Blight talks Civil War, African-American authors

David Blight’s ’54 “American Oracle” was published at the end of May.
David Blight’s ’54 “American Oracle” was published at the end of May. Photo by Sagar Setru.

It is often said that history is written by the victors, but author David Blight ’54 is attempting to sift through the literature of the Civil War and find the truths in between the words of the winners and the losers.

Yesterday, approximately 50 teachers and students gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to celebrate the publication of Blight’s “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”

Instead of giving a traditional lecture discussing his book, Blight’s colleague Caryl Phillips at the Gilder Lehrman Center for Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition led the discussion with specific questions regarding his reference points for the piece and his personal connections to his subjects.

The conversation between Blight and Phillips covered a variety of subjects further explored in “American Oracle,” such as the myths of the American Civil War and the importance of slave narratives in the literature of the era. Blight said he examined four writers’ works about the Civil War in order to explore the discrepancies between the reality and the memory of the war.

In sifting through his research, Blight said choosing the particular authors to draw from for his own book was an organic process that helped him realize the variety of contradictions that exist in Civil War literature.

“I began with a desire to write about [Robert] Warren,” Blight said. “Then I realized that there might be a group of writers that could open a window to understanding the Civil War.”

The other writers that Blight focused on were Edmund Wilson, Bruce Catton and James Baldwin, but a fifth author, Ralph Ellison, was discussed in the epilogue.

Blight talked about his connection to each writer, noting that each offered a valuable addition to the focal point of Blight’s book.

“They all recognized that Americans have a very sugary-sweet version of history played out in their heads,” Blight said. “Each of them demanded that Americans develop a real understanding of tragedy.”

The combination of both the Gilder Lehrman Center for Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition and the Department of African-American Studies drove the discussion toward the intersection of the Civil War and African-American writers. Blight spent time talking about each writer and their feelings about African-American authors, a topic which many audience members asked about following the lecture.

“I thought it was interesting to see two different departments collaborate,” Allison Gorsech GRD ’16, one of four audience members interviewed said regarding the two speakers. “They really fed off each other.”

Through the talk, Blight emphasized that “American Oracle” is not just a historical book. By focusing on the writing and siphoning out the facts from the romanticized images of the Civil War, Blight was hoping to also analyze the recording of history and the development of historical literature during the Civil War.

“It is an extraordinarily astute book,” Phillips explained. “ It effortlessly seams together literary analysis, biography and historical thinking.”

Blight is currently working on a new book on a similar subject — Frederick Douglass, an African-American author during the Civil War.

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