Studies of intellectual history in the Confederacy are somewhat off the common path. Due to the brief life of the Confederacy and its preoccupation with winning its independence in the Civil War, it has frequently been assumed that the Confederacy made little effort in the areas of cultural and intellectual life. This recent book,by Michael Bernath, "Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South" (2010) offers a detailed examination of the extent and nature of Confederate cultural activity during the War. The book is based upon an extensive examination of original source material, books, magazines, pamphlets, and other printed matter, which until relatively recently has been scattered and difficult to access. Bernath is Assistant Professor of United States history at the University of Miami. He received his Ph.D from Harvard in 2005. This is his first book.
At the time of secession, the South tended to be intellectually dependent upon the North. Southerners read mostly northern books and periodicals printed on northern presses. With the outbreak of the Civil War, southern editors, writers, and educators realized the Confederate nationhood required more than military success and political independence. The creation of a separate Confederate nation required cultural and intellectual independence as well with the creation of a literature capturing the dreams and character of the southern people and showing cultural independence from the North. With the war effort, the blockade, the shortage of men and material, the creation of a Confederate literature was a formidable task. Bernath argues that the southern cultural nationalists succeeded in part of their program even though they failed to achieve their ultimate goal of a distinctive southern literature.
The nature and breadth of the subject makes this a difficult book which, as did its subject matter -- the creation of Confederate cultural independence -- has mixed success. Bernath needs to establish the breadth and scope of Confederate cultural effort, and he does so thoroughly by examining and discussing the histories of the many periodicals, secular and religious, journals, novels, histories, poems, plays, textbooks and other materials published during the Civil War years. This is important to Bernath's task, but it makes for dry reading at times.
The book becomes much more interesting when Bernath discusses what it was Confederate cultural nationalists hoped to achieve. Coonfederate cultural naturalists hoped for the development of a literature that would capture the validity of the South's peculiar institution of slavery, but they also wanted more. The nature of Confederate cultural nationalism proved nebulous and ill-defined. In an early chapter, Bernath discusses the critique of northern culture that Confederate intellectuals offered to show what southern literature should not become. The Confederate cultural leaders saw the North and its literature as showing "inherent fanaticism" or "self-righteousness gone mad"(p. 37). Their criticism was directed against abolitionism, of course, but also included other "isms" which emphasized individualism ("womanism, free lovism, transcendentalism, vegetarianism, socialism, spiritualism, and much more) which fostered personal autonomy, egalitarianism, the breaking down of boundaries and, for the South, social chaos. Proponents of Confederate cultural nationalism saw the role of the South in creating a conservative, measured and heroic literature backed by traditional religious faith.
Bernath points out that Confederate writers distinguished between what they termed a "literature of knowledge" and a "literature of power". The former encompassed day to day, quotidian writings that taught "how to" do something or provided modest, passing entertainment or edification, This type of literature required diligence to produce but not creative inspiration. The "literature of power" in contrast was transcendental and timeless and captured the heart of a people and through it something universal in the human condition. With all the difficulties it faced, the Confederacy produced much in the way of a "literature of knowledge" as individuals responded to the call for a national literature. However the Confederate intellectual leadership, as well as Bernath, recognize that the Confederacy did not produce a "literature of power". A small number of poems and essays pointed towards that direction, but the endeavor failed.
The book is at its best when it documents and engages with Confederate efforts in the areas of fiction, poetry, criticism and history, rather than when it merely catalogues them. Bernath argues that Confederate cultural nationalism failed in part because the notion of a separate southern identity was itself vague and tenuous. But he clearly admires southern intellectual leaders for their efforts and for what they managed to achieve in the harshest of circumstances. Bernath also shows how the Confederate efforts were in part carried forward and in part changed by the "Lost Cause" story of Confederate history that became prominent following the Civil War. The development of a great Southern literature had to wait until the 20th Century. At that time, as Bernath points out, it became a gothic literature of guilt and loss, created both by the descendants of former Confederates and by the descendants of the former slaves of these individuals.
This book is a good study of Confederate intellectual history that left me wanting more.
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