The Civil War never ceases to fascinate storytellers. Hollywood filmmakers, historians, novelists, journalists—all continue to find new angles, new meaning, and unheard haunting accounts to shed light upon. The Free Library’s One Book, One Philadelphia 2016 season will focus on this era, using three texts—a featured fiction selection, plus a narrative nonfiction text and a historical survey—to further probe its meaning. As a country, it could be argued that we are obsessed with the Civil War. The question is: why?
First, let’s note the many shapes this fascination takes. Tony Horowitz documents the lives of those who remain most enthralled in America’s bloodiest war—Civil War re-enacters—in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Gone with the Wind, Little Women, Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels—all of these novels bring the war to life, giving readers characters to follow and connect with. (All, it must also be noted, focus mainly on white characters—which raises the questions of who remains most fascinated by this time, and whose stories Americans are most exposed to ...) Many films have tackled this time period, and in just the past few years we have seen The Conspirator, Lincoln, and 12 Years a Slave dominate at the box office.
So what gives? Why do we keep returning to this time period, turning it over and over? My own opinion (which, full disclosure, is informed by time spent teaching in a Philadelphia high school and having studied the roots and current manifestations of racial inequality) is that we, as a nation, in some sense continue to ask ourselves, “WHY did this all happen?” “What were those involved thinking?” “HOW did we get here, to our nation being so unequal?” And all those questions lead to more depictions, descriptions, and accounts of that bedrock era, trying to find answers.
Recent Free Library Author Events Series guest Ta-Nehisi Coates, who just received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in recognition of his journalistic work on racial issues in our country, ignited discussion of the era in his feature article in the June issue of The Atlantic. In “The Case for Reparations,” he calls out the terrible history of racial oppression leading back to slavery as the cause for today’s racial divides. We can’t ignore the Civil War, or act as though that era is entirely past us, he argues: It is still with us in many painful ways.
Steve McQueen, the director of the Oscar-winning film adaptation of this year’s One Book adult companion selection, Twelve Years a Slave, has noted that there is still resistance to digging deeper into this era: “… people want to close their eyes on some subjects. They want to keep on going, they don’t want to look behind them.” And it is precisely because of this mentality that artists like McQueen push to put more aspects of this troubling era in front of more people.
For this year’s One Book, One Philadelphia, we have chosen a trio of books that together help us continue to grapple with this terrible, yet fundamental, piece of our American past. We look forward to continuing to mine its causes and modern-day effects in communities across our city when the One Book season kicks off in February.