Sunday, June 08, 2014

Book review: Confederates in the Attic

Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's recounting of his experiences when he undertook to explore the subculture, prevalent in much of the Deep South, that holds in idyllic remembrance the not-quite-dead Confederacy.

Horwitz confesses that, as a boy, he was fascinated by Civil War history. Nothing uncommon in that, methinks. I know many American boys who entertained the same fascination (including myself). But, because of a chance encounter with Civil War reenactors outside his home in the 90s, Horwitz's boyhood fascination was reawakened.

As we learn in the book, Civil War reenactors invest themselves in their hobby by degrees. On one end of the spectrum is the weekend warrior who views reenactments as weekend getaways, role-playing camping trips, diversions. On the other are men like Robert Lee Hodge, a hard-core enthusiast, determined to relive the Civil War experience as authentically as possible. (That's Hodge himself on the book cover.) And, just as with any other hobby (take it from a lifelong war-game enthusiast; I know), reenactors impose a hierarchy on their brethren. The more "into it" you are, the higher your esteem within the community. As Horwitz writes, Hodge is at the pinnacle of the reenactment crowd, insisting on authentic fabric for his attire, grooming himself in the manner of the day, eating only foods that were available to Confederate soldiers, and so on. Hodge sneeringly refers to less dedicated reenactors as "farbs," a term which has special meaning within the reenactor community.

But an examination of the Civil War reenactment community is only half of Horwitz's book. The other half looks at the disaffected and unhappy demographic within the United States that holds the Confederacy as a paradise lost. This is a world where Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and even Henry Wirz, the  commandant of the Confederacy's infamous Andersonville prison camp, are viewed as heroes rather than traitors and villains. There is irony, as Horwitz points out, in this mentality. He tours each state in the Old South and many of the regions where the Confederacy is most revered were pro-Union during the time of the actual war. Further, many of the vociferous and angry people proclaiming their Confederate "heritage" seem incapable of articulating what it is in today's society that they object to (beyond, of course, their antipathy toward racial and religious minorities).

It's just as well that I didn't I read this book when it was first published in 1998. The subsequent rise of the Tea Party as a political "thing" has been appalling enough without having it presaged by the content of Horwitz's book.

This is a well-written and enjoyable book. Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, quite capable of humor and poetic flourish. He writes with sincerity, magnanimity, and objectivity. He does not condescend toward his subjects, despite the fact that he interviewed people who flatly stated they hate Jews, blacks, and other minorities. (Horwitz is himself Jewish).

He's a better man than me.

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