I Am Not Interested In You, I am Interested In the Past

Civil War Culture, Civil War Historians, Lost Cause, Memory, Southern History

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of blogging is just how emotional people can get over the Civil War.  Of course I knew this before blogging, but when that emotion is directed at you it provides a whole new perspective on things.  It is almost cliche to say, but it is true that many are still "fighting the war."  Perhaps Brooks Simpson is experiencing the same thing in reference to memory of Grant and the war in the West.  While our subject matter differs our responses are similar.  In this case I will let Brooks speak for me:

I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here)….

Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.

Most of the responses to my posts are sent to my personal email.  I rarely respond, but I am struck by the number of people who actually believe that I have a personal agenda or have taken a moral stand in connection to my research.  You can find numerous statements on message boards where I am labeled "anti-Southern" or my personal favorite, "hater of the South."  While I typically laugh in response to such accusations I am hard pressed to understand the motivation behind it all.  Such accusations tell me nothing about the past, but about the ignorance of the accuser.  Much of the mail I receive stems from the assumption that we should equate Southern history with the white South and/or the four years of the Confederacy.   

I am willing to admit that I am personally invested in one outcome of the war and that is the end of slavery – regardless of how it happened.  Of course I have my personal views of certain individuals, but they are working assumptions that are not invested with much emotion at all.  In other words, I am perfectly willing to step back from the way in which I understand the past.  My assumptions about the past are based on what I’ve read and since I am constantly reading I would hope that my understanding continues to evolve.    I constantly reference books when making specific claims.  While some interpret this as condescending I see it as acknowledging a basic fact that apart from the quality of the books we read no one has an independent connection to historical truth.  My voracious appetite for historical studies is a function of wanting to know better. 

I grew up on the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey and didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.  My ancestors arrived in this country after the war so I have no personal connection to the 19th century.  As difficult as it might be for some people to believe this I have absolutely no personal feelings one way or the other about the people who fought the war.  Often times I find that my readers have failed to distinguish between the perception of an emotional interest with a focus on how Americans remember the war.  The implication is that because I ask questions or draw certain conclusions that I must be personally invested.  In the case of my numerous posts about "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee the failure on the part of of my readers is to distinguish between criticisms of historians who write about such subjects and the individuals in question.  How could I possibly have such strong emotional convictions about individuals that I’ve never met?  Since my primary interests center on memory and race in the Confederacy and the postwar South the typical response is to inquire why I don’t write more about the racism of Northerners.  The implication is that I am treating the South "harshly" or that my narrow focus is a sufficient reason to conclude that I am "covering up" other areas of history.  I don’t know how to respond to such criticisms, but to say that I have my interests which I will continue to pursue.  Part of it is that I tend to write about the areas where I live, which is of course Virginia for now.  In a few years I will move and more than likely will take up subjects that bring me closer to my new community. 

Brooks hit the nail on the head in the passage quoted above: I’ve never considered myself part of a "We" in any context whatsoever in regard to the Civil War.  I used to find that personal connection to the Civil War to be somehow endearing, but now I find it distracting and annoying.  It’s annoying because it wastes a great deal of time and conversations with such people are usually not about history, but about themselves. 

I am not interested in you, I am interested in the past.

6 comments… add one

  • Ken Noe May 8, 2007

    Kevin:

    Years ago, I gave several public talks on Marcus Woodcock, a southerner who fought in Union blue. At one gathering, several prominent members of a Confederate heritage group showed up. Not unusually, the question and answer session turned into an attempt to probe my thoughts on what caused the war, something which had not been the subject of my speech at all. No blood was shed and indeed we all parted in a friendly manner. What I remember most about that day, however, is what I saw in the parking lot as I left. It was easy to pick out their cars (all Lincolns and Caddies, heritage must pay well). Each car had two bumper stickers, one a variant of “Heritage Not Hate” and the other “Pat Buchanan for President.” Now to be sure, Pat is an SCVer, so their support for him is not surprising. What struck me most though was the symbolic joining of nineteenth century motifs and language with twentieth century presidential politics. Where did “they” leave off and “we” begin?

    I’ve seen this again and again since. Another story: years ago I spoke to a heritage group of seven people. All were Civil War buffs. I had a nice time. A few years later they asked me back. I arrived to find over a hundred people, half of whom didn’t know Stonewall Jackson from Reggie Jackson. They were more interested in “saving the flag,” bashing the still-liberal Zell Miller, and (I kid you not) recalling those fond days when the town had a sundown curfew for blacks. Which is to say, lots of people had joined the group for modern reasons including partisan politics (the local GOP congressional staffer whose boss had higher aspirations) and racial politics–hence the “we” I think.

    In short, it’s “they” and “we” with a lot of these folks–certainly not all–because often it really is, with “they” being Bush’s “empire”, Hillary Clinton, “liberals,” minorities, gays, immigrants, Hollywood, and whoever else they blame for modern society. The real war is irrelevant except as a convenient shorthand. Why does one of the most virulent racists I know, someone who knows next to nothing about the war, love to collect N. B. Forrest figurines? I assure you it’s not because of his cavalry brilliance at Brice’s Cross Roads.

    Faulkner was right, it’s all now.

    Ken

  • Kevin Levin May 8, 2007

    Hi Ken, — I’ve received my share of responses that attempt to infer something about my political beliefs based on my historical interests. Most of these people would be very surprised by my voting record.

  • Jim May 8, 2007

    Kevin, I don’t think anyone is interested in you either, rather they would like fair representation of their region and culture. Surely it is not beyond the realm of possibility that you could think seriously about valid comments which could make you a better teacher, historian, and person. I see a sole focus on one participant and region and eithical issue within the CW as a shortcoming of the writer and an insult to the reader.

    And your previous poster explicitly confuses the past with the present by referencing every liberal boogie man as associated with the South. You should really sort that kind of comment out when you see it.

  • Kevin Levin May 8, 2007

    Jim, — Assuming all of what you stated is true and yet you keep coming back.

    Fascinating.

  • Brooks Simpson May 8, 2007

    One aspect of blogging I’ve come to enjoy is how some respondents offer grist for my mill, so to speak.

    Let’s stipulate for purposes of discussion that Kevin has a perspective with which all readers may not agree. Fine. But to claim that out there exists some “fair representation” that usually happens to accord with the notions of the critic and to fail to specify exactly what makes this representation “fair” seems curious. As for what Kevin blogs about, hey, I don’t blog about other interests of mine, although today I used Mickey Mantle to make a point about biography. People are free to ignore Kevin or to counter him, and they could do the latter most effectively by blogging themselves. But it’s Kevin’s blog, and he’s free to choose what he discusses. I don’t happen to mistake the blog for Kevin, or to say that it represents all of him, and I’ve never met him. That people read him and feel compelled to comment on his posts suggests he must have engaged them on some level, and perhaps he worries them.

    How does it feel to be a threat to upset someone’s applecart, Kevin? :)

  • Kevin Levin May 8, 2007

    Hey Brooks, — Thanks for the comment. Looks like you’ve got your Don and I’ve got my Jim. Perhaps we should start a support group of some kind. I am looking forward to meeting you at some point soon – perhaps at the upcoming SHA in Richmond.

Leave a Comment