Not a Civil War buff? You will be after reading Disunion, the new series of period-themed reflections on everything from battles to baseball co-edited by The New York Times’ Clay Risen.
Clay Risen: We started with two principles to guide the series: first, we wanted to provide a substantive, if not complete, guide to the war, so that someone could follow the articles and get a general sense of what happened. Second, we wanted to include as many new perspectives and topics as possible. Along with introducing non-specialist readers to these new ways of looking at the war, we also wanted to demonstrate that the study of something that happened 150 years ago can still be dynamic and surprising.
Over time, though, it became clear what sort of topics interested us, and what topics were “hot” within the Civil War scholarly community—things like national and state politics, the role of women, the Western Theater, and the international context. Once we recognized those, we began to look for more writers and more angles to discuss them.
Ultimately, though, we don’t strive to create a cohesive whole or a unified perspective on the war. We don’t feel we need to; we never claim to be a “one-stop shop” for Civil War information. But we also believe that it is foolish to try to do so: the war is a multifarious, ever-incomplete universe of subjects, what Robert Penn Warren called the American oracle. Our hope is not to say something definitive about the war, but rather to introduce readers to some of the many ways the war can be understood, so they can then go and explore it further.
CW: There are certainly advantages to reading a single text, but no one book can communicate the vast world of experience that was the Civil War. While we don’t claim to do that either, this compilation approach does, I think, push readers in the right direction, in terms of demonstrating how vast that world is.
CW: I think the split today is less about north and south than it is about urban and rural. It follows that the South and Midwest, which have smaller cities and larger rural populations than the rest of the country, would also be much more conservative than the rest of the country. So, cities like Nashville and Atlanta are pretty liberal, even though Tennessee and Georgia are very conservative. And if you look at voting patterns in left-leaning California or New York, you’ll find large swaths of red across their rural portions.
Now, I do think there remains a legacy of the war and segregation in the South that drives contemporary opposition to the federal government and liberalism, and in particular racial liberalism. But I also think the divide is the result of particular historic courses, not something inherent in the people of the North or South — which means that, yes, north and south can reconcile, but whether they will is a matter of future history that no one can yet foresee.
CW: The story of the Civil War has something for everyone: battles, redemption, villains, heroes, tragedy, humor—it is messy and fascinating, like America itself. To go back to Warren’s notion of the war as an oracle, it also allows each of us to see something of ourselves in it. I don’t just mean that we can all identify with some strand of events or a particular figure, though we can certainly do that—which is one reason why the war is as fascinating for people whose ancestors fought in it as it is for people who only recently immigrated from the other side of the planet. I also mean that each subsequent point in our history can find a purchase on the war, can glean lessons from it—it is dynamic, multivalent, with complex and contradictory meaning that changes as we do. What the war meant to America in the early 1960s—locked in a nuclear cold war, still oppressing millions of its own citizens, with a dominant culture defined by middle-class white men—is very different from what it means to us today. We see in it what we want, but we also allow ourselves to be deepened, and altered, by that experience. What’s not to like?
CW: I could tell you, but then I’d have a lot of disappointed writers on my hands.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.