Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What I got from it

So my experience reading Robert Penn Warren's Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back was one of basically mentally adding the word "SLAVERY" after every sentence. I've never read such a gloss job. I mean he does mention it: mentions that Jefferson Davis owned slaves and that he apparently treated them well - you know, as slaves. But towards the end Warren starts to wonder how Davis would feel having his citizenship restored to him, asking: "...suppose Lincoln or Grant should have citizenship thrust upon him by the America of today. Would either happily accept citizenship in a nation that sometimes seems technologically and philosophically devoted to the depersonalization of men?"

Um...wasn't that what the South did to every person of African descent that was brought to this country from its inception to the end (and some would argue well past) of the Civil War? Are the people condemned to slavery, then, not "men"?

But other than that question, which makes me scream quite a bit in frustration, I did find an answer to another question I have - the question of what is this Southern "heritage" that so many white people of a certain stripe make reference to and try to defend. Here:

It is true that in France as well as in England there was strong sentiment against slavery, but when the idea of offering emancipation as a bribe for recognition was finally beginning to be put forward in the Confederacy it was too late to be of any use, besides striking paradoxically at a necessary, if not sufficient, reason for the war: slavery. And a parallel instance appeared when the idea of enlisting blacks for Confederate armies (with the implied promise of freedom) was successfully brought forward - a paradox best formulated by the politician Howell Cobb, of Georgia, who opposed the idea: "If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Actually, some blacks were enlisted and wore the gray, but only toward the end of the war.

So, with states' rights obviously bringing disaster [states in the Confederacy were withholding troops and supplies cause that didn't feel obligated to supply them], King Cotton dethroned [the world started getting cotton from India and other countries], and blacks wearing Confederate gray, little was left of the ideas that had made the Confederacy - only secession, in fact. But with the armies of Sherman and Grant closing in and defeatism stalking the land, what would become of that notion - a notion that for many eminent Southerners, including Davis and Lee, had been from the first dubious or rueful? Merely some notion of Southern identity remained, however hazy or fuddled; it was not until after Appomattox that the conception of Southern identity truly bloomed - a mystical conception, vague but bright, floating high beyond the criticism of brutal circumstances.

The emphasis is mine and is, to my mind, that Southern heritage which like concepts of God is so vague as to be both inexplicable and untouchable. Even Warren's "brutal circumstances" while pointed obviously at the institution of slavery is so vague that it could just as likely be about cholera or not having enough mint for the tea.

Basically, I feel that Warren shows his entitled whiteness, and overall I was left for the desire of a biography on Jefferson Davis (whom by the end of the book I felt...something for...during his imprisonment, abolitionists came forward (albeit white abolitionists) to express their desire for him to be released) written by an African American author. Because till then, his biographies I think will only get bogged down in concepts of Southern "chivalry" and "honor."

2 comments:

Tim said...

Your take on the book is interesting. Robert Penn Warren was considered quite the racial integrationist in his day, long before most progressive Southern whites managed to back away from segregation.

My take on Warren's book was that Warren pointedly ignored slavery because -- well, slavery is wrong. We all know it. Most of what was written about Davis until 1980 (the year Warren's book came out) was either the worst kind of hagiography or so full of anti-slavery polemic that Davis the man was completely obscured.

My sense is that Warren tried to see Davis as a person of the mid to late 1800s would see Davis. What kind of person was Davis? Was he cold or warm? Talkative or mute? Prickly or thick-skinned? Intelligent or dumb? Divorcing Davis' views on blacks from his other thinking and ethics may not be appropriate, but it can give us insight into Davis' personality, beliefs, and politics that a constant drum-beat about Davis' racism could not.

I think that's where Warren tried to go. So when Warren talks, at the end, about the depersonalized modern era, he is speaking to Davis' concept of -- yes -- white people who should not be depersonalized. Whites -- because that goes without saying, when it comes to Jefferson Davis.

I don't think or believe that Robert Penn Warren, whose commitment to civil rights was fairly unassailable from the mid 1950s onward, wanted to whitewash Jefferson Davis. Instead, he wanted to get at whatever was left of Jefferson Davis once you strip away the racism.

To me, it's akin to a biographer investigating the life of a child molester, or murderer. "John couldn't keep his hands off little girls. Nine, ten, fifteen of them. His victims piled up like the passing of the seasons. But outside of the terrible sexual predation on children, what was John? He was a good father, who took in four kids who weren't his own. A good husband. An excellent engineer. Someone who saved injured dogs, and who successfully campaigned to radically improve drug and alcohol treatment for the most destitute, an avid environmentalist who led his Sierra Club chapter for 20 years, and a decent oboe player for the local symphony orchestra." I think that's where Robert Penn Warren was going.

If you want to read about Jefferson Davis, you may wish to check out William J. Cooper's Jefferson Davis, American. Cooper doesn't whitewash Davis' racism, but like Robert Penn Warren he thinks that it's much more than apparent what Davis' racism did (or tried to do). He, too, tries to look past the racism and Confederacy to see what sort of person Davis was. Unlike Warren, Cooper is much more interested in Davis' pre-Civil War activities.

James M. McPherson, America's pre-eminent historian of the Civil War, just published in October 2014 a new biography of Davis as well, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. McPherson's focus is on Davis just prior to the outbreak of war, and Davis' experiences as president of the Confederacy. McPherson argues that you have to admire Davis in a lot of ways: Saddled in an inept form of government, he made it work fairly effectively. With Southern states rebelling against the Confederate government as much as they did the Union, Davis pretty much held his country together. McPherson doesn't much like Davis the man (finding him cold, thin-skinned, and bitchy), but he ends up admiring Davis' political acumen, his managerial skill, and his oratory.



Writer said...

I get that, but it's like your analogy. How can you strip away the molestation or the murder? That seems to be a pretty big thing. But slavery and racism were intertwined in all of that period and place, so I guess it makes more sense. Yes, Jefferson Davis was racist - but his racism wasn't...what..."worse" than modern racism which at least in Davis's case is much more violent and pointed than a farmer in mid-19th century owning people based on their skin color. But I feel really gross saying that. It's difficult. Can we do the same for Pol Pot, Hitler or Stalin? Besides being a cannibalistic, serial killer, who was Jeffery Dahmer really? It's very weird.

Though those last examples are unfair. Jefferson Davis was no worse or better than Abraham Lincoln. It's just our interpretation of the past (the victim frames the debate) that makes it so. Slavery is bad, but it is even more so now.