Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 203-205
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Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History. By David Goldfield. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Pp. 354. Cloth, $34.95.)
David Goldfield delivers both less and more than is promised by the title of his new [End Page 203] book, which earned the 2002 Jules and Frances Landry Award from Louisiana State University Press. The ongoing Civil War that he considers relates metaphorically to the events of the early 1860s. This is made most evident near the conclusion when Goldfield states: "as we try to understand the South today, almost every aspect of its being relates to the region's peculiar history or, more properly, to what white southerners made of that history, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction (318)." He earns this generalization as much by tracing the historical dimensions of Southern problems as by exploring in any sustained way the far-reaching legacy of the Confederate experience.
Goldfield says relatively little about memory and commemoration, especially in comparison to books by Gaines Foster, Tony Horwitz, and David Blight. He instead ventures more broadly, speaking expansively and persuasively about such defining Southern concerns as religion, race, and the booster mentality. There is more than a touch here of Wilbur Cash, who provides one of the first epigraphs, and there are also echoes of C. Vann Woodward, who is invoked in the book's final chapter. Goldfield goes beyond these earlier classics in detailing how history was not just shaped by the South's men, however. Though without much fanfare, he makes a strong case for the central importance of both white and black women in southern history, especially in his account of the earliest rumblings of the Civil Rights movement. This important aspect of his argument is bolstered by a series of wonderful images of women as well as men, which are collected in two separate sections of the book.
There is much to admire in this overview of the South's ongoing historical burdens and for Goldfield's self-conscious attempt to "help both newcomers and long-time residents understand the South, and, hopefully, each other" (14). There are times, however, when the links between the Civil War and later controversies seem to be forced. His discussion of environmental issues is noteworthy and is a characteristically fresh addition to how we think about regional inequities. But it is a bit dissatisfying to hear after a discussion of black lung disease in miners that "the South is still fighting the Civil War, still killing its people" by fraudulently ignoring such environmental dangers (273).
Goldfield makes what is ultimately a psychological argument to stitch together Southern history. Confederate defeat, he claims, caused history to become an "elixir of the mind" (41). In this formulation, the Lost Cause was intended primarily to compensate for a diminished sense of personal self-worth that accompanied the Confederate rebellion's crushing defeat. This same imperative of healing the psychic wounds of conquest also helps to explain the power of evangelical religion in the postbellum South, even though the roots of popular religion were in place well before Appomattox. Diagnosing regional woes as a collective pathology follows a Faulknerian line of analysis that has proved to be remarkably durable. One wonders whether Goldfield might have benefited from following the insight of another novelist, Robert Penn Warren, in making sense of what was involved in the Lost Cause. Facing up to what Warren called the white South's "great alibi" would no doubt have revealed the self-serving, as [End Page 204] well as self-healing, aspects of how a postbellum South monumentalized its suffering while justifying its resistance to outside criticism.
Robert E. Bonner
Michigan State University