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Not Even Past

The Stories We Keep Telling About the Civil War


Cody Marrs


Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020

Hardcover. ix + 226 pages. ISBN 978-1421436654. $28/£20.50


Reviewed by Nathalie Dessens

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès




Inspired by William Faulkner’s famous remark about the past which is “never dead” and “not even past,” Cody Marrs undertakes the gigantic task of studying the persistence of the various Civil War representations in American culture. Interpreting the way in which the Civil War has survived in the American psyche—in the South, of course, but not only—is not novel, and many cultural historians have examined the myth of the Lost Cause quite thoroughly. Marrs adopts a very different approach. He does not consider the representation of the Civil War through a single lens, but through multiple lenses, the choice of which makes good sense as the book unfolds.

Each chapter focuses on one of these lenses. In the first one, Marrs delves into the representation of the war as a “Family Squabble,” a fratricidal struggle which divided and opposed families, although, Marrs shows, this contravenes the war’s actual history. For him, the Family Squabble is the Northern version of the Lost Cause. The second chapter examines the representation of the war as “A Dark and Cruel War,” defined by its absurdity, depicted as a shockingly cruel conflict that provoked ineffable suffering. The third chapter, which analyzes the shaping of the “Lost Cause” narrative, is more conventional but, considering the scope of the book, the best-known representation of the war could not remain unstudied and is largely refreshed by the perspective Marrs adopts. As a counterpoint, the fourth and last chapter deals with “The Great Emancipation.” Mostly centered on black literature and arts, it focuses on the representation of the war as the most defining moment in Blacks’ liberation.

The first three representations, although they adopt extremely varied points of view, share the common characteristic of centering the narrative on white Americans, on whitewashing the war, so to speak, by symbolically erasing black freedom as an essential aspect of the struggle. The last one, which surveys 150 years of creative African American productions, from poems to novels, autobiographies, speeches, sculptures, essays, and reactions to the memorialization of the Southern Confederacy in public space, is the counternarrative which puts black freedom center stage.

As Marrs notes several times, in particular in the “Suggested Further Reading” section, his study does not aim at being exhaustive. This would be literally impossible given the production of 10,000 memoirs, 6,000 novels, and 2,000 books of poetry on the Civil War, not to mention the artistic representations and other cultural manifestations depicting or memorializing the war. He takes large samples of all kinds of cultural productions to draw converging interpretative lines.

The book analyzes a vast array of literary productions encompassing renowned figures of American literature (from William Wells Brown to Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, among many others), but also some lesser-known ones (David Thompson, Michael Shaara, or Sarah Shuften). It even tackles minor genres such as gore novels and popular counterfactual works of fiction which imagine the victory of the South (Harry Turteldove, MacKinlay Kantor, and Newt Gingrich, yes, as Marrs adds, “that Newt Gingrich”). Carefully selected, all these sources are thoroughly analyzed.

Although the main core of the analysis is American literature (novels, poetry, plays), the book covers extremely varied types of cultural and artistic productions: sculptures, paintings, photographs, memorials, autobiographies, speeches, memoirs, letters, movies, television series, etc. It considers historical productions (by renowned historians like Eric Foner or David Blight), as well as political discourse from the Civil War to the present (Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Southern Agrarians, and Martin Luther King Jr.). It relies on private writings, from the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant or William T. Sherman to Mary Chestnut’s diary and the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. It also analyzes television series like Roots (expected considering the topic of the book) and others (less expected) like The Simpsons and Star Trek; films, from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also more confidential movies like Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter. Without being exhaustive, considering the number of sources studied, we can also cite documentaries like Ken Burns’s series on the Civil War, photographs by famous photographers (Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner) or less renowned ones (William Morris Smith), paintings, sculptures, and various kinds of memorials.

The book examines extremely famous manifestations (like The Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, both the book and the movie) but also much more obscure ones (like Churchill’s counternarrative of the war). Some are, of course, expected (Stephen Crane, Margaret Mitchell, or E.L. Doctorow), others less so. By mixing very famous sources (reinterpreted) and more obscure productions, by expanding his study to all forms of productions over a large time period and by tackling canonical and non-canonical art forms, the book is an extraordinary survey of American culture over the past 150 years. It is this very eclecticism which makes for its greatest originality.

Historians might have wished more historiographical discussions, as the book sometimes gives the impression that there are no earlier studies of the topic. With 80,000 books written about the Civil War, the task was probably insurmountable, and Marrs partly addresses historiography in the “Suggested Further Reading” section which discusses some of the most salient works published on the war.

All in all, this extremely well-written, well-documented, original book is a fascinating survey of American culture. Showing why the Civil War is “not even past,” the book ends up being a masterful cultural history of the 20th-century United States. It aptly sheds light on the ongoing racial struggles that still plague American society. The epilogue analyzes the link between Dylann Roof’s Charleston massacre and the memory of the Civil War and evokes some of the most recent debates surrounding the memorialization of the war. Marrs thus perfectly anchors the book in the contemporary context of attempts at reappropriation of the Civil War symbols by organizations fighting against structural racism in the United States.



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