—Walker Percy on the Civil War centennial
As promised, a few more comments and quotes from Walker Percy. The two essays of his that I’ve recently re-read are interesting, to me, for the fact that they are written by a philosophical novelist—raised in the Deep South—on the eve of the Civil War centennial. A thoughtful commentator on life in the South, his observations about the region one hundred years after The War are of particular interest to those who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about such things.
I was about two years old when the centennial years began, so have no personal memory of that period, but I imagine it must have been a strange time. There was a veritable explosion of Civil War books published around then, and the pace has hardly subsided since. Concurrently, the Civil Rights movement and racial discord were picking up steam, dating back to Brown vs. the Board of Education Topeka in 1954, and peaking with violent clashes and assassinations throughout the 1960s. The stark disconnect between the centennial celebration of noble combat and North/South (Caucasian) reconciliation on the one hand, and the decidedly unreconciled advent of groups like the Black Panthers on the other, tells a tale about how different parts of segregated America viewed the evolution of society in the decades since the surrender at Appomattox.
Percy’s essay “Red, White, and Blue-Gray” was first published in Commonweal in 1961, one year before his first novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for fiction. The essay was published some six years after Emmit Till was murdered, and Rosa Parks was arrested. It was published two years before Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the March on Washington, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the city where Percy was born.
It always feels remarkable to me how recently in our history the Civil War was fought. People I’ve known who had little interest in history are surprised to learn that there are people alive today who had a grandparent that fought in the Civil War, or a grandparent born into slavery. It must have seemed all the closer in 1961, which was not too many years after the last veterans of the war reportedly died.
Percy noted that:
“there is a paradox about current Civil War Centennial literature. It commemorates mainly the fighting, the actual frontline killing—which was among the bloodiest and bitterest in modern history. Yet it is all good-natured. Illinois historians say nice things about Forrest; Mississippians, if not Georgians, speak well of Sherman. In the popular media the War is so friendly that the fighting is made to appear as a kind of sacrament of fire by which one side expresses its affection for the other.”
Percy dispensed with the oft-heard notion that history is written by the victors. Serious students of the Civil War learn very quickly that in the written history of the Civil War period, the vanquished held their own quite nicely. Percy wrote:
The South has certain tactical advantages in the present “war” (like the North’s industry and population in the first) and has accordingly won a species of literary revenge. The two great figures of the Civil War were Lincoln and Lee, and since most of the literature is about the fighting, Lee is bound to get the better of it. And what with the American preference for good guys and underdogs, and especially underdog good guys, and Lee’s very great personal qualities and the undistinguished character of his opponents, and finally the Army of Northern Virginia which was always outnumbered and nearly always won—it looks as if the next hundred years will see the South not only running the Senate but taking over the national myth along with it.
He goes on to mention the “unease” liberals felt about the centennial literature, on the basis that commemoration of the war as a problem solved would diminish the current and ongoing struggle for civil rights. Percy also bemoans the fact that certain phrases and concepts were co-opted by white supremacists, though he does not use that phrasing. The concept of “states’ rights" once held a certain political legitimacy, but in 1961, Percy writes, “when a politician mentions states’ rights, it’s a better than even bet that in the next sentence it will become clear what kind of states’ rights he is talking about. It usually comes down to the right to keep the Negro in his place.”
Likewise with the phrase, “A Southern Way of Life,” which Percy imbues with all manner of pleasant and respectable connotations. “But I don’t like to hear the phrase now,” he says, “it usually means segregation and very little else. In New Orleans, which has a delightful way of life, the ‘Southern Way of Life’ usually means ‘Let’s Keep McDonough No. 6 Segregated.’”
Some more passages from “Red, White, and Blue-Gray”:
Still and all, there is no need to worry about the Reconciliation. It was very largely an Anglo-Saxon war, and Anglo-Saxon has been reconciled to Anglo-Saxon. But to whom is the Negro reconciled?
The North did win and did put the South in Arrow collars. The sections are homogenized. Everybody watches the same television programs. In another hundred years, everybody will talk like Art Linkletter. The South as gotten rich and the North has gotten Negroes, and the Negro is treated badly in both places. The Northerners won and freed the slaves and now are fleeing to the suburbs to get away from them… .The South, on the other hand, has always managed to comfort itself by pointing to the hypocrisy of the North—not realizing that it is a sorry game in which the highest score is a tie: “Look, they’re as bad as we are!
I think it's safe to say that things continue to change for the better with respect to the reconciliation Percy was talking about 40-some years ago, though that is a matter of perspective, of course. Jim Crow is dead, or if not dead, driven deep into the sticks. Racism is alive and well, but no longer so overtly institutionalized. The next president of the United States may very well be a black man. Maybe the "ghost at the feast" will soon be sitting at the head table.