Last night I finished reading J. Matthew Gallman’s new biography America’s’ Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson. I’ve been following Gallman’s Dickinson project over the past few years through essays in various edited collections so it is nice to see it all come together in this book. Gallman is a first-rate historian; he manages to pack a great deal of information and analysis in just over 200 pages. Dickinson is a remarkable subject for study. Born in 1842, Dickinson became one of the nation’s most popular and influential orators by the Civil War. As a teenager she maneuvered in social circles which included some of the most prominent abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the time. Rather than take the common approach of appealing to her audience’s emotions during her anti-slavery speeches, Dickinson provided sharp political readings of the Constitution as justification for her specific stands on the issues of the day. Throughout the Civil War Dickinson spoke tirelessly for the preservation of the Union and against the “copperhead” threat. Dickinson also spoke out against Lincoln during a famous speech to Congress in 1864. Following the war Dickinson continued on the Lyceum circuit, but owing to tough financial times took to the stage in the 1880’s. In 1891 her sister Susan had her committed to a state insane asylum. She died in 1932.
Gallman’s analysis is both careful and revealing. He does an excellent job connecting both Dickinson’s behavior and her political views to broader issues of gender. A case in point is Gallman’s diligence in trying to understand the numerous personal letters between Dickinson and both men and many women with whom she apparently had intimate relations.
For the contemporary reader this is complex terrain. Nineteenth-century Americans routinely adopted flowery, sometimes effusive, language that sounds peculiar to the modern ear and can confuse our understanding of relationships. But there is ample evidence that some women within this separate female world expressed their mutual affection with varying degrees of physical intimacy. Prior to the end of the century, these women lived in a society without rigidly defined notions of sexual preference. That is, various degrees of homosocial intimacy, even explicit genital contact, did not necessarily suggest any particular label to either participant. Rather, the very absence of rigid definitions–or any culturally delineated sense of homosexuality as a distinct category–left nineteenth-century women with unusual freedom to experiment and experience without being forced into a complex act of self-definition, and without, at least in the immediate post-Civil War decades, necessarily confronting social stigmas. Many of these women went on to marry men, while often maintaining their loving relationships with their female friends. Others never married, or eventually abandoned unsatisfying marriages, and many of these women ended up living in households with their female partners. (pp. 114-15)
Given the recent flurry of books on Lincoln’s sexuality such careful analysis is a breadth of fresh air. Gallman’s interpretive talents also help to clarify the complex post-war debates within the suffrage world between those women who remained loyal to the Republican Party (such as Dickinson) and the cause of black rights and those like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton who abandoned the party to concentrate on women’s suffrage. Dickinson comes across as someone who would not allow herself to be easily labelled or manipulated. Gallman also does an excellent job balancing his analysis with Dickinson’s own words; after all, this is a story of a woman who had an incredible talent as a public speaker. Her sarcasm and sharp wit emerge time and again in this book. One example stands out:
During her southern travels the sharp-tongued Dickinson occasionally clashed with prying or hostile strangers. When she crossed swords with unreconstructed rebels, Dickinson gave as good as she got. In Georgia she happened to mention that she had seen “Valentine’s statue of Lee” in Richmond. A Southern lady, the wife of a Confederate general, objected to Dickinson’s informal tone, reminding her that “‘You mean Gen[eral] Lee'” Rather than deflecting a potentially awkward moment with a quick pleasantry, Dickinson rose to the bait. “‘No, madame,”” she retorted, “‘I mean Lee–Robert E. Lee–Lieut. Col. Lee. I know of no legitimate legal authority to make him more than that.'” (p. 138)
Given that I will be teaching an elective next year on late 19th and 20th century women’s history I may use part of this book or one of Gallman’s essays to get the course rolling. Dickinson led both a rich and tragic life. Gallman’s book is well worth your time, and if you don’t know much about 19th century women’s history this is a great place to start.
I’ve been reading with interest about the recent "discovery" of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to "understand" through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.
Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?
The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the "benevolent institution of slavery." Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question "the faith" are called "northern liberals," "communists," "revisionists," and yes, "academics." For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.
Confederate Heritage and History Month Proclamations in Full Retreat
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen battles erupt in Suffolk County, Virginia and Albany, Georgia. The latest round of debates is taking place in Cleveland City, Georgia.
Cleveland City Council tabled a request to proclaim April Confederate Heritage Month until Monday night after protests from some of the council members. White County approved a similar resolution last Thursday. Greg Pettit, commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, has asked both governments to participate in recognizing Confederate heritage month because he says citizens need education on why the war was really fought and that school books often don’t tell the true story. Pettit said the reason, in a nutshell, included unjust taxes and the right of self-government.
Well at least we know what kind of education the SCV will provide our children. I can’t remember a time in the recent past when Confederate proclamations and the public display of the Confederate flag were so hotly contested. This observation may simply be a result of my blogging, but I suspect that change is in the air surrounding the public memory of the Confederate past. What I find interesting is that these recent challenges are not the result of a heightened interest in the Civil War. It is better understood as a function of the changing face of local government and a resistance on the part of white Americans who feel threatened by an expanding multi-cultural landscape.
American Historical Association
A few days ago I posted the description of the roundtable session that was submitted by Aaron Sheehan-Dean for the AHA’s 2007 meeting set to take place in Atlanta next January. I am pleased to report that the program committee approved the proposal. Perhaps I will have a chance to meet some of my readers at the meeting.
Last night I attended a talk by Gary Gallagher at the Miller Center here in Charlottesville. His topic was pulled from a larger project on perceptions of the Civil War in popular culture, which should be completed over the summer. This talk specifically addressed the continued popularity and presence of Lost Cause themes in prints by Civil War artists such as Don Troiani and Mort Kunstler. Gallagher was in rare form last night and it was refreshing to see him finally give-in to technology; he actually displayed the images using a Powerpoint program during the talk. His data was collected by three graduate students who poured through every issue of Civil War Times Illustrated and collected information related to every advertised print.
While I did not take notes during the talk, I can give you a sense of what was discussed. Not surprising, Confederate leaders and battle scenes outnumber their Union counterparts (he mentioned that the Irish Brigade is the exception). While Lee and Jackson dominate the market, there are literally no Grant and Sherman prints for sale. Gallagher rammed this point home by pointing out that in the decades following the war and up to the 1930’s Grant was one of the most popular Americans, and his funeral attracted attention from all over the world. Confederate prints not only outsell Union themes, but they are more valuable on the secondary market. Troiani’s Union and Confederate standard bearers is a case in point. Both are sold out, but the Union print is about half the value of his Confederate counterpart.
Battle scenes follow the same pattern. Gallagher used a Mort Kunstler print of Gettysburg with both Lee and Longstreet released after the Turner movie hit the theatres. The print features a Lee and Jackson who resemble Tom Berringer and Martin Sheen rather than the historical subjects. Gettysburg scenes continue to outnumber all contenders even though the battle did not stand out as a “turning point” during the war. Gallagher explained this by arguing that the battle reflects our love affair with “David and Goliath” stories and the attraction that one single battle holds for people who care to imagaine “what-if” scenarios.
In trying to demonstrate the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes in today’s “art” Gallagher juxtaposed older prints alongside their more recent interpretations. Common themes and differences emerged. Perhaps the most important is the dearth of older paintings which include the Confederate flag. As an example, Gallagher showed a wartime print of Jackson entering Winchester which included no flags hanging from buildings with a more recent print of the same scene. The more recent print includes Confederate flags hanging from multiple buildings. The same can be said of battle prints. We seem to be more interested in the Confederate battle flag today compared with earlier generations. Even more humorous were the contrasting religious scenes. More recent prints depicting Lee or Jackson reading their Bible or reading to a child highlight our tendency to see these men as moral saints. I asked Gallagher during the Q&A if he thought these particular prints were more a reflection of the more recent “culture wars” rather than a sincere attempt at trying to capture the past. While he resisted that suggestion I am still convinced that the people who buy these particular prints are using the past to defend assumptions about more recent cultural issues. (Perhaps more on that later.) The other interesting contrast was the depiction of African Americans. The first print shown was the popular “The Burial of Latane” which captures a funeral and an apparently disinterested slave looking on and waiting for the moment when he can bury the body. Gallagher contrasted this with a more recent print which attempts to show black Confederates within the ranks in the heat of battle. The particular print used actually shows a black man fighting right under a Confederate battle flag. Of course Gallagher made the point that such scenes are more fantasy or wishful thinking.
I always enjoy Gallagher’s talks. His passion for the Civil War comes through every time and he manages to convey his own scholarly bent in the most entertaining manner possible. One of the first things I ever published was a book review of The Confederate War for North and South Magazine back in 1997. At the time I was much more interested in reading battle narratives, but this book impressed upon me the importance of taking a broader view. He asked interesting questions and broadened my very narrow understanding of the war; I can easily trace my continued fascination with the war back to that book. Thanks Gary.
The 2005 Jefferson Davis Award, which is given yearly by the Museum of the Confederacy for best book-length narrative, has been awarded to Charles W. Sanders Jr. for While In the Hands of the Enemy: Civil War Military Prisons.