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Sunday Book Review: Republic of Suffering

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Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering is about memory and the Civil War, but not in the conventionally understood fashion. Although Faust writes a bit about the memory of the war in the national narrative, she’s more interested in how the raw butchery of the war affected American culture on a micro level. The understanding of death in the family and in literature, she suggests, was transformed by the immense human cost of the war and the distance of major battlefields from the homes of many soldiers. Death, as it were, was conducted differently after the war than before.

Faust suggests that a particular understanding of the “Good Death” predominated in the United States before the war. The Good Death involved dying at home, with one’s family, and with the presence of mind to understand and accept the process. The United States had thus far missed out on the opening stages of industrial war, participating only on the periphery of the Napleonic Wars and defeating Mexico without substantial loss. The Civil War represented a demographic event, so to speak, that made the previous appreciation of death difficult. Death came suddenly, often with great pain, and sometimes left no identifiable remains. Even when remains could be identified, the state lacked the bureaucratic and physical infrastructure necessary to transfer the bodies home. Technology also presented a problem, although the use of embalming expanded exponentially during the war.

The Civil War represented a unique expansion in the capacity of the state in nineteenth century America, including growth in its capability to manage death. The raising of large armies, their operation in war, and the management of their demobilization all stressed and expanded the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. Faust details how the managing of Union war dead during and after the war required the state to act in previously unimagined ways. There was substantial difference between the North and the South, of course, in part because the war was fought mostly on Southern soil but also because of the poverty of the South after the war.

The war transformed death bureaucratically, but it also changed how Americans understood mourning at the family and community level. Belief in the literal Resurrection of the body, for example, ran up against the difficulty of missing or scattered remains. The demographic impact of the death of over 600000 military age men left a common set of holes in families and communities. The war also taxed what were widely believed to be pacifist Christian commitments. Christians in the North and the South justified the war in their own ways, but as the United States had not previously experienced a large mobilization for war and had substantially smaller military forces than its European counterparts, pacifist resistance to the idea of killing remained a factor. Faust writes a bit about the problem of killing, but doesn’t really add much to the literature on the creation of the citizen-solider-killer.

It’s an interesting book, and it included quite a few interesting stories, but in the end the effort left me cold. From a social science point of view I would have liked some comparison; the entire nineteenth century was an era of social transformation, and in particular the expansion of the bureaucratic expansion of the state, so I’m skeptical that the Civil War played a singular role in the transformation of the management of death. In fairness, Faust doesn’t explicitly argue that it was such, although I think she heavily implies it. A less social science-y way of approaching the book is to think of it as a story about the reaction to a social shock in early modernity, without judgment about any particular cause or effect. That’s OK, but I guess I want a little bit more analysis. As I suggested, the story that Faust tells is interesting, but perhaps not quite interesting enough that, sans analysis, it can carry a full book.

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  • I’ve had my eye on this book since earlier this year, and just received a copy for my birthday (Why, thank you. Thank you very much).
    I think it might make for some interesting comparisons with Robert J. Lifton’s study of the survivors of Hiroshima, ‘Death in Life,’ the idea being that massive collective encounters with death, on a scale and of a type previously unimagined, generates cultural shockwaves that resonate to this day.
    We’ve internalized these changes, but it’s important to look back and understand what prompted them.
    Lifton’s also written about the terrorist attacks on NYC/DC in 2001, and to my mind nobody’s tackled the issues and better than he has.

  • RWS, how does Lifton compare with Paul Fussell on the Great War?

  • I really don’t know Fussell, so can’t compare.
    Lifton’s a psychiatrist, and he focuses his clinical attentions on groups. His study of the survivors of Hiroshima emphasizes their experiences of individual and collective death, that is – the dead families and friends of the survivors, as well as the death of their way of life, and of the world as they knew it up to that moment.
    He also wrote extensively about Nazi doctors, and how their initial identities as healers became perverted into an identity of killer.
    In both cases, Lifton’s concern is not so much the war as it is on the people whose lives were changed by it.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Kirsten Fermaglich’s American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares has some really interesting material about the background to Lifton’s work and its grounding in mid-20th century U.S. views of Nazi concentration camps.

  • I was just thinking of Fussell’s book “the great war in modern memory” (because I just read his wife’s replique de cuisine et de chambre “my kitchen wars” about their thirty year marriage and his eventually coming out as gay. But all that aside the great war in modern memory is a fantastic book. I am planning to dig out my copy to read with the drew gilpin faust book.
    My mother gave a poetry reading at the 150?th anniversary (can’t remember the actual number) of mount auburn cemetery which sort of straddles these different periods in american history and the history of mourning. (Oh, it was founded in 1831) One of the things you learn as you go on the tour (which I assume is heavily covered in Gilpin Faust’s book) is that there was an ongoing transition from a fear of an everpresent death and an angry god (symbolized in puritan and early american monuments) to a dreamy and elegant reference to classical things and the life to come, and then the civil war era (Mt Auburn has a fantastic civil war memorial in the shape of a sphinx and long forbade the showing of actual religious imagery like the cross. Its kind of transcendental in its feeling)
    Another interesting book to read in this regard might be Jessica Mitford’s The american Way of Death.
    Well, maybe I’ll be able to get out to a bookstore and pick this up today.
    History
    Mount Auburn Cemetery has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior, recognizing it as one of the country’s most significant cultural landscapes. Founded in 1831, it was the first large-scale designed landscape open to the public in the United States. Today its beauty, historical associations and horticultural collections are internationally renowned.
    Our founders believed that burying and commemorating the dead was best done in a tranquil and beautiful natural setting at a short distance from the city center. They also believed that the Cemetery should be a place for the living, “embellishing” the natural landscape with ornamental plantings, monuments, fences, fountains and chapels. This inspired concept was copied widely throughout the United States, giving birth to the rural cemetery movement and the tradition of garden cemeteries. Their popularity led, in turn, to the establishment of America’s public parks.

  • strategichamlet

    “Faust writes a bit about the problem of killing, but doesn’t really add much to the literature on the creation of the citizen-solider-killer.”
    Is there a really good book on this topic? I would appreciate any recommendations.

  • Hogan

    I’m a little late paying my memory bill so you shouldn’t just take my word for it, but I think Fussell deals almost entirely with literary texts, not with vernacular expression or with any popular consciousness that isn’t conditioned mainly by literary texts.

  • Hogan,
    You are right, its all literary and poetic imagery and memory. But its just a stunning book.
    aimai

  • coozledad

    Phillipe Aries’ book “The Hour of Our Death” pretty exhaustively covers the concept of the good death, too. Perfect book for a rainy, hungover day.
    Fussell is simply one of the best writers around. I still like his take on the current debacle:
    “If this war doesn’t make you angry, you don’t deserve to be alive.”

  • geo

    Is there a really good book on this topic? I would appreciate any recommendations.
    Gerald Linderman’s _Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War_ might be something to check out.
    I had Faust’s book checked out of the library, but somebody re-called it before I could get to it. Curses!
    I’m curious how she dealt with death from sickness, as opposed to death from war injury.

  • That’s a good question, geo, considering how many of those civil war deaths (and later crimean war deaths) were from illness and poor medical care rather than merely from wounds. Another person to read, of course, would be walt whitman since he served as a nurse.
    aimai

  • Earlier Crimean War

  • D may know more about this than I do, but in preparing for my Civil War in History and Memory class, my sense is that Faust’s book has not been particularly well received, though I have not had time to read it or even to really get into the criticisms.

  • Our founders believed that burying and commemorating the dead was best done in a tranquil and beautiful natural setting at a short distance from the city center. They also believed that the Cemetery should be a place for the living, “embellishing” the natural landscape with ornamental plantings, monuments, fences, fountains and chapels. This inspired concept was copied widely throughout the United States, giving birth to the rural cemetery movement and the tradition of garden cemeteries. Their popularity led, in turn, to the establishment of America’s public parks.
    ***************************
    I definitely recommend the cemeteries and parks/squares in downtown Savannah.

  • argh, pinko punko is correct. I transposed the Crimean war to the time of the Boer War. this is very embarrassing.
    aimai

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