This morning I traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to visit with David Blight’s Civil War Memory seminar at Yale. It was my first time to the campus and I had a wonderful experience. I had a chance to talk a bit about my research, the blog, and how the Internet is shaping Civil War remembrance. The students were incredibly thoughtful and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to join in their discussion of a new book of essays edited by Thomas Brown. They gave me quite a bit to think about. Thanks so much to Professor Blight and to Brian Jordan [check out Brian’s new book on South Mountain] for the invitation.
Afterwards I spent some time with a few of my former students. It was so nice to see them enjoying and taking full advantage of their college experience at Yale.
All in all, it was a great day.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.
In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative. The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject. On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern. How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation? Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century. My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.
On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book. Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge. And yet the argument has held up quite well. That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.
To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author. The guy gets around. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings. Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical. Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.
The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most. And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.
I’ve caught bits and pieces of the Museum of the Confederacy’s “Person of the Year: 1862” symposium on CSPAN-3. It’s an entertaining event for the children of the Civil War Centennial. The historians in charge of nominating this year include Robert K. Krick, David Blight, James McPherson, Jack Mountcastle, and Emory Thomas. The historians selected are all familiar to the audience and their selections, for the most part, are predictable. Can anyone imagine Krick selecting anyone else but Jackson or anyone but Lee for Thomas? Blight chose Frederick Douglass, which is not surprising. McPherson’s choice of Farragut may be the only one that couldn’t be predicted. I don’t know what to make of Mountcastle’s choice of McClellan since I am not familiar with his scholarship.
There is nothing wrong with their selections since this is clearly not a question that has a final answer. There is also nothing necessarily wrong with the selection of historians. All of them are well respected scholars. That said, I do have a few suggestions for next year. Get a panel of younger historians, whose choices may not be so predictable. Not only are you likely to get a different short list of nominees, but the Q&A will also be an opportunity to explore new terrain rather than rehash the same tired stories. You have to include at least one woman and an African American. In short, perspective is everything when it comes to these kinds of events.
So, who would you choose?
My choice: Benjamin Butler
Today I had the pleasure of skyping with a Civil War class at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. Chris Lese and his class have made good use of my blog over the past few weeks so I offered to spend some time with his students to field questions. In addition to utilizing the blog the class has read a chapter from David Blight’s book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War and they are making their way through a critical evaluation of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. It’s always nice to see high school kids engaged in serious study of American history and it made for an entertaining and informative 45 minutes. I am planning on visiting with this class in person during my trip to Milwaukee in April for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.
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