This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal by Nina Silber

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 13:

As more and more white people complained of enslavement, the grandchildren of actual slaves pointed out that under Jim Crow black people lived closest to real contemporary slavery. The argument was helped along by the development by people like Carter Woodson and W.E.B. DuBois of a class of professional black academics and intellectuals. They fought against the collective white memory that saw slavery as quaint and benign.

New Dealers, with their reliance on organized labor, embraced the idea that modern workers, regardless of color, were enslaved. Unwilling to challenge Southern segregationists in Congress, they used a deracialized version of the slavery story. Roosevelt denounced modern slavery while allowing his administrators in the South to discriminate against blacks seeking aid. Roosevelt took on the emancipatory mantle of Lincoln without challenging racial exclusion.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 14:

The image of the white man reduced to slavery appeared in movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Prisoner of Shark Island, about Dr. Sam Mudd. Even Will Rogers comedic Judge Priest shows a chain gang of Southern white men. While blacks were disproportionately jailed in America, and chain gangs were filled with African Americans returned to a sort of temporary penal slavery, the images of imprisonment and forced labor Hollywood offered were of white men breaking stones.

Slavery was in the movies and it was bad, but its victims were white.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 15:

Chapter 4 of the book looks at the changing view of Lincoln during the 1930s. Until then, Lincoln had been a partisan figure, embraced by Republicans and largely disregarded by Northern Democrats. Democrats had been the party of a small Federal government and states' rights. FDR's New Deal made it the Big Government Party par excellence. Democrats would try to claim Lincoln's mantle. Getting right with Mr. Lincoln became a commonplace in New Deal speeches.

Silber writes:

starting in the early 1930s and extending through the years of the Second World War, the sixteenth president underwent a series of remarkable transformations: no longer a bland symbol of reconciliation, he emerged as a figure more firmly associated with federal power and racial justice, although the racial message was often tempered by an appreciation of Lincoln’s racially neutral “humanitarianism.” By the end of the 1930s, the Lincoln image changed again, with Honest Abe transformed into a singular representative of Americans’ rebuke to global dictatorship. In this regard, Lincoln did not simply mirror cultural and political trends. Rather, he occupied a fiercely contested space and, for some Americans, offered an imaginative repository—a kind of cultural testing ground—allowing them to explore more hopeful responses to the social and economic crises of the 1930s. (p. 100)
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 16:

According to Silber:

Democrats increasingly challenged Republican claims to the sixteenth president as they worked to associate Lincoln with New Deal efforts. Indeed, for every Republican who summoned Lincoln as the “great defender of freedom,” there was at least one Democrat honoring him as the New Dealer of the 1850s and ’60s. Lincoln likewise took a starring role in several New Deal plays, including Howard Koch’s Lonely Man, which placed him at the forefront of contemporary workers’ struggles, imagining him as a reincarnated college professor who visits a Kentucky campus and expresses sympathy for striking coal miners. (p. 100)

There was a flowering of popular books, plays, radio programs, and movies with Lincoln as a character. Of course, this was the period in which Carl Sandburg, son of immigrants, published his own works on Lincoln. Sandburg's Lincoln would stay popular for the next three decades.

Even the Communists took on Lincoln as an avatar. Their unit in the anti-Franco army in Spain was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. (Full disclosure: An in-law I never met was in that brigade).

In pop culture, Lincoln was hailed as a humorist, a humanitarian, a peacemaker. He was a genius, a "typical" common man, a liberal, a socialist, a racial egalitarian. He was a staunch defender of the American republic willing to use violence to preserve it against its enemies.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 17:

Even a Lost Causey bit of piffle like Shirley Temple's The Littlest Rebel drafted Abe Lincoln in as a benign national patriarch. Silber says that it was not unusual for younger Southerners to say that their personal heroes were Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Lincoln inspired people with his perseverance in spite of adversity. He seemed to be the man of the hour, made for a country facing economic collapse and foreign war. His election had bet off the worst civil war of its time, but now he was a post-death unifier.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, the composer Aaron Copland honored the president with his Lincoln Portrait in 1942. Copland said he was most impressed by Lincoln's "gentleness and simplicity of spirit." Carl Sandburg, whose Lincoln The Prairie Years was published before the Depression bagan, became the primary expounder of the evolving Lincoln legend in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1939 he published The War Years just as the world was plunging into World War II and Americans were looking for a leader of Lincolnian proportions.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 18:

Lincoln came to occupy a special place in the hearts of the nation's immigrants. Silber says that:

Lincoln’s life story, especially tales of his rise from obscurity and his persistent battles with detractors, also made him a sympathetic figure for American immigrants. “Even foreigners who have little grasp of the English language,” wrote the reviewer of one Lincoln play, “love the story of the man Lincoln.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful Lincoln writer in these years was the son of Swedish immigrant parents; he likely interpreted the former president’s saga through his own understanding of what American immigrants endured and experienced. Sandburg and other Lincoln delineators no doubt saw a parallel between Lincoln and immigrants, both having to make their own way in new and sometimes
hostile surroundings.
 

Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Jul 21, 2014
Part 18:

Lincoln came to occupy a special place in the hearts of the nation's immigrants. Silber says that:

Lincoln’s life story, especially tales of his rise from obscurity and his persistent battles with detractors, also made him a sympathetic figure for American immigrants. “Even foreigners who have little grasp of the English language,” wrote the reviewer of one Lincoln play, “love the story of the man Lincoln.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful Lincoln writer in these years was the son of Swedish immigrant parents; he likely interpreted the former president’s saga through his own understanding of what American immigrants endured and experienced. Sandburg and other Lincoln delineators no doubt saw a parallel between Lincoln and immigrants, both having to make their own way in new and sometimes
hostile surroundings.
I need to read this book, Pat. As soon as Iget through some of the pile I have waiting for me now. Hmm... maybe Jefferson Davis and Stonewall will have to wait.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 19:

While African American intellectuals were reassessing Lincoln's achievements in the area of racial equality, the black masses continued to be committed to him. Lincoln's enemies made him dearer to them. The Chicago Defender said that “The same voices that raise the cry against the memory of Abraham Lincoln go about preaching the theory of white supremacy.” By his enemies, most rank and filers knew Lincoln had to be on their side. Because of Lincoln's increasing popularity with the white public, civil rights leaders mobilized Lincoln for their cause.

In the 1930s, African American speakers coupled Lincoln with Frederick Douglass. The black press took an expansive view of Lincoln's civil rights record, inventing some modern poses that the 16th president might not have recognized. By the late 1930s Lincoln was no longer just anti-slavery, he was also anti-racism. When the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from signing in DAR Hall, the NAACP pushed for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 20:

Placing Lincoln squarely on the side of civil rights, black activists challenged the notion that Lincoln was simply a conciliator. Their Lincoln fought for what he believed in and died for his commitment to ending slavery. Hollywood hinted at this, although in a backhanded way. In the movie Young Mr. Lincoln, the future president confronts a lynch mob to stop the hanging of three accused brothers. This must have resonated with movie audiences familiar with the frequent lynchings of blacks in the South. Of course, in the movie Lincoln is protecting three white men, but the message against mob violence was clear.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 21:

The next chapter may be considered the book's centerpiece. It looks at the cultural and political impact of the Depression Era's most enduring artifact, the film Gone With the Wind. The novel and film were so important to many Southern whites self-conception that Douglas Southall Freeman wrote in 1939 that if Southerners had lost the war, the novel's author Margaret Mitchell had "won the peace."

Scarlett O'Hara had a special appeal to Depression Era women. She struggled every day after the Fall of Atlanta to feed and protect herself and her family. Like many dispossessed women of the 1930s, she broke out of traditional female roles to ensure survival. She might accept the demise of the Confederacy, an institution she viewed cynically anyway, but she would not accept her own defeat. While the movie had many Lost Cause elements, its two central characters could see throught the Patriotic Gore of Confederate memory.

A woman did not have to come from Dixie to appreciate the redhead.
 
Last edited:

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 22:

The novel had been a blockbuster, and even before filming started there was tremendous buzz about the movie Gone With the Wind. The national hunt for actresses to play in the film was a subject of conversation far and wide. While Silber's book does not offer an analyisis of the film, it is presented as a central reinforcement of the Lost Cause point of view, even if it was disruptive of traditional gender roles and notions of sexual propriety.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 23:

Other films also dealt with Civil War Era themes. These included the unaptly named Santa Fe Trail, which focused on John Brown. Brown was presented as a totalitarian fanatic who might be at home in a Brownshirt unit or the Communist Party. George Armstong Custer and J.E.B. Stuart team up to fight against fanaticism. The 1940 film, Silber writes, contains the theme that Americans North and South must unite against violent ideologies. A second film, Virginia City, sees Union and Confederate veterans unite to fight bandits.

Another white reconciliationist film was Tennessee Johnson, a hagiography of Andrew Johnson. Johnson was depicted as having the courage to stand up against the radicals in the Republican Party who demanded equal rights for blacks.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 24:

After 1941 the Civil War and Lincoln were used as unifying symbols. Americans could endure war. We could choose a leader to harness the power of a massive democracy. Wartime sacrifice need not be feared because once the war ended, the peacetime republic could be restored.

The Popular Front Marxist critique of this Civil War memory was in decline by the 1940s. The support of many communists for the Hitler-Stalin Pact discredited Popular Front intellectuals. After the Japanese surrender, increasing repression against the Communist Party eliminated this point of view from the public square.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 25:

If Lincoln had been lifted up by the Depression and the war, there were still many elements of Old South thinking reflected in the movies. One of the most racist children's films ever made in the United States, Disney's Song of the South came out in the 1940s. This film was so racially charged that Disney never released it on home video. In spite of several catchy songs, the film's depiction of black life during the plantation era was beyond redemption and it was recognized as such not long after its original popular run. The terminal nature of Song of the South also showed the new power of black consumer boycotts.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Part 26:

While modern Neo-Confederate revisionism may deny Lincoln love, a 1945 NORC survey found that when asked to name the five greatest Americans:

Outside the South, Lincoln was the clear winner, selected by 61 percent. Even among white southerners, Lincoln was chosen by 44 percent of respondents, coming second behind FDR, but slightly ahead of George Washington. (p. 177).

Robert Penn Warren, once a "Southern Agrarian," wrote later that after World War II LIncoln replaced Washington and Jefferson as the premier figure of the American past. The Civil War, with all of its frightening modernity, have replaced the Revolution as the historical event uppermost in peoples' minds.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Conclusion:

For all of the contested ground of the battle over Civil War memory, Silber reminds us that as the US built bases for its expanding military in the 1940s, some were named after Confederate generals but none was named after an African American.

I found the first quarter of this book slow going. There are interesting facts and analysis in this volume, but some readers will go off the tracks before they get to it.

This is a period of Civil War Memory Studies that is less written about than the Jim Crow Era, the 50th Anniversary or the Centennial. Silber's book fills a gap in Memory Studies.
 
Top