Peter Carmichael’s keynote address at yesterday’s Lee symposium was alone worth the drive to Lexington. His paper was titled, “‘Truth is Mighty & Will Eventually Prevail:’ Why Americans Disagree About the Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee” and provides a framework for understanding the intellectual root of the debate between two camps. Carmichael identifies these two camps by referencing their intellectual/cultural roots and argues that they represent fundamentally different approaches to the study of history. The first group which represents the pro-Lee camp emerged out of a Victorian view of society and the past and stands in sharpr contrast with the so-called revisionist historians who inherited a modernist interpretation that Carmichael beieves can be traced to the turn of the twentieth century. First the Victorian interpretation.
According to Carmichael any characterization of the first generation of Civil War histories must be understood as emerging out of a Victorian view of the world. The crucial component within this world view is an assumption about the inevitablity of progress and moral perfectibility of individuals and nations. Histories were written and consumed by a general public looking for moral lessons or vindication regarding their own claims to moral perfection on a national level. Postwar histories of the South with their peaceful narratives of plantation life and slavery pointed to their place on the hierarchy above their more “modern” neighbors to the north. The South represented a noble way of life and the image of the cavalier provided southern white men with an example of what moral perfection looked like. Such broad cultural assumptions came to shape historical narratives as linear and simple; in other words, history was knowable and verifiable. Most importantly, it offered relevant moral lessons that were applicable regardless of societal changes.
The revisionist view, (some would call them the anti-Lee group) according to Carmichael, can be understood as a product of the modernist turn. This turn was in large part inward and can be discerned in the psychology of Freud and the literature of Faulkner. The modernist view challenged the Victorian Era’s claims to the possibility of moral perfection and the assumption that the past was knowable as a straightforward story that offered timeles moral lessons. Freud and Faulkner remind us that interpretation is never completed. The modernist view of the world is “messy, confusing, and incapable of giving one narrative.” The modernist “mocks” the Victorian or traditional view of the South. It paints with too broad a brush and it leaves no room for revision. The “Old South” is the only South and its moral lessons must be defended to the end. The modernist says that since the past is always being reinterpreted that it is naive to think that it can produce a static collection of moral lessons.
Carmichael is careful in pointing out that there was a great deal of overlap between these two views. I agree. Positivism is very much a part of this modernist turn and Comte’s view of the natural and social sciences places a great deal of weight on the accumulation and knowability of the past. I applaud Carmichael for attempting to locate the intellectual root of these fundamental disagreements that characterize the Civil War community. That said, I don’t believe that we need to go back so far for an explanation nor do I think it is necessary to try to pinpoint an explanation. I think the answer is much more simple. It may come down simply to not understanding the historical process as it is formulated in the academy and for those trained as academic historians a failure to appreciate how many continue to identify or empathize with the past. For now it is enough to say that Carmichael’s distinction does provide a platform from which he can examine recent debates over R. E. Lee.
In doing so Carmichael contrasts the work of Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman. Krick represents the Victorian mindset and Fellman, author of The Making of Robert E. Lee, plays the role of the modernist. Carmichael made sure to note that his criticisms of the two are based on the utmost respect for their scholarship. Krick stands out as the most notable pro-Lee scholar. He rarely “strays from Douglas S. Freeman” but what Carmichael finds troubling is the way he characterizes others who write about Lee. In fact, it may be his comments about others more than his own writings that justifies his placement in this category. Fellman’s recent biography of Lee has all the earmarks of the modernist turn. His emphasis is on Lee’s inner life and his interpretation challenges many of the standard assumptions of the general. Rather than interpret Lee’s personal side in transparent terms Fellman sees contradiction and complexity, both of which challenge long-held views that single Lee out as the embodiment of moral perfection. Krick often refers to the work of Fellman and others as “psychobabble.”
The differences between Krick and Fellman are perhaps innocuous on one level, but it is the way in which these fundamental differences play out in public that concerns Carmichael the most. I found Carmichael’s comments here to be very persuasive and important to the public discussion of some of the more divisive topics in Civil War history. At the same time I think he could have made these points apart from any discussion of the broader dichotomy of Victorianism v. Modernism. Krick comes under serious scrutiny for the way he characterizes Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered and what it tells us about the latest generation of Lee historians. While Krick was justified in his criticisms of Nolan’s interpretation Carmichael suggests that his closing comments play into a non-intellectual and unfair characterization of historical methodology and the motivations of recent Lee scholars:
Nolan’s book sold well, has gone through several printings by this writing early in 2000, and unquestionably will remain popular in the current climate. It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the sempiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race. The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm. In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. [review reprinted in Krick’s Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy (p. 236)]
The “current climate” includes most academic historians who poke around Lee’s life and arrive at conclusions that Krick disagrees with. The problem, of course, is that Krick’s characterization is meaningless. It purports to explain what motivates modern historians when in fact Krick has no evidence whatsoever for the claim. More importantly, and this is what truly bothers Carmichael, the constant references to “political correctness” tell us absolutely nothing that is historically useful. We are left trying to understanding what PC means. As best I can surmise it is used most often by individuals who appear to have very little interest or understanding of what is involved in the historical process. I asked Krick in a recent talk why it isn’t possible for historians to disagree rather than to simply characterize them as misguided or worse? He had no response, but if Krick’s remarks serve to remind us of the dangers of generalizing about academics, Carmichael also has words for those who would generalize about those who do find the more moralistic writings of an older generation to be attractive.
Carmichael challenged remarks by Fellman and others who give the back of their hand to anything that reminds them of a “neo-Confederate” agenda – a label that Carmichael also believes is overused and just as damaging as the PC label. I agree. The extreme language on both sides is unfortunately all too popular and often functions as a poor substitute for more serious debate. We are surrounded by it. Carmichael cited the recent S.D. Lee “conference” which framed its symposium on Lee as follows:
2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?
To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.
We are asked to think of Lee in the most simplistic terms imaginable not for the sake of careful understanding, but for the purposes of defending perceived truth in “this era of Political Correctness.” This is not the mark of a serious history conference, but a support group for those who feel threatened.
Carmichael is surely correct that what is needed is better understanding of the agendas of both groups. Academics need to better understand why many people continue to identify with a certain version of the past. They need to resist outright condemnation just because someone (Victorianist) identifies with the perceived moral perfection of Lee or feels as if a certain view of the past is under assault. Many people look to the past for guidance or sanctuary and should not be criticized for doing so. Those on the other side need not impugn the motivations of those who would challenge our fundamental assumptions about certain aspects of the past. For academic historians (modernists) the past is in need of continual revision. The past is complex and includes plenty of room for multiple interpretations of the same event or individual. Historians are not in the business of tearing down gods for its own sake; rather, they hope that continuous revision will get us closer to a more sophisticated understanding of history. There is no conspiracy at work here.
Finally, Carmichael said nothing about the difficult issue of race as a factor in understanding the agendas of both camps. Over the past few decades academic historians have become more interested in better understanding how slavery and race defined Southern society and shaped those who lived in it. This latest crop of Lee historians has spent considerable time examining his own racial views both before and after the war and his handling of slaves at Arlington. [One of the best examples of this approach can be found in Elizabeth Pryor’s recent study of Lee.] Much of what they have had to say has been met with a great deal of hostility from those who wish to keep any references to race and slavery out of the discussion.
Thanks to Peter Carmichael for an engaging talk that has given me much to think about.