U.S. Intellectual History Blog

At least it’s not 1876

Custer's_Last_StandAt times like these, when the prospect of a hopeful turn of events in local and world affairs seems dim, when fascism seems to lurk behind every corner, and bigotry and racism to fulminate from the mouths of so many, reading history provides a bit of well needed perspective. I recently found a nice piece of perspective in Richard Slotkin’s magisterial The Fatal Environment, which made 1876 seem far worse than today.

According to Slotkin, one decade after the Civil War, America found its redeemer in the figure of Col. George Custer. In a time of economic depression, in which corruption seemed to engulf the government and in which northern Americans grew tired of the plight of freed slaves, Custer’s “Last Stand” became a Christian parable of redemption through sacrifice. Custer died for America’s sins; not for the sin of embracing genocidal tendencies all too eagerly, but rather for its inability to be as great—and belligerent—as it should.

After Custer died, white Americans—particularly men—started a reconciliation process that would once again unify them against the “barbarian hordes” at the door. The white male citizens of the US were overflowing with feelings of resentment. White men grew tired of black people; they grew tired of what they considered as the effeminacy of the eastern seaboard establishment; they rallied around a genocidal and xenophobic rhetoric that sought to extirpate America of Indians and Chinese immigrants; and they had little but scorn to offer the suffragists.

One decade later, in 1886, Henry James published his most “American” novel, The Bostonians, which assessed the mid to late 1870s in a similar vein. In one of the most famous scenes in the book, the southerner Basil Ransom, who seeks throughout the novel to undermine a female union between the two suffragists Verena and Olive, launches a tirade against the effeminate spirit of the times. While walking calmly in New York’s newly designed Central Park, he responded to Verena’s question as to what he wants to save men from. “From the most damnable feminization,” was his answer. As he traversed through a setting designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted to induce what he could only regard as effeminate tranquility he added:

“[I]t has long been pressed home to me that there is a great deal too much [of woman]. The whole generation is womanised; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character,…that is what I want to preserve, or rather as I may say, to recover; and I must tell you that I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt!” (1)

Basil Ransom finds his masculine respite from the “coddled” settings of Boston and New York’s bourgeois enclaves only in two places in the book: at the German beer cellar he frequents, but more significantly when he visits the Harvard Civil War memorial hall for the fallen of the North.  There he feels a unique sense of masculine sobriety. Indeed, if white men would achieve prominence again they would have to come together and reconcile old grievances. And like so many other white men of the period, Basil seems to respond to that reactionary beacon of light that the myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” embodied so well, which reconciled the narrative of the Civil War around the memory of the glorious manhood of the fallen—on both sides.

Are we in a similar place today? Are white resentful American men looking in vain for their own youthful Custer figure with golden locks? If so, how disappointing must it be that only Donald Trump and his curious looking hair loom on the horizon? If we are witnessing a new political realignment, as that of 1876, we can only hope for—and must fight for—a much better deal for non-white men than America received during that terrible year.

[1] Henry James, The Bostonians (Penguin Classics, 2000), 258-9.

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  1. I always thought so as well, which is also an interesting reflection on the final scene of “The Blithedale Romance” by Hawthorne.

  2. The least one expected from an “intellectual” was to do basic research on Custer.

    His post-massacre reputation was entirely built on his wife’s efforts, her book, and the power of the racists in Hollywood. Custer was not really a factor in 1876 when he was still regarded by many as “not following orders”.

    There were no sabres present at Little Big Horn. And according to the latest research, there might not have been an actual “last stand” on “Last Stand Hill”. The closest was over where Reno, Benteen, and the Pack Train held out until relieved.

    The rest of your racist screed (seriously, “white resentful American men”?) just sounds more like Triggly “journolist”. Don’t you get that #EmailServersMatter?

    Have a blessed day!

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