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Reviews

The forgotten quarrel


Men walk through field at Gettysburg.
At Gettysburg on July 3, 1913, at the 50th anniversary of the battle, Confederate veterans belonging to Pickett's Division Association "reenact" Pickett's Charge.

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 hardcover.

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 forgotten—except 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 unity—not 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 epic—audiences shrieked and hissed and applauded wildly—turned 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 writing.

"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 war—a 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 1913—the 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 Americans—a 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 acquisition—disjointed, determined and fateful—is 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 practice—a habit, really—does 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 suicide.

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 Spain—an attempt to find resonance in ancestral roots—but 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 and meaning.

—Jennifer Acker '00

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