Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Know Your Narrative

I've been reading Robert Leckie's None Died in Vain, a narrative of the Civil War, and it's been pretty great, especially as he dives into character sketches for notable figures, but there seems to be something missing.  Now, obviously this is nonfiction, but nonfiction writers follow the same guidelines as fiction writers when you get down to it.  They have to have a compelling narrative.  The Civil War is certainly itself a compelling narrative, but for me I'm always looking for the definitive one, the narrative that really explains what's going on.  Leckie has the details but he doesn't seem to know what shape they take.

I'm going to ramble about American history for a bit.  Hope you don't mind.

The real problem is that the Civil War did not start anywhere near when most people think.  I'm not talking about its causes.  I appreciate that my grade school history teachers got the classroom thinking about the complexities of the country at that time, but it was slavery.  It was always slavery.  But that's not what I'm talking about.

The Civil War began when the country was born.  It sounds crazy, but I'm absolutely convinced about this.  As you probably know, American colonists rose up against the British Empire (regardless of whether or not it was calling itself an empire at this point, it clearly was), representing thirteen colonies.  The rabble-rousers came from Boston, the military leaders from Virginia, and the politicians from all around.  Once independence was secured, the new country had to figure out what it actually was.  I believe that the United States existed as a theory in its first few years.  It existed most of all because Americans didn't want to be British anymore, wanted to run their own lives.

So that's exactly what they got.  But they continued the other tradition that had already begun, the other revolution, which was the conquest and expansion of European (now American) interests in the New World.  This was done by pretending Native Americans (whatever you personally want to call them) had no right to their own land.  In the North, the industrialists started taking over, while in the South you had the agriculturists.  This was an obvious difference of cultures, bound together mostly because they had originally fought together because they were all colonies of the same country.  As soon as American politicians were born, they began acting like politicians.  They agreed to disagree on everything, starting with the Founding Fathers.  The only thing that made the new country work at all was that they all agreed that they were at the start of a bold new chapter in world history.

But the politicians kept being politicians.  I believe no country in history has ever loved politics as much as the United States of America.  The War of 1812 was hugely controversial pretty much because politicians disagreed about it.  It would not be the last war in the new country's history where this would be the case.  In fact, even the Revolutionary War was not supported by everyone.  There were the constant wars of expansion, against Native Americans and Mexicans.  It was expansion that really led to the Civil War, by the way.  With all those original colonies converted into individual states, new territories were added as new states, and were increasingly pressured to declare on the issue of slavery, whether they were for or against it.  Obviously the ones where slavery could be exploited tended to side with it, and those that didn't really need it didn't.

The problem with the continued push of politicians was that in the South slavery became a huge issue, because in these states it was absolutely necessary to maintain the way of life everyone knew.  In the North, abolitionists and a few brave politicians made a big stink about ending slavery, but those same politicians knew that the South was increasingly feeling alienated.  They saw that things were coming to a head.  Unfortunately, politicians being as they are, stalling did not actually solve anything.

Lincoln was elected.  This was a problem because he was the first president in several generations to actually care about something other than politics.  He was not an abolitionist, and in fact only reached the presidency because of a brief bout of politics, which he only got over when secession and Civil War struck, which was almost immediately after his election.  The problem was that all the firebrand politicians were in the South, which also possessed what was considered at the time the country's military genius.  The North was left paranoid and utterly devoid of direction, other than frantically scrambling to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

There was mad scrambling, and of course war.  None of those who remained in the Union seemed to know what to do.  Lincoln studied himself into what he considered to be his own military genius.  But the generals fighting his war did not seem willing to do the same.  Everyone remaining to him questioned each other.  Even his own wife was accused of Confederate sympathies.  The funny thing was, the South was doomed from the start.  The North was always going to win.  The South already knew that slavery would eventually have to go.  It panicked and invited a bloody conflict.  Years of brutal warfare only forestalled the inevitable.  Lincoln freed the slaves.  The North won.  Everyone tried to figure out what would follow.  Many in the South preferred to view this episode only in its romantic sense, a noble effort against an oppressive aggressor.

The country pressed on.  By the twentieth century expansion was finally reaching an ebb.  There was really nowhere else to go.  The agriculturalists of the South migrated to the Midwest, which became known as the breadbasket of the nation.  Politicians struggled just to figure out where the country belonged in relation to the rest of the world.  Most seemed to favor isolationism, even in the horrible conflict of World War One.  Then the Great Depression hit.  The agriculturalists of the Midwest were blown away by the Dust Bowl, their migration famously depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.  Their destination?  California.

World War Two struck.  Americans emerged as the biggest victors.  An era of prosperity settled on the country.  But in the 1960s, politicians became ambitious again, but perhaps more significantly, they realized that they had nothing to do with the civil rights movement that finally saw the descendants of slavery claim their constitutional rights.  Then Vietnam happened.  And in California, a new revolution began, a counter-cultural reaction to the mainstream.  Which I might say was very familiar to the forces that resulted in the Civil War.  This time politicians were not so lucky.  Nixon was forced to resign rather than be impeached.  Every president since his time has either tried to be the consummate politician or declare that they will be anything but.

The counter-culturalists, meanwhile, began to claim politics for themselves.  They made it institutional. They saw what Lincoln had done, but not how he'd done it.  What my argument is, what I'm saying this great narrative of the Civil War is, is that the country has constantly been at war with itself, and any time compromise was supposed to be the answer, we say compromise is not good enough, because our side is right and the other can't possibly be.  We keep getting in our own way.  Maybe it's because I come from a part of the country that was thoroughly a part of the Union, and thus always a member of the United States, but what I want to see is less of the divisiveness that existed on this side of the Civil War, the one that Robert Leckie all but argues prolonged the war by years, rather than the decisive behavior of the Confederacy.

It's funny, because the Civil War was famously a war fought between brothers, and everyone usually defines that as between the North and the South, the Union and the Confederacy.  But I'm beginning to see that the narrative doesn't say that.  In some ways the Civil War was between the North and itself, its own inability to see reason.  It's not about compromise.  Compromise gets you delayed events.  The South would have been perfectly content to remain in the Union forever.  It only took one Lincoln to be elected, and there was only one Abraham Lincoln.  Anyone but Lincoln being the powderkeg and the South would never have been able to pretend that it was the good guy.  The war would have been shorter and resolved less.  North and South, politicians being politicians.  In the 2000 election and again in the recent 2012 election everyone wondered why the Electoral College exists.  The Electoral College exists because we have fifty states in America, and each of those fifty states loves to exist in an independent capacity as part of a greater union.  Politicians define how many representatives there are from each state, but that's all due to population dispersal.  In essence we vote by where we choose to live, not particularly how we choose to vote, and by clinging to our regional interests, just like the country did when it was founded.  Our regional interests at the time were pretty simple.  We were living in one continent and the British were somewhere else, and we wanted this relationship to split.  That was the mentality of the Civil War, too.

The South only believed in itself, and Lincoln was only effective, because the narrative explains exactly what happened.  Like in the founding of the country, people decided to be decisive, acting in what they considered to be in the best interests of those they represented.  The South was the biggest regional interest in the nation's history.  Lincoln continued to act in the interests of all the states, regardless of whether their soldiers wore blue or gray.  He's remembered because his cause was ultimately deemed morally superior, even though in his own time he was constantly demonized.  Everyone in the Union demonized each other.  The Confederacy only started doing the same when it realized things were no longer looking so hopeful.  Actually, it's funny that Barack Obama chose "hope" as a campaign buzzword, because that's what American has always represented at its best.

It's much different now, the manifestation of this narrative.  We've split ourselves between Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, the rich and the poor.  Actually, the rich and the poor have always existed.  What does the narrative say about that?  Well, we'll end the story on a cliffhanger.

That's about as dramatic a narrative as any American will be able to appreciate.  It's all drawn from reading one book, and hoping against hope that the author will realize it's there.  That's how I do most of my reading.  And most of my writing.  I'm always looking for the narrative.  I'm always looking at the bigger picture.  Mostly, I'm always thinking.  If I were only reading or only writing, I certainly wouldn't be who I am today.  I've always been a little restless.  Sometimes very restless.

I suppose that's my narrative.


  1. I'll have to check out the book.
    Did you see the movie Lincoln? I learned a few things. Heard an interview with the author on which the book is based and it was rather fascinating. Everything in the world said Lincoln should have failed, but he didn't.
    If it's really only about the Electoral College, then I'm glad I live where I do.
    And shame we can't get rid of the parties. The House/Senate?Presidency is always divided, like now, which just means nothing gets accomplished.
    Except for the raising of my taxes. Thank you for that.

    1. Haven't seen Lincoln yet. But I expect that it's pretty good.

  2. Wow, that was one hell of a post. Interesting to read. I've not taken our current political culture back to compare to this aspect of the early years of our politics. We started with separation, and we continue it state-by-state now. I wonder if that's the best way to be?

    Shannon, visiting from Writing From the Peak

    1. I honestly don't know, and I think most people don't really know either. We tend to take for granted that there are different states. We like living in them. The only time we don't like it is when we realize that the political process becomes horribly convoluted because of them. Honestly, I think that rethinking how that works should be in order. It may be time to stop doing stuff like representing by population rather than strictly by state. There shouldn't be an inordinate number of representatives from one state just because more people happen to live there. It makes sense by way of population distribution, but when it comes to something like the Electoral College, it means candidates will spend an inordinate amount of time and money in certain states, basically pandering to them, rather than running a campaign that's relevant to everyone, which is theoretically what their term in office will be all about. It would also hopefully address the ability of states to tag on region-specific projects to new bills. It's weird, but we allow states to have wildly disparate laws on the books, so that it's legal to do something in one state and illegal in another, or the tax code isn't uniform from state to state...It just doesn't make any sense. If we're one country, we should act like one country. It's great to identify yourself as a resident of a particular state. With a country this big, it makes sense. But the rest of it doesn't, and we've had really dramatic examples of how it doesn't and still don't seem interested in addressing this glaring oversight of the founders.


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