By Janet Lyons, Maine Humanities Council’s Consulting Project Coordinator for Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War
If historians were rock stars, Civil War scholar David Blight would top the Billboard charts.
After three years of reading innumerable books and articles, as well as learning about Civil War history in 10 communities in Maine, I thought I had reached my personal Civil War saturation point. I was wrong. Professor Blight’s lecture, on May 7, 2015, at Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium, added at least three books to my reading list and several points to ponder as I try to move on from the Civil War. Judging from comments overheard, I was not the only one so inspired.
Blight, a Yale professor and author, delivered a wide-ranging, sometimes humorous, always fascinating lecture entitled “The Civil War in American Memory: Legacies in Our Time.” This timely talk was the culminating public event for the three-year, NEH-funded Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War program.
Professor Blight spoke of the Civil War as “our first racial reckoning.” While it is easy to attribute the problems with our current police-community relations to the Civil War and Reconstruction, he reminded us that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.
Blight, the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, explored the perilous path of remembering and forgetting, and talked about its tragic costs to race relations and America’s national reunion.
While audience members were arriving, a slideshow highlighting the Maine Memory Network exhibits of the 2013–2015 Community Teams played in the background.
Meanwhile, students from the “Our Hands on History” class at Spruce Mountain High School, along with their teachers and Local & Legendary team members from Rumford and Scarborough, had the opportunity to converse with Professor Blight.
Later, in his talk, Blight shared some of his thoughts from this meeting. Speaking directly to the students on why studying history is so important, Blight quoted from a 1962 Studs Terkel interview with author James Baldwin. Terkel asked Baldwin, “What is a sense of history?” Baldwin responded, “You read something that you thought only happened to you and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky. This is a great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks he is alone.”
Much of Blight’s talk focused on why “this event,”–the Civil War–still has a hold on us. Among others, and in addition to the original “racial reckoning,” his list of 10 reasons included:
- The sheer number of Americans who have an ancestor who fought in the war–by some estimates, one in three;
- The “epic” nature of the war, in the classic sense with great trials, tribulations, tragedy, and figures who were larger than life;
- The massive loss of life;
- The ushering in of so-called “big government” with the establishment of multiple federal agencies, services, and taxes as a result of the war; and
- The war as a story of unity–how the republic survived.
Blight supported his ten reasons by reviewing writings from the centennial celebration of the end of the Civil War in 1965 to the current day. He invoked a number of authors including Walt Whitman, Bruce Catton, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin to explore the unfolding American narrative of the Civil War.
During the question and answer period several participants advanced additional ideas about why the Civil War is still so compelling 150 years after it ended. One man called the Civil War our national “‘What if’ moment–and we can’t let go of the what ifs.” Another person suggested that we are captivated by the nobility of the men who fought, and that nobility seems to be missing in today’s world.
Perhaps James Baldwin’s response–that history keeps you from feeling alone–helps to explain our collective interest in the American Civil War; there is something in it that resonates with each one of us. Whether it is the battlefield battles, the battle of states’ rights vs. federal rights, the questions of civil rights and human rights, or any number of other aspects of the war, the 150 people who attended this talk left with more reasons to sustain their interest in it.