26 November 2012


Corey Robin has a terrific post at Crooked Timber about problems with Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, primarily the absence of Black characters with their own voices. Where is Fredrick Douglass?

Toward the end of the post, Robin brings up something else which I've never quite understood and brings it into focus.

It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of [screenwriter] Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

Whoa. I've heard echoes of the Dunning School reading of Reconstruction before, but didn't know much about it. In the comments, Robin follows up on a commenter who rises to Kushner's defense.

Here’s what you wrote:
I rather agree with Kushner: part of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction was to produce a society of three castes with mutual hatred for one another: White Americans, Southerners, and Negroes. It was about the worst way one could have proceeded to get rid of slavery and reincorporate the South, short of killing all the Negro slaves (or all the Southerners). Kushner’s remarks, as quoted above, have nothing to do with Dunning and company’s romantic claptrap. Rehabilitating the Southerners and ex-slaves would have been very expensive and tedious; much more fun to exploit them in their weakness. The Klan and so forth were the natural result of wrecking the South and then leaving its people mostly to their own devices as long as they formed no political threat to the national ruling class of the day.
Starting with the last sentence: the Klan didn’t result from the North leaving the South to its own devices; it was the cause of the North leaving black southerners to their own devices. Reconstruction lasted 11 years, officially, and longer, unofficially. From the very beginning white supremacist terror groups formed (as early as 1865/66) in order to stop blacks from exercising their newfound political agency, which they did. Because of the costs that the Klan imposed upon the project of black equality, the white North eventually gave up. It was in fact an extremely expensive effort, and not all white northerners were behind it. But it was an effort that was made, and the white racist south made it all the more costly. The recriminations and hatred that resulted were not because a real Reconstruction wasn’t tried; it was because it wasn’t allowed to succeed. You want to bake that failure into the design but it really was the outcome in which white racism, especially though not exclusively in the South, must bear the lion’s share of responsibility. But that last sentence of yours is a real howler. That’s why I suggest you read the scholarship.

I wish I had known this.

And behold, it's another demonstration that one should reflexively doubt any reading of history that tries to salve the hurt feelings of the South.

Cory Robin also recommends Aaron Bady's article about Lincoln over at Jacobin.

1 comment:

John Dunning said...

Rather unfortunate name for such a misguided group of historians.