Saturday, October 17, 2020
October 17-18, 2020: Confederate Memory: Adam Domby’s The False Cause
[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’ve AmericanStudied that process and other aspects of Confederate memory, leading up to this special post on a great recent book on the subject!]
On two contexts for one of the year’s most significant public scholarly books.
Besides its obvious relevance to this week’s series, I decided to focus this weekend post on Adam Domby’s The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (2020) in part because Domby’s book could easily have been, and really should have been, included in my Recent Reads post a week and a half back on Civil War scholarship. The False Cause concludes with a chapter on the myth of “black Confederates” that complements Kevin Levin’s book perfectly; and the whole of Domby’s project could be read as another answer to Heather Cox Richardson’s titular question of How the South Won the Civil War. Moreover, while all three of those books are well worth your time (and purchase), I would say that the summer of 2020 events about which I wrote in Friday’s post have rendered Domby’s book the most salient of the three (and one of the most salient books released this year period); it’s no coincidence, for example, that his first chapter, “Rewriting the Past in Stone,” focuses on Confederate monuments and statues. If you want to read one recent scholarly work that helps explain both why those statues exist and why it’s more than okay for them to come down, I’d go with False Cause.
As with any great scholarly work, Domby’s book also got me thinking about other elements, histories that complement and extend those on which he focuses (which tend in one way or another to be either public, like those statues; or personal, like veterans’ pension claims). Having gone to school in Virginia in the 1980s, one thing I’d highlight is the role of the educational system in creating and, especially, amplifying and reiterating Lost Cause myths. James Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) could get a sequel focused entirely on the Civil War and not have any difficult filling the pages; I know for a fact that I had at least two teachers who called it “The War between the States,” and wouldn’t be surprised if one of them in particular had slipped up and called it “The War of Northern Aggression” at some point. And of course for many decades those educational myths didn’t end with high school graduation, as the Dunning School and its multi-generational legacies meant that both the Civil War and Reconstruction were taught in a Lost Cause way in far too many college classrooms as well. Myths like the Lost Cause can be created anywhere (as Domby nicely traces), but it seems to me that they require educational support if they’re going to be passed along to entire generations.
There’s another prominent societal mechanism through which American collective myths have long been disseminated, however, and it’s one that really took off right in the early 20th century period on which Domby’s book especially focuses: the movies. In the same late spring/early summer moment that the Confederate statue events were unfolding, a parallel controversy developed around Gone with the Wind, which HBO temporarily removed from its new streaming service (in order to bring it back with additional historical contextualization). I’ve written many times, from my first published article to online pieces both here and elsewhere, about the destructive myths that both Mitchell’s novel and the film adaptation helped propagate and popularize. But during that 2020 controversy, historian Nina Silber put it succinctly and potently, in the title of a post for the Washington Post’s Made by History blog: “Gone with the Wind is also a Confederate monument, but on film instead of stone.” Indeed it is, and taken together the novel and film have likely spread the Lost Cause myth to more Americans than just about any other stories or histories.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Confederate or Civil War memory you’d highlight?