Tuesday, October 13, 2020
October 13, 2020: Confederate Memory: James D. Lynch’s Poetry
[On October 12th, 1870, Robert E. Lee died—but not before the post-war deification of Lee was already well underway. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that process and other aspects of Confederate memory, leading up to a special post on a great recent book on the subject!]
On three poems that illustrate the evolution of Confederate memory.
1) Robert E. Lee, or Heroes of the South (1876): Mississippi Confederate veteran and neo-Confederate, white supremacist Reconstruction lawyer Lynch’s first published literary work reflects that ongoing post-war deification of Lee, not only in the text’s details but in its status as a national bestseller. Lynch turns Lee into a classical, epic hero, and one who embodies the ideal legacy of the U.S. (despite of course leading armies against it); all of which is clearly and concisely illustrated by one sentence from the “Summarium” before the start of Canto I: “He lands on an island, where an old Revolutionary soldier predicts to him his fate, and, conditionally, that of his country.”
2) Redpath, or the Ku Klux Tribunal (1877): Lee uses Civil War history to make the case for its post-war, neo-Confederate perspective, but in his next published poem Lynch developed those contemporary white supremacist arguments much more overtly. He did so through a particularly insidious choice of protagonist and plot: Redpath, an aide to a Radical Republican Congressman, is sent to the South to investigate the KKK for the ongoing Congressional hearings into the domestic terrorist organization; but instead his experiences convert him entirely to the KKK’s perspective, and he comes back to Washington to make the case for why the Klan is necessary and vital in this post-war moment. Long before Thomas W. Dixon and Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, Lynch paved the way for such cultural celebrations of the KKK.
3) “Columbia Saluting the Nations” (1893): Lynch’s final published poem was by far his most prominent, as it and he were chosen as the official salutation for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The poem itself includes no overt neo-Confederate sentiments, advancing instead the kind of national celebration you’d expect for that occasion. But that’s precisely the point—that by the 1890s, a Confederate veteran, white supremacist Reconstruction lawyer, and author of poems like Lee and Redpath could be chosen to serve in this ostensibly unifying national role, a reflection of just how fully this neo-Confederate perspective and narrative had come to dominate American culture and society by the end of the 19th century.
Next memories tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Confederate or Civil War memory you’d highlight?