Tag Archives: Civil War

The American South, a History

As an English literature major and history minor, I was introduced to the American South’s turbulent history as well as its great fiction writers (such as William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, and Flannery O’Connor). With this post, the fourth in my ongoing series of recommended historical non-fiction, I highlight five intriguing books that evoke the South’s values, rich cultural history, and distinctly unique take on things.

 Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and  Reputation in Jefferson’s America by Cynthia Kierner. In 1792 rural Virginia, a small party of young adults traveled to a plantation for an extended visit. Once there, one of the women, Nancy Randolph, suffered what appeared, at first, to be a miscarriage. The “scandal” was that Nancy was unmarried and the suspected father was her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph (her sister’s husband). Was the infant murdered? Did Nancy and Richard have an affair? Richard was charged with the crime but the stigma of the “fallen woman” status clung to Nancy for the rest of her life. The book reads like fiction but it’s a true story. The Randolph family was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, his mother’s surname was Randolph.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.  And now for some humor. Journalist Horwitz travels to the deep South to collect stories and views from a people still deeply entrenched with the ghosts of “the War of Northern Aggression.” Along the way he meets “super hardcore” Civil War re-enactors, a black woman selling baskets in a market stall abutting another selling Confederate flags and trinkets, and attends boisterous Klan rallies. It’s a wild ride in a whole ‘nother country.

 Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed. In this highly readable and revealing book, historian, professor, and legal scholar Gordon-Reed proceeds to cut down every argument and conclusion that has been made about Jefferson and his sexual relationship with his slave throughout its long and controversial history. She takes apart every single argument and debunks each with solid research, revealing blind acceptance in the historical study of Jefferson scholarship. This book ties in nicely with

  The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  The winner of numerous book awards (including the Pulitzer for history), this is a thorough and exhaustive account of the Hemings family which has achieved notoriety due to the acknowledged relationship between slave Sally Hemings and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. She brings alive a family, a woman, and a legacy amid the backdrop of the slave South. Impeccably researched and written, this book is just one of the reasons why I love history.

 A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 by Stephen Ash. Finally, this selection is a poignant and diverse collection revealing the private diaries and lives of four southerners in a single year: a war widow, a newly-freed slave, a former Confederate soldier, and a lost young man trying to find himself in a changed country. Ash is a history professor and each personal story draws you in; it’s a wonderful snapshot in time.



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What if Napoleon Had a B-52 at Waterloo?

That skit — and I don’t remember which of the SNL cast were in it* — may be one of the best one-sentence summations of that offshoot of fiction:  alternative history.

In 30 seconds or less, what distinguishes AH from regular fiction and its close relative, historic fiction?  Well, fiction is fiction.  In 1851 George Payn Quackenbos wrote, in First Lessons in Composition:

Fiction is a species of composition in which events are narrated that have no foundation except in the imagination of the writer.

For historic fiction, take that definition, add your storyline and characters, and deposit them into an event or events that are matters of historic record — Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Columbus sailing from Spain, Gettysburg, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, etc. — and make them part of the story. Even as characters and plot are added, the outcome of history isn’t altered, nor do the facts change. Leon Uris, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Michael Shaara and James Jones come to mind as examples of great authors of the genre.

What is alternative history?  Take the formula for historic fiction and bend history.  Use the characters and plot to alter events and change the outcome: Pickett doesn’t charge, Lincoln goes to bed early, Napoleon gets a B-52, etc.  For me, good AH needs to be plausible and believable, without compelling me to suspend belief.  The change in the course of events or in the flow of history has to be logical . . . but that’s just me.  There is certainly excellent AH that borders on (or is outright) science fiction, but that sets my “plausibility meter” going.

Recently several authors’ works have drawn me in. Among them are:  

Robert Conroy, whose books take the titles of the years he’s altering: 1862, Conroy 18621901, 1942, 1945, and Red Inferno: 1945.  They are dominated by war, but they aren’t techno-thrillers.  The circumstances are very credible, the characters are sympathetic, but all too human; they could be us. Conroy’s historic twists are well thought out and compelling.  In one or two cases he has to line up a copious quantity of ducks to have events fall into place as he intends, but he’s the author, and he gets to do that.

GettysburgNewt Gingrich, collaborating with William Fortchen, has also written an enjoyable and plausible set of novels that include a civil war trilogy: Gettysburg, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat.   They also collaborated on an equally well-written pair of books, Pearl Harbor and Days of Infamy, which explore the emerging diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan and culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As in Conroy’s 1952, Hawaii doesn’t remain uncontested.

Harry Turtledove, one of the deans of AH, and perhaps its most prolific How Few Remainwriter.  Turtledove has published over 50 books ranging from true AH to regular sci-fi.  He’s not as conventional as Conroy or Gingrich & Co., but can easily draw the reader in. 

Turtledove has written several series that cross over each other, covering almost 100 years of history from the Civil War through the mid-1940s.  In How Few Remain, the work that introduces this combination series, the Confederacy is victorious over the Union, and both U.S. and world history going forward are radically changed. Utah and Quebec are independent republics, and Imperial Germany is the ally of a rogue United States, while the Confederate States of America are allied with Britain. The next sets of series, the Great War and American Empire trilogies and the Settling Accounts tetralogy, provide a thorough and well-planned century of angst and patriotism, as well as the rise of a Nazi-like movement and unmitigated efforts by the stronger but unsuccessful North to reunify the two Americas.

Turtledove stretches the boundaries of plausibility, but also presents the most disturbing scenarios that ask hard questions in the guise of literature.  Could Americans be just as susceptible and guilty as the Germans of two generations ago were of “just following orders?”

The Plot Against AmericaAnd — last, but certainly not least — Philip Roth, who asks the same questions Turtledove does in his pseudo-autobiographical work of fiction, The Plot Against America.  In Roth’s case, the backdrop is an America confronted by a Europe at war, domestic politics dominated by America Firsters, and Charles Lindbergh as president.  Like Turtledove, Roth wonders if American democracy and its traditions of liberty and individual belief could withstand everything thrown at it.  Roth portrays a U.S. dominated by the isolationist sentiments that were very prevalent in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. His projections for what could have been aren’t wholly unwarranted.


*Editor’s Note:  According to this transcript, both Jane Curtin and John Belushi were involved.

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