Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Touching Past, Present, and Future

Knoxville native David Madden examines the complex legacy of the Civil War

“Touch one work,” David Madden says of his own writing, and “the vibrations set all others in motion.” The metaphor of a spider’s web is an old one, and Madden admits that he might overuse it, but it’s entirely appropriate to the subject of his latest book. The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction: Readings and Writings from a Novelist’s Perspective is a collection of Madden’s musings, in both stories and essays, on the great defining event of American history. From literary criticism on the state of Civil War scholarship to the fictional struggles of a veteran searching for meaning, Madden has constructed a volume that demonstrates the difficulties, and opportunities, Americans face while exploring their country’s web of past, present, and future.

“It might be helpful,” Madden writes, “if the reader were to keep in mind that I am from Knoxville in divided East Tennessee.” Indeed, Madden’s origins in a region noted for Unionist versus Secessionist violence has deeply affected his work. One of the signal wartime events of that region, the famed bridge-burning raid of 1861, involved men who remained anonymous even after the war out of fear of reprisal from their neighbors. Madden understands the personal nature of that conflict, and the bridge burners’ stories form the core of one of the essays in The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction. They also lie at the heart of the collection’s fiction, which is represented primarily by excerpts from Madden’s novel, Sharpshooter. In it, an old man tries to understand the war in which he participated as a youth but still feels he missed. Willis Carr’s story, full of insights into the nature of history and memory, is the narrative device through which Madden explores his fellow Americans’ lack of understanding of the war and their resultant inability to resolve its legacies, including racism and distrust of government.

Narrative is important to Madden, a novelist, playwright, and essayist who has delved deeply into the literature inspired by the war. For him, “all Southern novels are about the Civil War and Reconstruction,” and the best of them is William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Madden’s examination of Faulkner’s narrative style seems to reflect a conviction that we are all unreliable narrators in our greatest collective story—and that to resolve the conflict we must overcome that handicap.

As founder of the United States Civil War Center, a research institute designed to study the war from all perspectives, Madden has put his intellectual money where his literary mouth is. “The term historian,” he writes, “should be used in its broadest sense, in reference not only to academic historians but also to men and women who write about historical events after long hours of daily work at a profession or occupation.” He has contributed to this communal effort with essays not only about the East Tennessee bridge-burning raid but also the post-war sinking of the steamboat Sultana north of Memphis, one of the worst, yet largely unremembered, maritime disasters in U.S. history.

Madden concludes The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction by taking flight with his narrative, channeling Abraham Lincoln in a speech to Civil War historians at a conference in Gettysburg “six score and thirteen years” after his immortal address. In this “performance criticism,” Madden envisions the sixteenth president delivering a message of hope for the future of his country. “The goal in the coming score of years,” his imaginary Lincoln says, “is to help the nation achieve at long last an understanding of the War commensurate with its effect.” Madden has set his sights on this future goal as he continues to explore the tangles of the past.