Horwitz takes book on tour.
By Marc K. Stengel
APRIL 6, 1998: He's not exactly breathless, but Wall Street Journal senior writer Tony Horwitz is certainly holding a steady fast pace at the moment. With the release just weeks ago of Confederates in the Attic Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War, the 39-year old Pulitzer Prize-winner finds himself dashing cross-country from interview to interview faster than a courier shuttling messages between Jackson and Lee. And indeed, he has fought alongside--and against--both of these redoubtable warriors as a spectator-turned-participant in the unusual pastime known as Civil War reenactment.
"These reenactors are really what drew me into the book," he says. "I started off in rather high spirits, thinking this was going to be a rip-roaring fun adventure through the Civil War, partly because of my experience with the reenactors. But then the deeper I got into my journey, the more I began to turn up some of the darker sides of remembrance. And I kept coming back to reenacting almost as a refuge from that.
"I think there's a very dark side to this war--as there is to every war--that somehow has been lost a little bit in the soft-focus, brother-against-brother paradigm that's been in place for 130 years. That portrayal of the war is exemplified in some ways by the Ken Burns series. It's soft, warm, and fuzzy--or as much as you can be with a war. Of course, I think I'm informed a bit by my own experience overseas, but the more I read about the Civil War, the more I saw similarities to some of the civil wars I've covered elsewhere. Whether anyone wants to read about disease and groin wounds and desertion and all the rest I'm not sure, but I think there's room for more books to be written in that area."
This is not the book Horwitz has just published, however. What began almost as a lark was transformed over a year-and-a-half into an unanticipated chronicle of race and social relations in this country. At first, Horwitz entertained a vague notion to glide blithely through "Civil War country" in much the same way that he prepared for his earlier bestseller, Baghdad Without a Map. But with so much unfinished business littering the 130-year-old wake of the Civil War, Horwitz admits being hijacked by current events. He found himself covering a racially motivated murder over a Confederate battle flag in Guthrie, Ky., for example, and witnessing strife unfurl from another flagpole atop the South Carolina state house.
"My experience so far in traveling to different cities promoting this book," he explains, "seems to undergird one of its major themes, which is that this war is still going on in an ideological sense or in terms of attitudes. I've really spent almost no time in the North over the last five years. I live in Virginia, which is not the South, but not the North either. So I was a little taken aback by a couple of things during my swing through the Northeast.
"The experience has brought to mind something Robert Penn Warren talks about very eloquently: that the nation, ever since the Civil War, made the South the dumping ground for everything that's wrong in America. You know--that somehow racism, hate, and violence are strictly Southern traits.
"Well, there's a flip-side to that, which is that ever since the Civil War, there's been a sort of sanctimony on the Northern side. They seem to be saying, 'We fought this righteous war'; and then with the civil rights movement it was replayed in a sense. So there is this tendency to want to correct Southern wrongs while ignoring them in their own backyard."
Horwitz simultaneously admits an abiding passion for history while disclaiming his own credentials as a serious professional historian. Nevertheless, he compares--but not equates--the practice of journalism and history; and he expresses a concern that neither discipline has lately been very successful in resisting erosion of public trust in a widely held set of "objective truths."
"I think it's a global phenomenon lately that people are feeling adrift and in need of some sense of identity," he says. "I find this trend very dispiriting, and it's not restricted to the South and the Civil War. For example, I visited some schools to see how the Civil War is being taught; and I was very struck by what a black student said to me when I asked how he felt about the Civil War. He said, 'It's hisstory'--as in, the white man's, not mine. I think that reflects what is happening with all history in this country. We're splitting off into these little units--women's history, black history. Now there are even so-called white studies. Somehow, it's as if there's no common history anymore. It's every man for himself, and people are grabbing onto anything that affirms their own beliefs."
A recent and indigenous Southern proposition, for example, posits a "Celtic hypothesis" to explain the Civil War. According to this view, the conflict had less to do with a single unified nation resisting cleavage and more to do with a veritable War Between the States.
"It's primarily an academic doctrine," Horwitz observes. "But it's filtering down to the popular level, and everywhere I went in the South I would hear a kind of trickle-down version of it. At the risk of being superficial, I'd generalize the premise as stating that the Civil War was a culture war between a Southern nation that was fundamentally Celtic and a Northern nation that was fundamentally English. It was almost an extension of the English persecution of the Scots and the Irish and the Welsh.
"I certainly think there's a grain of truth to this, but I have several problems with it. One is the indirect message here: If this was a culture war, then it wasn't about slavery. It's a way, once again, to disentangle the Confederacy from slavery, which has been an ongoing theme of nostalgia for the Lost Cause. Also, I think it's a very static notion of culture that somehow these Celtic peoples came to the South in the 18th century and their strain has survived despite what we all know about the processes of assimilation.
"Another part of it that perhaps bugs me the most is that it ignores the multicultural reality of the South. You had Cherokees fighting for the South; you had Jews fighting for the South; you had Germans. You had, really, a very American nation on both sides. As for the people in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia--if there are pure Celts in this country, they're as close as you come to it. Well, they sided with the North for the most part--or at least they didn't side with the South. So I think there are some significant problems with this concept, both as history and as ideology."
Horwitz suspects that both his childhood in the border state of Maryland and his current residence in northern Virginia have encouraged an equivocal perspective upon this nation's bloodiest conflict. Certainly the range of voices and opinions he encountered during his research have tended to resist easy moralizing in Confederates in the Attic. He marvels, for example, at the persistent "fuzziness" of Civil War history, despite an estimated 60,000 books devoted to the topic. The only shred of consistency among them, he suggests, is their inability to put this matter to rest.
"People on both sides," he says, "have been using me to interpret the other side, since I've got a foot in both regions, perhaps. Southerners will ask me, 'Why do Northerners still think we're a bunch of bigots?' And Northerners will say to me, 'Why are they still a bunch of bigots?' I find myself in the middle being used as a sort of interpreter. It's very interesting; I think there's still a great distance between the two regions despite all the ways we're very much alike now."
The Dog-Eared Page
" 'Our cities became overcrowded and polluted, and our land grew barren, and our animals died, and our water became poisoned, and, finally, when the Eutopian Council allowed us to move to the world of Kirinyaga, we left Kenya behind and came here to live according to the old ways, the ways that are good for the Kikuyu.' I paused. 'Long ago the Kikuyu had no written language, and did not know how to read, and since we are trying to create a Kikuyu world here on Kirinyaga, it is only fitting that our people do not learn to read or write.' 'But what is good about not knowing how to read?' she asked. 'Just because we didn't do it before the Europeans came doesn't make it bad.' "--Mike Resnick, from Kirinyaga (Del Rey, 1998)
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