Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003) 100-102
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Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History by David Goldfield. Louisiana State University Press, 2002. 354 pp. Cloth, $34.95
In this provocative book on an old subject, written for a broad audience, David Goldfield maintains that southerners have, since 1865, lived under a "burden" of history and memory. The southerner, writes Goldfield, is "either fixated upon the past and therefore immobilized by it, or. . . a total amnesiac and therefore destructive." Still Fighting the Civil War is one historian's update of W. J. Cash's The Mind of the South, which also returns to the themes of irony, identity, and the weight of a peculiar past in C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History.
This is not a work of research scholarship, but a commentary, rooted in a wide reading of secondary sources, fiction, and journalism, about "why southerners have remembered the Civil War and Reconstruction as they have." With a wonderful eye for the memorable quotation and some graceful prose of his own, Goldfield examines how and why the pervasive myth of the Lost Cause has lasted so long. Like Cash, Goldfield reveals the persistence of southern intolerance, conservatism, and reaction. And he is ultimately concerned with race relations in the current South, with the region's growing sun-belt migration, industrialization, environmental erosion, and dominance of American politics, all of which, he contends, is tethered to a cultural need to "still fight the Civil War." This is a probing book about the hold of the past, experienced largely as heritage and memory and not as historical understanding, on a whole region and people.
Goldfield treats the Lost Cause with unblinking directness. It was, to him, a false explanation of loss and defeat, "no real tradition at all but rather a manufactured history woven from wishes, lies, and necessity and passed off as gospel." Telling it like it is/was, Goldfield portrays the Lost Cause as religious orthodoxy mixed with versions of the past that helped fashion social policies and institutions that he is unafraid to call "authoritarian" and "totalitarian." Some sections of the book read like lucid editorials against school prayer and for careful separation of [End Page 100] church and state in a region dominated by an evangelical Protestantism that penetrates public life.
Goldfield puts women and gender at the center of his story. Ranging from antebellum plantation mistresses to club women, antilynching and antisuffrage activists, writers, teachers, and black women who led the Civil Rights movement, he offers the story of women's "dissenting underground" as one of the alternative histories southerners might embrace. Some fascinating women, black and white, occupy these pages and provide Goldfield a positive narrative through which to show how darkness and progress have marched together in southern history. Since the Lost Cause and its hegemony is a central theme, and because he sees the "gender war" as "another Lost Cause," he might have dwelt more on the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their stranglehold on popular memory of the Civil War.
At times Goldfield's excursions into women's and labor history, background glosses on slavery, Jim Crow laws, urbanization, ecoracism, or the blues and jazz stray from the book's central problem. He loses his focus in these textbook-like surveys for his general reader. That reader, though, will stay with this book, one hopes, because of its main strength: the stress on the weight of memory and its enduring links to white supremacy. Segregation kept generations of southerners trapped in a "fantasy of history," Goldfield astutely observes. And white supremacy, he says, was an "issue that took the South nowhere but its leaders everywhere." Southern strategies, rooted in overt and subtle uses of race, are still very much part of our political condition.
Goldfield ends largely in his own voice with a commentary on what has changed since the Civil Rights revolution. The 1960s, he says, freed blacks to become fully "southerners" too. Goldfield is critical of black nostalgia books about...