Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten

Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War
By Gary W. Gallagher

How we remember the past doesn’t reflect on historical events as much as it reflects on the persons remembering them, individually as people, or collectively as a community or a nation. Studying how we choose interpret and remember the Civil War, and how our interpretations of it have changed over time, tells us where we’ve been, where we are now and how far we’ve come. Gary Gallagher, in his book, “Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War,” has given us just such a study.

Mr. Gallagher has chosen to focus his study to the last twenty-five years or so in films and the last forty years in popular art. Before he tells us where we are in our remembrances on the Civil War he tells us where we’ve been, and to do that he defines the four narrative traditions that emerged after the Civil War: 1.) “The Lost Cause,” The Confederacy fighting against overwhelming odds 2.) The Union Cause, 3.) The Emancipation Cause and 4.) The Reconciliation Cause. Of the four narrative traditions The Union Cause, popular both during and immediately after the war has fallen by the wayside in modern times, in part because it is not so easily depicted.

To be able to tell us where we are as a society in our remembrances of the Civil War, Mr. Gallagher first briefly tells us where we’ve been by taking a look at how motion pictures have portrayed the Civil War from the development of the medium until the mid 1960’s. Though he briefly mentions many movies, two stand out far and above the others, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Both films rely heavily on their “Lost Cause” foundations. Other films of the era focus to a greater or lesser degree on The Lost Cause and Reconciliation traditions. Films dealing with the Civil War practically vanished during the Vietnam era. But starting with the observances of the quasiquicentenial of the Civil War in the mid to late 1980s and Ken Burns’ 1991 PBS documentary “The Civil War,” the war itself has made a comeback in American memory.

For his study, Mr. Gallagher looked at 14 films: Glory, Dances With Wolves, Gettysburg, Sommersby, Little Women, Pharaoh’s Army, Andersonville, Ride with the Devil, Gangs of New York, Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, The Confederate States of America and Seraphim Falls. With the notable exception of Gods and Generals the Lost Cause tradition has fallen by the wayside in film to join its brother The Union Cause. And in its place the Emancipation and the Reconciliation causes have taken root and blossomed.

In popular art however, Mr. Gallagher has observed just the opposite. Looking at advertisements for works of art in Civil War magazines over the last forty years, Mr. Gallagher has noted that pictures with a Lost Cause theme or featuring Confederate Army and its leaders by far and away out sell artworks featuring Union themes, the Federal Army or its leaders.

So why would the Lost Cause be in decline in films and be on the rise in art? Films are a greater reflection of the public in general, while works of art are often a personal choice and not displayed in public, but rather in the privacy of ones home or office. So while the Lost Cause may be vanishing from public view it certainly is firmly imbedded in our private psyches.

ISBN 978-0-8078-3206-6, The University of North Carolina Press, © 2008, Hardcover, 288 pages, Photographs, Endnotes & Index. $28.00

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