BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I am just finishing up Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson’s 1962 book that analyzes the literature of the American Civil War.
While I don’t feel quite up to a full review of this 800-page monument, I would like to share one or two notes about it.
The first is that Wilson is so comprehensive and so revealing in his exploration of the war literature, you are bound to feel more American after reading it. It is a book that puts you in far deeper possession of your country’s social and political history than a mere chronicle of the war’s battles ever could.
In so many ways, the war was a fulcrum on which the balance of forces in American art, ideas and politics tipped toward modernity. To take just one example, the prolix style of antebellum novels, full of the fripperies of Walter Scott, gave way to hard Northern efficiency after the war. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a mere 272 words, foretold of this stern brevity, a style that goes straight to the heart of the matter and brings the loftiest abstractions down to a practical level, where people of action and theory alike can make sense of them.
Second, some of the key works Wilson reviews remind us how immediately and thoroughly the peace was lost after Civil War. Hearts and minds really didn’t change much when the shooting stopped, and the established powers didn’t seem to care.
Reconstruction in the South was based on the assumption that slave-holding culture would end automatically with the abolition of slavery as an institution–that there was essentially no political peace to be won. Today we might say that the Union powers assumed that the ideology of white supremacy died when the war ended. Of course we know with hindsight that was not the case, but Wilson documents just how abundant the evidence was that racists intended to hold their positions even after their military defeat.
For many years after the war, the most popular book in the South was A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, by Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy. In it, Stephens argued that the cause of the South remained a just and legal one despite the loss of the war. As the title of his book indicates, Stephens deploys many a constitutional argument to this effect. Thousands of southerners kept his book in a prominent place in their homes after the war, says Wilson, much like a family Bible. It remains the intellectul heart of Lost Cause-ism.
Equally revealing is the genre of historical fiction by Northerners who moved south after the war to do their part implementing Reconstruction. I am reading one of the outstanding novels of this genre now, A Fool’s Errand, by Albion Tourgee. More or less autobiographical, A Fool’s Errand recounts how a former Union colonel moves to North Carolina after the war and tries to revive a plantation and operate it by paying “freedmen”–former slaves–a living wage to work its soil. After 12 years of frustration and disillusionment, the hero sours on the cause of Reconstruction to such an extent he begins to sympathize with the reactionary attitudes of his racist neighbors.
Also not to be missed in this vein are the novels and essays of George Cable, another Northerner who moved south after the war, to New Orleans. Cable was a staunch early supporter of freedmen’s rights, but he effectively stopped arguing his case in print by the 1890s, at which time African Americans had been “silently disenfranchised,” as Wilson points out.
The books Wilson reviews describe a one-two punch that knocked out any kind of moral victory the war was supposed to win. Southerners did not really accept their defeat, and Northerners could not force them to do so. There is an instructive political lesson in the speed of this development: the immediate collective response to the civil was to nullify the very cause for which it was fought. If you are trying to make sense of the racial divide that persists in America, it is helpful to recall how naturally it seemed to set in after the war, and how tenaciously its advocates clung to power.