I Am Not Interested In You, I am Interested In the Past

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of blogging is just how emotional people can get over the Civil War.  Of course I knew this before blogging, but when that emotion is directed at you it provides a whole new perspective on things.  It is almost cliche to say, but it is true that many are still "fighting the war."  Perhaps Brooks Simpson is experiencing the same thing in reference to memory of Grant and the war in the West.  While our subject matter differs our responses are similar.  In this case I will let Brooks speak for me:

I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here)….

Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.

Most of the responses to my posts are sent to my personal email.  I rarely respond, but I am struck by the number of people who actually believe that I have a personal agenda or have taken a moral stand in connection to my research.  You can find numerous statements on message boards where I am labeled "anti-Southern" or my personal favorite, "hater of the South."  While I typically laugh in response to such accusations I am hard pressed to understand the motivation behind it all.  Such accusations tell me nothing about the past, but about the ignorance of the accuser.  Much of the mail I receive stems from the assumption that we should equate Southern history with the white South and/or the four years of the Confederacy.   

I am willing to admit that I am personally invested in one outcome of the war and that is the end of slavery – regardless of how it happened.  Of course I have my personal views of certain individuals, but they are working assumptions that are not invested with much emotion at all.  In other words, I am perfectly willing to step back from the way in which I understand the past.  My assumptions about the past are based on what I’ve read and since I am constantly reading I would hope that my understanding continues to evolve.    I constantly reference books when making specific claims.  While some interpret this as condescending I see it as acknowledging a basic fact that apart from the quality of the books we read no one has an independent connection to historical truth.  My voracious appetite for historical studies is a function of wanting to know better. 

I grew up on the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey and didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.  My ancestors arrived in this country after the war so I have no personal connection to the 19th century.  As difficult as it might be for some people to believe this I have absolutely no personal feelings one way or the other about the people who fought the war.  Often times I find that my readers have failed to distinguish between the perception of an emotional interest with a focus on how Americans remember the war.  The implication is that because I ask questions or draw certain conclusions that I must be personally invested.  In the case of my numerous posts about "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee the failure on the part of of my readers is to distinguish between criticisms of historians who write about such subjects and the individuals in question.  How could I possibly have such strong emotional convictions about individuals that I’ve never met?  Since my primary interests center on memory and race in the Confederacy and the postwar South the typical response is to inquire why I don’t write more about the racism of Northerners.  The implication is that I am treating the South "harshly" or that my narrow focus is a sufficient reason to conclude that I am "covering up" other areas of history.  I don’t know how to respond to such criticisms, but to say that I have my interests which I will continue to pursue.  Part of it is that I tend to write about the areas where I live, which is of course Virginia for now.  In a few years I will move and more than likely will take up subjects that bring me closer to my new community. 

Brooks hit the nail on the head in the passage quoted above: I’ve never considered myself part of a "We" in any context whatsoever in regard to the Civil War.  I used to find that personal connection to the Civil War to be somehow endearing, but now I find it distracting and annoying.  It’s annoying because it wastes a great deal of time and conversations with such people are usually not about history, but about themselves. 

I am not interested in you, I am interested in the past.


Clyde Broadway’s “Trinity”

One of the most effective and enjoyable ways of studying Civil War memory is by looking at the various images produced at different times.  I tend to look at images not simply for what they are purported to be about, but as reflective of the artist and the time in which they were produced.  There are no better examples of this dynamic than from the Civil War.  Contemporary images, especially those produced by mainstream-popular artists tend to give me a good laugh.  They include Troiani, Kunstler, Gallon, etc.  Gary Gallagher recently completed a book-length study of images of the Civil War so keep an eye out if that kind of thing interests you.

One of my favorite images of late is titled “Trinity” by Clyde Broadway (copyright, 1994 Clyde Broadway). I’ve used this image on two occasions and both times I failed to credit the artist. The original can be found in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Art at the University of New Orleans.  Mr. Broadway emailed me to remind me of my failure to credit both the artist and the museum in which the painting is located.  Along with a justified mild scolding he mentioned that the painting includes a gold border, which was absent from the image I utilized.  The image is included in Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new study of R. E. Lee, which I’ve commented on over the past week.

The way in which Broadway depicts religion and Lee stands in sharp contrast with what you will find in Civil War magazines.  There is a highly critical quality in this image that forces you to think rather than revel in the unspoken assumptions that define our popular beliefs about the South and religion.  Broadway seems to be poking fun at our tendency to equate Jesus and Lee (and perhaps all things Southern) almost exclusively to the rest of the country.


Just When You Thought You Were Getting To Know Someone: R.E. Lee’s Washington

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new book about Robert E. Lee and am learning a great deal.  One of the early chapters deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life.  Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.”  Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington.  Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory.  Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.

Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources.  She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme.  The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:

His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]

More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.  Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes.  McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them.  In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence.  (fn60, p. 497)  Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics.  In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.

One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence.  We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years.  In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:

In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times.  He remarks on the publics interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday.  Most of these comments are quite casual.  In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism.  But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings.  Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him.  The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty.  But this was after the fact.  During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)

I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the currently available evidence.


It may be the “Year of Lee” but where are the Books?

[Cross-Posted at Progressive Historians]

Lee The number of books hitting the market in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown has been quite impressive.  Even more impressive is the steady stream of Lincoln studies that will no doubt continue through the bicentennial celebrations of his birth in 2009.  Such a trend stands in sharp contrast with the dearth of new material that has been released or will be released in 2007 in honor Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday.  A quick search of Amazon confirms that there is little to be seen on the horizon.  The only study worth mentioning is Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking, 2007) which I picked up and am working my way through.  Each chapter begins with family letters about Lee or letters written by Lee himself which serve as a launching point to explore a specific topic connected to his personal life.  I’ve read through the first two chapters and have to say that Pryor’s analysis seems even-handed.  She worries about any type of foray into the psychological that is not contingent on sufficient sources.  As an example Pryor refrains from drawing any firm conclusions regarding Lee’s own beliefs about his father or its influence on his later life.  The problem is that there is insufficient evidence on which to base much of anything. 

The book is quite long (500+ pages) and will no doubt attract a fairly wide readership.  As to how to explain the lack of scholarly attention on Lee this year I am at a loss.  On the one hand Lee’s military career has been explored in various battle studies and articles, but we have not seen a decent scholarly biography since Emory Thomas’s Robert E. Lee: A Biography(1995).  It is certainly an excellent place to start, but I found myself wanting much more upon completion.  We need a biography that does a much better job of integrating the military with the personal.  While I know that some people expressed concern that James I. Robertson’s biography of "Stonewall" Jackson betrayed a historian too close to his subject I think it serves as an excellent model of what is needed.  This is pure speculation, but I suspect that part of the reason that we have not seen more in the way of critical biographies of Lee has to do with our popular perceptions that there is simply nothing to explain.  Consider the famous final words about Lee that can be found in Douglas S. Freeman’s wonderful 4-volume biography:

That is all.  There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

I am a huge fan of Freeman’s biography of Lee and still believe that it is the richest portrayal of the general, but it is clear that the author found the moral and psychological contours of a man that had already become well-ingrained in the culture.  This is not to suggest that Freeman’s conclusions would somehow not stand up to modern scholarship, but that there is room to understand better.  No doubt most people have not read Freeman (even if they say they have). 

There is an assumption of transparency that comes through in the Freeman passage above.  Lee was transparent to himself as well as others.  That’s a difficult assumption to defend regardless of the amount of time spent with a given subject.  One could perhaps make the case that if anyone was justified in making that conclusion it was Freeman, but the extent to which that assumption pervades our popular culture is simply disturbing and even quite humorous.  Consider the following comment which was left in response to a post by Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors:

I am a native Virginian. We worshipped God, Jesus and Robert E. Lee in that
order, and, as a Southerner, I’ll not apologize. As an historian, of course I
realize that Lee was human. But this is where his genius lies: I believe it was
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in writing about Jackie Kennedy that commented she
understood what she meant to people. That was Lee. He understood what he
represented and felt an obligation to that image
. It’s a tremendous insight to
comprehend your place so clearly. It takes many of us a lifetime, if ever, to
see our roles in relation to others. It is also an incredible burden. This seems
to be something Lee grasped at an early age and accepted

There is no hint of concern on the part of this individual that perhaps one’s conclusions ought to be tempered when entering the domain of psychology – and childhood psychology for that matter.  Once again, Lee’s motivations along with his deepest desires were transparent to himself, those around him, and can still be easily discerned generations later. 

It would be nice to have a few scholarly/critical studies of one of the most important figures in American history.  Failure to do so means that Lee will continue to be interpreted by people whose agenda includes little more than the concepts of hero worship as opposed to any real interest in historical analysis.


Thanks for a Wonderful Semester

Cimg0204Today was the last day with my Women’s History class.  Over the next two weeks students will be conducting oral interviews and using their transcripts to write a short essay that places the interview within a historical context.  I was hoping to come up with a final project that would bridge the gap between historical studies of women and the women in these student’s lives.  The original idea was to give the students an opportunity to spend time with their mothers or another close female member of the family.  I think it is important that we learn as much as possible about our parents while we have the opportunity.  My hope is that the readings in the course will fuel a lively interview and lead to even more communication between mother and daughter or whomever is interviewed.   

To say that I enjoyed the experience this semester would be an understatement.  I wanted to give myself a new teaching challenge and force myself to learn a new body of historical literature.  The material bridged both history and gender studies, and along the way the class worked on a number of interesting individual projects.   The most exciting part of the course was having the opportunity to talk with a mature and motivated group of young women.  They taught me as much, if not more, than the material we read together or anything that I taught them.  One class in particular stood out in which we discussed the concept of the "Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolff and its continued presence and influence in society today.  Students’ level of maturity allowed the class to move easily through distant history as well as more controversial – and at times uncomfortable – issues relating to identity and sexuality.  As the only male in the room I appreciate their willingness to work through some of the more uncomfortable subject matter.

The success of the course and the level of student interest made it easy to decide to offer it again next spring.  I recently learned that at least three boys are already registered; this will surely add a much needed perspective to class discussions.

To my students: Thanks everyone for reminding me why I love to teach.  I wish all of you the best in your future endeavors.  Use the gift of a college education to reflect on the big questions and on those things that will serve to make your lives both joyful and rewarding.  I was reminded this semester of the enormous role that luck plays in how we live our lives.  Only a few decades ago most young women your age would be contemplating a very different future.  Take advantage of this and whatever you do make sure that you continue to push those walls that work to limit opportunity. 

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