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Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History
David R. Goldfield
Louisiana State Univ Pr, 2002
354 pp., $34.95
David Goldfield, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of North Carolina, says in the opening sentences of his new book that he lives "in a tolerable yet sometimes intolerable place. Its sensual climate lures the unsuspecting, and the grace, manners, and civility of its citizens impart a preternatural quietude that belies the storm beneath."
That's a pretty dramatic opening, but Goldfield quickly ratchets it up a notch. Acknowledging that, although he has lived more than half of his life in the South, he doesn't "pretend to understand it," he adds:
I do know that there is a war going on here. It is an ancient conflict, as war and time go in this country. The Civil War is like a ghost that has not yet made its peace and roams the land seeking solace, retribution, or vindication.
Readers whose tastes don't run to Southern Gothic—especially those who've spent some time in the South and don't recognize the place Goldfield is describing—may be tempted to close the book and read no further. They should exercise more patience. Goldfield's basic point—that, in various and usually bloodless ways, the American Civil War still rages—is right. Past students of mine in Northern California seemed to assume that the Klan still runs wild in Dixie, and I sometimes found it challenging to help them see the war from a Confederate soldier's, or Southern mother's or farmer's, perspective. But prejudice cuts many ways, and since my arrival in Texas—which is partly Southern, partly Western and partly, well, Texan—I have stumbled over students who believe, because they have been taught in purportedly Christian schools, that the Klan was a charitable organization which held the South together in the face of Yankee depredations. I've also been told about grandparents who would be put off if their children's children married a Northerner. And I've observed a general approach to life that construes New England as foreign territory.
Goldfield does have a weakness for sweeping generalizations. ...