Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War, by Ritchie Devon Watson, Jr. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008).
CONFRONTED WITH YET ANOTHER book on the ideological motivations behind the Civil War, a reader can perhaps be forgiven for wondering if anyone can add something new to this subject, given the outstanding work of the past twenty years by Gerald Linderman, Charles Royster, Earl Hess, James McPherson, Chandra Manning, Drew Gilpin Faust, Gary Gallagher, and many others. Ritchie Devon Watson, Jr., ably puts such doubts to rest in his thoroughly researched and highly illuminating analysis of the journalistic and literary milieu of America in the 1850s and -60s. While Watson necessarily surveys such familiar subjects as secessionism, abolitionism, competing religious exegeses, and divergent definitions of masculinity and honor, his primary purpose is to dig beneath those factors to what might be seen as deeper elements of sectional construction of self and other. One of the central myths that arose shortly after the war, and that many people read back into the pre-war period, is what Gary Gallagher in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten (2008) terms the “Reconciliation Theme”—the idea that white Northerners and Southerners conceived of themselves as one nation, one people, tragically torn by questions of slavery and states’ rights and thus driven to engage sorrowfully in a war of “brother against brother.” Watson’s coverage of the polemical journalism and belles-lettres produced in the years before and during the war, as well as of the appropriation of much non-tendentious writing for polemical purposes, reveals that many people in this era did not in fact harbor fraternal feelings for the inhabitants of the other region; rather, they regarded them as members of a wholly different and distinctly inferior race, and they concomitantly believed that war against such a group posed little cause for grief.
Watson’s title sets up the poles of this racial divide: Southerners defined themselves as descendants of the Normans who had supposedly constituted England’s aristocracy since 1066, and they defined Northerners as offspring of the backward and subjugated Saxons. Lucidly dividing his analysis into alternating chapters devoted to pre-war, wartime, and postwar writings from each side, Watson probes many layers of complexity beneath this seemingly simple and one-sided ideology. He begins by tracing the rise of the Norman racial myth in Southern periodicals of the 1850s, the era when Southerners, feeling increasingly defensive about the future of slaveholding, moved toward secession. Whereas in the 1840s many Southern writers had endorsed the notion that all white Americans shared a common “Celtic-Anglo-Saxon” lineage, a myth promoted by Thomas Hart Benton and other proponents of Manifest Destiny, by the next decade contributors to DeBow’s Review, the Southern Literary Messenger, the Southern Quarterly Review, and many similar journals were strenuously differentiating between themselves as Normans and Northerners as Saxons. Building on the work of J. W. Cash, David Hackett Fischer, and others in the areas of Southern intellectual history and patterns of immigration, Watson shows this construction to be a conceptual outgrowth of the longstanding myth of Southerners as descendants of aristocratic Cavalier refugees from the English Civil War and Northerners as descendants of their yeoman Puritan nemeses. Motivated chiefly though not exclusively by Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of medieval conflict between Normans and Saxons in his wildly popular novel Ivanhoe, first published in 1819, Southern polemicists read back from the English Civil War to the age of Richard the Lion-Hearted and, despite Scott’s making his Normans the villains of the novel, linked themselves as Cavaliers to Normans and Yankees as Puritans to Saxons. Regarding Mark Twain’s famous assertion that Scott caused the American Civil War by putting foolish notions of chivalry into the heads of Southerners, Watson acknowledges Twain’s tendency to satiric overkill but perceives “a hard kernel of truth” (49) in Twain’s assessment. Watson convincingly elucidates this truth by analyzing Ivanhoe itself, as well as a wealth of contemporary European and Southern commentaries on Scott. Although Scott presents his Norman noblemen as brutal and rapacious, Watson points out, he also depicts them as culturally and technologically more sophisticated than his honest but rude Saxons. With these “advanced” qualities in view, and engaging in numerous self-aggrandizing misreadings of specific characters and turns of plot, Southerners, Watson says, “turned a blind eye to the subtleties of Scott’s text and read the novel arbitrarily, using it to validate fantasies of a chivalric and exquisitely honorable southern culture related in both spirit and blood to that of its Norman forebears” (61).
Moving from journalism to fiction, Watson notes that however central Ivanhoe may have been to the Norman myth, homegrown Southern novels differed from Southern nonfiction in that they made very little direct contribution to the development of this ideology. Instead, many Southern novelists—and a fair number of Northern ones as well—indirectly laid the groundwork for it by their copious depictions of the aforementioned Cavalier myth beginning in the 1820s. Watson’s extensive research and keen analytical skills again serve his reader well in this section, for, while some of the authors Watson covers may be familiar, such as John Pendleton Kennedy and John Esten Cooke, the majority of them, such as George Tucker, William Alexander Carruthers, and Caroline Lee Hentz, are likely unknown to any but literary specialists; Watson discusses their largely forgotten work in telling detail, effectively placing his reader in a mid-nineteenth-century literary world that accepted the Cavalier legend as gospel despite its having little to do with actual history and everything to do with regional romanticizing. The ultimate outcome of the blending of this Cavalier mythology with the congruent Norman racial theory, Watson says, was that by the end of the 1850s many Southerners saw North-South antagonism as simply the current incarnation of a centuries-old racial conflict, first between chivalric Normans and barbarous Saxons, then between aristocratic Cavaliers and fanatical Roundheads (“the originally hostile races—Norman and Saxon—[eventually] assumed the shape of two equally hostile parties—the Cavalier and Puritan,” Watson quotes from an essay in DeBow’s Review ), and finally between their trans-Atlantic descendants, with abolitionism as just the latest manifestation of Roundhead extremism.
With this two-race theory established, Watson turns to responses to it from Northern journalists and intellectuals. These writers, he demonstrates, tended to accept its premises but to invert its judgments by valorizing their putative descent from Saxons and Puritans, whom they constructed not as barbarians and fanatics but rather as defenders of democracy against Norman-Cavalier despotism. One notable example of such work is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1856 English Traits, which Watson persuasively reads as a rejoinder to the Southern interpretation of Ivanhoe, but his survey is once more broad as well as discriminating, carefully attuned to various nuances in different writers. Perhaps most significantly, Watson shows that some assailed the historical validity of the South’s claim to Norman-Cavalier roots, arguing that the slaveholders’ brutality belied their chivalric pretensions, whereas others accepted the legitimacy of Southern aristocratic antecedents and instead attacked what they saw as the fundamental tyranny of the inherited English hierarchical structure.
Shifting from pre-war to wartime writing, Watson acknowledges a question that might be on his reader’s mind at this point: Did all this theorizing and novelistic swashbuckling actually influence popular thinking about the war? While he explicitly endorses the findings of James McPherson, Chandra Manning, and many other historians that slavery per se was the war’s central cause, Watson surveys many primary sources, including correspondence and private journals in addition to published works, to answer that by the start of the war “most northerners shared with their polemical writers so jaundiced a view of the southern people that some were even willing to subscribe to the southern notion that the conflict was not primarily about slavery but rather about the irreconcilable hostility between two races” (148). Watson quotes George Mercer of Georgia, for example, asserting in his diary that the war had been caused by “the poison of puritan fanaticism” that would ultimately be defeated by the “wonderful, indescribable, but deeply felt sentiment of chivalry” manifested by Confederate volunteers (qtd. 151). Conversely, New England essayist Virginia Sherwood argued that the essential national character of “enlightened social attitudes and high communal moral principles,” which the South sought to repudiate, had been formed by the Puritans, “men like [John] Winthrop, [Cotton] Mather, and [Jonathan] Edwards[,] and passed on to the Union’s future generations” (174).
Watson devotes considerable space to the poetry produced during the war and finds most of it inferior largely because it, too, traffics in this racial mythology. On both sides, he says, poetry “sank ingloriously into repetitive bombast, rehashing at mind-numbing length the dogmas of the polemical essayists,” prominently including “the myth of an aristocratic Norman southern race in battle with the Saxon-descended heirs of New England Puritans” (203). After perusing Watson’s examples most readers will find no reason to disagree with his judgment, but yet again his thoroughness provides significant cultural education. As in his coverage of novelists, he goes beyond canonical figures, such as John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Sidney Lanier, to the now-obscure Cavalier sentimentalities of Mrs. C. A. Warfield (“Southern Chant of Defiance”) and the Puritan versifying of Charles Godfrey Leland (“Northmen, Come Out!”), among many others, thereby profitably immersing his reader in the highly partisan literary context in which the war was actually waged. The one poet Watson excludes from this harsh judgment is Walt Whitman, who rose above sectionalism to create in Drum Taps (1865) “a miraculous expression of a single magisterial and transcendent poetic vision” (203). While I have no quarrel with this assessment of Whitman, it brings up what I regard as the only arguable flaw in Watson’s work: the omission of any serious consideration of Herman Melville’s Civil War poetry, which, while very different from Whitman’s, is notable for its objectivity and maturity of vision.
Watson concludes with an analysis of the relationship of the Norman-Saxon myth to the development of Lost-Cause ideology in the postwar period. He finds that the former declined as the latter flourished. “[S]outhern eulogies to the Cause,” he reports, “steadily increased in number and fervor while southern trumpeting of the region’s unique Norman racial heritage largely ceased . . . . After all, what would have been the point in promoting the idea of a separate southern race in a nation so obviously destined to be unified under Yankee rule?” (239). However, Watson discerns a deeper correspondence between these two myths, for the Lost Cause, while not directly dependent on the idea of Norman lineage, nevertheless still constructed the South as a racially and culturally unique and superior region, with the irony that the white Northern press and public generally lauded this altered form of the argument out of Gilded-Age nostalgia for the supposedly simpler time embodied by the antebellum South. The intellectual history of the Lost Cause has been documented many times, so Watson justifiably treats it only briefly, but he ends the book with one more striking insight. Modern neo-Confederate mythology still centers on the racial distinctness of the South, but this distinctness is now located in a supposed Celtic racial heritage rather than a Norman-Cavalier one; the irony of this circumstance is that most nineteenth-century white Southerners were, in fact, of Celtic descent but effaced this reality to subscribe to the Norman-Cavalier myth promulgated by the planter class. “Dixie’s antebellum Norman-Saxon race myth may be dead,” Watson notes, “but the white southerner’s sense of being descended from a unique, superior, and aristocratic people is far from dead” (251). A reader need look no farther than Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998) or Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten for confirmation of this pronouncement; what Watson provides is a learned, stimulating, and persuasive account of the long and tortuous story behind it.
MICHAEL W. SCHAEFER
Professor of English
University of Central Arkansas [journal
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