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American History

The Dialectic of Patriotism

According to Jasper Johns, his iconic 1955 painting Flag came to him in a dream (a rather literal one) in which he saw himself painting an American flag. The next morning, he went out and bought the materials to do it. Like many great works of art, Flag is many things to many people. It is also deceptively straightforward—its disruptive power, in fact, lies both in its directness (Johns painted Flag at the height of abstract expressionism) and in the implications of his technique. Johns worked partly in encaustic, using hot wax and pigment layered over strips of newspaper and fabric. As art historian Isabelle Loring Wallace has written, encaustic was a largely abandoned technique, an anachronistic signature “most closely associated with a group of remarkable Egyptian funerary portraits. Affixed to the deceased’s mummy prior to burial, these highly realistic portraits from the second century were designed to preserve the image of the dead, just as Flag...preserved aspects of contemporary American painting at the very moment when Johns was laying to rest various aspects of this moribund tradition.”

 

Cyclorama

September 8, 2020

Outside the Visitor Center—patrons queuing up in
khaki camo shorts, baseball caps, Where Big Bucks
Lie
, boxes of MoonPies wheeling by—two black
men with rubber gloves, with Windex, on a July
Monday, polish the bronze Lincoln.

Stephanie Shieldhouse

Long Bright Line

Through the window Clara could see the men: dark still hats huddled together. The only thing moving was their pipe smoke. It curled in lamp-​lit clouds. Then—​a whoop!—​the clouds blew, the huddle burst, the hats were flying.

General Jackson's "Chancellorsville" Portrait, taken at a Spotsylvania County farm on April 26, 1863, seven days before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville

Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

May 2, 2013

I was walking through a cornfield in search of a cemetery in the middle of Virginia. A fox trotted across the path in front of me and disappeared in the forest of stalks with barely a rustle. I was searching for Stonewall Jackson’s lost arm.

The Uncultured South

Has the South been buffaloing America for half a century into thinking it was a second Athens wrecked by a Northern barbarian democracy, when actually the second Athens drank mint juleps, ate batter-bread, and thought up moral defenses for the institution that made life comfortable? Is the culture of the Old South a myth?

Reports From the Political Laboratory

It may well be, as Mr. Commager says, that the American political experience of three and a half centuries has afforded "the most elaborate political laboratory in all history and one whose findings have been pretty well recorded." For thirty years now, roughly since the publication of Mr. Beard's study of the origins of the Constitution, historical investigators in that great laboratory have been reporting findings and releasing odors not always flattering to American democracy and its institutions—often quite unflattering, in fact. Yet it is safe to say that the products of this generation of historians will long be considered monumental.

A Martial Epic for Our Own Time

House of War is a history of intricate and momentous decisions made by powerful and complicated personalities, beginning with the decision that has shadowed and will shadow all subsequent human life: the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Involved in that decision were several others: the decision to demand Japan’s unconditional surrender, the decision whether to publicly demonstrate the bomb’s destructive potential beforehand or to use it first in a surprise attack, and the decision about which cities to put on the target list. Though we all know how these decisions come out, Carroll’s masterly account is freighted not merely with gravity but with touches of genuine suspense. I have not read enough of the large literature on the decision to use the bomb to say with confidence whether his moral judgments about it—and about another profoundly disturbing episode, the firebombing of Japanese cities—are valid. But I can testify that they are plausible, deeply pondered, richly documented, and eloquently stated. It is a new century, but we are not through debating this matter.

 

Jubilant America

Andrew Burstein's lively and perceptive book not only provides an engaging portrait of a long-forgotten age, delightfully populated with characters worthy of a novel, but it offers an extended reflection on the role of memory and history in American life, allowing readers to assess the dilemmas and anxieties of successive generations through the experiences of those men and women of 1826, "an expectant people," beset like us with the problems of growth, economic change, and social division. "All Americans agreed upon one thing, and, it seemed, one thing only: that homage should be paid to their Revolutionary origins," Burstein writes. "It was that universal devotion which promised to preserve a language of unity and harmony and pure motives in an era of widely divergent tastes and purposes. Behind them lay glory days, ahead lay civil war. For them, as for us, the past was a comfort."

 

Ted Turner et al. at Gettysburg; or, Re-Enactors in the Attic

What I do want to talk about is the packaging and marketing of the Civil War as part of a larger commodification of cultural desire in which the making of Turner's film and his participation in it become exemplary. I wish to speak, that is, about the matter of Gettysburg as a case study in the ongoing manufacture of the Civil War as the quintessential American item—a product, I will propose, not unlike its cousin, the sport utility vehicle, as dangerous as it is big and handsome, a shining exterior fabricated around the killing power of the machine.

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