October 30, 2011
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK FORTY-FOUR, 2011
David W. Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England, 2011) ("A tragic sense of history rejects facile, 'optimistic' conceptions of the past. It respects the power of the dark and evil side of human nature, as well as the capacities of the institutions humans create, to exploit and destroy in the name of ideology, nation, or religion. . . . A tragic view of history is not hopeless or merely 'pessimistic,' but rather what one might call informed, prepared, or chastened. A sense of tragedy can keep us suspicious of theories or revolutionary change or of stable progress. The tragic mode of seeing and writing the past does not mean that the engine of history is to be found solely in the darkest recesses of human nature, in man's capacity for evil. People are the engines of history, and sometimes very specific people and nations are explicitly to blame for crimes against humanity. The tragic mode, though, helps us to temper our rigid theories of history, conditions us for history's shocking surprises, and reminds us that each day when the sun rises again in the human story, the night will come. A sense of tragedy makes real hope possible." "The idea of tragedy and the idea of progress are both essential for the achievement of knowledge from experience, but they are largely antithetical." Id. at 24-25. Wonderful, insightful essays on Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. By the 1960s, Baldwin and other writers who tried to provide the country with an alternative story to the mainstream impulses of the Civil War Centennial were surrounded by an emerging and vibrant scholarship that would, with the decade, begin to revolutionize American and African American history. . . . But popular memory always lags for behind scholarship, and all revolutions can be turned around--as the new historiography of Reconstruction poignantly demonstrated, and as out political culture in the early twenty-first century reminds us, elections after election." Id. at 248.).