So goes the opening line to the preface of Edward L. Ayers book, What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History. What follows is a thoughtful—and readable!—series of essays by a "professional historian who is both a native and a longtime resident of the South" endeavoring to understand the region. The opening passage of the essay of the same name (minus the subtitle) gets to the heart of the matter in a language we can understand, which is to say the language of Matt Groening:
On The Simpsons, a popular animated satire of American life, Apu Nahasapeemapetilan, an industrious South Asian immigrant in Springfield, U.S.A., has studied hard for his citizenship test. "What was the cause of the Civil War?" is the final question on the oral quiz. "Actually, there were numerous causes," says Apu. "Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter—" The official, clearly bored with such superfluous erudition, intones flatly: "Just say slavery." Apu eagerly concedes the point: "Slavery it is, sir." With this declaration Apu wins his citizenship. Why is this funny? It's not because slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, but because the bureaucrat demands a rote answer to explain a profoundly complex problem at the center of the nation's experience.
Professor Ayers will be the guest in the next Civil War Forum Conference Series, a one-hour Q&A session on October 7 at 4:00 p.m. EST in the Forum's "Room 1." He'll be on hand to discuss his various Civil War-related titles, and innovative work with the Valley of the Shadow web site. He is the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Whenever I want a reminder of how little I accomplished in my squandered youth, I'll take a glance at Ayers's biblio, C.V., etc., at the university's web site.
Mark your calendars.