Thursday, August 26, 2010

Michael T. Bernath's "Confederate Minds"

Michael T. Bernath is the Charlton W. Tebeau Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Miami.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South, and reported the following:
During the Civil War, white southerners used pens and printing presses, as well as swords and cannon, to fight for their independence. My book examines the wartime efforts of Confederates to create a uniquely southern literature and culture, and thus prove the distinctiveness of the southern people and legitimate their desire for a separate national existence. Independence won on the battlefield would be meaningless so long as southerners remained in a state of intellectual “vassalage,” dependent on the North for their books, periodicals, and teachers. For this reason, the war did not stop cultural life in the South. Instead, the production of new Confederate periodicals, books, and textbooks accelerated at an astonishing rate, as southern writers and publishers rushed to provide their new nation with its own literature. In this tremendous outpouring of native print, cultural nationalists believed they saw the Confederacy coalescing into a true nation.

As for the “Page 99 Test,” my page 99 comes in Chapter 3, “The Birth of Confederate Literature,” and it describes some of the grandiose predictions of Confederate cultural nationalists as they envisioned their great future national literature and the role that the war would play in its formation. Here is an excerpt:
Spurred on by revolution, separate nationality, and war, ‘‘Southern Genius shall break the Northern chain which has hitherto bound it,’’ Southern Field and Fireside agreed. ‘‘Full well we know this fair land has poets, and essayists, and novelists within her borders, whose powers and talents will be developed by the circumstances of the hour.’’70 ‘‘New thoughts’’ arising from this ‘‘new national life’’ would spark a renaissance in the Confederacy, and it was incumbent on those who lived in such times to aid this rising Confederate culture.71

‘‘We are entering upon a new era—we live in historic times, and many things are to be thought of and to be done,’’ Atticus Haygood told his readers. ‘‘Old forms are passing away—new ideas are being struck out ... and new duties devolve upon us all.’’72

Momentous historical events inevitably spawned ‘‘periods of great intellectual activity,’’ these nationalists assured themselves. For, as Professor A. B. Stark explained, ‘‘When the minds and passions of men are aroused by these political upheavals, they must manifest and body forth themselves in some form.’’73 Neither Stark nor Haygood had any doubts about how these heightened passions would manifest themselves in the Confederacy. ‘‘Great moral, or political, revolutions nearly always inaugurate new eras in literature,’’ Haygood intoned. ‘‘We are now in the midst of great revolution—we are to be ‘a peculiar people,’ and our literature ought to bear the impress of our distinctive characteristics. It must, then, be created; and never was there a more glorious prospect than is now inviting Southern talent.’’74 Breathing the rarefied air of their new nation and confronted with daily examples of unprecedented heroism and valor on the battlefield, Confederate writers and poets could not help but be inspired to excellence.
While page 99 captures well the spirit and vision of Confederate nationalists at the start of the war, it does not speak to what Confederates actually did in their attempt to secure southern intellectual independence during the war – the periodicals they launched, the books they published, the poems they wrote, the plays they produced, the critiques they leveled – which is the focus of the bulk of my book. Nor does it mention the related and essential campaign for southern educational independence in which Confederate teachers and educational reformers sought to liberate southern children from the pervasive and, in their view, insidious influences of the North by writing and publishing their own textbooks, training and hiring their own native teachers, and supporting their own native schools.

In the end, Confederates proved no more able to win their intellectual independence than their political freedom, though they struggled mightily for both. By analyzing the motives driving the struggle for Confederate intellectual independence, by charting its wartime accomplishments, and by assessing its ultimate failure, my book makes provocative arguments about the nature of Confederate nationalism, life within the Confederacy, and the perception of southern cultural distinctiveness.
Learn more about Confederate Minds at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue