American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

November 10, 2011

In American Oracle, David Blight uses the sesquicentenary of the American Civil War and the juxtaposition of that war's centenary with contemporaneous civil rights struggles in a bid to reopen the question of the conflict's significance to the American identity. He considers both the 100th-anniversary celebration and the racial confrontation through four US authors he has chosen, among other reasons, because each writer had a "compelling sense of history", had written what could be called an "American literary classic", and because of their divergent backgrounds and points of view.

Indeed, the collision of the Civil War centenary and African-Americans' struggle for justice presents an interesting dynamic worthy of reflection. Blight's opening comparison of Lincoln's Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King's "Dream Speech", delivered 100 years apart but with both speakers calling for a reshaping of the country and a renewal of its foundations, propels the reader into this work.

Other events 50 years ago attest to what Blight likens to "two planets in separate orbits around different suns". One is the re-enactment celebration of Jefferson Davis' inauguration as Confederate president, which passed in front of Martin Luther King's Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama; another is John F. Kennedy's last-minute decision not to attend the centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation because of a "conflict" (he attended the America's Cup yacht races instead).

Blight's belief is that the American Civil War is "the most divisive element in the national historical memory", and he has a point. The war resists consensus. To this day, arguments abound in the US regarding the purpose of the war: was it to free the slaves, was it to preserve the Union, was it to oppose Northern states' oppression of the Southern states, or was it for Southern independence? As Blight points out, Americans prefer to reflect on the bravery and sacrifice of both the blue and the grey and ignore the "troublesome, disruptive problem" of black and white. Those four years in the 19th century may well be, as Blight claims, America's "mythical national epic".

The backgrounds of Blight's chosen authors give insight into their selection. The novelist, poet and critic Robert Penn Warren (1905-89) grew up in Kentucky and was initially of the "Lost Cause" tradition that saw the war as a fight to preserve states' rights. His uncle rode with the notorious Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, and his writings, including The Legacy of the Civil War, are steeped in the tragedies of the conflict. Bruce Catton (1899-1978), from northern Michigan, is perhaps the most renowned Civil War author of the four, and his work focused on the Northern soldier in such works as A Stillness at Appomattox. Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) grew up in a world of privilege and became a literary critic who authored a most controversial and cynical volume, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. James Baldwin (1924-87), the African-American essayist and critic, brought his intense perspective to bear on US society in the mid-20th century through collections of essays such as The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name.

This book is several things, suggests Blight, but he hits it best when he characterises it as a "discussion of four Americans in search of their country's history". In doing so, he gives us more than a history lesson: he presents an introspective journey into America's most complex and enigmatic historical event through the minds of four exceptional storytellers. He offers us the opportunity to revisit a monumental tragedy and thereby invites us to probe its meaning. If we do, we will not only be reacquainted with a defining American moment but we will also learn more about who America is, and why.

American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era

By David W. Blight. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 328pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780674048553. Published 28 September 2011

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