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The forgotten quarrel
At Gettysburg on July 3, 1913, at the 50th anniversary of the battle, Confederate
veterans belonging to Pickett's Division Association "reenact"
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
By David W. Blight, Class of 1959 Professor of History and Black Studies. Cambridge,
Mass., and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. 512 pp. $29.95
Soon after his victorious army reached Columbia, South Carolina, in February 1865,
on its fiery sweep through the southern heartland, Gen. William T. Sherman was
approached by a well-to-do Charlestonian who had fled to the state capital for
safety. "Please, General," begged the man, "save my books."
"Books," replied Sherman, "of course I'll save your books.
If only there had been more books in this part of the country, we wouldn't
have had all this foolishness in the first place." Sherman's superior,
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, also expressed the opinion that a low level of education
had allowed a handful of slaveowners to drag the unwitting white majority into
war. "They too needed emancipation," he wrote, referring to the common
white southerners as prisoners of ignorance. Sherman did nothing to help the situation.
Despite his assurances, the supplicant's books were consumed in the flames
that leveled Columbia.
Why did America go to war against itself? One hundred and 40 years later you would
think the question would be settled. Yet ask a resident of Massachusetts and a
resident of South Carolina and you are likely to get two different answers. Historians
may by and large hold the northern view that slavery was the fundamental cause
of the Civil War. But the young white people who went to school with my children
here in the "hotbed of secession" would sharply disagree. The claim
that slavery was not at the root of the war is a key element of the story they
tell themselves about who they are and what their ancestors stood for. Disagreement
extends to the eras of Reconstruction and Redemption. Depending on where you were
raised or on the color of your skin, you might regard Reconstruction as a noble
effort on the part of the federal government to complete the job of emancipation,
or you might remember it as a time of corruption, lawlessness and hunger.
A hundred years ago there was more agreement than there is today. White southerners
and northerners alike had embraced the myth of the Lost Cause, the cult of Robert
E. Lee, and the doctrine of white supremacy. Black Americans knew that the Civil
War had been fought for freedom, but they had to keep their heads low and their
mouths shut. Not only does the meaning of the Civil War remain what historian
Eric Foner calls "an enduring source of public controversy," it is,
or was until the events of September 11 pushed the battles over Confederate symbols
from the front pages, an issue of current events. Like the peak that rises from
the horizon and grows in stature the further the rower gets from the lake shore,
in Wordsworth's autobiographical poem, "The Prelude," the Civil
War looms larger in American life the more time that passes since Appomattox.
In Race and Reunion, David W. Blight, the Class of 1959 Professor of History
and Black Studies at Amherst College, deftly addresses the two issues that dominated
politics and culture at the turn of the 20th century. The American obsession with
skin color and the American desire to forge a single nation out of the states
that had banded in sections were reconciled in a devil's bargain. The South's
dreams of secession were consigned to the past. In return, the North suppressed
discussion of the causes and results of the great contest. Transformations won
by blood, chief among them the freeing of more than
four million slaves, were publicly regretted and betrayed by policies that allowed
the southern states to disenfranchise black citizens and impose a code of racial
separation free from the threat of federal interference.
The thesis that the South lost the Civil War but won the peace by prevailing in
the arena of ideas is not new. But Blight's relentless demonstration of southern
myth-making and northern connivance is jolting nevertheless. Race and Reunion
is a superb work of scholarship that manages to grasp an elusive and still-evolving
subject: America's competing memories of the Civil War. It covers the years 1863
to 1913, from the promise of national rebirth contained in the Emancipation Proclamation
and the Gettysburg Address, both authored by Abraham Lincoln, to the 50th anniversary
celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg. "We came here . . . not to discuss
the causes of the war," Virginia Gov. William Hodges Mann addressed the assembled
veterans, "but to talk over the events of the battle here as man to man."
President Woodrow Wilson picked up the themes of forgetting and manliness. The
Virginia-born former college professor pronounced "the quarrel forgottenexcept
that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men arrayed
against one another, now grasping hands. . . ."
Not all of the men, however. Only white men. Black soldiers were forgotten, erased
from past and present. The only blacks on the scene were there to hand out blankets
and to wait on the white veterans. At the site where 7,000 men, northerners and
southerners, native born and immigrants, whites and blacks, had, in Lincoln's
words, "hallowed" the ground with their blood, the South's view
of the war, and of human genetics, prevailed.
Blight takes us through the steps that got the country in this pickle, from which
it has not yet extracted itself. A national fable sympathetic to the losing side
emerged in the publication of the memoirs of prominent Confederates; in quasi-religious
ceremonies at the unveiling of memorials to southern generals who were elevated
to the rank of demigod; in the novels and, at the end of the period, in the silent
films of the first great age of motion pictures. Northerners with a nose for business
eagerly marketed the myth of the plantation as a school for savages, more harmful
to the morals of the slavemasters than to the well-being of the slaves. The faithful
darky who, released from the kind dominion of his master, turned into a beastly
rapist became a stock character in national pageantry.
My favorite parts of Blight's book capture the voices of people who made
history or knew they were watching history unfold. In Grant's pleas for historical
accuracy we feel the desperation of the old soldier who wants his side to be remembered
for its hard fighting and not for overpowering the enemy with numbers and supplies.
It may surprise readers to hear Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a notorious
killer of prisoners and post-war founder of the Ku Klux Klan, say at the war's
end that anyone who wants to continue fighting belongs in an insane asylum. Confederate
Partisan Ranger John Singleton Mosby, whose guerilla attacks may have prolonged
the war by diverting Grant's strength from Richmond, disowned the movement
to romanticize the past. "The South went to war on account of slavery,"
he wrote, rejecting other explanations as "fanciful theory" and "oratorical
nonsense." Mosby stayed away from soldiers' reunions "because I
can't stand the speaking."
What these warriors all knew is that war is a meat-grinder. And that the War Between
the States was no exception. Men killed to keep from being killed, and they desecrated
the corpses of their enemies. Violent death, terror, discomfort, fear, fatigue
and filth were the lot of the common soldier on both sides. But remembering the
gory truth was not a path to national unitynot the truth about war or the
truth about slavery. Blight recalls the tragedy of Louisiana novelist George Washington
Cable, whose dissent from Lost Cause mythology propelled him into exile in Massachusetts.
In 1888, the New York-born writer and Union veteran Albion Tourgee lamented that
"the Confederate soldier is the popular hero. Our literature has become not
only Southern in type, but distinctly Confederate in sympathy." His contemporary
and fellow Yankee Ambrose Bierce dismantled Civil War sentimentality in his surrealistic
book of short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, where death comes
randomly, horribly and often. But the book had to be privately printed, and its
audience was minuscule next to the readership of the plantation romances of Virginia's
Thomas Nelson Page. So theatrical were the claims of happy darkies and plantation
plenty that literary apologies for the old regime adapted instantly to the medium
of film, indeed seemed invented for the motion pictures and designed to elicit
a group response. Ninety-eight Civil War films were made in 1913 alone, the year,
incidentally, when Bierce, who had been converted by the stench of war from abolitionism
to agnosticism in his political beliefs, vanished in the deserts of Mexico. He
had gone there to join up with the revolutionary Pancho Villa, suggesting that
at 70 he still was haunted by 50-year-old memories of the War. His literary work
belonged to a school all its own, unfashionable and painfully ahead of its time.
The pinnacle of the pro-South movie genre was reached in 1915 with the making
of D. W. Griffith's and Thomas Dixon's Birth of a Nation. The film premiered
to an adoring audience at President Wilson's White House. This interactive epicaudiences
shrieked and hissed and applauded wildlyturned history on its head, depicting
emancipation as a colossal mistake and Reconstruction a vindictive folly. In the
real world it was dangerous to hold a contrary view. Your job and status, and
even your life, were at risk.
Of course there were people who continued to believe that the essential meaning
of the Civil War lay in the thrust for freedom. Thoughtful black Americans saw
through the euphemisms the nation was using to couch remembrance of the war and
the rhetoric of recovery. AME minister and future bishop Reverdy Ransom was calling
a spade a spade when, in 1888, he condemned "that hot-bed of oppression,
now popularly called the 'new South.'"
If the South succeeded not only in implementing racial separation but in convincing
the rest of the country that racism was right, then Blight offers more than a
modest challenge to the thesis of southern distinctiveness associated with the
late C. Vann Woodward. Yes, the South, as Woodward put it in his many books, was
distinguished by a history of defeat and occupation and by decades of un-American
poverty. Defeat was real, in a military sense, but occupation by federal troops
and carpetbaggers was brief and ineffectual. Poverty, the South's truly lasting
defeat, may owe more to the collaboration of southern and northern elites after
Reconstruction than to the material effects of war.
Woodward would have loved Race and Reunion. It is his kind of book. It
starts with a thesis plainly stated and proceeds to build a case with thorough
and intrepid research. Woodward, the child of Arkansas landowners, would have
paused to give credit to white populists for reaching out to black farmers who
were under the same yoke. But Blight, a native of Flint, Michigan, in the Union
breadbasket, has a lot of territory to cover because his gaze is on the whole
articulated culture, not only its political expression. The book's chief limitations
are thicket-like sentences that impede the narrative and make us pause to notice
"The Lost Cause took root in a Southern culture awash in an admixture of
physical destruction, the psychological trauma of defeat, a Democratic Party resisting
Reconstruction, racial violence, and with time, an abiding sentimentalism."
The sentence is packed too tight, and the mixed metaphors make your head swim.
It may not be fair to harp on a single sentence or the few like it when the prose
is generally good natured and easy on the ears. But I bring it up for two reasons:
first, because overwriting like this encourages a kind of forgetting by avoiding
the soldier's horrific experience of wara strategy of Confederate re-enactment.
And second, because the lessons of the book would have a better chance of reaching
more people if the writing were accessible throughout.
The battle over the truth of the Civil War and its aftermath is taking place largely
outside the university. At re-enactments, called by their boosters the fastest
growing hobby in the United States, discussion of the causes and consequences
of the war carries no weight. What matters at today's Battle of Secessionville
in South Carolina is what mattered at Gettysburg in 1913the valor of the
troops and their honorable demeanor. Blight's insight into a key attraction
of Lost Cause dogma applies perfectly to the re-enactment movement today. "The
war was drained of evil, and to a great extent, of cause or political meaning."
The contest is waged at Civil War battlegrounds managed by the National Park Service,
which now aggressively addresses the once-banned subject of slavery. The NPS has
taken the lead in identifying underground railroad sites across the nation. The
battle rages at Confederate flag protests, rallies, marches and counter-marches
in the deep South. It is waged by white people in the southern interior who paste
bumper stickers on their cars and trucks that read, "I should have picked
my own cotton." It is carried on in the letters to the editor of The State
newspaper complaining about the appearance in South Carolina of thousands of aliens
who don't know our traditions. The targets of these barbs are Spanish-speaking
immigrants who can be found wherever there is bending and lifting to be done.
Since September 11, "the other" is a dark-skinned white person. Blacks
can breathe a sigh of relief. Pity the poor immigrant, to quote Bob Dylan, in
a state whose attorney general, fresh from losing battles to keep women out of
the state-supported military college, and to keep the Confederate flag flying
on a statehouse dome, has declared war on Mexicans.
Perhaps the attacks against America on American soil will contribute in a twisted
way to the understanding that black people are full-fledged Americansa recognition
the American press and many other institutions withheld through most of the country's
existence. If the call for national unity leads to greater truth-telling, then
visitors to Gettysburg may yet hear that "Pickett's Charge" was a huge
blunder and that at the end of three days of slaughter both armies were in retreat,
with victory going to the side that doubled back to occupy the high ground before
the enemy realized what was happening. If the truth be told, the North is not
off the hook. Race and Reunion reminds us that for all their piety, white
northerners were not ready to accept the challenge of black equality. Yet, the
United States is the only country in the world where it took a war to end slavery.
One soldier, blue or gray, died for every six slaves set free. The people who
made this great sacrifice should have brooked no delay in completing the job.
But they forgot, the nation forgot, and in its place remembered something else.
Forgetting is not final, however. Fifty years after the "Jim Crow reunion"
at Gettysburg, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his electrifying "I Have
a Dream Speech" on the Washington Mall. A photograph strategically placed
at the end of Race and Reunion captures the moment. On this day the "emancipationist
vision of the Civil War" seemed to reverse "the Southern victory in
the long struggle over Civil War memory." This moment, too, has passed, and
the struggle over Civil War memory has resumed. "All memory is prelude,"
Blight closes, in a phrase of modesty and precision that fills the "future
reckoning" with suspense.
Theodore Rosengarten '66
Theodore Rosengarten's books include
All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1975).
Photo: Pennsylvania State Archives
On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language.
By Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino
Culture. New York, N.Y.: Viking Penguin, 2001. 263 pp. $23.95 hardcover.
Ilan Stavans's grandmother, Bela Stavchansky, knew six languages. Her mother
tongue was Yiddish, Polish was the language of her birth country, and she learned
Russian as a young woman. Forced to flee the pre-Hitler pogroms, she landed in
Mexico, where she picked up Spanish and maintained rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew
and English; in the New Country Bobbe Bela willfully eliminated the two Eastern
European languages from her memory. Her grandson has mastered the remaining four.
Given this family history, Stavans's polyglotism seems natural, but his own
journey of language acquisitiondisjointed, determined and fatefulis
markedly different from those of his ancestors, peers, and even siblings. The
desire to unite and explain these word systems, their effect on him and his navigation
of their labyrinths is manifested in this memoir, On Borrowed Words.
It is a passionate, evocative tale. Fragmented into images and episodes, the story
charts the young and prolific author's life thus far. And Stavans has covered
a mind-boggling swath of intellectual and geographic ground in his 40 years. A
voracious reader with precise recall, Stavans laces the memoir with literary passages
and references to works by, to name just a few, Borges, Sor Juana Inés
de la Cruz, Sholem Aleichem, Cervantes, Kafka, Conrad, Issac Bashevis Singer,
Graham Greene. This practicea habit, reallydoes not feel like name
dropping; it feels like sharing. With paper and pen the reader could create a
literary family tree for Stavans, with Borges the bent and blind grand patriarch.
During a cry for independence in his 20s Stavans set all of the Argentine master's
works on fire. This fit of passion makes credible the ambitious and melodramatic
declaration Stavans made to himself as a young aspiring writer: if he did not
write a significant work by the age of 33 (his Jesus birthday), he would commit
The author describes his childhood in a Jewish middle-class neighborhood of Mexico
City as happy, though he was plagued by an outsider complex, being told by his
darker-skinned peers that he, el güerito (blondie), was not like them. Stavans's
Yiddish education was noteworthy for its heavy emphasis on that language's
art and literature, and, as he later discovered, the consequent omission of works
from other cultures. Emotional life was overshadowed by the dynamic personalities
of his family: Bobbe Bela, his father and his troubled brother, Darián.
The father, Abraham (Abremele) Stavchansky, began his acting career in the theater
and continues to have TV and movie roles. The actor/father duality distressed
Stavans as a child, who felt abandoned at the moment of transformation from loved
one to stage character; both father and son needed frequent reminders of their
love for the other. Darián was a musical genius, but he suffered from severe
lack of emotional control.
With the staging of his own Yiddish language play behind him, Stavans left home
as a young adult to make his mark elsewhere, away from Mexico, a country he never
felt allegiance toward or recognized as his own. He repeatedly tried living in
Israel and Spainan attempt to find resonance in ancestral rootsbut
found his life in each country unsatisfying. Israel's orthodoxy, accompanied
by a lack of skepticism and battle mind-set, disturbed him. Spain held captive
the past but did not confront the future. New York is the city he will thrive
in, Stavans decided, and he took a scholarship at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He got his Ph.D. He traversed the city's literary memory: Kerouac's
bars; the distinct Harlems of James Baldwin and Oscar Hijuelos. Stavans proved
his intuition correct and his ambition unfailing. Success came in the form he
most desired: published words, millions upon millions of them.
Yet On Borrowed Words is not simply the recounting of an adventurous and
achieving life, appealing for its glimpses of foreign communities, illumination
of Jewish migration to the New World and an immigrant writer's adjustment
to vibrant, abrasive New York City. All of these elements exist but they are connected
to sweet, powerful meditations on literature and identity, and the symbiosis of
the two. Each chapter of Stavans's own memoir is tethered to an image and
precipitated by an epigraph (from Nabokov to the Talmud). These key objects focus
and crystallize the events and realizations of Stavans's life by giving the
reader a symbol to grasp and turn over in her hand. (Let us add that the text
is laid out in elegant font on beautiful cream-colored pages.)
Stavans's grandmother used to tell him that he had a "prodigious memory,"
evident in his spontaneous recitation of prose and poetry. Memory is apparently
of great importance to Bobbe Bela as well, and she spent more than a decade writing
her own memoir of sorts, called Mi Diario (My Diary), that she gives to her grandson.
The volume haunts Stavans. He struggles to locate its value to him: is it the
detailing of his ancestral past? The fact that the diary was written in Spanish?
The crucial omissions?
On Borrowed Words is evocative in surprising and emotional ways. Stavans's
frank language is seductive; he vividly describes fears of inadequacy, spiritual
homelessness and the embarrassing skin plagues of adolescence. This honest, analytical
tone creates a work that functions like transcendent conversation, giving the
reader pause, space to meditate upon her own life. Stavans sketches a path toward
the conjunction of memory and intellect that we all aspire to. This Mexican-Jewish-American
author holds this elusive union by the spine. (Interestingly, the place where
the memoir falls flat is in an extensive recall of conversation with author Richard
Rodriguez [Hunger of Memory]. Stavans lays out to his friend his ideas
for On Borrowed Words, how the sections will flow and what kind of memoir
it will be; the use of visual objects and navigation of languages. This passage
paradoxically feels thin in its self-reference; the reader doesn't need to
know what the author tells his friends about what we are at the very moment reading.)
Stavans's narrative opens in the middle, in the midst of an activity that
extends to a variety of metaphoric, intellectual and emotional levels: the author
is organizing his library. The books' weight is pleasing, their jackets dusty
and loved, the translated works and foreign language originals ambitious. On Borrowed
Words is their embodied distillation. A clear, reflective liquid, rich in memory
Jennifer Acker '00
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