CWC Book Reviews
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
by Tony Horwitz.
432 pages. $27.50.
A United States Civil War Center Selection
by David Madden
The consciousness out of which Tony Horwitz witnessed conflicts in foreign war zones for decades was imbued with an obsession, sustained since childhood, with the legacy of the American Civil War. In Confederates in the Attic, having filed dispatches from foreign civil wars, tours battlegrounds adjacent to shopping malls and sends dispatches to his fellow Americans that sound less like formulaic news bulletins than a wise cracking poet in a film noir musical comedy.
While childhood impressions of the legacy of the American Civil War well up from his psyche quite naturally in the cultural context of his adulthood, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Horwitz brings to this willed journey into the tortured past-bewildering present the expertise and style he expended upon a variety of assignments in a variety of publications, from the Wall Street Journal to the New Yorker to Harper's.
Horwitz recalls Robert Penn Warren's comment that grandsons experience "to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War" as "the very ritual of being American." Horwitz's Jewish grandfather came to America only seventeen years after Appomattox and "sensed that Civil War history was an American Talmud that would unlock the secrets of his adopted country and make him feel a part of it." In New Haven, Connecticut, he passed it on to his son who passed it on to Tony Horwitz, who reproduced images "like medieval illuminate, on the walls of my attic bedroom...."
After nine years in foreign countries, Horwitz moved to Virginia, where he discovered an America obsessed with the War in ways that stirred up his own submerged memories of hundreds of photographs that he had studied as a child with his father, activating his own obsessions so severely that his Australian wife sighingly referred to him as "a Civil War bore." "Lying awake in the night, pondering Civil War obsession, I'd plotted a hardcore campaign of my own. Super hardcore....The scheme...was to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keep memory of the conflict alive in the present day."
Chapter by chapter, Horwitz travels to each of the Eastern and Western Southern states where great battles were waged and pictured in etchings his grandfather showed him through a magnifying glass. His power to magnify the emotional impact and significance of details has evolved from childhood into a skill enjoyable to watch. On Monument Avenue in Richmond, for instance, he has this insight: "I couldn't think of another city in the world that lined its streets with stone leviathans honoring failed rebels against the state."
Horwitz's re-enactor friend Rob takes him on what he calls The Civil Wargasm. "This is my true calling--a Civil War bum," he said, biting into the day's first plug of tobacco. "The Gasm's a Bohemian thing, like a Ken Kesey bus tour, except that we're tripping the 1860's instead of the 1960's."
Experiencing what Rob calls "a period rush," Horwitz, too, becomes a captive of the past. "Our Gasm wasn't yet a day old but already I resented"--at Manassas--"the intrusion of current events." Several chapters later, he confesses, "I couldn't glance at the calendar any more without attaching parallel dates from the 1860's." Horwitz is myriad-minded by temperament, but even his single-minded comrade exhibits in speech and behavior at every turn of the twisted road into the past how he has evolved along two paths to become what he is: a macho male accoutered with all the gadgets of the late nineteen nineties and speaking its lingo to express a mania for every detail of the Civil War. Roving at a speed Civil War soldiers never even imagined over hallowed places to impress Horwitz with tales of heroic moments, Rob consumes facts and fables of the war the way he wolfs down Big Macs.
"The Old South was plowed under, " wrote Henry Miller in the Air-Conditioned Nightmare in 1945, after a journey similar to Horwitz's. "But the ashes are still warm." Horwitz elaborates upon that epigraph throughout the book. "Vicksburg confirmed the dispiriting pattern I'd seen elsewhere in the South.... Everywhere , it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents, one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past."
If Horwitz wields humor as a shield against a hydra-headed monster of obsession, in the end, it doesn't save him. "While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I'd come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil Ware--race in particular--remained raw and unresolved.... But while my travels had brought me to some understanding of others' obsession, I still felt strangely unable to explain my own." As a pervasive qualifier to an underlying purpose that couldn't be more serious, his humor has the effect of luring and then lulling those readers who may think preoccupation with the Civil War is ridiculous. Such readers will come away from Horwitz's battleground scenes more open than before to possible ways of seeing and feeling the relevance of the war to their own lives.
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Old Glory and the Stars and Bars: Stories of the Civil War
Edited by George William Koon
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. $34.95 hb, $14.95 pb.
By David Madden, Director, United States Civil War Center
The Good Gray Poet Walt Whitman warned his fellow citizens and all yet to come that the "real war would never get into the books." With his war poems and prose sketches, good enough though they are, he did not contradict his prediction. Daniel Aaron's The Unwritten War surveys the evidence up to 1973 that supports Whitman's claim. But at least ten great Civil War novels, among them Evelyn Scott's The Wave, Joseph Pennell's The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, and Tom Wicker's Unto This Hour, prove Whitman and Aaron wrong, of course. And George William Koan's gathering of short stories loads on the proof.Return to Review Index
Koon includes recent Southern, such as Fred Chappell, Ernest Gaines, Robert Morgan, Barry Hannah, and Flannery O'Connor, all of whom are new to anthologies of Civil War short stories. But as Southerners, they have been familiar all their lives with the myriad ways the ghosts of Lost Cause are not lost at all but know all the winding ways back home. As exorcism, these recent survivors put their faith in satire or black humor, and continue to labor, one may bet, under the delusion that all their other fictions are free of Civil War echoes. The impact of the war upon Southern writers becomes vastly and penetratingly more powerful if one accepts my claim that all southern fiction is, at the very least indirectly, about the Civil War.
To say that all southern fiction comes out of the Civil War is like Ernest Hemingway's claim that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn. The first claim may stand up better than the second. If both art and argument often work most powerfully by indirection, some of the finest Civil War fiction does not overtly take the war as its subject: Huckleberry Finn leads us into the war and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men dramatize its pervasive after effects.
Koan's title lunges at balance by suggesting a compulsion among all American writers, not just Southerners, to depict "the real war": Old Glory and the Stars and Bars: Stories of the Civil War. But except for Ambrose Bierce, the master of them all, Stephen Crane, the most overrated of them all, Hamlin Garland, the most neglected, and Jack London, the most surprising, Professor Koan of Clemson University chose southern writers. In an introduction that can only be termed, at best, serviceable, he might have pointed out that O. Henry, who should be known primarily as a Southern writer not as the Caliph of Bagdad on the Subway, wrote a raft of Civil War stories. In this anthology, Old Glory is a footnote to the Stars and Bars. But it would be a waste time to go raking over previous anthologies in hopes of digging up Northern short story writers for inclusion.
Another inaccuracy is Koon's claim that his choices "survey one of America's most important historical events through one of America's most important literary forms." Two of his 16 selections are not short stories but chapters from two of the great achievements among Civil War novels: Ellen Glasgow's The Battle-Ground and Mary Johnston's The Long Roll.
Southern women, not by the way, have written some of the best Civil War novels. A chapter from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines is the only work by a black writer.
Battles occupy most of these writers, with best results in Bierce, Twain, Glasgow, Johnston, and, depicting battle brought to the hearth, Caroline Gordon. Events in times soon afterward or long afterward the war command the attention of O. Henry, O'Connor, Hannah, and Chappell.
This is a good short collection, much needed in classrooms, though priced high by university press notions of fate, with appeal to the general reader who seeks an introduction to Civil War fiction, and it will do fine until a more comprehensive and representative anthology appears.