- The Civil War in American Culture by Will Kaufman
The Civil War, as Will Kaufman observes, is a “jealously guarded” (x) cultural property. In this wide-ranging book of essays, he explores the debate that has raged since 1865 on the war’s meaning. He argues that a profound cultural struggle has gone on regarding the nature of political leadership during the conflict, the choice of military heroes, the workings of memory, the complexities of gender, and the significance of race. In doing so, he builds upon the work of scholars in a variety of fields. This struggle has played out in assorted venues in popular culture, according to Kaufman, who manages to include Carl Sandburg, the Charlie Daniels Band, and the Starship Enterprise in his analysis. The prose is clear, with many deft turns of phrase. This is an engaging book, most enjoyable to read.
Kaufman begins with a discussion of the antebellum era, when the dialectic between the South and North started. Both regions employed the same cultural practices, using novels, travel literature, journalism, music, and the theater to trumpet their competing messages. White Southerners proclaimed that their society, largely agricultural and rural, was superior to the money-grubbing North, and white Northerners replied that their industrializing, urban society was superior to the backward South. The author then moves quickly to the postwar debate on the conflict. He describes the defense of the plantation order by such writers as Joel Chandler Harris, Margaret Mitchell, and D. W. Griffith; the depiction of John Brown and Stonewall Jackson as martyrs to their respective causes; the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in a variety of cultural settings, from the biographies to an episode of Star Trek; neo-Confederate organizations such as the League of the South; “Southern” rock-n-roll of the 1970s; gender themes in books by Louisa May Alcott, Mary Chesnut, and Elizabeth Keckley; paintings, films, documentaries, and computers [End Page 205] games about the War; re-enactments of the battles; perceptions of the War beyond the United States; and novels and films that explore what might have happened if the Confederacy won.
Throughout the book, the author frames the debate as an ongoing struggle between conservatives and progressives. Kaufman is particularly good at conveying its fervor. Along the way, he brings to light some neglected historical figures, such as Victor Sejour, a Creole writer from antebellum Louisiana who published most of his work in France. The book contains a number of surprising cultural facts. Among the most arresting: popular writing about female soldiers who served in disguise as men appeared during the war itself, although historians largely ignored the practice for a hundred and fifty years; Lord Salisbury’s regret that Britain had not intervened in the War, if only to reduce the power of the United States; the anti-Communist bellicosity in the agrarian manifesto of 1930, I’ll Take My Stand, in which the writers portrayed the South as more likely to resist Marxism than the North; and contemporary African-Americans who criticize Lincoln as insincere, using language that is as harsh as the white neo-Confederates who demonize Lincoln.
A book that covers so much ground will by necessity omit some topics. Some readers will wish for more discussion of the war itself, the fulcrum of the whole cultural process, while others might wish for more attention to the famous Union generals, U. S. Grant or William T. Sherman, as embodiments of white Northern culture. A few subjects could have been explored in greater depth. In his discussion of the 1905 edition of Mary Chesnut’s diary, Kaufman treats it as an artifact of the early twentieth century for its retrograde attitudes on race. This is interesting, but a sustained comparison with the unexpurgated edition of 1981 would have yielded more insights about Chesnut’s ideas on both gender and race, especially on the privileges of men in the planter class. The entire volume has a somewhat episodic quality, which may, again, be inevitable for a book covering such a long period of time.