I had a wonderful time earlier this week in Batavia, New York, where I presented a talk on the battle of the Crater. Around 70 people showed up for a two-hour presentation. I spoke for the first hour and fielded questions for the second. The audience was engaged throughout and asked some excellent questions.
Before the talk I had a chance to chat with a gentleman who sported both a t-shirt and cap with a Confederate flag. I asked him about his interest in the Confederacy and expected him to say that he was born further south or that he had lived in a southern state at one time. No, born and raised in upstate New York. I pressed him a bit further and he did mention the history of Town Line, New York, which voted to secede from the state in 1861. He asked me whether I believed Confederate soldiers deserved to be officially recognized by the federal government on Memorial Day and I did my very best to avoid giving an answer.
If you are confused, don’t be. We would do well to remember that many of our most cherished images of the South and the Confederacy are the result of marketing efforts located in other parts of the country. Karen Cox explores this in her recent book, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture. Here is a concise overview from H-Net:
Using popular songs, advertising, radio shows, movies, and travel literature, Cox investigates how non-southern Americans came to understand the South in the period from the late nineteenth century through World War II. Although southerners sometimes had a hand in this process, Cox argues, it was largely non-southerners who marketed and disseminated what the nation came to understand as Dixie. Through a catalog of stock southern images, Madison Avenue, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood perpetuated the idea of a romantic, premodern South that appealed to non-southern Americans grappling with the challenges of a modern, urban, industrial world. Southerners, too, capitalized on the connection between mass culture and consumerism and provided non-southern tourists with exactly what they expected of Dixie. These images, of course, also helped sustain beliefs about race that cemented Jim Crow as the southern racial status quo. Ultimately, Cox concludes, “‘Dixie’ was not simply a reference to a region” (p. 36). It was an idea, it was a brand, and, she contends, it was shaped outside the South.
I never did get a sense of why this gentleman so closely identified with the Confederate flag, but that really doesn’t matter. Dixie Outfitters markets to everyone.
Today I was sad to learn that Ralph Luker is closing up shop over at HNN’s Cliopatria blog. Ralph has been blogging since before I was born – I mean my blog, of course. Early on it was the place to be seen and I certainly benefited from Ralph’s encouragement and support from making it on to the blogroll to the occasional hyperlink, and most notably receiving the Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog in 2007. Thanks to the many distinguished bloggers who made Cliopatria home over the years and thanks especially to Ralph for his hard work and commitment to maintaining the site. It is safe to say that Ralph is largely responsible for encouraging academics to blog and for giving the format the respectability it deserves.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.
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.