The Novelist and the Civil War


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar sonmi451 says:

    “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?Report

  2. Avatar sonmi451 says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      I haven’t seen the “white guilt” line in Freddie’s commentary, but there was a reason I noted that my reference to him should be limited to his comments on the article, not TNC’s blog as a whole.Report

  3. Avatar Just John says:

    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.Report

  4. Avatar James Hanley says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar BSK says:

      It’s not like we (as a nation/society) ever treated those two groups as if they were completely separate and distinct from one another.Report

    • Avatar Just John says:

      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.Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      I’m not sure why you would need to, it is, after all, your judgment. The text says what it says and you respond to it how you respond. The responses of others may be enlightening, but should not be controlling.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        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.Report

  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.


    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      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.Report

  6. Avatar ASKlein says:

    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.Report

  7. Avatar sonmi451 says:

    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.


    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      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.


      • Avatar Plinko says:

        I kinda understood some of what Freddie was saying in the entire post, but an awful lot of it bothered me too – this quoted part probably first among them.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Yeah, I think we’re closely together here – I thought he was far stronger in the anti-war part.Report

        • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

          I agree with you, actually — this is a better way of putting my longer comment below.  I didn’t review Freddie’s post, which I read recently, but not right now, before posting — which meant that I assumed it was no more offensive to anyone than his typical blunt, in-your-face attacks.  (Which can be off-putting, yes.)Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

      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?Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        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.

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

        • Avatar sonmi451 says:

          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).Report

        • Avatar sonmi451 says:

          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.Report

          • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

            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.Report

            • Avatar sonmi451 says:

              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!Report

      • Avatar Plinko says:

        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.


        • Avatar sonmi451 says:

          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.Report

  8. Avatar sonmi451 says:

    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.


    • Avatar sonmi451 says:

      Ok, maye not the “good guy”, even popular imagination is not that deluded. More the wronged party, ultimately the greatest victim, even if their cause might be wrong.Report