The Civil War In the Era of Civil Rights

Yale historian David Blight in his most recent book American Oracle continues to examine the tension between the reconciliationist and emancipationist narratives of the Civil War, which he began in his seminal 2001 work Race and Reunion.  Here he brings that narrative forward from the Gilded Age and outlines for the reader how the United States chose to remember the war during its centennial, a time period that also coincided with the nation’s growing struggle over civil rights.  Rather than offer a broad sweep, Blight chooses to focus on four major writers who made the Civil War their theme during this period:  Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin.  Mixing biography with textual analysis, he attempts to expose how these writers resisted the tendency during the centennial to highlight the clichéd interpretations of the war as a myth of heroism or national unity (both of which were desirable at the height of the Cold War).  Instead these four authors, Blight asserts, strove to expose the tragic elements of the war.  What we had learned and what the nation still failed to recognize.

Warren, according to Blight, focused mainly on the need for soul-searching in the postwar South and how it had largely been avoided.  Catton, in contrast, created a mythology of the Union soldier that highlighted the hardships they had endured for cause and country.  Wilson exposed the hypocrisy surrounding the war’s ideals and hoped to shake American’s from their sense of smug uniqueness as a nation.  Baldwin, in Blight’s view, held the most tragic vision of the war as it remained part of his day-to-day experience as a Black man.

I wanted to like Blight’s book more than I did, but it really comes across as a rushed job.  Perhaps this might have worked as a series of lectures.  The best portions of the book are in the middle where Blight examines the source of Catton’s fascination with the war and attempts to rescue him from charges of mindless hagiography of the Boys in Blue.  His reading of the eclectic scholar Edmund Wilson is also quite cogent.  Yet despite these bright spots, the author proves himself to be better at description and cultural analysis than he is as a close reader of literary figures and texts.  In this respect the book underscores the limits of interdisciplinarity.  Blight tried to write a work of literary criticism and in the process ends up reminding us that he is a historian.

If nothing else, this book has succeeded in making me want to reread Robert Penn Warren and I will definitely pick up a copy of Catton’s memoir Waiting for the Morning Train.  American Oracle serves as a reminder that the primary source, full of life and meaning, is the point for writing secondary texts such as Blight’s in the first place.  So that what we have loved you may love as well.  Thanks David for sharing these texts you love with me.

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