Civil War expert Kevin M. Levin objected to journalist Paul Duggan's profile of a neo-Confederate. Duggan called Levin to discuss his critique.Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Confederacy
Paul Duggan has been a staff writer for The Washington Post since 1987. He specializes in crime and justice issues but also has written extensively about housing problems in Washington, particularly the impact of gentrification, and spent several years underground, figuratively speaking, writing about the city’s sprawling, often-chaotic subway system.
Kevin M. Levin, a writer and educator, has long been interested in how cultural influences cause Americans to view the Civil War in different ways. So he was eager to read my recent cover story about a descendant of Confederate soldiers who is devoted to defending the legacy of Old Dixie.
But Levin found the piece disappointing. On his blog, Civil War Memory, he wrote: “If you do make your way through the entire piece you may end up feeling like I did. I finished reading it convinced that 30 minutes of my life had just been wasted.” The story, he argued, “offers nothing new.” As for its central character, a Virginian named Frank Earnest, Levin declared: “We need to stop taking these people seriously.”
When I called him at his home in Boston to talk about his criticism, Levin echoed a complaint expressed by other readers: Earnest is a fringe figure who shouldn’t be given a national platform to espouse his beliefs. “Frank Earnest is irrelevant to the discussion in America today” about the Civil War, Levin said on the phone. “Certainly we should acknowledge him in some way. But he’s a relic. He tells us much more about where we’ve been as a country than where we are and where we’re going.”
To Earnest and his comrades in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Civil War was a righteous uprising by Southern patriots to throw off the yoke of federal tyranny. Slavery had almost nothing to do with it, in their minds. As I noted in the story, this myth of the Lost Cause was fixed in popular thought for much of the 20th century. Levin told me that publishing 7,000 words on the topic “reinforces the stereotypes many people have about Southerners. When you ask about the South, they immediately picture a Frank Earnest.” In reality, he said, “there’s a diversity of voices” in the New South “that are now defining the public conversation” about the sins of the past and the hurtful racial message of Confederate iconography, especially statues. “We should pay more attention to them,” he argued.
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