Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Death and The Civil War

On NPR's Fresh Air today, Historian Drew Gilpin Faust will talk about her new book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

This looks to be a fascinating book about changing ideas and cultures of death in America in response to the Civil War and its atrocities, made viscerally visible to the nation through the new technology of photography via the work of individuals such as Mathew Brady. Here is a small portion of an excerpt from the WNYC homepage:

Mortality defines the human condition. "We all have our dead—we all have our Graves," a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront "like miseries"; every age must search for "like consolation." Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though "we all have our dead," and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.

Civil War Americans often wrote about what they called "the work of death," meaning the duties of soldiers to fight, kill, and die...Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death; the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face—to worry about how to die—distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity.7 It is work to deal with the dead as well, to remove them in the literal sense of disposing of their bodies, and it is also work to remove them in a more figurative sense. The bereaved struggle to separate themselves from the dead through ritual and mourning. Families and communities must repair the rent in the domestic and social fabric, and societies, nations, and cultures must work to understand and explain unfathomable loss.

This is a book about the work of death in the American Civil War. It seeks to describe how between 1861 and 1865—and into the decades that followed—Americans undertook a kind of work that history has not adequately understood or recognized. Human beings are rarely simply passive victims of death. They are actors even if they are the diers; they prepare for death, imagine it, risk it, endure it, seek to understand it. And if they are survivors, they must assume new identities established by their persistence in face of others' annihilation.

Read whole excerpt and listen to the interview here.

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