The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Best History 2018

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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.

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.

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.

Scars of Independence, by Holger Hoock***

ScarsofIndependence I was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Crown Publishing. Thanks go to them for the DRC, and my apologies for being late, late, late. The title was published last month and is available now.

The strongest part of Hoock’s history, which seeks to set the record straight on the American Revolutionary War, is his research. He is an historian of some renown, and his entire life has been dedicated to studying and teaching about Britain. His sources are, as one might expect, thorough and impeccable. His thesis is that there was a great deal more violence over the course of this revolution than is commonly remembered, and

“By ‘violence’, I mean the use of physical force with intention to kill, or cause damage or harm to people or property. I also mean psychological violence: the use of threats, bullying tactics, and brutality to instill fear in people and influence their conduct and decisions…”

This is indeed a broad brush. In most courts of law today, a property crime is not considered a crime of violence, nor should it be. Better someone run away with your television set than shoot you, or knock you over the head, or hurt your family. And…bullying? Certainly such behavior gets more attention today, both legally and socially, particularly where young people are concerned; yet we are talking about a revolution here. A revolution! And this is part of what prevents me from engaging fully with the text. In the thick of a battle that will determine the futures of everyone concerned, a war to wrest control of its destiny from the mightiest naval power on Earth, it seems a bit of a stretch to expect that American Patriots and Loyalists would treat one another with perfect courtesy.

This brings me to the other part of this history that makes this reviewer cranky. The teaser suggests that this will be a balanced account, demonstrating that far more violence occurred on both sides than is widely taught in American schools, and it just isn’t so. In point of fact, although both Americans and Brits are discussed and shown to be more violent than most of us know, most of this book is dedicated to discussing the unprincipled, the unkind, the indecent ways British troops and loyal colonists were mishandled by brutal American Patriots. I went through my DRC with a highlighter, and far more space is given to bullying, demeaning, and other anti-British behaviors.

“Less careful individuals risked being investigated if they were overheard criticizing their local committee, if they drank a royal toast or sang “God Save the King” in the wrong company.”

My violin please.

There’s a lot of strong material here, and some of the tales of physical violence are graphic. In fact, the level of gory detail may be the summer reading dream of a nerdy teen with a strong reading level. And there is a lot of information that is new to me. Hoock depicts Lord North and King George III very differently from any other historian I have read; it would be easier for me to believe that Hoock’s viewpoint is the accurate one, had he admitted up front that he was writing from a largely Anglo-centric perspective.

The maps bear mention here. Rather than produce new maps that are legible on a DRC, Hoocks has chosen to use actual maps from the time period. This choice is hard to argue with; they’re primary documents, and although a second map that is more readable might be desired, I can’t argue that these maps should not be used. In fact, it’s interesting to see a map that includes what is now the Eastern USA and Eastern Canada with no line of demarcation, because nobody at the time regarded the US and Canada as separate entities. But I would say that those that want to read this book and that want the maps—which are important—should consider buying this title on paper rather than digitally, unless you intend to read it on large computer monitor.

Although the text isn’t as evenly balanced as the introduction implies, this is still a strong addition to the study of the American Revolution. It’s not an overview of the Revolution and does not pretend to be, so those looking to read just one book on the American Revolution should get something else. But for historians that want to deepen and enrich their understanding of this struggle and that think critically and independently, this book—in paper—is recommended.

No Resting Place, by William Humphrey*****

norestingplace I was drawn to this story because I had read William Humphrey’s Home from the Hill, brilliant Southern fiction that was a contender for the National Book Award, and I couldn’t imagine letting anything written by this author pass me by. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book will be re-released digitally February 17, 2017.

Humphrey tells this story like no one else. The Trail of Tears is one of the most heinous crimes any government has wrought upon its aboriginal peoples, a shameless land grab that stole all of the lands belonging to Cherokees and several other tribes of the Southeastern USA. It’s a story that has to be told by someone; those that have American Indian roots may have access to oral history, but for Anglos like me, if it isn’t written down, future generations may not know about it. And by telling it as if it were historical fiction, Humphrey is able to add dialogue and make it more accessible. That said, the reader will need to bring strong literacy skills to this novel. Humphrey’s fiction is always hyper-literate, all the more so in this case because he meticulously researched it. It is the last thing he wrote, a genuine labor of love, and it shows.

That said, nobody can make this real-life event a happy one, and nobody should. It’s brutal. I was about a quarter of the way in, reading in tiny bites in order to make the reading more bearable, when I began to regret having committed to reading and reviewing it. In the end, however, I am glad I did read it, because I learned a lot of new things about the various tribes and although Humphrey’s narrative isn’t enjoyable to read because of the subject matter, he does it more eloquently and in more conscientious detail than anyone else that I’ve read. I say this having taught a unit on the Trail of Tears for a number of years; I am not an expert on this part of American history, but I also didn’t come to it without prior knowledge.

It’s a story that will break your heart—and if you already know the basics, it will do so all over again—but it’s also a story everyone should know. Like the Holocaust, it’s a part of history whose recounting must not be permitted to pass from our knowledge. As for me, I read more than one book at a time, and I found this was less likely to leave me feeling depressed if I alternated it with lighter material. It is likely to be of special interest to those of Cherokee descent and also to Texans, whose forefather Sam Houston is featured here.

The writing style may seem peculiar to younger readers because it is written in a formal style not often used anymore, but there is no denying the word-smithery that makes this cruel event come alive on the page.  Highly recommended to those with the literary skills and stamina required to pursue it.

Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies, by David Perry*

bluffblusterliesThe American Civil War is part of the curriculum I used to teach, and in retirement I still enjoy reading about it. When I saw that Open Road Media had listed this title on Net Galley to be republished digitally this summer, I swooped in and grabbed a copy for myself. I was so eager to read it that I bumped it ahead of some other DRCs I already had, and I really wanted to like it.  Unfortunately, this is a shallow effort and it shows.  Don’t buy it for yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t advise your students to read it.

It begins gamely enough with a discussion of events in Europe and how the changing contours of that part of the world affected the attitudes of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Spain. At this point my curiosity was piqued, because I had never read anything about which side of the Civil War the last three of these countries favored.  But if the rest of the text can be believed—and parts of it cannot—the reason we never hear about Russia, Spain, and Prussia with regard to this rebellion is that they decided they had no stake in its outcome. This part of the text could have been dealt with in one sentence rather than owning a share of the introduction and being dragged in again later, but this is not the only bit of obvious filler that burdens this misbegotten book.

I am tantalized initially when Perry brings in a controversy that does interest academics: would Britain have recognized the Confederacy in order to get cotton, or was it busy with other considerations and willing to obtain cotton from colonial holdings in Egypt, India and elsewhere for the duration? This question is discussed, leaves the narrative and is broached again several times, because although the book has chapters, it isn’t organized. The same topics of discussion, and the same quotations that serve as its meager, questionable documentation are dropped into the text again and again. It’s as if Perry doesn’t expect anyone to read it all the way through and is hoping we will drop into the middle of the book somewhere to look up a fact and then leave again without seeing whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t.

For example, after citing the same obscure document for pages on end—since I read it digitally, I highlighted “Dispatch 206” seven times before noting that this section, at least, is garbage—he brings up Poland. He talks about Poland and Russia’s attachment to same as a buffer state, but never shows any relationship between Poland and the American Civil War other than that Russia had other greater priorities at this time, which had already been established in an earlier section.  And he misuses the term “Manifest Destiny”. Perry apparently believes this term has equal use to multiple governments in reference to themselves around the world.

He tells us that privateers are outlawed during the Civil War and infers that this, therefore, will surely mean that all the sad pirates will dock their ships and get honest jobs. No more privateers out there now, matey!

He says that Lincoln was a slow thinker, and he refers to American diplomats as ditherers.  He documents none of it.

I read the citation section to see if more joy would be had if I pursued this book past the halfway mark. I read his author bio, which indicates no expertise regarding this conflict, which by now doesn’t surprise me.  Frankly, I don’t understand why this book ever saw the light of day, or why Open Road would republish it.

I would love to say that those with deep pockets should go ahead and order it if they can afford all the books they want, but I can’t even say that. The book is unreliable, disorganized, and badly documented. It contains falsehoods and insults the reader’s intelligence.

Put your plastic away. This is dross.

Blind Ambition, by John Dean*****

blindambitionJohn Dean was counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, and was the first to testify against all of the Watergate conspirators, including Nixon and including himself, a bold but necessary decision that led to Nixon’s resignation—done to avoid imminent impeachment—and Dean’s imprisonment. Dean’s story is a real page turner, and Nixon-Watergate buffs as well as those that are curious about this time period should read this book. I read the hard copy version, for which I paid full jacket price, shortly after its release, and when I saw that my friends at Open Road Media and Net Galley were re-releasing it digitally, I climbed on board right away. This title is available for sale today, December 20, 2016.

Dean was a young lawyer whose career rose rapidly. When Nixon found out that men employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been arrested for the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, which was housed in the Watergate Hotel, he quickly became enmeshed in a plan to bury the whole thing. Once he realized (belatedly) that he and his closest advisors had made themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, he had Haldeman, his right hand man, reach into the White House legal staff to find an attorney that could serve as an intermediary so that none of them would need to have illegal conversations with each other. Dean was sometimes called upon as a problem solver, but more often he was essentially the messenger between the president and his closest advisors. Nixon’s thinking here was that everything that passed through Dean would be covered by client-attorney privilege. When this turned out to have no legal basis and heads were going to roll, Dean learned that his own head would be among those served up on a platter by the administration in its effort to save itself. He chose to strike first by testifying against everyone involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, and eventually this included President Richard Nixon.

 

Those old enough to recall having watched Dean testify on television will be interested in the back story here. Dean has a phalanx of his own attorneys, but he decides to appear at the microphone without them; they are among the faces in the back on the TV footage. He also chose to speak in a dead monotone, because the information he was transmitting was itself very dramatic, and he had already been represented as a squealer in some media sources. Instead, he chose to portray himself as a small man, slightly balding, with his horn rimmed glasses and his notes, sitting alone in front of a microphone in order to bravely announce the truth to the Senate and the world.  And it’s effective. See what you think:

 

 

When I first read this book I was not long out of high school, and I met the text with snarky disapproval, based more on the very idea that a man as young as Dean could choose to affiliate himself with the Republican Party during the time the Vietnam War raged than on the skill with which the book was written. This time I come to it as an adult with a lot more experience related to writing, and my reaction is completely different.  Dean writes his story like a legal thriller. It’s fascinating and enormously compelling.  I find that what I think of Dean morally and politically is irrelevant when I rate this text; the writing is first rate. Most interesting of all is the way he is able to inject wry humor into the series of events that ended his legal career and sent him to jail. His sentence is not long, though, and much of it is spent in a relatively gentle confinement. He becomes a college professor and writer later in life, which he still is today.

 

Those that have real depth of interest will also be interested in a later book, The Nixon Defense, written once all the Nixon tapes were released to the public:

 

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2014/09/01/the-nixon-defense-what-he-knew-and-when-he-knew-it-by-john-dean/

 

Both are riveting, and highly recommended.