- Views from the Dark Side of American History by Michael Fellman
This slender volume contains six essays. With slight revisions, four have been published before, and the basic theme—that American history has a “dark side”—will come as no news to most readers. What, then, makes this book worth reading in its entirety? The answer is that it traces the intellectual journey of its author, the late Michael Fellman, who died a few months after its publication.
The inspiration for this book may be familiar to many senior scholars. While cleaning out his history department office, Fellman discovered a long-forgotten conference paper. That might have been the end of it, save that a few weeks later he happened to mention the paper to Michael Parrish, a series editor at Louisiana State University Press. Parrish urged Fellman to send it to him. Fellman agreed, and Parrish responded with a suggestion that Fellman might put together a collection of his essays, tied together with stories of their intellectual origins.
The stories make the book worth reading. The first concerns Fellman’s firsthand observations of the foment of protests at the university. The second focuses on Jewish American historians of slavery—particularly of Stanley Elkins and Lawrence W. Levine—and here, Fellman, who was himself Jewish, contends that the work of such historians is strongly tinged with knowledge of the Holocaust and that this background knowledge “in some ways has limited Jewish approaches to the problems of power and authority as exemplified in the black slave character” (42). This is particularly obvious in the case of Elkins, who famously drew direct parallels between slavery and Nazi concentration camps that could and did break down the psyches of their inmates. [End Page 483]
Fellman initially presented the paper at the American Studies of Israel conference in Haifa and subsequently at the 1982 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Knowing that his thesis was provocative, he confesses to a case of pre-presentation jitters. Because it is representative of Fellman’s commentary on each of his essays, the passage is worth quoting: “It was impossible for me to sleep the night before delivering this paper. I was to be the only white person on a panel about the writing of African American history at a time when there was considerable tension between African Americans and Jews in the historical community as well as in the wider society. And this was not my field of specialization.” Then, in words from which any jittery scholar on the brink of a conference presentation could profit, Fellman goes on to say that he gave himself “a silent pep talk just before I began speaking: ‘You believe in this paper and these are professional historians who will give you a fair hearing. Besides, what the hell is academic freedom all about—just go for it’” (43). Although, as it turned out, the paper was well received, Fellman asserts that a prominent journal refused to publish it because its thesis was so controversial. He then filed the paper away, there to languish, forgotten for nearly thirty years, until he rediscovered it while cleaning out his office.
The remaining essays are, in one way or another, drawn from Fellman’s published work: “At the Nihilist Edge: Reflections on Guerrilla Warfare during the American Civil War”; “Alligator Men and Sharpshooters: Deadly Southwestern Humor”; his iconoclastic “Robert E. Lee: Myth and Man”; and “Reflections on Inside War.”
Inside War, perhaps Fellman’s best-known book, dealt with guerrilla warfare in Missouri and marked Fellman’s first foray into the Civil War, a subject that dominated the remainder of his career. Fellman’s reflections on the book typify the perspective that dominated most of his work: If traditional military historians often have continued to write of the Civil War with a patina of celebration, social historians like himself “are down in the trenches, smeared with blood. For us, the Civil War was a gigantic, messy, decentralized affair, severing limbs...