U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Violence to Redeem the World

Editor's Note

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.

Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress

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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

    • Restricting this comment to Burns’s Vietnam doc., which I’ve now watched in its entirety: it has various problems and shortcomings, but — unlike, to judge from the main post here, his Civil War film — it does not strike me as being about the “redeeming” nature of violence.

      I read your (Socratic’s) post on the Burns Vietnam doc. a while ago and it seemed to me you were criticizing it without having watched any of it (i.e. on the basis of what others had said), which, if a correct impression, seems to me a bit weird. Of course it’s your blog and you can do whatever you want there. (Btw there’s also a typo, I just noticed now, on Ellsberg’s last name.)

      Lastly, if the Burns doc. has the effect of prompting viewers to do some (more) reading about the Vietnam War, which is the effect it had in my case, I would say it served a useful purpose despite its shortcomings (which admittedly are not minor).

      Actually, this is the last thing: Have you ever expressed uncertainty or tentativeness about anything in your (online) persona? Just wondering.

      • Having seen “The Civil War” but not “The Vietnam War,” I can vouch that watching “The Civil War” made me want to learn more about that period in history. In conjunction with “Glory,” which came out a year earlier, the documentary got many Americans, especially non-southerners and people of color, interested in the war. Despite its shortcomings it is well worth watching and did a lot of good for popular understandings of the war.

      • I’ve expressed uncertainty about all sorts of things. Changed my mind about things. And more.

        As for writing about Burns, if you read my piece, you’ll notice I had linked within it previous piece where, based on his style from past documentaries, plus the degree of factual and interpretive errors from past documentaries, I had no problem agreeing with critics who’d seen early parts, advances, or whatever, on Burns’ Vietnam.

        And I’ll fix Ellsberg.

        Re Foote in general, to me, at bottom line, he typifies the psychology that “honor societies” tend to produce.

  1. William, thanks so much for sharing this fantastic essay with us. It’s smartly written and beautifully structured — a pleasure to read.

    In terms of the scale of violence as a marker of the scale of significance of the Civil War, and the war as the matrix (literally) of a new beginning as a nation — I think we see some of that in Lincoln’s rhetoric, don’t we? His meditations on the mystery of God’s judgment, a possible retribution for hundreds of years of blows from the bondsman’s lash from the second inaugural, and the new birth of freedom of the nation conceived in liberty from the Gettysburg address — these are early and significant variations on the theme that the war’s cataclysm was necessary (at least retrospectively) to effect an utter remaking of a nation that had formerly been a land of enslavers and enslaved. And this kind of rhetoric as a prophetic warning was not absent from the writing of someone like Garrison either — not that he advocated for violence, but warned of its necessary coming as a divine judgment.

    It seems to me that the difference is that Lincoln and his contemporaries dreaded the violence even as they recognized its chastening/transformative effects, but Foote (and his contemporaries and Lost Cause apologists) romanticize the violence and seek to minimize any enduring change that could have come from it.

    Anyway, great post — much appreciated.

    • Thanks for your kind words and for giving me the opportunity to write the post.

      You definitely see a similar idea about the relationship between violence and the nation-state in Lincoln. And of course there’s the biblical motif that Israel is constantly chastened and redeemed by its violent suffering, until it is fully and finally chastened and redeemed in the violent suffering of its messiah. This motif takes on a different meaning, of course, when it’s applied to the Westphalian nation-state.

      Foote is hard to pin down. One day I’d like to look more extensively at his writing (including his correspondence with Walker Percy) and write a sort of profile of him, like the profiles David Blight writes in “American Oracle.” The sense I get from the Georgia Review interview is that, whereas Burns sees history as progressing upward, with violence often fueling that progress, Foote has a more individualist understanding of violence–not that it purifies societies, but rather that it tests men, distills them. I think Foote was more skeptical of progress than Burns.

      He also does say this about Reconstruction: “we had a good chance then, a really good chance; our grandfathers had a great chance to do the thing right. But it was a missed chance. They held the Negro down and left him for us to deal with when he finally busted out.”

  2. “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…”

    This statement seems to attempt to discredit both the motives behind the documentary as well as what Foote is saying because, although he wrote a seminal work on the Civil War, he isn’t a “trained historian,” just a lowly “novelist.” Isn’t this somewhat of an ad hominem argument?

    In my opinion, the author is making grossly oversimplified assertions about Foote’s “world view,” and what Burns “vaguely understands,” with the very same “unquestionable authority.”

    Further, the author seems to be channelling J Evans Pritchard of “Dead Poets Society” infamy by placing significance on the greater number of appearances by Shelby Foote than that of Barbara Fields in the documentary. Unlike Pritchard’s attempt to measure a poem’s value by the area on a graph, thank God Burns wasn’t adding up appearances for ideological balance, he was telling a story, and a masterful one at that. Shelby Foote was a fantastic storyteller, untrained historian that he was. Eighty more appearances by Fields morosely going on about how the Civil War was still being fought, would likely have doomed the film.

    • I wouldn’t say Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” is a “seminal” work. It’s popular but it hasn’t really influenced other historians. No spawn, in other words.

      Part of why it wasn’t seminal–and why it’s questionable to cast Foote as such a great authority on the war–is that, though it’s a beautifully written narrative of what happened, it doesn’t really attempt to be the sort of history that contributes to our understanding of the past. It doesn’t have any footnotes or citations or even a bibliographic essay. It really is more akin to The Iliad than what I’d call history in the modern sense. Foote was a great storyteller who knew a lot about the war, but he was not equipped to inform our *understanding* of what happened, because that wasn’t his training. Nothing wrong with what he did, it’s just different from what historians do. And honestly I fault Foote less than I do Burns and others who accorded to him the same sort of authority they would Barbara Fields–or even a journalist-historian who doesn’t have a PhD but does engage with what other historians have written and cites their sources.

      As for your assertion that my assertions about Foote’s and Burns’s views on the redemptive power of violence are oversimplified, I would be happy to be see any evidence to the contrary. I don’t say this as a dare, as if I’m certain there isn’t any evidence to the contrary; I’m genuinely eager to see such evidence and engage with it, since it would make my argument stronger.

      Foote’s mode of talking is certainly more conducive to cinematic storytelling than Fields’s mode. But my intention wasn’t to say that Burns should’ve included more Fields as a corrective; my intention was instead to demonstrate that Foote is in the documentary *a lot*. It is therefore appropriate to ask how Burns’s and Foote’s worldviews overlap, since Burns clearly has such a great affinity for Foote’s storytelling.

  3. Your essay reminds me why in the past year I initially felt a half-step out of rhythm with my progressive cohort regarding the dismantling of Confederate monuments: much of what I know about the Civil War came from Ken Burns, and therefore from Shelby Foote. I was in my 20s when I first saw it, in graduate school. Burns’s film is soaked with the kind of romantic melancholy and fine details that are catnip for a young writer. My friends and I used to do impersonations of Foote and his curious first-hand observations because Foote gave good TV.

    But Foote is an apologist for the Confederacy, whether intentionally or because he was mythmaking, as you say, in service of his own Illiad. And Burns is disingenuous when he goes on news shows now and says unequivocally that the Confederacy abandoned the United States in order to preserve slavery as an economic way of life, because he never said that during his film. By featuring Foote at the expense of Fields and other historians, he gives primacy to Foote’s ideas that the Confederacy was fundamentally about honor or about defending one’s homeland from Northern invasion. By letting Foote pedal his notions about Lee and the Confederacy uncontested, Burns reinforced the biggest fable of the Reconstruction: that the Civil War was a definitive victory for the Union.

    So I have a lot of problems with Burns’s Civil War (where I have very few with his fine film about Vietnam). I don’t know that I disagree with you about Burns’s idea that violence is redemptive, but I think war as a kind of state-sanctioned violence plays a peculiar role in the body politic. It can scar a nation’s psyche with a sort of collective PTSD that profoundly affects foreign policy and economic development for decades until it doesn’t; and then suddenly a new war feels as inevitable as falling off a building feels to someone with a fear of heights. I don’t believe violence is any kind of refiner’s fire for people or for countries, but I think there is a vanishing point to violence where inevitability and necessity become the same thing.

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