This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America by Nina Silber
Writing on the Jim Crow South in the late 1980s, C. Vann Woodward described a window in time in which few historical actors remember a particular event and those not old enough to remember have not yet meaningfully grasped it. A "twilight zone" always appears "between living memory and written history," he maintained. "The light cast by living memory dims as the numbers possessing it decline, while full illumination by history has been slow in coming and even slower in being comprehended."
In examining collective memory during the Great Depression and the New Deal era, including World War II, Nina Silber's This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America explores this "twilight zone" with regard to the American Civil War. With the accelerated passing of veterans and former slaves, a demarcation emerged between those who had participated in the sectional conflict and subsequent generations who used non-living memories of the war to engage new political debates, find artistic inspiration, and glean moral lessons. As such, Silber's study presents the 1930s and 1940s as a critical era of memory construction and a watershed in the popular imaginings of the war. Amid the war's seventy-fifth anniversary, Civil War commemoration proved integral to how Americans confronted economic turmoil, labor disputes, leftist and reactionary ideologies, civil rights, and total war. Indeed, much like the swell of history wars, cultural conflicts, and [End Page 243] heritage industries related to surging World War II nostalgia during the 1990s, the FDR years were inundated with reproductions of the Civil War past, but also fraught with striking interpretational disagreement. As "living memory" faded, a new generation of myth-makers had little direct connection to the sectional conflict, anticipating new contests over the meaning of the conflict during the Freedom Movement and the Civil War centennial of the 1950s and 1960s.
Through a cast of characters that includes Alain Locke, Aaron Copeland, Shirley Temple, W. E. B. Du Bois, Douglas Southall Freeman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Sherwood, Marian Anderson, and others, Silber reveals how the expansion of both movement politics and mass culture, through radio, films, and literature, resulted in a cacophony of commemorative voices. The left-liberal alliance of the Popular Front declared a "new antislavery struggle." Offering much-needed escapism in the midst of economic hardship, technicolor and "talking pictures" revolutionized the media, and Hollywood mostly churned out Lost Cause archetypes for white audiences in So Red the Rose (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and, most influentially, Gone with the Wind (1939). Meanwhile, federal programs funneled money and resources into artistic productions, historic guides, and, through the Works Progress Administration, even the collecting of slave narratives. No longer facing a possible backlash among Union veterans and in the commercial viability following the filmic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's story, the expansion of the National Park Service's Civil War interpretation saw many sites tilt their emphasis toward pro-Confederate themes. As clouds of a new war loomed, the Roosevelt administration co-opted the image of Abraham Lincoln and the notion of an antislavery crusade against fascism, inspiring wartime mobilization after Pearl Harbor.
The profusion of Civil War memories brought precious little consensus, however. Although a culture of white reunion and sectional reconciliation had characterized the first two decades of the twentieth century, and remained a dominant motif during the 1930s and 1940s, Silber contends that the social vibrancy, black protest, and liberal politics of the New Deal coalition added heterogeneity to the war's commemoration. This broadening was often led by civil rights activists and organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Negro Congress, as well as labor unions and interracial class-based movements, including the Communist Party. In the pages of The Crisis and the Daily Worker, activist editors denounced not only racial injustice, but its cultural trappings, including Gone with the Wind, rebuking "Southern Fascism" and comparing Jim Crow to Hitlerism. Likewise, no longer primarily an allegory for white reunion or bland national reconciliation, Silber maintains that the symbol of Abraham [End Page 244] Lincoln grew to be both "the face of 1930s Americana" and was linked ever more to racial justice and federal power (p. 185). As Barry Schwartz and others have examined, Lincoln's meager origins made him a fitting "common man" for the Great Depression populace. (Though Silber mostly leaves us to wonder what became of the popular memory of the Union's other icon, Ulysses S. Grant.) Avowing that Republicans had broken with the progressivism of their early party, Democrats argued that they, in fact, were the true inheritors of the sixteenth president.
Yet, whereas some leftists and liberal New Dealers saw in Reconstruction a precedent for federal intervention in the pursuit of social and economic justice, conservatives continued to recall the post–Civil War era as what Claude Bowers termed a "tragic era." Through sentimentalized portrayals of benign antebellum slavery and the "moonlight and magnolias" Old South, so too did social conservatism and elements of the Lost Cause merge with anticommunism. To those who dressed the Confederacy in a romantic cover, Silber discloses how Scarlett O'Hara symbolized the ultimate hard luck survivor, the defense advocates in the highly publicized Scottsboro case constituted neo-"carpetbaggers," and civil rights legislation was tantamount to a return to "Negro rule."
Even as the voices became more diverse, the problem of whiteness remained. While black workers, activists, and intellectuals used the concept of continued enslavement to protest New Deal racism, economic dislocation compelled white memory-makers across the political and regional spectrum appropriated the metaphor of slavery—often depicting white workers as the primary victims of enslavement—by resurrecting a century-old discourse concerning "wage slavery" and "white slavery." With the onset of World War II, white politicians and propagandists made use of Civil War allegory in order to build home-front unity. However, their emphasis on fighting Nazi "slavery" also exposed regional and racial divisions, whitewashing the historical specificity of black enslavement.
Overall, This War Ain't Over is an alluring read that effectively illuminates the New Deal era as crossroads of popular Civil War interpretation. Silber demonstrates the relationship between collective memory and social power. Federal administrators, National Park supervisors, propagandists, reactionaries, activists, and filmmakers navigated a dynamic social, cultural, and economic landscape in order to construct a "useable past" to make sense of or effect change in the present. [End Page 245]
MATTHEW E. STANLEY is an assistant professor of history at Albany State University and the author of The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America (2017).