Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity know that we’ve been looking forward to the publication of David W. Blight’s American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. The book is finally here, and folks in the Boston/Cambridge area have the added excitement of getting to see Blight at this afternoon’s Harvard Book Store Friday Forum (3:00pm, free and open to the public, no ticket required).
Blight’s award-winning Race and Reunion, published in 2000, traced American memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the conflict. This new book continues that study of the war in American memory by moving forward to the moment of the Civil War Centennial, when the war was commemorated in the midst of the civil rights movement. By the early 1960s, Blight notes, some Americans had “learned and accepted the idea that the war had been, in one way or another, caused by slavery and that its principle result had been the emancipation of four million slaves and the preservation as well as recreation of a new union.” The centrality of slavery and emancipation to the conflict had by that point emerged as a consensus in scholarship on the Civil War.
Public memory lagged behind, though, as is usually the case. From Blight’s introduction:
For the majority, especially of white Americans—even as they watched TV images of civil rights marchers being clubbed by police and bitten by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama—to claim the centrality of slavery and emancipation in Civil War memory was still an awkward kind of impoliteness at best and heresy at worst. In 1963, the national temper and mythology still preferred a story of the mutual valor of the Blue and Gray to the troublesome, disruptive problem of black and white.
This book is about that disconnect, and about how the country went about publicly and privately commemorating a war whose meaning was still being debated.
And now, fifty years later, as we mark the Sesquicentennial, there is still much unsettled in the public memory of the American Civil War. American Oracle was written in an attempt to help us take stock. According to Blight we might best contemplate the memory of the war by exploring how American writers and readers were searching for the meaning of their history during the Centennial commemoration. “The best historical understandings often emerge,” he writes, “from a probing behind, into, and through how other thoughtful people have done the same before us.”
The focus of American Oracle is on four men who were among America’s most important writers on the significance and legacies of the Civil War during the 1950s and 1960s: Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. In the short video below, Blight explains the significance of each chosen writer:
If you can’t be at the Harvard Book Store this afternoon to hear more, you can see a full calendar of Blight’s fall speaking events on his website.