One more time, because it’s worth getting it right.

Two things: 1) the Internet is absolutely amazing. Anyone with a rudimentary interest in American history and an avid interest in the Internet has received over the past week an incredible education in the history of the Confederacy, the Civil War, and slavery. McDonnell may be a dick – no, there’s no need to qualify, McDonnell is a complete dick – but his assholery has brought together in response a fascinating exchange of historical understanding and supporting documents on the Civil War. 2) at this point, we need to start moving beyond the notion that it’s a myth that the Civil War was primarily a war over states rights to the notion that it’s a deliberate lie. There’s simply far too much evidence in the historical record to excuse “Lost Cause” historians because of the complexity or the remoteness of the war and its surrounding events for mistaking the overt and blatant cause of the war.

The best summation of the evidence, and by far the best reflection on its implication, is Ta-Nehisis Coates’s discussion of it. Part of what’s so savory about Coates’s take is that, reading him slowly respond to it over the course of the past week, one would get the impression that he was very reluctant to engage the issue – the level of denial about the Civil War being so huge and leaden and the centrality of slavery to the War being so glaringly obvious to even the dimmest of schoolchildren. And then it becomes so insistent a question that he can’t not respond more fully, and he does, not with anger or indignation, but an enormity and graciousness of spirit. It’s worth reading for that, and then thinking of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s response to the controversy, claiming that not mentioning the issue of slavery in connection to the history of the Confederacy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Coates’s post starts off with Robert E. Lee and the enduring myth (repeated in Ken Burns’s docupic) that Lee was personally opposed to slavery, the implication being that only Lee’s bond to Virginia and the South and their honorable cause was what drew him into leading the army of the Confederacy. Not at all true: Lee owned slaves, felt that Africans could not and should not be free, that slavery was natural and God-given, and presided over an unruly population of slaves that resented his control over them and his brutal enforcement of discipline. There’s a profound need on the part of the South to redeem its heroes from the twenty-first-century view of their monstrosity, and Lee as its greatest hero is perhaps the individual that is most desperately needed to seem free from slavery’s taint. But it’s not possible to glorify them without violating the truth. We’re left with a complex, flawed individual rather than symbol of gentlemanly perfection.

The historical truth may invalidate the myth, but it does not invalidate the need to redeem history and through that its inheritors. Nor does it invalidate the complexity of the situation. One of the more interesting things to emerge from Coates’s post is the notion of the institution of slavery as a cumulative wealth, and so, in light of the exchange with tbudd, I thought it worth revisiting:

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society–slave population–in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close. But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars–that’s just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

That’s from David Blight, a major historian of slavery, but I don’t know the source – it’s quoted as such in Coates’s post. The Republican administration in the White House and the increasing anti-slavery sentiment in Congress was threatening enough to the South for it to join in secession from the Union. Apparently the South had something worth protecting, despite its declining ability to produce wealth, its declining population, and its loss of political influence.

So I thought I’d address another complexity that’s important for me, that of one of the most notable literary figures from the era who defends the humanity of slaves, Walt Whitman. As we move away from Whitman’s poetry to view him as a person, that sense that Whitman represents a strong condemnation of slavery’s degradation seems to evaporate. As a journalist deeply committed to the radical wing of the Democratic party in the 1840s, the so-called “barnburners,” Whitman was a vocal opponent of slavery and a free-soiler. He was not an abolitionist (or “ultra”), a position he viewed as extremist and as threatening to national unity, and the opposition of free-soilers to slavery was not based on humanitarian grounds but on rather more working-class considerations: free white men in the trades could not compete economically with slave labor, and the free-soil movement opposed allowing new territories to permit slavery because they believed a slave economy would discourage the free movement and economic opportunity of white workers. Whitman’s writing at the time even supported the institution of slavery as necessary and beneficial when confined to southern states: in his pro-temperance novel Franklin Evans, the protagonist visits Virginia, and Whitman has a planter lecture Evans on how slavery is beloved by the slaves as well as their owners, and demonstrates how childlike and governed by passion the slaves are – familiar stereotypical justifications for slavery and white supremacy.

As late as his Brooklyn Daily Times editorials in 1857 and 1858, Whitman was declaiming the impossibility of blacks and whites being able to work and live together, and that slavery might not be all bad. This was already a few years after he’d published Leaves of Grass. In that volume appears the persona of Whitman as the poet of sympathy, embracing all equally, black as well as white. He imagines himself in his central early poem, “Song of Myself,” as helping slaves to their freedom without fear or regret:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,

And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet,

And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,

And remember putting piasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and pass’d north,

I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner. (section 10)

As the poem moves toward its climax of sympathetic identification with all American types, rejecting none, Whitman imagines himself setting a dinner and inviting even the lowliest to sit down with him, the adultress, the thief, the “veneralee,” and the slave (section 19). At its final point, Whitman imagines himself as capable of being the slaves racing for freedom:

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks. (section 33)

And, of course, the rightly famous passage in “I Sing the Body Electric,” where he assumes the role of slave auctioneer to rework the slave’s economic value into a spiritual value:

A man’s body at auction,

(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)

I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,

For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,

For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.

In this head the all-baffling brain,

In it and below it the makings of heroes.

Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,

They shall be stript that you may see them.

Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,

Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby,good-sized arms and legs,

And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs blood,

The same old blood! the same red-running blood!

There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,

(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,

In him the start of populous states and rich republics,

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?

(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?) (section 7)

I quote the entire section because there’s not one part I would remove: it retains all the power it had when it was first published (the text quoted here is from the last version of the poem as amended in the 1870s – Whitman added the historical marker as well as a few other modifications, especially that significant final line). It is also stunningly prescient, given the debates on race and rights in the century that will follow.

How do we reconcile the journalist whose opposition to slavery held no sympathy for the enslaved, and who it seems could not envision slavery’s end, only its containment, with the poet whose sympathy for all persons insisted on equal rights, equal consideration, and equal freedoms for the enslaved he would invite to work and eat side-by-side with his fellow citizens? If the journalist is to be condemned, then how do we read his poetry?

There is much to condemn in the Confederacy – it was an organized act of desperate treason, devised to defend what many found to be morally indefensible. Many soldiers in the Confederacy fought for other reasons – home, honor, pay, etc. Their officers and politicians seemed often to feel uncomfortable with what they were called upon to defend, and, particularly as the war was drawing to a close, spun a number of reasons and justifications for the war that many still cling to today, but those officers and politicians cannot be wholly and universally condemned. History gives us a range of possibilities to inhabit, but it’s mistaken to assume that we can freely and easily move among them: it’s often slow, painful, and difficult to do so. Even if it’s difficult to look back to the Confederacy and find heroes, there’s no need to look back and find nothing but monsters. It was a necessary passage, and likely necessarily violent, so while we can and all should take pleasure and pride in the defeat and loss of the Confederacy, it was not without purpose or meaning.

We should remember that even so, Virginia was not without her heroes. And Whitman remains a hero to me: somehow in his poetry he made things possible that could not be in his prose.


1 Comment

Filed under history, poetry

One response to “One more time, because it’s worth getting it right.

  1. woodthrush

    I’m having difficulty formatting poetry correctly in WordPress. It may be that I need to upgrade and edit the CSS of the blog theme in order to do so, but if anyone has suggestions, I’m listening.


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