Monday, February 2, 2009

Book Review: "This Republic Of Suffering"

I've waited months to read Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering", and now that I'm done, wish I'd read it immediately. This book has been nominated for a few major awards and the accolades were well-deserved. I want to add my two cents to the legion of reviews that followed this book's release last year.
Writing history takes courage. The act of recording events and providing analysis may sometimes require a researcher to cover material they find sad, abhorrent, embarrassing, inexcusable. The true scholar has the fortitude to minimize their personal concerns and emotions and provide a clear and unabashed view of the subject in question.
Most of those who first studied and analyzed the American Civil War unfortunately did not have this intrinsic strength and insight. People like Early, Gordon, Pendleton et al instead let their own interests, grievances, and shame influence their writing, with the inevitable result being the mythology of the Lost Cause.
The next wave of historians who wrote books that would carry into generations of students that followed, men like Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and Douglas Southall Freeman, lacked the skill and vision to present the war in its full, gruesome reality. Instead, leaders were glorified and charges were immortalized, intentions were obscured and fables were propagated. The illustration of an entire nation's suffering was a secondary priority.
Now, there is a new tide in the historical analysis of the Civil War and historians of recent years are finally showing the acumen and stoutheartedness that considering such a destructive and horrible thing as war requires. Dr. Faust and "This Republic of Suffering" are at the forefront of this effort. Her truly unique analysis of death in the Civil War helps fan away the obfuscating haze of romanticism and mythology that still surrounds our understanding of the Civil Warand shows just how horrible, painful, and all-encompassing the slaughter was.
There is no nobility here, no heroic charges praised in painting and re-enactment. This is a comprehensive look at how those who lost a loved one, those who faced death, and those who dealt it handled these enormous burdens. This is the first time this subject has been treated so comprehensively (only took 140-something years) and for that fact alone, this book is important.
In addition to its unique subject matter, this is just damn good historiography. From sourcing to writing, this book is how it is done.
More than anything else, "This Republic of Suffering" is just tremendously sad. Sad for the men who didn't want to die, sad for the families who could never find their son's body, sad for those who had to kill. Sad for those who would craft an entire mythology around the war so they could better cope with what they had wrought.
It is exactly this book's emotional slap in the face that makes it such an important work. This story is our story, how we killed each other, suffered, and grieved during a terrible time in our nation's history. Here, finally, is a book that focuses solely on just how painful this war was for our society.
Nothing is sugarcoated and there is no glamour. There is no brawling over who was a better leader, who was more religious, who was or wasn't inept, any of the goofiness that so many post-war writers and subsequent historians brewed up to help us escape from the fact that fully 6% of our nation's population was dead. It is because those who first sat down to write the war's story, and the Freemans, Footes, and Cattons who followed them with thick tomes of bloviating and myth didn't have the onions to include this gritty subject matter. By abdicating this responsibility, these "historians" have left our society to deal with a tremendous amount of misunderstanding.
It is because there are historians like Faust with the courage to write the war's hard reality and folks who buy, read, and discuss "This Republic of Suffering" that we will continue to find a truer understanding and memory of the Civil War, and, hopefully, a better conception of who we are as an undivided society.

7 comments:

desmond said...

What a mature and refreshing, albeit emotionally wrenching review this is. Well done Des

Jim Schmidt said...

Mark - Thanks for the very thoughtful review of Republic/Suffering. Another aspect of the book that really struck me - and that I only hinted at in my own review - was the distinction in class - rich and poor, officers vs. private soldiers, etc. - and how that affected the way the families could and did commemorate the fallen. I do wonder if this is one of those books that many people bought but fewer people actually read. For my part, I'm glad I did. Did you take awhile yourself getting to read it because you had other things to read or because you hesitated to get into it because of preconceptions?

Keep up the great work,

Jim

Mark said...

Hey Jim,
I appreciate your comments, and really enjoyed your review as well. We each addressed the book in a very different way, very fun to read your take.
I took awhile to read it mostly because there were other items on my reading list that I wanted to read first. The subject matter was also pretty intimidating, so I needed to be in the right head-space to get after it properly.
What are you reading in follow-up?

Jim Schmidt said...

Mark,

Thanks for the reply...honestly, I don;t know what I'll read next. I'm in the middle of "Almost a Miracle" but that's a long-term reading "project"...I started on a new book called "Frontier Medicine" but I've found it pretty disappointing so far...I think I'll go through Drew Waggenhoffer's reviews of books about the war in Texas, and pick one...I'm also in research/writing mode which cuts into "fun reading."

Jim

Mark said...

Hey Dad (Des to those of you who may be wondering), sorry it took a few days to get your comment posted! Glad you enjoyed my thoughts.

daniel said...

Hello,
I entirely disagree with your review. In fact, this book is one of the worst, if not the very worst Civil War history book I've yet read. Your suggestion that Foote, Catton, and Freeman were bloviating because they didn't write the "social science" history that Dr. Faust prefers is utterly absurd and entirely unfair to each of those men you mention. Republic of Suffering adds little to the literature of the war as it is based upon a false premise, this ridiculous concept of the "Good Death". I suggest that Republic of Suffering is a failure because it's premise is a failure. Reading this book was as painful as an untreated leg amputation. Your favor for the "historical analysis" of the War is clear, but in the main this approach tends to result in dry, mistaken material such at This Republic of Suffering. Your statement that "men like Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and Douglas Southall Freeman, lacked the skill and vision to present the war in its full, gruesome reality" is a bizarre criticism of three of the great narrative historians of the War. All are superb writers and historians and to suggest otherwise is to do them and your readers a disservice. I have seen this academic enmity towards narrative history and favoritism for the drier and more analytic academic approach typified by Dr. Faust in this book. In my opinion, making something as exciting, multi-layered, and fascinating as the Civil War boring ought to be something of a crime. False premises, dry writing, over-analysis, and a total disconnect from the real people who fought and died and their purposes and reactions are the fundamental approaches to bad Civil War writing. I invite your readers to read my own review of this very unfortunate book.
http://booksfilmandmusic.com/2008/03/10/this-republic-of-suffering-by-drew-gilpin-faust-reviewed-must-history-hurt-so/
-Daniel Mallock

Mark said...

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for the comment, appreciate it. Your points are well-taken, though there's a few things we disagree on.
1. I don't agree that the concept of the "Good Death" was made up by Dr. Faust. She is not the first person to study this concept, which was a huge part of how death was conceptualized in America prior to and during the war, I refer you to "Awaiting the Heavenly Country" by Mark Schantz
2. I didn't find the book dry at all, indeed found it hauntingly vivid and painful most of the time. It's difficult to instill a sense of gravitas on the casualty numbers resulting from the war (as Stalin said "one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic) and I thought Faust did a laudable job.
I read your review and appreciated you referencing Ambrose Bierce, a tremendously talented and unsung writer. I found Faust's links between the war and Bierce later writing to be quite indelible and satisfying.
3. I understand your taking issue with my regard for Catton, Foote, and Freeman. There is much more context and exploration in my posts on the Lost Cause mythology (esp my review of Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant re: Freeman).
I agree with you that they are superb writers, but do not agree that they are superb historians.
Foote himself never claimed to be a historian and was surprised his trilogy was regarded as such. Moreover, he supplies absolutely no references, so fact-checking or further exploration of his points is impossible. This is not the technique of a good historian.
Some historians are better writers than others, I grant you that, but we must expect some level of academic rigor and completeness from those who would write our nation's history.
I do not have enmity towards "narrative history" though I've never heard that term before. I don't like mediocre historiography, which I'm sure you agree with. McPherson, Sears, Rhea, and Gallagher are all examples of both colorful writers as well as rigorous historians, and I would group Faust with them as well.
I enjoyed seeing the multiple subjects you write about, we multiple subject-bloggers are a rare breed.