Yesterday I briefly referenced the latest issue of the VMHB which contains a wonderful essay on Stonewall Jackson by Christopher R. Lawton. I finished reading the essay this morning and it has left me with a great deal to think about. Lawton provides both a gendered and generational analysis of the evolution of Jackson’s public and private life between his admission to West Point and his arrival in Lexington, Virginia. Along the way Lawton challenges the analytical frameworks of Wilbur J. Cash and Bertram Wyatt-Brown who imagine white Southern men as yearning to live the life of the slaveholding elite and practicing a set of values revolving around a strict code of honor.
Central to this recent historiography is that the myth of the emotionally-driven antebellum southerner must be replaced with a new sense that many southern men were far closer to the stereotype of the rational northerner than to the honor and violence models of Cash and Wyatt-Brown. An account of Thomas Jackson’s carefully plotted ascension into privileged white manhood is thus far less radical than it might initially seem. Jackson was not an exception among white, middle-class southern men, but rather a fairly typical model. His strategic development of self was directed by the belief that the role of “gentlemen,” to which he and so many of his contemporaries aspired, was not a preexisting condition but a position that one created in the act of playing the part. (p. 9)
This emphasis on performatives, according to Lawton, was shaped by Jackson’s careful reading of popular texts such as Parson Weems’s biography of Washington and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, his training at West Point which emphasized the importance of putting into practice moral precepts that would bring about a “Gentlemen of manners, of politeness & of education,” and in his generation’s reverence for the Founding Fathers. Finally, there were the countless books of maxims that Jackson carefully studied – the most famous being, “You may be whatever you resolve to be” which was pulled verbatim from the Rev. Joel Hawes’s Letters to Young Men on the Formation of Character &c. Jackson utilized these resources as a means to becoming a soldier, citizen, and gentlemen. What I like about this article is that it implicitly challenges the assumption that Jackson’s life is impenetrable; we see the same thing when it comes to R.E. Lee. Somehow in the process of turning these men into gods we distance ourselves from their humanity and desires. Such is the case when it comes to Jackson and religion.
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