitri did mention in a previous post that he is looking forward to McPherson’s new book of essays. Perhaps he will comment on one of them and get off the _Battle Cry_ bandwagon.

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