Monday, May 02, 2011

New and Noteworthy: Stonewall Jackson's Contested and Contending Biographers

Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory, Wallace Hettle, Louisiana State University Press, index, bibliography, 12 halftones,240 pages, $34.95. [note: LSU Press lists a $34.95 paper edition; lists a $34.95 hardcover edition]

LSU Press Description: Historians' attempts to understand legendary Confederate General Thomas J. ''Stonewall'' Jackson have proved uneven at best and often contentious. An occasionally enigmatic and eccentric college professor before the Civil War, Jackson died midway through the conflict, leaving behind no memoirs and relatively few surviving letters or documents. In Inventing Stonewall Jackson, Wallace Hettle offers an innovative and distinctive approach to interpreting Stonewall by examining the lives and agendas of those authors who shape our current understanding of General Jackson.

Newspaper reporters, friends, relatives, and fellow soldiers first wrote about Jackson immediately following the Civil War. Most of them, according to Hettle, used portions of their own life stories to frame that of the mythic general. Hettle argues that the legend of Jackson's rise from poverty to power was likely inspired by the rags-to-riches history of his first biographer, Robert Lewis Dabney. Dabney's own successes and Presbyterian beliefs probably shaped his account of Jackson's life as much as any factual research. Many other authors inserted personal values into their stories of Stonewall, perplexing generations of historians and writers.

Subsequent biographers contributed their own layers to Jackson's myth and eventually a composite history of the general came to exist in the popular imagination. Later writers, such as the liberal suffragist Mary Johnston, who wrote a novel about Jackson, and the literary critic Allen Tate, who penned a laudatory biography, further shaped Stonewall's myth. As recently as 2003, the film Gods and Generals, which featured Jackson as the key protagonist, affirmed the longevity and power of his image.

Impeccable research and nuanced analysis enable Hettle to use American culture and memory to reframe the Stonewall Jackson narrative and provide new ways to understand the long and contended legacy of one of the Civil War's most popular Confederate heroes.

Wallace Hettle, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, is the author of The Peculiar Democracy: Southern Democrats in Peace and Civil War.

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