Thursday, January 27, 2011

An epic, in brief

In The Civil War: A Concise History, Louis P. Masur performs a masterful, and highly useful, act of distillation

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.
The Civil War is not a topic that inspires brevity. For a generation now, the standard one-volume work, James McPherson's magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom, clocks in at close to 900 pages (to McPherson's great credit, it reads faster than its length suggests). It's a measure of the marketplace that a forthcoming new edition of popular historian James L. Stokesbury's Short History of the Civil War is listed at 384 pages -- huge by non-Harry Potter standards. A decade ago, Reid Mitchell managed to cover the war in under 200, taking a thematic approach (and carrying an extortionate $26 current paperback price). The last few times I've taught a Civil War course, I've relied on the now-classic Ken Burns documentary as my primary narrative "text," packing a panoply of primary and secondary sources around it. Yet I've never regarded this as an entirely satisfactory arrangement for a number of reasons, not the least of which, interestingly enough, is a sense of video fatigue on the part of students.

So it's with a sense of real relief that I breezed my way through Louis Masur's svelte narrative, which manages to cover all the major bases in under 100 pages.  This is important because, again, there is so much to talk about when the subject is the Civil War, and yet having discussions is difficult without some kind of factual framework as a touchstone for the rich political, cultural, social, economic, and military dimensions of the conflict, among others. The war is so much more than the Battle of Antietam, but without a concise account of what happened on September 17, 1862, all kinds of other things, from U.S. foreign policy to Abraham Lincoln's extraordinary political skills, will remain murky.

Masur is an ideal guide. An able cultural historian on topics that range from capital punishment to Bruce Springsteen, he is also the editor of The Real War Will Never Get in the Books, an elegant anthology of primary sources notable for the quality of its apparatus as well as its brevity. (Alas, it too has gotten expensive -- the hour of mass downloading better arrive soon, because academic publishers are going to destroy themselves if they can't find a better way to serve a captive student market than jacking up prices to compensate for used books and photocopiers.) Masur's deft touch is reflected in the judicious way he mines his material, which includes analysis for the set of illustrations included in the text.

The core strategy, and the core virtue, of this book is chronology. Each year of the war gets a chapter of anywhere from ten to fifteen pages, which leaves an instructor room to augment it (or not, as the case may be) with any manner of supplemental materials. The narrative is prefaced by an introductory chapter on the origins of the war, which is usefully divided into "long-term origins," "short-term origins," and "triggers." It book concludes with a final chapter on the year 1865 and its aftermath, which includes a graceful distillation of Reconstruction.

A former student of McPherson, Masur follows the main interpretive line in contemporary treatments of the Civil War -- which means, among other things, attention to the reluctant and unwitting transformation of Northern and Southern society wrought by the war, particularly in the realm of race relations. But he makes a novel argument that Reconstruction was effectively over by 1870, years before the Hayes-Tilden presidential election in 1876 that is usually considered the punctuation mark of the era. One finishes this book, whether read over the course of hours or months, with a sense of having traced the outlines of a vast historiographic territory.

It was Walt Whitman, who presides over the epilogue here, who said "the real war will never get in the books." But that's never stopped people, Whitman among them, from trying -- real hard and at real length. But Masur makes it look easy in doing much by saying little. As a result, he aid us in our impossible, but necessary, attempts to comprehend the ineffable.