Archive | October, 2012

American Oracle

23 Oct

On the recommendation of a colleague, I recently read David Blight’s American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. Blight provides a study of four prominent writers from the 1950s and 60s to make important points on the Civil War Centennial and the modern Civil Rights struggle, events that occurred at the same time. Blight’s discussion of the lives and writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, Brice Catton, and James Baldwin illustrates the strange intricacies of commemoration of the Civil War and the struggle for Civil Rights.

Blight stresses tragedy when discussing the Civil War, its centennial, and the fact that Civil Rights Movement was trying to complete the Civil War’s unfinished business. According to Blight and those four writers, the war should mainly be seen as a tragedy, trumping any romantic notions of the war. One of the key quotes from the book comes from Baldwin who states “…the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”  Assessing our history and not simply glorifying it is an important task for not only historians, but the general public as well. And of course it takes historians to lead the way by combining solid research with compelling writing to lead the public to thinking about the past.

Unfortunately in my humble opinion, Blight’s examination into the minds and writings of the four writers failed as a narrative. As a reader, I felt I had to search hard for Blight’s points as he meandered through each writer’s life and writings.  There were some insightful points, but at times, they became simply lost as my interest waned as the pages dragged on.

In an interesting irony, Blight seems to take aim at historians who focus too much on the military history without focusing on the consequences and issues behind it. And yet, one of the authors he examines Is Bruce Catton, who Blight himself says his storytelling had much to do with his choice to be an historian.  Catton’s “formula” for “enjoying” the study of the war, which included the components of shared glory by both sides, widespread suffering, and ultimate triumph, is still successful today.

Yes, there is a strong need by historians and the general public for deeper thought on the meaning and outcomes of the Civil War, but there is nothing wrong with reading about the heroic moments of the war’s participants. The current trend of academic history towards more social history has marginalized much of the military aspect of the Civil War. Historians (and the general public) are almost forced to hide their enjoyment of reading about Civil War battles and soldiers for fear of being accused of not seeing the war in the proper light.

Blight should have paid more attention to a quote from Catton himself who said “writing must be appealing…historians should not attempt to get the exact and complete truth out of a distant set of facts at the expense of the ultimate consumer-the person who is reading what he writes.”  No matter the story, drafting a compelling narrative is the most important part to any writing, whether it is describing a Civil War battle, Civil Rights struggles, or even a book that analyzes the writings of those who do.


Cultural Context

2 Oct

I recently read Colin Woodward’s intriguing book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. It was one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a long time. It has a clear and well-argued thesis and actually helps me think of U.S. history in a whole new light. In brief, Woodward argues that American history is best understood by viewing it as being shaped by the interaction, competition, and rivalry for resources and hegemony of eleven distinct cultures that trace their roots all the way back to America’s beginnings. Anyone versed in this country’s history is probably already aware of these cultures to some degree. But Woodward’s reading of American history will no doubt remind readers of a number of things about our society that they may never have thought of before in this way and likely spark an “aha!” moment or two. Even should you not give quite the credence he does to the overarching influence of regional cultures such as those of the Tidewater region, the Deep South, Yankeedom, The Left Coast, and Appalachia, it is tough to argue with his overall point that culturally-based sectionalism has been and continues to be a driving force in American history. As we all know, there is much more to the “red state” and “blue state” divisions in our political system than pure politics. Plotting our country’s development through Woodward’s lens is at least as much interesting and enlightening as it is hypothetical. Even if it can’t account for every turning point in our shared past, it does help make us aware of crucial deep-seated beliefs and worldviews shared by certain portions of the population that help explain such things as why the South is home to the “Bible Belt” to why the Civil War was fought.

I believe Woodward’s approach to understanding of our past is worth contemplating by all interested in American history, especially public historians. The great majority of public historians are primarily concerned with distinctly local heritage, whether that be at the city, county, or state-level. Consequently, there is often a narrow focus on place that inadvertantly overlooks a critical element of context in their interpretation of the past. While most historians attempt to put things into some sort of chronological and even geographical context, cultural beliefs and rivalries are often at the heart of the actions of those from the past. To not understand the worldview of historical figures and how opposing viewpoints influence their actions is to not understand what really made them tick. While I won’t claim Woodward’s book contains the complete answer to all questions regarding the role of culture in American history, it provides the type of explanation of our nation’s past that would help us both understand and explain it better to a populace increasingly disconnected from its roots. It goes behind traditional narrative and listing facts and dates; it truly helps us understand an old story in a new way.