“The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 

Why has the South had such a flowering of letters in the interval between World War I and the Korean War? Flannery O’Connor responded to that question by quoting the answer Walker Percy gave when he received the National Book Award for The Moviegoer: “Because we lost the War.” “What he was saying,” Miss O’Connor added, “was that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.”

In his Mind and the American Civil War, Professor Lewis P. Simpson meditates upon that “first state of innocence,” North and South, though he only turns toward its consequences to American letters in his “Epilogue: Why Quentin Compson Went to Harvard.” His primary concern is with the role mind played in the Civil War. He would have us meditate upon the proposition that ideas, manipulated by mind to its own ends, can be made to precipitate events. We, as sophisticated moderns, take this as old hat. We know the problems of mind constricted by ideology, and can prove the proposition with names like Hitler or Stalin or any popular “ideologist” of the moment. But we are comfortable with that easy recognition: the ideologist is set apart from ourselves-a safe “other.” When a writer such as Simpson turns the proposition upon our own fathers, however, we may become restive, and most particularly so if it is suggested that the Civil War was an effect of ideological manipulations by our own fathers.

Grandpa was a horsethief. We like that, so long as he didn’t steal from widows and orphans but from other horsethieves. So long, that is, as he is like Faulkner’s Colonel Sartoris in the war, and not like Crumby. But if it is suggested that, despite appearances, in his soul he was a Crumby, our whole system is likely to retch. If our fathers bamboozled us and others, our defense seems to be to fall back into titillation. The popularity of innumerable “historical” romances about the Civil War so testify. The relative popularity of Gone With the Wind over Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! underlines the point.

Why are we so given to the attrac tions of spectacle, so given to the romance of actual events? Romance purged of reason (where in good health both are required) turns ravenous. The spectacle of this systemic disorder is the hunger for romance of actual event, the more horrible the better, so avidly catered by the news media as instant history. We hardly notice that the false consolation—the interview with the rape victim, or the victim of earth quake or hurricane—lies in an abstract “other” seemingly made concrete since in “living color.” The rapist is removed by anonymity; the natural disaster is no longer, save in insurance policies, an act of God. Our fear of consequential event, removed from the responsibilities of mind, for a moment may relax in evening safety before the tube: “There but by the accident of events go I.” Why, then, the continuing fascination with this old war, our Civil War, despite the intrusive titillations of this moment’s history?

Within the popular attraction to instant history there may lie a residual stirring in the popular mind, an increasing hunger for realities unsatisfied by spectacle. There may even be an unfocused sense of a Fall, experienced by the “national mind” but not yet recognized as such-a Fall unresolved as yet by the priests of history despite the flood of their commentaries. This is Simpson’s interest, but shifted from the events of 1861-1865 to the earlier war of intellect between two nations, New England and the South. His concern is with “the complex, fateful, even tragic connection between the South and New England,” and the theme of his meditation is that “in the defeat of the South in the Southern War for Independence-a civil war that was in its historical consequences a second American Revolution—New England was itself defeated.” For “with the conquest of the South, New England . . . was together with the South and the West absorbed into the form that the ‘new’ Republic actually assumed, that of the modern nation state. The defeated nation of the South strangely became the lost cause of the New England nation.” 

The governing figures Simpson explores are a Southern and a New England intellectual: Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These are men for whom mind is the decisive agent of history. As Simpson puts it, Emerson is a “sociological poet,” one “who understood, like another sociological poet, Jefferson, how much a given modern society is an ideological fiction, shaped and governed more by the manner than the content of its thought, yet constantly revolving around a large central idea.” In the manipulation of the popular spirit through manner over content, the popular spirit is to be enlisted to the service of that central idea, which we might state as the principle that rational mind, through its power alone, makes society. In Emerson’s phrase, “mind carries law.” Thus history itself is, again in Emerson’s words, a “slow and atomic unfolding of mind.” The Hegelian implications here are very current intellectual fare in the cry that we have reached “the end of history,” the final unfolding of that mind. 

As for the Southern intellectual rep resented by Jefferson, Simpson suggests that this intellectual type “turned over the rationalistic coin of the Enlightenment ethos, and instead of continuing to secularize the spiritual” in the New England manner, rather “spiritualized the secular.” With such an impetus given to the Southern popular spirit by the antebellum intellectual, that spirit after its material defeat might well tend to elevate its lost cause as a defeat in a religious war, and so make a lost cause holy. But, says Simpson, “making a self-conscious effort to perpetuate order [as Jefferson attempted] is quite different from the unthinking assumption of a given mode of life as an inherent condition of existence. Tradition in its manifestation in the feudal society of icon and ritual, of hierarchy and reciprocal duty, in a society that assumes the patriarchal family as its model, was displaced when it became an object of preservation.” Put otherwise, an assumed way of life, when displaced reductively as “history” by the manipulating mind, “is converted by mind into an idea of life.” Life as idea is not life, but life obsessed by the succuba ideology.

This species of Southern ideology is more conspicuously a part of our intellectual debates, usually reduced as “traditionalism,” a misnomer. But its antagonist and brother ideology when explored in depth is less often either labeled or explored-that ideological imperialism which Emerson championed. Simpson’s book is most valuable in bringing that side of the mind’s coin into focus. He uses skillfully, and with considerate irony, the event of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s assault of Fort Wagner in South Carolina with his recruited Negro regiment, in which battle Shaw was killed. The assault now seems “an unnecessary, showpiece action.” Just how spurious has Emerson’s concern for the Negro’s plight as slave is shown in his journals: “The way to wash the negro white,” he says, “is to educate him in the white man’s useful and fine arts, and his ethics”—of course as the useful, artful, and ethical are understood by Emerson. Publicly, Emerson appeals to Negroes to enlist under Colonel Shaw. It is their obligation to do so, an obligation to the “children of our public schools, the children of Harvard College, the best blood of our educated counties.” He then names some of those Boston Anglo-Saxon children already slain in the high cultural cause, adding that “we who resist the South, are forced to make liberty of the negro our foundation.” It is a means to an end far other than Emancipation. Armies must march South, for as he wi]l say in dedicating a monument to fallen Union soldiers, “The armies mustered in the North were as much missionaries to the mind of the country as they were carriers of material force, and had the vast advantage of carrying whither they marched a higher civilization.” The country of the benighted South deserves no less (shades of Sherman), for it is self evident to Emerson that “the common people, rich and poor” in the South are “the narrowest and most conceited of mankind, as arrogant as the negroes on the Gambia River.” The condescension of this prophet of higher civilization, not only to the Southerner but to the Negro, is arresting. 

Sometime later Emerson, who must be described as rabidly anti-Southern, surprisingly read Henry Timrod’s “Ode” to the Confederate dead to a gathering of Bostonians. Timrod’s “Ode” ends in praise of those Southern women who treasure the memory of the slain: 

There is no holier spot of ground


Than where defeated valor lies,

By mourning beauty crowned!

One wonders whether Emerson, in declaiming this poem, remembered his own uses of New England woman in his attempt to recruit Negroes for Colonel Shaw. He had quoted Shaw’s moth er, Mrs. Shaw, on hearing her son invited to command the Negro regiment: “If he accepts it, I shall be as proud as if I had heard that he was shot.” It is just such juxtaposition of womanly beauty and ideological obsession that Henry James’s Southern protagonist must come to terms with in The Bostonians. To this context of concern for, and high praise of, valor caught up in event, we might also summon Richard Weaver, who explored in The Southern Tradition at Bay the effects upon “mourning beau ty” of remembering defeated valor and suffering the triumph of New England imperialism in the interval of history called Reconstruction.

The ambiguities of valor in causes won and lost is the burden of a considerable body of significant literature, especially that of Faulkner. But that literature includes work by others than Southerners. Remember particularly a lament for the New England

tradition at bay, written by Flannery O’Connor’s friend, Robert Lowell. Lowell had been John Crowe Ransom’s student at Kenyon, and sometime disciple of Allen Tate (author of “Ode to the Confederate Dead”). But Lowell writes not an ode but a dark meditation, “For the Union Dead.” His great-great uncle, James Russell Lowell, had declared a victory of the “new imperial race” victoriously centered in Boston. Robert, caught in ancestral Boston just after World War II in a “Sahara of snow,” remembers with a sardonic bitterness a recent encounter on Boston Common. Behind new “barbed and galvanized fence” of a construction site, “dinosaur steamshovels” were grunting to gouge out of earth “mush and grass” to build a new underground garage, in a city where parking spaces “luxuriate like civic sandpiles.” The construction work shakes the old statehouse, which “faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry” memorialized by St. Gaudens—a figure “propped by a plank splinter against the garage’s earthquake.” The monument to Shaw “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat” since it can’t be swallowed by construction nor spat out of the Common. It is in the way of traffic—that “savage servility” of citizens that “slides by on grease.” 

One might profitably juxtapose Robert Lowell here (and in his career as a poet) to his Southern counterpart dramatized by Walker Percy as Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer. But with significant differences: Robert explores his wayward, arrested feelings within Boston’s Sahara, but with none of Binx’s saving humor. They are feelings improper to a child of that “new imperial race” sprung of Emersonian and old Lowellean thought. There is a pain of guilt, long since denied by Emersonian ideology as associated with Original Sin, though Robert attempts again and again to locate it more deeply than in the failed ideology of his fathers: 

I often sigh still

for the dark downward and

vegetating kingdom

of the fish and reptile,

creatures he once met in the old South Boston Aquarium. That old refuge of the old ideology, compatible with the evolution of mind out of the dark downwardness of things, is now lost, too. Instead, he stands in a world in which “giant finned cars nose forward like fish,” a world in which the most haunting image of all is that photograph of “Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages.'” 

A sorry issue, this, of the old triumph of cultural imperialism over the be nighted South his fathers made. But there is at least a glimmering recognition of a mutual Fall in that old war. Or, as Simpson might put it, there is a belated recognition of “how the moment of the New England nation’s victory over the southern nation was in truth also the moment of the defeat of New England.” We have not yet come to understand how we, as children of many lost causes, find our teeth set on edge by the sins of our fathers, sins deeper in our being than the distressing spectacle of slavery and the empty image of an indestructible safe at boiling Hiroshima. How apt an emblem, this last image, for Emerson’s “slow and atomic unfolding of mind.” 


[Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes, by Lewis P. Simpson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 110 pp., $15.95]