In Confederates in the Attic, journalist Tony Horwitz scours Civil War battlegrounds adjacent to shopping malls and sends dispatches to his fellow Americans that sound less like news bulletins than wisecracks in a musical comedy.
After nine years in foreign countries, Horwitz moved to Virginia, where he discovered an America obsessed with the war in ways that stirred up his own memories of photographs that he had studied as a child with his father. "Lying awake in the night, pondering Civil War obsession, I'd plotted a hard-core campaign of my own. Super hard-core . . . The scheme . . . was to spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who keep memory of the conflict alive in the present day."
Chapter by chapter, Horwitz travels to each of the Eastern and Western Southern states where great battles were waged and pictured in etchings his grandfather showed him through a magnifying glass. His power to magnify the emotional impact and significance of details has evolved from childhood into a skill enjoyable to watch. Horwitz's re-enactor friend Rob takes him on what he calls "The Civil Wargasm," a high-speed car tour of the war's greatest sites. "This is my true calling a Civil War bum,' he said, biting into the day's first plug of tobacco. "The Gasm's a Bohemian thing, like a Ken Kesey bus tour, except that we're tripping the 1860s instead of the 1960s.'"
Experiencing what Rob calls a "period rush," Horwitz, too, becomes a captive of the past. "Our Gasm wasn't yet a day old but already I resented"—at Manassas—"the intrusion of current events."
Horwitz's single-minded comrade Rob exhibits in speech and behavior his evolution into what he is: a macho male accoutered with all the gadgets of the late 1990s and speaking its lingo to express a mania for every detail of the Civil War. Roving over hallowed places at a speed Civil War soldiers never imagined, Rob consumes facts and fables of the war the way he wolfs down Big Macs.
"The Old South was plowed under," wrote Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare in 1945, after a journey similar to Horwitz's. "But the ashes are still warm." Horwitz elaborates upon that epigraph throughout the book. "Vicksburg confirmed the dispiriting pattern I'd seen elsewhere in the South . . . Everywhere, it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents, one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past."
If Horwitz wields humor as a shield against a hydra-headed monster of obsession, in the end, it doesn't save him. "While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I'd come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War race in particular remained raw and unresolved . . . But while my travels had brought me to some understanding of others' obsession, I still felt strangely unable to explain my own."
As a qualifier to an underlying purpose that couldn't be more serious, Horwitz's humor has the effect of luring and then lulling those readers who may think preoccupation with the Civil War is ridiculous. Such readers will come away from Horwitz's battleground scenes more open than before to possible ways of seeing and feeling the relevance of the war to their own lives.