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Since Appomattox

How the Civil War Shaped the Writing of VQR

PUBLISHED: April 9, 2015

“It was after sunrise of a bright morning when from the Manchester high grounds we turned to take our last look at the old city for which we had fought so long & so hard… The whole river front seemed to be in flames, amid which occasional heavy explosions were heard, & the black smoke spreading & hanging over the city seemed to be full of dreadful portents. I rode with a distinctly heavy heart & with a peculiar sort of feeling of orphanage.”

– General Edward Porter Alexander 


Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander wrote the above lines in his memoir, Fighting for the Confederacy, which recalls the Union occupation of his beloved Richmond. This “feeling of orphanage” remained at the core of Southern Renaissance writing for decades, and it runs throughout the Virginia Quarterly Review’s early history as well. Alexander wrote of orphanage in the context of a lost home and a defeated country, an emotion that evolved into a sense of homelessness, as C. Vann Woodward described it, between nostalgia for the old South and an uncertainty about the encroaching New South. This conflicted emotion has always been a part of the South’s struggle to reconcile its hateful past with a sense of pride in its heritage.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia, an anniversary that resonates in a region that continues to grapple with its legacy of slavery, evidenced, in part, through the ways in which the war has resurfaced in the pages of VQR. In the words of historian Edward L. Ayers, “The era of the Civil War and Reconstruction remains the crucible of American History.” And thus the Confederate defeat has allowed for the long and slow process of Southern advancement through the act of grappling with the complexities of Southern heritage.

In April 1925, sixty years after Appomattox, VQR editor James Southall Wilson and his staff published the first issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Over the past ninety years, VQR’s coverage of the Civil War has been extensive. A simple keyword search of “Civil War” on the magazine’s website yields hundreds of archived articles and creative pieces. But even larger has been VQR’s role in determining the Southern literary response to the region’s troubled history. In his 2009 profile of VQR’s inaugural decade, Bruce Fort writes that the magazine “emerged as a center stage” for the debate over Southern cultural identity and direction. One could argue that VQR has been a microcosm for the totality of Southern literature, sharing a common mission with its Southern writers, a mission of reconciling a region’s past with a new conscience, a desire to determine how the South could make sense of the blood that stained its cities and fields.

In its early history, VQR sought to achieve status as a national journal. And yet, according to Fort, it was “first and last a product of the South,” with designs on establishing literary and intellectual culture in the region. The magazine’s second editor, Stringfellow Barr, wanted at least one featured piece addressing “Southern problems” in every issue. In “A Southern Chronicle: The Virginia Quarterly Review and the American South 1925-2000,” Ayers stresses the magazine’s burden to achieve “a reckoning with the South,” an introspection that would express an “affection for the South” while “upbraid[ing] the region for one fault or another.”

Until the 1930s, the American South was more or less devoid of literary tradition and had quite a bit of ground to make up. H. L. Mencken, among the region’s most ruthless critics, published his essay “The South Astir” in VQR in 1935. Mencken’s Southern reproach was directed at what he saw as a backwards and intellectually barren region. He points to some fifty-odd years beginning around the outbreak of the Civil War in which “Southern people remained immersed in the psychological mists that had arisen from Appomattox.” The essay, however, acknowledges a growing intellectual culture in the South—in particular the Southern Agrarian movement, whose prominent contributors included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren, all of whom were being published in VQR around the same time as Mencken. While critical of the Agrarian movement, which sought to preserve Southern culture by barring the spread of industrialization into the Southern states, Mencken also welcomed the birth of a Southern intellectualism, referring to a sort of inaugurated “iconoclastic attitude” in Dixie, the beginning of a new age in which what he dubs “Southern dogma” would at last be “forced gradually into the backwaters of the Southern domain,” making way for new ideas in “the centers of enlightenment.”

The emergence of these writers and thinkers catalyzed what we now call the Southern Renaissance. Frank P. Graham’s 1962 Civil War Centennial piece, “The Meaning of the Civil War,” points to the power of the literary movement to lift the South out of its postbellum darkness, saying that “from the rising sense of the intellectual and spiritual communion of all people,” the equality and necessary unity of all races, “can come a more abundant production and the nobler creations of the mind and spirit in a new Southern Renaissance.” In Woodward’s influential 1958 essay “The Search for Southern Identity,” he argues that, because of this renaissance, the “South [was] the most distinctive region of the country,” a distinction that resulted from a need to reconcile “[t]he experience of evil and the experience of tragedy … with the American legend of innocence and social felicity.” He gives purpose to the Southern literary movement by saying that “the most reassuring prospect for the survival of the South’s distinctive heritage is the magnificent body of literature produced by its writers in the last three decades.” Woodward later published “Why the Southern Renaissance?” which examines the golden age of Southern literature in which VQR was born and attempts to explain the South’s sudden literary outpouring. He then quotes himself: “the best of the Southern novelists have never set out to defend their values or the prejudices or the errors of any particular age or section … [they] confront the chaos and irony of history with the admission that they can fit them into no neat pattern and explain them by no pat theory.” For Woodward, the Southern struggle is rooted in the impossibility of finding an adequate response to the Confederacy’s defeat and the process of realizing its own horror of slavery. It isn’t surprising, then, that the essay raises more questions than answers, since Woodward himself must have struggled with this heritage.

These questions persist in the pages of VQR. Jesse Dukes’s recent piece, “Lost Causes,” is one example. It addresses the place of the Confederate flag in contemporary society, framing a debate over how best to honor white Southern heritage in the twenty-first century. Today, the discussion of Southern identity is carried forward in VQR by African-American writers raised in or living in the region, including Rita Dove, Randall Kenan, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. In Trethewey’s 2012 poem “Enlightenment,” part of her ongoing focus on slavery and the Civil War’s impact on the modern South, she struggles with determining her own Southern identity, particularly as a biracial woman. The conclusion of the poem alludes to the remaining racial divisions that exist even within her family. She thus uncovers the duality that leads to her ambivalence in writing about the South, what Faulkner once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

In Trethewey’s 2005 essay “On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South,” she asks why Southern writers write the way they do. The classic answer, she says, is because “we lost the war.” She rejects this response. After all, her South didn’t lose the war; her South was instead left with the task of reclaiming the region from the South that did. She concludes with the line, “I love my South. And I hate it too.” And rather than but. These emotions are not opposed; they go hand in hand. It is a duality—an ambivalence—that encapsulates the confusion of a culture in which the things we love stem from the same roots as the things we hate. It is an internal uncertainty that harkens back to the orphanage of General Alexander, describing a people still unsure of their own identity.



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John Sledge 's picture
John Sledge · 9 years ago

Nice piece Adam. Thoughtful and rounded. Hope we see more from your pen.


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