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Revised Versions

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

Civil War and Reconstruction, By J. G. Randall. Boston: D. C Heath and Company. $5.00. The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900. By Paul H. Buck. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.25.

In the twenty years just past, the people of the United States have been characterized by an intense and narrow patriotism. That resurgent nationalism, however, which impelled them to reject the Covenant of the League of Nations, to demand the repayment of the last penny of their war loans, and to protect American industry by erecting insuperable tariff barriers against the trade of the world, has had, as one of its less pernicious effects, a great revival of interest in American history. Generous subventions by wealthy men, or wide popular support, made possible the publication, between 1917 and 1937, of Yale University’s “Chronicles of America” in fifty volumes, of the American Council of Learned Societies’ twenty-volume “Dictionary of American Biography,” of the fifteen-volume “Pageant of America,” and of the many volumed “History of American Life.” Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., has spent much time and more money in restoring the capital of colonial Virginia to its former appearance. Mr. Henry Ford has sought relaxation from the cares of big business in collecting many million dollars’ worth of Americana for his Greenfield Village Museum. And lesser business men, and their wives, have contributed to the prosperity of countless vendors of antiques. Such authors as Mr. James Trus-low Adams and Mr. Claude G. Bowers have found the exploitation of the American past extremely profitable. And since the colossal success of Mr. David Wark Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, the astute entrepreneurs of Hollywood have produced annually increasing numbers of historical pictures.

This revival of interest in the American past, which was common to rich and poor, learned and unlearned, has been modified in our universities by those ideals of critical scholarship which by 1917 had become diffused throughout the United States wherever two or three Ph. D.’s were gathered together. As a consequence of this contact of naive interest in the past with critical standards, hundreds of monographs, doctoral dissertations, biographies, and special studies have been born. New historical sources have been uncovered, and sources already available have been carefully re-examined. Critical historians have offered revisionist interpretations of almost every phase of American history. Every issue of the professional journals has contained articles which modified existing views. Works considered standard in 1917 have by 1937 been rendered obsolescent. Even the specialist, the professional student of American history, has been hard pressed to keep abreast of the vast output of revisionist literature. For the layman it has been quite impossible. As a consequence, the past twenty years have been a golden age for the teacher of American history. Every one was interested in the subject, every one knew much about it, and most of what every one knew was wrong. With supercilious condescension the teacher could point out that Andrew Johnson had increased and Abraham Lincoln decreased in stature, that Professor Turner’s views on the importance of the frontier were probably exaggerated, and that not all the Northern Democrats of Civil War times were Copperheads.

For one interesting and important period of American history, the specialist’s unfair advantage has been temporarily, at least, removed. Professor J. G. Randall of the University of Illinois, in his “Civil War and Reconstruction,” has written a comprehensive account which is both interesting and scholarly. He has incorporated in an excellent synthesis revisionist interpretations of a period which, perhaps because of the passions aroused, has been hitherto even more unfortunately treated than most in our history. There is little in his book which will be new to scholars, although they will find it extremely useful as a distillation of the currently accepted interpretations of numerous and important phases of American history. For the layman, however, the book is almost indispensable. It has reduced the ponderous tomes of the late James Ford Rhodes to the status of source material, valuable less as an account of the United States since the Compromise of 1850 than as an illustration of myth and prejudice in American thought at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In spite of the fact that the task which Professor Randall set himself was one well worth doing, and that, on the whole, he has done it extremely well, it is not to be supposed that he has written the final and definitive history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. For one thing, he bit off slightly more than he could chew, or, at least, chew very gracefully. Long as he has labored, and wide as is his acquaintance with the literature of his field, he is apparently unaware of several important books and articles. For another, these revised versions, which are the last word today, are themselves subject to revision in the future. Moreover, his knowledge of so large a field was necessarily thin in spots. He is, for example, fascinated by the word cabildo, but quite evidently does not know that in New Orleans, at least, there is only one Cabildo, and that it is a very proper name. For all the reader can tell, Professor Randall considers it an adjunct of a patio, perhaps even its roof.

Far less significant in every way than Randall’s “Civil War and Reconstruction” is Dr. Paul H. Buck’s “Road to Reunion,” an overstuffed essay, describing the alleged closing by 1900 of the chasm that separated North and South after the Civil War. Repetitious and padded, the book would have made a valuable essay of thirty pages or so. Instead, Dr. Buck, with a distinctly limited number of valuable ideas, has used three hundred and seven pages of excellent paper. We are assured on the dust jacket by Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, to whom, incidentally, the book is dedicated, that “The book is a brilliant performance. No one interested in American history or in good literature can afford to neglect it.” On page ten of this opus, Dr. Buck writes: “It cannot be neglected, however, that he with others was implanting in his people a smug assumption that they had been chosen as God’s agents first in overthrowing and then in chastising an iniquitous opponent.” If this be good literature, make the most of it.


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