On Myth & Memory

Published:April 9, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

The other day, on the occasion of Confederate Heritage Month, we offered the thoughts of Civil War historian Bruce Catton. The question posed: what good is the myth of the Lost Cause if it glorifies a cause in service of slavery? The answer, according to the Northerner Catton, has to do with the ability of such stories to “elevate the entire conflict to the realm where it is no longer explosive. It moves men mightily, to this day, but it does not move them in the direction of picking up their guns and going at it again.”

That last point, perhaps, is debatable. No, there will never be another war over slavery, but there was organized and violent resistance to integration since almost the very moment Lee shook Grant’s hand. But such objections aside, I happen to agree in large part with Catton on this. I respect the value of myth and legend, even where it contradicts history. To do so is not to value myth over history, but to suggest that both serve important functions. (Here, think of myth not as synonymous with lie, but as the Greeks thought of it: a story that has a kind of civic or ritual usefulness.)

Okay, fine. But it is another thing altogether to witness this myth-making up close as I did recently when I picked up These United States: Portraits of America from the 1920s, a fascinating collection of essays—one for each state—that was originally serialized in the Nation magazine. The essay on Virginia, titled “Virginia: A Gentle Dominion,” was authored by the journalist and historian Douglas Southall Freeman and published July 16, 1924. It begins this way:

Virginia buried her beloved at Appomattox, as her sons stood by, very ragged. All that she was, all that she hoped, all in which she had taken pride she told herself she had interred there. But it was spring for her sons, plowing-season, and they were hungry. They tramped back home and fortunately found in the reclamation of stumpy fields and neglected meadows an outlet for their grief.

Wow. Talk about “elevated”! The diction, the metaphor—this is indeed the high, thin air of myth. “All that she was” etc. is left unexplained. Virginians may fill in the blank as they wish. And those stumpy fields? Are those really fields he’s talking about?

Freeman is, shall we say, genteelly elliptical when it comes to matters of race. The Virginian, he tells us, is by his nature superbly considerate, this having to do with “the first law of the South—that a white man is a white man and must be treated as such regardless of his station.” As for those men who are not white: “The Virginia Negro is the blue-blood of his race” and “lynchings are rare”; in fact, he enjoys “the moral support of nearly all the whites.”

Never was a nearly more necessary!

Elsewhere, Freeman refers to Jim Crow not by name but rather as “the skeleton in the great Widow’s closet,” the “chevaux de frise” placed before those aforementioned blue-bloods by a 1902 constitution deemed (by Freeman) “curious” and instituted by a people who are, perhaps, “too considerate of office-holders to overcome the phalanx office-holders are careful to muster.”

Here, the usefulness of myth butts heads with the moral urgency of history. This, I suppose, is much the story of modern Virginia.

IN ADDITION: Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory offers some thoughtful comments on this issue in response to a question of mine.