Author Interview with John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis

Rachel Gordan

Every once in a while, you read a book that opens up new vistas for thinking about and writing history. The Battle Hymnn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, is one of those books. It made me wonder how two historians set about exploring the past through one of America's most famous anthems.

Rachel: Your book, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, tells both the story of the song’s creation (and of its creator, Julia Ward Howe) and of the song’s long history in American culture. What came first: an interest in the song’s origin or in the song’s ubiquity in American history?

Benjamin Soskis: I can trace my interest in the “Battle Hymn” to my junior year of college, when I wrote a paper on the history of the song. I don’t remember exactly what drew me to the topic initially, but I remember being taken with the fact that the song from which the “Battle Hymn” derived—the Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body”—had originated from a joke. (Spoiler alert: the song sprang from the taunts endured by a Union officer who happened to share the same name as the radical abolitionist). There was something especially profound, I thought, about that doubleness sitting at the origins of the song, which was reflected in the way “John Brown’s Body” itself twined spiritual rebirth and corporeal decay (“John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave/ His soul’s marching on!”).  This idea stayed with me and is what fueled my initial interest in writing a “biography” of the “Battle Hymn”; an interest in the song’s ubiquity in American history came later. It was as if, in writing an account of the life of some great American, I was drawn to some small but telling anecdote of the figure’s youth and only through the research itself came to an appreciation of the fullness of the life.

John Stauffer
: Having written a lot on abolitionism and the Civil War era, my interest in doing the book started with “John Brown’s Body” (which Julia Ward Howe rewrote as “Battle Hymn”).  I had long been fascinated by how influential and powerful the ballad was for soldiers and Northerners during the war and Reconstruction.  And I was struck by the dearth of scholarship on the memory or legacy of the ballad, since I continually had come across instances of blacks, Socialists, and Wobblies who adored the song, and white Southerners who rewrote it as “I’ll Be John Browned,” turning Brown into an expletive. 

And so part of my interest in the project was to explore why “John Brown’s Body,” the ballad of a militant abolitionist, was so ubiquitous in the North during the war and Reconstruction, and how and why “Battle Hymn” became the nation’s unofficial anthem by the early twentieth century, embraced by Southerners and Northerners alike. 

Rachel: Were you aware, before you began your research, of the many places in American history where the hymn appears? (For instance, the hymn’s role in the events following Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I loved this thick description of the hymn’s place in the nation's mourning.) Or was that a discovery that you made as you worked on the book?

John: I was vaguely aware of the “Battle Hymn’s” ubiquity in twentieth-century political events, but for me the two biggest surprises were:  1)  Discovering that the song’s origins were Southern—-it began as a camp meeting spiritual, as much African as American; and 2) discovering the song’s rich legacies—which are also the legacies of the abolition movement, which scholars have largely ignored until quite recently. 

Ben: I think we both had an intuition of the song’s ubiquity—and this was why we both believed it merited a full “biography,” which would also tell a larger story about American ideas of national identity and purpose. But, at least from my perspective, I was constantly surprised by the depth and not just the breadth, of its appearances. When Americans invoked or sang the “Battle Hymn,” they almost never did so lightly and they tended to do so at moments of crisis, peril, or exaltation—settings about which it was difficult not to write “thick descriptions.” We didn’t have to bore too deep to discover the major themes of the book—the interplay of millennial hope and apocalyptic despair, of national unity and dissolution—within those scenes. And what I found most exciting in writing the book was how those themes linked the various vignettes together. This was certainly the case for the song’s role in the mourning after RFK’s assassination, when the “Battle Hymn” was sung by Andy Williams during the memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and then by crowds of onlookers, clustered by the tracks all along the route, as Kennedy’s funeral train made its way to DC. This singing represented “a moment of America at its best,” one reporter commented. And yet as another noted, there was something striking about a song which hymned the power of God’s terrible swift sword having such a prominent place “at a time of national introspection about violence as a way of life in America.” “And… ‘scene.’”

Rachel: In your book, Julia Ward Howe’s writing process is described as “bearing witness.” Her writing of the hymn sounds like a religious experience: she is the medium, transcribing the words. This also sounds like the best kind of writing! Verlyn Klinkenborg describes writing (and he urges academics to see it this way) as a transcription process. Does this ring true to you of your own writing experiences? It is a beautifully written book.

Ben: I can’t speak for John, but I would describe my writing process as whatever the opposite of transcription might be. It feels like hard labor, grueling and grinding, punctuated with small moments of satisfaction, marked usually by celebratory yips and coffee breaks. But I share with you a fascination with Howe’s description of writing the “Battle Hymn,” the key episode in the song’s “origin myth” (to use the phrase first invoked by Annie Randall in her work on the hymn). And not just because I’d love words to come as easily to me as they did to Howe, on that early morning at Willard’s Hotel. As we demonstrate in the book, Howe’s identity as a medium performed a good bit of ideological (and gendered) work. The claim that she was merely transcribing “the soul of the nation,” for instance, granted Howe’s writing the impersonality that was demanded of women’s war work during the Civil War. Somewhat paradoxically, I do think it’s possible that the image of Howe as a medium, cemented through the story of the composition of her most famous work, led subsequent critics to dismiss her as a writer—one who actually did take her craft quite seriously and was quite willing to suffer through the mundane indignity of multiple drafts, just like the rest of us.

John: Howe reminded me of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who frequently said, “I didn’t write Uncle Tom’s Cabin; God did.”  She isn’t as explicit about her attribution as Stowe, perhaps because she was a Unitarian (though Unitarians aren’t normally thought of as memorizing much of Revelation).  Yet Howe comes close to echoing Stowe, characterizing herself as a medium, as you point out, which was quite common among writers and artists especially in the nineteenth century.  This concept of creativity wonderfully plays into the Romantic ideas, and it also downplays the importance of training and craft.  Howe had enviable training as a writer and was a highly accomplished poet before she wrote “Battle Hymn.”  Hawthorne, normally no friend of women writers, called her “the poetess of America.” 

Rachel: Your “story about a song” reminds historians to pay more attention to song and music. Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the Battle Hymn of the Republic has this remarkable ability to mean different things to different people at different times. In a way, this protean nature of the hymn, that you describe so well, is the power of art. Do you think American historians have been neglecting music and art in our research? What clued you in to their importance?

John: I think historians have very much neglected the power of art and music in their research, partly because of increasing specialization and the pressure to define oneself within a discrete field.  With the comparative decline of intellectual history, art and music are too often viewed as ancillary to the “important” stuff of history. But I was trained in American Studies, and I’ve long used photography, fiction, poetry, and other artistic forms as windows into worldviews and social values. Although the book was my first experience writing on music, it felt methodologically familiar.  Aside from my own love of popular music, I became increasingly interested in music from a cultural perspective owing to my research on the Civil War era, in which I became increasingly fascinated by the importance and power of music in people’s lives. Sheet music was the most profitable printed medium in the Civil War era, probably more widely disseminated than books and pamphlets.  Music, especially hymnody, taught people basic values and inspired them to act on those values, much as photography, as I’ve long recognized, also functioned as a source of value and inspiration. As Frederick Douglass put it, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers---and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements.  They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”  He should have added “musicians” to his list of poets, prophets, and reformers-—he loved music and recognized its power!
Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) resemble Douglass in this respect.  They reached and converted people not from manifestos and theory, but through their “Little Red Songbook,” which they updated almost every year.  Ralph Chaplin rewrote “John Brown’s Body”/”Battle Hymn” as “Solidarity Forever,” which became their anthem (and eventually the labor anthem of the twentieth century).  It was this and other songs that they disseminated their vision of solidarity, hope, revolution, and millennium--they retained the millennialist vision of “Battle Hymn.”

Ben: I’m not sure if American historians are neglecting music or art; certainly, our own research benefited from historians who are actively incorporating each into their own scholarship. But I do think that there is much more that historians could do with American song—both religious and secular. If this is a subject that has not received the attention it deserves, it is perhaps because we now have a hard time appreciating the place public singing once held in American life. We still sing the “Star Spangled Banner” (or “Sweet Caroline) at ballgames, and the “Battle Hymn” still makes appearances at memorial services, but on the whole we consume songs more than we participate in their creation and so their place in our civil religion is somewhat diminished. I also think there is much more we can do in terms of incorporating the rich scholarship of American hymnody into broader narratives of the nation’s religious and intellectual life.

Rachel: In focusing on the Battle Hymn, the book provides insight into the emotional life and history of this country by evoking the contexts in which the hymn was sung. There’s a quotation in your book from Julius Lester about the song’s use during the Civil Rights Movement: Lester says that they sang the Battle Hymn "to death." We all know what it’s like to play a song over and over, because it captures a mood that we want to evoke and sustain. Is this part of what interested you in the Hymn: its functionality in America’s emotional history?

Ben: Absolutely. The fact that the various incarnations of the “Battle Hymn,” including “Say, Brothers” and “John Brown’s Body” made appearances at camp meeting revivals, and during military and political campaigns, suggests the song’s power to steel combatants for imminent and ultimate conflicts. The history of the song also shows clearly that the “Battle Hymn” allowed listeners to link whatever battle loomed on the horizon to America’s millennial mission to “make men free.” But that history also shows how this functionality was often subverted by the more anarchic under-currents that flowed through the song, feeding a powerful strain of parody (and of jeremiad) that demonstrated how far the nation was from fulfilling that mission. Or perhaps in this case, the song performed another function. Which is all to say: if this book charts America’s emotional history, it’s a complex and twisted one.

John: I agree and love your phrase.  “The Battle Hymn” and other popular songs are important because of their “functionality in America’s emotional history.”  They help us access and reconstruct an experiential sense of the past, the felt experience of a certain place and time.  But I like your phrase better. 

Rachel:  Many historians and biographers have written about Billy Graham’s life. What do we gain by understanding how Graham’s life intersected with the Battle Hymn?

John: Billy Graham’s message, like the “Battle Hymn,” was wonderfully (in my view) open-ended or ambiguous.  Theologians might (and have) called the song, and Graham, feeble or mushy.  But this theological haziness greatly contributed to their popular and enduring appeal.  To cite just one instance, some theologians can’t make sense of (or denigrate) the “Battle Hymn’s” fifth stanza.  After all, Christ wasn’t born “in the beauty of the lilies.” But during the Civil War era especially, lilies symbolized purity, sacrifice, and redemption. “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” has been interpreted as almost sacrilegious, suggesting that Christ is an exemplar for humans rather than the object of their faith.  But evangelicals have long been inspired by Christ as exemplar without attenuating His godliness, as reflected by the maxim, “What would Jesus do?”

Cliff Barrows, Graham’s musical director, told us that “Battle Hymn” is not only a great hymn, “singable” and well known, but that the last line of each stanza “exemplified the heart of Billy’s crusades”:  “His truth is marching on,” “Since God is marching on,” “Our God is marching on.”  Not exactly rigorous theology, but immensely appealing and inspiring. 

“Battle Hymn” also helps us understand Graham’s move away from his fundamentalist roots toward the nation’s ideological center, a center that was large and contained a lot of different beliefs.  In fact, beginning in the 1970s Graham criticized the religious right for being too absorbed in political concerns.  He attacked Communism on religious, not political, grounds.  He offered through “Battle Hymn” a civil religion with an evangelical gloss.

Then too, Graham chose as his theme song an abolitionist hymn that subsequently helped reunite North and South after the Civil War.  The song’s cultural work struck a resonant chord for Graham:  he was self-consciously a Southerner; both grandfathers had been Confederate veterans.  His paternal grandfather died with a Yankee bullet in his leg, and his maternal grandfather lost a leg and eye at Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg.  It was Graham’s mom who recommended “Battle Hymn” as his theme song.  It’s as though she recognized that the hymn could help him transcend his Southern identity, which he recognized as a handicap:  he didn’t want to be pegged as another Southern revivalist.  Similarly, he headquartered his Evangelical Association in Minneapolis.  Scholars have downplayed the degree to which Graham needed to overcome his Southerness in order to reach national and international audience. 

Rachel: Other books and scholars often inspire our work – lighting the path ahead. What books did you read or think back to, while working on this one?

John: Since we were committed to the concept of a “biography of the song,” each chapter connects the hymn to an individual who contributed to its creation and/or influence.  But this approach---a biography of a song that includes origins, influences, and legacies---poses rich dilemmas about structure.  And so a lot of the books I read (or went back to) were the few extant examples of biographies of songs, such as David Margolick’s Strange Fruit:  The Biography of a Song.  But I also read a lot of biographies of song-makers in which the author paid close attention to the origins, influences, and legacies of songs:  Peter Guralnick’s brilliant Last Train to Memphis:  The Rise of Elvis Presley; William Adler’s wonderful, The Man Who Never Died:  The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon; Greil Marcus’ work, especially Mystery Train and Dead Elvis, Eileen Southern’s indispensable Music of Black Americans; David Hadju’s Positively 6th Street.  Plus I read related works of music history, such as Kevin Park’s wonderful Music and Copyright in America, which is essentially a biography of music copyright; David Suisman’s Selling Sounds; and Christian McWhirter’s excellent Battle Hymns. 

Then there were religious histories I kept returning to:  Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More; Moorhead’s American Apocalypse and World Without End; Tuveson’s still valuable Redeemer Nation; Heyrman’s Southern Cross; Gamble’s War for Righteousness; and Ahlstrom’s Religious History.

My favorite biographies/autobiographies of the book’s major characters are David Reynolds’ John Brown; William McLoughlin’s Billy Sunday Was His Real Name; Ralph Chaplin’s Wobbly; William Martin’s Prophet with Honor on Graham; and Taylor Branch’s trilogy, America in the King Years, coupled with Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America.  In my view, the definitive biography of Julia Ward Howe has not yet to be written, but I have hopes that Elaine Showalter is working on a Howe biography, will fill a sorely needed gap. 

Rachel: It was really interesting to read about Julia Ward Howe’s life at this moment in our contemporary motherhood/parenting debates. Howe was under no illusions about being able to “have it all,” although she sounded as ambitious as any contemporary writer.  How does her personal story – the unhappy marriage, pregnancies, money worries, and desire for independence and time for creative pursuits  – fit into this history of the hymn?

Ben: How would Julia Ward Howe intervene in the mommy wars? I’m not entirely sure. In some sense, this is because her own gender politics were so ambiguous. She was both a radical renegade, who strained against traditional maternal roles, and a proud traditionalist, who sought to place those roles on an equal footing with notions of paternal and masculine responsibility. Few have written more passionately about the need to follow one’s “internal necessity” against societal strictures, but by the end of her life, when she was celebrated as the embodiment of Victorian propriety, she also seemed to make a virtue out of “external necessity.” Would she be dismissed as a sell-out today? Perhaps, but I think unfairly. If her life can tells us anything about the contemporary debate on balancing professional and familial responsibilities, it is by showing us how poorly served we are by employing neat and rigid battle lines. Many of us, men and women, lean in and out; Julia Ward Howe’s life documents how messy this can be. These themes are reflected in the “Battle Hymn” itself, which suggests both the sanctity of the bonds of Union as well as—through the resonances of “John Brown’s Body”—the imperative to follow the “’higher law’ or individual conscience.” In this way, Julia Ward Howe’s personal story is refracted throughout the book as a whole.


Anonymous said…
I really enjoyed this book too! Have a Christian Century review of it coming out in a few weeks or months or something.

Popular Posts