Feeling 'Buff'

Published:November 25, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

I’m still thinking about the historian Kent Gramm’s comments about myth-making and the Civil War. Re-reading that post, I notice that one word especially jumps out—buff, as in, “As a Civil War buff, [Gramm] explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia . . .”

It’s unclear whether Gramm is the Civil War buff here, or whether he’s speaking only of other buffs. Either way, he’s suggesting that it’s complicated, this idea of marching vicariously with Lee’s Miserables. And so I’m reminded of a wonderful essay titled “Buff” and written by University of Virginia English professor Stephen Cushman. It appears in his also wonderful 1999 cultural history of the Battle of the Wilderness, Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle.

Cushman traces the origin of the word buff and how it means an enthusiast, someone who is knowledgeable and well-informed. He also points out, however, that to call someone “a Jesus buff” would not necessarily be a compliment. In other words, the word’s connotation carries with it the sense that this knowledge is “a little quirky, a harmless private hobby on the order of collecting bottle caps or matchbooks from around the world.”

Having already suggested that the word homefront makes no sense in the context of the Civil War (which is, perhaps, why the word didn’t actually exist then), Cushman goes on to make this interesting point:

Here then is the problem with buff. Its employment after 1960 to describe interest in the Civil War confirms that the boundary between war and peace within the United States feels so secure that people who want to can cross that boundary for their own amusement. In places and times where the boundary between war and peace feels insecure, interest in war is not a form of amusement. There were no Civil War buffs in Atlanta in 1865 [. . .] but a country in which there are two million copies of Killer Angels in print, a country in which supposedly nobody reads anymore, is a country that feels stable enough to entertain itself, while commuting to work or lounging at the beach or before turning out the light at night, with a story of a battle that involved over fifty thousand killed, wounded, and missing people.

There’s a certain edge of self-righteousness in Cushman’s tone here, and Gramm has it, too. He seems to say, I understand better than you, lowly buff, what it means for fifty thousand to have fallen at Gettysburg. And I can easily imagine certain people responding, as they have on this blog, by suggesting that buffs are interested not simply in “entertainment,” but in remembrance and commemoration. Of course, these folks are just as self-righteous in their own way. Having nominated themselves as the vehicles of such remembrance, they are asserting a special connection to the dead, one that certainly has religious overtones but is also personal. You attack them, buddy, and you’re attacking me!

Cushman doesn’t spell this out, but this is exactly what he seems to be responding to in the very next paragraph:

It is only in the safety of peace that people can have fun with war. When a man plasters his pickup truck with bumper stickers reading, “Happiness Is a Northbound Yankee,” “I had rather be dead than a Yankee,” “Keep the history, heritage and spirit of the south flying [with picture of the Confederate battle flag],” “Forget, Hell!” [. . .] he appears to be carrying out a kind of deep memorializing that keeps the war present in his mind and that of anyone who sees his truck. But in fact he’s having it both ways, since it is only because the war is so long gone and absent from most people’s awareness that he can afford to brandish these inflammatory slogans. He appears to urge remembrance, but he does so in terms that depend on forgetting. If the Yankees who have overrun his Southern home felt as ardently as he about keeping sectional tensions alive, he might think twice about the possible effects of those bumper stickers on his insurance premiums.

You think Cushman is full of it? I don’t think so, but there are assumptions underlying what both he and Gramm argue that perhaps need to be challenged. I have exactly the man to do it, so more on that to come.

PREVIOUSLY: In which John Quincy Adams looks forward to a “glorious” war

IN ADDITION: Two recent Virginia Vignettes have drawn on Cushman’s work: What Was the Wilderness? (Pt. 1) and What Was the Wilderness? (Pt. 2)