By Alexander Wallace
American Civil War timelines are second only to World War II timelines in their ubiquity in alternate history spheres. They endure because the very premise shatters the implicit triumphalist notion that America was always destined to take Britain’s place as a hegemon that can bend the world to its will. The very idea that America could be split down the middle between two different countries thoroughly breaks such notions and forces us to consider that our history was not inevitable.
This brings us to MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War. Published in 1961, this book, along with Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, set the pattern for the many stories of its type to come. In many ways, Kantor’s work is hit rather hard by what TvTropes calls “Seinfeld is Unfunny,” where an older work that was so revolutionary feels quotidian decades later, as its innovative qualities become the standard tropes of works to follow. Certainly, in this day and age we may find a Model T somewhat underwhelming if we are used to anything Ford produces nowadays.
The book is short, mercifully so, given how long some alternate history books and series can be. I finished it in about an hour and a half in a single evening. Kantor’s prose is good; he uses an academic textbook style to tell his story (in which he presages a good deal of internet alternate history as well as even Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail in using that format), but I did not object, partially because I read large historical tomes for fun anyway and partially because the way he constructs his prose is not in any way plodding.
In some ways, If the South Had Won the Civil War reminds me of a number of H. G. Wells’ short stories, which were science fiction written in the time when the very idea of science fiction was a novelty. There is a persistent issue in Wells’ short stories in which they treat something that has become commonplace in modern science fiction as a groundbreaking thing shocking in its own right, which leads to many of them feeling rather anticlimactic to the modern reader. For example, take his short story Empire of the Ants, where a riverboat in Brazil is steadily overwhelmed by killer ants (which are then implied to take over the world), or his other story The Land Ironclads, which depicts an obvious forerunner to tanks doing things we mostly expect tanks to do. With these stories I can’t help but ask “Are you going to do anything with that premise, Mr. Wells?” to which Mr. Wells responds “No.”
While reading If the South Had Won the Civil War, I found myself asking Mr. Kantor similar questions. I have a feeling that, when Kantor wrote this book, he thought of the very idea of asking what might have been a novelty. He has the Union split into two countries and the politics that come from that. He has the Confederacy abolish slavery due to international pressure. He has Texas split from the Confederacy. He has the Confederacy engage in a war with Spain and annex Cuba. He has these three American nations fight in both world wars together and oppose the Soviet Union together before reunifying in the 1960s.
To the above, I’m reminded of what I say in Alternate History Online when there’s an act of butterfly genocide: “I feel a disturbance in the multiverse, as if a billion butterflies cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
Given how much the history ultimately converges, I can’t help but think Kantor didn’t have much of an idea of what to do with his alternate history. Part of this doubtlessly was that alternate history as a genre had not developed the possibilities that it would later create. But it also feels like there was no dramatic plan for Kantor’s allohistorical exercise, no emotional beats that he wanted to evoke in the reader.
It is fitting that Harry Turtledove wrote the introduction to the edition that I read; the Southern Victory series, in its gargantuan eleven books, wears the influence of Kantor on its sleeve for all to see. But when Kantor makes history converge with our own out of a certain nationalistic sense that America is too cohesive to be balkanized for long, Turtledove uses the historical and emotional beats of European history in a similar period to our own. Kantor’s implicit thesis feels somewhat maudlin and glurgy in that postwar American way, whereas Turtledove forces the country to look in the mirror, to forget its comforting national myths and admit that it can be just as barbarous as Europe can be.
As Gary Oswald said in his essay Why Write Alternative History?, the message of so much alternate history is not to take the past for granted. However, Kantor seems not to have realized that, and in doing so takes the course of American history very much for granted. In this regard, If the South Had Won the Civil War is a fossil of alternate history in an earlier period, one that is interesting due to what it presaged, but we can see the reason it died out.