At Civil War Bookshelf there’s an interesting item about a short list of Civil War titles recommended by Barnes & Noble. The blogger in question is rather cynical of this endeavor, and in this case I’d have to agree.
One of the five–five, mind you–titles that made the cut is Confederates in the Attic, a journalist’s account of elbow-rubbing with hardcore reenactors and unreconstructed political wackos. What person in his right mind would select this as one of only five Civil War books to recommend? Sure, it’s lively and entertaining, but the Civil War is such a fertile field of scholarship, and this book isn’t exactly the most enlightening fare.
Furthermore, Confederates in the Attic represents the kind of personalized journalism that presents a writer’s subjective and idiosyncratic experiences as some kind of representation of truth. This guy wants to understand America’s relationship with the Civil War, so he runs around with people who soak their clothes in urine, he hangs out in biker bars out in the middle of nowhere, and then he writes it all up for readers who will then conflate this freakshow with all history enthusiasts or with the entire South or whatever. Nice work, Clark Kent.
MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Andersonville also made the list. That, too, seems like an odd choice. If you’re going for novels, wouldn’t The Killer Angels make more sense? Why, for that matter, include any novels at all?
A fictional work about a prison camp and an informal account of the neo-Confederate fringe both seem like weird essentials to me, especially alongside the likes of tried-and-true standards like Battle Cry of Freedom and Foote’s trilogy.
And the uproar over the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center just keeps on coming. Paul Taylor questions the role that context should play in battlefield exhibits, Eric Wittenberg agrees, and Kevin Levin has some updates here and here. On a related note, WordPress allows me to track the traffic coming to specific posts on my blog, and I’ve noticed that my previous entries about the new Gettysburg exhibits continue to get more hits than most of my other effusions.
As I’ve said before, I enjoyed the new facility at Gettysburg, and I remain convinced that it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor. In the first place, I don’t mind the information on causes and outcomes. By explaining what the battle achieved, it makes the three days of fighting more relevant, not less so. Normally I’d find all the attention to politics and slavery rather superfluous at a battlefield visitor center, but given Gettysburg’s importance and appeal, I think it’s valid to broaden the scope a bit. Civil War aficionados know that all that marching, maneuvering and shooting meant something; the average tourist might need to be reminded.
In the second place, despite all the contextual material, the battle remains the primary focus of the exhibits, and rightly so. Part of the controversy revolves around the number of artifacts included in the new exhibit as opposed to the old one. That’s a valid point, but I reiterate that most visitors don’t have the tactical grasp of the battle that hardcore enthusiasts have. The exhibits must convey this information to them, and it takes more than cases full of labeled weapons to do so. What at impressed me the most about the new exhibits was the clarity with which they explained the battle’s complexity. Making battles sensible is no easy task on the written page, but communicating via exhibitry is even more difficult, so this is no small accomplishment.
In other words, I agree with the critics that explaining the battle is the primary task at hand. And that’s precisely why I appreciate the new exhibit galleries.