Kaufman, Will, The Civil War in American Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
Reviewed by Tracy Rex, American Studies Department, University of Wales, Swansea
The American Civil War is seen as the definitive American War, possibly due to the well-documented gore and controversy of the war which, because it was recorded for generation after generation to study, increases the appeal of the conflict. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries media forms play a huge part in public perception of history and with the great influx of Civil War media available it is not surprising that it was and still is such an immense cultural phenomenon.
Kaufman chose to organize the book in the following structure: ‘Antebellum Groundwork’, which discusses the role of culture in the pre-Civil War period; ‘Reunion and Resistance’, which considers the nostalgic period of Reconstruction; ‘Martyrdom and Memory’, which takes, as its central theme, a debate about the impact of, and reactions to, two of the most controversially disputed characters of the war, John Brown for the Union and Stonewall Jackson for the Confederacy. Kaufman continues this theme of personal recollection and judgment with ‘Abe Lincoln’s Mixed Reviews’ with a reflection on the impact of one of America’s posthumously best-loved presidents from his assassination to the tragic events of 9/11; ‘Rebels Inc.’ debates the role of the ‘Lost Cause’ as a motive for the white supremacist attitude still dangerously prevalent in America’s Southern states; while ‘the Regendered War’ takes a more progressive view of the impact of the war, considering women’s writing both during and after the conflict; ‘The Virtual Civil War’ considers the development from contemporary photographic to modern-day multimedia representations of the war; ‘The Transnational Civil War’ inspects the international impact the war had and still has on both the melting-pot society that is 21st Century America and the international academic, literary and media-driven community; finally Kaufman’s conclusion ‘History is my Starting Point’ considers the issues surrounding this national, and international obsession with an event that took place over 140 years ago and poses questions regarding the likely development of this cultural phenomenon now that all Civil War participants have passed away.
Kaufman claims to have had a boyhood obsession with the Civil War, an obsession he continues into adulthood, and it is this fascination that compelled him to undertake a journey searching for the cultural representations of the American Civil War that have been prevalent since the build-up to the conflict in 1861. It is to Kaufman’s credit that he omits the more well-known cultural expressions of the Civil War, as, as he states ‘such examples have been amply covered elsewhere’; this omission allows him to uncover some of the more hidden gems of Civil War culture, and thus keep the reader enthralled as to what new curiosities he will uncover next . This is a work that, in 163 pages, introduces the reader to Civil War nostalgia in the form of books, movies, computer games, photography, music, public performance, personal memory, deep seated beliefs and erected monuments from both a Union and Confederate standpoint, and which are related to both white and black participation, recollection and historical development, in accordance with the ideals of the period. This brevity is both an advantage and disadvantage, while it is, as the précis suggests, ‘a clearly written introduction designed to offer students’ a ‘definitive short survey’ it is the case that the reader is often left wanting more, and while Kaufman does provide a detailed bibliography, he presents such an entertaining and revealing perspective on the ethos of the American Civil War that further development of some topics would be a welcome addition.
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