The Messiness of Myths

In 1947, historian Otto Eisenschiml referred to the Civil War as “The American Iliad.” He was on to something there.

This month’s issue of The Civil War Monitor features an article by another historian, Mark Grimsley, who observes, “…it is obvious that the Civil War routinely functions as a national myth, a way to understand ourselves as Americans. And like the classic mythologies of old, it contains timeless wisdom of what it means to be a human being. Homer’s Iliad tells us much about war, but it also tells us much about life. The American Iliad does the same thing.”

The political issues that caused and sustained the war are still very much with us. I have a hunch, however, that long after those concerns are past, Americans will continue to return to this national myth.

Myths are not powerful because they are lies, but because they are true. That is, they tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and they convey that truth in a way that mere history cannot.

For many, myself included, I think that what draws us to the war is the same thing that draws us to Shakespeare or Jane Austen: a fascination with the human condition. In the Civil War, we find a cast of characters who possess the full spectrum of human virtue and vice, and they manifest their characters on a grand scale.

But, here’s where it gets very, very tricky. Austen drew on her careful observation of real life to create the characters and events in her novels, but they are not histories. Mister Darcy may or may not have been based on John Parker, but no one in their right mind would suggest that we ought to revise Pride and Prejudice in light of new historical information about Parker. Likewise, though Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was based on the life of a real person, scholars don’t insist on rewriting his dialogue to fit the historical facts.

Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, are a different matter. They are, at once, both myths and historical figures of great scholarly interest–and those two roles are constantly in tension.

If we found that Austen’s impressions of John Parker were greatly in error, it would change nothing of substance in Pride and Prejudice. The great value we see in that work of art would not be touched.

If we discover, on the other hand, that Robert E. Lee’s motives during the Gettysburg campaign were different than we assumed, however, our cherished myth loses some of its potency.

When people dig in over the issue of the Confederate Flag, it may not just be an issue of disagreeing over historical facts. They are defending a myth that is meaningful to them. That myth, and the understandable desire to cherish it, may, in turn, influence how they interpret the historical facts.

No one seriously argues with a Roman historian based on the power of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but people can and do argue with historians of the American Civil War based on their longstanding understanding of figures like Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln and the meaning those stories have in their own lives.

It is, I think, possible to hold on to the value of the myth while acknowledging the historical reality, but I believe that’s a damn tough thing to do.