Monday, July 21, 2008

A little summer Wilson...

My favorite historian is a man who, though retired, is still busy writing and lecturing: Dr. Clyde N. Wilson, professor emeritus of American history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

While I was on vicarage in the beautiful city of Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto State, I had the honor of meeting Dr. Wilson - whose book of essays: From Union to Empire should be required reading for any scholar of American history. I met him at a Maurice's Barbecue restaurant where he was signing copies of his book. While there, I met, and later struck up a friendship with, Dr. Wilson's colleague at USC, Dr. Tobias Lanz - who is not only a brilliant cultural historian, scholar, and a leader in the Catholic land movement, but also a devoted family man, urban vegetable farmer, and all around great guy.

There are conservative scholars out there in the academy, believe it or not. You may have to hunt a while to find one, though.

Clyde Wilson also writes for the paleo-conservative Chronicles magazine, of which the deep-thinking and razor-sharp-witted Aaron D. Wolf, LCMS lay theologian and historian, is associate editor. And for your summer reading pleasure, here is an archive of Wilson's Chronicles essays, articles, and posts.

And here is one of Dr. Wilson's quick hitting pieces regarding a conservative look at the sixteenth president of the United States. To really get the full effect, if only vicariously and in your mind's eye, make yourself a mint julep, pull up a wicker chair beside the magnolia with flowers bigger than your head, and learn to love the sight of the moon rising over a palmetto tree as the sweat glistens on your brow and the jasmine perfumes the air. Enjoy!


revalkorn said...

As a born-and-raised yankee, my first exposure to what Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the story" was when I watched the movie "Gettysburg". Lest you get the impression that I'm just another yankee who has bought the rhetoric of the victorious history writers, bear in mind that I'm at least open to the idea that there's more than what the history books report.

(By the way, did you ever read Gen. Joshua Chamberlain's diary on the civil war? I was fascinated, couldn't put it down.)

With that being said, I read that article on Lincoln . . . until he decided that he needed to attack Lincoln's physical appearance. If the rest of his information was accurate--and I have no doubt it is--he could have left that alone. Lincoln wasn't the only Ameican who is physically ugly--or who had a health condition that helped make him that way. I found it tasteless to attack him for it.

If the war starts again, be sure I'm the first one who goes. After all, I'm one of those yankees. But be nice. Strike me over the head with a Bible. Bullets might make me ugly, and I'd hate to be attacked for it after I'm dead.

Peter said...

I'm sympathetic with the states' right argument, too. If state joins, why can't it secede? I'm not as much interested in the fact that Lincoln (horror of horrors) "played with his feet." Nor, am I moved by the innuendo about his son destroying his papers. As for owning the great "mansion" in Lincoln? Hah. I've been to it many times. The house may be nice, but it's hardly to be compared with any decent southern plantation. When it comes to summer Wilsons, I'll choose Brian.

Father Hollywood said...


I believe Wilson raises the issue of Lincoln's bizarre appearance and mannerisms because the vast majority of Americans are clueless about this. Lincoln is revered as a national icon, if not a scripture-spouting reincarnation of a dignified Old Testament prophet - but what is revered is just that: an image, rather than anything resembling reality. The historians created a politically useful tool of propaganda rather than giving a truthful portrait. Happily, that is beginning to change (e.g. see The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked by Thomas DiLorenzo).

Americans today expect their politicians to be suave, debonair, and polished. Lincoln was seen by his contemporaries (even his political allies) as uncouth, grotesque, odd, even blasphemous. Those facts have been conveniently suppressed - along with his mental problems. Instead, Americans are taught fictional stories about "honest Abe" who ran ten miles in the snow to return a penny that he accidentally overcharged a customer.

The other thing the average American believes about Lincoln is the "myth of the rail splitter" - the rags to riches "man of the people" who lived in a log cabin. Pure myth.

The reality is that Lincoln was not only an extremely wealthy lawyer (not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself) - but was a fat-cat lobbyist. He was the equivalent of a John Edwards. His whole legal career centered on securing corporate welfare for his clients - and he was rewarded handsomely for it.

Nor were we ever taught about his not merely white *supremacist* views (which pretty much everyone held at the time), but we're certainly not taught about his desire to rid the country of black people - even as we're never taught about Lincoln's Confederate counterpart's *opposite* solution to the question of race (Davis was an advocate of gradual emancipation, education, and integration of blacks into society rather than deporting them - and he didn't just theorize, he put such a plan in action on his family plantation). Instead, "civil rights activists" protest any honoring of Davis and treat Lincoln like the second coming of our Lord (have you ever looked at the lyrics of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"?).

Why were we not taught these things in school? I think we all know the answer to that question...

revalkorn said...

I don't care all that much what my presidents look like. Well, I'd prefer them not to look like they've spent too much time smoking reefers, but that's another story. If Wilson needs to bring this up, it says more about his need to feed today's sad prejudices about physical appearance than it does about Lincoln himself. Let's vilify FDR for being in a wheelchair while we're at it. Justin Timberlake for president!

Unless I'm terribly mistaken, the vast majority of people who are going to read Williams' article are going to be intellectuals and people who already have an interest in the civil war era. Those people will already know that Lincoln was not a beautiful man. The average American, as you put it, won't be reading that article. They'll be worried about the price of gas, buying school supplies for their children, and after all that being able to afford to put food on the table.

Sure, we need to remember that our heroes were merely human. But we still need heroes. We've already destroyed the legacies of Columbus, Jefferson, Franklin, John Smith, and numerous others. Whoomp--there goes Lincoln, too. Yay for America. Let's destroy the rest of them now, too. Who is next? Jesus? (Did you know that Jesus was Jewish? *GASP*) Oh, wait, we're already working on that one . . .

Lincoln isn't the second coming of Christ. There. I said it. I'll never be able to go back north of the Mason-Dixon. My children will grow up knowing that, and not just because my wife is from the south--but they won't find it out from reading that Williams article.

Father Hollywood said...


I think you're missing the point. Wilson said: "He did not resemble Henry Fonda in the least, or even Raymond Massey." He said this because these are the actors that portrayed him in the movies.

There is a dissonance between the man and the myth. That's the point.

It would be like having Arnold Schwatzeneggar playing FDR or Will Smith as Bill Clinton.

Too much of "history" today is propaganda rather than an attempt to portray reality.

Lincoln's various "problems" have been "cleaned up" - hence school children, college students, and watchers of PBS and the movies have been spoon-fed a fable. I think to a historian (which is what Wilson is) this is repugnant.

revalkorn said...

You're going to have a hard time finding an actor that looks enough like Lincoln to play him. Fonda isn't an *awful* match, all things considered, though he's by no means Lincoln's twin. God knows *I* wouldn't be a good match. I'm too fat, and I can't grow a good beard. I can't think of an actor today who *would* be a good match.

I married an historian. I'm not blind to history myself. What I'm saying is that you don't have to be an ass (or write like one) to be an accurate historian. Sure, debunk the myth. But two repugnants don't make an acceptable.

One other thing--I don't buy the shirer myth, but didn't Hitler admire Luther, too?

revalkorn said...

Okay. To backtrack just a bit--I'm willing to believe that Wilson wasn't just mocking Lincoln's appearance to mock it. On the other hand, for someone who writes with the frequency that he does, he either needs to write more clearly or find a better editor/proofreader.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Al:

Hitler admired a *distorted version* of Luther (who was not a political leader) - a myth, which was debunked by (among others) Uwe Siemon-Netto.

To the contrary, Hitler admired Lincoln for his *genuine political views* - indeed, Hitler's disdain for local government (as opposed to national centralization) is precisely the same as Lincoln's. Local state sovereignty is always a stumbling-block for big, consolidated, centrally planned economies - especially for the kinds of political leaders who would suspend habeas corpus, close civilian courts, shut down newspapers, and hold political prisoners without charge - all things Hitler admired in Lincoln - and put into practice in his own government.

Father Hollywood said...


Your critique about Wilson's inability to write "clearly" and his need for a "better editor/proofreader" is quite a surprise. Which specific essays or books of Clyde Wilson come across as unclear or poorly edited from your perspective?

I'm kind of curious, as I've never felt Wilson's work to lack clarity or to be filled with proofreading errors (though his intentional use of British orthography may throw some people for a loop - having spent some time in Canada I'm sure you're familiar with "cheque" and "colour" and the like).

In fact, of all the academic and political critiques of Wilson that I'm familiar with, I've never heard of anyone accusing him to be unclear. In fact, most of Wilson's critics chafe at his bluntness. His opponents usually complain that he's *too* clear. :-)

revalkorn said...

The comment about Lincoln's appearance in the article you featured (with the mint julep) seemed unclear to me.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Al:

I think Wilson's mentioning of Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey is there to provide the context of the immediate remark.

The overarching theme of Wilson's short article is not Lincoln's appearance (which was only one line out of the essay), but rather of how the portrayal of Lincoln (hence the mention of actors who played him) reflects a myth rather than fact in American popular and academic culture.

But as you admitted, you stopped reading at that point - thus depriving yourself of the context to understand it.

It's not that the author is unclear, but the reader told him to "shut up" before he could clarify the remarks. Maybe a daiquiri is called for instead of a julep. ;-)

revalkorn said...

Maybe some more painkillers instead of either.

I actually did finish the sentence, at least.

Joe Greene said...


Do you have Beyond Capitalism and Socialism, a collection of essays edited by Dr. Lanz? I haven't finished reading all the essays yet but if you'd like I can send it your way when I finish.