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Michael Bernath's deeply researched and gracefully written Confederate [End Page 415] Minds builds on the innovative work of Jill Lepore and Peter Silver in their respective studies of King Philip's War and the settler-Indian conflicts in mid-eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. In their prize-winning books, Lepore and Silver have emphasized the importance of "writing the war," of the contributions that contemporary and historical literary accounts make to the meaning and outcome of violent conflicts. Bernath's study focuses on Confederate "cultural nationalists," the leading intellectual figures of the white South, but they would have understood intuitively the importance that Puritan colonists and the diverse European settlers that Silver chronicles ascribed to memorializing conflicts in print. Bernath canvasses the broad range of literary production in the Civil War South—from newspapers and popular periodicals to fiction, poetry, and drama. In all these spheres, Confederate propagandists sought to articulate their vision of a new southern nation distinct from the corrupt North. As Robert E. Lee and his army wielded arms on the battlefield, Joseph Addison Turner, George Bagby, Henry Timrod, and others fought with pen and printing press on the pages of literary journals, school textbooks, and illustrated weeklies.
Bernath's study is not a close textual analysis of the materials that Confederates produced. Rather, he offers us a more structural assessment of what and when Confederate writers and editors produced during the course of the war. Given how much we know about the Civil War, it is a wonder to alight upon a still-neglected topic and learn so much. Bernath provides a comprehensive review of what Confederates wrote in all genres. He marshals subscription rates for newspapers and periodicals, and, most importantly, he tracks the changes and the fates of these institutions over time. In contrast to the established image of a blockaded Confederacy dependent on foreign sources of news and entertainment, Bernath shows us a vibrant and expanding popular and literary culture. Bernath concurs with his subjects, who by 1863 celebrated the successful creation of a robust popular literature produced in the South. This new species of literature supplanted Southerners' prewar dependence on northern [End Page 416] authors and publishing houses, demonstrating a burgeoning cultural nationalism that would help the new nation identify itself as truly independent.
But, as Bernath shows, this effort collapsed by the final years of the war. While Confederates had built a broad and diverse "ephemeral" literature (daily papers, magazines, etc.) they failed to conjure a deeper and more lasting "transcendent" literature. The heavy northern imprint on the canon of nineteenth-century American literature (Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson) reveals the truth of this assertion. This failure reflected the difficulty of distinguishing a "southern" literary tradition from an "American" one. But white Southerners did not read this as evidence that the South was not distinct; rather they offered the confusion of wartime, the paucity of resources, and the brief life of the Confederacy as explanations even as they asserted their alienation from the North. That alienation served, in many respects, as the chief expression of the new southern literature. A knee-jerk defense of slavery in 1861 yielded to treacly stories celebrating Confederate martial valor in the face of Yankee atrocities. In this respect, Bernath's study adds to the ongoing debate about the nature and extent of Confederate nationalism among white Southerners. The Confederates may have lost the war, but Bernath shows how hard its supporters struggled to build a fully independent nation. Bernath's excellent study joins a growing number of cultural histories of the Civil War, enriching both our sense of how the U.S. conflict unfolded and how people the world over worked to build new nations in the mid-nineteenth century.
Aaron Sheehan-Dean teaches history at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (2007).