The evolution of fear

Before I "got into" Civil War reading in 1997 - four hours per day on trainrides through Y2K - I had perused the occasional pop lit (the big name Centennial writers) and gained a rough idea of the sequence of events in the Washington-to-Richmond corridor.

It was not a subject that interested me in 1992 or '93 when I encountered a Battles and Leaders of the Civil War set. Browsing the set, which was on sale, I was struck with how well the articles were written, what a fine job the editors had done, how the unified style of illustration brought the whole "package" together. I was also struck with absolute dread as to my level of ignorance about the war.

A general named Buell? And he seems to be in some sort of controversy with Grant? What is a Halleck? Who are these people?

The kaleidascope of generals commanding, the far-flung theaters, the meticulously recounted (and rebutted) accounts of battles I had never heard of made me think, "I could never even become reasonably familiar with this subject." There was a pang of fear and despondency I can still feel today. I bought the series anyway, thinking, "I will enjoy reading this for the next 20 years, 10 pages at a time, by the fire in my easy chair." It would be literature. It would be time travel. The arguments would be quaint. And obviously the writing (and thinking) is at a level we will never see again from American generals.

The easychair regimen never took hold, but years later, Battles and Leaders was read one article at a time per whatever controversy I was trying to untangle. Taken that way, one controversy at a time, the whole war took form and the collection passed from "overwhelming" to "inadequate." Not that I became comfortable with everything in those books.

That flavor of fear remains - I feel it when I get a review copy on a topic outside of my interest - and it then takes the shape of avoidance. I have a Jefferson Davis biography. I can't get into it - I can't open that door to an immense universe of information and controversy because I just don't have time.

And yet I would devour a book on Jeff Davis, Secretary of War, where I have already spent time and effort on understanding his role in this or that administrative matter.

Do aspects of the Civil War topicon scare you too?
[Image by Ralph Steadman]