Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 22 - Back to Willing Obedience.

I am tempted to contact Prof. Samet and ask for her involvement as I pick my way through the book.  The informality of the blog  makes that seem an obvious thing to do, similar to my phoning up Lilian Friedberg when I discussed "American Holocaust."  But these entries are doing double duty as a sort of "freewriting" exercise for the H-War book review, and it would violate every professional norm about reviewing that I know of--though come to think of it, nowhere have I seen a specific rule against it.  Some things just simply are not done.

A week ago I got a nudge from the H-War book review editor:

Just thought I'd check on the review.  Any thoughts on when you might have it
ready to go?

 I responded:

As you'll see from the blog, I'm working on it.  It's a very difficult book, at least for someone not trained in literary theory, and requires a very slow and close reading.  Samet doesn't make things any easier by failing to make explicit her approach, her reasons for selecting certain texts and not others, and the odd way in which she will introduce a subject and then veer off for many pages in an entirely different direction. For instance, in Chapter 2 she talks about Lincoln for a few pages, then drops him entirely, spends most of the chapter on Moby Dick, and never really circles back to Lincoln again except in the most superficial way.  Yet the chapter's title foregrounds Lincoln.  It's not a bad book, though, just much more difficult to use than it needs to be.  Bottom line:  To do a good job will likely take at least a week, assuming I don't hit any distractions.

Yes, you saw right:  Moby Dick.  Military history and the great white whale.

Actually, this chapter caught my interest.  I began to feel repaid for the long hours I have so far spent going through to book with a red pencil, so as to highlight the key ideas that otherwise get lost in what strikes me as nearly seamless prose.

Chapter Two is entitled "Lincoln's Electric Cord."  It begins on page 51.  You have no idea what the title means until page 55, though, mercifully, Prof. Samet doesn't protract the suspense about its significance.  By 1858, she writes, many Americans were immigrants and so could not use genealogy to--in Lincoln's words--"carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us." (54)

"A more inclusive model had to be developed," Prof. Samet writes.  (A model of what isn't entirely clear from the text; I guess a model of allegiance, though model seems not quite the right word here.)  "Moving entirely beyond genealogy, therefore, Lincoln contended that all Americans were bound to the national community by a more elusive mode of connection--a sort of secular transubstantiation embodied in the Declaration [of Independence] itself.  He offered a paternity of principle." There was, Lincoln averred in a speech during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, "an electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link these patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world." (qtd., 55)

According to Prof. Samet--and this is a key milestone in her reconstruction of the "progress of consent"--"The American republic depended for its survival on a somewhat mystical obedience--on an 'electric cord' linking men together through an allegiance to principles and laws rather than to heroic leaders or moribund institutions." (55)  Prof. Samet needs this passage because it connects Lincoln with John Adams' earlier concern for the primacy of loyalty of principles rather than people.  Of course, to belie this connection--or at least reduce the amperage of that electric cord--all you need is the famous conclusion of Lincoln's first inaugural address, in which he expresses the hope that civil war may be averted:

I am loth to close.  We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (Basler 4:271)

These "mystic chords of memory" apparently forge a more primal connection to the revolutionary past than the "electric cord," so I wonder why Prof. Samet chooses to overlook this passage.  And surely the choice is deliberate:  this address is one of the most important state papers in American history, the 1858 speech comparatively obscure. I suppose she could point out that these lines were not in Lincoln's original draft but were proposed and largely written by his secretary of state, William H. Seward.  The fact that Seward would urge inclusion of this passage, and Lincoln would accept it, suggests to me that both saw limitations in the rhetorical power of the constitutional arguments that are so prominent in the earlier parts of the address.

Given her use of citizen-soldiers as the primary vehicle for her discussion, it also seems odd that she'd pass on a chance to observe that the ultimate source of allegiance is the blood of those same soldiers, martyred on the altar of freedom.

Put simply, here I think Prof. Samet gets it wrong.  But what exactly is "it"?  What are the rules of this literary game?  And how do I know if I'm playing correctly?  Hell, do I even really want to play?

Continue to next entry.

Return to main page.