- Civil War Today, Civil War Tomorrow, Civil War Forever
The final scene of George Saunders's astonishing "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" (1996) offers an image of violent repetition, one wholly appropriate for the conflict the story ironically memorializes. CivilWarLand is a down-on-its-luck amusement park that promises to transport its patrons to the 1860s through a series of Civil War-era activities, costumes, and set pieces. "Authenticity" is the watchword at CivilWarLand. Our narrator was for many years a Verisimilitude Inspector charged with researching attractions like the Old Tyme Skills Seminar in the Blacksmith Shoppe and the Parade of Old-Fashioned Conveyance. A decidedly down-market affair—a shambles, really—the park is haunted by two unsavory elements: mixed-race gangs and Civil War-era ghosts, both of which terrorize the dwindling audience. At the end of the story, efforts to rid CivilWarLand of the gangs have gone terribly wrong, with a park employee—a veteran "kicked out of Vietnam for participating in a bloodbath"—indiscriminately killing gang members, employees, and patrons alike (14). The resulting bloodshed triggers the ghost of Mr. McKinnon, who fought at Antietam and returned home a different man:
In front of Information Hoedown I see the McKinnons cavorting. I get closer and see that they're not cavorting at all, they've inadvertently wandered too close to their actual death site and [End Page 331] are being compelled to act out again and again the last minutes of their lives. The girls are lying side by side on the ground and the Mr. is whacking at them with an invisible scythe. The Mrs. is belly-up with one arm flailing in what must have been the parlor. The shrieking is mind-boggling. When he's killed everyone the Mr. walks out to his former field and mimes blowing out his brains. Then he gets up and starts over. It goes on and on, through five cycles. Finally he sits down in the dirt and starts weeping. The Mrs. and the girls backpedal away. He gets up and follows them, pitifully trying to explain.(24—25)
From an Information Hoedown and frolic to murder, suicide, and abjection: this is a classic George Saunders paragraph. It may also be an apt figure for the ongoing scholarly and popular obsession with the American Civil War, a conflict people return to year after year with varying degrees of political and personal interest. And let us be clear: it is in fact an obsession. At last estimate, there have been more than 60,000 books published about the war—a publication rate of a book a day, every day, since the cessation of hostilities. Nor is there much doubt about the ongoing relevance of the issues raised in and addressed by this great internecine conflict. The legacies of slavery, emancipation, and states' rights remain ubiquitous and contentious aspects of American life, while the increasingly contested memory of the war continues to shape how Americans talk about race, violence, belonging, and community. As countless critics and historians have observed, we are in many ways still fighting the Civil War, 150 years on.
Over the last several years, as the Civil War Sesquicentennial reached a fever pitch, I thought often of ghosts "being compelled to act out again and again" a bloody drama. Particularly in the days following the horrific 11-12 August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the compulsion to repeat the Civil War, to belatedly master or even make sense of its traumas, felt inexorable. And indeed, since 2011 such repetition has given rise to hundreds of new books about the conflict and its memory. But does the immense amount of new writing about the Civil War produce all that much new knowledge? Does that new writing help us to...