When Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tony Horwitz set out to try to understand an interest in the Civil War that dated back to his childhood, he discovered the fiber of what makes the Southern United States a place of slow growth and deep feeling. As a boy Horwitz had been obsessed by the Matthew Brady photographs of the Civil War, a fascination he shared with his immigrant grandfather. Where other boys were focused on the space race, Horwitz imagined participating in the battles of the tragic past. He even painted the attic walls with figures from Civil War legends, thus the title, Confederates in the Attic.
One of the characters Horwitz came across in his travels was Robert Lee Hodge. Not a mere reenactor, Hodge was a “hardcore” and introduced Horwitz to the highs and lows of participating at that level. Horwitz came to understand that people like Hodge were trying to recapture a somewhat-spiritual participation in those events of the past, what they called a “period high.” Disdaining “farbs” and sustained by hardtack and adrenalin, the two men’s paths intersected throughout the book providing a continuity that moved the journey forward.
In between his adventures with Hodge, Horwitz traveled and listened. He became more aware of deep pride in traditions, and how fear of losing those traditions had actually sustained communities that in other circumstances might have died. He detected a hardening of hearts and a separation of peoples that was reflective of the loss of civility in society as a whole. He discerned the shift from dialog to diatribe and left the blogger wondering where we go from here. This book was published in 1998, and the hostility between Americans of differing viewpoints has become even greater. Liberals blame the Bush years for the loss of civility, but Horwitz did his research prior to that time. Could it be that we all are showing an appalling lack of respect for one another?
Reading this book is a good start for all of us. Many of us are good at opining and pontificating. To understand another person’s point of view, one needs to truly listen with humility and humor. Tony Horwitz models that, often despite extreme provocation. The title might put some readers off, thinking it is only about the Civil War. Don’t let it dissuade you – the Civil War is the framework, but this book is about so much more.