Review: Apples and Ashes
Coleman Hutchison. Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. 288 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-4244-3.
At times it can seem as if the U.S. Civil War overdetermines considerations of the nineteenth-century South with all other events subsumed into either an inevitable lead-up or a necessary postscript to the war. While this singular focus can occlude other important events such as Indian Removal, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish American War, it also manages to obscure some aspects of the Confederacy itself. As Coleman Hutchison demonstrates in Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America, Confederate cultural productions, particularly literary ones, have remained significantly under-examined despite an otherwise vigorous discourse about the meaning and legacy of the Confederate States of America. Hutchison’s study argues against the prevailing notions that the Confederacy produced little in the way of literary material and that even what does exist is not worth the serious scholar’s time. Withholding judgments on merit, Hutchison takes Confederate literature seriously and does so without sidestepping important questions of race, class, and gender in the South. He makes a compelling argument for why studying the literature of a failed national project yields valuable results.
In the introduction, Hutchison explains how a study of Confederate literature illuminates questions of nationalism, vectors of a transnational and international imagination, and issues of futurity and memory in popular culture. The book uses these nodes of inquiry to argue that perhaps more than any other moment, the spectacular failure of the C.S.A. allows scholars to examine in exacting detail the making and unmaking of a nation. Using a diverse archive that includes novels, poetry, popular song, and other print materials, Hutchison offers a literary analysis that draws from work in history, religious studies, and political theory. Although Apples and Ashesrelies heavily upon close readings, the range of material and the conclusions Hutchison draws should speak to scholars in disciplines outside of literary studies.
Even though Hutchison makes the case for the extent and scholarly value of literature produced from 1861 to 1865, he opens the study by examining earlier material from the Southern Literary Messenger. He uses this material to limn the preoccupations of the emergent southern literary imagination as it took on the concerns of “American” literature more broadly. In so doing, Chapter one highlights the ways in which regional discourse contributed to “a history of the future” as it attempted to justify an untenable racial and economic order (19). Challenging any neat teleology of secession, Hutchison shows how numerous events in the literary culture of the U.S. and the South, including the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), served as catalysts for the Civil War. Catalysts, Hutchison reminds the reader, only increase the rate of the reaction between components already present, and venues such as the Messenger showcased the varied elements of an emergent southern literary nationalism long before secession.
From there, Hutchsion moves on to examine a variety of cultural artifacts including Augusta Jane Evans’s novel Macaria; or Altars of Sacrifice (1864), numerous Confederate poems, and the popular song “Dixie.” Chapters two through four move recursively through detailed analyses of individual genres, and from a methodological perspective, this organizational structure allows Hutchison to make productive speculations about the probable audiences and receptions of this body of work. Chapter two delivers a strong argument about the dangers of dismissing literary productions under the classification of “mere propaganda.” In Chapter three, Hutchison takes on the ways that poetry anthologies obscure the material histories of poetic works and their readers. Chapter four uses the single object of “Dixie” to complicate reception and publication histories that privilege the binaries of North/South, local/national, form/content, oral/written and ante/postbellum. In each of these chapters, Apples and Ashes offers a nuanced analysis of theories of nationalism using grounded, text-based analyses.
The final chapter turns towards the Confederate memoir, focusing almost exclusively on Loreta Jane Valesquez’s The Woman in Battle (1876). It is here that Hutchison’s arguments about the Civil War as an international phenomenon with contemporary transnational resonances most clearly come through. Segueing from the previous chapter on “Dixie,” this portion of the book also offers the most sustained discussion of how Confederate literature gave rise to the civil religion of the Lost Cause. Forgoing a conclusion, Hutchison offers a Coda to each chapter. The coda for chapter five generously opens up more room for future studies as Hutchison admits from the beginning that his is not exhaustive study of Confederate literature. Rather, using The Woman in Battle as a final case study, he proposes that studying this body of work will generate new stories of the region that are less “exceptionalistic and romantic” (202).
Apples and Ashes will certainly interest readers from many disciplines. As the first study of its kind, the book breaks important ground, but some readers may wish for more discussion of the entirety of the literary archive in question rather than the intensive focus on a few core examples. However, in this case, perhaps through these close readings we can see the relevance of this understudied body of work. While those in literary studies will appreciate the fine-tuned textual analysis, others may find themselves more interested in the larger archival and theoretical questions that Hutchison poses. The book makes a strong case for why the Confederacy matters for scholars interested in nationalisms and transnationalisms. Most admirably, Hutchison manages to take Confederate cultural productions seriously while not shying away from a strong critique of the indefensible racial politics they promote. He reminds his readers that although we may not like what this literature says or does, it is at our own peril that we ignore its existence.