A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided

Jackson Lears writes:

For generations, the American Civil War has been shrouded in clouds of millennial nationalism. Few events in US history have been as susceptible to providentialist narratives of inevitable moral triumph: stories of an exceptional nation reborn into its modern form, cleansed of its original sin of slavery and ready to shoulder its redemptive responsibilities in the drama of world history. Professional historians, no less than popularisers, have succumbed to this siren song. Even historians on the left, otherwise sceptical of nationalist military crusades, have embraced the dominant narrative of the Civil War. As in the historiography of World War Two, scorched earth tactics – systematic assaults on civilians, uncompromising demands for unconditional surrender – can be justified in the name of a crusade against evil. Few Americans of any ideological persuasion are willing to question the logic of total war when it results in the victory of freedom over slavery (or Fascism).

(LRB 19 May 2011)

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