Friday, February 26, 2010

Evolving emancipators

Adam Gopnik makes an unlikely, but profound, comparison in Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

The following review was posted last week on the Books
page of the History News Network website.

"He is as greedy of cases and precedents as any constitutional lawyer."
--T.H. Huxley on Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, 1859

The fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the same day -- February 12, 1809 -- has long been regarded as a historical curio. In this regard, it's a bit like the famous set of coincidences regarding Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (one was born elected president in 1860, the other 1960; both names had seven letters, both shot on a Friday, et. al.), though never as annoying, because no one has strained to make as much of it. But in Angels and Ages, just issued in paperback by Vintage (and thus giving me an excuse to circle back to it) New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik draws meaningful parallels between Lincoln and Darwin with insight and verve. This is a remarkable little volume.

In a series of
alternating essays that look at them individually, framed by a pair that handle them together, Gopnik argues that Darwin and Lincoln did not so much invent as embody the modern liberal conscience, a feat they accomplished largely on the basis of their skills as writers of the best prose of their time. Their method involved a comparable empirical style rooted in careful observation, tight reasoning, and a determination to express themselves with the greatest possible degree of clarity for the broadest possible audience. Their faith involved a confidence in the power of persuasion as an agent of historical change. That this was a faith stemmed from both mens' chastened recognition that they lived in a post-Enlightenment era in which power, interest, and superstition -- not to mention more welcome influences like love -- made it far from evident that reason could prevail in public life or co-exist with a livable private one. That both men grappled with such problems, Gopnik believes, is about as important as their respective solutions. As Gopnik says of Darwin but could just as easily say of Lincoln, in a sentence typical of his burnished prose, "His habits of mind -- fairness, popular address, and the annealing of courage with tact -- are worth revering even if scientists abandon or revise half his tenets."

Similar personal circumstances were crucial to the mens' achievements. Darwin was born
to wealth at the heart of a global empire, and Lincoln achieved it at the periphery of an emerging one. But both were devoted family men -- and both went through the excruciating experience of losing a child in devoted marriages. In both cases, Gopnik believes, these events were transformational, because in both cases the two figures were confronted with the the experience of personal grief in a context of impersonal death. For Lincoln, of course, it was the Civil War, over which he presided the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. For Darwin, it was the entire realm of biology, in which death -- implacably certain even as evolution was implacably random -- was the defining fact of life.

Their respective lives and careers sent the two men in different psychic directions. Lincoln, ever the skeptic, arrived at an idiosyncratic Calvinism in which he saw himself as a blind and chastened instrument of God's will. Darwin, who famously withheld the results of his research for decades, in large measure out of consideration of his wife's religious feelings, surrendered his faith in a teleological God and with it a logic of suffering. And yet, as Gopnik notes, "both gave liberalism a tragic consciousness without robbing it of a hopeful view." That hopeful view
-- the notion that a kind of progress is nevertheless possible in improving the existential experience of those live on earth at a given time -- ultimately became a working definition of what liberalism now is. And with it a notion that any definition is a working one, keeping alive the possibility, as science always does, of a different way of looking at the world. Gopnik distills this worldview into an assertion that "we can turn to faith for meaning, but not for morality." As he notes, both men were, from our standpoint, racists. But in marked distinction to a great many of their contemporaries, they were notably mild-mannered, compassionate ones, always willing to reconsider their views in light of changing circumstances. Here it is worth noting that Darwin over and over again specifically rejected the tenets of Social Darwinism, and that it was a speech in which Lincoln publicly entertained the notion of giving black men the vote -- i.e. moving beyond freedom toward the even more radical notion of equality -- that made John Wilkes Booth decide to kill him.

Reading this book was a somewhat startling experience, and not simply because it proved to be unexpectedly coherent. Living in the shadows of the American Century (and the Western millennium), I did not expect to hear such a full-throated celebration of the world that Darwin and Lincoln represented. As Gopnik notes, "Slow, carefully argued evidentiary-minded speech sure doesn't seem like a winning ticket in modern life." And yet, if the values that Darwin and Lincoln embodied are not self-evident, or even permanent, Gopnik makes a convincing case here for their resilience and their beauty. It's enough to make you believe in the (bitter)sweet power of reason.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yanking into war

Lynne Olson's Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour documents efforts by three expatriate Americans to mobilize support for England before Pearl Harbor

By Pamelia Brown

It might be hard to remember in the context of the United States' current interventionist policies, but the nation took an isolationist stance toward the global conflict in the late 1930s that escalated into World War II, not joining the war until after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. While England was being hammered by the Blitz -- the German bombing campaign that battered Britain from September 1940 to May 1941 -- the United States remained officially withdrawn from the fight. Lynne Olson's Citizens of London is a detailed, fascinating look at three men whose roles in England acted as a catalyst for the Anglo-American alliance that would help stem the flow of Hitler's Nazi troops.

The book profiles the work of three American citizens whose presence in the British capital would join to change the force of public opinion about the war. There's Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS Radio's European Bureau and the broadcaster who'd covered the Blitz for listeners back home; John Winant, the American ambassador who held that office from 1941 to 1946; and Averell Harriman, a businessman who served as President Roosevelt's special envoy to Europe and oversaw aspects there of the lend-lease program. Olson's volume observes three men working at very different levels of public service and traces how they used their influence with the president and their closeness with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to accelerate the United States' involvement in the war.

Olson explains the roles these men took through the lens of diplomacy, measuring the impact of their individual contributions and charting the process by which two great nations were united by a common goal to thwart a global evil. They each worked from different angles, as well. Murrow was the voice of the conflict that narrated the story for American citizens, and whose work would bring the costs of the conflict into American homes. (At a dinner honoring Murrow in 1941, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish said that Murrow "destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.") Conversely, the work of Harriman and Winant was a little below the radar of most Americans, but no less important for the political and financial roles they performed as liaisons to the United Kingdom.

Olson's book is a fascinating look at the hidden actions of public men in a time that decided the fate of the 20th century. Fans of history or compelling stories in general should find a lot to enjoy in this fresh look at familiar ground.

Pamelia Brown, who writes on the topics of online associate degree programs. She welcomes your comments at her email Id:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Familiar stranger

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to manage an awkward encounter

The Maria Chronicles, # 41

Maria has about five minutes to go before class and is looking at her course website when she hears a voice behind her ask, "Is this Maria Bradstreet's office?" Maria turns around to see Jen Abruzzi point a young man toward her that M
aria can recognize but not quite place. She squints in concentration.

"Kwame? Kwame Mercer?" Phew. She remembered.

Kwame beams. "Mrs. Bradstreet! So good to see you!" He steps forward with his arms out, leaving Maria little choice but to embrace him. He's bigger and more solid than she remembers. And the dreadlocks are new.

"My God, Kwame, what are you doing here?"

"Well, I'm a sophomore at Columbia now. I was at the house of a friend of mine, Eddie Somers, whose sister Mia goes to school here. We were comparing notes and Mia said her history teacher's name is Maria Bradstreet. I said I had a teacher with the same name back in New Hampshire, and as we compared notes I became sure it was the same person. So I thought I'd come by on my way back to school and say hello."

"Well, I'm glad you did," Maria lies. She likes Kwame -- always a sweet kid, always wore Patriots sweatshirt to class -- and she always liked his father, too, who she'd see at the public library all the time. But this just feels awkward and badly timed. How did he even get in here? Didn't anyone accost him?

"So how are you doing, Kwame?"

"I'm doing great. Majoring in sociology. I love Columbia. Really great professors, great roommates, I love New York. My folks moved down to Washington a couple years ago, so I haven't been back up to Derry High. But I've still got a couple friends there. You remember Tommy Gugliano? He visited me a couple months ago."

"Sure, I remember Tommy." But Maria has absolutely nothing to say about him.

"And how are your folks?"

"Just great. Dad, you know, worked for a big accounting firm in Boston, but the commute was a killer. Once I graduated he got a job with this firm in DC and decided to move to the city. My mom's from DC, so she was glad to go. She retired from her job as the town clerk. She's helping out at an animal shelter now. My sister's a lawyer in Philly and my brother works for Boston College, managing their website."

"Well, good for them. Give them my regards." Maria also taught Lakisha and the other Mercer boy -- Ali, she thinks it was. They were among the only minority families in town. A good lesson, Maria remembered thinking. People tended to equate black and poor, but it was always evident that this was a high-powered African American family. Summers on the Vineyard, that kind of thing.

An awkward silence. Maria plugs it: "A sociology major, you say?"

"Yeah. I wasn't really sure what to major in. For a while, I was thinking about economics. But it was kinda tough. I had this really great professor last year, and she really turned me on to soc. So I took another course and I just declared it as my major. Not sure what I'll do with it, but in this economy I'm not sure anyone's gettin' a job. I figure I'll go to business school."

"Sounds like a good idea." Another silence. Jesus, kid, help me out here, Maria thinks. I'm running out of questions to pelt you with.

"And how about you?" Kwame asks. "How long you been here?"

"About seven months now."

"You like it?"

"Oh yeah, it's great." Now Maria's grateful he's not asking about why she's here. She really doesn't want to talk about the divorce and all the rest of it. Could it be that Kwame's actually being tactful?

Maria glances up at the clock. She's already late for class. "Kwame, you'll have to forgive me, but I've got to go teach."

"Sure, sure."

"It was really great to see you." Maria decides to tough it out: no suggestion he stick around, come back, have lunch.

"It was really great to see you too." They embrace again. What does she see in his eyes? Is it a recognition that she's not the person he remembers? Sorry, kid. Really.

As Maria walks to class, she reflects on the subtle brutality of the teaching business. You have these people you see every day, sometimes for years. It's your job to know and care about them -- and you're happy to do it. But then they move on, and once they do, the basis of your relationship evaporates. That's true in all kinds of situations -- co-workers, next door neighbors, whatever. But when it's kids they somehow assume they have a place in your heart even after they move on. Maria actually kind of resents them for it. There are a couple she cherishes, mostly friends of her kids, and one she used to have lunch with in the cafeteria every year at Christmastime, but even then it's hard to close the gap. She's known colleagues who count former students as their friends, but Maria's never really been able to pull it off. This saddens her; she considers it a defect of character.

But then she's at the door and has to think about Chief Joseph, the Nez Pearce Indian who defied federal authority -- for a while, anyway. Someone else pops into her mind: Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind. I'll think about it tomorrow, Scarlett is always saying. Maria resolves to do the same.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Blood relations

Sharon Davies's
Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America is a story of another time, told for our own

The following review was recently published on the Books page at the History News Network website.

This gripping story, ably reconstructed by Ohio State law professor Sharon Davies, has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The facts are clear enough. In August of 1921, a hack Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson (a hack because his credentials were dubious, he lacked a pulpit, and loitered at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama to marry couples for a living) shot and killed a Roman Catholic priest named James Coyle in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The reason? Hours before, Father Coyle married Stephenson's eighteen-year old daughter Ruth, a convert to Catholicism, to a 42 year-old Puerto Rican native named Pedro Gussman.

many contemporary legal thrillers, one is typically presented with a person falsely, but understandably, accused of a crime, dependent on the gifted detective or attorney to finally show that appearances are deceiving. In this case, though, the drama comes from reading to discover how far bigots are willing go to set a guilty man free, and whether their enablers will condone the triumph of evil. One of those enablers was Hugo Black, a future Supreme Court justice known for his support of racial integration in the Civil Rights era, who defended Stephenson and joined the Ku Klux Klan prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1925. This is one a number of twists in this story, whose outcome won't be revealed in this review.

Drama aside, Rising Road also happens to be a fine work of history. With notable economy, clarity,
and quality research, Davies places her narrative in her stories in a series of contexts that include the emergence of Birmingham on either side of the antebellum era, the rise of the post-Birth of a Nation Ku Klux Klan, and a series of character sketches of the principal characters. Many of those casually familiar with the setting of the book are aware of anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in the region, as well as the growing complexity of racial classification at a time when industrialism-induced immigration muddied the once seemingly black-and-white simplicity of race relations. But the way these social forces coalesce in this specific case study gives them an urgency they can lack in traditional historical accounts.

In this regard, the book is strongly reminiscent of Kevin Boyle's National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice (2004), which dealt with murder trial of Michigan doctor Ossian Sweet in 1925, or Michael Wayne's account of an antebellum murder, Death of an Overseer (2001).The difference, perhaps, is that Davies repeatedly makes a kind of forensic speculation that, strictly speaking, cuts against the grain of the most scrupulously practiced academic history. At the outset of her tale, for example, she theorizes that the origins lie
less in religious or racial hatred than the fact that Stephenson's daughter was an only child, leading him and his wife Mary to indulge in a catastrophic degree of overprotection (a line of thinking that remains implicit, but not formally developed, for the rest of the book). Or she'll suggest that "people must have begun to wonder whether any woman would persuade the busy [Hugo Black] to forgo his bachelorhood." The book is peppered with such postulations and italicized expressions that some might find distracting, though they give the book a courtly quality, an old-fashioned appeal evocative of the book's setting, that might charm others.

ing Road is a story of another time, but it is very much a story for our own. Its focus on the ambiguities of identity politics meshes with the mission of the institute for the study of race and ethnicity at Ohio State, one of a number that are now flourishing in the academy, that supported Davies's research. Respectable opinion today tends to celebrate that which horrified earlier generations. As the title, redolent of an old Irish blessing, suggests, we've come a long way. One might plausibly wonder which way, how much longer we have to go, and whether the prejudices of that time have disappeared or merely assumed another form.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Labor movement

Randi Hutter Epstein traces the twisted genealogies of modern obstetrics in Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank

The f
ollowing review was posted last week on the Books page at the History News Network website.

Birth is a fact of life. But as Randi Hutter Epstein shows in this breezy but enlightening little book, it's a fact
that's been subject to endless interpretation. In a survey that spans from antiquity to the reproductive technologies of the 21st century, Epstein traces the power struggles among men and women to cast birth in their own image of the way life should be.

As often as not, this struggle has been among purists of various kinds and those advocating new forms of technological improvement, with pregnant women in the middle. Epstein succinctly captures the dynamics of such debates in her discussion of foreceps, a device that went from secr
et innovation to childbirth staple to source of dread over the course of the last few centuries: "Doctors were confident, sometimes overly so. Midwives were worried, sometimes overly so. Women were confused, rightly so."

One source of this confusion was the sometimes counter-intuitive logic that shaped ideology. At the turn of the century, for example, elite feminists were strong advocates for the use of drugs, often of dubious utility and safety, rather than subjecting women to length
y, painful, and dangerous labor. Yet this typically meant ceding control of their bodies to experts, almost always men, who often feared bourgeois women were too overcivilized to endure the birth process, and who spoke of women with what we today would regard as a comic degree of cluelessness. (An obstetrician who believed doctors should make decisions about childbirth because a woman "has a head too small for intellect and just big enough for love" typifies the juicy quotes that pepper the book.)

Conversely, a founding father of the natural childbirth movement, the evocatively-named Gr
antly Dick-Read, whose heirs Epstein describes as "more Birkenstock than Prada," was a political reactionary who finally settled in the politically cozy confines of apartheid-era South Africa. One of the great medical breakthroughs of modern medicine, a technique to repair vaginal tears during childbirth, was achieved by performing medical experiments on slaves.

Such conundrums continue to our own time. Prenatal care has greatly extended the reach of professional medicine earlier and earlier into pregnancy. But such fetal monitoring has also prom
pted over-intervention in ways that range from the commercialization of sonograms as mall souvenirs to ethically questionable forms of genetic engineeering. Perhaps to avoid a political bog, Epstein steers clear of the implications of the implications of such technologies for the abortion debate. She also (surprisingly) largely stints the advent of in vitro fertilization; there's no mention of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, for example. But she does make an entertaining visit to a sperm bank, and discuss cutting-edge techniques for freezing human eggs.

Get Me Out is a fast read because Epstein is a terrific writer. Trained as a journalist, she conveys a sense of joy in her research to accompany an often wicked wit, as chapter titles like "Men with Tools" and "Womb with a View" suggests. Epstein is also an MD, one whose lightly worn authority allows her to gracefully digest and contextualize medical research for a lay reader. The experience of tracing the shifting tides of obstetric opinion has apparently engendered epistemological modesty; attentive to irony and contradiction, she rarely takes sides in the debates she describes (though her skepticism about the number of caesarian sections performed in the United States is all the more credible as a result). Perhaps Epstein's shrewdest observation is her final one: that all the control over child birth has done nothing to making child rearing any easier. A mother of four, she speaks from experience.

Get Me Out is a quintessential work of pop history: light, funny, provocative. Yet it's got enough depth and resonance to function as a highly effective teaching tool in any number of classes that range from medical schools to gender studies programs. Think of it as an brainchild with DNA from Barbara Ehrenreich and Gail Collins. And then appreciate it on its own terms.