For generations, historians have debated the strength of Confederate nationalism by first defining "nationalism" and then searching Confederate records for evidence of their defined term. In Confederate Minds, Michael Bernath takes an elegantly simple alternative: he accepts how his subjects, Confederate cultural nationalists, defined nationalism, studies their attempts to achieve it, and analyzes their assessment of its failure. The result is a bracing insider's perspective into the Confederate rush to print southern distinctiveness and supremacy into existence through poetry, fiction, periodicals, sermons, textbooks, and plays. This book has many strengths, but its most enduring contribution may be the enormous load of Confederate publications Bernath unearths and describes. No future historian can claim that wartime conditions muffled southerners' public cries for nationalism. The evidence Bernath has collected reveals a dogged determination among Confederate [End Page 277] cultural nationalists to prove southern distinctiveness by publishing partisan literature to the war's bitter end.
According to Bernath, Confederate cultural nationalists were a diverse conglomerate of writers, editors, educators, ministers, philosophers, political theorists, and others who sought Confederate intellectual independence by writing and publishing native literature that confirmed southern distinctiveness and supremacy. Bernath chooses not to call his subjects intellectuals, because most of them were not great thinkers or artists but rather " facilitators of culture" who cultivated the ground from which great southern literature and art would sprout (4). He divides his analysis of their efforts into four chronological parts. The first section of the book studies how secession sparked a call to arms among Confederate cultural nationalists who were determined to free the South from its "intellectual vassalage" to the North (13). In a basic sense, secession forced southerners to provide their own literature, textbooks, and periodicals, because the antebellum South had depended so heavily on the North for its reading material. Beneath this practical concern, however, was a widespread belief among Confederate cultural nationalists that political independence could not be realized until the South established an intellectual and cultural autonomy that legitimized the new nation and gave its military triumph a deeper meaning. The second part of the book recounts the birth of Confederate periodicals and textbooks during the nation's first year. Despite wartime challenges and humble beginnings, Confederate editors and educators rallied to the cause with surprising speed and early success. Confederate cultural nationalists had reasons to hope that southern intellectual autonomy was imminent.
The third quarter of the book focuses on the middle years of the war, when Confederate cultural nationalism reached its high-water mark. Southern publishers bombarded southern readers with original Confederate periodicals, histories, novels, poetry, textbooks, children's literature, and theatrical works. This dramatic rise in print culture convinced Confederate cultural nationalists that their anticipated southern renaissance had arrived. They were wrong. In the last section of the book, Bernath studies the failure of Confederate cultural nationalism during the war's final year and its aftermath. Despite mighty efforts to stay in print as Union forces occupied the South, Confederate cultural nationalists realized that their bid for intellectual independence had failed internally because the South did not produce great native literature. Even the most partisan southern editors had to admit that the Confederacy [End Page 278] lacked a literary masterpiece. While the quantity of Confederate publishing was impressive, the quality was not.
This fascinating conclusion to the Confederate bid for cultural autonomy is one of the most significant discoveries in Bernath's excellent book. As he argues, "Northern armies may have stopped Confederate presses but they were not the reason why the struggle for intellectual independence failed. Despite their repeated and forceful assertions of southern cultural distinctiveness, Confederate nationalists could not demonstrate it, even to their own satisfaction" (290). Unlike other nationalist movements in nineteenth-century Germany, France, and Italy, the Confederate bid for cultural distinctiveness began with no physical means to print its own literature, let alone to distinguish itself by producing art to showcase southern character and garner world renown. Though the South...