How Do You Like Your History?

[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

I like my history dry, informed by a wide spectrum of primary sources, and void of as much presentism as possible.  The recent AEC Conference on Southern Literature included popular speakers such as Jon Meacham and Wendell Berry.  Meacham "emphasize[d] how the study of history casts light on the political and religious dilemmas facing the country today" while Wendell Berry’s talk titled "American Imagination and the Civil War" explored how literature informs and shapes our memories of the war.  Unfortunately, my comments re: Berry must be based on Kevin Trumpeters summation of his talk in The Pulse.  Here is an excerpt:

Wendell Berry’s keynote address on Friday evening, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” also considered historical issues that have a particular resonance with today’s political concerns. As you’d expect from a reputed iconoclast, the poet-farmer’s take on the War Between the States would be classified as “revisionist.” Berry acceded that slavery was certainly one of the important aspects of the conflict, but pointed out a cause that frequently gets overlooked by the textbooks—“People generally don’t like to get invaded.”

Like a latter-day Faulkner, he lamented the lingering “curse” of the Civil War that continues to afflict Southern society and called the supposedly self-evident benefits of the Union victory into question. He referred to the emancipation effort as “botched,” noting that our society still has yet to come to terms with the “money power of the North that replaced the slave power of the South” and that Americans still rely on an subservient group of people (he cited Latino immigrants as the latter-day “Stepin Fetchits” of our society) to perform the menial labor which upper-and middle-class Americans are “too good, too well-educated, and too ignorant to do ourselves.” He suggested that the Northern victory not only imposed the vagaries of industrialization on the bucolic agrarian culture of the antebellum South, it also set the tone of overconfidence and privilege that is the hallmark of a contemporary American attitude that “conflates the American way of life with the will of God.”

Woodbury suggests that perhaps these talks would have been better suited to a history conference.  From the few passages that are included in this report I have to respectfully disagree.  I have no doubt that Berry is well read in history, but a few of his ideas betray a traditional – Lost Cause view of the antebellum South and the war.  Now one could say that I am being overly critical and impatient; after all, not everyone spends most of their waking moments reading analytical histories of nineteenth-century America.  We can say this, however, only if we ignore the connections that Berry draws between these specific points about the history of the South and his broader points, which include the idea that Southern society is "afflicted"  as well as his ideas of "overconfidence" and "privilege."  Are Berry’s conclusions supported in any way by his claims about the past?  Do we have a responsibility to ask? 

As many of you can surmise I agree wholeheartedly with Berry in his assertion that our society has still not come to terms with the emancipationist legacy of the war.  On the other hand his references to a moneyed North as opposed to the "slave power" suggests an outdated interpretation of antebellum America.  The biggest problem, however, is Berry’s overly simplistic distinction between the overly industrial North with a "bucolic agrarian culture."  Anyone who has read recent studies by William Freehling, Peter Carmichael, and William Link understands that these distinctions are fictional.  I should say that I am not familiar with Berry’s work.  Here is how Woodbury describes it:

His relentlessly green approach to living, his devotion to conservation and sustainable farming, his eloquent disdain for consumerism – all of this appeals to the part of me that wants to live a rural or remote existence.

Is it an accident that Berry would make the above-mentioned distinctions surrounding the "Old South"?

I can’t help but have the warning lights go off when history is used as a way to comment on the present.  It’s even more disturbing when the history that is sketched out has little to do with what it purports to reflect. 


Gone With the Wind to Lexington?

Who knows, but in the meantime check out the excellent Washington Post article on the Museum of the Confederacy by Neely Tucker.  From the article:

Today, while the Museum of the Confederacy goes begging, the brand-new, $13 million American Civil War Center — a museum that looks at the war from three perspectives (Southern, Northern and black) — is a gleaming testament to what might be called a more modern memory of the past. It’s only a few blocks away, on the banks of the James River at the city’s Civil War-era gun foundry, a National Park Service site.

It’s on an eight-acre campus — 10 times the size of the Museum of the Confederacy site. The center’s prime backers include Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. Just six months old, it’s already packed with school kids coming to learn about the Confederacy as a flawed participant in the Civil War, not as the Great Defender of (white) Southern Heritage.

You walk into the bookstore at the Museum of the Confederacy, then the one at the Civil War Center, and the first differences you notice are the black faces on the shelves in the latter: Nat Turner. "Slave Nation." Harriet Tubman. "Remembering Slavery." There were 4 million black people in the 11 slave-owning states at the start of the Civil War, and by war’s end, 500,000 had fled to the North — one out of every eight men, women and children — looking for something, anything, other than the genteel world of the gallant South.


Confederate Heritage Month is Upon Us

Apparently the blogger at Old Hickory has taken a shine to this site.  In acknowledgment of Confederate Heritage Month a number of my entries were featured on today’s post.  Thanks for the kind words and vote of approval


Wyoming 6th Graders Learn About the Civil War

I’ve commented on this before, but I do find it curious that there is such excitement whenever a history class visits with reenactors.  There are no doubt reenactors who study their craft and who have given thought to educational outreach.  More often than not, however, I’ve read story after story of entertainment as a substitute for serious learning.  In this case we have a class of sixth graders who are quite capable of struggling with some of the core issues of the war.  Instead here is what we get:

"It got pretty loud," said Levi Kretch, 12, who, like everyone else, plugged his ears when the cannon fired.

Bob Mullen, in Yankee navy blue, showed the students a cannon round that fired much like a shotgun shell. "One of these hit you, I don’t think there’s much hope for you," he said.

Outside, another cannon volley sounded and again the children were thrilled. "Whoa . . . cool," one exclaimed from the group.

"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?"

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Academic Conferences are the Worst

Sutherland Professional conferences are an incredible bore.  I attended a conference this past weekend where I had my first opportunity to moderate a panel.  We had four papers to fit into a 75 minute slot so I needed to be tough on the speakers in order to leave sufficient time for questions.  The panel title was broadly drawn around Nineteenth-century America" so it was somewhat difficult to keep the Q&A focused on questions that could be addressed by all of the presenters.  I find academic conferences to be absolutely draining.  There is nothing natural to have to sit in a seat for 75-90 minutes at a time and have others stand up in front of you and read a paper or read from a Powerpoint screen.  And remember we do this three or four times a day for the duration of the conference.  After roughly 100 years of this why haven’t we been able to modify the framework in ways that are more conducive to learning and scholarly exchange? 

What I find even more disturbing are those presenters that are completely oblivious to the fact that a panel does not revolve around themselves.  I listened to one presenter who went 15 minutes over her alloted time without a care in the world.  The moderator tried to flag the speaker down but to no avail.  Something happens to people when they present; it’s as if the universe itself is reduced to their own mental space.  I actually find myself wanting to jump up and literally strangle presenters who engage in this behavior.  Whenever I present a paper I make sure to time it down to the second.  I have no interest in droning on and on and I would be disappointed to learn that I stole time from someone else who also spent valuable time preparing their talk.

I have the perfect solution to deal with these types.  Whenever a speaker goes over the alloted time the audience stands, points, and lets out that screeching noise that is used in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  That’ll do it.