40. Confederates in the Attic: Tony Horwitz

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40. Confederates in the Attic: Tony Horwitz

Post  Patguy on Wed Dec 30, 2009 2:04 am

“History, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

The subtitle is: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Civil War buff Horwitz decides to spend a year traveling the South to see what people think of the Civil War. Each chapter covers a different state. The results are anecdotal but fascinating. Horwitz spends time with tour guides, museum staff, Civil War reenactors, Japanese Scarlett O’Hara impersonators, victims and perpetrators of race crimes, and lots of everyday people. He even visits the late Shelby Foote, who seems a little impatient with him.

He discovers, among other things, a distinct hardening of current Southern attitudes toward the war, symbolized emotionally by a movement away from Lee as the exemplar of Civil War Southernness, and toward the creepy cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. Other reputations prove equally changeable: General Sherman was, weirdly, less reviled in the South a century ago than he is today, having even made several trips down there after the war and being received with courtesy and a lack of rancor.

Casual racism is endemic. At times it seems that every white person Horwitz meets has something unpleasant to say about the race question. Then just when we’re shaking our heads indignantly we meet some black anti-Semites to balance the picture. For a book this funny, there’s a whole lot of hate to go around.

Everywhere, surprises abound. Horwitz finds that Southern Pride has now appropriated many of the tactics and rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement; many of the white Southerners he interviews see themselves—with some justice, considering the poverty of much of the region—as an oppressed minority. This makes for interesting juxtapositions in places like Alabama, which celebrates its Civil War and Civil Rights histories side by side. The further irony, that the South now celebrates the civil right gains that the Southern white power structure fought so desperately to stop in the 1950s and 60s, does not go unremarked upon.

I loved this book. Horwitz has a fun, humorous prose style that, in the best journalistic tradition, taps into deep questions about race, class, geography and history through the use of anecdote and interview, supported by just the right amount of background and research. I wished it were twice as long.

“A high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the War was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.”
—Robert Penn Warren

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