Wednesday, April 15, 2015
April 15, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Belligerent Muse
[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a classic work that has endured, a new one that complements it, and what they offer us together.
In those moments when I wonder how on earth I’m going to keep writing six blog posts a week for, well, as long as the interwebs will have me, I take comfort in reflecting on just how many topics of significance to me I have yet to cover (to say nothing of all those I continue to discover). A prominent example would be historian George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of Union (University of Illinois, 1993). While not Frederickson’s most prominent work (that would have to be White Supremacy, his comparative study of America and South Africa that was nominated for a Pulitzer), Inner Civil War was a particularly seminal book in my own development; I read it during my first year of college, as part of my first American History and Literature Tutorial, and it gave me one of my first glimmers of the breadth and depth possible in genuine AmericanStudies scholarly analysis. In his combinations of intellectual history, literary analysis, use of historical primary documents, and sweeping arguments about American culture and identity, Frederickson helped push both our understanding of the Civil War and the possibilities of our scholarly endeavors forward.
It’s much too early to say whether Stephen Cushman’s Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (University of North Carolina, 2014) will similarly influence and endure in our scholarly conversations. But in his book, Cushman (who is, full disclosure, a long-time colleague of my Dad and family friend) considers his handful of historical and literary subjects (Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Chamberlain) through a multi-layered, interdisciplinary lens that is just as sweeping and as successful as was Frederickson’s. Just the act of bringing together those five figures and considering them through the same two-part lens—the way they tried to make sense of the war through writing, and the role that their writing has played in shaping our own subsequent narratives of the war—is a striking and significant one, and forces us to rethink our conceptions of not only the figures themselves, but of our categorizations and distinctions between such roles as politician and poet, military leader and creative writer, actor and reflector. For that reason, among others, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cushman’s book did indeed endure as Frederickson’s has.
As is so often the case, I believe these strong individual works have even more to offer our collective perspective if we put them in conversation with one another. For one thing, their chronologies are nicely complementary—Frederickson begins before the war and moves his subjects and readers into and through it, whereas Cushman begins in the war and moves us into the post-bellum era. For another, Frederickson’s focus on a group of intellectuals (including philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison) likewise complements the more political and literary figures and writers in Cushman’s frame; while both, interestingly enough, analyze Walt Whitman through their respective lenses, providing a bridge between these approaches. Finally, and to my mind most compellingly, the two books offer an interdisciplinary combination that extends and amplifies that element within each: Frederickson starts from the perspective of an intellectual historian and then extends to military and political history, literary analysis, and more; whereas Cushman is first and foremost a literary scholar, and then weds that approach to historical analysis, military and political history, and more. Taken together, the two have even more to tell us about the Civil War and the 19th century, American ideas and narratives, and the way we remember and engage with our histories and writers.
Next new book tomorrow,
PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend?