Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea, by Noah Andre Trudeau*****

“On earth, as in heaven, man must submit to an arbiter…He must not throw off his allegiance to his government or his God without just reason or cause. The South had no cause…Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed a continuous existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in peace, a punishment equally would not be unjust.”   –William Tecumseh Sherman (quoted on page 19)

southernstormI received this excellent Civil War tome from one of my sons as a Christmas gift. I don’t request a lot of books anymore because it’s so easy to get others free, but I asked for this one and I am glad I have it. I’ll be reading more by this guy.  Despite one fact that I dispute—for which the citation also is sketchy—and some crummy maps, there’s no way to deny five stars here.  The topic is among my favorites, and of course Sherman is my all time favorite general, hailing from a time when the United States government still attracted and produced heroes.

Each time I pick up another book on Sherman’s march to the sea, I question whether there is any new information to be had. Here Trudeau deals with this neatly by referencing participants other than Sherman, most often Major Henry Hitchcock, who was Sherman’s aide-de-camp. There are lots of meaty quotes from Sherman and those alongside him, and occasionally those opposite him. There’s one royal stinker of a reference made by an Atlanta doctor, who said a couple dozen very sick and badly injured men were dumped on him by Sherman personally, who said if they survived the rebels could consider them prisoners. I call bullshit on this, not only because of the source but also because it runs contrary to everything I know about Sherman, whose troops were singularly loyal to him largely because he took great care of them and he led them to victory.

Sherman’s memoir, which I heartily recommend to you, deals with the left column with which he traveled.  The right column goes largely unmentioned there, and Trudeau fills us in. This was the column that took the most punishment, and was responsible for heading off enemy cavalry most of the time.

A mark of a terrific history book is that no matter how long it is, the reader emerges wanting to read something more, either by the author or on the subject. I have a couple of gift certificates going unused, and it’s entirely possible I will spend one of them on another book by this writer. The index and other references at the back of the book are useful also.

Highly recommended to American Civil War buffs.

Dagger John, by John Louhery ***-****

DaggerJohn I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Three Hills Publishing, which is affiliated with Cornell University, free of charge. This book is now for sale.

Since retirement, I have often taken my reading outside of my comfort zone, and at times I’ve been rewarded. I took a chance in requesting this biography because I have a peripheral interest in church history, and American history and Irish history are more direct interests. However, in this case there is too much assumed knowledge to be readily accessible to an acolyte of the region. My only trip to New York was a weekend tourist jaunt, and I have never been to the church in question.  However, I am drawn to the resistance he put forth during the “Know Nothing” period of anti-immigrant sentiment, and now is certainly the time to receive such a cautionary tale.

The claim that this man “made” Irish America seems overstated to me.

That’s not to say that it won’t interest you. The documentation is as unimpeachable as one would expect from a highly regarded university, and scholars with a specialized area of interest will likely find this a treasure because it is so specific. A niche audience may rate this title as four stars; I find it too dry a read to imagine five. But it isn’t intended to be a popular read but a scholarly one.

A solid niche read for those with interests that are aligned with the author’s.

Catfish Dream, by Julian Rankin****

CatfishDreamEd Scott Junior was one of the first Black catfish growers in the USA, a “Delta titan,” and he was the very first to own a catfish processing plant.  My thanks go to Net Galley and the University of Georgia Press for the review copy. It’s inspirational, well written, and well sourced. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 10, 2018.

To say that this story is out of my usual wheelhouse is an understatement. I’m a city woman, Caucasian, living in the Pacific Northwest. The two slender ties that drew me to this biography are my interest in civil rights, and my love of a good plate of catfish; yet I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will too.

Scott was the son of a successful Black farmer, a former sharecropper that bought land incrementally until he owned hundreds of acres in the Mississippi Delta. The first third of the book explains how he did that, and the experiences that Scott Senior and Junior had with the Civil Rights Movement and the local power elite. It’s a little slow at the outset, but the narrative wakes up in a big way around the 35% mark.

As Scott’s farm grows, he encounters one obstacle after another, and the racism is naked and blatant. Local white agribusiness runs him out of the rice growing business—and he has the nerve to drive a better truck than some of the white farmers in the area, which is an affront they can’t let pass. Left with hundreds of acres and no seeds to plant, Scott decides to dig ponds. Rankin is clear: by ponds, he means bodies of water the size of 15 football fields. Big damn ponds.

Caucasian farmers are able to get subsidies and FMHA bank loans, but Scott is declined, not on the basis of his credit score, but because he is African-American. Bank officers and local government officials are so certain of their positions of power that they put their refusals on the basis of race in writing, and up the road, that is what Scott will use to bring them down.

Prior to the 1980s, catfish was not sold in supermarkets. It was considered a lowly bottom-dwelling fish by many, and so its consumption was limited to the families of sport fishermen and poor Southerners . When it made its debut and was purchased by “Midwestern homemakers”, this reviewer was among them, puttering in the back of a Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. “Huh,” I said, “Catfish. Now we’ve never tried that.”  I missed the cheap, readily available salmon I’d grown up with in the Pacific Northwest, and was jonesing hard for fish. I had no clue that an immense power struggle lay behind the little foam tray of fish in my shopping cart, but once I’d dipped it in a cornmeal mixture and fried it up, there was no turning back. Yummers.

I read multiple books at a time now that I’m retired, and some of the thrillers I favor make poor companions at bedtime.  This biography was perfect then. It’s linear for the most part, focused, and although I was angered by the way Scott was treated, I could tell he was going to emerge victorious, so it didn’t keep me awake after the light was out.

Rankin wants to be clear that there’s a whole lot that needs to change before we will be able to say that every race is treated equally in the Delta, or elsewhere the US. One might hope this would be obvious. But everyone needs to read victory stories to boost their morale and remind them of what is possible. If you need a story where the good guys win, then you should get this book and read it.

The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, by John Reeves*****

LostIndictmentRobtELeeI’ve never understood why so many Americans revere the memory of Robert E. Lee, the general that turned Lincoln away at the outbreak of the American Civil War and instead commanded the treasonous Army of Northern Virginia. When I saw this title, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers for the DRC. The book will be available to the public June 1, 2018.

Before reading this book I wasn’t even aware that an indictment had ever been issued. This is particularly odd given that a good part of my teaching career involved teaching American history and government. I even wondered, before opening it, whether this indictment would be metaphor; no indeed. Reeves did a lot of digging in order to write this book, and that’s what makes it worth having. His sources are ones that I cannot find myself through a quick Google search or a trip to the library or bookstore. Reeves  uses sources that require traveling hither and yon in order to access special collections that libraries won’t check out to anybody ever, that’s proof that this writer had done the legwork.

Back to the indictment. Following the end of the war and the death of Lincoln, the North—contrary to mythological retellings—clamored for retribution. Let’s all be brothers and have peace? Oh hell no. Who had not lost a brother, a son, a husband to this terrible conflict? And President Andrew Johnson, working hand-in-glove with the passionate abolitionist, Judge Underwood, set out to “make treason odious.” At a bare minimum, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the members of the Confederate cabinet most closely linked to the war itself needed a day in court. Afterward, they needed to either hang, or rot in prison for a goodly while. So the thinking went.

As usual, the devil was in the details. Why is it so difficult for government to move swiftly? A lot of terrible decisions were made here, the most noteworthy being to try these men in a civilian court rather than in a military tribunal. Too late they realized that Lee must then be tried by a jury of his peers in Virginia. This would have been disastrous, since Lee was regarded by most Caucasian Virginians as a hero, much the way we now look at Lincoln. After all, when the war broke out, most antiwar or antislavery advocates had to move North in fear of their physical safety, and only the diehard Dixie whistlers remained, so a fair and impartial jury in Virginia was a nonstarter. What could possibly be worse than letting Lee off scot-free? What would be worse would be for him to be exonerated.

Added into the stew was a heap of political scandal and the unraveling of Johnson’s presidency, and the tarnishing of Underwood’s reputation, a man controversial from the get-go.  At the end of the day they were too busy salvaging themselves to bring these men to justice.

I find some measure of comfort in the knowledge that Arlington, the huge, fancy estate that had been passed down to Lee’s wife and of which he never stopped bragging, as if property ownership and family history made his family American royalty, was expropriated by the Union, and its extensive grounds became Arlington National Cemetery. After Lee’s death, there was considerable talk among the public suggesting that the widow Lee should get her old house back; however, she overstepped when imperiously telling Congress that she also wanted the remains of all those poor boys dug up and interred some other place. There was almost nothing she could have said or done to lose the sympathy vote more quickly.

This excellent book is highly recommended to those that are interested in the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood*****

GrantandShermanGrant and Sherman are my favorite generals of all time, and Flood is a highly respected author. This book was on my must-read list, and so I searched it out on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books, and I came home happy. It turned out to be even better than I anticipated.

The beginning is congenial but also fairly basic, and I was saddened—needlessly, as it turned out—believing that I was about to be exposed to a whole big book of American Civil War 101, which I didn’t need. But Flood was just warming up, preparing a readership that might not have the broad outline at its fingertips. Soon the narrative evolved into something much more complex and enjoyable. I found a great many anecdotes that I hadn’t seen in biographies of either of the individual men, or in overall historical works about this conflict. There are quotations from their correspondence, which had to be meaty and specific given the lack of reliable technology at the time. All told, Flood makes the story personal without being prurient, and at the same time gives the reader little-seen information about the deadliest conflict ever experienced by Americans. His thesis—that the relationship enjoyed by these two outstanding generals won the Civil War—is well supported. The end notes show meticulous documentation. Best of all, since this is not a new release, those interested in reading this excellent work can get it for the price of a latte.

Highly recommended.

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

prairiethe_Are the classic “Little House” books memoir or historical fiction, and were they written by Laura or by her daughter? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In this epic, absorbing biography of her great-grandmother, Fraser tells us. Between her congenial narrative and careful, detailed documentation, this author has created a masterpiece. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers. This book is now for sale.

Laura’s early life was considerably harder than the sepia-toned, heartwarming stories with which she recounts it. Little children could not stand to hear the grueling poverty and crushing losses her family sustained.

 

“Her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts…Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich.”

Wilder was a legend unto herself, a fierce, strong woman that could survive anything, anything, and everything. Her story recounts not only personal hardships, but the wide sweeping history that she lived through, from the Westward movement and Manifest Destiny to the suffrage movement, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, as well as the elephant in the room: Indian removal and genocide.

The book, some 600-plus pages, recounts not only Wilder’s story, but that of her daughter, Rose Ingalls Wilder, who was, frankly, a real piece of work. Their lives were so intensely intertwined that to do this any other way would render Wilder’s story incomplete.  And I appreciate the scholarly objectivity with which Fraser treats her subject; it’s not without warmth, but she is clearly not manipulating facts, as some authors do when writing about famous relatives. PrairieFires

And although I previously named a different title as the go-to biography of 2017, I have to recognize that Fraser’s book is a contender.  Highly recommended.

We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates*****

WeWereEightYears Ta-Nehisi Coates is pissed. He has a thing or two to say about the historical continuity of racism in the USA, and in this series of eight outstanding essays, he says it well. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House, and I apologize for reviewing it so late; the length wasn’t a problem, but the heat was hard to take. That said, this is the best nonfiction civil rights book I have seen published in at least 20 years.

Coates started his writing career as a journalist, and became the civil rights columnist for The Atlantic. For those Caucasians that advise Black folk to just get over this nation’s ugly history because slavery has been gone for 150 years, he has a response. Pull up your socks and be ready. To Bill Cosby and Patrick Moynihan and anybody else that wants to blame the high poverty level on the demise of the Black family, look out. And for anyone that seriously believes that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is proof that America’s institutional racism is dead and gone, step back a minute.

When Coates sets out to make a point, he comes armed for conflict. Not only is he searing eloquent, his research is hard to dispute. Regarding white folk that hold themselves blameless for what their ancestors have done, he wonders why we feel so free to claim our veterans every May and November and yet pretend that our white bedsheeted predecessors have nothing to do with us.

He has a point.

For those of us that are persuaded that the election of Donald Trump to the White House is more about economics and the unemployment of poor white people or the abrasive nature of Ms. Clinton than about white supremacy, Coates has some cogent arguments that run in the other direction. It’s enough to make you stop and think, and that’s why I am tardy with my review. I read in small bites, and then I had to reconsider some of my own conclusions. And although it stings, great writing does this. If we are paying attention, we have to realign some of our own thinking in order to meet the reality this book presents.

Coates is bemused by Caucasian readers that love his work. I understand his bewilderment; nobody likes to hear bad news about the characters of their ancestors, let alone about themselves. But if a thing needs doing, it needs to be done right, and in that respect, Coates is undeniable.

Highly recommended to everyone genuinely interested in civil rights in the USA.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August: