The Crowded Hour, by Clay Risen*****

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 successful.

 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 capability.

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 this book.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden, by Cara Robertson****

“Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed Father.”

Lizzie Borden is the subject of one of America’s most enduring legends, and Robertson is a towering legal scholar, educated at Harvard and Oxford, and then at Stanford Law. She’s participated in an international tribunal dealing with war crimes, and has been researching the Borden case for twenty years. Here she lays it out for us, separating fact from innuendo, and known from unknown. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The Borden family lived in the heart of Fall River, and it consisted of Andrew, father of two grown but unmarried daughters Emma and Lizzie, still in residence, and his second wife, Abby. Their mother had died when Lizzie was tiny; Andrew had remarried a woman named Abby, whom Emma never accepted as a parent, but whom Lizzie called her mother until a short time before her grizzly death. Until this time the Borden household was well respected; Andrew was possibly the wealthiest individual in this Massachusetts town, but he was a tightfisted old scoundrel, and his refusal to relocate the family to the fashionable neighborhood on the hill where well-to-do citizens lived made his daughters bitter, as appropriate suitors would not call on them in their current home.  Both had passed the age when respectable young women were expected to have married; they held that their father’s greed had ruined their chance at marriage and families of their own.  Things had come to a head when Borden was persuaded to purchase the home in which Abby’s sister lived in order to prevent her from being cast out on the street. Emma and Lizzie were angry enough that they wouldn’t go downstairs when the parents were there, and poor Bridget, the servant, had to serve dinner twice to accommodate them. Everyone locked their bedroom doors against the others. Andrew had belatedly tried to smooth his stormy home life by purchasing a comparable house for each of his daughters, but the damage was done.

The story of Lizzie Borden is not a new one, but what sets Robertson’s telling apart from the rest—apart from the meticulous research and clarity of sourcing—is her explanation of how the cultural assumptions and expectations of 1893 New England differed from ours today, and how these nuances affected the trial. They lived in a time and place in which it was assumed that women were ruled far more by their hormones and ovulation than by intellect and reason. In fact:

“Experts like the influential Austrian criminal psychologist Hans Gross contended that menstruation lowered women’s resistance to forbidden impulses, opening the floodgates to a range of criminal behaviors…Menstruation may bring women to the most terrible crimes.”

Had Lizzie confessed to the killings, she might very well have been judged not guilty; her monthly cycle would have been said to have made her violent and there was nothing to be done about it, rather like a moose when rutting.

Criminal behavior was believed to be inherent in some people and not in others, and this counted in Lizzie’s favor. The Bordens were seen as a good family, and a girl from a good family doesn’t plot brutal murders. It isn’t in her. This sort of thing, experts said, was more likely to be done by a transient or a member of the working class. The women of Fall River were polarized around this case, and though women from comfortable homes were all certain that poor Lizzie was being railroaded, working class women weren’t as charitable in their assessments.

There was a ton of evidence against her, most of it circumstantial; the most damning aspects of the case against her were ruled inadmissible, and the jury never got to hear them.

Robertson is a fine storyteller, and her narrative lays it out for us so clearly. There is occasional gallows humor, as well as amusing bits of setting not seen in cities of any size today, such as the neighborhood cow that mooed near the courtroom window at inauspicious moments while testimony was being given. However, the first half of the book is more compelling than the second half, because prosecutors and attorneys must repeat things, sometimes many times and in many ways, in order to convince judges and juries, and since this book is about the trial, Robertson must do the same. Still it is fascinating to see how the whole trial shook out.

Those interested in the Borden case, or in true crime stories in general, should read this book. It’s the clearest, most complete recounting and analysis available to the public today, written by a legal scholar that has done the work and cut no corners. `

A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

This compact but potent collection of poetry is so good that it hurts. DeMaris B. Hill spills America’s historical shame across the printed page with the articulate rage and power of the generations she writes about. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. This collection becomes available to the public January 15. 2019. 

The keys to reading Hill’s poetry are in the introduction, and in additional brief introductions at the beginning of each poem. These are broken down into five sections that depict the different ways in which women of color have been bound over the centuries, and Hill points out that Black resistance didn’t start with Black Lives Matter, and it didn’t start with Dr. King and Rosa Parks either. American Black folk have been fighting for their rights for centuries, but some periods have been better publicized and more widely recognized than others. 

The introduction is not long by most standards, but I found myself impatient to read poetry, so halfway through it I skipped to the poetry; read the collection; and then I went back to reread the introduction from the beginning. After that I went back over the poems a second time, lingering over my favorites. The review copy was a rough one, and it’s hard to read poetry if the spacing is whack. Your copy is almost guaranteed to be cleaner, but you may choose to read these more than once anyway. Strong poetry will do that to you. 

Each poem is devoted to an African-American woman that has fought in one way or another, and the conclusion is written for Hill’s son. The book is billed as a collection that takes us from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, which it does, and both of these poems are resonant and in the case of Bland, achingly sorrowful. My own favorites were those written about Eartha Kitt, who was familiar to me, and Ruby McCollum, who wasn’t. The poem about Alice Clifton made me wish I could unread it, because it is harsh and horrible, but in case it wasn’t clear from the get go: Hill isn’t writing to spare our tender feelings. She’s pissed, and she’s right to be. 

These poems contain some of the finest figurative language I have read anywhere.

Highly recommended for those that seek social justice and that love excellent poetry. 

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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Invisible, by Stephen L. Carter****

InvisibleI received a review copy of this affectionate, well-documented biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt. This book is for sale now.

Eunice Hunton Carter was the author’s grandmother, and though her name is little known today, she was an exceptional woman, a scholar, political activist, and social diva that did extraordinary things during a time period when it was nearly impossible for women of color to rise professionally. Carter tells of her impact on what he calls “the darker nation” and in particular, of her role in taking down notorious gangster Lucky Luciano. She was largely invisible to the mainstream press; this was a time when Black people virtually never won acclaim, and women didn’t either, but it was she that devised the strategy that was needed to try to convict him.

The author is a Yale professor and has a number of successful books to his credit already. This biography is written with the professionalism one would expect; the tone is conversational and keeps the pages turning; transitions are buttery smooth; and the documentation is flawless and meticulous. Those interested in African-American history, or particularly in that of African-American women should read this book.

Carter was born into a well-to-do Atlanta family, leaders among the Negro petite-bourgeoisie. (The author uses the term “Negro” because it was the accepted, polite term during the period in which his grandmother lived.) However, the rise of terrorist groups like the Klan forced successful families of color out of the South, and so most of Eunice’s story takes place in New York City, and it is there that she became a famous woman.

Eunice was a die-hard Republican, and the author reminds us that in the early 1900s, it was still known as the party of Lincoln. Though she did not initially aspire to be politically active—a hat that her mother, Addie, already wore—she became involved in Dewey’s various campaigns after working with him in the prosecutor’s office.

The story is well documented and the voice is distinctive. Two things got in the way of my enjoyment of this biography. The first and technically most significant is focus. The author seems at times torn between his desire to write his grandmother’s biography and perhaps a desire to write about his entire family. I’ll be absorbed in the events that shape Eunice, but then her mother is mentioned—as is appropriate, since her mother is so influential in Eunice’s development—but then we’ll see more about her mother. More, more, more. Pages of Addie. When the author smoothly returns us to Eunice I sigh with relief, snuggle into my chair, and then a few pages later, there we are again. Numerous times I have typed into my reader’s notes, “Whose story is this, anyway?” Eventually I become so frustrated by Addie’s success in hijacking her daughter’s story that I stop making notes and highlight every transition, from Eunice to Addie, Addie, Addie, and ah, back to Eunice (and then to Addie again).

This irritating diversion, one that makes me feel as I am sitting in the parlor of some elderly, garrulous, lonely individual that has just poured me more lukewarm tea and picked up yet another photo album—Did I tell you about my cousin Rudy? Now there was a character, they say—mercifully abates about halfway into the story, as we move into the Luciano case. Here we are focused, and it’s a fascinating read. But during the last portion of the book, it is brother Alphaeus that needs editing down. Again, this brother has good reason to be here, since Eunice is convinced that her career suffers from his membership in the Communist Party USA; yet I feel as if a strong editor’s pen would be useful for this relative as well. Or better still: maybe let’s not read about Eunice. Maybe let’s have a biography of Alphaeus instead, since it is he that is driven to try to make the world a better place.

Because Eunice, it’s clear, is really out there for Eunice. The author makes no bones about this; yet his glee at her snobbery, social-climbing, and vast ostentatious displays of wealth is not inspirational.

When all is said and done, however, Eunice Hunton Carter deserves a place in history. Had she been born Caucasian and male, who knows? She might have become president, or at least governor of the state of New York. Her drive, talent, and energy seem to have been limitless.

As a read for general audiences, I’d say this is a 3.5 star read, rounded upward, but for those with a special interest in African-American history, or that are doing research for a more specific topic such as African-American women in politics or law, this is a must read.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society, by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce***

InspectorOldfieldandtheBI received a review copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster/Touchtone. This book is for sale now.

Who knew that the U.S. Postmaster has the authority to commander an entire ship or airline in pursuit of justice? Needless to say, it doesn’t happen often; think of the press if that were to happen today! But Inspector Frank Oldfield was a man on a mission.

Once the introduction is over, I find an uneven quality to the narrative. The aspect that describes the gangsters and the formation of the Black Hand is fascinating; after the buildup, however, I find the inspector himself less riveting and the writing not as tight as I’d prefer. The research is a little spotty and the sources are not well integrated.

However, if true crime is your wheelhouse, you may want to get a copy of this one-of-a-kind biography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended to American Civil War buffs.

Dagger John, by John Louhery ***-****

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

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

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

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

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