The Novelist and the Civil War

Because I’m behind the times (the Internet times, that is—they move so fast and I’m already stuck at least a decade ago), I’ve just now gotten around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long-form article on the Civil War and tragedy.  I don’t want to belabor quibbles over the definition of “tragedy” any more than other and I already have, so I’ll just send you toward Freddie’s list of caveats (for present purposes, those about the article itself). [Clarification: I really only meant the qualms about any war’s necessity, not the personal parts.  It’s also not quite a “list of caveats.” — JLW.]   However, I do think that Coates’ larger point, about the Civil War as part of an American narrative that is not (frequently) joined by African-Americans, is worthwhile.  So while I’m speaking vaguely, I can’t disagree that a re-imagining in this regard, historical and otherwise, might well lead us toward a fuller (but not a full—never a full!) understanding of the event—and, therefore, our own history and ourselves.

What I want to point out, though, is a problem with the way he uses Shelby Foote and William Faulkner.  (Including another de-contextualized shot at Faulkner yesterday.)  Perhaps this is because they’re writers near and dear to my heart, but I think it also points at a difference between the novelist’s investigation of truth and the historian’s.  Foote and Faulkner were, above all, the former.  Even Foote’s opus shouldn’t allow us to mislead ourselves.  I’m not going to comment on the long quotation from Faulkner that Coates focuses on because I haven’t read Intruder in the Dust, except to say that its usage consistently conflates the voices of character and author.

Faulkner’s oeuvre repeatedly and consistently makes the case that Southern—and American—history and society simply cannot be understood in a way that treat the categories of “White” and “Black” separately.  If you don’t feel like slogging through Absalom, Absalom! or wandering through the Biblical retelling of Mississippi from Creation through Moses of Go Down, Moses, just take a quick look at the family tree of the latter’s McCaslins. While Faulkner may or may not have fully worked himself out of what Coates critiques among Southern whites, his writing certainly strove to—but when his novels are introduced as an historical, rather than literary document, the broader framing of a character’s statement is lost, and the novelist (erroneously) appears to romanticize the past which, in fact, is the truest antagonist of his novels.  Romanticizing the past, in Faulkner’s world, can kill you—but only after destroying all that was once dear in your life.

Foote’s Narrative, as I’ve argued before, is less a work of historical inquiry than a work of literary inquiry—closer to the Classical historia than to, for example, a Foner’s or a McPherson’s.  And, I suspect, it is one that would not muster much methodological respect in a contemporary Department of History.  It is true that outside the role of author, Foote appears incapable of uttering anything more than variations on platitudes when it comes to questions of meaning.  He’s a hell of a storyteller in Burns’ documentary—but yes, when he says “tragedy,” he means it simplistically.*  The Narrative, on the other hand, is a kind of Miltonic mythicization of the event.   This is the respect in which Forrest becomes a “genius” and one of the “great figures of history.”  In Milton’s epic, Lucifer is more a genius and great figure than God.  The Narrative’s war is not the American fall, but the Southern fall—and I don’t mean Fall from Grace, but fall from Heaven as a result of the failed rebellion.  Foote (or at least his narrator) has a great deal of difficulty gleaning significant meaning from an historical view of war.  But recasting it in terms of the literary manages to open another avenue of inquiry, one that I, too, find fruitful.  It isn’t one that points out Some Great Meaning.  But it does manage, regardless of whether you agree that Lincoln is quite as Christ-like as he is depicted in his final days, to point out which side was of the Devil’s party—and which, in coming to grips with it, still is.  Slavery, through the beating presence of its relative absence, is what affirms this point.

(If Lincoln comes off as Christ-like, Grant and Sherman hardly are.  They are geniuses of the war, like Forrest, Lee, and Jackson, but they are geniuses for a kind of industrial economic future that doesn’t care so much for one’s race because it doesn’t care so much for one’s humanity, generally.  This doesn’t seem unrelated to Foote’s opinion that the North’s great sin was not following through on the promise of freedom.)

The purpose of these long, preceding paragraphs is simply to point out that using a novelist’s words against him in comparison with those of historians is a flawed game, in which, likely, the novelist will come out on the losing end.  They are after different things—especially novelists writing novels, unlike novelists writing historical prose epics.  Faulkner’s aim wasn’t to mythologize or romanticize the past—but to grapple with it in an attempt to either love or hate one’s country—one’s place, that is—one’s parents and grandparents, and one’s history without hating oneself.  I found, on first reading it, little worthwhile in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.  I still have qualms.  But I’ve come to respect that it represents that author’s and narrator’s attempt (albeit flawed) to do just this, even if their questions are such that I, as a Jew, will never fully be able to relate to.

Faulkner never finds a good answer to his questions.  History and place consume lives and, when they feel like it, spit out the bones.   But perhaps the final line of his “Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury points not toward the lives of those whom he explored at greatest length, but those of the black families of Yoknapatawpha: “They endured.”

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*We should also keep in mind that Foote’s statements in Burns’ documentary were edited and pared down from a substantially longer set of interviews.

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31 thoughts on “The Novelist and the Civil War

  1. “But I’ve come to respect that it represents that author’s and narrator’s attempt (albeit flawed) to do just this, even if their questions are such that I, as a Jew, will never fully be able to relate to.”

    Is this a hint for Coates as a Black man to do the same for the writings of Southern Whites?

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  2. And Freddie de Boer has a beef againt TNC, so you might want to take what he says about this with a grain of salt. He’s on record as saying that he thinks TNC has gotten so many plaudits because of white guilt.

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  3. These points, especially about Faulkner, needed to be made.  I remember reading some parts of the Coates essay on his blog and feeling that he really did not grasp what Faulkner was doing with such intensity that more than a decade of his life was consumed in producing the deepest soul-searching literature to be found perhaps anywhere.  To his credit, though, Coates acknowledges the probable shallowness of his take on Faulkner, and his own enterprise here is akin to Faulkner’s; unabashedly personal, embedded in his own time and broad social context, wrestling with how to a person and a people can articulate — come to terms with — the overwhelming past.

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  4. Faulkner’s oeuvre repeatedly and consistently makes the case that Southern—and American—history and society simply cannot be understood in a way that treat the categories of “White” and “Black” separately.

    Can I withhold judgment on that until I hear what people distinctively less white (whether categorically separate or just as a matter of degree) have to say about it?  Frankly, while I get Faulkner’s point, the idea of a southern white saying this makes me squeamish.

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    • I can’t be certain, of course, but I think the point here is not that the categories/terms “White” and “Black” should be eliminated or treated as part of one sameness, but that treating them as conceptions that can be separately understood obscures the truth that there was/is an overarching shared context of experience.  That it’s a difference that doesn’t only polarize.

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    • I’m just dubious about white folks (like me) attempting to make definitive statements about race in the U.S.

      That’s not to say I think black folks can make such definitive statements, either.  But white folks do have a history of making such definitive statements from their own perspective, without bothering to consult how black folks might view the subject.

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      • I understand that desire and completely agree, but it sounds to me like you’re letting that respectable caution hold you back too much from approaching the work and responding to it.

        The claim at hand is very straightforward – either Faulkner’s novels and stories make such a case or they do not. He also makes the case well or he does not and we have the exclusive right to judge for ourselves. I know the tendency is out there to either deify or castigate our literary giants, but our reactions to Faulkner need not assume that even if he makes the case and makes it powerfully, that it is the only voice worth hearing.

        I think JL does a great job in the post talking about the important  distinction between historian and novelist – to approach Faulkner as if accepting his work as meaningful is to accept it as definitive of the Southern experience is to do a vast multitude of people a great disservice. Faulkner cannot tell us everything, he just tells us a lot of interesting and moving things.

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  5. Hey, J.L. Thanks for this. I just wanted to make sure I clarified something:

    <blockquote>I’m not going to comment on the long quotation from Faulkner that Coates focuses on because I haven’t read Intruder in the Dust, except to say that its usage consistently conflates the voices of character and author.</blockquote>

    I take this criticism especially given that I wrote “Faulkner wrote…” a phrase that does exactly what you claim. I don’t know if this helps but in my head I’ve always separated the two. I didn’t think Faulkner was expressing his own beliefs about the War, so much as I thought he was channeling a particular white Southern view. But the piece reads as it does, and I don’t say this to rebut your criticism, or to exonerate what I wrote, but to clarify my own thinking. There is a real difference between voice and author. I should have made that point aggressively–both in the piece, and yesterday.

    I’m less clear on your point about Foote, so I’m not sure what to say there. I certainly make no brief against his trilogy, and on the contrary have blogged approvingly of it. I also don’t think people shouldn’t confuse Foote’s statements outside of the work, with the work itself. But I think his thoughts on Forrest, as well as, his notion that the Civil War was the result of the failure to compromise, as opposed to result of a series of very real compromises, deserve to be challenged.

    At any rate, thanks for engaging the piece. I thoroughly enjoyed your blogging about Foote’s trilogy.

     

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    • Thanks for the clarification.  It bothered me because elsewhere you do show a great deal of concern for voice and author (especially some of those concurrent pieces on Eliot).  But it also bothered me because a lot of less careful readers probably hear Foote read that passage in Burns’ documentary and think Faulkner’s purpose was to romanticize the past.

      Foote… is maddening.  Any defense that begins, basically, with, “Well, when you consider his statements in light of Miltonic and Proustian paradigms…” is weak.  I think his view of Forrest is too highly aestheticized — which I find easier to understand what with my whole crazy Miltonic reading thing (he also aestheticizes Davis, and, in the third volume, Lincoln).  This is problematic in the same way that Milton’s Lucifer is problematic.  (But again, as James Hanley has pointed out above, you and I are coming at this from very different backgrounds — and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with how easy it is for me to accord Foote, and others, understanding on this.)

      On the other hand, his “failure to compromise” line makes me want to bang my head against my desk.  Or to ask him whether he read his own book.  It’s ahistorical and counterproductive.  (The footnoted slack I was willing to cut him was a result of the reservations he expressed about the Burns interviews in his letters to Walker Percy.)  I suppose that I want to believe that the perspective and thoughtfulness of his Narrative is the “real” him — but that’s hard to square with both that line from the Burns doc and the Paris Review interview.  I suspect it has something to do with a desire to not hate Mississippi, but not quite knowing how to articulate this when talking about the war.

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  6. Foote’s Narrativeas I’ve argued before, is less a work of historical inquiry than a work of literary inquiry—closer to the Classical historia than to, for example, a Foner’s or a McPherson’s.  And, I suspect, it is one that would not muster much methodological respect in a contemporary Department of History.

    I think that’s a good point, and I think it reinforces TNC’s point as well. Foote was given, to near exclusivity, the role of Historian in the Ken Burns series. That’s important, I think, in understanding how the literariness of Foote has in some form or another replaced the methodological, or is a good piece of evidence showing that the emotional/literary interpretations of the Civil War horn in on the work of the historuian. Foote nearly reduces himself to tears talking about just how damn brave the Confederates were. It gives a name and a face and a canon to the literariness of the Civil War. As I see it, TNC has argued against that, and even if he conflated a Faulkner character with Faulkner himself, the character and Faulkner are part of the Civil War zeitgeist, for better and for worse, and have contributed, in part, to the glossing over of the Civil War and its complications.

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  7. These are some of the things Freddie said about Coates in his post you casually link to to make your case for you. Do you agree or disagree with these claims?:

    I suspect that a substantial minority of Coates’s considerable following is made up of people who do not, actually, think highly of him, though they suppose they do. I suspect that he attracts admiring white people who experience discussion of race as a kind of panic. I suspect that he fulfills for them the role of a racial avatar, someone to hold opinions on race for them, so that they neither have to engage in the hard work of fixing our racial inequalities nor feel indicted by his own observations on race in America. I suspect that for them Coates is not fully human, that he is another in a parade of black symbols who assuage their guilt and massage their egos, that he is a stock character, a prop, but never a human being to be evaluated and thus capable of being truly valued.

    …….
    I wonder about Coates. When he reads this endless commentary from white people trying to outdo each other in praising him, as the reach deeper and deeper for hyperbole, as they stretch their vocabularies to bless him with their benevolent white approval– does he get embarrassed, at all? Does it become unseemly to him? Does he question where this all comes from? I imagine he must. Something is off, here. No one needs to have any sympathy for my convictions to say so. I find no value in universal assent, and beyond the poor optics of a bunch of people agreeing, I fear that it’s exactly in those times– in the deadening warmth of proud unanimity– that something corrosive slips in the back door.

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    • I’m not JL, or course, but I must say that I don’t the part of find Freddie’s argument quoted above compelling.

      For one thing, it hints at a kind of, “if you weren’t a racist white person you’d agree with me” kind of vibe that I find grating.  This notion that you can’t hold a combination of being white, liking Coates and disagreeing with Freddie without there being some nefarious, race-related ulterior back-story lacks the empathy I usually like about FdB.

       

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    • Hmm.  Limbaugh got fired for saying something similar about McNabb, that he was more an avatar to white supporters than his work judged on its actual merits.

      It’s hard to disagree w/Freddie that many white folks find themselves obliged to endorse TNC’s pronouncements on race regardless of accuracy or incisiveness.  What can white folks know of racism except how to practice it?

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    • Okay, those insinuations do imply what you said above they implied.  Freddie writes so many words that it’s hard to keep them all straight sometimes.  I recalled him being, shall we say, impolite at times in that post.  This is why I attempted to limit my reference to it to his comments on the idea of the necessity of war, not to his comments on the blog and its commentariat.  Frankly, it’s been a bit since I read that post, and I didn’t review it today; perhaps I should have before thinking I could bracket things with a simple parenthetical.  But I do think that there’s room to have reservations about, or be troubled by, the idea of the necessity of violence.

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      • But I do think that there’s room to have reservations about, or be troubled by, the idea of the necessity of violence.

        Agreed.  If I may be mildly critical, I didn’t grasp that this was the point of your post.  (But that may be my fault.)

        That question, with TNC apparently (I haven’t read him closely, so I’m going off Freddie’s post) claiming that the Civil War wasn’t “tragic” because it set millions of people free from slavery and FdB arguing that the deaths of over half a million* American, is seriously worthy of discussion. I have a strong dislike for FdB, and I am nowhere near the pacifist he is, but even so I think I have to argue his side on that question.

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        *It may not be well known, but the Civil War killed more Americans than all our other wars to date combined.

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        • I think Coates would prefer pacifists to make an actual argument about how the Civil War could have been prevented. What could have been done, and at what specific point? Instead, people like Freddie keep talking in platitudes about how all wars are tragedies, no lost of life is worth it etc etc, blanket stataments about all wars ever, without seeming to care about which particular war we’re talking about, or bothering to engage in the specifics.

          By the way, if you’re too lazy to read Coates himself on this subject, I suggest you don’t take Freddie’s interpretation as a guide. Read other people who disagrees with Coates, like the OP. Freddie seems to develop obsessive hatred of certain bloggers (see: Yglesias, Matthew), and Coates is his current target. I doubt he has any ability to be objective about the arguments his object of obsessions are making since he’s too busy making personal attacks on them. (He’s incapable of writing about Yglesias without making a dig about how Yglesias grew up a snotty rich, privileged kid, for example).

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        • And people keep mentioning the half-million dead, but what about the millions of slaves? It’s easy enough to fall back on “all wars are tragedies”, “all wars are bad” platitudes when your ancestors weren’t one of those slaves.

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          • My ancestors were slaves to the Romans but they threw them off, though it took a while and a lot of blood was spilt. Sometimes the choice is slavery or death, then death shouldn’t be so frightening. My favorite, all-time, African-American is Nat Turner because he chose to fight for his freedom.

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            • So, what your point, American slaves should have rebelled and spare the precious blood of good white people? Even in a slave rebellion, some white people would die too, you know. Or do you think the problem with the Civil War is that not enough slaves’ blood were spilled to get them their freedom? Those poor white boys, dying for the freedom of black slaves, oh it’s so tragic!

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      • The tempest over the word ‘tragedy’ is exactly what I wanted to like about Freddie’s post but still couldn’t get on board with the way he attacked TNC over it.

        From what I had seen, and I haven’t read the Narrative but I have reason to know a bit about where Foote came from, I took his use of ‘tragic’ to mean the real literary/dramatic sense of an inevitable, violent resolution, not the modern journalistic usage as ‘a really bad thing that happened for no good reason’. At some point in American history, we went on a path where the Civil War was an inevitable outcome, not that it was too bad all those honorable white folks had to die.

        That said, as a resident of small-town Georgia, I can see and hear that the ‘too bad’ view is around in no small away. So I can see why the question is a sensitive one and why TNC fights against viewing the Civil War primarily through that lens.

         

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        • I took his use of ‘tragic’ to mean the real literary/dramatic sense of an inevitable, violent resolution, not the modern journalistic usage as ‘a really bad thing that happened for no good reason’.

          But Freddie is seeing the war through the lens of pacifism, so in his case, his definition would be the modern journalistic usage of the word “tragic”. Actually, I would probably agree with a criticism of Coates that said he might be misunderstanding how the word “tragic” is used by some people to describe the Civil War. But that’s not what Freddie was doing in that post.

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  8. Perhaps this is because they’re writers near and dear to my heart, but I think it also points at a difference between the novelist’s investigation of truth and the historian’s.  Foote and Faulkner were, above all, the former. 

    Foote’s Narrative, as I’ve argued before, is less a work of historical inquiry than a work of literary inquiry—closer to the Classical historia than to, for example, a Foner’s or a McPherson’s.  And, I suspect, it is one that would not muster much methodological respect in a contemporary Department of History. 

    I defer to your expertise and knowledge about this. But let me ask you this, which framework (historical inquiry or literary inquiry) is more influential to the general public and the popular imagination? How many people have read Foner and McPherson compared to how many people have read Faulkner or saw the Burn’s documentary featuring Foote? In the popular imagination, because of the influence of the so-called “literary inquiry”, Confederate soldiers were honorable men just trying to protect their home, wife and children while Union soldiers were bent on burning, raping and pillaging. Where are the slaves in this narrative? Well, they only exist when they’re fighting for the Confederate side (the much touted Black Confederate Soldiers) or when they are teaming up with ex-Confederate soldiers after the war to seek revenge on Union soldiers. Because that’s how evil Union soldier were, you see, even former slaves want to kill them!! When is the last time we see a TV show about an ex-Union soldier or a former slave? But honorable ex-Confederate soldiers, they’re a dime a dozen in novels, movies, TV shows. So forgive me for not getting teary-eyed about Faulkner’s attempt to “grapple with it in an attempt to either love or hate one’s country—one’s place, that is—one’s parents and grandparents, and one’s history without hating oneself.” That doesn’t seem to be such a pressing issue to me, in the popular imagination, the South is the good guy in the conflict.

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