Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Adam Arenson's "The Great Heart of the Republic"

Adam Arenson is Assistant Professor of History, University of Texas at El Paso.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War holds a treat that every reader longs for: an illustration, in this case George Caleb Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen in Port (1857). The painting, and hence the page, encapsulates the vision of the book nicely.

George Caleb Bingham was a Missouri artist, though one living in 1857 in Düsseldorf, Germany, and watching American politics with extreme interest. Bingham supported John C. Frémont, the first Republican Party presidential candidate, in 1856; when Frémont lost, Bingham openly worried whether his home state, on the border of slavery and freedom, would face an expanding war.

And then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in March 1857, upholding a state ruling that Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters—and by extension all African-descended people in the United States—had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Bingham was frustrated again, and he went to his paints to respond. He did so by revisiting his earlier work, The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), and making a number of crucial changes.

I argue that Jolly Flatboatmen in Port reflected Bingham’s reaction to the Dred Scott decision, as he memorialized the flatboat era for what it had offered black as well as white Americans. In the background of the 1857 painting is a steamboat, a symbol of all that had made the flatboat obsolete. By adding an African American figure among the revelers, Bingham lamented the end of the earlier flexibility of slavery and freedom in Missouri, a legacy of St. Louis’s French roots.

Bingham’s actions point to the unusual place of St. Louis and Missouri within the Civil War Era – a Gateway to the West that was simultaneously the northernmost edge of the slave states. Bingham’s work embraced the questions of westward expansion and slavery’s future, and he sought new answers on the conflict dividing the North and South by taking a western perspective. In this way, Bingham’s painting and Page 99 provide a vivid example of what The Great Heart of the Republic is all about: reorienting our view to consider the agenda of the American West in the Civil War Era—its successes, its failures, and its legacies.
Learn more about The Great Heart of the Republic at the official website.

--Marshal Zeringue