Tuesday, June 25, 2019

New and Noteworthy: Frederick Douglass, A Prophet of Freedoms and The Discovery of Truths

Prophet of Freedom,  David Blight, 912 pp., illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, Simon and Schuster Publishing, 2018,  $39.95

Reviewed by Nathan Varnhold, Emerging Civil War Online

Understanding the life of the most famous and most outspoken black abolitionist in American history is no easy task, but David W. Blight has spent most of his career attempting to simplify a complicated subject. His latest publication, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, is a testament to his twenty-plus year career devoted to understanding Frederick Douglass; the man, the words, the historical figure. It does not disappoint. Historians have access to Douglass’s life works – speeches, writings, letters, and his autobiographies – but those same historians struggle to define him. Blight summarized the difficulties he faced in a book talk at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. 

Whenever the renowned author thought he had a firm idea of Douglass, a new letter or article would surface and pull Douglass from his grasp. Think of holding an ice cube. You have a firm grip on the cube only to watch it melt and drip through your fingers. This biography is Blight’s attempt to fully and deeply understand Frederick Douglass.
Douglass is initially introduced as Frederick Bailey, an enslaved black born in Talbot County, Maryland. Rather quickly Blight shows the transformation of Bailey, an American slave, into Douglass, a freedman. Even though an evolution takes place, Frederick Douglass remained haunted, yet inspired, by Bailey. Bailey’s life fueled the black abolitionist for answers but reminded him that some answers will escape him, some questions cannot be answered. Blight makes this an important facet. Blight sees this plight for answers instrumental in Douglass’s evolution. 

The freedman searches for meaningful answers and the discovery of truth. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one such speech used by Blight to show Douglass’s constant struggle for truth and answers. Do black Americans have a place in American history and on the American continent? What meaning does independence have on black Americans? These questions tackle the past, present, and the future of black lives in the United States. For Douglass, the answers to these questions become central to equality, protection, participation, and advancement. Autobiographies offered another platform for Douglass to dispel myths, answer questions, and find truth.

The first few chapters read as a literary analysis and an overview of Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A conscious decision to begin with the 1845 autobiography allowed Blight an easy introduction to the starting point for this biography’s research. For the first-time, Douglass introduced the complexities of his experience as an American slave in print. He existed as a human within a society, within an institution, that denied all aspects of humanity to an enslaved race. Blight showed how Douglass challenged the perception of humanity by giving the enslaved individual human fears, human emotions, and human characteristics; something more than a name on a property list. The autobiography challenged societal norms and gave Douglass his very first national platform. Blight’s literary analysis recounts a journey for answers and closure to a past, a past Douglass allowed no one to forget. He carried his past with him like a talisman–to assault the minds of the American public.

To assault typically denotes violence. It is an aggressive term, but then again Douglass proved an aggressive and an unrelenting individual through words. Blight used the verb not to illustrate Douglass as a violent human but to justify the subtitle of his biography: Prophet of Freedom. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, whom Blight uses extensively in his work, stated “the prophet is a human” who “employs notes one octave too high for our ear…an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”[1] Heschel tells us that prophets are not heard in the moment. Instead, prophets incept an idea into the minds of listeners. These ideas slowly eat away at the subconscious of the individual and promote action. Therefore, words spoken by Douglass remain an everlasting lesson. Lessons for the present and lessons for the future. Blight’s use of Heschel becomes key to understanding the religiosity of Frederick Douglass and knowing the label, Prophet of Freedom.
Christianity, millennialism, and the Bible became central to Douglass’s life and central to the idea of a Prophet. In fact, the black abolitionist’s religiosity is one of Blight’s themes for this book. Blight connected Douglass with Moses. Both individuals argued against forced labor and helped bring freedom to an enslaved population. Douglass’s beliefs allowed him to attack the southern misconceptions of Christianity and the Bible through his understanding of the Old Testament as a marker for natural law. Natural law stood as the basic premise for equality to all people, not ordained to only one race. Blight specializes in the Civil War Era and memory studies. His understanding of religious texts and theology strengthened his innate ability to simplify a complicated historical figure, connect Douglass to a larger audience, and justify the use of Prophet.

Image result for david BlightOther themes include Douglass’s autobiographies, his individual evolution, the relationship between his public and private lives, and Douglass’s intellect. Each theme promoted the orators constant and consistent assault upon the minds of the American public. Just as Douglass transformed as an individual, his tactics changed throughout his life. From his three autobiographies written to a specific audience, to his speeches and articles printed throughout the nation, Blight used extensive records to showcase the orator’s impact on a nation, thus lending credence to the notion of Douglass the Prophet. The nation went through a tumultuous time and Blight argues that the life of Frederick Douglass, more than any other American, tells the transformation of the United States.

Simply stated, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is worth the read. Blight’s masterful prose, use of sources, connection to his subject, and his overall knowledge offers something for everyone. From the academic to the casual reader everyone will walk away knowing that the life of Frederick Douglass was a microcosm of an entire century. Unlike other biographies that focus on a subject in the confines of an event, Blight studied, and continues to study the life of Douglass, to emphasize an era. The lessons of the past have not fully been learned. This biography is a look at the prolonged struggle for freedom and equality that continue today.

Full Text Source: Emerging Civil War

New and Noteworthy: Biblical Deliverance, Slavery and Northern Motivations for the War

Why did the North fight the Civil War?, Gregory Downs, Washington Post, June 14 2019, a review of Armies of Deliverance

Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, Elizabeth Varon, Oxford University Press, 528 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliographic notes, bibliography, 2019,  $34.95.

Everyone knows that Confederates fought the Civil War to preserve and extend the slave system that produced their wealth and shaped their society. But what, exactly, did white Northerners fight for? In her often-riveting “Armies of Deliverance,” Elizabeth R. Varon answers that question in a new way, with important ramifications for how we understand the nation’s most significant conflict, the meaning of anti-slavery politics and the disappointments of postwar Reconstruction.

Because Confederates launched the first assaults of the Civil War, and because Confederates so eagerly trumpeted their defenses of slavery, Northern motivations can seem irrelevant. Confederates attacked the United States, and the United States fought back. Yet historians have debated Northern motivations vigorously over the past few decades, because those motivations tell us a good deal about why the Civil War came, what kind of war it was and what its impact would be upon U.S. society. One loosely defined group of historians argues that most white Northerners aimed primarily to restore the Union: to preserve the nation and not to transform it. Other historians, meanwhile, claim that white Northerners generally sought to extend freedom by creating a new nation without slavery. The answer turns on which Northerners one examines — common soldiers, female teachers and nurses, free black activists, Ohio Valley politicians, officers in high command — and how one evaluates inherently slippery evidence about motivation.

This debate has real ramifications for how we understand the Civil War era. Did secessionists have genuine reason to fear white Northern intentions? Was the war restrained, or did it approach a total war? And did the Civil War fundamentally transform the lives of the 4 million enslaved Americans and undermine the nation’s foundations in white supremacy? Historians who emphasize the desire to restore the union generally argue that secessionists miscalculated white Northern intentions and that many white Northerners saw their job as returning, not remaking, white Southerners — even secessionists. Thus, they argue, white Northerners favored restraint during and after the Civil War to ease the reintegration of white Southerners. Those historians who emphasize the freedom story are more likely to see Southern secession as a reasoned response to transformative Northern goals, to trace increasingly bold war measures and to narrate ambitious plans for national re-creation in Reconstruction.

The argument between scholars on either side of the union and freedom debate is important but in danger of becoming repetitive. So it is a relief to watch Varon strive elegantly to escape that binary perspective and establish her own interpretive framework for white Northern motivations. Her answer is deliverance. Christians, North and South, looked to biblical stories of deliverance to explain how society could be transformed. For Confederates, deliverance was simple: They would be delivered from the tyranny of Northern political opinion. Enslaved people similarly saw deliverance in stark terms: escape from the tyranny of masters.

But how did white Northerners understand deliverance? Varon argues that many of them believed that white Southerners needed deliverance from their “scheming leaders,” the despotic planters who shut down public debate and dominated the political system. Once freed, the great mass of white Southerners would begin to think for themselves and, ineluctably, emulate the prosperous and free North. White Southerners’ political independence would then free the nation from the sway that planters exercised over politics and policy, a sway Northerners denounced as a despotic slave power. Deliverance, Varon writes, “resolved the tensions within the Union over war aims” between conservative Democrats and anti-slavery activists because a language of deliverance “could serve so many ends” — it supported everything from conciliatory war measures to abolition.

The imprecise nature of deliverance allows Varon to fold parts of both the union and freedom arguments into her own. Freedom scholars are right that the North intended to remake the South, but union scholars are right that the North didn’t act from a desire to free slaves so much as a will to free the South’s white farmers and small planters from the tyranny of the slaveholding owners of vast plantations.

Image result for elizabeth VaronVaron’s argument is at times more novel than persuasive. Although she is a distinguished historian of antebellum politics, she rushes past the coming of the Civil War; the conflict is underway already in Chapter 1. This might be fitting in a work about wartime tactics but less so in a book about deeper motivations. The Civil War was an ideological conflict, developed over decades of painstaking political and intellectual fights that she largely skims past. Those conflicts shaped the concepts of deliverance, freedom and union. To understand the power of deliverance, we would need to see more about how the concept developed over time.

So, too, does Varon rush through her argument about the consequences of the Civil War. Deliverance may have fueled white Northern overconfidence in the efficacy of Reconstruction, and unconcern for freedpeople may have spawned apathy. But still, deliverance cannot explain the boldness and resilience of Republican support for civil and voting rights, nor can Republicans’ mixed motivations tell us much about the efficacy of their steps toward emancipation in 1861, abolition in 1865 and enfranchisement in 1867. A thorough reckoning with Reconstruction must engage with other issues: the fog of war, the idealistic vision of a self-perpetuating democracy, the resilience of local power, the weakness of the federal government. And above all that lies what seems the ultimate explanation for the disappointments of Reconstruction: an unbearably bloody white Southern counterrevolution. After all that is taken into account, it is not clear how much is left for notions of deliverance to explain.

While Varon doesn’t quite deliver on her argument about deliverance, she narrates battles and campaigns with an unusually deft, at times even gorgeous touch. This is some of the finest battle writing around, and a sweeping analysis of both United States and Confederate strategy and tactics. While the book can’t displace James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” still perhaps the single greatest volume ever written on the Civil War or even on United States history, it belongs beside it on the shelf. Given the volume of writing about the Civil War over the past 150 years, that is no small feat.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Two Photographic Exhibitions: Notable Women of the Civil War Era, & Storied Women of the American Civil War EraWashington, D.C.

Image result for Harriet Beecher Stowe 
Two Exhibitions--Women of Progress: Early Camera Portraits,  &  Storied Women of The Civil War Era, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.  June 14, 2019 - May 31, 2020
In mid-nineteenth-century America, the growing presence of women in public life coincided with the rise of portrait photography. 

Two exhibition of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes from the 1840s and 1850s features portraits of early feminist icons, women’s rights advocates Margaret Fuller and Lucy Stone, abolitionist Lucretia Mott and best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

Image result for Pauline CushmanAlso, during the Civil War era, numerous women rose to national prominence—from First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln to the actress and Union spy Pauline Cushman. This intimate exhibition includes portraits of these and other intriguing women who captivated the public while becoming sought-after subjects for Mathew Brady’s camera. Ann Shumard, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator of photographs, is the curator of both exhibitions.
 National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C

News: Sixth Known Bible Belonging to A.Lincoln Found In San Francisco, CA

A New Lincoln Bible, From a Mantel to a Presidential Library,  Peter Baker, New York Times, June 19, 2019

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a rare wartime trip out of Washington to visit a charity event in Philadelphia raising money to care for wounded soldiers. He donated 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to be sold for fund-raising.

But it turns out he received a gift in return: a Bible whose pages were edged with gilt and decorated with the words “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity” after I Corinthians 13:13 — a holy book at a time when Lincoln was turning increasingly to Scripture to understand personal tragedy and national trauma.

Now, more than 150 years later, historians have discovered the Bible for the first time, a unique artifact of the 16th president life  that they did not even know existed. Given by his widow to a friend of Lincoln’s after his assassination,  it has remained out of sight for a century and a half, passed along from one generation to another, unknown to the vast array of scholars who have studied his life.

As of Thursday, it will go on display for the first time at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library  and Museum  in Springfield, Ill., a bequest from the family of the Rev. Noyes W. Miner, who lived across the street from the Lincolns in the Illinois capital and spoke at the slain president’s funeral. After preserving the Bible over the decades, Miner’s descendants recently came forward to disclose its existence and donate it to the public. Full text continued at the New York Times.

Full Text and Image Link: New York Times

Friday, June 07, 2019

Women, Pianos and The American Civil War With a Video Clip, Some Humor and a Comment

Image result for woman playing the piano during the American Civil War image

How Musical “Battles” Connected Women to the Violence of Civil War, WQXR radio weblog

To paraphrase historian David McCullough, the Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma Tennessee, to St. Alban’s, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast. The battle locations were many, but the conflict was alive beyond the battlefields, too – including parlors across the nation.  The American Civil War saw an explosion of popularity for battle pieces — compositions that invited those on the home front to imagine the events of the war through music, thanks to the power of sonic imagery. They became a regular component of life at the homefront for many (mainly northern), white women. 

In an article for the Summer 2016 volume of 19th Century Music,  Professor Elizabeth Morgan of St. John’s University examines the role these pieces played on the homefront. She traces the genre’s popularity back to 18th-century Czech composer Frantisek Kotzwara’s Battle of Prague.

  “Easily the best-known keyboard work in the genre during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Battle of Prague would inspire American works on the Revolutionary, Mexican-American, and Civil wars, often serving as a template for these later pieces, which mimicked its motives, form, and narrative trajectory,” she writes. 

Image result for woman playing the piano during the American Civil War imageAt the height of their popularity, battle pieces and their performance threw into relief several curious relationships and commentaries on gender. Society then, as it still does now, has a tendency to gender instruments.  While 19th-century Americans were theoretically fine with women playing the piano, battle pieces drew more complicated feelings. Morgan cites several satirical references to Kotzwara’s piece in contemporary popular fiction by authors including Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. But mocking Prague wasn’t limited to Americans — Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler’s short story "Wanted, A Wife,"  which includes a protagonist who hates nothing more than a woman at the piano, all because his grandmother played Prague constantly in his youth, and “he had neither forgotten nor forgiven her.” 

Why was it such a focus of derision during a time when battle music was one of the most popular genres for American music publishers? Morgan thinks that, for some, it may have lain in a distaste of program music, where sound is used to represent hard concepts. 

Then there’s the physical embodiment of the performance. Quoting Twain, Morgan argues that it was the “mimetic relationship between battle music and wartime fighting that lent the genre to satire.” The American satirist wrote of the pianist's body, with all the contortions and movements that come with mapping the violence of war on a battlefield onto the violence of music at the piano.

Third, Morgan writes that there could have been discomfort in the way the genre merged public and private life. Battle pieces were considered compositions for women, and by their very nature required performers to imagine themselves in the grisliest of situations. But for many in the 19th-century, this was incomprehensible. “This identification was not always received warmly,” explains Morgan, “but instead that an audience might laugh at a young female performer, implying that she took herself too seriously.”

Image result for woman playing the piano during the American Civil War imageWartime has historically opened employment opportunities to members of society that would have normally been denied them. For example, it was increasingly acceptable for (white) women to be nurses on the front. (The same cannot be said for female doctors). And during the 1860s, there was a surge of women writing music. “Hundreds of female composers published works on topics related to the war,” Morgan writes, and while they weren’t all battle pieces, it was still a significant social shift. “Just as the war made it socially acceptable to be a nurse for soldiers at the front, it also expanded the bounds of propriety to include being a published woman composer.” 

Since it’s program music, Morgan argues that women composers brought a different perspective to the table. For example, Laura Hastings Hatch wrote Battle of the Wilderness in 1869, well after the war’s conclusion — which is significant because, at the time, battle pieces were often published shortly after the events depicted. Morgan also points out that while the genre often illustrated clear victories, the Battle of the Wilderness was a violent affair without a clear victor. The sheet music’s cover, too, lacks victorious imagery; it contains instead broken bodies and tools of destruction. There’s no glory in that music, and Morgan theorizes gender may have had a hand in shaping that perspective. 

It is difficult to imagine that anyone felt the casualties of the bloodiest war in American history more acutely than women at home, she argues, ”many of whom waited for soldiers who didn’t return or who came home permanently altered.” That it proves hard to find a recording of Wilderness, a battle piece that stands in stark contrast to so many others of its day, is maddening.

“War is hell.” That phrase (supposedly) first uttered by William Tecumseh Sherman tells us that the glories of the battlefield and the romance of war are an illusion, a sham. Trauma and violence don’t just stay on the front lines — it made its way back home too, affecting even the day’s entertainment. White women, through music, found themselves tethered to the theaters of war, with some taking advantage of the creative opportunities that arose during the chaos. If anything, these piano “battles” teach us that, whether home or away, it’s nearly impossible to escape the grip of a Republic of Suffering.

There is a reader's comment at the end of the post at WQXR. 

Text Source: WQXR