In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative. The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject. On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern. How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation? Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century. My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.
On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book. Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge. And yet the argument has held up quite well. That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.
To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author. The guy gets around. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings. Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical. Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.
The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most. And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.