Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Sarah Vowell, author of, among others, Assasination Vacation and The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, both funny and thought-provoking looks at history and politics, once said, “I think about the Civil War every day.” I often think about her thinking about the Civil War when I contemplate my own fascination with the subject, and what better time to have such thoughts than during the sesquicentennial years of those epic events (the most recent being the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” originally delivered on November 19, 1863).

I think my favorite book about the Civil War(along with McPherson’s epic “Battle Cry of Freedom”) has to be “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. The intrepid author explores the new South in search of the old – and his findings are instructive, amusing, at times horrifying, but always engaging. He marches with Civil War re-enactors, bushwhacks through snake-infested undergrowth in search of forgotten monuments, dares small-town biker bars to interview locals, and attends Sons of Confederate Veteran’s meetings, along with traipsing through battlefields from Manassas to the Wilderness. It is a great read.

Currently, I am listening to an excellent Teaching Company Course entitled “The American Civil War,” taught by Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. I admit, I thought I had very little of substance (there is always more detail to absorb) to learn on the topic, but very quickly learned otherwise. The approach takes one from the intensely battle-focused approach of McPherson to a more comprehensive overview of the context of the war. Despite this, I was still surprised to find a mere 30 minutes devoted to Gettysburg, but Gallagher makes the point that, at the time, Gettysburg was not perceived with anything like the importance we assign to it today. Still, I have an urge to re-read The Killer Angels (another favorite Civil war book).


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This novel by Julie Orringer is gripping in an old-fashioned, George Eliot kind of way – a lot of characters that you begin to care about rather quickly begin rather quickly to get into difficult situations, namely World War II. The main character is a Jewish-Hungarian architect student studying in Paris who meets the love of his life, a woman 10 years his senior living in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The reader knows what is on the horizon, but the hero and his friends and family do not, of course. This agonizing suspense – don’t stay in Paris! Don’t go back to Hungary! – keeps the pages turning as the noose of anti-semitism tightens around the protagonists, with their hopes, dreams and expectations gradually diminishing until merely surviving is all that is left – and, of course, all do not. The author has a wonderful sense of place as I felt myself on the streets of Paris throughout the first half of the book and envisioning Budapest as it was in the second half; she also stays within the moment, within a very individual context, even as forces of hate and history are unfolding all around. This is a book that has stayed with me for weeks as I turn over the forces of circumstance, personality and luck that go into one person’s journey through life.

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Weird John Brown

Tony Horvitz mentions a poem by Melville as one of the reactions to Harper’s Ferry; I never realized that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but it seems that he wrote quite a lot of it! His poem about John Brown is so fitting, so chilling:

The Portent

Hanging from the beam
Slowly swaying (such the law)
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

I feel I should have linked to the Langston Hughes poem I referenced in my previous post which I found here: Rhapsody in Books – John Brown

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The fanatical John Brown was a complex mixture, and Horwitz creates a nuanced portrait of a driven man who failed at everything except martyrdom. While waiting a month to be executed, he seemed finally content, the path of righteousness clear before him, and his message finally being heard and disseminated. Horwitz contends, and it seems to be true, that Brown’s failed raid was the flint that sparked the Civil War 18 months later. Horwitz describes a belated but powerful groundswell of support for Brown across the North which hardened the South’s sense of injustice and brought the idea of secession from the fringes to the mainstream. I have to say that Brown’s sacrifice of himself, most of his sons and followers, and his cold-blooded execution of farmers in Kansas was shocking, but not more shocking than the atrocities of slavery. It does make you think about terrorism in a slightly different way, and his willingness to die for the cause brought even theoretical and passivist Northern abolitionists out of the closet, so to speak.

Brown said himself that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and it is hard to see how slavery would have ended without the dreadful conflagration of the Civil War, which his actions may have hastened. This book was not as entertaining as “Confederates in the Attic,” but it added to my knowledge of the intellectual climate and political power-structure in the country before the Civil War. In fact, I think I might have liked it better if it was about all of the pre Civil War factors leading up to the shots fired at Fort Sumter, a kind of “Proud Tower,” for that event. Horwitz added a fascinating literary footnote: Lewis Leary, one of Brown’s doomed followers, left behind a wife, Mary, who remarried and became Mary Langston. She raised her grandson, Langston Hughes, on stories of the raid. His poem, “October 16, 1859” begins: “Perhaps you will remember John Brown…”

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I’ve been pecking away at this one for awhile, one of the virtues of the writing being the way the book is separated into distinct sections, each one dealing with a different facet of the great powers leading up to their involvement in World War I. The differing persectives of anarchist, socialist, trade unionist, patrician, imperialist and others all combine to show the forces leading up to the train wreck of August 1914. The chapter on the United States’ descent into imperialism, entitled “The End of a Dream” when we betrayed our own notions of democracy and liberty by turning on the freedom fighters of the Phillipines in the interests of opening up new markets for our export trade was the saddest; the pre-war build up of nationalist sentiment in Germany, “Neroism Is In the Air” was the most frightening. The account of the Dreyfus affair in France was comprehensive and fascinating. The peace conferences convened at the Hague were pathetic and ridiculous but illuminated the root problems of the era. The struggle of socialists to reconcile the Marxist dictum of revolution with the desire of working people to work within the system to improve their present lot was excellent, culminating in the outbreak of war and the failure of the working class to spontaneously refuse to fight. I’m not sure how today’s historians view Barbara Tuchman’s account of the factors leading up to the Great War, but she is a wonderfully engaging writer. Her grasp of the situations and characters involved is all-encompassing, convincing and vibrant. Somehow, while waiting for our leaders to negotiate the fiscal cliff this New Year’s Eve, a book like this adds much-needed perspective on the follies of nations.

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Finally got back to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was okay. All the characters were just a little too quaint and exotic – like some of those Southern novels that just try too hard to show you how eccentric everyone is.  What was interesting to me was the underlying, rather grim story of Guernsey during the war.  England apparently just pulled out, not wanting to waste resources on defending the Channel Islands.  The hardship of the occupation – lack of food, curfews, the children being sent away before the Germans came – is alluded to throughout the book, but the tone is light and anecdotal.  That’s okay; it makes an enjoyable story, just not a great one. The literary part, where each person in the Society talks about a book that they read and liked, is interesting – I am intrigued to read more Charles Lamb and Seneca. I was annoyed by the character who read and disliked Marcus Aurelius, that was not well-done or well thought out. I felt it was just thrown in to add a colorful episode and did a diservice to a great philosopher. Such opinions were not earned. I also liked the mention of Anne Bronte (more on this topic to follow).  The story of Elizabeth was barely told, but that was the most gripping part of the book, the part that ‘got me by the throat’, so to speak.  Learning more about the islands was interesting – prior to this, I had heard of Jersey because of Lily Langtree (the “Jersey Lily”) and I knew that Victor Hugo had lived in self-imposed exile on one of the Channel Islands, but that was pretty much it. So, my opinion is mixed – I think the book is fairly charming and likeable, but leaves one with that sickly feeling of having overindulged in something sweet.

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The Devil in the White City, by Eric Larson

Well, I didn’t care much for this book, either the premise or the writing. Not that he’s a bad writer, I just hated the coy way he kept alluding to evil or disasters to come, “only Poe could have thought up the rest”, stuff like that. It got tedious after awhile. And, the story of the serial killer seemed grafted onto the more interesting World’s Fair story with the back-and-forth motif wearing thin rather quickly. It was as if he felt he needed the murderer to sell the rest of the story to us. On the contrary, the murderer’s tale could have been told much more succinctly. The fact that he couldn’t resist dragging in the Titanic disaster as well gave me the impression of someone without the discipline to edit his own work. On the other hand, the many famous characters who had something to do with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was fascinating and he did a good job of capturing the personalities and difficulties and what was at stake.  Some of the people involved or touched by the Fair:  Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser (of course!), Frederick Law Olmstead, all the most famous architects of the day, even Mark Twain except that he came to Chicago, was ill, and spent the entire time in his hotel room, going home without even visiting the fair. As the author says, “of all people.” I especially loved the Ferris Wheel story – something so commonplace today, that was the centerpiece of the Fair and the invention to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris (also built for a World’s Fair type exposition).  Another minor tidbit but even more fascinating was the fact that Walt Disney’s father was a carpenter or electrician who worked on the Fair. Now, that explains a lot! It explains a certain dated, fantastical yearning at the core of the Disney creations. It explains the whole fake, glamorous, pseudo-scientific soul of those worlds, worlds that Disney dragged forth from the previous century.

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