Friday, August 25, 2023

Booknotes: Oracle of Lost Causes

New Arrival:

Oracle of Lost Causes: John Newman Edwards and His Never-Ending Civil War by Matthew C. Hulbert (Bison, 2023)

Historian Matthew Hulbert accurately describes his subject, John Newman Edwards, as a "B-list celebrity" among the war's many colorful military and civilian figures, but the lively journalist is certainly a household name among students of the Civil War in Missouri. Edwards made a career out of advancing the fame of others and attempting to steer readers toward his version of how the war should be understood and remembered. Considering Edwards's influence, in Hulbert's view he is deserving of a biography of his own. As the author puts it, Edwards "furnishes the scaffolding of a tale far larger, and more geographically expansive, than a treatment of any single contemporary might yield" (pg. xxviii).

From the description: "John Newman Edwards was a soldier, a father, a husband, and a noted author. He was also a virulent alcoholic, a duelist, a culture warrior, and a man perpetually at war with the modernizing world around him. From the sectional crisis of his boyhood and the battlefields of the western borderlands to the final days of the Second Mexican Empire and then back to a United States profoundly changed by the Civil War," Oracle of Lost Causes: John Newman Edwards and His Never-Ending Civil War "chronicles Edwards’s lifelong quest to preserve a mythical version of the Old World—replete with aristocrats, knights, damsels, and slaves—in North America."

The introduction colorfully summarizes the book's most prominent themes (Hulbert is an engaging writer), though I must admit the author's psychological profiling of his subject, at least when it comes to addressing Edwards's motivations, hopes, and fantasies, seems a bit too strongly assured for my taste. Of course, that's just a first impression, and one would have to read the rest of the book to gauge the degree to which such interpretations are justified.

More from the description: "This odyssey through nineteenth-century American politics and culture involved the likes of guerrilla chieftains William Clarke Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James, Confederate general Joseph Orville Shelby, and even Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Charlotte of Mexico. It is the story of a man who experienced Confederate defeat not once but twice, and how he sought to shape and weaponize the memory of those grievous losses."

Hulbert also presents his biography of Edwards as another means through which to usefully expand the boundaries, geographical and otherwise, of Civil War studies. His work "ultimately reveals how the Civil War determined not only the future of the vast West but also the extent to which the conflict was part of a broader, international sequence of sociopolitical uprisings."

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