Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

Here's my confession. I'm a southerner - born, raised and still live in the south - and I've never seen Gone With The Wind. For some of my fellow southerners, this is akin to heresy. Heck, to movie fans across the world this is a sin. But I have my reasons. And some of them are explored in Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz's journalistic tour across the many southern states involved in the American Civil War.
There's no simple way to describe any southerner's view of the Civil War, so Horwitz carefully sidesteps the complexities of this problem by focusing on his own connection to the war via his boyhood fascination with the various battles, gods and monsters associated with it. What begins as a wide-eyed boy's dream of the glorious past quickly becomes a murky, muddled journey into the heart of the American South, replete with the requisite gothic characters, racist powermongers and Old South legacies that have ever haunted the region. If the narrative seems a little far-fetched and heavy-handed at times, it is, but don't let that fool you into believing there is no truth in it. It's hard to overexaggerate something as over the top as the modern South.

The centerpiece and the binding force of what could otherwise be a directionless collection of essays is Horwitz's ongoing friendship with and grudging admiration for a Civil War re-enactor named Robert Lee Hodge. Actually, to call Hodge a re-enactor is to do him a grave disservice. He is, in his own parlance, "super hardcore." This means, among other things, that he shuns the traditional re-enactor's (called a "farb" by detractors like Hodge) tendency towards "play acting" and attempts to get at the heart of what (for him) is a genuine Civil War lifestyle and experience. Trudging miles with minimal (if any) footwear, eating molded bread and spoiled sowbelly, and sleeping in mosquito-riddled ditches are just a few of the lengths Hodge will go to in order to capture the essence of Civil War life and suffering. Horwitz joins up with Hodge at various points throughout his narrative, and each journey plumbs the depths of Civil War obsession and hysteria all while testing the limits of a "normal" man's constitution in this modern reconstruction of an antebellum world.

I admire Horwitz for his commitment to his task, even if at times he seems particularly preoccupied with the oddities, incongruities and outright hypocrisies of the modern South. There are moments when he seems to be mocking more than anything else, and that's problematic for me. Yes, it's true that the south has more than its share of Civil War throwbacks. Heck, just a few weeks ago some dunderheads a few miles south of my home threw their annual "Redneck Games" replete with more rebel battle flags than I ever care to see assembled in one place, but events like the "Games" are more the exception than the rule, and it would have been nice to read a bit more balance in Horwitz's approach.

Still, Confederates in the Attic, taken as a whole, does manage to balance the eccentricities of the post-bellum South with the serious implications of a society that cannot reconcile its own past. Whether you're just a "farb" or a "super hardcore," you're sure to come away from the book thinking differently about the past, present and the future. And you might convince me to finally sit down and watch Gone with the Wind. Might.


Kristopher said...

I was born and raised in the South too, and have always had rather mixed feelings about it. This book sounds really interesting.

SkinnerBox said...

Trust me when I say I understand. :) Horwitz covers a great deal of territory, both physically and emotionally, in the book. If you read it, drop another comment and let us know what you think.

Alex Bledsoe said...

I read this book when it first came out and recommend it to a lot of people. The levels of absurdity and tragedy are almost mythic, yet like you, I'm Southern and know they're all true.

Trivia question: isn't the guy on the cover Robert Lee Hodge? And isn't his specialty, the thing that makes other re-enactor's so envious, his ability to puff himself up like a bloated corpse?

SkinnerBox said...

Yep. That's Hodge on the cover. And yes, his talent is "bloating" in photographs. Quite a fella...