Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Civil War in Popular Culture

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 26, 2002

[Woodrow Wilson] reputedly gave his famous description of Birth of a Nation as “history written with lightning,” adding, “my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Shelby Foote called the Civil War “The crossroads of our being” as Americans. Cullen writes that “officially, the Civil War ended in 1865, but culturally, it was just beginning.” The war’s meaning was at stake; if history can be said to be written by the victor, outside observers might find it hard to understand that the South lost the war.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorJim Cullen
Length254 pages
Book Rating6

Popular cultural works draw from common myths and then re-affirm those myths; sometimes they may alter the interpretation, other times overthrow them for new interpretations. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for example, became a fulcrum of public opinion in the days preceding the war, and fueled the myth following the war. Myth here does not mean wrong. It is a historical event or fact that, right or wrong, has attained a cultural significance that transcends fact into something that shapes or reflects a culture’s worldview and a member’s psyche.

Cullen’s view (shared by many others, such as Shelby Foote) is that even to this day none of us (Americans) has escaped the impact of the Civil War. “Even in our most careless (or willfully ignorant) moments, our shared history of division marks our national psyche like a scar that gives a face its distinctive cast.”

He surveys a wide variety of early works--Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Clansman, and lesser-known works--before settling in on more in-depth surveys of

  • Works about Lincoln;
  • Gone With the Wind;
  • Rock & Roll;
  • Glory; and
  • Civil War Re-enactments

Throughout the work, Cullen makes equivocal statements meant to imply statement without actually stating anything. For example, in the chapter on rock music, he writes “If rock n’ roll grew out of Civil War tensions, the fact that it did not emerge until the next century suggests that other factors must also have been at work.” He continually wishes to imply what he cannot prove. In the introduction, he writes, “I am less interested in formulating tightly reasoned arguments... than I am in making revealing juxtapositions and suggestive observations that can enrich our sense of past and present.” A noble goal, but he finds conclusions too difficult to avoid; tightly-reasoned arguments supporting those conclusions are more easily averted.

The tension that he describes in “Confederate Mythology in Rock n’ Roll” is “an urge to remember and a simultaneous urge to forget... irresistable impulses for white Southerners since 1865.” He epitomizes it in Charlie Daniels’ “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” But what is the south going to do again? The song isn’t clear; that kind of ambiguity runs throughout Southern Rock.

In another of his classic ambiguous non-statements, Cullen writes that “In the United States, rock n’ roll has been the music of integration par excellence, and if that integration has been uneven, unfair, and incomplete, it shows how well rock has reflected the culture at large... In the end, simply buying a Motown record was not enough.” In other words, rock music integrates, but if it doesn’t, then that’s important also. Probably true, but there is little discussion on this other than to shortly contrast Elvis Presley with Martin Luther King. The rise of civil rights and the rise of rock and roll probably were culturally related, but I want to hear more about why and how.

In the late sixties, as the Democrats began to eschew their racist Civil War legacy, Richard Nixon tapped into it, and broke the Democratic hold on the white South by appealing to that “silent majority” that resisted reform. Similarly, if more positively, Southern Rock saw the south as “a place apart, relatively free of the corruptions that had corroded modern life.” But later on, the southern experience took a different meaning: “an experience of defeat” with direct connotations to Vietnam. He also considers “Glory” to have been a “search for a just war”, to overcome Vietnam’s lesson that there may well be no just war.

In “It Isn’t Murder If They’re Yankees,” I draw an analogy between North/South sectional differences and a bad marriage. This was a reflection of some of the attitudes towards the South (though the South did not seem to share those attitudes) following the war. In 1886, a bad marriage meant that someone needed to be “uplifted”, whether it was the drunken husband or the unbending bride. Even if she had to be beaten bloody to get her to accept it. Cullen quotes Henry Grady speaking to northerners:

Never was nobler duty confided to human hands than the uplifting and upbuilding of the prostrate and bleeding South--misguided, perhaps, but beautiful in her suffering, and honest, brave, and generous always!

In most of the book, he surveys how the creators of popular culture, the artists and novelists and directors, present historical myth; in a chapter on Civil War re-enactments, he focusses on the audience. The enactors are the audience as well, though there are often spectators also. He calls Civil War re-enactments more colorful than, for example, Revolutionary War re-enactments. Those taking part in Revolutionary War re-enactments all side with the victors. His implication is that Civil War re-enactors side with either side. He is also sympathetic to re-enactments as a form of history, a way of seeing what history means to individuals, not historians. But it is also an example of how people use fantasy to integrate history into mythology.

If you read only one chapter of this book, I recommend this one. It is at the heart of his topic. Although, again, his conclusion leaps considerably from his evidence in my opinion. It is not necessarily wrong, but it has not been shown. It is his own historical assumption that premises his conclusion.

The Civil War in Popular Culture” (I prefer the subtitle, “A Reusable Past”) is neither inciteful nor brilliant, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Unable to overcome the shackles he discusses, he at least sees the shadows they cast on the barnyard floor. If you’re interested in the effects a major popular incident has as it ripples through time, I recommend this book. It takes an event which has already entered into American mythology and had already become myth nearly as soon as it was “over” and examines this myth and its effects on popular culture. It’s a good book. I am hard on him in this review only because this is such a fascinating work; the book should have been twice as large.

The Civil War in Popular Culture

Jim Cullen

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed The Civil War in Popular Culture…

If you enjoy Southern culture, you might also be interested in Sartoris, The Abolitionists, and To Kill a Mockingbird.