What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.
Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.
A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.
A huge realization came to me recently, as I immersed myself in books and old movies about the US Civil War. We all know that the Confederate nation that lost this bitter war was also soundly trounced by the judgement of history, since the Confederacy's key pro-slavery position is clearly on its wrong side.
But the 150 years that have passed since the end of the Southern rebellion might have put a thick patina on the moral arguments that once energized the rebellion, and I made it my goal during my recent bout of Civil War reading to try to understand how a typical well-educated and high-principled Southerner would have explained the Southern position. There were, of course, many thoughtful intellectuals in the Civil War South, and we can take two of the four main characters in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind as useful examples. The noble Ashley Wilkes is a brave Confederate officer who loves books, who loses himself in his vast library, who befuddles Scarlett O'Hara with talk of the Gotterdammerung. His equally noble wife Melanie Hamilton Wilkes relishes the opportunity to discuss literature and morality; we first meet her condemning the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray for being "a cynic" and "not the gentleman Dickens is".
As a lifelong American Northener, I grew up with a shallow perception of Confederate politics as essentially unprincipled. It's clear today that the Confederate position on slavery was terribly wrong -- but even so, an ethical philosopher who wishes to understand history can't stop there. There's a puzzle to be solved, because even though we see the Confederate position to be wrong today, we must recognize that the Confederacy was populated with principled intellectuals who somehow convinced themselves that it was right. How, exactly, did they convince themselves of this, and what can we learn about our own closely held beliefs from their example?
It's probably the best tween book of the modern era; at least it's the best one I can think of. Well, hell, everybody loves Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which was published fifty years ago this year.
The anniversary is already getting so much attention -- an event on March 15 at the 92nd Street Y on Harriet's own beloved Manhattan island featuring Gregory Maguire, Leonard Marcus and Rebecca Stead, a Booktrib appreciation featuring crime writers like Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Sarah Weinman -- that I almost want to skip mentioning it on Litkicks. Except for one thing: I love the book as much as everyone else. I can't not say so.
Harriet is about a churlish, opinionated 11-year-old who tears bravely through New York City's varied neighborhoods looking for trouble, and finally finds worse trouble than she ever wanted in the trivial atmosphere of her own schoolyard. I value the story for its emotional sophistication, its appreciation for the delicacy of a kid's emotional stability, and for the drama of the devastation that occurs when it breaks. The break in Harriet M. Welsch's swirling life of urban adventure occurs, of course, when her private notebook falls into someone else's hands. All the kids in her school read what she's written about them. The revelations hurt Harriet's own closest friends the worst, and Harriet is shocked to discover that even the dull kids in school that she never bothered to care about suddenly have the power to hurt her back, and badly.
(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.
First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.
The happy chaos of a large family vacation to a historical battlefield town doesn't leave much time for the kind of reflection I like to put into a Litkicks blog post.
It does, however, lend itself to some pretty good jokes. When I arrived at Gettysburg first in one car with some luggage and Caryn showed up later in another with more, I was able to call her "my supply train". When a member of our party neglected to text me with some essential info about where we were all meeting for dinner, I was able to quote General Robert E. Lee to the lost Cavalry chief J. E. B. Stuart: "You are my eyes and ears. Without you I am blind."
But, philosophical reflection and literary wit? That will have to wait, and numbered impressions will have to do for now.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, 51,000 people died or were severely wounded.
I'm in Gettysburg now, soaking in the historical moment with Civil War buffs, reenactors, curious locals, traveling families, bikers, historians, writers, artists, unidentifiable visitors from North and South. Everyone is friendly -- happy, even, which is strange when you consider the disaster we are here to remember. The only way to know which of the two sides any person might feel they represent is to look at the license plates on their cars.
This seems to be a primal aspect of human nature: we always believe ourselves to be ethically correct. It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle, and it would be even more surprising to find any society or group of people that openly declares itself to be amoral.
This fact provides a stunning contradiction that ought to be endlessly fascinating to ethical philosophers who wish to deeply challenge their own belief systems. Every past as well as current society believes itself to be moral, and yet when we discuss history we can easily identify various past societies that seem to have been highly immoral. If we examine the ways in which these bygone societies convinced themselves of their high ethical principles, we can glimpse the powerful engine of delusion itself, and discover the mechanics that make it so effective in clouding intelligent minds. We may even discover that some delusions still drive our thinking today.
One great example is provided by the nation that briefly called itself the Confederate States of America, a nation that was defeated in the United States of America's Civil War between 1861 and 1865. I'm beginning a road trip this week to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to take part in the 150th anniversary of the most dramatic extended battle of the entire war. This anniversary provides a nice opportunity for us to pause and look closely at the philosophical underpinnings of the entire secession movement in the Southern states. This philosophical system can be broadly represented by the voice of a once-great politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was a legendary United States Senator, and was the Vice President of the United States for two terms. He died before the Civil War began, but his inspiration was present for the entire period of the war, and he was taken seriously as a brilliant scholar, a passionate orator and a principled ethical thinker by both his compatriots and his enemies.
I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.
Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.
I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.
(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we're examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It's fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called "Mabellene" at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, who is famously irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I've enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I've seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He's more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.