Does Gingrich’s Crater Novel Reflect Progress?

Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic.  This particular passage caught my eye:

This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]

On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee.  I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.  As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory.  That story is now roughly 25 years old.  From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about.  Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?

Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole.  Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy.  We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story.  In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.

It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project.  As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received.  In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference.  Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well.  The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history.  At this point in the game that would constitute progress.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

10 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Dec 7, 2011 @ 16:32

    I am suspicious of Gingrich’s motives. It is very unlikely he would change the minds of African-American voters with his book. But he could (in the event he is nominated) use the fact he wrote a book about African-American soldiers as a counter to any criticism he might encounter that his positions or campaign tactics are designed to take advantage of racial fears and animosities. (“See, I’m not what you think I am, look at this book I wrote.)

    When Gingrich wrote the book he was a very long shot for the nomination, so the other explanation is he’s just trying to sell as many books as he can by appealing to a wider portion of the book buying public. And the reviews will be better for a book with sympathetic protagonists, which is no small thing from a promotional standpoint.

    I’m a conservative, but I just don’t trust the man or his motives. The one consistent throughout his career has been a willingness to cynically present himself as anything but who he is. Play to family values voters while treating his wives badly. Make a public service announcement with Nancy Pelosi then criticize her relentlessly. Advocate for smaller government while taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    No, Gingrich’s book may be alot of things, but progress it isn’t.

  • Larry Cebula Dec 5, 2011 @ 19:23

    Coates is right. We have come a long ways when a conservative politician/novelist not only feels it necessary to include black people in a novel of the Civil War, but actually puts them at the center of the narrative. And the people who are now flocking to Gingrich in the primaries are in no small part former supporters of Herman Cain.

  • J. L. Bell Dec 5, 2011 @ 19:01

    Progress always depends on where one starts to measure from. Coates is evidently taking a long view (“For a century”) while you’re more immersed in recent scholarship.

    In the long view, the fact that a conservative white Southern politician feels a need to put his name to a book treating African-American soldiers as admirable and making up a scene promoting racial equality through the mouth of Robert E. Lee [!] shows progress.

    Compared to the Civil War scholarship and analysis since the 1970s, the same book basically shows how the Lost Cause has evolved from the fight for ongoing white supremacy to the claim that nobody really fought the Civil War to preserve race slavery — or at least the sainted Lee didn’t.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 4:03

      I am not necessarily disagreeing with Coates’s analysis. What I am suggesting is that the Gingrich narrative has become the standard narrative of the USCT. It offers a broader narrative of the Civil War and the importance of race and slavery without having to deal with some of the toughest questions that hit at the core of how most white Americans choose to frame the period. Thanks for the comment.

      • J. L. Bell Dec 6, 2011 @ 20:43

        I agree that you and Coates wouldn’t necessarily be in disagreement if you were both measuring “progress” the same way. I also agree that the creation of a new repeated narrative about race and the Civil War (“Everybody fought nobly”) may be progress from the old one (“Blacks shouldn’t be slaves, but they’re don’t really deserve equality”), but it isn’t a way to address serious or tough questions.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2011 @ 3:26

          BTW, we still need to meet in person at some point. 🙂

  • William Richardson Dec 5, 2011 @ 16:50

    I am surprised there isn’t any mention of this on your blog……..

    • Kevin Levin Dec 5, 2011 @ 16:58

      I mentioned it not too long ago. What more needs to be said and what does it have to do with this post?

      • William Richardson Dec 5, 2011 @ 17:22

        You posted that he had won the right to display it ? I must have missed it, sorry. You are correct I posted it under the wrong post.


        • Ray O'Hara Dec 5, 2011 @ 21:05

          Is the book an improvement? I’d say no because of all the objections you’ve raised. Raising the subject but then shying away from the dark truths in a book that might reach millions is , to me, actually counter productive.

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