A Fantastic Civil War Course

I spend a good deal of my time each week driving from one courthouse to another. But I don't mind. I listen to college courses on I Tunes U. This evening I write to recommend a class.

David Blight's Civil War and Reconstruction is brilliant. Or, more to the point, Blight is brilliant. The 29 lectures in the class, each lasting about 50 minutes, are mesmerizing. His command of the period, its literature, and its historiography are impressive, but what distinguishes this class from the others to which I have listened is his passionate, almost poetic appreciation of the material.

Blight teaches at Yale. He attended Michigan State University as an undergraduate, and then returned to teach high school in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. He completed a Ph.D. in the midwest, and then set about a formal academic career. He has never forgotten his blue-collar origins. His sense of history is embued with felt necessity. When he quotes a poet, or reads from W.E.DuBois, or Frederick Douglas, or Lincoln, or any the diaries he has read, his words convey the wonder, the agony and the rage of a world torn asunder. I have listened to perhaps ten courses on I Tunes U. His is the first that left me not just with a hunger to know more about the period -- Yale's Dale Martin's course on New Testament History does that equally as well. I would like to meet Blight. He has the soul of a poet.

The lectures raised a troubling question that surprised me. Blight speaks of our responsibility to know about this war and its aftermath. It is our struggle, he tells us. As he lectures, he does far more than convey informaton. He leaves a part of himself open, inviting the listener to try on a new point of view, a different perspective on lives and a time other than our own. I listened, and I followed him, only to awaken with the sense that I had fallen under the spell of a magician. 

My parents were not in the United States during the civil war. My father is a first-generation American from Crete. My mother is a second generation American from Quebec. In what sense is the history of the civil war my history? My father's people lived on an historic island and struggled with Turks; my mother's family cowered against the darkness of vast forests, felling one tree at a time to make a new world. They met by chance in Detroit. I am their son. In what sense is the Civil War a history that bears any relation to me? I want to know more about the Cretan sunset, or the chill wind slapping a lumberjack in the face.  America wasn't even a dream for my predecessors when the South tried to secede.

But yet I recognize the phantoms set in motion by the war. Blight's lectures put the present in better focus. That's what good history does, I suppose -- it enlivens the imagination to prevailing currents, no matter where you are, or when you arrived. Well-told historical narrative makes one less a stranger in a strange land.

I cannot recommend this course highly enough. Listen, learn, and, most of all, hear the voice of poet. Good Lord, was that America I heard singing as he spoke? 


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