Friday, November 27, 2015

Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horowitz

Confederates in the Attic
by Tony Horowitz

Confederates in the Attic was published in 1998 by writer and journalist Tony Horowitz. It was his third published book. In this book Mr. Horowitz moves across the old American South (the southern states that are east of the Mississippi river and south of D.C.) looking at the contemporary attitudes and memories the people of those states had of the civil war. He started this journey when he and his Australian wife (Geraldine Brooks) moved to Virginia and a chance encounter re-sparked a boyhood passion for the civil war. Because of this he will travel across Virginia, the Carolina's, Alabama, Georgia and more speaking to members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, store keepers, mayors, school teachers, activists, tour guides, park rangers, a convicted shooter, reenactors, widows, factory workers and more. Let me first talk a bit about Mr. Horowitz.

Mr. Horowitz was born in Washington D.C, his mother wrote books for children and young adults. Mr. Horowitz himself would go on to write a number of books himself after getting a masters from Colombia University in journalism (he did his undergraduate studies at Brown University getting a history degree). He would work on 3 continents in journalism and married his wife Ms. Brooks in France in 1984, they remain married. Ms. Brooks herself is a very accomplished writer (one of her books March, is actually set in the American Civil War) from Australia. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Horowitz himself is a very skilled and prolific writer. Mr. Horowitz and Ms. Brook remain married to this day (In the unlikely event either one of you read this review, I'd like to extend my congratulations on maintaining your marriage) and have two sons, at least one of which was born during the writing of the book.

The book begins by setting up Mr. Horowitz's personal connection to the civil war, the memory of his great grandfather studying books of the civil war pouring over photos and art with a magnifying glass. This was interesting as his great grandfather was a immigrant to the United States. He wasn't here when the war was fought, he didn't have any family that was involved. Yet, for reasons lost to time he study and peered into the past at that war. He also passed on that interest to his great grandchild who developed a childhood obsession leading to the painting of a giant mural of a civil war battle across the walls of his bedroom. Among other things... He of course moved away form it for a time in his teens and early adulthood but moving to Virginia with his wife re sparked the interest in him. Which brings us to the writing of this book.

A major part of the book is Mr. Horowitz's experiences with a sub-set of the reenactor community who refer to themselves as Hardcore Reenactors, referring to the others as “Farbs.” We all know people like this, willing to utterly devote themselves to an interest on a level that makes you think this might be less then healthy. In this case the Hardcore's devotion is such that it becomes the central theme of their life, dictating their diet (keeping on intensely low calorie diets so they can look just like the half starved Confederate soldiers) to their dress in the field (nothing that was invented after 1860 is allowed, not even for underwear) and their supplies (Mr. Horowitz wasn't even allowed to bring a bag of applies because they were bred into existence in the 1880s) and their sleeping arrangements (they were only allowed to bring 1 blanket a piece and slept in all in a huddle, spooning for warmth.). This introduces us to one of the recurring characters in this book, Robert Lee Hodge, hardest of the hardcore. Made all the better for being a real person (because no one would believe a fictional character like this!). Mr. Hodge even graces the front of the book, giving a full force Confederate scowl. He's a man utterly obsessed with capturing the feeling of being in the civil war of making some common experience with those men who 150 years ago marched under the banners of Union or Confederacy. To that end he is willing to experience and inflict on himself hardship after hardship, go on pursuits for cotton and wool or just manic hunts for just the right button. To be honest, it's hard for me not to respect the sheer amount of work and effort someone like Mr. Hodges puts into this. It is certainly no mere hobby or diversion for him. We see this when Mr. Hodges leads Mr. Horowitz through a whirlwind tour of civil war sites and battlefields, that he calls a wargasm. Where they move from site to site sleeping on battlefields, eating on the run and constantly looking for the next hit. The parts with Mr. Hodge are in my opinion the best parts of the book and certainly the funniest and most light hearted.

There are parts of the book that aren't so light hearted I'm sad to say. Throughout the book we meet members of various organizations (for example the United Daughters of the Confederacy) whose goal in life is to rewrite history. Frankly this annoys me to no end, look I get it, no one likes to be cast as the bad guy and it's true that in the United States that the southern redneck is one of the few whipping boys that it's acceptable to represent in broadly stereotyped and negative ways. That gets tiresome. That's no excuse to rewrite history to try and erase or minimize the crimes of the past. All to often in this book, we see white southerners cheerfully chirp about how it wasn't about slavery when the south left and you know slavery wasn't all that bad anyhow (one is forced to note that they say this where black southerners might hear it). Let me note for the record anyone that reads this reviews and announces that I need a history lesson has best have their ducks all in a row because bluntly on this subject? If you come at me half cocked you ain't gonna be giving lessons, you gonna be getting one. Let me be blunt here, I find this behavior outrageous. I find it at best to be display of ignorance, often willful and at worse an utterly dishonest attempt to expunge problematic history so to make life a bit easier. Saying it's cowardly and dishonest is bluntly the nicest thing I can say about behavior.

For that matter parts of this are downright depressing to read. The fact that while legal segregation might have ended, social and economic segregation remain. Mr. Horowitz notes that when it comes to the Confederacy (or for that matter remembering the work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr) rarely if ever do the white or black citizens of the south mix. Although recent news about pushes for desegregation (for example we have integrated proms being organized and held by the students themselves recently) are heartening, the fact that is necessary in the 21st century is in itself something that brings an unwelcome feeling. This book drives home the point that the American south (and if we're going to be honest the entire nation to a certain extent) is home to two societies that despite sharing the same land for centuries have different histories, different views, desires and needs. To bring in more bad news these two societies are still really bad at communicating with each other. On both sides we see everyone is defensive, hurt and frankly so very angry about the past and the pain that has been inflicted that any attempt to simply talk to each other gets tangled up into a series of perceived attacks and defenses that cannot be lower. I don't have a solution for this frankly. Realistically no one does, I'm sure a lot of people will say “Oh it's easy they just need to do X” or “They just need to start Y” but the phrase easier said then done comes to mind. Mr. Horowitz does visit several public schools (and to my horror I find that a number of states are trying to sweep the entire war under the mat, some dictating that funds be concentrated on American history after 1890) and finds little to fuel hope there. While children start off ignoring race, by the time they hit high school all the white kids sit on one side and all the black kids on another. I'm trying to avoid bringing up modern events in this review as this is a book review and not a political soap box but frankly it's in this behavior that we see the seeds of many of the tragedies that have boiled up. You don't have to like or agree with the modern movements, but I think it would behoove us all to realize that if African Americans felt that they were being treated fairly by the system, then we wouldn't have these protests and conflicts today. I'm not saying they're completely right, or that everything they do is good. Just that there's a legitimate compliant that has to be addressed if we're going to move forward as a society and we can't be dismissive of it. That's all I'm going to say on that.
That said, there are confrontations with African American activists as well, Mr. Horowitz is Jewish and when he meets a lady from Selma who is willing to support Louis Farrakhan sparks fly quickly. Which is what you should expect if you're willing to throw your support behind someone who publicly suggests that Hitler was a great guy. Frankly I don't have anything nice to say about Mr. Farrakhan (which I'm sure he's perfectly okay with) and going to much into it would derail the review so I'll stop here.

Confederates in the Attic makes for hard reading at times. This isn't the fault of Mr. Horowitz who at least tries to be fair and allow everyone their say. There are parts that are really enjoyable, there are parts that are deeply informative and there are parts that are just damn sad. Sometimes there are parts that are all of these at once. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz gets an -A, I think we could all use a read of this book and to think on it for awhile.

That said... Next week?

You Will Know the Power of the Dark Side!

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