What Is This Thing Called the “Lost Cause”?

Dimitri Rotov recently blogged about R.E. Lee Symposium and the reactions to it that I assume he found around the blogosphere.  His position is very clear:

I myself am a "Lost Cause" skeptic being underwhelmed by the quality of historians trying to play at historiography here. The idea that there is an identifiable "Lost Cause" school of thought among post-war history writers is a proposition that needs arguments and proofs, not a grab bag of self-serving snippets from selected writings.
It’s not clear whether the "historians" he has in question are those in the blogosphere or those who have spent considerable time publishing studies about the Lost Cause.  Dimitri suggests that the Lost Cause is really nothing more than a construct that has as much epistemological weight as any other set of ideas packed together and labeled:
Through a careful editing of materials we can as easily construct a "Lost Cause" mythology as we can a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology in which a school of history is assembled from Unionist writings that argue Lincoln’s virtues were decisive in winning the war for the North.
I assume that Dimitri is correct that we could indeed construct a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology and perhaps we have already done so, but this statement has nothing at all to do with the efficacy of claims concerning the so-called Lost Cause.  The problem as I see it with Dimitri’s characterization is with his referencing of a "school of thought."  It’s unclear what he means by this.  If Dimitri means something along the lines of what historiographers of American history have described as the Progressive, Whig, or Imperialist schools of thought than he simply does not understand or has not bothered to read the relevant literature on the Lost Cause.  No one has ever suggested that Lost Cause writers were formally trained or were given formal instructions.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement among historians about how to understand the Lost Cause.  Gaines Foster has argued persuasively that the Lost Cause can be found in a wide spectrum of civic events following the war while Charles R. Wilson has focused attention on religious ceremonies. 

Studies of the way in which Americans celebrated and recorded their memories and impression of the war have increased significantly over the past decade.  To suggest that they are inventing a "school of thought" is to completely miss the point of these studies.

I think the problem that many people have with historians who study the postwar scene is that they do not want to be reminded that history was up for grabs. In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Harvard University Press, 1974), Bernard Bailyn attempted to explain how distance from the historical event shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories "that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself." For the historian, "the outcome [of the event] is still in question," according to Bailyn, and "emotions are still deeply engaged." This emotional attachment to the event by historians "especially those involved in the event in question" leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where "earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away." Bailyn’s characterization can easily be mapped onto Civil War historiography.

I don’t see the Lost Cause as a "school of thought" but I do read printed materials and interpret other events as an attempt to understand the past in light of the present.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that those sources have little or no value as critical histories, but that often they tell the historian as much about the authors or those taking part in ceremonies as they do about a past they purport to describe and understand.  What most historians mean when they reference the "Lost Cause" is a set of assumptions that emerged following the war in both the North and South and that could be seen in a wide range of political, social, religious, and cultural acts. 

There is nothing conspiratorial about this, in fact, each of us can appreciate the assumptions that drive historians of the Lost Cause and memory more generally.  Consider the following passage from the philosopher Daniel Dennett:

We, in contrast, are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves–in language and gesture, external and internal.  The most obvious difference in our environment that would explain this difference in our behavior is the behaviour itself.  Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.  These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative.  Indeed. . . when we let in these words, these meme-vehicles, they tend to take over, creating us out of the raw materials they find in our brains.  (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained 1991)

As the passage above suggests, we distinguish ourselves from external objects by spinning a different kind of web involving words which are stringed together to construct stories.  And much of that self-narrative is historical.  We constantly revise our own story about ourselves.  This is one of the reasons I am so interested in how Americans remember their collective past.  It is reasonable to suggest that some of the same factors that shape our collective memories are responsible for the continual revision of our own pasts.  You can see this specifically in the context of those more traumatic moments in our lives that involve great sadness.  What we believe to be the case in the immediate aftermath of such events looks very different further down the road.  We gain perspective, forget certain facts, and even invent new ones.

Perhaps one way to think about the study of the Lost Cause is to understand it as reflective of the of the psychological process that each of us engages in as a matter of basic survival.  History opens up a window into those moments where this process is manifest writ large.

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