Christopher Clausen: Sometmes History LIberates, Sometimes It Strangles

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christopher Clausen is professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America (2000).]

... For Americans whose ancestors came to these shores after 1865, the Civil War has always been someone else’s history, never an intergenerational memory. Yet even—or perhaps especially—those who have no veterans in their family tree often try to establish links, connections that are no less revealing for being forced. During the past 40 years, meticulously costumed reenactors have become a conspicuous summer feature of every significant battlefield. In fact, they began to appear even before the actual veterans faded from the scene. Fantasies of reenactment, affectionately derided in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998), are one way a nation often accused of having little sense of history makes contact with the most dramatic episodes in its past....

Along with most Americans of the 21st century, I have no ancestral memories of the Civil War. What I have instead is the memory of an epistolary contact established half a century ago between a 13-year-old Civil War romantic and one of the last participants. In 1955, I read that, of the three or four million men who wore uniforms in the Civil War, there were precisely four almost supernaturally aged survivors—three once very young Confederate soldiers and one Union drummer boy. A newspaper article thoughtfully provided their addresses. Like hundreds of other people, no doubt, I wrote in search of autographs, and possibly more. Some precocious impulse led me to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with each letter.

Two of the three veterans sent autographs. In addition, the following letter arrived from a town in Florida:

On the envelope W.A. Lundy wrote his name with out glasses no he dident see the people you menchen in your letter but here is a couple of things he remembers.

I lived near Elba, Ala., was 16 when the war closed. One day the Yankees was on us before we realized it. But we hit the ground and their fire went above us then we let them have it with our guns. The grones an taken on was tearable.

Then another time we was skining a beef near a house. The Yankees came in the house we left the beef went in the house & captured them. These are the thangs he rembers most he said it was tearble times then. Sure hope this is alright. You see he’s not to able to read or write but signs his name lot of times for people. He can walk some but can’t remember too well. I’m his son’s wife he lives with us now since his baby girl died. Thank you for writing him.

The eerie sensation this letter gave me of having been present at tragic skirmishes 90 years earlier, in the person of a teenaged soldier barely older than I was, has never quite departed.

Like the memory of the Civil War decades after the event, remembrance of World War II has now advanced to the stage of grandparents telling grandchildren (or anybody willing to listen) what it was really like. Oral history is notoriously unreliable as "history,” particularly when it involves great events. Even so, the narrative of any witness or widow of D-Day or the Holocaust is coming to seem infinitely precious. The whole point of these recollections is that they are personal and filled with the contingencies of life—a shrinking number of individual voices speaking out of a vast, impersonal chaos that would otherwise be recorded only in dates and official documents. It is as though once living memory has been lost, the event itself—its mixture of valor and horror, its power to warn or inspire, its sheer reality—becomes irrevocably diminished.

An almost feverish eagerness has been building over the past decade to get the stories down and erect the memorials while large numbers of firsthand witnesses are still capable of participating. The familiar pattern of Civil War retrospection has predictably repeated itself, including reunions and re-enactments at Normandy, as the events of World War II become part of the distant past. For a generation that prefers to get its views of history from films rather than books, The Longest Day and Schind­ler’s List may have achieved the status of classic representations, much as Gone with the Wind did in its time; but unmediated individual recollection, once silenced forever, is irreplaceable even by greater arts than the movies.

As William Faulkner attested in “The Jail” (1951) while summoning up the ghostly widow of yet another Civil War soldier from Alabama, historical memory can possess an almost magical vividness and tenacity—

so vast, so limitless in capacity is man’s imagination to disperse and burn away the rubble-dross of fact and probability, leaving only truth and dream . . . there is the clear undistanced voice as though out of the delicate antenna-skeins of radio, further than empress’s throne, than splendid insatiation, even than matriarch’s peaceful rocking chair, across the vast instantaneous intervention, from the long long time ago: ‘Listen, stranger; this was myself: this was I.’

The deaths of old soldiers and their widows are material for a poignant tale, but a skeptical reader might ask what difference any of this really makes. Although memory and commemoration have become hot topics among historians, the inexorable passage of time beyond recall is hardly a new discovery. To be sure, the world has seen dire examples of historical memory at work over the past two decades in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, to name only the most obvious instances. But the obsessive conflicts between Serb and Croat, Greek and Turk, Kurd and Arab and Jew (again, to name no more) go back many centuries. Memory can either liberate people from their own time or imprison them in the anachronistic demands of another. In lands where the historical imagination is a curse and identity a dungeon, 20th-century events within or just beyond living memory merely reenacted, for the most part, ethnic and religious prejudices dating back to time out of mind. In contemporary America, where all history is comparatively recent and the manifestations of memory likelier to be sentimental than murderous, we prefer to think that our conflicts are more practical and less driven by myths, particularly by old wars that live on in the minds of aging participants, their grandchildren, or, as in the former Yugoslavia, their remote descendants.

“We have learned that you cannot live from history,” a Kosovo Serb told a New York Times reporter in 1999. “Americans have no history and they live wonderfully well.” Without question, a combination of luck and wise contrivance has spared the United States the worst kinds of internecine conflict, with the major exception of the Civil War. Inherited identities rarely command us to kill our tribe’s hereditary enemies. But anyone who thinks historical memory has no serious impact on our lives, that either ordinary Americans or policymakers come to decisions about great issues solely on the basis of current interests and circumstances, is ignoring powerful evidence to the contrary. When the civil rights movement was in full flower, a period coinciding almost exactly with the centennial of the Civil War, the ideology and imagery of its segregationist opponents were heavily influenced by the memory of the Confederacy. It was in the 1950s and early ’60s that Georgia incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag and South Carolina began flying the conquered banner above the state capitol, thereby making its display or removal a political issue that resonates to this day.

The steam went out of Southern resistance to integration—went out, in fact, of the South’s whole self-image as a conquered but defiant province—about the same time the last generation who had grown up with Confederate veterans in the family left the political scene (with a few spectacularly antique exceptions such as Strom Thurmond). This beneficent regional transformation had a variety of causes, some of them economic, but the fact that certain memories had run their chronological course should not be underestimated. While teaching at a state university in Virginia during the late 1970s, I once pointed out to an undergraduate class that when their parents were their age, the university had been racially segregated by law. Not only did many of the students not know this fact, they refused to believe it and thought I was making it up. (All of them were white.) Some­times progress takes the form of historical amnesia.

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