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 Posted: Tue Mar 18th, 2008 08:15 pm
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booklover
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This review is both confusing and rambling. The author contradicts himself on several occasions, calling Faust’s theory of the Good Death “completely convoluted” and “artificially constructed” yet in the next paragraph arguing that it existed, but as “nothing more than the pre-war death and funeral rituals involving last words, and the comforting presence of friends and family around the dying person’s death bed.”

He also argues, unsuccessfully, that the war in “its sacrifices, privations, and sweeping changes that it brought” was the “most demanding undertaking” and not death itself, making one wonder what sacrifice, privation or other sweeping change had as much effect on the participants and their families as death?

Where the author really misses the mark is in describing Faust’s intentions and ascribing (falsely) to her the attempt to make death in war solely an “American causation” and to make it “an American event alone.” In describing the Good Death concept, Faust points out that its origins came from Europe, specifically from the author Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying which was published in 1651 in London. Faust’s book is about the American Civil War, so it only stands to reason that she is going to study how Americans viewed death before, during and after that event. She doesn’t make it a strictly American invention, but rather looks at it through American eyes. This is a difference the author seems to have missed.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills argues persuasively that American attitudes toward death and burials, while taking from Greek tradition, were strictly American in nature. The “culture of death” in the nineteenth century that Wills discusses in the second chapter of his book was instinctively American. “The dedication of Gettysburg must, therefore, be seen in its cultural context, as part of the nineteenth century’s fascination with death in general and with cemeteries in particular. We tend to view it only in its connection with the Civil War and military ceremonies, which were indeed the most immediate and compelling associations. But these did not entirely obliterate the larger and longer-standing pattern of response to the recurrent rites of dedicating new parts of nature to the care of the dead.”

Throughout this review the author calls Faust’s book “highly disappointing and frustrating” and constantly berates her sources, although he never provides any sources of his own to contradict her statements. We are simply left with the idea that we should believe his points of view without any supporting evidence of his own. That is more disappointing and frustrating.

He insultingly terms Faust’s remarks about the tonnage of war dead in Gettysburg as “war porn.” This is nonsensical. It does no disservice to those who died there, but rather is a graphic and convincing way to discuss the horror of what happened. Look at how Wills handles the same subject:

        That debris [as referred to by General George Meade] was mainly
        a matter of rotting horseflesh and manflesh–thousands of fermenting
        bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat.


Later Wills writes:
    
        Even after the bodies were lightly blanketed [under the ground], the
        scene was repellent. A nurse shuddered at the all-too-visible “rise
        and swell of human bodies” in these furrows war had plowed. A
        soldier noticed how earth “gave” as he walked over the shallow
        trenches. Householders had to plant around the bodies in their
        fields and gardens, or brace themselves to move the rotting corpses
        to another place. Soon these uneasy graves were being rifled by
        relatives looking for their dead–reburying other bodies they turned
        up, even more hastily (and less adequately) than had the first
        disposal crews. Three weeks after the battle, a prosperous Gettysburg
        banker, David Wills, reported to Pennsylvania’s Governor Curtin:
        “In many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and
        my attention has been directed to several places where the hogs were
        actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them”

Neither this, nor Faust’s description, qualify as “war porn”. It is reality, disturbing though it may be. It is the reality the author accuses Faust of missing.
    
The author makes what I believe to be his main argument against Faust's work in the following statement: “The Civil War was fought between two Christian countries having very similar societies, cultures, and understanding of God and man. The relationship between God and man is at the center of Faust’s concept of the ‘Good Death’. But like Christians today, believers then accepted their fate and placed no blame on God. They continued to believe and understand their role in the God/Human dichotomy as one of endless mystery with sufficient answers never arriving.”

Where to start? First, the Civil War was not fought between two countries. It was fought between the United States of America and a group of rebels who seceded in order to fight against what they saw as a northern attempt to violate their right to hold slaves. As to the concept of a “Christian country” I can’t believe the author truly means that, simply because I would read it as calling the United States a theocracy. I don’t intend to get into an argument as to the religious views of the founding fathers, but suffice it to say, there are scores of authors who would question this view.

He's on slippery intellectual ground in the idea that people humbly accepted the death and carnage of the war without blaming God or losing their faith in him. Faust’s arguments are far more persuasive, as is the evidence she presents, than some sing-song belief in God and his goodness (and yes, I admit to my well-known bias in this). Anyone who is intellectually honest with his or herself must admit that such a wrenching inhuman event as the Civil War just might (and often did) cause some to question the existence and kindness of any God. Oliver Wendell Holmes questioned God's existence after being wounded at Balls Bluff, and Ambrose Bierce wrote about this extensively in his work. Faust quotes Bierce, and his views, correctly.

The author has an obvious and strong bias against academic history, and for some reason against Faust. What that bias is, I cannot hazard a guess, although I have my suspicions. All I can say is that instead of bringing light to this subject, the author keeps it in darkness.

I'm not convinced.

Best
Rob

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