DH and the Popular/Academic Divide

For weeks since I started this course, I have been try­ing to fig­ure out where I stand on the ques­tion of “ille­git­i­mate” or non-academically-sanctioned his­tory fil­ter­ing into our schol­arly world.  After read­ing this arti­cle in DH Quar­terly it occurs to me that I’ve been look­ing at this back­ward.  I should be ask­ing how dig­i­tal human­i­ties can infil­trate and move opin­ion in the realm of pop­u­lar history.

Let me start at the begin­ning.  My main aca­d­e­mic focus area–the U.S. Civil War–has devel­oped over the last sev­eral decades a huge divide between pop­u­lar con­cep­tions of that his­tory and aca­d­e­mic out­put.  Shortly after the war ended in 1865, South­ern sym­pa­thiz­ers began a con­scious cam­paign to soften the blow of hav­ing lost the war by con­struct­ing an alter­nate his­tory of the con­duct and causes of the war.  In this ver­sion of the war, the Con­fed­er­acy never could have mil­i­tar­ily beaten the North to gain its inde­pen­dence.  Thus, for South­ern sol­diers fight­ing against such impos­si­ble odds made the effort to fight a more noble enterprise–a Lost Cause.  Thus, the mythol­ogy of the Lost Cause was born.  Facets of this myth include that the war was never about slav­ery (it was about “states’ rights”), south­ern armies always won bat­tles, but lost the war, and that the war was unwinnable by the plucky Southerners.

All these asser­tions have been his­tor­i­cally dis­proven, but in the highly active realm of ama­teur Civil War his­tory, many of these false­hoods are taken as fact.  Recently, for instance, the gov­er­nor of Vir­ginia got in trou­ble over a com­mem­o­ra­tion of the war that for­got to men­tion slav­ery.  He later cor­rected this small detail, but the instinct to remem­ber the war as being about some­thing other than slav­ery is quite widespread.

Which brings me back to the point of this some­what ram­bling post.  I’ve been think­ing about this divide all wrong.  I should be con­sid­er­ing the ways that I and my fel­low his­to­ri­ans can infil­trate and guide the chatrooms/reenactments/websites of the ama­teur his­to­ri­ans who dom­i­nate this Lost Cause, latter-day neo-Confederate sen­si­bil­ity.  More to come.

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3 Responses to DH and the Popular/Academic Divide

  1. I like your think­ing here, Dan. The idea that there are those who can treat slav­ery as a minor detail in the his­tory of the nation so that the South can look more noble and feel bet­ter about itself is dis­turb­ing. All the more rea­son for your voice to pen­e­trate the dig­i­tal realm to help close the divide between what really hap­pened and what peo­ple would like to believe hap­pened. I look for­ward to read­ing more of your thoughts on this.

  2. Stephen Reed says:

    Great post– using the DH wage guer­rilla war­fare against the a-historical.

  3. Susan Garman says:

    Thank you for the link to “Webs of Sig­nif­i­cance”: The Abra­ham Lin­coln His­tor­i­cal Dig­i­ti­za­tion Project, New Tech­nol­ogy, and the Democ­ra­ti­za­tion of His­tory. Exactly what I needed for my Emily Dick­in­son class last fall. I love how this is all con­nect­ing. I will pon­der this phrase from the New York Times opin­ion page for the rest of the week, “dis­guis­ing hate as her­itage.” Powerful.

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