History at the Margins

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption.

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

As grateful as we might be for this reminder, it is nevertheless discouraging that Lemann’s story can still be considered a surprise. We have known for more than half a century that calculated white violence against black Southerners broke the back of Reconstruction. When dozens of revisionists began recasting the story of Reconstruction soon after World War II, in fact, one of their first achievements was to show that Reconstruction did not collapse of its own corruption and greed but was relentlessly driven from power by terror and fraud.

What does it tell us about the state of history in this country that what historians have known for so long is still considered news? It tells us, for one thing, that journalists produce the best-selling history. Redemption bears many of the hallmarks of history written by journalists (in this case, by the dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia). It is first and foremost a story. Lemann conveys the vast and messy tale of Reconstruction through the eyes of a young white Republican governor, Adelbert Ames, who came to Mississippi to oversee Reconstruction, and his even younger new wife, Blanche, daughter of a Union general and a leading Radical Republican. By filtering nearly incomprehensible racial threat and chaos through the perspective of this well-intentioned, high-minded, and ultimately ineffectual white couple, Lemann converts the suffering of black people into matters of conscience for his two white protagonists.

Lemann’s book, to its credit, does not follow the formula for success established by so many other works of journalistic history, telling a cheerful story of Americans triumphing over nature, enemies, low birth, hard times, or unprincipled adversaries. That history has dominated the best-seller lists for the last 20 years, often taking the form of biographies of the Founding Fathers, of intrepid explorers, of underestimated presidents or businessmen or generals. Americans cannot seem to praise too highly, too often, or in too much detail the wisdom and greatness of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

Redemption is, instead, the other kind of journalistic history that sells: the exposé, a hagiographical book turned wrong side out, discovering that the people of the past were as driven by sex, violence, selfishness, and narrowness as we are. The American South, of course, is always a good place to make that discovery, especially when race is involved. And the terror in Redemption is all too real. Here an 18-year-old black woman tells of retrieving her husband’s body from a Mississippi swamp: “The skull bone was on the outside of the grave, and this arm was out slightly and the other was off.” Buzzards had eaten much of her husband’s entrails. Through such means was the South “redeemed,” delivered from Reconstruction.

No one who has read any Southern history in recent decades would expect anything else. Violence drenches that literature, just as it drenched the South. But general readers may be forgiven for having missed those dozens of books, for they have had no chance to know about them. Books published by university presses—even the best university presses—generally have little chance of a review in the New York Times. At chain stores in airports across the country, bored travelers find on one shelf after another the same selection of history books, the same narrow range of proven and predictable products. But at the same time, the academy has become a fringe market.

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

In the meantime, historians need fellow writers such as Nicholas Lemann. The drive toward originality takes precedence for historians, discoverers of lost pasts. For journalists, the drive for connection must be foremost. Both are necessary. For the tortured subject that Lemann explores, the politics of race in this country, we need all the help we can get.