Friday, November 12, 2010
Crossing Eliza’s river again
By Bernie Quigley
For The Hill on 11/12/11
Every beginning is an ending and if we understand them we can think for ourselves. Over time, history recalls only the beginnings and endings. So it is with joy and enthusiasm we should welcome the day-by-day series about the Civil War on the op-ed pages of The New York Times. It begins to tell us who we are and who we can never be; that our world did not start with Bob Dylan and end with Don Draper. It started at Cemetery Ridge. That we are not Europeans no matter how much we in the northeast might strive to be, and we can never be that. That we are made of the earth of this earth and the blood shed here. And without that blood we would not be who we are today and who we are going to be tomorrow.
We enter today a period of consolidation; a time of finding strength within ourselves, within our borders and within our own institutions. We have moved out for a long time and now we move back. I was struck by this contrast on a visit to a small and venerable college in Maine which once held America’s fate. Was told there that the student today could study the anthropology and evolution of Bart Simpson. There is nothing wrong with that; it is important to notice in the first season of Mad Man that a Jewish woman gives Don, the ad man, a talisman; a set of cuff links with Medieval Knights – as the daughter of the rabbi opened the gates to God for Ivanhoe, Don would share the fate of the Templar. Don Draper is us and so is Bart Simpson.
But before there was Don and Bart and Bob, there was Joshua Chamberlain of Maine. The modern world and modernism in general can be attributed to Chamberlain. The modern world began when the industrializing northern states challenged the agrarian Southern states for dominance. It was only at Cemetery Ridge that it became clear that the north would win and New York would dominate the continent and the world ahead in every possible way. In only became clear at a place in Pennsylvania called Little Round Top where Chamberlain held off advancing Confederate troops with guns, knives and stones when they ran out of ammunition. That was near the beginning.
Years back at another college in the South, I had daily morning conversations with a friend who in his 80s was finishing a book on race in America (Tom Gossett's "Race: The History of an idea in America" Oxford Press). He talked about how the image of Eliza, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom's Cabin” published in 1852, escaping to freedom with her baby in arms by crossing a river, jumping across on ice floes. It became a global phenomenon and the image was reprinted everywhere, even in tsarist Russia where it was reproduced on cigar wrappers. Eliza’s crossing represented a shift in consciousness, not only in America, but everywhere and the modern world can be seen to start from this archetypal crossing. This was the beginning and everything since; the Comanche wars, the awakening of Asia to Western capitalism, the destruction of European civilization in 1941, the Vietnam war and Bart Simpson, crossed the river then.
Everything until yesterday, when President Barack Obama met with G 20 leaders in South Korea. The river ice broke up again. It is the end of the period begun by Eliza’s crossing and the beginning now of something else.