Report // Laird Hunt, 18 January 2024

Link to original event here.

This session was chaired by Anne-Laure Tissut and Anne-Julie Debare.

A few days before this meeting, Joe Biden (or at least his comms team) felt moved to tweet about the Civil War:

This was, to use a phrase potentially beneath the office of President, a subtweet, calling out the then Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley (she suspended her campaign in March 2024). At a December 2023 town hall meeting in New Hampshire, Haley had been asked, in simple terms, what had been the cause of the Civil War. As The Guardian put it, Haley ‘reacted as if she were being physically threatened’. She seemed to have to gather herself before giving her brief answer: ‘I think the cause of the civil war was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.’ The questioner pressed her for more, but she continued to spiral around ideas of government overreach: ‘Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.’ The news media was happy to report on this peculiar interaction, which gained enough memetic value that Biden’s team thought it worth taking to Twitter to put Haley right. And so another skirmish of the Civil War began, as the President’s replies devolved into a bizarre discussion thread on anti-bellum politics.

The Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox. That’s not news. But Biden’s tweet, while fundamentally uneducative in its actual content, proved by its form that there has been a shift in gears. The argument about the Civil War’s causes, real and Lost, has bubbled up from forum threads and onto a national (and therefore global) stage. The tweet was, essentially, bait, and the Twitter reply-bucket quickly filled up with a swirling mass of ‘um actuallys’, from both the website’s endemic right-wing reactionaries and its host of historical pundits, leaning on their undergraduate credentials to point out that President Biden didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

The fact is that people on both sides of this argument are equally unwilling to dig up America’s bones. Slavery was the cause of the Civil War, as it was the cause of so many other lasting structures which continue to plague the country, and which neither party are willing to face up to. The implications of Biden’s entirely correct statement are not bound out in his policy. Haley, meanwhile, when she was asked the cause of the Civil War, gave a meandering, slightly panicked answer about freedom from government interference, without a single mention of slavery, as the questioner was quick to point out. It was a meta-interrogation, a posturing by both parties. ‘What do you want me to say about slavery?’ Haley asked, which about sums it up. Historical debate under TV lighting comes in pre-packaged boxes, void of curiosity. As so often, The Simpsons cut to the core of this problem in the 1990s. When Apu (himself a battlefield of the culture war) is taking his citizenship test, the examiner asks him the cause of the Civil War. ‘Actually,’ he replies, ‘there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, economic factors, both domestic and international, played a significant role. Here the examiner cuts him off: ‘Hey, hey. Just say slavery’.

Search the clip on YouTube, and you’ll find the website’s right-wing house band playing the same tune they did under Biden’s tweet. The joke, they seem to think, is that you’re not allowed to think for yourself in America, that the ‘woke’ answer is the only one that’s allowed. I’d say the joke is more obviously that Apu has a more nuanced understanding of the country he has immigrated to than his natural-born neighbours. Knowing about America is, ironically, a good way to fail a citizenship test.

Some of these thoughts were with me at the start of Laird Hunt’s session, which was prefaced with a word of regret for its long postponement, the seminar having originally been planned to coincide with and celebrate the publication of Tissut’s French translation of Neverhome, Hunt’s 2014 Civil War novel. But nothing about it felt late, or stale. So it is with the Civil War: always timely, never done with. The session was a moderated Q&A interspersed with readings. Hunt, and his questioners, were wide-ranging, but the talk had a consistent undertone which pulled at the edge of elegy. Inevitable, perhaps, when war is the topic, but that tone came out in other, less expected places. One loss mourned was the library. Neverhome is the first-person account (the quasi-memoir, Hunt proposed) of Constance or Ash Thompson, an Indiana farmer who disguises herself as a man to go to war for the Union. It was written with the library stacks, Hunt recalled, and he offered a vignette of his bookish archaeologies, his happy accidents in the shelves. It’s true that the Civil War makes a lot of books. I remember at the start of my own Civil War PhD tracking the subject holdings of my university library across tens of meters of shelves, and wondering: a) how I was ever going to get myself up to speed, and b) what the worth would be in adding yet another brick to this already stalwart edifice. Hunt’s answers reminded me, though, that such an overbearing volume of material can in fact be creatively and academically freeing. When there’s that much to go on, each encounter will be a unique kind of alchemy.

This joy, though, was tinged with a sadness at libraries lost. Access to university libraries, while a privilege, often comes and goes at the mercy of contingent, short-term posts. The smaller public libraries Hunt grew up with are becoming scarcer, and increasingly asked to perform multiple social functions, often at the expense of the quality of their collections. I had been speaking to someone before the session about the (as of March 2024) ongoing disruption to the British Library, after the cyber attack of October last year. They had only just got a temporary catalogue running again, and the scope of the damage to their digital collections has not yet been divulged. Libraries are fragile repositories. They can’t protect themselves, or guarantee their own accessibility. But we need them if history isn’t going to be reduced to campaign speech dogwhistles and Twitter bait. The exchange at Haley’s town hall didn’t need footnoting. I think you could learn the manoeuvres, of both sides, in a short half hour.

This was the substance of the profounder elegy brimming from the talk: a rueful look at America’s feeble knowledge of its past. Feeble, despite the odds. As Hunt said, you don’t need to dig very deep to find America’s bones. But it still feels like an act of resistance, if not quite of protest, to hold them up to the light. Neverhome is part of what Hunt offers as his ‘dark America’ quartet: a set of novels which turn over the soil on the deep violences of slavery, war and witchcraft. They are insistent, haunting, and highly present. In talking of his undergraduate years, Hunt described himself as a history student who studied literature, and this two-sidedness has carried through the intervening years. His novels are superb research pieces, but in a different way, I think, to other kinds of historical fiction. While Hunt does more than his due diligence on the facts (he was distraught, he recalled, to be told that a heifer can’t be milked, as one of his novels had it), his books are voice and style-led, in the extreme. Style is what does the work in Neverhome, forcing a close encounter with the war by offering it in strange, divergent terms. The novel is difficult. But the difficulty is shared between author and reader, who both discover as they go the darker world on the reverse side of the American present. We would do well to push for this difficulty when we can.

Jamie Fenton

 
   

 

 

 



Citer ce billet
jamiefenton (2024, 29 mars). Report // Laird Hunt, 18 January 2024. A19. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/w4r2

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