Friday, July 31, 2009

An Uncivil Civil War War

The other night, Sally Jenkins was on The Daily Show touting a new book on Civil War Era America, The State of Jones. Jenkins is a Washington Post sportswriter (and generally a fine one at that) and so my teeth were set on edge when she started in on that great journalistic cliche that her book was one that explored a topic that historians had not only ignored but had intentionally kept hidden. People who say things like this generally speaking do not know what the fuck they are talking about. There are topics that could use more exploration, there are topics that have been mishandled by historians, and there are topics that could use reappraisal. But there is no topic in the historical profession where there has been collusion. When you hear people say that historians have ignored topic X or Y you can be certain that the person spouting off has an agenda that has nothing to do with what historians have actually written.

In any case, Jenkins wrote the book with a Harvard historian, so I at least assumed that she was out there for the salesmanship, and hey, she's on the Daily Show, my book didn't pass muster, so more power to her. Still, the assertions she made about her untold story did not ring true with me. But it had been a while since I had really focused on the Civil War and Old South, even if those topics made up a minor PhD field for me and a good hunk of my MA work as well.

And with reasons. Because of course Jenkins was wrong. And it appears that she was willfully wrong. For right down here in Texas, down at Texas State University in San Marcos (between San Antonio and Austin) a history professor named Victoria Bynum wrote a well regarded book on virtually the same topic and with practically the same title. And little did I know that percolating below the surface was a hell of a controversy, which came to the attention of most people in The New York Times and which Kevin Levin (with Ralph Luker's assistance) explicates in much greater depth and with loads of great links at Cliopatria. And wouldn't you know it -- Hollywood has a role in this fracas as well.

By the way, for what it's worth, I think Bynum wins the historiographical debate by a knockout.

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