The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

The Monumental Legacy of Calhoun

Thomas J. Brown

In Josephine Humphreys's delightful novel Rich in Love, official representations of John C. Calhoun epitomize the incompletely hidden past that shapes the present. The seventeen-year-old narrator, Lucille Odom, dismisses a textbook explanation of Calhoun's protest against the protective tariff as "a red herring" except insofar as it demonstrates "how men can dress greed as philosophy." But she takes a "consuming interest" in the Calhoun monument in Charleston. The statue atop the immense shaft brings the statesman alive for Lucille in an immediate and even intimate way. She cranes her neck to stare at "the deep brow, the wild mane." "I loved Calhoun's looks," she recalls. The virile figure inclines her to believe the legend that Calhoun was the true father of Abraham Lincoln. Unlike "the otherwise dry heart of politics," the supposed blood tie between Calhoun and Lincoln is to Lucille a living history of the Civil War era—animated by the irony, the generational tensions, and the "behind-the-scenes passion" that mark her exploration of her own past and her sexual awakening in a relationship with the historian married to her older sister.1

Recent scholars have joined Lucille Odom in finding that public monuments of the postwar South reveal more than might be expected from such sanitized expressions of established power. Many studies have observed that Southern monuments celebrated the Confederacy but promoted national reunion, denied the centrality of slavery to the sectional conflict but reinforced white supremacism, and saluted the Old South but facilitated rapid social change in the industrializing New South.2 Although overlooked in this scholarship, the Charleston monument erected in 1896 is an important site in the commemorative landscape of the postwar South. The culmination of a campaign that began shortly after Calhoun's death in 1850, the monument offers an exceptional opportunity to trace shifts in Southern memory from the culture of secession to the heyday of the Lost Cause. Part of the distinctiveness of the opportunity is that the postwar South erected many monuments to Confederate military heroes but few monuments to the

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