Monday, February 19, 2018

George Washington’s Birthday

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation - Joseph J. Ellis

This Pulitzer Prize winning history features six long essays on the founders during the 1790s, the early national era. 

The Duel narrates the events and revolutionary passions that lead up to the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, which ended in Hamilton’s death. 

The Dinner explores Jefferson’s assertion that one of his dinner parties resulted in the deal that established a site on the Potomac River as the capitol in exchange for Virginia's support of Hamilton's plan for assumption of state debts by the federal government. Ellis argues that it was probably a host of conversations that lead to this swap.

The Silence covers the agreement that promised silence on the question of race-based chattel slavery among the founders despite the fact that the founders knew the institution flew in the face of revolutionary ideals of liberty and freedom. 

The Farewell discusses the role of George Washington in providing stability during a time when anybody with a brain feared for the continuance of the young nation. 

The Collaborators examines two fascinating dyads. One was the marriage of between John and Abigail Adams, especially during his presidency. The other was between mentor Thomas Jefferson and mentee James Madison during Adams’ administration. 

The Friendship tells about the reconciliation by letter-writing between Adams and Jefferson during the last fourteen years of their lives.

Ellis is an excellent writer, fair and sympathetic to weaknesses to be found even among the great.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Back to the Classics #2

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo – William Makepeace Thackeray

This travel narrative, from 1846, recounts Thackeray’s trip to places in the east such as Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. Generally speaking, the descriptions capture reader interest because T. was a draughtsman and painter himself. This, on Cadiz:

I have seen no more cheerful and animated sight than the long street leading from the quay where we were landed, and the market blazing in sunshine, piled with fruit, fish, and poultry, under many-coloured awnings; the tall white houses with their balconies and galleries shining round about, and the sky above so blue that the best cobalt in all the paint-box looks muddy and dim in comparison to it. There were pictures for a year in that market-place - from the copper-coloured old hags and beggars [...] to the swaggering dandies of the market, with red sashes and tight clothes, looking on superbly with a hand on the hip and a cigar in the mouth.

And this about a quay in Beirut:

How magnificently blue the water was! - how bright the flags and buildings as they shone above it, and the lines of the rigging tossing in the bay! The white crests of the blue waves jumped and sparkled like quicksilver; the shadows were as broad and cool as the lights were brilliant and rosy; [...] and the mountains beyond were of an amethyst colour.

Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge and curiosity about the cultures he visits did not charm me. It reminded me of the age-old criticism of Thackeray: he just isn’t real smart. He poses as the old hand with assertions like, “Walk into the bazaar, and the East is unveiled to you.” How do you know, I, a long-term expatriate of old, would wonder at the cocky knowledge of tourists. Other statements make it sound as if he just dashing off narrative; for instance of Constantinople he says, “I don't think I have anything more to say about the city which has not been much better told by graver travellers.” Okay, the reader thinks, then what am I reading this lightweight for?

Who should read this? Readers, I suppose, who can’t get enough of Thackeray even after Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon, I guess. Maybe grad students in cultural studies looking for examples of narrow mid-Victorian attitudes.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

Lincoln's Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation - William C. Davis

This is an excellent book for readers interested in Lincoln, the Civil War or more generally, morale among soldiers. Davis takes an in-depth examination of the relationship between the troops and Lincoln as the commander-in-chief and father figure of the Union Army and Navy. 

Davis quotes from soldier’s personal letters, journals and manuscripts. Sometimes Davis cites more information in support of his point than he needs, but the anecdotes were so interesting that they kept me reading. Davis builds a persuasive case that although Lincoln was only a solider for 90 days during the Black Hawk War of 1832, he used that first-hand experience to give him insight into the problems and concerns of privates, volunteer officers and military discipline over a fractious, independent-minded population. 

Davis also goes over Lincoln’s understanding of the importance of visibility. He reviewed troops often and attended scores of events such as Sanitation Commission fairs, parades and serenades. The President's care worn expression made impertinent troops understand that he suffered like ordinary people and he had a genuine interest in their welfare.  Davis’ examination of the re-election campaign of Lincoln in 1864 helped me to realize more deeply how politically diverse and astute Union soldiers were.

Lincoln campaigned for better pay and pensions, helped soldiers with their problems, and visited the sick and wounded too.  He inclined to mercy and clemency, especially when very young soldiers got involved in incidents of desertion, cowardice, or insubordination.  Such was the respect and affection for Lincoln, that when indiscreet soldiers expressed satisfaction when Lincoln was murdered, they needed protection from angry fellow soldiers and CSA POWs rash enough to make cracks were handled roughly by their captors.

Sometimes the sentences are rather garbled. Sometimes there is confusion between “its” and “it’s.” I detested the quotation marks he put around the word “massacre” as in Fort Pillow Massacre. I also would have liked a discussion of Lincoln’s stance on “drastic war” against civilians as practiced by Sherman, Sheridan, and Hunter. Anyway, despite these missteps, this book is worth reading for those into the topic of soldiering during the Civil War.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Thomas Paine's Birthday

Tom Paine and Revolutionary America – Eric Foner

Not a biography, this book explains the political and intellectual contexts that influenced the author of the influential pamphlet Common Sense. Although not a long book, it covers a lot of ground: the complex political atmosphere of Philadelphia just before the war and then in the early national era, new and amended political ideas, religion and  conflicting economic interests fought in the stale arguments we hear still today.

Like thinkers such as John Adams and James Madison, Paine disliked the idea of political parties, believing that The People’s interests were complementary, i.e., what was economically good for bankers would be good for bakers. He believed in the high-minded revolutionary ideal that envisioned a harmonious social order ruled by the impartial pursuit of the common good.

Foner says that Paine appealed to famers, merchants, and artisans due to his use of direct "language of common speech:"
Paine's invention of a new political language and his creation of one of the first designs of an iron bridge went hand in hand; they symbolize the twofold nature of the revolution to which he was committed and the modern world which he helped to usher in.
Foner also discusses the fall-out caused by the pamphlet The Age of Reason, a blistering attack on Christianity. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote to him, "He who spits in the wind spits in his own face…if men are wicked with religion, what would they be without it?" Whatever its merits, the charge of atheism is one reason we Americans then and now do not consider Paine a founder.

Not wanting to be associated with a so-called atheist, Paine’s friends broke off relations. His end at aged 72 in 1809 was sad indeed. In his biography of Albert Gallatin, Henry Adams writes that Paine was very fond of Kitty Nicholson, who became Mrs. Few. Paine’s anti-Christianity views estranged them, leading to this sad deathbed scene:
When confined to his bed with his last illness he [Paine] sent for Mrs. Few, who came to see him, and when they parted she spoke some words of comfort and religious hope. Poor Paine only turned his face to the wall, and kept silence.
Paine died poor and alone and probably ravaged by alcohol. He requested to be buried in a Quaker cemetery. They refused for fear of the grave becoming a tourist attraction. He was buried on his New Rochelle, NY farm, but two years later his remains were disinterred to be taken back to England for a memorial service and burial. After this plan failed, the bones were put in a trunk on somebody’s farm. Then the remains disappeared.

Well-written, the edition 0195021827 has black and white reproductions of broadsides and title-pages that give the book an unexpected visual appeal, at least for those of us readers who think printing design and typography went downhill during the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Case of the Bigamous Spouse

The Case of the Bigamous Spouse - Erle Stanley Gardner

Pretty Gwynn Elston tells Perry Mason an odd story. Selling kid’s books, she visited the Frankline Gillett residence. Seeing the customer’s son, she was struck by the boy’s resemblance to Felting Grimes, husband of her best friend, Nell.  A snapshot of Gillett, Senior also looked like Grimes.  This concerned Gwynn since she lives with Felting and Nell Grimes. 

Her concern turned to suspicion when, once home, Felting started probing her with questions about her rounds and later Gwynn detected a bitter taste in the drink Felting gave her. Perry tells Gwynn what she should do to protect herself.

But stuff happens. 

Felting Grimes ends up with a bullet in his chest. Lt. Tragg and DA Burger line up Gwynn in their sights as the obvious perp. Perry gives his usual warning to his client to say nothing to the cops because talking never helps a suspect. But she caves when, using a trick they still use today, the cops lie to her, telling she can go home after she talks and they confirm the truth of her story.

In his tradition of creating sturdy female characters, Gardner has Nell Grimes attack Perry in a car by turning in her seat and letting him have it with high heels. Crikey, a guy could lose an eye, fer the luvva Pete. Gardner also paints Gwynn as savvy city woman, and able to take care of herself as both a no-nonsense working woman and fender off of wolves and mashers. 

During the investigation Perry and Della Street visit a mountain village. Gardner stretches out a bit and builds two interesting characters, the town undertaker and the local poacher, who as a confirmed bachelor, is shy with “right pert” Della. In a couple of lines, Gardner creates a nice moment when Della feels her devotion to Perry. 

This was the 65th of 86 Perry Mason novels and was released in 1961. Although Gardner handles time in his usual skillful way, one begins to feel qualms. After all these cases since the late Thirties, shouldn’t Lt. Tragg and DA Hamilton Burger trust Perry a little more when it comes his clients’ innocence? After so many well-publicized losses and humiliations, how is it Burger keeps his job? 

Still and all, I’m not sorry I read this mystery – I’m proud to be in the dwindling number of Gardner fans among the quick – but non-fans might spend a better three or four hours with a better Perry Mason novel such as The Case of the Counterfeit Eye or The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe or The Case of the Fiery Fingers.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

European RC #2

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

Call it Treason – George Howe

Sometimes a guy needs a break from westerns and mysteries, so what better than a spy novel with heft? This 1949 thriller starts in February 1945 as operatives of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruit German POWs to serve as secret agents back inside Germany in order to collect information on military capacities and activities. Author Howe touches on the question “Why does a spy risk his life? For what compulsion, and for what torment in his life? The gunpoint never forced a man to loyalty, and still less to treason, whose rewards at best are slim and distant. If the spy wins he is ignored, if he loses, he is hanged.”

Howe presents three characters that are motivated by three drives: hankering for money and the goodies that go with it; love of risk and adventure; and the idealistic sense of duty to make a better world. The documentary start is full of interest, telling how agents were recruited from the Sarrebourg stockade in Lorraine. The OSS HQ was located in a castle near Lyon. Recruits were trained by the OSS team in a tiny inn hidden in a forest near Birkenwald village. There was time only for the ABCs of espionage training hurriedly given in the dining room, around a large oak table surrounded by heavy wooden chairs. Agents parachuted into remote areas away from towns to evade observation and allow agents time to bury their chutes.

Howe’s depiction of a police state in action in every nook and cranny of the country is harrowing and utterly believable. Happy, the 18-year-old who feels the duty to fight for freedom, sees the bodies of people hanged for the capital crime of defeatism, denounced by neighbors for uttering pessimistic ideas about the looming end of the war. Innkeepers and other ordinary people are scared to death of attracting the attention of the police. Hemmed in by so many anti-hoarding and other regulations, they know they are guilty of something, some crime that the authorities will find if they only look and trump up.

Written by OSS operative George Howe, this novel was made into a movie Decision before Dawn in 1951. He brings his WWII espionage experience in providing documentation (forging probably) and cover stories to this novel. Educated at Harvard, Howe has a respect for language and a storyteller’s gift for keeping the tale moving. I recommend this fictionalized memoir to fans of WWII novels such as The Cruel Sea.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

National Freedom Day

National Freedom Day commemorates the date this day in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln, who was the nation's president at the time, signed a joint resolution that proposed the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment was made to outlaw slavery and was ratified on December 18, 1865.

When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection - Norman R. Yetman (Editor)

In the late 1930s, the federal government hired jobless researchers and writers for Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). One mission was to interview elderly ex-slaves and record their experience in bondage, during Reconstruction and, as if those two periods didn’t boil with trouble and hardship enough for three lifetimes, in the Depression Era. The short collection When I Was a Slave contains a selection of 34 of the more than 2,300 narratives. 

The stories these ex-slaves tell provide insights into the social structure of the slave community, the monotonous and unhealthy diet of slaves, the superstition-ridden medical care, and unspeakable white nationalist terrorism during Reconstruction. They also tell stories about resistance ranging from insolence and defiance to secretly practicing their religion and learning to read and write. They maintained their humanity - such resilience seems super-human - but it’s not a wonder when the elderly people sometimes observe that they take pleasure contemplating that Mean Misses or Cruel Overseer are burning in torment in Hell.

Despite the fact the book is only 150 pages long, it is impossible to read this short book in couple of days.  Reading it slowly over the course of a week or two, I suggest, is a strategy that would reveal insights into the slavery system and, frankly, be kinder on the nervous system and blood pressure. Since this book came out of a federal project, the feds have posted a Slave Narrative project archive on the Library of Congress web site. It’s here.