Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 26: Old times there are not forgotten

And it's a long and slow surrender
Retreating from the past
It's important to remember
To fly the flag half-mast
And look away

     - Kate Campbell and Walt Aldridge, "Look Away" (1995)

Self-described "paleo-conservative" Pat Buchanan thinks the South will win the next time around:  Buchanan: "[W]e [the South] wouldn't lose" the Civil War "the next time out" Media Matters 11/29/04.

As Media Matters reports:

Buchanan's comment came during a discussion about whether New Jersey iron worker Robert O'Neal, who ran over and killed a teenager who allegedly robbed O'Neal at gunpoint, threatened to rape his daughters, and shot at him, should be considered "a hero or a criminal."

Now what does it have to do with Southern culture, or honoring Southern "heritage," or with states' rights to secede from the Union, or, heck, anything in particular to do with the South at all that some Yankee vigilante killed somebody in a Northern state?

It was actually one of Buchanan's guests that brought it up:

DE LACY DAVIS (a founder of Black Cops Against Police Brutality): Thank God that the South lost the [Civil] war.

BUCHANAN: Well, we wouldn't lose it the next time out, De Lacy. Bush got all the red [Republican] states and he won.

Now, I realize that Pat Buchanan showing for the 10,247th time that he's a jerk isn't exactly news.  But it's an illustration of the way that the Southern cause, the one of the Lost Cause lineage, is heavily identified with conservatism today.  And it's a sad commentary on how far the Republican Party has fallen from the days when it was led by Abraham Lincoln's and William Sewards.

It's also pretty clear in this instance, although I'm not familiar with the particular O'Neal case, that Buchanan clearly identified the Southern cause, both that of the Lost Cause of old and the Republican Cause of today, with vigilante violence.  For its fans, the Lost Cause is not about mint juleps on the veranda and literate discussion about Walter Scott novels.

This may seem like a bit of a tangent from Pat Buchanan.  But Sir Walter Scott's historical novels like Ivanhoe were among the favorite reading in the antebellum South.  Bertram Wyatt-Brown in The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s (2001) writes about how Southerners' concept of honor and the family-clan-based relationships and cultural practices from which it grew contributed to the sharpness of the conflict between North and South before the war.  And many Southerners found that honor system agreeably reflected in Scott's tales:

The Cavalier-Roundhead dichotomy of the Stuart era was not as powerful a symbol of sectional difference in the South, however, as a literary reliance on an earlier time. The basic theme was the same: a nostalgic harkening to a prior epoch in Western history, properly enveloped in romance and adventure. The ordinary white Southern farmer did not read Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and other historical novels, but the educated class avidly absorbed his work. In the same way that a film today gains a place in popular culture, language, and assumptions, antebellum steamboats, barges, stagecoaches, plantation houses, crossroads hamlets, slaves, and even children were named for characters and places to be found in one Scott tale or another. Southerners worshiped at the Abbotsford shrine because Scott's tales so well confirmed the ideals and virtues about manhood and valor that they already entertained. For instance, Congressman Lawrence Keitt, friend of Preston Brooks, Sumner's assailant, adopted the language of Scott to described his warlike feelings. Keitt was ready, he remarked, to meet the Yankee enemy "with helmet on, with visor down, and lance couched." The war soon to come was for him to be fought on "the field" of honor. [What manhood and valor mean in that particular instance were discussed in an earlier post in this series, John Brown, abolition and bad historical analogies.]

Thus the Scotian references and other romantic allusions did reflect in a fundamental way the moral distance between the two sections. Sometimes it was put in language stripped of historical romanticism but still carried the same message. Republican Justin S. Morrill of Vermont declared in the Senate chamber in December 1860 that we "must accept the truth that there is an 'irrepressible conflict' ” between our systems of civilization." As a result, he could see "no compromise short of an entire surrender of our convictions of right and wrong, and I do not propose to make that surrender."

He writes that many of Scott's Southern readers "found in him the spokesman for the world that they were losing even as they gloried in its alleged strengths of intense family life, intimacy with wild nature, and simple if bloody principles and passions."

In Life on the Mississippi (1883), in which he shares anecdotes of the postwar South in his distinctive style, Mark Twain wrote about Scott's influence on the South with somewhat less reverence than Wyatt-Brown:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantment by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms;  with decayed and swinish forms of religion, decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously covfused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner - or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it - would  be  wholly  modern,  in  place  of modern and mediaeval mixed, , and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's influence than to that of any other thing or person.

I need to read Mark Twain more often.  Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler is the only writer I know who comes close to making me laugh at some many of his lines as Twain.

I guess we could twist Twain's spoofing of Southern aristocratic pretentiousness into an alternative theory of the Civil War.  Slavey didn't cause it, Sir Walter Scott did!  But that's one variation that never worked its way into the Lost Cause mythology.

And Mark Twain might suspect that there's still a heavy dose of the "Sir Walter disease" in Pat Buchanan's desire to prettify vigilantism.  (You didn't think I was going to tie the two threads of this post together at all, did you?)

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


purcellneil said...

Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott and Patrick Buchanan -- connected?  That was some trick!

They could use you at the White House where they are eager to connect Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Harry Reid.


amkpantera said...

So basically, this Sir Walter Scott guy gave the ruling class of Southerners a romanticized view of warfare, and then they turned around and made the working class go fight their war.  Somethings never really do change.