Getting To Know Your Man

It was nice to hear Peter Carmichael in his Civil War Talk Radio interview mention Stephen Berry’s fine book, All That Makes A Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South
(Oxford University Press, 2003).  Pete mentioned that the book has unfortunately not received the kind of attention it deserves.  I have to concur with that assesment.  It just so happens that I’ve been going through parts of the book again in connection with one of my research projects.  The book fills an important gap in our understanding of the emotional lives of southern men on the eve of the Civil War.  There is a strong superficial interest in masculinity which can be seen in the goofy references to Southern chivalry or christian warriors.  It’s not that the concepts are meaningless, just that most of the people who reference them have little interest in getting below the surface of the topic.  The emotional and intellectual lives of Southern men, especially Jackson and Lee, were supposedly as transparent to themselves as they are to us.  With the help of gender and cultural studies we’ve made much progress in this area, but according to Stephen Berry:

For all these advances, however, the story of Southern masculinity continues to be understood better in its postures and poses, more for what it claimed to be than for what it was.  In their studies of duels and barbecues, hunting and stump speaking, scholars have examined with greater penetration the archetypically masculine aspects of Southern life than the dithering dreams and doubts that surely dominated men’s inner experiences of themselves.  Of the consequences for the South of its hypermasculinized culture, much has been suggested.  Of the consequences for the men living in and through this culture little is known.  Of the general tenor of men’s inner, emotional lives little has been said or written.  As a result, men are denied a measure of their humanity, which, while in no way so egregious as that denied women for centuries, is nevertheless an impediment to understanding. (p. 11)

All too often we talk about courage and other masculine qualities of the men who fought on the war’s bloodiest fields without ever wondering what these concepts meant to the men themselves.  More importantly, we pay little attention to how these ideas were learned, acted upon, and reinforced in the years leading up to the war – at a time when many of these men were coming of age.  It’s as if the common language we use to describe Southern men (especially the ever popular Lee, Jackson, and Stuart) fail to tell us anything that goes beyond the paintings and photographs.

What I mean to say is that you should read this book.

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