Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism: The Ed Ayers Interview concludes

Is there reason, as a historian, to be an optimist?  Edward Ayers, among other things the co-host of the BackStory podcast and radio program, narrates a troubled chapter of American history in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.  In the first two segments of this interview we have talked about vicious political climates and racialized narratives.  But here, my former professor talks about the pendulum of history and Confederate monuments, something he’s been doing a lot of thinking about in his multiple roles:

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photo by Dean Hinnant via Unplash

So the grand theory of history here behind what you’re doing—-you’re saying there are these big counter-forces at work during this period. If the South hadn’t seceded, emancipation wouldn’t have happened. If the South hadn’t resisted civil rights for blacks, there wouldn’t have been voting rights and office holding for blacks. If Northern Democrats hadn’t provided cover for Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Is that how history works in America? Not through compromise but through the opposition of grand forces?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I think that we’re watching the foundations being laid right now for a new Progressive Era. I think that the opposition to Trump is going to be a major force over the next 15 or 20 years. That may be wishful thinking.

I would say that, partly because of the two party system, American history does seem to move like a pendulum rather than like an arrow. One set of accomplishments cannot be taken as a [common] accomplishment; they are taken as the embodiment of a partisan initiative. You certainly see this today in the [US retreat from the Iran deal], for no particular reason other than the predecessor did it and the current president’s undoing it.

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Ed Ayers

I’ve not gotten any criticisms from anything [in my argument] yet, really. I’ve just gotten some grudging comments from people who aren’t really in sympathy with this whole kind of social history/inclusive approach. If you’re gonna criticize it, then the implicit argument here is that this diminishes the intentionality of the Republicans and of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t mean for it to do that, but that would be the criticism. The argument is that the Republicans knew all along they wanted to end slavery. That’s why they created the party. They did whatever it took along the way to do it, and then they did it. And they instituted as much Reconstruction as they could. The flip side of that is that the white South resisted every step along the way and won a large part of what they wanted, which is local control. 

So I’m trying to put the two things in interplay and showing that neither of those stories —either the triumphalist one or the defeatist one—is true, but rather that each side is making the other. 

These are what we might think of as dark matter. We now know the dark matter accounts for most of what’s in the universe. You can’t see it but it has gravitational effects. The Northern Democrats and the African-American people in the South and white Southerners are the dark matter that moves this great national story in ways that we can’t understand otherwise. I don’t know that it’s a grand theory as much as it is trying to explain all the orbital irregularities that we see in the story.

And if we don’t understand what the Republicans were up against, then we can’t understand really the depth of what they accomplished. I think it’s what’s surprising to people about this: I’m not following any traditional rhetoric about this of celebration or of condemnation. I’m just saying we put everybody in the screen…we put everybody in the same frame and then we see they’re making each other’s history. 

I said in my Lincoln Prize address that to only look at one party or one side is like trying to understand a battle by only looking at the maneuvers of one army. That’s the basic idea of this book: we can’t understand any part without at least trying to see how all the parts fit together.

I always think of you as an optimist about the course of history. Do you feel like an optimist?

Yeah, I do actually. I think what this story shows us is that things that are far worse than we can imagine can happen and that things that are far better than we can imagine can happen too. The capacity for both swings of the pendulum are with us all the time. History has these capacities that can be tapped by people of vision and good will and ability and those reservoirs are all around us all the time.

Having watched the Civil Rights movement in my own life as a child, and to see everything suddenly change reveals to me that people of good will can make remarkable things happen. It seemed impossible at the time. I think that can happen again.

But we can also see that reservoirs of hatred and mistrust are always there, as well. I think it’s useful to know that we have to be careful that we don’t talk ourselves into the Civil War the way Americans did. On the other hand. that we need to be determined to make the most of the reservoirs and possibilities that we do have, too.

One of the things that seems to resonate between those times and these for me is this idea of how shame plays a role in the dialogue. In the Reconstruction Era, you say that the South was willing to admit defeat and the end of slavery and the Confederacy, but that the Republicans wanted more. They wanted repentance and confession of some kind of moral error. How did that dynamic play out, and are we seeing some of the same sort of language in our political life today?

Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if my fellow historians believe this. This is another kind of dangerous argument because it suggests that the Republicans were perhaps self-righteous and made problems that they didn’t need to make, which is the way that Reconstruction has been understood. These guys were fanatics, right? [is how the argument goes]. 

I guess it’s understandable to me why people who had tried to destroy the United States would be held accountable for what they had done. I think I’m the first one to actually locate that word ‘rebellism.’ That’s a great word. [The Republicans] recognize that the reality is that if they don’t kill that attitude, then whatever political events happen, that’s going to come back. All that to say that it’s an entirely legitimate thing that the Republicans want. It’s also probably unrealistic.

16301481_BG1A lot of Confederate monuments were testimony to the fact that they were not going to give up their ‘rebellism.’ They were never going to admit they’d been morally wrong. They were willing to admit that they’d made a mistake strategically in giving away slavery for political independence, but they were never willing to admit that it was illegal or that it was wrong in the eyes of God.

You see those quotes in the [Southern] papers even as the Confederacy is dying that say, “We feel that we had vindication from God to do this.” Volume One [Ayer’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies] is all built around the 23rd Psalm. That’s one of the most striking changes in the first part of the war is the way that the Confederacy recruits the Deity. They celebrate Lee and Jackson as particularly Christian soldiers. 

If they didn’t have that…if they didn’t believe they were fighting for exactly the same ideals that the United States had been built upon…they could not possibly have waged this rebellion if they did not share the faith in this ideology with the North. They would not have been able to have changed people’s minds in a matter of weeks that something that you had opposed for years—secession—was now an essential act and that if you do it you are morally superior. If you don’t really have the larger religious framing of that it doesn’t happen.

So that’s another reason that the white South doesn’t change its mind—the idea of “We’ll be tried by adversity.” They have a script for that. They understand, “This doesn’t mean we’re wrong; it could mean that this is a trial to see how we bear it.” That helps give them a resolution that they would not have had otherwise.

In your description of the people of Staunton moving the bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery, the Lost Cause narrative is already there, which is something that I think of as developing later, once the Confederate memoirs start coming out.

Here’s another place where I’m kind of doing something dangerous. That makes the Lost Cause look more plausible. It makes you understand that it’s not just a new word for white supremacy. These were your sons that you’re burying and then reburying.

The whole idea for everything I ever do is: we’re not gonna understand if we don’t try to see it through the eyes of the people who were enacting it. We’re not going to understand the Lost Cause if we don’t understand the real grief that motivated it. The trick there is to see that grief can be wrapped in other kinds of purposes as well. That’s the tricky thing.

We have a meeting here tonight in Richmond about the Monument Avenue Commission. We’re coming to a conclusion of that and I think people are slowly coming to see that the knee-jerk formulations—“It’s just history and you can’t change it” or “[The people who erected the Confederate monuments] didn’t mean anything politically by it” are not true. On the other hand, for people who are standing on the other side [it’s important to understand that] the people who are building these things are still grieving for sons and fathers they lost. It’s also important to understand this if we’re gonna move forward—what all the people who put the monuments up originally meant by them.

Thanks for the book. I hope it gets a broad readership. It should.

Yeah, you know, getting a Lincoln Prize…all my friends here who are not in the history biz were most impressed that I beat Ron Chernow [author of Alexander Hamilton] and winning the Avery Prize from the Organization of American Historians. But I think that our impact comes from classrooms for the next twenty years. I hope, that’s where the impact comes from—people actually have a chance to think about it a little bit rather than just reading the book then moving on.

So there’s not an Alexander H.H. Stuart musical coming out?

They did actually do a stage dramatization of it at the Black History Museum in Richmond based on words of four characters: two white, two black, two men, two women. It was very powerful. Just the words and a few of mine along the way. So it would make a great movie or a great miniseries. So if you could make that happen I would appreciate it 

We’ll get Lin-Manuel Miranda on it and see what he can do with it.

That’d be great.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”

The Vicious State of Politics…Then: Ed Ayers on Heartlands-part 1 of 3

Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator.  Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.  His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award.  He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general.  In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about.  In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:

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By Dswanson1001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51846534

So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?

This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.

The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.

Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.

The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.

That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious. 

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Ed Ayers

Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.” 

People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”

The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.

Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came. 

Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.

Segment 2 of this interview, “Doughfaces, Denzel, & Racing Against Racism,” can be found by clicking this link.

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Look for my interview with Edward Ayers coming soon to Heartlands.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.

Interchangeable heads and crayons in Selma – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen continues (part 2 of 3)

I’m so glad I obeyed my impulse at the stoplight in downtown Farmville, Virginia.  I was driving through and stopped at a red light next to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts where a local photographer’s work was on display.  I pulled into a parking spot and discovered Michael Mergen.

In the first part of my interview with Michael Mergen we explored a unique series in which he juxtaposed the text of historical markers with the contemporary landscapes associated with them.  In this section of the interview we discuss the pairing of that Civil War series with a Civil Rights series and the lenses we bring to the world.

I begin here by referencing two other series he did related to things we give to veterans and places named for military personnel who died in the operation known as the Global War on Terror…

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SPC Brian Scott “Scotty” Ulbrich Memorial Bridge, West Virginia, 2012 – photo by Michael Mergen

What lens do you bring to [your subjects] that gives you a sense of what you’re seeing?  In your series of veterans pictures – what we give to veterans and what we name for veterans – I would look at them and say, “Wow, that is really shabby, and tacky, and ordinary.”  And then I’m thinking, “Well, but you know, there’s a real democracy in that.  They’re taking things that we use everyday.”

Right.  My background was as a photojournalist and I come from a tradition of being neutral and trying to remain unbiased.  As an artist, you have obviously more license to take a point of view and take a position.  But I’ve always strived for at least a level of neutrality in my work, or a level of trying to present something ‘as is’ or as I found it, and framing it for viewers to then make their own conclusions.

There’s an intentional ambiguity in what I’m saying in my pictures that I’m conscious of.  Again, trying to not make it about me or my opinion necessarily, but to highlight something that’s happening.  Then, hopefully there’s a conversation out of that or even some disagreement can come out of that.  Especially with the [Civil War] soldier monument one.  I think that’s the one that you can approach from a “Wow, it’s just troubling that there are this many monuments that still exist out of sympathy with the political rationale for the war, and what happened after the war with Jim Crow laws and those kind of things.”  But then, I think if you support that, if you look at that wall of photographs, you’d think, “Wow, isn’t that great, that in 2017, there’s still this quantity of monuments dedicated to this war and this movement that happened.”  So, I think I’m okay with the different entry points that the work might provide.

In that Civil War piece, you chose an interesting part of those monuments to focus on: the face of all the soldiers.  I’ve walked past those Confederate monuments my entire life and now I focus on the words that are written on them and I wonder why there’s not a similar set of monuments for the forgotten folks from that period and the monuments to the ending of slavery.  But you chose the part of the statue that you hardly ever get close to—the face of the statue.  I thought that was an interesting choice to use that.  What did you learn by doing that?

Well, of course, you focus on the words, because you’re the writer.

Yeah, that’s right.

1_mergenview01I look at the face because I’m a photographer.  I learned that there’s a whole lot of them that had the same head on them. That I had no idea going into it.  It wasn’t until I had photographed maybe 20 or 30 of them, and had them hanging up in the studio, and I was like, “Wow, these are the same heads.”  A lot of these were ordered and assembled from a catalogue.  So, the company would be like, “Okay, pick your head, pick your body.  Do you want cannon balls or a cannon?”  And they were sort of assembled that way.  And that’s the way the a lot of them were made.  There’s a handful that were commissioned by a sculptor or by an artist, but they didn’t dominate.  So, a lot of them were the same head.

Then, also, they’re all white men, which is not surprise, but it’s also a little bit visually arresting.  And I remember showing it to somebody at a photo conference, and they said, “These are archetypes for Colonel Sanders or a Johnny Rebel caricature in a way.”  Is that figure the representation of the ideal Southern man?  I thought about those headshots, doing portraits of these statues, and that was the knee-jerk thought that I had.

So, it’s also that using photography in a way to get you a little bit closer to something you couldn’t get to.  A lot of these things are 30/40/50 feet up.  You’re not really looking at them in that kind of detail.  So, it was interesting just from a technical standpoint, and to use a certain lens and camera and position to get you this intimate look at just these faces.

You don’t know if there was an ur-model, do you?

There’s a book by a guy named Timothy Sedore.  He wrote a book called An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Civil War Monuments.  It’s really richly detailed of every monument down to every tablet, every plinth, every obelisk.  I used that halfway through to better locate some of these.  In there, it’ll give an historical description of the monuments, and you can track down who made it and the cost, and those types of things.  But the one that I always come back to, there’s one in Portsmouth, Virginia that is four-sided.

I know it, yeah.

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Portsmouth Confederate Monument

It’s right downtown there and in the description it was claimed that each figure was modeled after a veteran from Portsmouth, but you look at it—put them side by side—and you’re like, “There’s just no way.”  There’s just no way that that was actually modeled after a veteran.  I mean, maybe that was the case, maybe that was the hope, but it’s the same head as in half a dozen other moments.

So, there was a handful that were unique, like one in Lynchburg, for example.  Lynchburg, maybe at the time, had more money to commission a sculptor or artisan, but I think in some of these more rural areas, they were happy probably to put something up, and if it looked like the one two counties away, well, no big deal, because a hundred years ago, chances are you don’t really go to that county.

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photo by Michael Mergen

Going back to the crayon-inscribed photos in the exhibition [at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts], you had the Civil War series right across from the Civil Rights series, which was a really interesting juxtaposition, but what struck me is, having been to Selma and seen that landscape, how similar it is to the place where you are now.  So what did you see as a connection there or a contrast?

Part of the connection was historical, in that the end of the Civil War, 1865, and the galvanizing moments of Civil Rights–it’s almost a hundred years later to the day.  That was a strange coincidence, but they’re like two bookends, these two high water marks of American history—like a hundred years, within a week of each other.

So, that was part of it.  It was just seeing how these two things worked together.  In some ways, the end of the Civil War marked the inevitable beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  I think a lot of the political decisions, the way the political landscape was shaped post-Reconstruction, led to a situation where there had to be the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s also a nearby, Southern, historical journey from point A to point B, that had been marked with signs.  So, it was logistically a way to continue the same process…The 50 year anniversary of Selma was coming up and Barack Obama was down there, and the movie came out.  And I was like, “Oh, this could be another way of continuing this process, continuing this exploration of these marked historical landscapes.”

Michael Mergen’s series Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead was featured in the Oxford American magazine.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his personal site: www.mimages.com.

When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen (part 1 of 3)

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Michael Mergen at work – photos used with permission

Michael Mergen is a photographer of memory and landscape.  His photos capture ordinary, even shabby parts of America and invest them with the meanings we place on them.  So a series on the things businesses give as freebies to veterans (burgers, ice cream) and another on the things we name for war heroes (interstate highway bridges, stretches of commercial streets) becomes a silent commentary on our values.

At a recent exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, I was particularly taken with a series that imposes the image of highway historical signs over the contemporary landscapes of Virginia Civil War battlefields.  So I gave Michael a call and the Farmville, Virginia-based photographer and professor at Longwood University gave me some time to talk about his work.

Can you tell me just a little bit about how you see your work?  How would you describe what you do?  

I’m a photographer who looks at ideas of America, or our idea of citizenship, or ideas of American history, American politics – looking at how those things are manifest in the landscape, to how landscape can reveal history, how landscape or space can reveal, or show, or point to some of these fragments of American culture, American civics, American citizenship.  These recent works are more drawn to the landscape, but in some of the other work, looking at certain tiers, actual physical spaces that somehow speak to American civics and the American citizen.

So, the landscape you’re working in right now, [Southside Virginia], obviously influenced some of your projects, like the Civil War series.  Is there one region that was kind of formative for you? 

14_13m26-obverseI grew up just outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and that’s still home.  That’s where my family is…So, that landscape was home.  I’d always been a student of American history and enjoyed that history, but never really was taken by the Civil War and never thought of that as more than just a part of the long, complicated American history.

Then, I moved to Virginia and it took quite a few years of being here to let some of that influence creep into the work.

This is obviously this pivotal event in American history.  About half of it was actually fought here; and then, living in Farmville is like you’re living on Lee’s Retreat [in 1865 from Richmond].  So, I’ve seen some of the historical signs just doing other projects.  I’ve see the signs driving around rural Oklahoma.  Even in California and other places.

It was one of those things I kind of saw out of the corner of  my eye–I was probably doing 60 miles an hour down some back road, and thought that the physical marking of a landscape was denoting some kind of historical significance to it.  But then, so often what is being described there is absent from the landscape.  Occasionally there’s a house, [but] usually it’s more of an oblique, invisible reference. So, with the signs, it’s one of those deep, backburner kind of ideas. With the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I was thinking about the war.  I don’t have a connection to it, per se, but living in Virginia gave me, in some ways, permission point to it.

So, doing the signs, the rubbings, was fitted to my interest in landscape and the interest in history.

And you literally went out to those markers, and used a crayon to do a rubbing of the markers, and used that.

14_22f60detailYeah, so, I would photograph where the sign was and put myself within a reasonable distance.  I didn’t have too many set rules.  I started photographing where the sign was–sometimes, literally right next to the sign.  Sometimes, it might be 100 feet down the road a little bit, or off the shoulder of the highway.

Then, I’d make a print back here at school that happened to be roughly the same size as that sign, and then take the print back to the sign and clamp it on using spring clamps.  I’d do a crayon rubbing. I ended up using these jumbo, black crayons from Crayola.  I’d go into Wal-mart and buy these 8 packs.    My daughter would be like, “Dad, where are all the black crayons?”  She was left with 7 jumbo ones but all the black ones were used up.

I’d do this rubbing over the print because I was interested in this collision of history and contemporary landscape, to get at the idea that these signs are speaking or pointing to something that is gone.  We’re saying a hundred years ago this army passed through here, or, half a mile from here, a big battle happened, but there’s no trace of it.  There’s nothing.  So, I’m interested in the visual disparity of that.

In some of the ones where the landscape feels more contemporary, the ones that are closer to Petersburg, where you’re photographing the parking lot of a Walgreens, if you have an advertisement for Walgreens sale on potato chips, if you have that text colliding, literally, with a description of Lee giving the order to retreat.  Those contemporary collisions are interesting to me.  Or the one with gas stations and the price of gas, and the ads for vaping and the e-cigarettes.  You get very contemporary images and text colliding with text about Sheridan’s men or this troop brigade or that troop brigade.  That was interesting to me.

Also, the ones where it was really rural, and where I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “Gosh, this probably looks the same as it did 150 years ago.”  So, having both of those exist together in the series was interesting to me to talk about the way landscape has rapid change or how in some ways it has remained unchanged.

It’s such a great, visual way to place memory in the picture.  To have those words kind of hanging over it is a powerful image.

It comes out of a tradition in photography where people are interested in pointing the camera at a place that has some kind of historical or social/political significance.  But then, the challenge is always—how do you let the viewer in on the idea without relying exclusively on the text?  So you look at 20 photographs and say, “Okay, those are interesting photographs.”  And then, the text says, “Oh, X, Y, and Z happened there.”  Sometimes that can drive you back to the text to look at it, but that’s also been done.  So, this was a way of still engaging in that commentary but doing it in a more direct way, where the piece could be able to stand on its own and be a bit more self-evident.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at http://www.mimages.com.