As I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity recently to pick up Robert Penn Warren’s short 1980 book Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back. It’s beautifully written, and Warren’s ambivalence about his native South imbues the piece with thoughtful reflection.
Warren originally wrote the piece in 1979 for The New Yorker after special Act of Congress restored Davis’s citizenship, an act signed into law by President Jimmy Carter—like Warren and Davis, a Southerner.
Warren’s portrait of Davis, whom he considers too old-fashioned for the maelstrom he found himself thrust into, is quite sympathetic, and it helped me understand Davis a bit better. Warren was less fond of his and Davis’s fellow native son, Abraham Lincoln. Sherman and Grant, Warren contends, were “modern men,” although Warren wrote at a time when Grant’s reputation was in the pits, and that comes through in Warren’s own interpretation. Only through his end-of-life writing project, his memoirs, did Grant seem to redeem himself (an unsurprising interpretation coming from Warren, himself a writer.)
One of the things I do when I read a book is mark the pages where I find good writing or thought-provoking ideas. Typically, I fold over the corners—which mortifies book-collector friends—but I don’t make any marks on the pages themselves. That way, down the road when I revisit the book, I have to reread the page in order to find the passage that originally intrigued me. This has two advantages: First, it might allow fresh passages to jump out at me that didn’t the first time through; second, it’s a chance to test whether the original passages still resonate with me.
With Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, I didn’t fold page corners. Instead, I tucked slips of paper in as bookmarks. Rather than writing a full review of the book, I thought I’d share a couple of the passages that struck me as most thought-provoking. I’m still mulling them over, so perhaps you’d like the opportunity to mull them over, too.
- On Davis’s (and Lee’s) insistence on loyalty to their home states over the national government: “How odd it all seems now—when the sky hums with traffic, and eight-lane highways stinking of high-test rip across hypothetical state lines, and half the citizens don’t know or care where they were born just so they can get somewhere fast.” (49)
- On the waning days of the Confederacy: “Merely some notion of Southern identity remained, however hazy or befuddled; it was not until after Appomattox that the conception of Southern identity truly bloomed—a mystical conception, vague but bright, floating high beyond the criticism of brutal circumstances.” (59)
- On the question of “What If?”: “Wars tend to be iffy. And there were undoubtedly ifs in the Civil War—historians are still engaged with them.” (68)
- A quote Warren passed along by Gerrit Smith, one of the so-called “Secret Six” who financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry: “I have ever held that a sufficient reason why we should not punish the conquered South is that the North was quite as responsible as the South for the chief cause of the war . . . the mercenary North coolly reckoned the political, commercial, and ecclesiastical profits of slavery, and held to it.” (84)
- On Jefferson Davis getting his citizenship back: “Davis died without rancor, and wishing us all well. But if he were not now defenseless in death, he would no doubt reject the citizenship we so charitably thrust upon him. In life, in his old-fashioned way, he would accept no pardon, for pardon could be construed to imply wrongdoing, and wrongdoing was what, in honor and principle, he denied.” (112)
I’d be interested to hear what you think about any of these points….