Of Atheists and Simple Men

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James I. Robertson had this to say about “Stonewall” Jackson in a recent interview:

“I don’t think an atheist would get to first base writing a biography about Jackson.”

“He was a very, very simple man.”

I have to admit that I’ve never met a simple man.

13 comments… add one

  • Matt Gabriele Oct 16, 2010

    It’s a different kind of history practiced by some of the older generation.

  • mcvouty Oct 16, 2010

    Oh my god. Lay me down.

  • Jimmy Price Oct 16, 2010

    Matt,

    Could you please enlighten me as to what exactly the “different kind of history” that Dr. Robertson is allegedly practicing might entail?

    Is your statement based simply on the two sentences quoted above?

    Are you familiar with the vast contribution he has made both in public and academic circles?

    Please explain.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 17, 2010

    While I admire and respect Dr. Robertson, I think he long ago fell victim to one of the primary pitfalls to which even the best and most scholarly biographer can fall prey: falling in love in with one’s subject. (Another is coming to loathe one’s subject: i.e. Grady McWhiney and Braxton Bragg). When I got his massive biography of Jackson, I checked his take on some of the more controversial episodes in Jackson’s life (his vendetta against his commanding officer in Florida, Maj. Friench, who Jackson decided based on little more than camp gossip was carrying on an affair with a nursemaid even though the pregnant Mrs. French was living on the post. The other was the Richard Garnett Kernstown controversy (I was careful to avoid anything involving Longstreet so my own issues wouldn’t come into play). Robertson didn’t ignore Jackson’s conduct in these matters but he tied himself into complex series of knots trying to rationalize Jackson’s vendettas against these officers (the French matter disrupted the post and led to Jackson’s resignation from the antebellum US Army). Robertson accords Jackson a lot of slack based on his religious ferver and purity which, to me, as it was to Porter Alexander on Leonidas Polk, no way to judge a general.

    • Andy Hall Oct 17, 2010

      Robertson accords Jackson a lot of slack based on his religious ferver and purity which, to me. . . [is] no way to judge a general.

      That seems to be increasingly par for the course in certain quarters these days, particularly with the rise of the Christianist historical revisionism. The notion that the historical figure was a fervent believer is, in and of itself, sufficient to absolve him of any significant moral censure. We see it with Jackson, with Lee, with Forrest, and even with rancid apologists like Herman White. I find loud, public professions of one’s faith to be a little unseemly regardless, but using it as a shield to deflect personal responsibility for bad acts is deeply dishonest.

      • Jimmy Price Oct 18, 2010

        “Christianist”?

        Last I checked, that was a pejorative term.

        And if “the notion that the historical figure was a fervent believer is, in and of itself, sufficient to absolve him of any significant moral censure” why would Kastler go out of his way to paint a very unflattering portrait of Forrest prior to his alleged conversion? Does Kastler’s thesis state that Forrest’s long laundry list of sordid acts should be tossed aside because he supposedly became a Christian?

        Is the root issue the analysis of folks like Robertson or Kastler or just a distase for those who make “loud, public professions”?

        Help me understand.

        • Andy Hall Oct 18, 2010

          Yes, “Christianist” is a pejorative term. I intended it not so specifically about Robertson or Kastler than to make a broader point about a cultural/political agenda that, in my view, their works feed into, whether intentionally or not. You also asked, “Is the root issue the analysis of folks like Robertson or Kastler or just a diastase for those who make ‘loud, public professions’?” Partly the latter — that’s my own, personal bias.

  • Lee Oct 18, 2010

    To be blunt, I think Robertson’s comment is pretty stupid. By his logic, no one who’s not a Communist can write a good biography of Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao Zedong. Sorry, I don’t buy that. In fact, one could argue that sharing the same belief system as one’s subject actually makes a biographer less likely to provide a fair minded, objective analysis, and that coming from a different background makes it more likely that the biographer will be able to think “outside the box.”

    Additionally, I fail to see how believing in a religion–whether Christianity or any other–makes a person in any sense morally superior to someone who’s an atheist or agnostic. Morality has nothing to do with belief, it’s a matter of actions, and of having a personal code of ethics and abiding by it (or at least trying to–no one acts totally in accordance with their ideals). And to those who say that morality comes from God, why exactly would any God necessarily be moral? Being all powerful (which is what religious people say God is) doesn’t automatically mean being good and moral. There are many human beings who’ve been very powerful, yet are considered among the worst people in history (Hitler, Pol Pot, etc.).

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2010

      Keep in mind that the comment was made in an interview. Of course, I tend to agree with you, though it is easy to see how one’s faith could be utilized to help in writing such a biography and it is also easy to see how it might become a hindrance.

    • John Maass Oct 18, 2010

      Lee–I think it would be more accurate to say that morality is often based upon religion. JM

      • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2010

        Though I don’t think that Socrates/Plato would agree. :D

  • Marianne Davis Oct 18, 2010

    With both feet firmly planted in ignorance, I wonder of Robertson might not be saying that only a person with religious convictions could understand a man so deeply committed to his own strain of the Christian faith. My problem with that is that I am a Christian, and cannot begin to understand the world view of Stonewall Jackson, which bears no resemblance to my own brand of the faith. That being the case, I might have said, “Only a zealot can understand another zealot.”

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 18, 2010

    One of my favorite passages in E.P. Alexander’s “Fighting for the Confederacy” (Gary Gallagher, ed.) is this about Leonidas Polk who Alexander encountered when Longstreet and much of the ANV’s First Corps was temporarily assigned to the AOT under Braxton Bragg: “Now Gen. Polk graduated at West Point with Prest. Davis about 1827, & went into the ministry about 1832. The Lord had made him a splendid bishop & a great & good man. So all our pious people with one consent & with secret conviction that the Lord would surely favor a bishop turned in & made him a lieut. gen., which the Lord had not.” (pp. 288-289)

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