The story of the South depicted in the Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere production of Cold Mountain this season, was predominantly a product of old-school thinking about the South and the aftermath of the Civil War.
As a story of an epic journey of a man trying to return home after a pitiless military campaign, the plot of Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain provides a timeless theme that soars above the harsh details of its historical context. That is traditional and appropriate for an opera and certainly well within a novelist’s prerogative, but also an historical cop-out in principle.
The hero proves his commitment and love, but he is incidentally going AWOL from the Confederate army during a brutal war to perpetuate slavery. A freed slave saves his life along the way. And that’s about as far as the story goes on the question of its most monstrous issue, the issue of slavery that erupted into a total war the world had never seen before.
Ancient Greeks and Romans practiced slavery for many centuries before it began to sputter out in southwestern Europe. According to the French historian Pierre Bonnassie, “The maintenance of immense herds of slaves was expensive, extremely so, and of all animal husbandry, that of human animals was the most difficult.”
In Western Europe, the necessity to accommodate efficient forms of servile labor evolved into feudalism and later in Eastern Europe into serfdom, as the lords and masters of the land worked out a way to avoid responsibility for their laborers during the winter or years of famine. They discovered it was cheaper to have a work force that was “half free.”
That less costly workforce was not only a hallmark of the South under slavery, it continues today in large parts of same region where efforts by African-Americans, women and the poor have always lagged behind in possessing legal rights to improve their living conditions
The American Civil War freed the slaves and ended slavery, but we are regularly reminded that the practice has not disappeared. The spirit of slavery has been reduced, but the threat remains. There have been lurid reminders that hard-core slavery exists throughout the world, like the case of Kayla Mueller, a U.S. humanitarian worker, who was held hostage, raped and tortured by the leader of the Islamic State, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. A story in The New York Times on July 27, 2015, exposed the giant Swiss corporation Nestle for enslaving Southeast Asian men and boys to catch fish used in manufacturing its “Fancy Feast” Purina cat food.
A new flood of historical commentary piled up during the recent five-year-long 150th anniversary of the Civil War has taken a darker look at the bloody conflict over slavery. Some historians now emphasize that the reunion of the nation was realized only with the assistance of a measure of oblivion in both the north and the south.
The South denied wrong-doing, but turned more bitter and insolent as a result. Reunion was the best they could do. Reconciliation was out of the question. According to Reiko Hillier, an assistant professor of history at Lewis and Clark College, in her book “Designing Dixie: Tourism, Memory and Urban Space in the New South,” northern industrialists saw opportunities in the ravaged southland. They had a racist contingent of their own that was susceptible to abandoning the idea of racial democracy in return for maintaining the profitability of their southern investments.
In Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, historian K. Stephen Prince challenge the indifference that has gradually settled over the long and unfinished business of reuniting the North and South. Despite the failure of Reconstruction, the first years after the Civil War when Congress and the new amendments to the Constitution tried to set the terms and conditions for the Confederate states to rejoin the union.
Racist radicals, marauding and lynching in the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan created such fear and confusion, that the North relaxed its pressure and the South in general renewed its oppression of the African American population with the help of a rigged framework of subordination and segregation known as Jim Crow, after a minstrel act from earlier in the century.
A long time passed before historian Samuel Elliot Morrison came out and said in 1965, what has now become self–evident to the people who think about these things – “The North may have won the war; but the South won the peace.” Coincidentally, it was about the same time that the Civil Rights movement of the 60s once again took up the banner of racial equality, an important piece of the massive slavery debt. In a series of incidents this year, we have seen how far out of balance even this one piece of national injustice remains.
At a time when scarcely a day goes by without reference to the nation divided, the government deadlocked or the public at odds, it seems urgent to mark the location of this permanent split in our geography and psyche as the place most likely to break apart. We can’t get over it with a shrug.