A couple of years ago I got a phone call during my day-job from a local TV reporter, Paul Crowley, who said he had gotten my name from the Atlanta History Center.
Paul explained that the night before, his station, WXIA, had run a little bit on how a foreign visitor had taken his family to nearby Stone Mountain. He was appalled that the big rock featured the sculpted likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.
The visitor had somehow contacted WXIA and suggested that the offensive frieze should be blown off the mountain-face.
On its evening news, the station aired the gentleman with his suggestion.
Mr. Crowley explained over the phone that overnight the station had gotten thousands–thousands, he said, more than he could remember–of e-mails and tweets expressing outrage that the venerable Confederate leaders would be scraped off the granite.
Paul asked if I would agree to be filmed for that evening’s follow-up, keyed on why down here–and maybe everywhere in America–the Civil War continues, after these 150 years, to ignite such passion.
“Can you meet me at the History Center in two hours?”
“And by the way, are you wearing a tie?”
So Paul and I hooked up at lunch time, and he filmed me as a talking head in front of the Center’s 4.5-inch Parrott gun.
We got around to his main question.
I answered that, of course, Americans will continue to be inflamed about our Civil War. I cited Robert Penn Warren’s cogent observation in 1961 (The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial) that the Civil War was Americans’ only “”felt history’–history lived in the national imagination.”
I told Paul that I am a progressive Democrat, liberal on the current societal questions facing our culture today.
But when it comes to The War, I am a white Southerner whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army during the War for Southern Independence.
So, I said, this war is still being felt, and still being fought.
And because I have divided sensibilities, as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, Southern intellectuals back in the 1920s, wrote, I would, if called by my country, enlist in a war to defend my homeland against Yankee invasion, enlisting with the rest of the “Rebels.”
What I didn’t tell him–only because I have recently re-read it–is what William Faulkner once told an interviewer after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. “As long as there is a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it,” Faulkner said in 1956, during the complicated Civil Rights struggle then going in in the South at that time.
Then Faulkner added, “But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States.”
Needless to say, in the evening broadcast, my conversation with Crowley was snipped to just a few seconds.
It doesn’t matter. We know what we know, down here…
…and maybe, everywhere…
The War still matters.