How Do You Like Your History?

[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

I like my history dry, informed by a wide spectrum of primary sources, and void of as much presentism as possible.  The recent AEC Conference on Southern Literature included popular speakers such as Jon Meacham and Wendell Berry.  Meacham "emphasize[d] how the study of history casts light on the political and religious dilemmas facing the country today" while Wendell Berry’s talk titled "American Imagination and the Civil War" explored how literature informs and shapes our memories of the war.  Unfortunately, my comments re: Berry must be based on Kevin Trumpeters summation of his talk in The Pulse.  Here is an excerpt:

Wendell Berry’s keynote address on Friday evening, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” also considered historical issues that have a particular resonance with today’s political concerns. As you’d expect from a reputed iconoclast, the poet-farmer’s take on the War Between the States would be classified as “revisionist.” Berry acceded that slavery was certainly one of the important aspects of the conflict, but pointed out a cause that frequently gets overlooked by the textbooks—“People generally don’t like to get invaded.”

Like a latter-day Faulkner, he lamented the lingering “curse” of the Civil War that continues to afflict Southern society and called the supposedly self-evident benefits of the Union victory into question. He referred to the emancipation effort as “botched,” noting that our society still has yet to come to terms with the “money power of the North that replaced the slave power of the South” and that Americans still rely on an subservient group of people (he cited Latino immigrants as the latter-day “Stepin Fetchits” of our society) to perform the menial labor which upper-and middle-class Americans are “too good, too well-educated, and too ignorant to do ourselves.” He suggested that the Northern victory not only imposed the vagaries of industrialization on the bucolic agrarian culture of the antebellum South, it also set the tone of overconfidence and privilege that is the hallmark of a contemporary American attitude that “conflates the American way of life with the will of God.”

Woodbury suggests that perhaps these talks would have been better suited to a history conference.  From the few passages that are included in this report I have to respectfully disagree.  I have no doubt that Berry is well read in history, but a few of his ideas betray a traditional – Lost Cause view of the antebellum South and the war.  Now one could say that I am being overly critical and impatient; after all, not everyone spends most of their waking moments reading analytical histories of nineteenth-century America.  We can say this, however, only if we ignore the connections that Berry draws between these specific points about the history of the South and his broader points, which include the idea that Southern society is "afflicted"  as well as his ideas of "overconfidence" and "privilege."  Are Berry’s conclusions supported in any way by his claims about the past?  Do we have a responsibility to ask? 

As many of you can surmise I agree wholeheartedly with Berry in his assertion that our society has still not come to terms with the emancipationist legacy of the war.  On the other hand his references to a moneyed North as opposed to the "slave power" suggests an outdated interpretation of antebellum America.  The biggest problem, however, is Berry’s overly simplistic distinction between the overly industrial North with a "bucolic agrarian culture."  Anyone who has read recent studies by William Freehling, Peter Carmichael, and William Link understands that these distinctions are fictional.  I should say that I am not familiar with Berry’s work.  Here is how Woodbury describes it:

His relentlessly green approach to living, his devotion to conservation and sustainable farming, his eloquent disdain for consumerism – all of this appeals to the part of me that wants to live a rural or remote existence.

Is it an accident that Berry would make the above-mentioned distinctions surrounding the "Old South"?

I can’t help but have the warning lights go off when history is used as a way to comment on the present.  It’s even more disturbing when the history that is sketched out has little to do with what it purports to reflect. 

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4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Apr 5, 2007 @ 5:33

    David, — You are probably righh about my assesments. In fact I would say that this is a horribly written post with poorly developed ideas. Let me say that I was not suggesting that Berry is some kind of neo-Confederate, but that some of the ideas reflected popular perceptions of the South v. North that don’t that no longer stand the test. I also have no reason to doubt the talent and intelligence of Berry as a writer since I am not familiar with him.

    I was only trying to make a point about what appears to be a pitfall when writers who are not sufficiently versed in history use the past to make points about the present. Thanks for commenting.

  • David Woodbury Apr 5, 2007 @ 4:27


    I can see how you would draw those inferences, based on the snippet in The Pulse, but I’d say they’re off the mark. You might need to calibrate your neo-Confederate radar a bit so that every use of certain language doesn’t trigger a flag (at least in the context of 2nd hand reports).

    You should check out some of Berry’s essays, several of which can be located online. He is an original thinker, and part of a dying breed. I think few if any would say that his views are based on popular perceptions (of the antebellum South, or anything else).


  • Kevin Levin Apr 4, 2007 @ 21:27

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t doubt that his ideas are “deeply rooted in a sense of place as well as past” but I wonder how he goes about constructing the past. It sounds like one based on popular perceptions of the antebellum South and North.

  • GreenmanTim Apr 4, 2007 @ 21:20

    Nope, no accident. Wendell Berry is an unabashed “small is beautiful” agrarian with deep roots in Kentucky. He is conservative with an emphasis on the root word “conserve”, a poet, essayist, novelist and advocate for environmental and social justiced in Appalachia and elsewhere in rural America. His take on the American Imagination and the Civil War would be deeply rooted in sense of place as well as past, I’d suspect. I doubt he feels overt “Lose Cause” nostalgia for ther antebellum south, but I can certainly see him making the statement that folks don’t like being invaded as a commentary both on thast conflict and the present one in Iraq.

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