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What Caused the Civil War?: Reflections on the South and Southern History Hardcover – June, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bancroft Prize winner Ayers (In the Presence of Mine Enemies) offers a unique collection of deeply compelling and at times deeply personal essays in which he ponders the South, Southern identity and culture. In fact, only one of these essays deals head-on with the book's title question. In this paper, Ayers makes clear that no one neat answer—economics, the peculiar institution of slavery, or states rights—will do. A subtle combination of all these factors plus regional pride, agrarian idealism and a strong dose of Jeffersonian suspicion of federalism created the schism that led to the Civil War. Other essays take on such topics as Southern wannabes in Northern industrial centers, Reconstruction, a modern definition of the South and the "New South." Several key points run through these essays. Intent on creating a historiography with contemporary value, Ayers insists (with some reason) that the culture—both white and black—of the South has telegraphed itself in vital ways across the national landscape, pervading our roadsides, television screens, radio airwaves and computers. Southern rock is a dominant force: Elvis rules. So do Nascar, John Grisham and Civil War reenactment games for Macintosh and PC computers. Ayers, the spiritual and intellectual heir of C. Vann Woodward, takes in all of this engagingly and eloquently. (June 20)
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Essays by a Southern historian reflecting on what makes his region distinctive. Ayers (History/Univ. of Virginia; In the Presence of Mine Enemies, 2003) begins with an autobiographical essay about growing up in the South and coming to understand its effect on his life. In fact, it wasn't until grad school-at Yale-that the author began to recognize himself as somehow different from his fellow students. A second essay attempts to clarify the region's distinctive character, at the same time emphasizing a theme that recurs throughout: the great complexity of the South and of its history. Even slavery, usually cited as the defining issue of the region, was far more complex than many historians recognize. Enthusiasm for secession didn't correlate with local patterns of slave-owning, nor did ending slavery emerge as the main justification for the Civil War until late in the conflict. Civil War historians have argued back and forth about the causes of the conflict. The dominant school long argued that economic issues such as tariffs and industrialism were more critical in causing the war than the slavery issue-and that the conflict might well have been avoided. More recently, the focus on slavery in such works as Ken Burns's Civil War documentary and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom has presented the image of a tragic and inevitable-but finally cleansing-conflict. The truth, Ayers argues, embodies some of both viewpoints and resists "bumper-sticker" answers. An essay on Reconstruction compares the Southern experience to America's attempts over the last century to rebuild other conquered nations and suggests that important lessons for the Iraq invasion and similar future ventures might arise from it. A final essay pays homage to C. Vann Woodward, the great chronicler of the New South. Thoughtful, balanced, well-written American history. (Kirkus Reviews) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
It seems to me that most of these essays have been published somewhere else first. That being said, Ayers has arranged them in a rough chronological order based not on the historical topic of the essay but on Ayers's own life. He starts with his own childhood in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina and his own growing understand of what it means to be a Southerner. As the essays go along, Ayers goes to college, travels the world a bit and eventually returns to the South to do research and eventually teach at the University of Virginia.
As Ayers moves through his education and his career he develops a perspective on the Civil War and that perspective changes as he grows in his research.
The best essay was the title essay. Ayers has a surprisingly simple yet nuanced tale of the causes of the war. I have read plenty of books on the war (easily 100 non-fiction books and at least 20 fiction books) and Ayers provided a thoughtful look at this topic.
In short, he argues that it was slavery, of course, and a complete failure of the politics of the day to deal with changing public attitudes. The Whigs, one of the two major political parties, died by fracturing over slavery in 1840s and 1850s. The reactionary anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and the Republicans replaced the Whigs. The Know-Nothings caused a lot of noise and chaos but had no staying power. The Republicans adopted a mild anti-slavery platform (basically, no new slave states) and this caused the Democrats to fracture into multiple parties.
Basically, slavery went from being an unhappy but back-burner issue to being The Issue - the one that could not be compromised on, either way in just a few short years. It was such a short time that the political system could not figure out how to respond fast enough. In our modern culture, gay rights has had a similar evolution and it might serve as a useful comparison. 20 years ago it was considered to be a giant leap forward to let gay soldiers serve under the Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now, Gay Marriage, a topic that wasn't even on anyone's radar 20 years ago, is a reality in most states and one political party is struggling to deal with this new reality. Churches are split and ugly insults go back and forth across social media as people try to re-work things in their own minds.
I enjoyed the essay on Reconstruction a lot as well. "Exporting Reconstruction" pointed out something obvious that I had never noticed before. Reconstruction was America's first attempt at nation-building- and it was not very successful. The parallels with our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are striking.
I did not enjoy "A Digital Civil War". This essay spoke of Ayers's attempt to coordinate a massive amount of data in the early days of personal computing and how he helped pioneer some new techniques. At first it was kind of fun to remember those "good old days" of small memory and primitive software but it grew wearisome soon enough.
very disappointing book. mine's going straight to the used book store. I will recommend another book I purchased at the confederate museum. "The Confederate State of Richmond - A Biography of the Capital" by Emory M. Thomas. Outstanding read on the four years Richmond stood as the capitol of the Confederacy.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Overly large portions of this book are devoted to the personal recollections of the author which do so little to enhance...Read more