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.

Grant, by Jean Edward Smith*****

grantWhat, another one? Yes friends, every time I find a noteworthy biography of Grant, it leads me to another. This is not a recent release; I found it on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon. I always swing through the American Civil War shelves of their history section, and I make a pass through the military history area as well. I found this treasure, originally published in 2001 when I was too busy to read much of anything. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer; A New York Times and American Library Association Notable Book; and Publishers Weekly Book of the Year. But in choosing a thick, meaty biography such as this one—it weighs in at 781 pages, of which 628 are text, and the rest end-notes and index—I always skip to the back of the book and skim the sources. If a writer quotes other secondary texts at length, I know I can skip the book in my hand and search instead for those the writer has quoted. But Smith quotes primary documents, dusty letters, memos, and military records for which I would have to load my wide self into the car and drive around the country to various libraries in out of the way places. Source material like Smith’s is promising, so I bought a gently used copy for my own collection and brought it on home. And unlike the DRC’s I so frequently read at a feverish pace in order to review them by a particular date, I took my time with this one, knowing that if I only read a few pages each day and then reflected on them before moving on, I would retain more.

Usually the best place to read about a famous person is to read their own account. Grant’s autobiography was, at one time in US history, the second most commonly book owned by ordinary families. He was so deeply loved that many homes held two books: the Bible, and Grant’s memoir. That says a lot. And I did read that memoir quite awhile ago, and it was great. I recommend it. However, there are areas where we need an outside party to discuss things. For one thing, Grant was exceptionally modest. It takes an outsider to tell the full extent of his remarkable achievements, which Grant tended to soft-pedal. Also, alcoholism was not considered a disease during Grant’s lifetime, and his memoir simply makes no note whatsoever of his struggles with it; he doesn’t tell us about his early problems with it, or when he quit, and so he also doesn’t defend himself against later charges by enemies at times when most scholars say he was likely dry as a bone. And finally, of course, Grant was unable to tell us how the nation would respond to his death. So for those with a deep and abiding interest, it’s worth it to read multiple histories in which he is largely figured, as well as multiple biographies.

The fact that I had read a handful of Grant biographies in addition to Grant’s autobiography, yet came away with this volume studded with sticky notes marking new information as well as new insights and perspectives on known information is a good indication that Smith’s biography has met the gold standard.

We start with Grant’s childhood and his early gift for working with even the most difficult horses. Grant was physically quite compact, even by the standards of the day, about five feet five, weighing not more than 120 pounds. In another life, he could have been a jockey, but the purpose his life served gave us so much more. His education at West Point was not part of an initial plan toward a military career; his family could not afford to send him to college, and Grant sought higher education. A connected friend of his father’s got him into West Point, which charges no tuition but requires a period of service after graduation; until war broke out, his plan was to become a professor of mathematics, at which he excelled.

The war with Mexico is where he first saw service, and his job as quartermaster taught him a thing or two about priorities. Although many biographers say that Grant had no head for business, Smith argues that his early misfortunes in business were flukes for which outside causes were really to blame. As quartermaster, Grant succeeded in actually turning a profit for the army by buying flour, baking enough bread with it to feed the army and also sell to the local Mexican populace, with whom he kept friendly relations, and so Uncle Sam was able to feed his troops at bargain prices, since Grant put the profit back into food purchases and did not have to requisition the amount of other food ordinarily required. While in Texas and Mexico, he grew to greatly admire his commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, whose understated, unpretentious manner and friendly relationships with those he commanded Grant would later emulate.

Smith carries us through all of Grant’s major battles, including Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness. He argues convincingly that Grant was never corrupted, but that those that would overturn the victory for African-Americans gained by the Civil War by denying them suffrage went out of their way to smear Grant’s reputation. Grant was also somewhat naïve when it came to politics. Surely he had had to deal with military politics—struggles for control between generals and generals, between generals and bureaucrats—but he did not understand initially how limited the executive power is, and how much Congress can undermine a president.

Grant had not wanted to become president, had in fact hoped to return to the beautiful West Coast after the war, but Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination, so brutally and intentionally set about dismantling Lincoln’s legacy that he felt compelled to run. He was nominated by his party unopposed, never even attended the nominating convention, and won the general election by a landslide.

The American people loved him. I myself feel he was our last truly progressive president, and although Smith never makes such a flat assertion as mine, he gives me plenty of documentation to back it with, should I ever again find myself in a position where it’s called for.

This tome is not for the novice. If the reader is new to the American Civil War, I recommend James McPherson’s Pulitzer winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which is lengthy, comprehensive, and fascinating. For those looking for less of a time commitment, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, well researched historical fiction which also won the Pulitzer, is excellent. If you like it and want more, his son Jeff has continued the series one battle at a time, and I have yet to find a book he’s written that is not worth your time and money. All of these titles are reviewed on my blog.

For those that know the basics of the Civil War but are interested in learning more about Grant himself, this biography is the best I have read to date apart from his autobiography, which is also excellent.

Highly recommended to those with a strong interest; basic knowledge of the American Civil War; and college level literacy skills and stamina. Brilliant work.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd*****

theinventionofwingsTwo of today’s hottest political topics have to do with equality. As we follow and sometimes participate in the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the fight to keep Planned Parenthood funded and maintain a woman’s right to own her body and say what happens to it, this elegantly crafted work of historical fiction could not, strangely enough, be more timely. The Invention of Wings is a fictional biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists, the first to make screaming headlines by speaking out publicly decades before women would see the right to vote, and decades before the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. As is essential in dealing with the rights of then-enslaved African-Americans in the south, Kidd adds an additional character, a slave named Hetty, written alternately with the Sarah’s story. I say it is essential to do so; this is because it is wrong to write about the marginalization and subjugation of an entire people, and then not include a representative of that group into the plot. As usual, Kidd doesn’t disappoint.

Much as I love historical fiction, one thing that makes me a little crazy is wondering where the research ends and fiction commences. In her afterword, the author lets us know specifically what is true and what isn’t. She even gives us a brief bibliography to pursue if we feel moved to do so; the only other historical fiction writer I know of that does this is Laurence Yep, my hands-down favorite YA author. Thus, Kidd places herself in outstanding company.

The Grimke sisters were born into the elite planter class, a tiny minority among Caucasians in the South, and in the very belly of the beast: Charleston, South Carolina. Partially because of the tremendous brutality meted out to the plantation’s slaves right before her tiny eyes there at home, Sarah Grimke grew up opposed to slavery. As a much older sister, she had a formative role helping her mother raise Angelina, who also became a fierce, uncompromising abolitionist.

It is one thing to take up a cause that is small but in which one has a support base. For the Grimkes, there was nothing. Eventually both had to move north for their own safety. And although, as a history major and a feminist of the 1970’s I had read about the Grimke sisters many times, it is within the well-crafted, deeply thoughtful, well researched pages of this novel that they first came to life for me.

Hetty, the slave depicted within these pages, actually existed, but the story Kidd writes for her is entirely fictional. The real Hetty died before Sarah was grown. Still, her character felt as real to me, and was easily as well developed as either of the Grimke sisters. Hetty is not passive, not waiting to be “set” free. She understands that the only freedom she is likely to receive will be what she can do for herself. A nice touch Kidd adds is in making Hetty one of the children of Denmark Vesey, the free African-American that attempted to organize and lead a slave revolt.

Everything here is carefully constructed and absorbing. Kidd has long demonstrated formidable talent in constructing well developed characters and vivid settings; the difference here (as opposed to The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid’s Chair, the two others of hers I have read) is the research involved. As with everything else, she blends fact and detail into a well spun tale.

I should add here that the literacy level required to deal with this text is higher than most. Don’t toss it out there for your average middle schooler to read, because it will prove too difficult. Because of the way she builds her story, brick by brick, the pace doesn’t really pick up until about halfway into the book. This isn’t a rip-roaring page turner; it’s a series of quiet nights by the fire, or curled up on your favorite window seat, or by the side of your bed. Give it the time it deserves.
Though I got my copy from the Seattle Public Library, I consider this title worth the cover price. Highly recommended.

Vietnam, by Mary McCarthy***-****

VietnamVietnam , an impassioned journalistic effort by Mary McCarthy originally published during the US war against Vietnamese freedom fighters, is a once-stirring piece of research that, while worthwhile as a period piece or for specific types of historical research, is in general terms too dated to be of great interest to most readers. Instead, it speaks to the innocence and disbelief Americans with no axe to grind in Southeast Asia felt when they came to grip with the actual facts regarding the war, and how many responded after becoming enlightened.

Thank you once and twice, first to Open Road Integrated Media, and next to Net Galley, for allowing me to read the DRC in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

In many ways, the American mindset can be divided into two contemporary periods: one before the Vietnam War, and one after it. Before the war against working people in Vietnam commenced, Americans by and large trusted their government and believed what its political leaders said was true. As layer upon layer of lies was peeled away from the startling nugget of truth at the core of this conflict, many people—in particular, the youth of the USA and around the world—were outraged at the many ways in which they had been deceived. Most of those smooth-faced but indignant youth are now grandparents now, and most have learned never to believe something is true just because a politician—even the president of the USA—says so.

McCarthy wrote this book during the metamorphosis of the American public from the former condition to the latter.

McCarthy went to Vietnam as a member of the press, and was astonished by both what she saw, and by the things that were told her. In 1967, when this book was written, the military leaders she interviewed told her that roughly ten percent of the population, or 1.5 million people, had become refugees, “casualties of war”, because the bombing had destroyed their homes and defoliated large swaths of jungle. It was unclear to me whether they were speaking about all of Vietnam or only South Vietnam; her time there seems to have been spent entirely, or mostly, inside the city of Saigon, which had become so Americanized that there were more English-speaking Caucasians there than Vietnamese.

At times, her outrage is sufficiently scathing to take this reviewer back to that time. I was just a kid, but the white-hot rage in the streets is hard to forget, even so.

In describing her visit to Saigon, she speaks about the ways in which officers and GIs alike regarded a hospitalized child, a victim of the bombing: because they showered her with candy, dollar bills, had photographs of themselves taken with her, and brought her toys, they considered her to be a very lucky tyke indeed. They made reference to her owning more dolls than Macy’s, and one soldier said fondly, “That girl is so spoiled.”

This type of rationalization, the notion that after wounding and possibly orphaning a child with bombs that destroyed her village and left her full of shrapnel, she had become “so spoiled”, is characterized by McCarthy as “Pharisee virtue”, a phrase I found startlingly eloquent.

There are other moments when she appears a bit confused, and appears to be unconsciously using the terminology of the very military and government forces that she opposes. My own youngest child is half Asian, and when I read an expository sentence in which McCarthy referred to the local children as “slant-eyed”, I almost dropped my reader. What the hell? She refers to the Vietnamese policeman that works for the US army as a “small Vietnamese policeman”, and from context, I got the distinct impression that he was not noticeably smaller than other Vietnamese men, and that in fact his size had nothing to do with anything. If she were still alive today, I would advise the author to check her terminology, and then check her own assumptions about what “normal” looks like. It appears she was carrying around some ingrained racism that came out despite her finest intentions.

One more strange factor here was her reference to the uniforms worn by the National Liberation Front, (otherwise referred to pejoratively as the “Viet Cong”, a term she uses freely), as “black pajamas”. Did McCarthy not understand that this was an expression used by the US military which was intended to demean Vietnamese fighters by suggesting they did not know how to design a uniform? Vietnam is a very warm place, and it’s humid as hell, which is why they used lightweight cloth to make uniforms. The jungles were dark and virtually impenetrable, and this is why black was a really good choice of uniform color. Pajamas are something one sleeps in. The Vietnamese soldier didn’t get a lot of sleep, and he did not fight wearing sleeping apparel.

McCarthy is not always blind regarding the power of terminology however: she points up the fact that napalm, which had been made even more horrific in that it now adhered to things (and flesh) while burning, had been name-changed to “Incinderjell”, making it sound like a children’s dessert. Officials could publicly state that napalm was no longer in use, because now it was called something different. Likewise, defoliants were referred to as “weed killer”.

The only photographs are of the author.

For those that want to travel back to the time when Johnson was president and America’s youth were waking up to the fact that the US government did not always behave in accordance with its stated democratic ideals, this is a good work to drop into your reader. It’s very brief, and you can finish it in a weekend.

I also recommend this work to students and other researchers looking at this volatile and transformational period in American history. Since she personally went to Saigon while the war was being fought, her own experiences constitute a primary document, and in such a case, I would not rate this book a 3 star work, but rather 4 stars.

U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, by Bruce Catton****

usgrantandtheamericanmilThis brass-tacks biography of US Grant, who served as America’s finest Civil War general and also two terms as US president, was originally written for young adults. Now it is something of an anomaly, and yet not a bad read for the right audience. Thank you, thank you to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for providing me with the DRC. This book will be for sale in digital format November 3.

Reading this nifty little book reminded me—not entirely happily—of how much sturdier literacy in the United States stood during the 1950’s, when this biography was originally written, compared to now. True, it was a less egalitarian, less inclusive school house that could throw this level of reading at its teenagers, and that is a different debate for a different day. Right now, I just have to tell you that Catton’s boiled-down biography is going to be over the heads of most high school students. In addition, there are a couple of slang terms no longer in use that may confuse the reader. I understood one of them—and I was born in the late ‘50’s—but another phrase left me scratching my head. My two fields, when teaching, were literature and US history, primarily the American Civil War and government, so if I don’t get it, then high school kids will miss some of it also. The book could be used for honors students, most likely, but is no longer ideally suited to high school students.

However, I can see its use today for community college students, and also for adults who are not doing research and don’t care to see Mr. Catton’s sources or argue his perspective. He takes a few enormously controversial aspects of Grant’s life and makes his own pronouncements, some bold, some bland, with absolutely not one shred of evidence to back them up, apart from his own excellent reputation, and so scholars in the field are more likely to find his Civil War trilogies more satisfying than this little nugget. But for the history buff who just wants a thumbnail sketch, one book and we’re finished thanks, this could be it. It is certainly less of a meal than Grant’s own memoir; also, unlike Grant’s inarguably excellent memoir, Catton addresses the rumors about Grant and liquor that Grant himself refused to even discuss.

Catton focuses primarily on the Civil War years, which I believe is the right way to remember the man, but he also talks about the setting into which Grant was born, and in a relatively short amount of text provides us with the lifestyle and expectation of the average American farmer, which is what the vast majority of Americans were at that time. He carries us through Grant’s time at West Point, then through the wars with Mexico.

He takes apart and casts aside, brick by brick, the nasty allegations that Grant’s detractors made then and in contemporary times, and shines an authoritative light on them. What about Grant and the booze? Was Grant really a bad businessman who lost his own money and that of other people? Was he really Grant-the-butcher, as a brief but ugly period in revisionism charged, willing to plow willy-nilly into any and every battle regardless of the number of soldiers’ lives lost? What about his presidency, and the scandal that clouded it?

Grant is one of my heroes, and I appreciate the way Catton defends him here. I particularly was interested in his very convincing defense of Grant as businessman. I found Catton slightly abrasive in his tone toward Grant’s defense of the rights of African-Americans during Reconstruction; it was clearly this, rather than anything else, that caused the glow of his wartime glory to dim, because the Klan and Southern white reactionaries were absolutely hell-bent on creating a stratified society in which the Black man did not have equal rights to those of Caucasians, and one determined U.S. president was not able to stem that tide. That’s really what Grant was up against, and what tarnished his reputation. Catton feels he should have been more, um, “flexible”. I personally am pleased that he was willing to ride his principles to hell and back if need be…and that was about what happened.

I find it so sad, so ironic that the vast overload of expensive cigars sent to General Grant by patriotic admirers are what most likely lead to his death; throat cancer checked him out of this world only 48 hours after his memoir was completed.

Although there are no citations for the facts provided in the text, there is a nice little index that will prove useful to students.

Recommended for adults at the community college level, and to history buffs who just want to read one relatively simple biography of Grant.

America’s Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist Essays, by George Novack (editor)*****

americasrevheritageMany of the books I review here came to me as free advance copies. Not so for this often overlooked but meaty set of historical essays, for which I happily paid full jacket price. In fact, at one point I had a second, battered copy in my classroom, in the personal collection behind my desk alongside my second, battered copy of Battle Cry of Freedom. I used both more often than my other resources in preparing lectures.

This book is exactly what it says it is. It examines, chapter by chapter, revolutions as seen from an economic perspective, and from the point of view of the working class.

The American Civil War, my primary area of historical interest, was caused, says Novak, by two economic systems that had become mutually exclusive and incompatible–the feudal system of slavery (with a tiny minority of Caucasian power brokers ruling over the Black, poor white and racially mixed farmers of the still agrarian south), and the newly industrialized, capitalist north. The north needed to expand in order for capitalism to survive, but the southern aristocracy had ruined its own land with the nutritionally hungry yet profitable cotton crop. And the border states had taken up a trade seen nowhere before in the history of the world: the deliberate and planned mating of human beings so that their enslaved children might be physically strong, and bring higher prices.

Every chapter of this book covers a different aspect of revolution in the United States, but I recall the American Civil War strongest because it was my field for a number of years.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Marxist, if you are interested in American history, this well-documented series of scholarly essays is clear and thought-provoking, and well worth your time.

Available from Pathfinder Press.