- American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era
If you are looking for a sequel to David Blight’s masterful synthesis Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002), you will not find it in American Oracle. Blight’s contribution to the memory question in the Civil Rights era is at once more limited in its source material but more expansive in its reflections on the philosophy and character of American history.
American Oracle is an intellectual history of four major authors: Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. None was an academic historian, though Warren held an appointment at Yale and published The Legacy of the Civil War (1961) with a university press. What ties the four authors together is not only their brilliance as writers, but also their abiding interest in the “forces of tragedy” that drive American history. Each writer disrupts the familiar story of the Civil War and, by doing so, enables us to understand better “the weight of the past in any given present” (25).
Blight’s great gift on display here is his generosity of spirit. He reads every author sympathetically, without overlooking their blind spots and their inner demons. His chapter on Catton is a case in point. It would be easy to dismiss Catton as an amateur historian who pumped out Civil War potboilers. But in fact he was an extremely gifted writer who made the war come to life for a generation of readers, even if his prose could be a bit purple for this reviewer’s taste. Catton had a genuine feel for the savage unpredictability of history; his account, in This Hallowed Ground (1956), of the strange events of May 1856—Preston Brooks’s caning of Charles Sumner and John Brown’s murderous rampage in Kansas—is still one of the best scene settings for the war ever written. Blight is one of the many readers who fell under Catton’s spell from an early age. While the boyishness of Catton’s audience may seem typical, his appeal actually crossed gender and sectional—but not racial—lines.
Blight gives a fascinating account of Catton’s ongoing struggle with the racial politics of the war. Catton had studied the war deeply enough to know that slavery motivated secession and that African American troops made an important contribution to the Union cause. He wrote privately about the importance of placing racism among the central causes of the war. But, for the most part, his narratives of the war followed the mainstream pattern of leaving black Americans “voiceless and invisible” (116). For that he justifiably received criticism from African American journalists [End Page 470] and historians at the time, and his various self-defenses look feeble to us today. Like so many other white Americans then, he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. Lost Cause mythology seduced him with a romantic resolution to the war’s savagery, centered on a peculiarly American story of “valor.” At the same time, though, the mythology was put to service in an increasingly brutal, and hardly valorous, defense of racial apartheid in the South. Robert Penn Warren, a deeper thinker than Catton, drew the connection bluntly when he wrote about the cowardice of Confederate flag-waving mobs who howled at black children being escorted into white schools. Catton’s official role on the Civil War Centennial Commission, which was so deeply mired in reconciliationist ideology, made his bind that much more difficult. Blight concludes that Catton’s view of the war’s tragedy could never quite encompass the twin tragedies of slavery and racism. The book’s account of Catton’s dilemma is both an object lesson and a warning to future generations of historians.
Throughout his study, Blight pays attention to unjustly neglected literary works and helps recover their historical resonance. In the chapter on Warren, Blight gives an extended reading not only of All the King’s Men (1946) and its tortured...