Republic of Suffering

Paul Harvey

Drew Gilpin Faust's new book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is drawing much interest and comment. Jon Wiener's appreciative review is reprinted here. He begins: lists more than 36,000 books on the American Civil War, and my guess is that most of them depict battles and heroes, and describe wartime deaths as noble and tragic. Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering" does something different. It's a shattering history of the war, focusing exclusively on death and dying -- how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it.

Here's a brief roundup of other reviews, with thanks to Ralph Luker: Edward Ayers, "Dead Reckoning," CHE, 11 January (subscriber only); Richard Wightman Fox, "National Life After Death," Slate, 7 January; Adam Kirsch, "Among the Dead," NY Sun, 9 January. Also, Terry Gross interviews Faust about her book for NPR's "Fresh Air."

UPDATE: In the comments section, Bland Whiteley mentions Eric Foner's review of the work in The Nation. And I will add Adam Gopnik's in the New Yorker.

Foner has the most critical words:

Like Faust's book, Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006), a work by the Yale scholar of religious history Harry Stout, condemns the Civil War clergy for justifying slaughter. It is hard not to see the shadow of Iraq--a prime example of senseless carnage cynically overlaid with exalted rhetoric--hovering over these books. And at a time of the increasing militarization of our society and politics, any reminder of the true costs of war is certainly welcome.

Yet on the question of whether the Civil War had any larger meaning, This Republic of Suffering is oddly agnostic. At one point, Faust does refer to "a war about slavery." But overall, the war's meaning for her lies in death, not life; in destruction and suffering, not any other outcome. The Civil War was, indeed, a terrible tragedy. But because of her unrelenting preoccupation with death, Faust strips the war of political meaning. She never steps back to ask what the price of avoiding war might have been.

Gopnik has this fascinating take:

Faust is tracing a true fault line in modern consciousness. In these years, and despite much conventional religious piety, there’s a nascent sense that the deaths of the young men will never be justified in the eyes of a good God, and never compensated for by a meeting in another world. Their deaths can be made meaningful only through a vague idea of Providence and through the persistence of a living nation. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, through the dignity of near-Biblical expression, elevated sordid nationalism to a shimmering ideal of popular government; and it resonated because it said what a lot of people already felt. Fewer people found comfort in the promise of eternal life; more found it in the idea of a new world worth making.

It wasn’t a small shift. For most of history, ordinary people lived their lives vertically, with reference to a Heaven above and a Hell below. Now we live our lives horizontally, with reference to a past that we can repair or extend, and to future generations for whom our sacrifices and examples may make a better life. (We live horizontally, too, in the knowledge of sex and death as shaping principles.) The Civil War was one place in which this change got made. At the end of the war, the rituals that Faust catalogues were not merely secular but in their quiet way anti-religious, grounding the meaning of the war entirely in the sublunary realm of gains and losses. It is as if the scale of death and suffering had vitiated the idea of a good God not so much by outright rejection as by forcing another rhetoric and language of explanation.


Kathryn Lofton said…
Seeing this book made me think of Tracy F's fantastic comment at the Albanese panel for A's (analogously titled) "Republic of Mind and Spirit."
Bland Whitley said…
I'll add to the list of reviews Eric Foner's in the Nation. While praising the book, Foner is somewhat more critical than other reviewers.

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