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BOOK REVIEWS To the HaUs ofthe Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination . By Robert W. Johannsen. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Pp. ix, 363. $25.00.) On its own account the Mexican War has received relatively little attention from American historians, who have tended to sweep its significance forward into the ambit ofthe infinitely greater conflict which the conquests of 1848 so ironically touched off. Not a military history, the purpose of the present study "has been modest: simply to suggest some of the ways in which Americans perceived the war and how these perceptions revealed some of the characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century American thought and culture" (vii). That a book on so important and obvious a topic should have appeared only now, after so many problematical and even tortured treatments of antebellum themes, is a serious indictment ofthe American Studies movement, pointing perhaps to a certain narrowness ofvision and near-perverse trendiness among its practitioners. What Professor Johannsen has done makes it clear that excellent and persuasive cultural history can still be written from conventional sources and without resort to exotic methodologies requiring elaborate justification. The Mexican War was the first great American popular culture event, "Imagination" here including just about every nonpolitical expression of opinion: dispatches from the first war correspondents; newspaper stories; fiction; verse; songs; musical compositions; wood-cuts; engravings; lithographs; paintings; moving panoramas; and stage representations. Throughout, the emphasis was on the same themes Carl Bode (Antebellum Culture) once identified as dominant in the commercial culture of the time: violence, sensationalism, and sentimentality. Even the diaries and journals ofthe participants, and, in marked contrast to similar writings in later wars, their own poetry, glorified and romanticized the war. With an army composed largely of volunteers, and having an ethnic and sectional mix, the Mexican War can be seen as a characteristic expression ofAmerican democratic society, supporting the conclusion of Marcus Cunliffe (Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775-1865) that a dominant warlike temper existed alongside a theoretical antimilitarism. The few antiwar protesters were feeble and ineffectual, with even Emerson and Lowell (Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience" is not mentioned) harboring notions of expansionist destiny while denouncing 78CIVIL WAR HISTORY the actual fighting. For the first time the Stars and Stripes led American troops into battle, and, in the iconology of national symbols, the flag, die eagle, and patriotic songs achieved their final sanctification. Meanwhile, the names of Taylor, Scott, and a small army of lesser heroes marched across the American landscape to take their places alongside numerous Monterreys, Buena Vistas, and Palo Altos. Ideologically, the Mexican War was the the culmination of the era ofthe American Revolution. It was fought to the accompaniment of a tremendous chorus of self-assurances that Americans were still worthy of their Revolutionary heritage, that they had not declined from the standard of their virtuous ancestors to lose tiiemselves amidst the morally debilitating allurements ofa commercial and materialistic age. The soldiers themselves looked upon their own demonstrations of courage and sacrifice as proof that their generation as worthy to inherit and carry forward the ideal and providential mission ofthe republic. They were, after all, in Mexico for no self-serving purpose, but for the sake of die Mexicans themselves and to advance the general cause ofliberty. From this point ofview, and although Johannsen does not specifically make the claim, the Mexican War can be seen not only as a part of the Age of the Common Man, but even of the contemporaneous Era of Reform. For years moralists ofall sorts had been denouncing the prevailing social values and calling for a moral purification of the land. To this call, the war was a genuinely popular response, a true moral reawakening on a national scale. By die time Emerson was tellingW. H. Channing diat "Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind," the public had already composed its own ode on the same subject, with bugle obliggato . War was the form in which the idealism of a democratic people was asserting itself. In the religion of nationalism and manifest destiny the acceptable season of the Lord had arrived, but the transcendentalists were blind...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 77-79
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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