Monday, November 17, 2008

Road Trippin' Through American Memory

One of the best historical books I've ever read is Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. I recommend it to everyone I know, and as I'm reading his new book right now, I figured I'd talk today about the book that got me interested in him.

I first noticed it in an airport bookstore and finally picked it up a couple of years later. It was much better than I'd ever imagined. Horwitz traveled through the American South to various places related to the Civil War, and also place important to race relations today. He went to a town in rural Kentucky where a white teenager had been shot and killed by a black teenager after a confrontation over the Confederate flag. He visited a woman in charge of her local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. He went to an "Afrocentric" high school and a KKK rally. He also traveled with a hardcore Confederate reenactor to museums and historic sites, all in the attempt to learn how the Civil War had impacted modern society.

As a lifelong Northerner, the answers surprised me. I never really thought about the Civil War at all, except when I was studying it. After all, it had little affect on my own family story. I can't claim any ancestors at all who fought in it. The only branch of my family that was even here at the time was up in Maine and had recently crossed the border from Canada. The other three sides would not even arrive in the country until almost fifty years later. So, it surprised me to learn how different things were in the South, at least for some people.

The book alternates between disquieting scenes like the one in Kentucky, where more than one person quoted speaks of the Civil War as though it had happened in his or her lifetime, and scenes in the "New South" that are disquieting for other reasons. Horwitz and his re-enactor pal visit "Manasshole" together, as part of his friend's annual "Civil Wargasm" week-long road trip. While the battlefield itself is preserved, it's ringed by clogged freeways and fast-food joints. Virtually nothing of Civil-War era Atlanta remains: what didn't get burned by Sherman got bulldozed by developers. In fact, in Atlanta, the primary image of the Civil War is Gone With the Wind. Horwitz visits several people who claim to know the whereabouts of "the real Tara" and speaks with someone in tourism who tells him that she repeatedly has to answer questions such as "Where are Rhett and Scarlett buried?" (facepalm!!!) He also visits a city historian, for the record, who states that he worked with Margaret Mitchell while she was writing her book and had assisted her in her meticulous efforts to ensure that everything she wrote was fictional. She combed old city directories to ensure that she didn't accidentally use the name of a real family, and toured the countryside to ensure that all her homes and locations came from her own imagination.

Horwitz also tackles the issue of commemoration: of what is commemorated, how, and why. He visits an interesting Common Council meeting in Richmond, VA, where they are trying to decide whether to put a statue of African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe on the Confederate-dominated Monument Avenue. The discussion seesaws back and forth, between whites who favor the idea, blacks who think Ashe would be diminished on a "promenade of losers" (as one man calls it), people who thought his statue should be placed in a black neighborhood as a source of inspriation, and others who viewed that as more segregation. He also takes in a ceremony held at Andersonville commemorating the day the prison camp administrator Henry Wirz was hanged for war crimes. The ceremony is held annually by a group that is attempting to clear Wirz's name, at least partially on the grounds that he didn't do anything the North wasn't doing too.

I went to graduate school because I wanted to help engage people in history, and I think this is part of the reason I like this book so much. Horwitz has unearthed a lot of the people who keep history alive, for better or for worse. This book gets at the root of why the study of history is so important, and what it can mean to the individual.