We are pleased to present this guest essay by William R. Black, a PhD candidate in history at Rice University, where he is writing his dissertation on Cumberland Presbyterians and Christian nationalism in the nineteenth century. He has written for outlets like Vox and The Atlantic and tweets at @williamrblack.
Violence to Redeem the World
by William R. Black
When Marcel Proust was on his deathbed, a young Jean Cocteau paid him a visit and found himself drawn to a stack of Proust’s notebooks in the room. “The pile of paper on his left was still alive,” he later remembered, “like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers.”
More than sixty years later, when Ken Burns went to General Motors asking for money to underwrite The Civil War, he told them he was making a film about the salvific power of violence. In so many words.
The history and literature books at the Memphis Central Library are on the top floor, the fourth, and that’s where I spent a good fraction of my adolescence, often sitting in a nook behind a column in a corner where two window walls met, absorbing sun like a cat and glancing down at the midtown corridors of Poplar and Walnut Grove, mostly treetops—poplartops, walnuttops—and apparently, as my memory would have it, always autumn-colored, and there’d be a stack of books by my side, Anaïs Nin strategically in the middle of the stack, spine facing the windows, just in case someone peeked behind the column (no one ever did). The microfilm readers are up there too, and the floor creaks something awful.
My mind raced to that nook—the sun, the stacks, the poplars—when folks began talking about Shelby Foote last week. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a four-star Marine general, called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man” and said the Civil War was fought by “men and women of good faith on both sides” who all “made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” (It was rather progressive of him to include women.) Many, including the White House press secretary, pointed out that much of what Kelly said could be found in the extensive footage of Shelby Foote on Ken Burns’s The Civil War.
I think there are some historians who would like a fan-edit of The Civil War Sans Foote. Shelby Foote makes some eighty more appearances in the documentary than Barbara Fields, who is The Civil War’s only black historian—and an actual trained historian, unlike the novelist from Greenville, Mississippi. Foote repeats the chief myths of the Lost Cause with seeming unquestionable authority: the Civil War could have been avoided had it not been for a few zealous hotheads; the Confederacy was tragically doomed to lose from the start but fought bravely anyway like the Norse gods at Ragnarök. He does tell some great stories, like the rabbit who jumped out of a bush and hopped away from some Confederate soldiers shortly before Pickett’s Charge, upon which one of the men said, “Run ole hare, if I was an ole hare I’d run too.”
I’ll give you a minute to regain your composure.
As historians hemmed and hawed over Shelby Foote’s outsized influence, I had a vivid memory of sitting behind that column at the Memphis Central Library reading a collection of interviews with Foote, a book I’d picked up soon after watching all five VHS tapes of The Civil War. More specifically I recalled an interview in which Foote claimed that African Americans committed rape and theft at a disproportionate rate because it was their way of celebrating their freedom.
After a few days of fruitless googling, I found it. He was chatting with William C. Carter (who later wrote what remains the definitive English-language biography of Proust) at his Memphis home in 1985, and the interview was published two years later in the Georgia Review. Carter asked Foote whether “many of the worst fears about blacks being integrated into the society have been realized,” and Foote said yes:
“You can’t hold people down for two hundred years, and then all of a sudden let them up and not expect them to celebrate being let up. And they celebrated it in some pretty strange ways. Memphis is the rape capital of the United States today. There’s more rape per thousand people in Memphis than any place in the United States. And that’s a celebration. It’s not a sex act; it’s an act of violence, a protest and a celebration. The muggings that occur are mostly done—around here anyhow—by blacks, and that’s a form of celebration. You do what you can, and when you can’t do anything else you go to crime. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. . . . I’m glad that they’ve been let up, but certainly there’s a price to be paid.”
It’s disturbing enough that Foote invoked the very mythology used to justify lynching in the early twentieth century—that black men are prone to violence, especially sexual violence, thanks to their newfound freedom. But what’s even more disturbing is how Foote more or less endorsed this violence. He said “there’s a price to be paid,” after all. This is what white people get. Before he mentioned rape or mugging, he began answering Carter’s question by saying he thought brute force should’ve been used to resolve race relations in the South decades earlier. “I said when the whole thing started we ought to bring the Marine Corps out and knock everybody in Mississippi in the head with the butt of an M-1.” But the Marines did not come knock every white Mississippian in the head. Desegregation happened slowly and with little bloodshed. And, according to Foote, this only prolonged the matter: there still needed to be some sort of violence to put things right, and rape and theft inflicted by the black population upon the white was serving that purpose. “It’s a perfectly natural thing.”
This is the worldview of Shelby Foote and John Kelly and even, sometimes, Ken Burns: there must be violence to redeem the world and give it meaning. This is why it doesn’t matter why the Confederacy or the United States fought—it doesn’t matter why anyone fights. All that matters is the fighting itself. As the Virginia Quarterly Review wrote upon the publication of the last volume of Foote’s Civil War, though “on reflection he may be appalled” by his subject matter, Foote “pays steady attention to the organized carnage” and “feels in it ritualistic value”; if not an “aficionado . . . of war,” he at least believed there was great value in “the testing of men under extreme pressure”—and perhaps, by extension, the testing of nations.
Foote reread the Iliad (the Lattimore translation) several times during the two decades it took him to write his three-volume narrative history of the Civil War, which he called “our Iliad.” Unlike most novelists, he found the Iliad superior to the Odyssey. “It’s not Odysseus trying to outwit the Cyclops,” he told Carter, “it’s something larger” and “concerned with larger issues; that is, it’s the Trojans versus the Achaeans.” His idea of what the “larger issues” are may seem odd but it’s fitting with his belief in the redemptive power of violence. The larger issues aren’t honor or humility or courage—it’s the sheer number of men fighting and killing each other. And the larger issues of the Civil War aren’t anything resembling what Barbara Fields talks about in the Ken Burns documentary—freedom, equality, justice—but the sheer number of men on the battlefield. It’s the blue versus the gray.
In 2015, when a remastered version of The Civil War was airing on PBS, Alyssa Rosenberg pressed Ken Burns on the matter of Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields. And Burns spoke in a way that hinted at Foote’s blood-soaked definition of the “larger issues.” He suggested that in Fields’s “particular school of historiography . . . it’s not about weapons and battles.” He disagreed: “It’s very much about weapons and battles.” He conceded that Fields was right “that we get distracted by . . . the loveliness of war.” But he wasn’t really clear on what the loveliness of war distracted people from. Look at what happens in this sentence:
“We do, we get into the mythology and the sort of loveliness of war and forget its terrible consequences, and she’s saying it isn’t just the badness of war, it’s also that war has larger effects.”
Burns understands that war is terrible, that war means blood and bile and amputated limbs. And he also vaguely understands there’s more to the war than its badness, that there’s “larger effects.” But he doesn’t spell them out because to do so would mean undermining his belief in an America that is continually becoming greater, in large part thanks to the purifications it undergoes in great wars. This is why his documentary barely discusses Reconstruction and skips ahead to the blue-gray reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. There is little room for the sort of skepticism Fields expresses about the salvation of the nation-state through violence: “The Civil War is still going on,” she says, “it’s still to be fought, and, regrettably, it can still be lost.”
The man at General Motors did not want to read the “two-inch-thick” grant proposal Ken Burns handed him asking for funding for The Civil War. Instead he asked Burns, “What’s it about?” Burns offered to give him a shorter version of the proposal, 25 pages instead of 200. Again the man asked him, “What’s it about?” Burns’s heart pounded. Then he remembered something Shelby Foote said, a linguistic factoid that has since been repeatedly debunked. He told the man at GM, “Before the war . . . Americans said ‘The United States are.’ After the war, they said ‘The United States is.’ I want to make a film about how that are became an is.” And the man at GM said, “How much do you need?”
What Burns was saying was that the Civil War mattered because it was out of the war’s bloody womb that the United States—for whom that which is good for General Motors is in turn also good—was born. Because all good things must come from war, and the bigger the war the greater the thing. Those men, blue and gray, did not die in vain because the nation for which they fought for (unwittingly in the case of the gray) became, as must any great empire, a singular noun.
I don’t remember what I thought when I read Foote’s remarks on how black people celebrated their freedom, his strange fusion of anti-blackness and pro-violence. Maybe I’m afraid to remember. When Shelby Foote finished writing The Civil War he took down all the portraits of Civil War generals from his walls—“maybe a hundred” of them—and hung in their place a single portrait, of Marcel Proust.