Historians who don’t like the past

Through Arts and Letters Daily, I came across this Slate essay by history professor James Lundberg on Ken Burns’ celebrated documentary The Civil War.  Now, for me, seeing reruns of The Civil War is the best thing about having PBS.  (When Julie is old enough to watch Sesame Street, I suppose that will change.)  Dr. Lundberg credits Burns’ documentary with inspiring a lot of interest and enthusiasm among his students for this period in American history.  For some reason, though, this annoys him.  The Civil War, he says, is sentimental and misleading.  I was pretty sure from the start of the article that I knew where he was going to go with these accusations, but I read on anyway just to be sure that academics are as predictable as I expect them to be.

Lundberg’s complaints basically come down to three points.

  1. The Civil War made Americans feel good about themselves.  By focusing on the heroism of soldiers and intriguing personalities of the leaders on both sides, the show was “patriotic”, “tidy”, and “romanticizing”, basically everything modern historians hate.  By framing the war as a story of how America acheived national unity, it deepened the sense of national unity in its audience.  Now, fostering patriotism, high regard for ancestors, etc used to be considered a good thing.  I can certainly understand the view that the historian’s purpose is solely to the truth, whether that truth affirms or demoralizes the national community.  What I have trouble sympathizing with is historians actively prefering to demoralize rather than affirm.  I’ll return to this point.  It’s interesting that for all the complaining about Burns’ film being misleading, there is no accusation that he got any facts wrong, that his examples were unrepresentative, or anything like that.  The complaint is all about framing and emphasis.  Burns doesn’t emphasize enough that the Confederacy was EEEVIL!!!
  2. The Civil War treats Southerners as human beings rather than hate objects.  The documentary certainly doesn’t take the Confederate side.  It deliberately abstains from choosing a side at all, and extends a humane compassion to warriors on both sides.  Surprisingly, modern historians think this is an awful thing to do.
  3. Shelby Foote, the Southern novelist and historian who basically steels the show as a commentator in The Civil War.  Professional historians hate him.  This may seem odd, since Foote’s work is respectable in the sense that it hasn’t been accused of significant error, plaigarism, or the like.  What he is accused of is telling lots of anecdotes about historical figures, being popular, not focusing on root causes, and–of course–showing sympathy to Southerners.

Consider the following:

In the first episode, “The Cause,” Foote nearly negates Burns’ careful 15-minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war with a 15-second story of a “single, ragged Confederate who obviously didn’t own any slaves.” When asked by a group of Yankee soldiers why he was fighting, the Rebel replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here,” which, according to a smirking Foote, “was a pretty satisfactory answer.” In similar fashion throughout, Foote asks us to put aside the very troubled political meanings of the Confederate Lost Cause and join him in an appreciation of both its courtly leaders and its defiant rank-and-file soldiers.

So, Burns spent 15 minutes on slavery–basically giving the Northern side of things.  Then Foote spends 15 seconds telling a story that illustrates the South’s  motivation, and that “nearly negates” the Northern case?  The Union’s case must have been pretty weak then.  It would seem that proper balance according to a modern historian would be to not present the South’s motives and justifications at all.

Lundberg seems to think more hostility toward the Confederacy would have been the brave, honest, “challenging” thing to do.  I can’t imagine why.  The Union won, and the ideological descendents of the Radical Republicans are now our rulers.  It hardly seems daring to flatter the establishment.  I don’t see anything wrong with taking the Northern side, as most non-Southern Americans have done for a long time now.  We used to be more generous in our partisanship, though.  It used to be acceptable to say that the South was wrong, but General Lee was an admirable man and his soldiers fought with real gallantry and distinction.  Today, such sentiments are seen as signs of ideological impurity.  Not only have the Radical Republicans been rehabilitated from the attacks of pro-Southern historiographers (which was right–the RRs were brave and idealistic men too), but we are all told to embrace their pitiless self-righteousness as well.  I do not think this has been a gain.

The really interesting thing about this episode, though, has nothing to do with the civil war at all–the war itself or the documentary.  I hate to pick on Lundberg, who makes a number of gratious concessions to a work he so plainly despises, but he illustrates very well the peculiar way that historians see their relationship to the public.  Historians don’t have the problem we scientists have with getting the public interested in their subject.  No astronomer hates Carl Sagan for getting people interested in astronomy.  Physicists and astronomers are even happy to have interest inspired by science fiction, no matter how mangled the science gets in that venue.  History is genuinely popular with the public; history books often top the nonfiction bestseller lists.  One would think that professional historians would be pleased by this, but in fact they regard popular historians like Stephen Ambrose and Shelby Foote with distain, if not active hostility.  Why is this?

Basically because popular historians are giving the public what they want, which is an imaginative connection to their ancestors.  This is the reason nonacademics read history.  They want to know what kind of people their ancestors were.  They want to share in their ancestors’ struggles and hardships.  They want to understand themselves as forming a continuity with those that went before.  Thus the popularity of World War II books.  Most adults my age (35) are like me:  both my grandfathers fought in that war.  Learning about the war is a way of getting closer to our grandfathers’ generation, in our own imagination if not in any interpersonal sense.  Root causes of the conflict are beside the point.  It’s about community more than causes, and an anecdote can be worth a dozen tables.

Historians look at this interest and see the filial piety that lies beneath it, and they despise it.  The historian, at least the modern historian, relates to the past in a very different way.  The past was a time of oppression and evil from which we are being thankfully delivered.  The only people with whom it is legitimate to sympathize are designated victim groups (negroes, Jews, gypsies, nonhomemaking women, sexual deviants) or their spokesmen.  Mistreatment of victim groups is considered the core truth about any society, and the record is scoured for such mistreatment.  Academics almost imagine that groups only exist so that they can define outsiders toward whom they can direct their hostility.  The purpose of popular history, then, should be to share this sense of alienation from the past with the general public, to make the people hate their traditions and ancestors as much as the historians do.  A popular history that indulges a filial interest in the past is therefore inherently deceptive.  This is true even if the popular work doesn’t defend or justify its subjects.  It is enough that it fails to condemn them with sufficient energy.  Man’s natural tendency to love his forefathers must be actively fought.

I’m pretty sure this is how historians feel; I’ve seen many cases.  They never express clearly what it is they object to, although putting together their complaints the real issue is always plain enough.  Reporting the courage of soldiers on both sides of a battle betrays a sinister agenda of “patriotism” (or “nationalism”, depending on how worked up the historian is at the moment) and “national unity”.  Neutrality is a sin, at least when writing about conflicts where liberal orthodoxy has declared one side good and the other evil.  Even those with the right attitudes don’t get a pass if they don’t inject them forcibly enough into their writings.  In the end, the issue comes down to this:  there are still men in this world who don’t hate their fathers, and historians feel that a main point of their profession is to convert these men.

4 Responses

  1. Sentimentality is certainly a bad thing; but it is no worse than it’s opposite, an inability or unwillingness to feel proper sentiments. No doubt some people make an inauthentic and self-congratulatory display of emotions over the “lost cause” or the “bloody shirt,” but this does not mean that every emotional attachment to the Civil War is inauthentic and self-congratulatory.

    The opposite of sentimentality is brutality, and history is sometimes written in a spirit of brutality. This is the “non-judgmental” history that we get from historians who imagine that they are scientists. You know you are in the presence of brutality when a historian refuses to admire the admirable, condemn the odious, pity the pitiful, etc–just as you know you are in the presence of sentimentality when his admiration, etc., is inordinate.

    So what this comes down to is justice. What emotional response do our ancestors deserve? We can argue about this until the cows come home, but it seems clear to me that they deserve some sort of emotional response. Indifference is clearly an injustice.

    Modernity allows three emotions with respect to the past: boredom, hatred, and guilt. When hatred and guilt have done their work, it will allow only boredom.

  2. History is nothing less than the crafting of collective mythology.

  3. I have just completed Foote’s three-volume Civil War: A Narrative. He is a brilliant story teller, a tad too satisfied with his writing skills not to be irritating, but entertaining to a fault. He could have used a good editor as the books are too damn long. All said, though, the problem with these books is that they are spin. When a Southern person or unit does something, it is portrayed as glorious. You can almost see Foote grin in lip-smacking enjoyment; when a Union officer or unit accomplishes the same feat, and in some cases greater challenges, there are always mitigating issues that diminish the accomplishment. Foote is a rebel historian. His heart and his mind is with the Confederacy (he even said that today, circumstances being equal, he would fight for his state against his country). I heartily recommend these books because they are worth reading — god knows, there are more than a few pro-Union books, come to think of it. It’s interesting to see things from the opposite point of view. Be forewarned, however, this is myth-making of the highest order. After all, when the Civil War was done, the people of the Union returned to their lives while the Southerners sat in the ruins of their states, counties, cities, towns and homes and told stories about the glory that was once the antebellum South. What else did they have to do?

  4. […] rival positions have absolutely nothing to be said for them.  So it is that a historian will complain when a Civil War documentary gives the Northern justification 15 minutes and the Southern […]

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