U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Meaning of Death; The Death of Meaning: Jill Lepore, Drew Faust, and Intellectual History

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of weekly guest posts that Rivka Maizlish is doing for us. — Ben Alpers)

Here in this carload
i am Eve
with my son
if you see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i
—  found scrawled on the wall of a Nazi railway-car

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In The Name of War (1998), a creative study of the rhetoric and representation surrounding King Philip’s War, Jill Lepore analyzes war as a contest for meaning, a struggle where words matter as much as wounds. Looking behind wounds at the words that made them manifest, Lepore takes an historiographic turn that Daniel Wickberg has advocated and described as a shift “from immediate experience to mediated forms of representation.”1 Historians of the Civil War, a field long dominated by military and, more recently, social history, could benefit from Lepore’s analysis of language and her focus on meaning-making in war. The Civil War also offers a constructive challenge to Lepore’s insights on the relationship between language, meaning, and pain. While Lepore argues that war produces discourse and constructs meaning, in the Civil War, the contest for meaning came before the blood. In This Republic of Suffering (2008), Drew Gilpin Faust views meaning as a causality of the Civil War; extreme suffering discouraged discourse and eviscerated the meaning Americans had constructed. Examining meaning in the Civil War can reveal the rattling effect of death on otherwise coherent categories– an element missing from Lepore’s analysis. Nevertheless, by following Lepore’s methods, Civil War historians can demonstrate the primacy of meaning and language over immediate experience and behavior. For although the Union won the war, southern whites ultimately won the contest for meaning.

Jill Lepore marvels at the amount of ink and paper New Englanders used to write meaning into King Philip’s War. “King Philip’s War is . . . remarkable for how much the colonists wrote about it,” she states, asserting her central argument that “their writings proved to be pivotal to their victory, a victory that drew new, firmer boundaries between . . . what it meant to be ‘English’ and what it meant to be ‘Indian.’”2 A great extent of American literature, political speeches, pamphlets, and newspaper articles from the antebellum period represent a struggle for meaning that eventually resulted in Civil War. During the debate over the extension of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, a Whig congressman from Massachusetts declared that he had been draw into “that strife of tongues which has so long been raging around us.”3 In the years leading up to the Civil War, Americans participated in the same struggle Lepore identified: a contest for the meaning of America. The ideological battles that abolitionists fought may have failed to produce material results– they did not peacefully end slavery– but an analysis like Lepore’s shows that abolitionists helped to define the meaning of the war and to establish the injustice of the southern cause. Creating this meaning helped justify the war and the anti-slavery, pro-union measures of Reconstruction.

Yet the pain and suffering of the war put an end to “that strife of tongues” and ultimately undermined the abolitionists’ work. Although Lepore argues that wars “cultivate language,” the atrocities of the Civil War seemed to blunt language and to demonize the use of words as a cause of the bloodshed. Literary scholar Michael Gilmore has written about the length of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches before the war compared to their extreme brevity by the end of it, suggesting that Lincoln believed a cacophony of words had somehow caused the war.4 Lepore does acknowledge the possibility that pain and suffering could render words useless. “The magnitude of [John Kingsley]’s suffering . . . made writing impossible,” Leopre states. “As the physical devastation becomes real,” she explains, “the language describing it becomes unreal” until language becomes inadequate.5

In her analysis of meaning in the Civil War, Drew Faust goes significantly further than Lepore in exploring the effect of suffering on meaning-making, claiming that death became the ultimate meaning of the war, with pain so unbearable and widespread that it obliterated any other meaning. For Lepore, the magnitude of suffering in King Philip’s War serves only to explain why some Puritans did not take up the pen and enter the contest for meaning. “This . . . theory of pain’s relationship to language,” she writes, “helps explain the incongruence between how much some colonists wrote about King Philip’s War and how little others wrote.”6 According to Faust, however, Civil War suffering undermined all attempts at finding any meaning in the war other than death. “At war’s end,” argues Faust, “this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meaning of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the common ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite.”7

While the military aspect of Civil War ended with a Union victory, southern whites never conceded the contest for meaning and ultimately won major victories on this front. “Waging the war, writing about it, and remembering it were all part of the attempt to win it,” Lepore writes of King Philip’s War.8 In her last chapter she examines Metamora, a dramatic remembering of the American Indian leader in King Philip’s War, viewing the play as part of meaning-making through memory almost two centuries after the last battle. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and the film released in 1939, can similarly represent a southern attempt at winning the Civil War by remembering it as a just struggle to defend an honorable way of life. Mitchell’s poetic and partisan portrayal of the Civil War infiltrated American politics and culture, and revised American memory, suggesting that Lepore was right to focus on words over wounds– on human meaning-making as the driving force of history.

Daniel Wickberg complained in a recent article that “historians have not gone far enough in understanding that the object of study is the category itself, and so they constantly substitute a behavior as evidence of the category, rather than keeping their focus on language.” “Cultural historians need to be more like intellectual historians and less like social historians,” Wickberg insisted, arguing that historians should “take ideas and language a lot more serious than they have been willing to do.”9 Civil War historians, in particular, should heed Wickberg’s advice and follow Jill Lepore’s lead in understanding war as a contest of meaning. This approach will demonstrate the supreme power of ideas in America history, whether by demonstrating the initial importance of abolitionist victories in a rhetorical contest over justice, or by showing white southerners’ success at defining the meaning of the war long after they had lost it. Aside from enriching Civil War historiography and American intellectual history, a study of meaning-making in the Civil War along the lines of Lepore and Faust will also contribute to studies of death’s effect on meaning. A strife of tongues and a strife of arms many both create lasting and coherent categories of identity, as Lepore argues occurred in King Philip’s War, but, as Drew Faust claims happened in the Civil War, death and suffering also have the power to halt discourse, destroy constructed categories, and kill meaning.

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1. Daniel Wickberg, “Heterosexual White Male: Some Recent Inversions in American Cultural History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 92, Issue 1, 2005, 5.

2. Jill Lepore, The Name of War (New York: Random House,1998), xiii.

3. Robert Winthrop, February 21, 1850. Congressional Glode, 31st Congress, 1st Session, p.150.

4. Michael Gilmore, The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

5. Lepore, xiv.

6. Lepore, 66.

7.Drew Gilpin Faust, “The Civil War Solider and the Art of Dying,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Feb., 2001), 5.

8. Lepore, 175.

9. Wickberg, 22, 23.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David Blight has done some really nice work on the problems of violence, the Civil War’s meaning and its place in American (Northern and Southern) memory. “Race and Reunion” in particular is a beautifully written account of the type of problems you discuss in your post. As I recall, Blight’s work doesn’t delve deeply into the meaning of violence during the war. He is primarily concerned with how whites used a common language of violence postwar to put the violence of the Civil War behind them, easing reunification. Over time the meaning of the Civil War changed from a conflict over the injustice of race slavery to one about the common sacrifice and suffering of both sides.

  2. I find the choice of The Name of War appropriate – and ironic in the demotic sense – as an example of the way “historians can demonstrate the primacy of meaning and language over immediate experience and behavior.” Why? Because Lepore in that book commits just the sorts of methodological solecisms that give rise to annoyed complaints that “you’re reading too much into this.”

    There is some good stuff in the book if you’re willing to overlook its interpretive enthusiasms, particularly in her treatment of the way King Phillip’s War was absorbed into American memory. But her treatment of the war itself! Oy vey!

    I’ll cite just one example of this, to my mind the most egregious: her treatment of the symbolic meaning of doors as a liminal space. Lots of the English settlers killed in the war were shot through the doors and windows of their homes. “All those who looked out, or, worse still, stepped out, were bound to be met with a volley of bullets and arrows. All of these . . . died in their doorways. The boundaries separating English from Indian had been breached” (90).

    Yes, somehow the fact that people were killed in doorways and through windows was proof of the blurring of racial (and whatever else) identities between English and natives. Really. That is one frame (sorry). Let’s try another one, more prosaic, but equally robust in explanatory value. To wit: it’s a lot easier to kill people when they appear in open spaces your projectiles can penetrate without passing through other objects or material. Shooting someone through the side of a house? Hard. Shooting someone standing in a doorway or window? Much, much easier. No wonder people died in doorways and windows. You become a much more inviting target that way! Given Lepore’s apparent inability to acknowledge such basic and obvious constraints of physics, optics, and material science, her earlier protestation that emphasizing “the symbolic significance of doors and walls in the writing about the war is not to dismiss the very real protection that houses, especially those that were garrisoned, afforded during Indian attacks” (82) rings rather hollow.

    That whole chapter in which Lepore discusses the violence of the conflict, “Habitations of Cruelty,” is suffused (beset?) by a kind of academic obliviousness. Take Lepore’s description of how her neighbors reacted to the sight of one colonist after she was attacked. “Either way, Goody Thurston’s face was covered with blood and hair. To her neighbors, she was ‘a frightfull spectacle,’ mostly, no doubt, because of her panicked aspect and her terrible injuries, but partly also because she had been shorn of all emblems of piety, civility, and Englishness” (93). Surely Lepore here is merely confirming what we all learned in grade school: you can’t be English if you have a bloody face. That makes you Irish. Death too makes one no longer English, but at that point one suspects the loss of national identity is the least of one’s worries.

    Lepore’s discussion of the material basis of English cultural identity suffers from the same flaws. She seems surprised that “not just towns but families, too, counted people, possessions, and property when measuring their losses.” One wonders what other criteria they might have used instead. Then Lepore offers this insight: “Seeing a town and its houses destroyed was extraordinarily painful” (78). Verily, Lepore plumbed the depths of human nature to offer us this insight.

    What makes Lepore’s analysis so annoying is that underneath it all there is something to it. Her conclusion to the section from which the quotes in the preceding paragraph are taken demonstrates this.

    Dismay at losing one’s home is certainly a genuine expression of a very real, very devastating, and very practical loss. But there was more to the colonists’ concern than simple practicality: English possessions were, in a sense, what was at stake in the war, for these – the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, and the things they owned – were a good part of what differentiated the English from the Indians. these were not simply material differences, they were cultural, for every English frock coat was stitched with threads of civility, each thatched roof rested on a foundation of property rights, and every cupboard housed a universe of ideas. (79)

    There is a solid foundation here, but Lepore denudes it of any heuristic power by offering no means of discriminating between what was fundamental and what was incidental in the formation of identity. If everything is a token of Englishness, then the destruction or spoliation of everything is an attack on Englishness. So once one has the misfortune of poking one’s head out the door and getting it shot off, one is no longer English. Or if one is dispossessed of one’s scalp – “a very real, very devastating, and very practical loss,” to coin a phrase – one is also no longer English.

    Was King Philip’s War a struggle for English cultural identity? In part, yes. But what the nature of that struggle was and how its victims and perpetrators experienced it Lepore can’t say definitively. Not because such definition is beyond historical analysis, but because it is beyond Lepore’s analysis. Lepore seeks meaning, but it’s never clear whether she finds it or whether what she does find is the meaning her subjects would or did impute to their experience themselves.

    So what we are left with is a heap of speculative and conjectural assertions. “Language, in this story, may have been the final marker of Englishness. Like so many chroniclers of the war, Goodwife Thurston may have told her tale both as a way of making sense of her experience and as a way of reclaiming her identity” (94).

    Sometimes “may” and “could” are indispensable to the historian. And sometimes they mean “I have no dispositive evidence, but let’s pretend anyway otherwise my argument will evaporate in two pages.” The problem here, of course, is that Goody Thurston can’t answer the question “Did you write about your war experience to reclaim your identity as an Englishwoman?” and she likely couldn’t understand it anyway.

    Lepore is certainly “creative.” Alas, in ways that historians really oughtn’t be. If the sort of thing Lepore does in The Name of War is what results if historians place the quest for meaning at the heart of their inquiries, then I think we should stay where we are and not cross through that door, lest we read too much into it and get shot.

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