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Monday, June 16, 2008

The ideas for the books began with “Little Women,” a publisher’s request, and previous research on women in the slaveholding South. Those ideas, like seeds, germinated and blossomed in the minds of Geraldine Brooks, Walter McDougall, and Drew Gilpin Faust culminating in the publication of “March,” “In the Throes of Democracy,” and “This Republic of Suffering,” respectively. Those authors and those books are what brought over 400 people together for an evening at the Washington Post Book Club on June 10th.

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Brooks, who cherishes Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” was intrigued by the idea that the book, which was set during the Civil War, made so little mention of the conflict. Aside from the first page, which mentions the father, Mr. March is at war as a chaplain, a later reference to the mother traveling to a Philadelphia Hospital to visit her ailing husband, and the father’s subsequent return home, there’s no exploration of his wartime experience. Brooks sought to delve into that possible experience, using Alcott’s own father Bronson as the model for her character. Bronson Alcott, according to the Brooks, was “the dark matter from which Emerson and Thoreau drew their energy.”

Like so many Northern idealists, Alcott became disillusioned by his war experience, much as Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. In fact she opened her book by setting it at the battle of Balls Bluff, where Holmes was seriously wounded and because, as Brooks stated, it was the battle in which Massachusetts troops first “saw the elephant.” Idealism crumbling in the grind and reality of war and “the huge gulf of experience” that separates husbands and wives are voiced in the narratives of both Mr. and Mrs. March, particularly when hostilities cease and Mr. March returns home.

Brooks said that her favorite question about the book came from a Cambridge, Mass. reader, who quipped “I don’t get it. Are we supposed to like this guy?” Brooks answered, “It depends on where you stand on impracticable idealists.” “Idealists,” in Brooks opinion, “move our moral quest forward” even though they are not the easiest people to get along with. According to Brooks, who has been a war correspondent in Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia, we’re “all subject to idealize military adventures, but horrified when our troops commit atrocities. " That is the question facing idealists like Mr. March, “How do you deal with your moral code when horrified?”

Brooks acknowledged that two Harrietts were influential in the writing of her book, Beecher-Stowe and Jacobs. Commenting on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she said “You think you know what’s in it until you read it.” Like Beecher-Stowe she tried to find a convincing voice for her 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and realized she needed to have two, husband and wife, to tell her story. Jacobs was a historical influence who helped her find an authentic voice for slaves.

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McDougall’s "Throes of Democracy," a sequel to 2005's "Freedom Just Around the Corner," is an exploration of the American character between 1829 and 1877 and “the power of pretense to bond a sprawling people together.” What dawned on him from reading early European accounts of the American experience, such as de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," was “how pretentious Americans were.” He came to this opinion after approaching “an era of history he had never written about or previously studied.” The entire fifty year history examined in the book can be viewed as a romantic era, as evidenced by the arts, the writing, and the idealism of its young people. The era was “excessive,” everything taken to an extreme. Too, the politics of the Jacksonian era “were theatrical in many respects,” when slogans such as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” ruled. Politics were, in the absence of organized sports, the national past time. Campaigning was built solely on posturing rather than given to debate on serious issues of the day. There was more focus on which party was most corrupt, or which presidential candidate was bravest in battle. Politics never involved the truth and voters cared less about truth. Truth was reserved for the circus and satire, where “inconvenient truths,” that politicians didn’t admit could stand the light of day.

According to McDougall American’s love history, but they are future oriented, not interested in the past, and have a tendency to throw away the past. Prior to the 1960’s the standard history in schools was an “exercise in flag waving.” Since then our history has become somewhat “hypercritical and might strike many as negative.” McDougall implied that in a sense its revisionist based on our modern concepts, in which we, as a people, wring our hands over every perceived indiscretion.

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The idea for “This Republic of Suffering” drew inspiration from an earlier Gilpin Faust book “Mother's of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the Civil War.” That book was based on diaries and letters written to the Confederate government. What preoccupied the women was not war strategy, or the threat of emancipation. What they wrote about was death, the fear of death, the reality of death, and the cost of death to their society. Death was central in so many lives that Gilpin Faust concluded it transcended both the North and South.

With a death rate that claimed two per cent of the American population, equivalent to six million killed based on our current census, Gilpin Faust was quick to point out that collateral deaths, i.e. civilians and those killed in guerilla operations did not get figured into the estimates of those killed during four years of warfare. But the magnitude of the killing and deaths from disease raised numerous questions that she sought to answer in her book. Questions like how did the nation cope, how did people adapt to and understand the level of destruction, and as importantly, how does it impact and transform a nation? That, in turn, led to other questions such as the duty of the soldier, the meaning of loss, how to remember those who were lost, or how civilians dealt with their own bereavement.

Most historical change, according to Gilpin Faust, occurs over the course of decades or even centuries. The Civil War quickened the pace of those changes, including the assumption the national government bore responsibility and had an obligation to the dead. Following the war, the Federal government began a massive re-burial project of over 300,000 Union soldiers. But what was different about the new national cemeteries, that set them apart from Victorian prescriptions for park like settings in which to contemplate death, were the rigidly ordered placement of the headstones. Death in “a fundamental sense created the American nation by preserving it.”

Gilpin Faust related that her book responded to historical literature that we are all familiar with from an early age; the meaning of citizenship and liberty. We have “never really understood the price of war,” something we must do in order to understand when its "worth paying that price." Too often we are caught up in the immediacy and excitement without thinking about the consequences. Combatants on the other hand have always had to “grope with the realities of loss and commitment to a cause and hold that in balance that with their belief system. Society needs to contemplate what a war means and the price we pay when we make that decision. “Those who experienced war don’t let go of that experience.”

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