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  • Before the War, the Rumors
  • Bryan Giemza (bio)
Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War. By Richie Devon Watson, Jr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2009. 296 pp. $40.00 cloth.

"The unanimity of men at war," observed Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, "is like that of a school of fish, which will swerve, simultaneously and apparently without leadership, when the shadow of an enemy appears, or like a sky-darkening flight of grasshoppers, which, also all compelled by one impulse, will descend to consume the crops." Yet before this sudden and mysterious consensus forms, it is invariably preceded by rhetoric that accentuates perceived differences between groups. Absent the mischief of polemicists and spiraling invective, more often that not, the parties to the conflict might as easily have found common cause.

Ritchie Watson's Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War examines how divisions are manufactured in the service of politics, and how war can be the product of colossal man-made misunderstanding. The importance of "racial" distinctions between Normans (southern cavaliers) and Saxons (New England puritans) in fomenting the Civil War has lately received a burst of attention. Civil War historian James M. McPherson, visiting the subject in the New York Review of Books (Dec 4, 2008), suggested that this sort of "ethnic nationalism" "has escaped … the attention of [George M. Frederickson and] almost all other historians."

Yet it never escaped the attention of Ritchie Watson, who noticed early on the prevalence of ethnic nationalism in southern literature. His earlier books explore this expansive territory, mapping the relationships among racism, class, and regional identity in the South. His latest project, Normans and Saxons, is an audacious one, as he canvasses not [End Page 155] just mainline literary texts but historical sources, poetic ephemera, correspondence, and journals. From its conception in the decades leading up to the conflict, Watson shows how regional racial identities gathered the weight of accepted truth during the 1850s. Following his chimerical quarry through its many transformations, Watson shows how the notion played into the hands of ascendant racialists who painted it with a veneer of pseudoscientific respectability. Later he traces how Johnny Reb and Billy Yank absorbed it before meeting on the battlefield. And since bad memes sometimes have a way of outliving the good, he tracks its posthumous effects in the Lost Cause and legacies of twentieth-century southern sectionalism. Thus Normans and Saxons offers not just a penetrating discussion of southern ethnic nationalism, but delivers insightful comment in due course on many self-flattering tropes of southern literary history.

No one disputes that the (in)famous caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the U.S. Senate floor in 1856 was a galvanizing moment, but Normans and Saxons focuses on how this flashpoint brought into painful relief the increasingly divergent philosophies of northerners and southerners. The two very different views of honor that emerged—the one based in conscience, the other in community—pointed to the forming fault line that ultimately led combatants to view one another as simply subhuman.

At times the process of vilification required remarkably nimble justification and a talent for selective reading. As Watson points out, southern readers of Ivanhoe conveniently ignored the fact that their situation "was more analogous to Scott's Saxon characters than to his Normans" (61). Another great irony arose from the fact that the southerners may have abhorred their Yankee usurpers, but in the war's condensation of defiant attitudes, they came to resemble Cedric more than Ivanhoe (and later, perhaps, revealed that the Snopeses had always outnumbered the Compsons).

Normans and Saxons has a way of anticipating readers' questions. I found myself thinking, I grant that the lettered elites embraced these ideas, but what of ordinary southerners? The book answers with examples from journals and correspondence. How were people of ordinary intelligence hoodwinked into such an outlandish self-conception? Watson returns to this question throughout the study and provides many voices in answer. He touches on many other fascinating questions besides: How were women involved in these ideologies? Just how much...


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pp. 155-158
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