Confederates in the Attic
At the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, Tony Horwitz woke in his Virginia home to the sounds of the Civil War. This is the beginning point of Horwitz’s engaging and revealing examination of the significance presently attached to the “War Against Northern Aggression” in the American South. Like V. S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989) and Jonathan Raban’s Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America (1992), Confederates in the Attic gives an outsider’s view of this contradictory place called the South, a place of both geographical and mythological origins. Horwitz is the descendant of Russian Jews who came to America at the beginning of the century. He grew up in the industrial North, but, like his grandfather before him, Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War and found himself drawn inexplicably to the Confederate side. He tells us that as a child he pored over Mathew Brady photographs, read aloud with his father from the ten- volume collection The Photographic History of the Civil War (1911), and even constructed a panoramic mural, his own “cyclorama,” of Civil War battles on the walls of his attic. Growing up, he lost interest in the history, although he spent some time as a student activist in Mississippi. He later became a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist stationed in such places as Bosnia, Iraq, and Australia. Upon returning to America, he moved to the hills of northern Virginia, and there it is that “the Civil War crashed into my bedroom,” waking him both literally and figuratively into a world of memory and loss.
It is easy to make fun of the South, in part because Southerners are so quick to do it themselves. Southern humor is, of course, often a form of self-protection, but it is usually insightful and honest as well. Southerners, both black and white, are masters of the put-on, of giving strangers what they perhaps unknowingly expect, of seeming to confirm broad, biased assumptions while slyly undercutting those assumptions with a look, a tone, or a verbal wink. For this reason, books on the South written by non- Southerners are sometimes uncertain in their own tone. It takes a while to learn the language. Such is the case with this book. When Horwitz, for example, visits a Confederate museum in Charleston, S. C., he writes, “Every item in the museum seemed to carry a similarly Gothic tale, told with the same blend of decorum and dirt that left me guessing whether [the curator, June Wells] meant to praise or skewer her subjects.” This uncertainty, freely admitted as it is, is reassuring, for it indicates a reporter who is willing to let the story tell itself, not impose the narrative from outside. One of the growing charms of this book is the personage of Horwitz himself, a man who is openly conflicted and yet honestly sympathetic and understanding. As a Jew, he is offended by the anti-Semitism he sometimes encounters. As a liberal humanist, he is repulsed by the racism and bigotry that so often shows itself. And yet, ironically (as he clearly realizes), the one moment he gives in to angry frustration occurs near the end of the book in an argument with a black woman who is director of the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. “But the South had changed on me,” he writes, “or I’d changed on it. My passion for Civil War history and the kinship I felt for Southerners who shared it kept bumping into racism and right-wing politics. And here I was in Selma, after holding my temper with countless white supremacists, losing it with a black woman whose passion I’d initially admired.” Such a moment, so contradictory and nevertheless so revealing of the complexities of the evolving South, makes Horwitz’s journey all the more compelling. There are no easy answers.
Horwitz is first induced to undertake these travels of discovery through his meeting with Robert Lee Hodge, a “hardcore” Civil War reenactor (a word Hodge disdains). Hodge, whose portrait graces the cover of the book, is one of many quirky and yet quite real characters Horwitz meets. Unlike some works of this type, Confederates in the Attic avoids the impression that the author is condescending to the eccentricities of the “characters” he meets, although many of them are, indeed, eccentric. Rather, Horwitz seems thoroughly open to different points of view, respectful if not accepting, understanding that the reader is able to make individual judgments without the prodding of the narrator. Most of these people appear only once and are gone, but Hodge is the figure that holds the book together. A self-described fanatic on the war, Hodge waits tables during the week and freelances Civil War articles to support his chosen way of life as a Southern soldier, one for whom authenticity goes far beyond clothes and weapons, even to the portrayal of death itself. “As the Marlon Brando of...
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