I just finished watching David Blight’s Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College, which took place back in November. His lecture, “Ambivalent about Tragedy: Bruce Catton’s Civil War and Ours” is well worth watching. His thoughts on historical writing and tragedy are particularly interesting. As usual I could have listened to him for another 75 minutes. Definitely check it out when you have the chance.
Congratulations to fellow Bostonian Nina Silber for being selected to deliver the 2014 address. She is currently researching a book on Civil War memory during the New Deal, which I can’t wait to read.
Tomorrow my wife and I are going to head over to Cambridge to the Harvard Bookstore to hear a talk by David Blight. I tend not to take my wife to hear Blight as she has what I would say is an unhealthy attraction to his voice. Hopefully, she will be able to exercise sufficient self control. Blight is going to talk about his new book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, which explores the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. Each of these writers struggled to come to terms with America’s collective memory of the Civil War during the civil rights era. Like much of everything else Blight has written the book is well worth your time.
One of the things I find interesting is the lack of a prominent Civil War historian or literary figure, who occupies the same space as did Penn Warren, Catton, Wilson, and Baldwin. In terms of historians of that era I would also include Allan Nevins and Douglass Southall Freeman, though he died in 1953. Perhaps you disagree, but if so, I would be curious to know who you think fills those roles and speaks for our generation’s memory of the war. If you agree with me, I would also like to hear why.
I am about half-way through Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox and I am enjoying it immensely. While I’ve read a few essays and sections of various books this is the first Catton book that I will read in its entirety. It is easy to see why he is so popular and I have a much better sense of how he excited the imagination of an entire generation. Catton was an incredibly talented writer and his sense of narrative is infectious. On a number of occasions I found myself completely immersed in Catton’s world. At the same time I can’t help but reflect on the book as a product of its time.
Given its publication in 1953, Stillness functioned as a wonderful example of a national history of the Civil War. The narrative would have appealed to a wide range of Americans, who had experienced the horrors of WWII and the emergence of the United States as the most powerful nation and self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Increasing tensions during the early Cold War period and a conscious self reflection that emphasized freedom and democracy constitute an important cultural and political backdrop necessary to understand this book’s influence.
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