Editor’s letter, March/April 2013

Editorial Staff Opinion

A few weeks ago the Connecticut congressman Joe Courtney registered dismay at one of the more significant departures from historical fact inSteven Spielberg’s Oscar-bound Lincoln. To dramatize the narrow margin by which the Thirteenth Amendment passed, the film’s screenwriter Tony Kushner shows two members of the Connecticut delegation voting against the abolition of slavery. As it happened, all four voted in favor of the amendment. Kushner replied, arguing for his dramatic license (and pointing out that he had changed the names of the actual figures so as not to impugn them). He went on to observe that despite its four enlightened representatives the Nutmeg State (“the Georgia of the North”) was soft on slavery, giving his fictionalized vote the whiff of a deeper truth.

Kushner seemed unreasonably peeved at being called into question by a mere congressman, which is too bad as he does have a point: sometimes you need the conventions of fiction to arrive at historical fact. A lot of truths get told in Lincoln, although it should be said that a great many others have been ignored (among them the bravery of those Connecticut representatives). But what else would you expect in dramatizing a period in our history as murky and mythologized as the Civil War? After attending the wounded and dying in Washington hospitals Walt Whitman, who had been brought to the edge of physical and mental collapse, insisted, prophetically, that, “future years will never know the seething hell…of the Secession war….The real war will never get in the books.” But we keep trying, and in great works like Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pathbreaking new exhibition Photography and the American Civil War we get a little closer. To that end we have selected images from the exhibition of the rarely seen Confederate side for these pages. If we cannot always tell the truth at least we can sometimes look it in the face.

I have been asked several times what we plan to do with the editorial page that Wendell Garrett wrote for so many years. We have decided to dedicate the space to an important preservation project-either one in process or in need of it. We begin this month with Monticello where the familiar appearance of that imperial shrine with its historically inaccurate bright white columns is giving way to the more modest sandy hues that Jefferson originally chose to blend with nature-another historical truth that we will have to get used to. We encourageyour suggestions for other projects both humble and grand to highlight.

Finally, we come to the annual Philadelphia Antiques Show in a city that has always struck me as of two minds: there is the city of E. Digby Baltzell’s Philadelphia Gentleman, a closed, class-based metropolis that lost ground in the nineteenth century to the strivers of Boston and New York, giving it a lingering second-city complex. This is the city that so tormented Albert Barnes, but it is far less evident these days. As it happens, there was always another Philadelphia ticking along, and its glorious three-hundred-year history as a center for artistartisansfrom Bonnin and Morris and Thomas Affleck to our contemporary Doug Bucci, not to mention the collectors who have supported them, is celebrated in four articles here.