I was invited to read and review this biography by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it’s the story of Johnny Rosselli, known as “the gentleman gangster.” Sometimes I enjoy a good gangster story; my great-uncle (whom I didn’t really know) was Sherman Billingsley, the thuggish owner of the New York Stork Club, and so when I read about others, it sparks my imagination. Usually.
I didn’t engage with the book’s beginning when I sat down the with digital review copy, and eventually I got bored and set it aside for something more compelling. But often, the galleys that land on the back burner become more interesting once I can get an audio copy. After avoiding this book till publication, I found an audiobook at Seattle Bibliocommons, and I began listening to it in the evenings when I prepared dinner. In this way I found it more interesting. There’s a fair amount of background provided, because the writer (perhaps wisely) doesn’t assume his audience is proficient in American history, Prohibition and so on. I didn’t hear anything I didn’t know already, but it was okay. Gradually it took on the flavor of a documentary, not riveting but not bad. I listened to the first 25% and thought I would probably finish it this way.
Unfortunately, a deal breaker came up somewhere in the next ten percent. Rosselli has gone to Los Angeles because there was no mob out there yet. He figured he’d pioneer vice and leg-breaking on the West Coast. Fine, fine. He meets Al Capone, who is being harassed by cops and told he can’t stay in L.A., and Rosselli does Capone a favor and thereby comes into the Capone orbit. Okay, fine. But then we get into the women.
Now, I understand that mobsters were about as far as anyone can get from feminism, and of course in the 1940s and 50s, there wasn’t any women’s movement to speak of. The problem is that Server doesn’t differentiate Rosselli’s point of view from his own. I get the distinct impression that the two aren’t very different. There’s only one quality worth reporting in women, and that’s their physical appearance. So Rosselli falls for Jean Harlow, who is perfect. Completely perfect. What makes her perfect? Well, she’s got great legs. They are described. Breasts too; we hear about that. And she is a virgin! Every middle-aged mobster loves to get a virgin in the sack, right? At age seventeen she’s barely legal, but nobody worries about that. Oh, and also she’s very, very white. Porcelain skin. Just wonderful.
By the time Server is done explaining all of Harlow’s best qualities, and the misery that that bastard put her through (though he doesn’t describe it this way; in fact, the reader has a kind of bemused smirk to his voice throughout,) and oh how sad about her suicide at age 27, I am seeing red.
I’m not chopping bell peppers now. I’m standing stock still in my kitchen, glaring at my tablet. Dinner may be a little late.
I try to continue with the book, but I am pissed. Finally, I decide life is too short. I’ve tried this book twice, but I don’t finish it. In fact, I consider that second star in the rating to be generous.
This book is recommended to misogynistic assholes. Everyone else should give it a miss.
“It’s the admirals, sir, playing with us like this is their own big-assed bathtub and we’re just toys.”
Jeff Shaara has written some of the best war stories ever published, and he’s done so for almost 25 years. I have read every last one of them. When I was invited to read and review his new novel about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, I was delighted, but also slightly apprehensive, because even after all these years, the subject remains an incendiary one; I needn’t have worried. This may be Shaara’s best book, and that’s saying a lot.
I’ll share a brief note about my own biases going in. My father was among the last men called to serve during World War II; he never left the U.S., however, where he was tasked with training new recruits to the still-new U.S. Air Force. But I grew up hearing about Japanese atrocities, and many of the bizarre stereotypes and misconceptions based on pseudoscience were told to me as fact. When as an adult I announced that I was about to marry a Japanese citizen, I sounded the waters with my family to see if there was resistance. I was told that my parents “still remember Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, my husband’s father also served during World War II—in the Japanese army. The topic was never raised by his parents around me, or at all as far as I know; but I asked my spouse a few questions to help me understand the Japanese perspective about this horrific conflict, and then I understood exactly how erroneous most of what I’d been raised to believe actually was.
So I was primed to read this book, and also a little afraid of what I might find. My internal map of Pearl Harbor was studded with emotional landmines, and at the book’s conclusion, none of them had been tripped.
Shaara tells this story primarily through the eyes of three people: Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese architect of the invasion; and Tommy Biggs, a 19-year-old naval recruit from an impoverished Caucasian family in rural Florida.
Shaara faithfully incorporates a character from the rank and file in every story; he does this even if there is nobody on record that he can report on, and so often, he is forced to create a fictional character based on experiences and characteristics from several people. When I saw no such disclaimer in any of his notes, I grew curious and wrote and asked him whether this is the case with Biggs. He replied that this time there is a Tommy Biggs (though the name is not the same), but that he did add the experiences of others in order to flesh him out. So this time, each of the three chief characters is based on an historical figure.
I learned a great deal. Though it’s well known that this attack profoundly crippled the U.S. Navy, sinking or badly damaging most of the fleet, I had never considered it from the Japanese perspective. Looked at in that way, it was not only audacious, it was immaculately planned and wildly successful. I also had never considered what a blunder it was on the part of the U.S. military to leave its equipment, ships, planes, and more so unguarded. In the fallout after the attack, we learn that the Navy considered security to be the job of the U.S. Army and vice-versa. What a colossal bungle.
Japan had emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, and its leadership was suffused with overwhelming confidence. Japanese racial superiority would lead to Japanese dominance throughout the China, Indochina, and across all of Asia, they claimed, because they were meant to dominate their portion of the globe. Japanese leaders were convinced that the U.S. would not seek retribution following an attack on its soil because American isolationist sentiment was so strong. They genuinely hoped that this attack would result in an end of the U.S. embargo that crippled Japan, and which existed in order to halt Japanese expansion and force Japan to withdraw from its alliance with the Axis powers. Americans, the Japanese brass told one another, were too big, too slow, too lazy to retaliate. There were voices of dissent, however:
“For any of you who believe the Americans are not worthy of a fight, that they do not have the stomach for blood, perhaps you are familiar with the American Civil War? In the 1860s, they divided and fought each other in the bloodiest war in their history. They did not require any enemy to inspire them. They fought each other. Are you familiar with football?”
Meanwhile the U.S. military, press and popular culture treated the Japanese as a bad joke. One myth dressed up as science suggested that Japan would never be able to build an air force because of an inherent defect in the inner ear of all Japanese. It was physically impossible for them to become pilots! The condescension was rife, everywhere one turned. Hollywood depicted the Japanese as ridiculous, rodent-like creatures with minds that didn’t function properly. The Chicago Tribune stated that for Japan to attack the U.S. was “a military impossibility.” Japanese were said to be too myopic to be effective against a military target. And it goes on.
There’s all sorts of blame to spread around. Nobody in Washington, D.C. had told the top brass at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, about the project named Magic, which intercepted and broke Japanese code. They had no idea that Japan was rattling its sabers to such a degree. And these two men appear to have been lazy, bureaucratic fools that ignored what little intelligence came their way. For example, shortly before the attack, the man on watch sees a Japanese sub in the water. Kimmel immediately assumes that the guard has seen a whale, and he goes back to bed.
There are three aspects of this novel that keep the pages turning for me. The first, of course, is my interest in military history. Shaara’s research is meticulous. The book is historical fiction at its best, which is when the contours of the story, even fairly detailed aspects of it, are correct, but the fictional genre is chosen so that dialogue and inner monologue can be added. Second is Shaara’s perceptive nature, and it’s this that permits him to choose the best details to include and cut what is inessential so that pacing never flags. And finally, his capacity to develop a character so that we feel we know him is matchless; in particular I bond to poor Tommy Biggs, a guy that can’t catch a break, until he can.
Nothing I can say will serve as well as what Shaara says himself. Get this book, even if you have to pony up full cover price. This is hands down the best fictional representation of Pearl Harbor on sale today. Believe it.
4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.
Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.
Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.
One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.
The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.
At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.
I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.
Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.
Kate Elder, better known as Big Nose Kate, was a colorful character in the mercurial Wild West. Together with her paramour—possibly her husband—Doc Holliday, she shot, swindled and burned her way through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the American Southwest. My thanks go to Net Galley and Two Dot Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Enss is a capable writer, and I enjoy seeing women about whom little has been written brought to the foreground. Enss amassed a fair amount of material on her subject, but some of it was contradictory, and the greatest contradictor of all was Kate herself, who decided to tell her own life story when she was too old to recall everything properly. Enss tells the reader in the title and introduction that she is telling Kate’s story from the subject’s point of view, and she adds numerous footnotes explaining conflicting information throughout the narrative.
I read things I had never known before about this time and place, and general historical knowledge is where Enss shines best. For example, a ‘soiled dove’ was allowed to own real estate, whereas married women of the time were not. There were a number of financial advantages to owning a house of ill repute. Kate grew up in a middle class household and was not without choices, but she didn’t care to be married off in the way her family had proposed. In the end she was both a shrewd businesswoman and an adrenaline junkie, one that made a point of having at least one loaded gun handy when a situation called for it. I enjoyed reading about it.
Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting information and the gaps in the story are numerous. Anytime I start seeing the words “might,” “must have, “ “likely” and so forth, I pull back from the narrative. I can’t get lost in a story when I have to mentally filter the things that are known to have happened from the things nobody knows for sure. I think Enss has done as good a job as could be done with the documentation available, but Kate is a hard nut to crack.
What I would love to see is historical fiction written with Kate as the protagonist, viewed through the eyes of a feminist writer such as Enss. With historical fiction one can freely fill in the gaps, provide dialogue, and make notes at the end of the story letting the reader know what she has invented or changed.
Those with a special interest may want to read this biography, but I see it largely as a niche read.
I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great.
The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart
while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in
the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the
feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It
didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks
Landmark for the review copy.
The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.
I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily
fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately
plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a
woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is
the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much
farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual
indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards
would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother
David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she
herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this
is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and
go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably
not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic
toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the
runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal.
Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would
be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s,
North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves
would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period
suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become
friends and neighbors on equal footing.
I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling
with laughter at its naiveté.
To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another
woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting
in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly
makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.
I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow,
apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by
them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside
and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald
guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I
was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an
obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read
before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above
prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At
the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the
denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the
Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to
do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely
have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will
do fine work in the future.
Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet
tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries. When the men that work the Quincy mine strike
for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man
drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines
around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they
unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s
for sale right now.
The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one
of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the
US. It’s on the upper peninsula of
Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even
the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than
winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious,
vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before
C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”
Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp
to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the
smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones
like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry
about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but
leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner
present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after
the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety
exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s
auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women
are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but
if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat
strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would
embarrass the WFM.
Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention
to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she
explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes,
and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.
Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite
part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history
should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than
what any biographer has done for her.)
This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.
Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic
read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and
the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance,
and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be
written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and
yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.
For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a
must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it
provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.
The Spanish-American War sparked the earliest fire of U.S.
imperialism, and the eccentric rich man that pushed it forward, Theodore Roosevelt,
was at its center. Risen provides a contemporary view of this badly managed
chapter in American history, dispelling longstanding myths and examining the
long term effect of the conflict on the U.S. military. My thanks go to Net
Galley and Scribner for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this
honest review. This book is for sale now.
Roosevelt was challenged with a number of health problems as
a youngster, but instead of embracing his sedentary, privileged existence, he
embarked on a series of physically demanding adventures in order to strengthen
his constitution and affirm his masculinity.
When Cuban nationalists sought independence from Spain,
Teddy began campaigning for American intervention. Men of his generation was
had not known the destruction of lives and property that touched every part of
this nation during the American Civil War, and like most young people, they
were unwilling to listen to their elders. Roosevelt believed that war was a
splendid thing, and that in facing death, men were elevated to a higher level.
He joined his voice to those in the press advocating military aid to Cuba, and
after tapping every powerful connection his wealthy family could access, he was
His own unit—all volunteers—were
dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Most had no military training of any kind; the
mighty Union Army had been all but disbanded once the nation was reunited.
Though they were promoted as cowboys, the rugged individuals of the Wild West,
a goodly number hailed from Wall Street and Harvard. In addition to being able
to fund their own wartime excursion, they were noteworthy in their riding
There was no San Juan Hill. There was a series of them.
The American invasion of Cuba cast a spotlight on its
unpreparedness. Transporting troops, beasts and equipment across the Atlantic
was a debacle of the worst order. There weren’t even close to enough seaworthy
vessels, and because of this, most of the so-called cowboys fought on foot the
entire time; horses and mules were stuck back in Tampa waiting to sail. There
wasn’t enough food, potable water, or appropriate clothing for most of the men;
the wealthiest among them fared best, but there were many occasions when there
wasn’t any food to be bought at any price. There had been no reconnaissance and
so they went in blind; the heat and disease killed more Americans than the
Spaniards did. Vultures and immense land crabs that measured 2 feet across and
traveled by the thousands made short work of the dead when not buried
immediately. American losses were nearly triple those of the Spanish, and when
the war ended there were no hospitals or sanitation ready to receive the
legions of sick and wounded when they returned from the Caribbean.
Roosevelt used the occasion to point to the need for a
standing army and U.S. readiness, and ultimately this was his one useful
contribution. In other regards, the man was an ass hat. His bald-faced racism,
though not unusual at the time, went over badly with the Cuban freedom fighters
that were supposed to benefit from their presence. He crowed to his friends
about how much he enjoyed shooting an enemy soldier from just a few feet away “like
a jackrabbit,” and called his 45 days of combat the ultimate hunting trip. Mark
Twain hated the guy, and it’s not hard to see why.
Risen has an engaging writing style, and he uses lots of
well-chosen quotations. His research is excellent as are his sources. I would
have liked to see more of a breakdown along the lines of social class and other
demographics, but this war did not yield a rich archival treasury like the one
that came from the Civil War, so this may not be possible.
All told, this history is a find. Right now it seems that
every second historian on the planet is writing about World War II, whereas
this cringeworthy but significant chapter of American history has been largely
left by the wayside. I highly recommend
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.
Thanks 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.