During the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial, Revisit a Book That Punctures Its Myths 

Then, again.
March 22 2012 7:02 AM

Patriotic Gore is Not Really Much Like Any Other Book by Anyone”

Revisiting one of the most important and confounding books ever written about the Civil War.

(Continued from Page 2)

How many white Southerners, or anyone else for that matter, understood just how complicated proslavery ideas were when comprehended in the “diverse” writings of William J. Grayson, George Fitzhugh, or Hinton R. Helper, the latter of whom tried desperately to get the South to modernize its agriculture if not its racial views? Did even the most literate Americans in either section know of the advanced racial imagination of a Northerner like Tourgee and his now classic, A Fool’s Errand, or the remarkably progressive and prolific Louisianan, George Washington Cable, whose Grandissimes in fiction and The Silent South and the Negro Question in nonfiction earned him a forced exile to New England for his safety? Indeed, how many Americans even now know of Tourgee’s complex personal critique of the Ku Klux Klan or of Cable’s early and forthright engagement with racial mixing well before William Faulkner? This list goes on: how many literate Americans were at all aware of the eloquent Confederate women diarists—Mary Chesnut, Kate Stone, and Sarah Morgan—who left such extraordinary visions of the tragedy of war rendered with wit and haunting despair? These writers and more provided the wave of surprises that made Patriotic Gore such a revelation in the season of Centennial fatigue.

Wilson over-wrote some of his portraits and self-indulgently over-quoted some of the writers. The book wanders from soldiers to poets and diarists and back to soldiers once again without obvious organizational logic. Eventually, in the self-appointed role as judge of taste and significance, Wilson seems to just follow his whimsy. He would wear out most readers with his over-blown discourse on John W. De Forest, former soldier and author of Miss Ravenal’s Conversion to Secession (which Wilson judged as the book in which American realism had been born), and leave many dumbfounded why an obscure poet like Henry T. Tuckerman occupies more space than Whitman or Herman Melville.

But in his inclusion of numerous relatively unknown writers, and the sheer virtuosity of his insights, Wilson provided a feast for all who came under his spell. As the historian Richard Current commented in a review, Wilson was to him “naive” in some of his historical understandings, as long-winded and disjointed as an “anthology,” and narrowly limited in his judgments of Southerners because of a single-minded fascination for states’ rights and Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. But Current loved the book nonetheless, claimed Wilson’s “fascination will infect any reader,” and said the work was “not nearly long enough.” And Lewis Dabney, Wilson’s eventual biographer, addressed the question of the complexity and cacophony of Patriotic Gore’s cast of characters. “Reading it,” wrote Dabney, “is indeed a little like being set down in a room packed with people, each and everyone of whom wants your ear for however long it takes to tell of himself or of others, of great or sorrowful events. … Putting himself on the sides of his characters, Wilson also speaks over their shoulders in his own voice.”

Advertisement

Dabney’s image helps us understand the book’s purpose—writers portrayed as historical actors through intriguing biographical portraits and the critic there when we need him, reminding us how the wielders of words and ideas are the drivers and reflectors of history. And thus, such major critics as Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin called Wilson the “American Plutarch.” The writers’ lives, as well as their works, are always Wilson’s combined subject.


***

Most of the writers included in Patriotic Gore are either participants in the bitter debates that led to war, warriors themselves, or veteran-participants who lived to tell of the war in memoir, fiction, or public orations. They are women in their diaries at home and men in high office. They are all witnesses to an epic event full of convulsion, blood, and sacrifice, and from which Americans are always expecting a redemptive, progressive story. But the unsentimental Wilson steadfastly would not give them that. Such redemption hardly intrigued him at all, unless of course that was the grain in or against which his subjects wrote.

The astute and patient reader of Patriotic Gore has to step in close and then back up again, as in viewing impressionist paintings, as a means of seeing Wilson’s recurring themes. Above all, the book is shot through with Wilson’s quest to reveal and explain the competing myths of Northerners and Southerners caught up in this struggle for national and regional existence. Like Robert Penn Warren, who wrote so probingly about Civil War memory in the same era, Wilson was convinced that people live by myths – the stories from which they draw meaning and identity – as they experience history.

The war may not have produced a literary Iliad, but it certainly had produced the swirling myths that forge competing epics in national memory—the righteous, abolitionist North acting out its destiny, saving the Union by purging the land of its sins in the necessary blood that John Brown had prophesized on the Christian gallows of Harpers Ferry; and the noble, Southern aristocratic defense of the old republic, its ordered, limited government and its honorable, even gallant bulwark against the leviathan of capitalism and the alienation of industrialization. Both the Northern and Southern epics enlisted God or Providence on their side; the apocalyptic destruction of slavery or its humane, eternal improvement might be the divine plan. The house divided had been sundered over rival, incompatible stories, which since the war had thrived as folk epics. Some reviewers called Wilson a “myth breaker” or “Civil War debunker,” but those likely did not read past the Introduction. Wilson understood myth as astutely as any literary historian could; he also enjoyed finding and analyzing the true artfulness of myth-making. He did not much sympathize with one of the war’s enduring myths, the abolitionist piety of Yankees, their stern religious certainty that they knew what was best for the country in its dilemmas with slavery and race relations; he preferred the brilliant probing of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her artful creation of characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wilson found most proslavery writers largely contemptible and backward, but he grudgingly admired the art with which some Southern memoirists defended their cause of military resistance.

To Wilson, myth was not something to be lampooned or wished away in favor of an accurate history. It was to be breathed in, appreciated, countered by careful exposure. Myths can be dangerous, but also strangely fascinating in their uses and abuses. As Warren aptly said of Patriotic Gore, its great aim was to prompt us to “criticize our myths and, even, to enrich them.”

David W. Blight is Class of ’54 Professor of American history at Yale University and the author most recently of American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, published in September by Harvard University Press. This essay is an adaptation of a chapter from that book. Copyright © 2011 by David W. Blight. Used by Permission. All rights reserved. Blight is also the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.