Crater Manuscript Finished!

After four years of research and writing I am pleased to report that my manuscript on memory and the battle of the Crater is finished.  There are a few things to touch up before I send it off to the publisher next week, but the bulk of the work is done.  It’s been quite a journey and a learning experience.  I am under no illusions about the process between the submission of the manuscript and its eventual publication.  First, the editors at the press must decide if they really want it and then it will be sent out for peer review.  This will no doubt take some time and I expect that I will have to make changes in response to their comments and concerns. 

Still, it does feel good to be finished with such a big project.  I  feel just a bit lighter today.

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A Sanitized Past

Many of my comments over the past few weeks have been directed at our continued tendency to sanitize our past or to make it more palatable for our own purposes.  We desire heroes and unfortunately we are all too willing to sacrifice good analytical history for stories that reflect a deep need to identify with a past that confirms our own ethical and moral sensibilities.  Such is the case with our Civil War.  I don’t read Civil War novels; in fact I’ve only read two, including The Killer Angels and Cold Mountain.  Most of them are poorly written and play much too much on the emotions.  The Washington Post just reviewed a new novel titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature by S.C. Gylanders.  I haven’t read it nor do I plan to read it.  The review, however, neatly sums up my own views of how I believe most Americans prefer to remember their Civil War:

But Gylanders is no Stephen Crane. The very title of the novel — taken from
Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address — suggests that the world depicted here is one
of angels and demons. The author’s acknowledgments, which refer to her "humble
portrait of this great American patriot [Sherman] and the story of his war,"
should warn us not to expect ethical challenges or significant moral
ambivalence. Despite the author’s loving (and somewhat long-winded) attention to
weaponry and medical matters, she glosses over such discomforting subjects as
slavery, desertion, corruption, conscription and disease. And the dialogue and
interaction between these rough soldiers is strangely — and implausibly —
sanitized
.

But the novel’s essential weakness lies in the characters, who tend to stand
out like monuments
, especially the gruff, cigar-chewing Sherman and the
swashbuckling brigade commander Thomas Ransom. They are beyond criticism,
remaining largely unchallenged and unknown, alienated from the reader by their
own legendary status
. It is as if the author’s personal enthusiasm for these
historical figures has blinded her to the emotional needs of the reader.

If I’ve never made known my views of Gods and Generals clearly enough try this.  Ethan Rafuse recently posted on the difficulties involved in challenging some of the most deeply ingrained assumptions about specific figures such as Grant, McClellan, and Lincoln.  I assume that the reviewer of this book probably has at least a cursory understanding of the Civil War, which makes the ideas cited above that much more relevant.  They stand out like a sore thumb. 

Perhaps I’ve become sanitized by my own work on Civil War memory.  From my vantage point Americans have never really been interested in confronting the tough questions from the war, including race and emancipation.  In that sense it is much easier for us to let go when thinking about the "civil war" in Iraq.  We can imagine the worst case scenarios as part of what it means to be engaged in civil war.  In short, we can accept the darkest aspects of human nature.  To what extent are we able to acknowledge these same themes in our own past? 

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Civil War Narratives: Is There A Problem?

I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history.  Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history.  As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge.  That is clearly not his problem:

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit  rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative.  And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest.  I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath. 

Still, I find it difficult to explain the almost "pathological" obsession Dimitri has with James McPherson’s Battle Cry.  It clearly is for him the paradigm example of a bad narrative:

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry.  There are two problems with this view.  First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series.  The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln.  My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine. 

What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship.  Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair.  Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read.  The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives.  In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake.  In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this.    My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam. 

In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers.  Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising. 

So, is there really a problem?

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Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.

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Thank You

A reader informed me that a fellow blogger is praying for me over comments made in the past couple weeks concerning the suggestion that we think of Stonewall Jackson as the paradigm example of the Christian warrior and friend of the  slaves.  I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you very much for the prayers as we all need the support once in awhile.  Perhaps one day I will see the light, but until then I ask for your patience and understanding as I continue to examine the possibility that slavery and friendship are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

Relevant Posts:
Christian Warrior 101 12/13
Religion and the Civil War 12/14
The Fundamentalists’ Civil War 12/17
Were Southern Slaveowners "Trapped"? 12/19
One Step Back 12/21
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/22

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