Warren’s Legacy still asks urgent questions

As a Kentucky-born writer who lived most of his professional life in the North, Robert Penn Warren was deeply conflicted about the American Civil War. That ambivalence, and the tensions that sprang from it, haunt every section of his essential essay, The Legacy of the Civil War.

Written in 1961 at the dawn of the Civil War Centennial, Legacy examines questions still worth considering fifty years after he first put the words to paper. As we commemorate the war’s sesquicentennial, Warren’s words still ring solid and true. 

First written as an essay for Life magazine and then printed as a book, The Legacy of the Civil War gave Warren the chance to combine fine historical research with philosophy, moral meditation, and his own lived experience as a Southern who lived in the North. Warren was a three-time Pulitzer winner—and the only person to have won the award for both fiction and poetry—and his wordsmanship makes Legacy a fine and sometimes beautiful read.

Warren calls the Civil War “that mystic cloud from which emerged our modernity”:

Union, the abolition of slavery, the explosion of westward expansion, Big Business and Big Technology, style in war, philosophy, and politics—we can see the effects of the Civil War in all of these things. In a sense they all add up to the creation of the world power that is America today…. For most importantly, America emerged with a confirmed sense of destiny….

That’s been both good and bad, Warren argues, showing his typical ambivalence. Our sense of destiny has allowed us to achieve greatness, but it’s also something we take for granted, which allows us to coast.

“It is very easy to regard the War…as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised…” he says, “and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and road-holding capability.”

History removes us from those dead, as does our own need for making sense and coherent narrative out of chaos. “History is not melodrama, even if it usually reads like that,” he says. “It was real blood, not tomato catsup or the pale ectoplasm of statistics, that wet the ground at Bloody Angle and darkened the waters of Bloody Pond.”

He suggests the construction of narrative was based largely on Pragmatism, a philosophy he explores at great length, best summed up by Lincoln: “I concluded that it was better to make a rule for the practical matter in hand…than to decide a general question.”

One of the sad consequences of the post-war narratives that were constructed, he argues, was that racial issues were left out of those narratives and, therefore, left unresolved. The North got the Gilded Age, the South got a “confused and aimless Reconstruction,” and blacks got nothing but “a shadowy freedom” and were “best left to [their] own devices and the ministrations of [their] late masters.”

Such narratives endured for a hundred years (and for fifty more years since, I would argue) because of two phenomena Warren calls “The Great Alibi” and “The Treasury of Virtue”—“maiming liabilities” that nonetheless “serve deep needs of poor human nature.”

The Great Alibi “explains, condones, and transmutes everything,” Warren says: it turned common lynchers into defenders of Southern tradition, explained hookworm, pellagra, and illiteracy, and transformed laziness into an aesthetic. The South’s loss in the war was ever with them, a fact Southerners hauled out not so much “for economic as for social and especially racial matters. It worked such dark magic that it “turns defeat into victory, defects into virtues. Even more pathetically, [it] turns his great virtues into absurdities—sometimes vicious absurdities.”

Northerners don’t get off, either. Warren characterizes the North’s Treasury of Virtue as “an indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.” Winning the war, in other words, makes everything right for all time. But Warren warns: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

Warren’s fellow Southerners find themselves “parroting sad clichés” about their way of life; Northerners find themselves embracing blissful ignorance. “The old trauma is so great that even now reality cannot be faced,” he says of both sides. “The automatic repetition short-circuits clear perception and honest thinking,”

That was Warren’s main challenge when he first wrote Legacy, and it remains the book’s main challenge now. Look beyond the romances and excuses, Warren demands. Look “beyond the shock and pathos of the death of 600,000 men, men who really died and in ways they would scarcely have chosen” and consider the urgent and ever-present legacy of the war.

Warren’s own struggle to consider the implications of that, to reconcile the prejudices indoctrinated in him during his youth in Kentucky with the realization as an adult that America had not fulfilled its promise with itself, rests at the heart of the book.

“The Civil War made us a new nation,” Warren says, “and our problem, because of the very size and power of that new nation, and the nobility of the promise which it inherits, remains that of finding in our time and in our terms a way to recover and reinterpret the ‘Founders’ dream.’”

By grappling honestly and truthfully with the war’s legacy, “we may, at last, find ourselves nakedly alone with the problems of our time and with ourselves.” And there, he suggests, we may find our answers at last.

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