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.”
*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.