Kevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).
JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?
KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.
JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?
KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.
JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?
KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.
JF: What is your next project?
KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.
JF: Thanks, Kevin!