Review: This War Ain't Over

Rebecca Sharpless

Rebecca Sharpless is Professor of History at Texas Christian University.

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Rebecca Sharpless, "Review: This War Ain't Over," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Nina Silber. This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 248pp. 978-1-46964-654-1.

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When Americans sought to find meaning and solace during the cataclysms of the Great Depression and World War II, many of them turned to a previous great American trauma: the Civil War. Nina Silber has written numerous books on the American Civil War and its cultural impact. In This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, she shifts her analysis to the social uses of the war and its ideas in America during the Great Depression and World War II. With six compact chapters, Silber demonstrates amply that the Civil War resonated with Americans of many positions and persuasions seven decades after its conclusion: "Americans across the social, political, and economic spectrum found a 'usable past' . . . shap[ing] a history that often spoke directly to their present-day political concerns" (2).

Silber uses the performing arts—theater and movies—historic preservation, literature, and the words of ordinary Americans in correspondence and interviews to make her case. Along the way, she finds disparate groups such as the federal government, communists, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) sometimes as adversaries and sometimes as allies in defining American-ness. In short, this desperate time in American history created odd and strained cultural confluences and divergences. Throughout the book, racism and communism and their opponents complicate the progressive narrative often found in discussions of the New Deal and US participation in World War II.

Silber begins by investigating the role of the federal government in using the Civil War to combat the Great Depression. The Federal Theatre Project sometimes produced performances sympathetic to the South, but one of its most successful ventures was Battle Hymn, a 1936 depiction of John Brown and the fight for racial justice by leftist writers Mike Gold and Michael Blankfort. The Federal Writers' Project, too, displayed cultural pluralism and regional diversity. While the UDC sometimes strove to direct interviews with former slaves, the interviewees managed to tell their own stories of oppression under white masters. The National Park Service gained custody of numerous Civil War battlefields during the 1930s, and it attracted tourists as much as it commemorated the sacrifices of the last living veterans. Awkwardly, the interpretations sometimes "encouraged a new appreciation for the symbols of Confederate heroism and sacrifice" (53).

Silber next analyzes the legacy of slavery, particularly as white people on the political left appropriated it. Decrying the poverty suffered by white Americans during the Depression, observers often compared the victims to slaves, demonstrating ignorance of the specific racial context of literal American slavery. African American historians, conversely, began a painstaking reexamination of the horrors of antebellum slavery. White and black American communists realized the shadow of slavery’s depth and found linkages between the 1860s and the 1930s, specifically for African Americans.

Abraham Lincoln made a giant comeback in a multitude of guises in the 1930s. Carl Sandburg's 1926 biography, The Prairie Years, brought Lincoln to the attention of many Americans as a hero who could speak to the current national crisis. The recasting of Lincoln as a "great humanitarian" made him a sympathetic figure not only to African Americans but also to white working people and immigrants. As such, he embodied a strong federal power and, not coincidentally, paralleled Franklin Roosevelt as a leader. While some white Americans strove to portray Lincoln as a gradualist, African Americans insisted instead on his role as the radical emancipator.

Silber carefully points out that there was never only one "South," but the "South" most closely allied with a romantic view of slavery appeared forcefully in the 1936 novel and subsequent 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Even as Franklin Roosevelt tried to tread a middle way in handling southern poverty and politics, backward-looking southerners ensured that African American civil rights remained at a stalemate. The so-called "Lost Cause" played a central role in fighting both communism and federal intervention in the South.

American opposition to fascism began to mobilize in the late 1930s, as national leaders sought to rouse citizens to the need to engage in armed warfare. The Civil War, particularly in the hands of playwright Robert Sherwood, became a spur to end US isolationism and spark enthusiasm for entry into World War II. African Americans pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting fascism abroad while racism reigned at home. Yet even as civil rights crept forward, the Cold War chilled the efforts of many writers and artists who stood up against racial discrimination.

Silber's account of how, as Faulkner said, the past isn't even past, is accessible and well written. Anyone interested in the uses of memory by Americans to serve multiple and often contradictory causes will benefit from This War Ain't Over.