Friday, April 16, 2010

Stephanie McCurry Bellows


Stephanie McCurry's first book, Masters of Small Worlds, was, I thought, a masterpiece. Her second work, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, has managed to turn me off in the opening pages. So far, I am tremendously disappointed.

By way of example, here is a brief passage from page 22, in which McCurry is discussing the concept of "the People" and arguing that secessionist radicals viewed "the People" as limited to white males. She refers to the speeches given by Alexander Stephens and Thomas R.R. Cobb against and for immediate secession to the Georgia legislature in November 1860:
But while Stephens fetishized "the people," filling his speech with obsequious references to their sovereignty and majesty, it was the spokesman for secession, state legislator Thomas R.R. Cobb, who mastered the populist appeal. Cobb headed straight for the bottom line: "This Constitution was made for white men - citizens of the United States," he bellowed to the crowded hall.
Now I've written many arguments in my time and read more. When I see cheap rhetoric masquerading as argument it stands out.

Turning first to Stephens, he may or may not have "fetishized" the People, and he may or may not have used many "obsequious references." If you want to make the argument that he did, fine. But make it directly. McCurry simply uses loaded words to denigrate her target. And while she's at it, I suppose she ought to explain how Stephens was fetishizing and being any more or less obsequious than other politicians of his day. Instead, we get what amounts to a drive-by shooting that's not even directly related to her main point.

But my real disdain is reserved for her characterization of Thomas Cobb as "bellow[ing]". There is no reason to believe that he was bellowing any more or less than any other orator in those unamplified times. The use of the term is simply a cheap device intended to prejudice the reader against the target, and perhaps to convey that McCurry righteously disapproves of him. McCurry could have made her point equally or more effectively with an unloaded verb.

If I want to read rhetorical tricks, cheap invective and sleazy characterization substituting for argument I can buy the New York Times. It's disappointing to find such nonsense - and the opening of the book is littered with it - in a history book.

1 comment:

  1. That's right up there with Nathaniel Philbrick's argument in the latest issue of American Heritage that Sitting Bull stood for peace and negotiation, and that we would do well to emulate his example. Even setting aside the dubious image of Tantanka Iyotake as as a latter-day Dag Hammerskold ... wha??? Sitting Bull and the Sioux were subjugated! I'd just as soon pass on emulating their example, thank you very much.

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