Friday, April 27, 2018

Booknotes: The Civil War Dead and American Modernity

New Arrival:
The Civil War Dead and American Modernity by Ian Finseth (Oxford UP, 2018).

Ian Finseth's The Civil War Dead and American Modernity "offers a fundamental rethinking of the cultural importance of the American Civil War dead. Tracing their representational afterlife across a massive array of historical, visual, and literary documents from 1861 to 1914, Ian Finseth maintains that the war dead played a central, complex, and paradoxical role in how Americans experienced and understood the modernization of the United States." Through analysis of "eyewitness accounts of battle to photographs and paintings, and from full-dress histories of the war to fictional narratives," Finseth attempts of show that the Civil War dead were embedded in American culture in so many different ways that we "require an expanded range of interpretive strategies to understand" them.

Finseth argues that the Civil War dead "came to form a kind of symbolic currency that informed Americans' melancholic relationship to their own past," but also "provided an illusion of coherence, intelligibility, and continuity in the national self" during the postwar period's often bewildering pace of societal growth and transformation. As is often the case when seeking meaning in the past, in the minds of many the war dead represented the "loss of a simpler world."

More from the description: "Reconstructing the formal, rhetorical, and ideological strategies by which postwar American society reimagined, and continues to reimagine, the Civil War dead, Finseth also shows that a strain of critical thought was alert to this dynamic from the very years of the war itself. The Civil War Dead and American Modernity is at once a study of the politics of mortality, the disintegration of American Victorianism, and the role of visual and literary art in both forming and undermining social consensus."

You can view the table of contents here.

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