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  • Robert Penn Warren's The Legacy of the Civil War and the Meaning of Pragmatism
  • John Burt (bio)

Although it is informed by wide historical reading and by fair-minded attention to the scholarly consensus of its time, The Legacy of the Civil War (1961) is a meditation, an essay, not a historical treatise.1 To call Warren's book an essay is to make a claim not only about its genre but also about its habit of thinking. An essay makes observations about the relations among mind, world, and meaning that are different from those made by a treatise. An essay is a reflection upon a theme about which one already has deep but not fully articulated intuitions, and as such its aim is not so much to prove a thesis as to follow out an insight or to puzzle through an idea.2 An essay is an assay, a trying-out, a proof of an idea on the pulse, to use Keats's phrase, and as such it provides a powerful method of searching the meaning of events and ideas.

It is characteristic of the essay as a genre that within an essay one assumes that a theme or an idea is larger than any formulation or statement one makes about it. One asserts, by writing in essay form, that those who have lived their way into an idea will recognize that there is always something more to say about it, that the story of that idea is always not yet over, that it is never exhausted by our current understanding of it. An essayist seeks knowing, not knowledge, recognition, not cognition, seasoned phronesis, not rigorous episteme. An essay is a way of bringing to light what is implicit in an idea, with the understanding that the idea will always have further developments, shrouded in latency; it articulates its idea, even as it concedes that the idea will always resist complete articulation and preserve its implicitness. An essay asks its reader [End Page 964] to know an idea the way people know each other, which is to say, by knowing that its nature will always unfold in unimagined but retrospectively consistent ways, that it will generate consequences one could not have predicted but which, once one has arrived at them, seem to have always been waiting in them. If you know an idea the way you know a person, you know both by unknowing them, by knowing that you will never know them fully.

The essay asks you to know an idea by living with it, or living in a world illuminated by its light, in just the way that you know people by remaining in mysteries, hesitations, and doubts about them, in what Keats calls "negative capability." An idea is a form of life, and a form of life is always partly intuitive, something you get the hang of by following, and something that will lead you around curves.3 When you read an essay, you follow out an intuition with its author, in which the intuitive quality of an idea and the intuitive quality of a person illuminate each other.4

I make this argument about the genre of this book not only to characterize it, but also, I intend, to show that in Warren's view some key ideas in the American political tradition—ideas like justice, freedom, equality, and for that matter America itself—have this same intuitive quality, and must also be understood by means of a kind of negative capability. The Legacy of the Civil War has had an afterlife. It has not been embraced by historians, perhaps, but by legal scholars such as George Fletcher, whose 2001 book Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy is so deeply and explicitly informed by Warren's themes and thinking that it might almost seem to be a commentary upon Warren's book.5 Fletcher, like Warren, is seeking an intuitive understanding of the main themes of American history, and it is not a surprise that his book cites Warren's so often. Warren's thinking in the book, in turn, can fruitfully be applied in other areas of legal and political thought...


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pp. 964-996
Launched on MUSE
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