Republic of Suffering - a review

This Republic of Suffering is the kind of book we want to encourage. Nothing I can say should detract from that.

Drew Gilpin Faust (right) is also the kind of author we want to encourage; as president of Harvard, she is a kind of advertisement for the seriousness of the Civil War as a subject. She cannot be endorsed by the likes of a Gallagher or McPherson - their vetting would be meaningless to her broad audience and made ironic by her stature. She stands outside of the Centennial system of rewards and punishments, prizes and dinners, and in that she enjoys a freedom that is dangerous to the purveyors of nonsense who supply us with that pound of reading twaddle that we must convert into an ounce of enjoyment.

This, however, is not the review of an ACW book that- given the low standards of Civil War nonfiction - actually constitutes a new, interesting or important volume in the genre. Instead, I discuss this book here in terms of the broader culture in which it appears and where its limitations and faults are painfully obvious. You, therefore, may find this post slightly off-topic.

Faust writes simply. In fact, her technique could not be simpler and mirrors, at a higher level, those undergraduate papers she has graded over the years. She makes a statement or observation followed by a series of supporting anecdotes. She makes another statement, unleashes more supporting anecdotes. And so it goes. She clusters these in topical chapters. Reading a chapter is almost like reading an outline for the chapter. Occasionally, as you'll see later, she offers briefly recapitulated analysis by others. This isn't good or bad but it becomes tedious once you notice it. If you never notice, you may find the read stylistically "neutral" or you may even enjoy the simplicity and brevity:

Desperate families both North and South traveled by the hundreds to battlefields to search in person for missing kin. [Setup.] Observers described railroad junctions crowded with frantic relatives in pursuit of information about loved ones. [Transition to stories.] When Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. rushed to Maryland… [Stories begin.]

Then the cycle repeats. Like those undergraduates afraid to venture a conclusion, the cycle often dead-ends at the last anecdote. There is the odd exception where insight is attempted, e.g. "Fanny Scott's story demonstrates as well the unifying power of death even amid the divisive forces of war" or an outsider's view serves as summary judgement. That's the length and breadth of the analysis tacked onto paragraphs of anecdotes. This too I have seen in undergraduate work: a ribbon proposing to tie up a bundle of stories with a single generalization.

The deepest level of analysis in Suffering is likely to be entirely inferential. I don't know what the author thinks or wants me to think after each themed chapter: Dying; Killing; Burying; Naming; Realizing; Believing and Doubting; Accounting; and Numbering. Faced with all these somber anecdotes, I only know what is expected of me in terms of emotional response. That, surely, is the source of the many ambiguous but conditioned responses in reviews of this book.

Drew Gilpin Faust's writings were already served up in memory studies courses before Suffering appeared. She was a "person of interest" to the people who work that patch of cross-disciplinary stuff.

Is Suffering representative of that genre? Yes, depending on how you define memory studies; this may be a bid to produce the first American bestseller in the field. However, stipulations are needed. There is lacking here examination "of the contested role of memory in constructing historical meaning and imagining the cultural boundaries of communities," to borrow from a syllabus. To put it more generally, there is no theoretical framework here, no pomo filters, no juice, not even a discernible point of view. So this is half a memory study, the form of one, the shell of it.

If the reader enjoyed Suffering (and I think that possible) look upstream to several truly outstanding works, all of them from Europe, all of them representing a wholeness without resort to ideological frameworks or postmodernisms, all well known, and all preceding Faust's new book.

14-18: Understanding the Great War was such a runaway bestseller in Europe in 2000 that it made its way here in 2002 and has never been out of print. You can buy it in any big box, where my own impulse purchase occurred years ago. I would be surprised if a professor of history had not seen it or read about it. In fact, in searching my own site, I could hardly believe I had not quoted copiously in the past.

If you divided the treatment of WWI into chapters as Gilpin did Suffering, if you wrote simple, somber sentences, and then rounded out the whole with analytic richness and complexity of insight throughout, you would get a sense of a Platonic form that Suffering crudely approximates. The section of 14-18 most like Suffering is Part III Mourning with its chapters Historicizing Grief, Collective Mourning, and Personal Bereavement. Some of the correlation is inevitable, other bits are startling. Co-authors Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (right) and Annette Becker:
We can understand the families' insistent questions in their letters to fellow soldiers or commanders of the men they had lost. What were the loved one's last moments like? What were the exact circumstances of his death? Where was he wounded? How much did he suffer? People also wanted to know if he had died alone and, of course, if he was buried and, if so, where. The point was to try to fill the terrible gap created by their having been absent and unable to give aid to the dying…
Author Faust:
But most civilians appeared out of earnest desperation to locate and care for loved ones. The death of relatives far away from families and kin was, as we have seen, particularly disruptive to fundamental nineteenth century understandings of the Good Death. [see especially her bits on the Good Death.]
Faust again:
Freud, for example, contrasted mourning, a grief that understands that a love object no longer exists, to melancholia, in which the individual "cannot see clearly what has been lost" and thus remains mired in "profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love." Freud writes of "the work of mourning," defined by the effort to come to grips with the reality of loss and then to withdraw emotional investment from the departed.
Co-authors Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker from the opening of their chapter Collective Mourning:
[Freud's] "thoughts on death" … are just as powerful. Before 1914, people had wanted to forget death, "eliminate it from life." But war brought it back on an industrial scale and it was unbearable. Hence Freud's wisdom in suggesting that death be reincorporated into life: "To tolerate life remains, after all, the first duty of all living being … We recall the old saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to preserve peace, prepare for war. It would be in keeping with the times to alter it: Si vis vitam, para mortem. If you want to endure life, prepare for death.
If you want to experience Suffering in a purer form, at greater strength, seek out 14-18.

If 14-18 made a big splash in café society and is permanently enrolled on its publisher's midlist, Wolfgang Schivelbusch (right) experienced the equivalent of a smash hit with his book The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, published in Germany in 2001 and distributed stateside in 2003/2004. The reviews given him in the major American newspapers were more insightful and vigorous than those doled out to Faust ("hard to exaggerate the breadth and brilliance," "Schivelbusch [is] the Clausewitz of defeat"). He matches Faust in tone and in the morbidity of his subject but he risks more in addressing wide cultural transformation among his case studies: the defeated Confederates, the Second Empire French, and post-kaiser Germany. Look to Schivelbusch to see what an adventurous intellectual might have attempted with Suffering.

The most impressive historical memory study I have read is another European bestseller, this one translated from Italian. Another big box impulse buy, this is The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy by the journalist Sergio Luzzatto (right). Luzatto uses the wandering remains as a McGuffin to advance his story through the alleys and highways of Italian postwar remembering, paying especial attention to execution, mourning, the treatment of remains, and especially the Good Death (hello Suffering!). It appeared in English here in 2005 and has done well. This is a book representing a nonfiction style in top form, offering rare sophistication in the presentation of highly charged data and analysis; it should be regarded as a tour d'force.

Altogether it seems to me that the prevalence of these three memory studies, so prominent in the market at the same time, somehow influenced the attempt Suffering represented. It is not necessarily an attempt by Faust to add to the ranks of three great books - she was working on her tome ten years they say - but perhaps this was the appeal Suffering had to Knopf.

Good try, Knopf. This works as a Civil War offering.

It does not measure up to the first rank of popular European memory studies.