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 —
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?