In Bad Decline

If you bumped into me on the sidewalk or in the hallway, I might have
mentioned that the visitnow one month agoto
Gettysburg on the Fourth of July was, um, thought-provoking in all sorts of
unanticipated ways.  The placeswar
memorials, battlefields, and the famous cemeterystruck
a chord with me. I was intrigued by being there.  But I thought some
of the re-enactment stuff was oddodd dialed
beyond historical fetishism and into a new range of fantastical dress-up geekery.  I
recovered and was more or less
granted amnesty, I think, for what was a glaring foot-in-mouth moment during which I
compared the degree of geekery between Civil War re-enactors and the Lucas-heads
who attend Star Wars conventions dressed as Chewy and C3PO. 

In one of those subsequent, casual, "we went to Gettysburg" hallway conversations, I
mentioned how the re-enactments left me with a lingering uneasiness about what
was happening at those sites now. Re-enacting war is a strange brew: a half-and-half
concoction blending parts of the worst of Hollywood spectacle and adult
play-acting (no matter how seriously) in the grim, horrific, and atrocious
war-deeds perpetrated on those now-hallowed grounds. Chilling, but hard to pin
down because I didn’t openly object to it (the geekery comment was never meant
to disparage anyone), and I don’t have any problem with gestures of tribute,
respect, and commemoration.

Eventually, in that hallway conversation, the person I was talking with asked
me if I’d read George Saunders’ short story
"CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." 
I hadn’t read it; hadn’t read anything by Saunders, even though his name is the
first one that pops up when I mention Writing Program and Syracuse U. to anyone
who has lived in Central N.Y. for a few years (and then I have to explain how
Saunders is in the creative writing program, which hangs its colorful hat in
English and Textual Studies, and ‘no I’ve never met him or studied with him’,
and so on, until the perplexed looks give way to a change of topic).  "CivilWarLand
in Bad Decline," if you haven’t read it, is a dystopian romp through a
gang-plagued, run-down, underfunded Civil War park.  At breakneck pace,
Saunders writes of a great range of escapades as the ethic of historical
preservation gives way to a relentless assault by modern forces.  Reading
it did not make me feel better about the re-enactments; neither did it make me
feel worse.  But I laughed, and I also thought more carefully about that
profoundly difficult balance between celebrating war and properly reckoning with
the horrible mess it always (and to this day) makes of lives.

Here’s Saunders, a point where the new gun-loving employee joins the staff at

Just after lunch next day a guy shows up at Personnel looking so
completely Civil War they immediately hire him and send him out to sit on
the porch of the old Kriegal place with a butter churn. His name’s Samuel
and he doesn’t say a word going through Costuming and at the end of the day
leaves on a bike. I do the normal clandestine New Employee Observation from
the O’Toole gazebo and I like what I see. He seems to have a passable
knowledge of how to pretend to churn butter. At one point he makes the
mistake of departing from the list of Then-Current Events to discuss the
World Series with a Visitor, but my feeling is, we can work with that. All
in all he presents a positive and convincing appearance, and I say so in my
review. (14)


  1. As one might expect, Gettysburg is extraordinarily fetishized as an object of memory at my institution: the thought of our students having built such strong bonds with one another as cadets and then graduating to opposite sides of the battlefield is, at once, profoundly compelling and disturbing to many here. (Lee and Grant were grads.)

    But, tangentially, I’ll say: “The Wavemaker Falters,” from that same Saunders collection, is my favorite short story ever. About once a year, I find an excuse to read it out loud, either to myself or someone else.

  2. I just read “The Wavemaker Falters,” Mike. That’s quite the short story. I heartily agree that it’s good enough to return every year.

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