Not Even Past: The Stories We Keep Telling about the Civil War, by Cody Marrs

Catherine Clinton enjoys a rich analysis of how the echoes of America’s bloodiest war still resound today

November 30, 2020
Source: iStock

William Faulkner’s famous statement that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” still elicits a tingle of excitement from Civil War aficionados. Headlines roil the US as memories of the country’s bloodiest conflict create waves of turbulence, with clashes over race and representation dividing the country. This 21st-century battle informs Cody Marrs’ bountiful excavation of how Americans love to rehash, re-enact and disremember the Civil War.

His curiosity is contagious, pivoting from marble pediments to silver screens, from poetry and prose to iconic photographs, showing how heritage and hate still offer antagonistic agendas. Marrs occasionally stumbles in his headlong rush to deconstruct narratives of war. The much mythologised “family squabble” trope for the American Civil War is indeed outdated, yet the excellent Civil War historians at his own University of Georgia might have challenged his suggestion that “family divisions were fairly uncommon”. This, however, is just a minor reservation about a splendid addition to Civil War studies.

Marrs promises to introduce readers to neglected voices and artists, and that he does. A few more women would have improved the mix, although the African American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller is a fine example of imaginative reclamation. The author also riffs on confabulations launched by the surrender at Appomattox. As for the opposing generals, he clearly scorns the cult of “Marse Robert” (E. Lee) but is also fairly harsh on Ulysses S. Grant, suggesting that his acclaimed autobiography is little more than an “annotated series of topographical charts”.

From his cover image of a black Union soldier to the final pages where he discusses Corey Long (a masked black man photographed in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 brandishing a flaming aerosol can against a protester wielding a Confederate flag), Marrs fashions an intellectual palimpsest. He effectively dissects Lost Cause ideology as racism parading as nostalgia, although a few knotty connections may strike readers as clunky. It may be true that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) was “written by Tony Kushner amidst the spirited debates of the Affordable Care Act”, but to suggest that the film’s central theme is “compromise” seems simplistic.

After citing George Wallace’s infamous inaugural address as governor of Alabama in 1963 when he spoke of “segregation forever”, Marrs launches into an extended trashing of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). He condemns her for blurring “the lines between the personal and the historical, [by] making the Civil War into a story about Scarlett [O’Hara]’s social world” and even regrets that she wrote the novel that the majority of white Americans claim as their favourite. He joins the Faulkner revival bandwagon and throws in a lot of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman – although the first two of these great white males have long been denounced for their attitudes to race.

However, Marrs also provides a renewed appreciation of the war’s legacy. His extended analysis of the Civil War as an “Abolition War” reinforces the pioneering black sociologist W. E. B. DuBois’ claim that it became a battle to emancipate, a battle to establish black citizenship – a conceptualisation that weaves it into worldwide freedom movements. He also draws on the work of former American poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, whose Pulitzer-prizewinning collection Native Guard (2006) invokes African American agency through her lyrical meditations on black regiments in Civil War Mississippi. With his reflections and close readings of memoirs and literature, Marrs forces us to confront the Civil War’s complex legacy, and to ponder when the promised new birth of freedom will finally occur.

Catherine Clinton holds a chair in American history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and has published more than 30 books, most recently Confederate Statues and Memorialization (2019).

Not Even Past: The Stories We Keep Telling about the Civil War
By Cody Marrs
Johns Hopkins University Press, 240pp, £20.50
ISBN 9781421436654
Published 19 May 2020


Print headline: The battle scars of the republic

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