Remembering that Historical Actors Looked Forward

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Gone With the Wind

There is a danger when we remember or imagine the past or treat historical actors as static or stuck in a particular moment as opposed to dynamic and forward looking.  We make an implicit assumption that since we are preoccupied with a particular historical moment that the individuals were as well.  The recent history and memory of 9-11 ought to be sufficient to reveal the mistake that is involved in this imaginative act.  Roughly ten years later and a visit to the city suggests that New Yorkers have moved on with their lives.  Think of the language we used in the immediate aftermath that nothing would ever be the same.  Perhaps we build monuments and memorials because deep down we acknowledge the fickleness of memory. 

I was reminded of this today as I was reading William Link’s new book, Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War’s Aftermath (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).  Following a concise overview of the city’s antebellum history and the war years Link opens up the second chapter with the following observation.

Subscribing to a culture of free-labor capitalism, Atlanta capitalists oversaw a smooth transition to a postwar economic order.  But the particular characteristics of Atlanta’s wartime destruction shaped how city boosters regarded economic and business development.  Destruction provided an opportunity to start afresh, with a new industrial infrastructure and, more importantly, a new ideological framework that favored capitalist growth.  As was true in post-1945 western Europe and Japan, Atlanta’s wartime destruction provided a new basis for understanding and explaining economic development.  Soon after the war, white Atlantans eagerly promoted economic expansion, and their recovery from wartime devastation became a point of pride, almost a marketing brand.  Moving on from their anger and their sense of victimization, entrepreneurial Atlantans began to see the destruction as a symbol of how far they had come in constructing a post-Civil War South, a South in which their city held a special economic position. (pp. 33-34)

The passage is instructive especially given the place that the shelling of Atlanta occupies in our collective memory of the Civil War.  We emphasize the destruction and suffering even if we overlook the fact that only 20 people were killed and roughly 200 wounded as a result of the shelling.  A select number of people remember the suffering of the people of Atlanta as if it were their own.  Such extreme forms of sympathy/empathy entail an imaginative collapse between the rememberer and the event remembered.

Perhaps lessons can be learned via such an approach to the past, but the danger is that we treat historical actors as stuck in their own past as opposed to moving forward and living their lives just as Americans did in the wake of 9-11.  The pain and suffering we imagine has little to do with the event in question and everything to do with a personal need that such an identification satisfies.  Why not remember Atlantans rebuilding their city instead of wallowing in ruins?  Why not identify with a shared sense of optimism for the future as opposed to a community bogged down in the past?

Their is no more truth to choosing one date or place over another to remember.  The meaning that they attached to their own lives is always more than the sum of the individual moments lived.

7 comments… add one

  • Ben Railton Apr 13, 2013

    I blame Margaret Mitchell and/or Vivien Leigh, in this particular instance. The burning of Atlanta is the only genuinely enduring and successful part of both the book and the film, and I think such cultural images can leave a particularly striking collective legacy.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2013

      Nice to hear from you, Ben. MM and GWTW have both played an important role in shaping our collective memory of the war, but there are plenty of other aspects of the war that come up for special treatment.

  • Pat Young Apr 13, 2013

    Weren’t there any losers in the Atlanta story? The fact that the achievements of one class, white capitalists, is conflated with Atlantans makes me a bit suspicious.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2013

      As far as I can tell, Link’s story is not one of winners v. losers. He is simply making the point that the city quickly rebounded and used the destruction of the city as a catalyst for future development and expansion.

  • Pat Young Apr 13, 2013

    Of course there was the old slogan “Atlanta, the city too busy to hate”, and the rejoinder that Atlanta would hate if things ever slowed down.

    In terms of popular memory, few modern Americans are aware of the shelling. Most have only heard of the “burning of Atlanta” which occurred after the city was in the possession of the Union Army.

  • Doug didier Apr 14, 2013

    Suggest that Georgia Tech in a key role..Time to move on from the slave society.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_W._Grady

  • Keith Muchowski Apr 14, 2013

    Good points, Kevin. My favorite immediate post-9/11 comment was when some bloviating talking head pronounced that the World Trade Center attacks signaled “the death of irony.”

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