Book Review The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren-book that coined the term "Treasury of Virtue"

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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.
 
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Part II

The Legacy of the Civil War was originally an essay published in Life Magazine in 1960 in anticipation of the Civil War Centennial. It is about the legacy of the war for white Americans in 1960.

Seeing that the essay appeared in 1960, younger people could be forgiven for thinking it was a product of “The ’60s.” Older folks know that 1960 was really part of the “Long 1950s.” Dwight Eisenhauer was still president, the country’s young men aspired to gray flannel conformity, the Vietnam War was a French conflict, and there had been no Civil Rights Revolution. The Cold War was the dominant national struggle, and a consensus history of the Civil War that allowed for a sense of white national unity was dominant. The coming Civil War Centennial was being planned by people who intended to leave African Americans out of the narrative, except as their emancipation could demonstrate the progressive sensibilities of the American people.

Robert Penn Warren took up the questions that a look-back at a pivotal historical crisis should have answered a century after it occurred. The Legacy of the Civil War would be followed a year later by a novel Wilderness: A Tale of the Civil War a year later. That book would look at the war through the eyes of an idealistic Jewish immigrant whose dreams of freedom are shattered by war’s reality.

Part III will follow later today.
 

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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’ manifest 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 three parts. I will post the rest of the review later today.
Thanks for this review.
 
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Seeing that the essay appeared in 1960, younger people could be forgiven for thinking it was a product of “The ’60s.” Older folks know that 1960 was really part of the “Long 1950s.” Dwight Eisenhauer was still president, the country’s young men aspired to gray flannel conformity, the Vietnam War was a French conflict, and there had been no Civil Rights Revolution. The Cold War was the dominant national struggle, and a consensus history of the Civil War that allowed for a sense of white national unity was dominant. The coming Civil War Centennial was being planned by people who intended to leave African Americans out of the narrative, except as their emancipation could demonstrate the progressive sensibilities of the American people.
Very true
 
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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’ manifest 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 three parts. I will post the rest of the review later today.
Just finished part 1. Thanks for the review, Pat. On to part 2.
 
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Part III

The Legacy of the Civil War opens with the bold claim that “THE CIVIL WAR is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense.”

The Revolution was important to the founding of America, but people can’t feel the Revolution in their gut. “The Civil War is our only “felt” history—history lived in the national imagination,” Warren writes. That history, and how we remember it and feel it, is the subject of this essay. It is a favorite of the modern scholars of Civil War memory like David Blight and Kevin Levin because it was a predecessor to today’s academic focus on how the war is remembered. But this essay is not a history of the first 100 years of remembrance of the Civil War, nor is it a sociological study of how Americans thought about the 1860s in the 1960s. It is a poetic and philosophical musing on war and the distorting effect of memory on the perception of the past.

For three decades, Robert Penn Warren had been troubled by the racism of white Americans and the bottomless chasm of racial division in both the North and South. He was also concerned with the growing conformism of American life, which reached new depths right before the colorful cultural revolution of the 1960s. He also wondered about the impact of the Civil War in consolidating the American people. The military victory at Appomattox, he wrote, sealed the fate of the Union. Americans would no longer imagine themselves inhabiting break-away republics, the cost would be too high. The people’s primary identity was forged through allegiance to the United States. The war had not resolved the issue of race, but it had placed an iron-clad seal on the question of Union.

“A second clear and objective fact is that the Civil War abolished slavery, even if it did little or nothing to abolish racism; and in so doing removed the most obvious…impediment to Union,” Warren wrote. Slavery was the cause of the war, even if there were other causes as well. “Slavery looms up mountainously and cannot be talked away,” as a cause he declares. “It was certainly a necessary cause, to use the old textbook phrase, and provided the occasion for all the mutual vilification, rancor, self-righteousness, pride, spite, guilt, and general exacerbation of feeling, that was the natural atmosphere of the event, the climate in which the War grew.” Out of the war grew a changed nation. According to Warren “The old sprawling, loosely knit country disappeared into the nation of Big Organization.” The World War II veterans reading his essay had been part of the biggest and most triumphant manifestation of the “Big Organization.”
 
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Nothing to do with your postings.
The reason I feel that the essay is so 1960s, is that the underlying philosophy is limited to that time. Big organizations will fundamentally change, partisan politics will replace any kind of cooperativism and it will be black efforts that succeed.
 

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Thanks for your review and I look forward to Part 4. It is well written and informative. I have not read Warren’s work, but your Review is certainly giving me reasons to do so.

In light of Goodguy’s comments above, I hope you address some of the questions you posed in the first paragraph (which, by the way, is an excellent paragraph and is a prime example of how good reviews ought to begin - at least in my opinion).

Again thank you!
 
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Part IV

Warren’s history of abolition and its opposite would not withstand scrutiny today. In Warren’s view, abolition was a product of the Transcendentalists, an elite without a purpose, in his view. Modern historians now center abolitionism not in Emerson’s library, but in the agitation of black men and women in the North and Border states, in the working-class environs of the cities, and in religiously-bound rural communities. But his historical incorrectness may be forgiven as the expression of a 20th Century intellectual in a conversation with the intellectuals of the 1850s.

With the exception of the Catholic Orestes Brownson, the Transcendental abolitionists did not dirty their hands with advocacy for the white poor and working class, claims Warren. Unable to see the shades of gray in the world, they only struck out at the most diabolical aspect of the 19th Century labor system, human slavery.

The appeals to “higher law” of the white New England abolitionists undermined democratic functioning, debate, and compromise. If the righteous man was to be his own law, wrote Warren, "there is, in the logical end, only anarchy, and anarchy of a peculiarly tedious and bloodthirsty sort, for every drop is to be spilled in God’s name and by his explicit directive.” Warren believes that the South responded to the relentless moral criticism of the abolitionists by cutting itself off from all outside criticism. The revulsion Americans felt towards the absolutists on both sides bred a belief in pragmatism over ideology after the war.

Civil War Talk members will find Warren’s discussion of the war and its immediate aftermath vague and suggestive, frustrating in its lack of analytical clarity, and downright wrong sometimes. You may also find that the poetry of the language interferes with the clarity of the message. And the message itself may seem dated. We don’t live in the whites-only world of Civil War reflection anymore.

We also seem to have left the world of post-World War II pragmatism. Warren’s essay assumes a political environment in which the Democratic and Republican parties are merely electoral coalitions and where the left-wing of the Democratic Party looks pretty much like the left-wing of the Republican Party. I don’t live in that world any more. I don’t live in a world where Robert E. Lee is presumed to be a model for young white men or where Lincoln is still hailed unironically as The Liberator. Neither do you.

So what are we to make of Warren’s memorable suggestion “that the War gave the South the Great Alibi and gave the North the Treasury of Virtue?”

Warren writes:

By the Great Alibi the South explains, condones, and transmutes everything. By a simple reference to the “War,” any Southern female could, not too long ago, put on the glass slipper and be whisked away to the ball. Any goose could dream herself (or himself) a swan—surrounded, of course, by a good many geese for contrast and devoted hand-service. Even now, any common lyncher becomes a defender of the Southern tradition, and any rabble-rouser the gallant leader of a thin gray line of heroes, his hat on saber-point to provide reference by which to hold formation in the charge…Laziness becomes the aesthetic sense, blood-lust rising from a matrix of boredom and resentful misery becomes a high sense of honor, and ignorance becomes divine revelation.

In a use of The Great Alibi familiar to anyone who stops by Civil War Talk, Warren writes:

And the most painful and costly consequences of the Great Alibi are found, of course, in connection with race. The race problem, according to the Great Alibi, is the doom defined by history—by New England slavers, New England and Middlewestern Abolitionists, cotton, climate, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Wall Street, the Jews. Everything flows into the picture. Since the situation is given by history, the Southerner therefore is guiltless; is, in fact, an innocent victim of a cosmic conspiracy.

The opposite end of Warren’s dichotomy is the Northern Treasury of Virtue. This is “the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War.” It “may not be as comic or vicious as the Great Alibi, but it is equally unlovely…If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed. He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.”

The poet describes the presumed clear racial conscience of the white Northerners who inherited the Treasury. Even if they are the beneficiaries of de facto segregation in their subdivision, they can take solace in the idea that dangerous racism wears a white hood and lives in the South. The historical myth of the North as the engine of emancipation gets translated into historical memories; “The sine qua non has to become a secretly enshrined ikon of a boy in blue striking off, with one hand, iron shackles from a grizzle-headed Uncle Tom weeping in gratitude, and with the other passing out McGuffey’s First Reader to a rolypoly pickaninny laughing in hope.” While Northern memory was selective, Northern forgetting was systemic. Self-congratulatory Northerners could forget that the North did not secure the rights of blacks in the South and that many areas of the North saw informal Jim Crow imposed by banks, bosses, and real estate developers. Warren observed that “the War appears, according to the doctrine of the Treasury of Virtue, as a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven, like the deeds of the saints, to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders…”

Warren was a sensitive and insightful observer of his own time, but he could not predict the future. No one who has been to a meeting in a Northern city or suburb in recent decades has heard the freeing of the slaves raised as a defense to claims of stalled racial progress. Young people are more likely to view Lincoln and the rest of the Union Civil War generation as racists than as a repository of virtues.

After Vietnam, Americans stopped seeing military adventure as a test of manhood and military victory as a determinant of the rightness of a cause. But many Americans still believe, against the facts, in an American Exceptionalism grounded in what Warren called the “illusions of our national infancy, the illusions of innocence and virtue.”

So what are we to make of Robert Penn Warren’s one hundred page meditation on death and racism, patriotic gore and self-proclaimed national innocence? In one way, The Legacy of the Civil War is an artifact of the middle period of the Cold War. Five years after it was published, parts of it were already outdated. Black voices, once excluded from the national conversation on the War, now are some of the loudest and most widely heard, something Warren did not imagine in 1960. So, his essay is a snapshot of the last moment of white racial intellectual hegemony.

But it is also much more. The strength of The Legacy of the Civil War is not in its predictive value or in its analysis of history. It is in the questions that it asked nearly six decades ago.

The Legacy of the Civil War is short enough to be read in a few hours. You may want to read it as an artifact of the Centennial or a last look at a work on race relations that does not imagine African Americans as the agents of change in the securing of civil rights. You can read it as a scene-setter for the modern field of the study of Civil War memory. (You might want to check out David Blight's American Oracle to see how Warren influences this discipline.) You may want to avoid the book if unanswered questions drive you crazy or if you would rather not check your balance in the Treasury of Virtue or give up your Great Alibi.
 
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Seeing that the essay appeared in 1960, younger people could be forgiven for thinking it was a product of “The ’60s.”
Not sure younger folks really care enough to read in the main.
Older folks know that 1960 was really part of the “Long 1950s.” Dwight Eisenhower was still president, the country’s young men aspired to gray flannel conformity, the Vietnam War was a French conflict, and there had been no Civil Rights Revolution.
I am not sure that is true. A casual google shows a conflict over what was going on in the 1950s between historians of the time. Google Search
The Cold War was the dominant national struggle, and a consensus history of the Civil War that allowed for a sense of white national unity was dominant.
IMHO, the Cold War is going to drive an enforced unity and opposition to any conflict. There seems to have been a impulse in the 1950s for dominance in religion by white protestants. We see all sorts of unifying against the Communist Threat from the political elites. As to Civil Rights we have the President's Committee on Civil Rights and issued Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military in 1948. Civil Rights were bubbling in the 1950s.
Civil Rights Movement Timeline From 1951 to 1959 1950s is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Brown v Board. Lots of civil rights stuff happening in the 1950s
In the 1950s, Native Born Whites were the dominant political force in the United States.
The coming Civil War Centennial was being planned by people who intended to leave African Americans out of the narrative, except as their emancipation could demonstrate the progressive sensibilities of the American people.
That is absolutely true. Maybe the inspiration for Warren's essay.

 
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Part IV

Warren’s history of abolition and its opposite would not withstand scrutiny today. In Warren’s view, abolition was a product of the Transcendentalists, an elite without a purpose, in his view. Modern historians now center abolitionism not in Emerson’s library, but in the agitation of black men and women in the North and Boarder states, in the working-class environs of the cities, and in religiously bound rural communities. But his historical incorrectness may be forgiven as the expression of a 20th Century intellectual in a conversation with the intellectuals of the 1850s.

With the exception of the Catholic Orestes Brownson, the Transcendental abolitionists did not dirty their hands with advocacy for the white poor and working class, claims Warren. Unable to see the shades of gray in the world, they only struck out at the most diabolical aspect of the 19th Century labor system, human slavery.

The appeals to “higher law” of the white New England abolitionists undermined democratic functioning, debate, and compromise. If the righteous man was to be his own law, wrote Warren, t”here is, in the logical end, only anarchy, and anarchy of a peculiarly tedious and bloodthirsty sort, for every drop is to be spilled in God’s name and by his explicit directive.” Warren believes that the South responded to the relentless moral criticism of the abolitionists by cutting itself from all outside criticism. The revulsion Americans felt towards the absolutists on both sides bred a belief in pragmatism over ideology.

Civil War Talk members will find Warren’s discussion of the war and its immediate aftermath vague and suggestive, frustrating in its lack of analytical clarity, and downright wrong sometimes. You may also find that the poetry of the language interferes with the clarity of the message. And the message itself may seem dated. We don’t live in the whites-only world of Civil War reflection anymore.

We also seem to have left the world of post-World War II pragmatism. Warren’s essay assumes a political environment in which the Democratic and Republican parties are merely electoral coalitions and where the left-wing of the Democratic Party looks pretty much like the left-wing of the Republican Party. I don’t live in that world any more. I don’t live in a world where Robert E. Lee is presumed to be a model for young white men or where Lincoln is still hailed as The Liberator. Neither do you.

So what are we to make of Warren’s memorable suggestion “that the War gave the South the Great Alibi and gave the North the Treasury of Virtue?”

Warren writes:

By the Great Alibi the South explains, condones, and transmutes everything. By a simple reference to the “War,” any Southern female could, not too long ago, put on the glass slipper and be whisked away to the ball. Any goose could dream herself (or himself) a swan—surrounded, of course, by a good many geese for contrast and devoted hand-service. Even now, any common lyncher becomes a defender of the Southern tradition, and any rabble-rouser the gallant leader of a thin gray line of heroes, his hat on saber-point to provide reference by which to hold formation in the charge…Laziness becomes the aesthetic sense, blood-lust rising from a matrix of boredom and resentful misery becomes a high sense of honor, and ignorance becomes divine revelation.

In a use of The Great Alibi familiar to anyone who stops by Civil War Talk, Warren writes:

And the most painful and costly consequences of the Great Alibi are found, of course, in connection with race. The race problem, according to the Great Alibi, is the doom defined by history—by New England slavers, New England and Middlewestern Abolitionists, cotton, climate, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Wall Street, the Jews. Everything flows into the picture. Since the situation is given by history, the Southerner therefore is guiltless; is, in fact, an innocent victim of a cosmic conspiracy.

The opposite end of Warren’s dichotomy is the Northern Treasury of Virtue. This is “the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War.” It “may not be as comic or vicious as the Great Alibi, but it is equally unlovely…If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed. He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.”

The poet describes the presumed clear racial conscience of the white Northerners who inherited the Treasury. Even if they are the beneficiaries of de facto segregation in their subdivision, they can take solace in the idea that dangerous racism wears a white hood and lives in the South. The historical myth of the North as the engine of emancipation gets translated into historical memories; “The sine qua non has to become a secretly enshrined ikon of a boy in blue striking off, with one hand, iron shackles from a grizzle-headed Uncle Tom weeping in gratitude, and with the other passing out McGuffey’s First Reader to a rolypoly pickaninny laughing in hope.” While Northern memory was selective, Northern forgetting was systemic. Self-congratulatory Northerners could forget that the North did not secure the rights of blacks in the South and that many areas of the North saw informal Jim Crow imposed by banks, bosses, and real estate developers. Warren observed that “the War appears, according to the doctrine of the Treasury of Virtue, as a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven, like the deeds of the saints, to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders…”

Warren was a sensitive and insightful observer of his own time, but he could not predict the future. No one who has been to a meeting in a Northern city or suburb in recent decades has heard the freeing of the slaves raised as a defense to claims of stalled racial progress. Young people are more likely to view Lincoln and the rest of the Union Civil War generation as racists than as a repository of virtues.

After Vietnam, Americans stopped seeing military adventure as a test of manhood and military victory as a determinant of the rightness of a cause. But many Americans still believe, against the facts, in an American Exceptionalism grounded in what Warren called the “illusions of our national infancy, the illusions of innocence and virtue.”

So what are we to make of Robert Penn Warren’s one hundred page meditation on death and racism, patriotic gore and self-proclaimed national innocence? In one way, The Legacy of the Civil War is an artifact of the middle period of the Cold War. Five years after it was published, parts of it were already outdated. Black voices, once excluded from the national conversation on the War now are some of the loudest and most widely heard, something Warren did not imagine in 1960. So, this essay is a snapshot of the last moment of white racial hegemony.

But it is also much more. The strength of The Legacy of the Civil War is not in its predictive value or in its analysis of history. It is in the questions that it asked nearly six decades ago.

The Legacy of the Civil War is short enough to be read in a few hours. You may want to read it as an artifact of the Centennial or a last look at a work on race relations that does not imagine African Americans as the agents of change in the securing of civil rights. You can read it as a scene-setter for the modern field of the study of Civil War memory. (You might want to check out David Blight's American Oracle to see how Warren influences this discipline.) You may want to avoid the book if unanswered questions drive you crazy or if you would rather not check your balance in the Treasury of Virtue or give up your Great Alibi.
IMHO it is philosophy and not history and has to be read with that in mind. Frustrating is the number of paths in the study of Civil War memory. Trying to recovery the memory, motives and internal thoughts of dead folks seems complicated.
 

alan polk

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Thouroghly enjoyed the review, Pat.

Just based on the review above, it does seem as if Warren’s work is part of the “Long 1950’s.” Although, as JGoodguy mentioned, conflicts were indeed bubbling up in the 50’s, those conflicts did not gain traction until later.

Some modern political theorists describe liberalism as going through 3 historical stages since the 18th Century. The 3rd stage (the one we are in the midst of today) did not begin until the 1960’s with minority groups actively seeking and making gains in full liberal autonomy.

In that context, I don’t see Warren’s work - again, based on Pat’s review- as being a “product of the 60’s.” Although his apparent references to our “Illusions of innocence” may seem to point to the bubbling up of conflict that would shape the 60’s, it is just as likely that those ideas have more in common with The Nashville Agrarians and the “decay of the West” schools of thought.
 

jgoodguy

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Thouroghly enjoyed the review, Pat.

Just based on the review above, it does seem as if Warren’s work is part of the “Long 1950’s.” Although, as JGoodguy mentioned, conflicts were indeed bubbling up in the 50’s, those conflicts did not gain traction until later.

Some modern political theorists describe liberalism as going through 3 historical stages since the 18th Century. The 3rd stage (the one we are in the midst of today) did not begin until the 1960’s with minority groups actively seeking and making gains in full liberal autonomy.

In that context, I don’t see Warren’s work - again, based on Pat’s review- as being a “product of the 60’s.” Although his apparent references to our “Illusions of innocence” may seem to point to the bubbling up of conflict that would shape the 60’s, it is just as likely that those ideas have more in common with The Nashville Agrarians and the “decay of the West” schools of thought.
All kinds of stuff I'd love to chase.
 
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Pat Young

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Note: Reviewer's Bio:

Patrick Young, Esq. is Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law where he also co-directs the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of the web series The Immigrants' Civil War. Past-Chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition and current Legal Services Director at the Central American Refugee Center, he has pursued lifelong interests in the phenomenon of domestic civil conflicts and the study of immigration history.
 
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