Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Just Finished Reading

In American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, Yale Professor David W. Blight explores four authors who wrote during the centennial commemoration of the Civil War.  Of course, the 100th anniversary also coincided with some of the most significant years of the Civil Rights Movement.  Between 1960 and 1965 an enormous amount of protest and change manifested in numerous events, such as: the Greensboro, NC sit-ins; the Old Miss riots sparked by James Meredith's admission; the Freedom Rides; the Albany, GA movement; King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail;" Medgar Evers assassination; the March on Washington and "I Have a Dream" speech; the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham; Freedom Summer; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Malcolm X's assassination; the Selma to Montgomery March; and the Watts Riots.

However, much of the centennial commemoration activities avoided the dramatic contemporary changes, and few examined their roots in the 1860-1865 years. Rather, the centennial events viewed the Civil War with reconciliationist goggles while feeling threatened by Cold War enemies.

The four authors Professor Blight examines all had their own particular take on the Civil War and what came from the years of our nation's internal conflict 100 years before. The first author, Robert Penn Warren, proved to be an especially interesting read.  Naturally, I had heard of Warren, being that he was a Kentuckian, but shamefully I have not read his works.  I hope to change that real soon.  Robert Penn Warren was a writing prodigy from near Guthrie, Kentucky, who grew up hearing stories from a grandfather that rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. His upbringing influenced his thinking and writing in his early years as he wrote in support of segregation, but later recanted those sentiments. Warren's work that get the most attention from Blight is The Legacy of the Civil War, published in 1961. Blight explains Legacy "is an essay  essentially about the power of myth at the heart of  national historical memory."  I really need to read this one.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s with a history enthusiast father, I had my fair-share access to Blight's next subject: Bruce Catton. On our home bookshelves was the wonderful Army of the Potomac triology, and of course Catton's classics, The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword and Never Call Retreat. But, above all these, in my youthful opinion, was the American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War, gloriously illustrated with pictures and drawings and colorfully written by Catton and published in 1960. Catton started his career as a journalist and later edited the American Heritage magazine. But it was his role as popular historian that turned him into certainly the most read Civil War writer of the 1950s and 1960s. His works have influenced several generations of Civil War fans, and no matter how many academics picked at his interpretation and labeled his work predictable and formulaic, those that liked to read about the war liked to read Catton.

Next, Blight looked at Edmund Wilson. I have not read Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature in the of the American Civil War (published 1962), but like Warren's works, I hope to get to it soon. In Patriotic Gore, Wilson examined many of those less recognized writers from the Civil War era.  He sought out people like John W. DeForest, Alexander H. Stephens, Albion Tourgee, Mary Chestnut, Kate Stone and Sarah Morgan. However, Wilson did not include much anything from African American writers other than Charlotte Forten. Apparently, for what ever reason, he was just not interested in that perspective, which is sad, because it would have been fascinating to see what American's most preeminent literary critic would have thought about Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Elizabeth Keckley or any number of slave narrative writers.

Lastly, but not leastly, James Baldwin, African American writer and troubled soul that he was gets a look.  Among Baldwin's many books and essays, The Fire Next Time (published in 1963) receives the most attention from Blight.  While I have always personally preferred Richard Wright's works to Baldwins, The Fire Next Time is a powerful book that attacks America's racist past on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

I did find a small error in the text.  Blight says on page 248 that Malcolm X was assassinated at the Apollo Theater, when in fact, it was at the Audubon Ballroom, although both are in Harlem.

American Oracle is well worth the time to read. It provided me with a number of valuable insights on some of the writers that I did not know much about but that I certainly want to explore. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

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