Gracjan Kraszewski is Director of Intellectual Formation at St. Augustine’s Catholic Center at the University of Idaho. He is also Instructor of Construction and Design at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South (The Kent State University Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Catholic Confederates?
GK: My personal story, geography, and a lifelong interest. In respective order, I am a Catholic and so I suppose a lot of people find it natural to write about something from their own daily, lived experience. Secondly, I attended grad school in the South, in Mississippi, and the Civil War is, still, omnipresent in this region, and the archives and sites close by facilitate undertaking such a project. Third, growing up in Pennsylvania I think I must have visited Gettysburg more than ten separate times as a boy, minimum. I was always fascinated by the Civil War. These things in tandem produced a perfect storm, and made my topic something of a no brainer. (Plus, super fun too!).
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Catholic Confederates?
GK: You do not have to wait until the 20th century, until JFK and the Second Vatican Council and ethnic identity-leveling suburban sprawl, to see evidence of Catholic assimilation into American life. During the Civil War, Southern Catholics ‘Confederatized’ (‘Americanization’ via the Confederacy) into their surrounding society with ease—supporting secession and the war as fervently as their more well known Protestant neighbors—and found this devotion returned, winning the approbation of Confederates elite and common alike, serving in key posts throughout the conflict, and remaining at the epicenter of events, a fact often buried in historiographical obscurity.
JF: Why do we need to read Catholic Confederates?
GK: Because not enough Civil War historians know about the role Catholics played in the Confederacy, not enough scholars of American Catholicism know enough about the South—let alone the Civil War South—and the general body of American Catholics (and Protestants as well) too readily accept that anything ‘Catholic’ and ‘American’ must revolve exclusively around issues, problems and people like ‘the North,’ immigration and demographics, Humanae Vitae, Boston, New York, Vatican II, Chicago, John Paul II, Pope Francis. Few would ever consider that Catholics might have been visible and important in the 19th century ‘Bible Belt;’ American Catholics just don’t know this part of their own history. This book remedies all three of these blind spots simultaneously.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GK: My father is a poet and a literature professor. And I love my father. So I think I always associated the academic life, the teaching and the writing, with what grown-ups do because my dad did that and I grew up with it. The American history specificity probably has a lot to do with those Gettysburg trips, but also that from a young age I was ‘good at history.’ Memorizing the dates, knowing who was who and who went were, that stuff kind of came natural to me. I was reading Civil War books as a ten year old and I never thought that was weird, like ‘why don’t I pick up some comics or something?’ I liked history then and have never stopped liking it.
JF: What is your next project?
GK: There’s two taking shape at the moment. I’m working on, nearly done with, a maximalist, absurdist-comedy novel that is set around the year 2100 (although it is not, in any way, science fiction; never, haha) that treats the American pursuit of happiness in a post-postmodern world. It’s centered around a progressive academy in the New Mexican desert— ESSNWNAU-AL: East Southwestern South Northeastern West North American University of the Arts and Logic—and is parts philosophical, theological, economic and atomic, i.e. scientists who build something much more powerful than the Tsar Bomba and so, what now? It’s pretty long already (more than 300,000 words) and has been appearing via short story excerpts in publications the past few years, most recently in the Canadian journal Riddle Fence this month. The second book stems from my work as Director of Intellectual Formation at the Univ. of Idaho’s St. Augustine Center. Each month I give a 30 min. lecture—on Catholicism and politics, Catholicism and sports, contrasting superheroes and saints, etc.—and we’re hoping to compile what will be essentially a collection of essays into a book sometime next year, maybe summer 2021?
JF: Thanks, Gracjan!