Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What We're Reading

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse
James Swanson

There are many different approaches to the writing of history. Two that are readily identifiable I suppose are works by those authors who seek to give the reader a sense of detail and immediacy, to create a sense of presence at past events, and those who are more concerned with interpreting events and presenting the reader with a particular viewpoint and understanding about the meaning and significance of what they recount. The first approach is often disparaged as popular history, and the latter as distanced and abstracted, devoid of the sense of empathy and feeling which might let the reader consult his own emotive affinities and develop his own sense of significance and understanding. Readers may have a preference for one approach or another, and so it might be useful to make clear for someone considering reading this book that Bloody Crimes is not so much an intellectual experience as a sensational one. That doesn’t mean that it is a book without scholarly merit, that it doesn’t make a contribution to our knowledge of events, but this is fair warning to the faint of heart.

The conjoined title of the book might seem to those unfamiliar with these historical events like an arbitrary yoking of disparate topics, but it is not, and this, as the reader discovers, is the piquant “device” around which Bloody Crimes is structured, the author’s carefully reconstructed account of two events that did in fact unfold simultaneously: the search for Jefferson Davis and Lincoln’s death pageant, his long train trip back to Illinois that retraced the stops around the nation that he had first made after the election of 1860 on his way to Washington. Swanson’s reconstruction of the timetable for events in both narratives is meticulous and remarkable, and swinging us from one narrative to another gives us a kind of omniscient view that makes for compelling reading. The Lincoln narrative dominates, both in length and by creating a sort of macabre fascination. There is plenty of blood. Swanson gives us a sense of prolonged presence at the medical ministrations during the death watch for Lincoln in the Petersen boarding house, the place where he was carried after having been shot in Ford’s Theater. The description of Lincoln’s autopsy and embalming at the White House are gruesome and will be for some simply unbearable.

Lincoln’s corpse was toured from city to city and at each major stop the local citizens constructed an elaborate hearse and decorated in lavish morning regalia a public viewing area where thousands of people walked by the open coffin. It was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s strict directive to those military officers overseeing the “pageant” that no photographs were to be taken of the open casket. He learned that a photograph had been allowed at the viewing in New York, and demanded that any prints and the glass plate negatives be destroyed. While some woodcuts and prints based on the photograph appeared in newspapers around the time, it appeared that all prints of the photograph and the glass negatives had in fact been destroyed. But almost a hundred years later, a copy of the photograph surfaced in an archive that was traced back to Stanton’s personal files. It is shown in this book, and although it is taken at quite a distance from the coffin, the corpse is visible. It has a quality of being eerie, indecent, and unforgettable, perhaps the major relic of a tour of mourning that has for us today a gothic and unseemly feel.

The chase to capture the Confederacy’s fleeing president, Jefferson Davis, is the less compelling story of Bloody Crimes. The reader will learn things he didn’t know before about the last days of the Confederacy and its leaders, but there is less blood and less drama here than in the Lincoln story. There may, however, be a deeper reason we are less engaged in this story as it runs beside the Lincoln assassination and death pageant. We are not, most of us, very well disposed or sympathetic to the Confederate cause, but more to the point I suppose, Swanson is not able to present Jefferson Davis as an intimate or congenial figure to us, despite some effort taken to do so. It was perhaps an impossible task. Lincoln we feel we know as a man and as a president, this by virtue of his character and words but also because he has become a part of our collective mythology as a nation. That is not the case and not ever likely to be with Jefferson Davis.

In the end, the narrative device here feels forced and artificial, because the story of Lincoln’s death pageant and the story of the capture of Jefferson Davis are not only unequal in so many ways, but they have little to do with each other. One story does not comment on the other for the most part, or even reflect in an ironic way as the stories are laid side by side. They are just two stories, both interesting in themselves and presented with fine scholarship and skill here, that unfold in the same time frame. In a book that revisits the most terrible cataclysm in American history, it may not be in our hearts to find both stories tragic, even with the passage of time.

No comments: