Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
- Jan 7, 2013
- Long Island, NY
The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren published by Bison Books, 109 pages (1960, reissued 1998). $14.95 Paperback, $11.14 Kindle.
The question you should be asking yourself is “Why is someone reviewing a book that was published 57 years ago whose author has been dead for decades?” I asked myself that same question while reading The Legacy of the Civil War. I am not sure if my answer will be satisfying to you or if it will encourage you to read this book. I am not sure that those are even my goals with this review.
Robert Penn Warren is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times, once for his novel All the Kings Men, and twice for his poetry. Warren was from the Border South, born in Kentucky to a family trying to negotiate the challenges of early 20th Century life, but drawn to a grandfather who “rode with Forrest” and who may have executed Union prisoners. Grandfather’s stories provided Warren with the oral history of a war that Warren would later call “oracular.” According to Robert Penn Warren, Americans get their understanding of their history and their present from their memory of the Civil War. We use Pickett’s Charge, Robert E. Lee, slavery, abolitionism, and Robert Gould Shaw as the entrails we study to interpret where we are, and how we got here.
I decided to reread and review The Legacy of the Civil War after I saw, once too often, the fragment of a sentance “Treasury of Virtue” being thrown around as an epithet one more time here on Civil War Talk. I had read the book several years ago and knew it was more than that one phrase standing in isolation. The Legacy of the Civil War was not a set of talking points for devotees of The Lost Cause.
Robert Penn Warren was drawn to the meanings of the Civil War and the events surrounding it from his earliest days as a young intellectual. His first book was a takedown of the fanaticism of abolitionist hero John Brown. Warren believed that a crazy man, which he believed John Brown to be, was only dangerous when he was in a crazy society, as he argued the United States had become by the 1850s. Abolitionism and fire-eating secession had replaced the American tradition of pragmatic realism and compromise.
Warren became associated with the Southern Agrarians in the 1920s, a group of intellectuals who took on H.L. Menken’s critique of Southern conservativism, religiousity, and rejection of the new urbanism of American life. Warren wrote an essay, The Briar Patch, for the Agrarians’ manifesto I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. The Briar Patch was a meditation on race relations in the South. In it he depicted African Americans as having the capacity of children under slaver who then were raised to the status of citizens without any preparation. Blacks were then used as an object of “oppression” by those seeking to exploit the South. The black man had, through his behavior during Reconstruction, "sadly mortgaged his best immediate capital ... the confidence of the Southern white man with whom he had to live."
Warren later said that he was uncomfortable with The Briar Patch. Although he would reject aspects of that essay, he returned to the questions it posed repeatedly over the coming decades. Even his Huey Long novel, All the King’s Men, used one of its character’s research into his Civil War ancestor’s past as a driver of the plot.
This Review will be published in four parts. I will post the rest of the review later today.