The latest issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 116, No. 1) arrived today and contains a very thoughtful essay by Christopher R. Lawton who is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia. The essay which is titled “The Pilgrim’s Progress: Thomas J. Jackson’s Journey Toward Civility and Citizenship” uses Jackson as a case study to analyze “the struggles that faced many antebellum white males, about the models they were told to follow, and about expectations that they had to overcome.” (p. 4) Here is the abstract:
In this article the author argues that applying the methodologies of gender and cultural studies to the prewar life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson provides a new and exceptionally fruitful path of enquiry into the biography of one of the Confederacy’s most iconic heroes. Conversely, approaching these modern fields of study by way of such a prominent figure allows for an enriched version of what masculinity studies can do. Whereas other historians have challenged James I. Robertson, Jr.’s assertions about the importance of the book of maxims in understanding Jackson’s character, this article contends that Jackson was extraordinarily concerned with defining and following a hegemonic model of white, middle-class manhood. To that end, the argument is built around a careful and in-depth exploration of the cultural milieu in which he came of age, the books he read and that filtered into his maxims, and the social realm to which he aspired in Lexington. It is hoped that this essay makes small, but worthwhile contributions to studies of southern social mobility, the Civil War, and our understanding of antebellum manhood.
Anyone interested in a sophisticated treatment of a crucial period of Jackson’s life should spend some time with this article. It’s a breadth of fresh air in contrast with the overly simplistic slop that passes for biography and analysis in some quarters. The fundamental problem with the more popular interpretations of Jackson is an almost complete lack of historical context. In other words, the authors in question for whatever reason are unable to analyze their subject with an understanding of the broader social, political, and economic conditions in which they lived. Such is the case with most treatments of Jackson’s views of slavery and his religious outlook.
The problem is that the authors in question know very little about the subjects they write about, especially in the case of the history of religion in the nineteenth-century and the complexity of race and slavery. No, it’s not enough that you are a self-described Christian or that you believe Jackson’s life should serve as a model for your own. In fact, it is difficult to see how any religious affiliation could be considered a necessary condition for writing a respectable study of Jackson or any other Lost Cause figure. The net result of many of these studies is a watered down view of Jackson that fails to do justice to his complexity of character and the world in which he operated.