American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era by David W. Blight (review)
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American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. By David W. Blight. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 328. $27.95 cloth)

David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) detailed how the defeated Confederacy recaptured in public memory much of what it had lost on the battlefield. Thus, by the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War it became a standing assumption that the war had not been a contest over the future of slavery but a contest over states’ rights and rival ways of interpreting the Constitution, over tariffs and federal power, over just about anything but black men and women and their right to freedom. Set against the background of the Civil War centennial and the crucial years of the modern civil rights struggle, in American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, Blight describes how four American writers in the 1960s contested the blue-gray myth, which had kept America from seeing the Civil War in focus.

The book begins by contrasting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” with its portrayal of the Civil War as defining the unfinished business of American democracy, with the disastrous opening events of the Civil War centennial, its celebrations of the [End Page 319] secession of South Carolina and the inauguration of the Confederate government in Montgomery, events planned in part by conscious racists eager to find ways to rebuke and offend civil rights activists.

Robert Penn Warren’s brief study The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), from which Blight drew his title, provides him with some key themes. In The Legacy of the Civil War, Warren was characteristically impatient with ideologies, although clear-sighted about issues. He distinguished between the styles of thinking of both sides, attributing to the North a stern higher-law idealism capable of morally heroic acts, but also, in the urgency of its desire to see God’s will done though the heavens fall, more likely to make the heavens fall than to see God’s will actually done. To the South, Warren attributed a rigid legalism enforced by the pressure to conform so profound that southern society became incapable of self-examination and devoted its intellectual efforts chiefly to rationalizing the injustices it depended upon. Only in the thought of Lincoln did Warren see a way of transcending the impasse between legalism and higher-law idealism, but even Lincoln’s synthesis proved temporary. Northern higher-law idealism descended into what Warren called “the Treasury of Virtue,” the belief that, since the North was right about slavery, it had enough capital in the moral bank to cover any debt it might incur through exploiting its own industrial workers or engaging in imperial adventures abroad. Southern legalism decayed into what Warren called “The Great Alibi,” which enabled the South, by virtue of its defeat, to evade responsibility for anything that happened there after Appomattox, and to defend almost anything done in the South’s name.

Bruce Catton, the second author Blight examines, might have been an easy target for him. Blight does not miss Catton’s vulnerabilities, his tendency to become swept up in the thrilling drama of conflict, and, most of all, his sense that the war ultimately was a chapter in the grand story of inevitable American progress. But Blight’s treatment of Catton is more sympathetic. For all of his limitations, Catton nevertheless insisted upon recognizing the role that slavery and racism played in the origins of the war, and, as a supporter of racial [End Page 320] integration, valiantly, if unsuccessfully, sought to keep the centennial from entirely becoming a segregationist costume drama. Above all, though, what Blight honors in Catton is his sense of tragedy. In Warren’s hands the word tragedy meant the way all historical agents are the prisoners of mixed motives and narcissistic illusions. Catton’s sense of tragedy is different: for him the word renders what it is to be swept up in a huge and hugely violent event, an event with urgent, but at the same time impenetrable, meaning.

The most interesting and most complex chapter of the...