Friday, August 31, 2012

Jim is observing the Labor Day holiday weekend, the punctuation mark of the summer before the official start of the school year. His current Kindle reading is Walter Issacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin, that most startlingly modern of Founding Fathers. Isaacson's portrait of Franklin is rendered with a journalistic flair that nevertheless shows real scrupulousness in his scholarship.

Beginning next week, two new sets of posts on the self-made man -- one on the relationship between God and the self-made man, and the other on the archetype of the yeoman farmer -- will begin running on this site. Until then, best to all for a felicitous final stretch of leisure.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Starved for attention

In The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, John Kelly tells a tragic tale of national resilience

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

It was the blurbs that caught my attention on this one. Richard Rhodes, Douglas Brinkley, Adam Hochschild: these are heavy hitters. (Bill Clinton doesn't hurt, but he's not a master prose stylist.) John Kelly is no slouch either, having produced a string of well-regarded books, notably The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (2006). He picked a worthy subject in taking on the Irish potato famine of 1845-47, a demographic catastrophe that killed twice as many people as the American Civil War and sliced Ireland's population by a third. As one might expect, Kelly approaches his subject from a multidisciplinary perspective that takes into account botany, politics, economics, and medicine. The result is a fully realized piece of history.

It's clear from the start that the famine, driven by a potato-destroying microbe that ravaged the European continent as well as the British isles, was going to be a disaster beyond the capacity of human prevention. The question was what was going to be done to mitigate it. The answer was also quickly apparent: not enough. The British governments of Robert Peel and John Russell faced dilemmas that remain depressingly modern: electorates controlled by rich and powerful elites that refused to shoulder the cost, and which showed an obsessive concern about creating government dependency, often going to bizarre extremes (like making people in workhouses wear straight, pointy shoes) to make welfare as uncomfortable as possible. Fears about waste and sapped personal incentive weren't exactly unfounded. But they were deeply myopic, and left millions dead and bereaved as a result.

That said, the crisis in Ireland was also exacerbated by specifically local traditions. An agrarian country in an industrializing Union, the island was strangled by the hold of its Anglo-Irish gentry, typified by Lord Palmerston (later British Prime Minister), who squawked at any mention of tax increases. When a poor relief levy based on the value of tenant holdings was rammed through over their objections, the big Irish landlords avoided paying it by evicting tenants with ruthless efficiency.

Kelly at one point mentions that the power of the gentry of highland Scotland had been circumvented in the nineteenth century via buying them out, a move that allowed that country to modernize. Significantly, Scotland did not suffer nearly as much as Ireland did from the famine. Kelly doesn't really develop this intriguing scenario, which seems to come as close as he gets to offering an alternative outcome. More often, he laments the cramped moral vision of bureaucrats like Charles Edward Trevelyan and editorial writers like those of the London Times, whose sometimes breathtaking callousness shows that Charles Dickens's Scrooge was no stereotype (though Dickens was no paragon of enlightenment himself when it came to the Irish).

In terms of narrative pacing, The Graves are Walking feels a bit pedestrian until Kelly shifts his focus away from government ministries more decisively to the situation on the ground as the famine takes root. These chapters are riveting and harrowing. Kelly charts the effects of starvation and the cascade of ills that surround it with precision, color, and empathy. As a case study in a public health challenge gone horribly awry, his account functions as a profound cautionary tale.

The Irish famine of the 1840s was also an event that triggered a global diaspora, and here too Kelly shines. He's particularly vivid in describing the impact of Irish immigration in Canada, which absorbed waves of illness that sent shock waves through Quebec and Montreal. American officials partially blunted that blow with taxes and regulations, though as we all know the effects were dramatic in the States as well, nowhere more than New York City, where 848,000 immigrants arrived between 1847 and 1851, about four times the population of mid-century Dublin and more than twice that of midcentury Manhattan. (The trip for many of these travelers sounds almost as bad as the middle passage of slaves.) The arrival of teeming, filthy, sick people hardly brought out the best in Americans, who developed a nativist animus against the Irish that would last for decades. Though it was hardly justified, Kelly makes it all too humanly understandable.

This is an upsetting, enlightening, necessary book that deserves multiple, durable audiences. It also stands as a testament to the resilience of a people under some of the greatest duress the world has ever seen.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Jim is taking a week-long vacation in Vermont with his family. He's managed to clear his reviewing docket and will be concentrating on reading for pleasure. First up: Archer Mayor's latest Joe Gunther mystery, Tag Man. All Mayor's novels are set in Vermont and are rich with New England color. Should be fun.

After that, it's on to Jon Meacham's 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion. (This biography in the long-intended-to-read category rose to the top after Jon Meacham interviewed/cited Jim's book The American Dream as part of a Time cover story last month.)

Later this month a series of posts on the mythology of the self-made man in American history will begin running on this site. The set first will be on the religious foundations of the concept; the second will look at the yeoman farmer as the oldest and most durable manifestation of the myth. As always, feedback is welcome.

Summer is rapidly drawing to a close. Best to all for a final stretch of hikes, ice cream and other rituals that play out before the Labor Day transition.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The American Revolution (of 1676)

In Tales from a Revolution: Bacon's Rebellion and the Transformation of Colonial Virginia, James Rice unravels a tangled yarn

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

James Rice explains in the afterword of this book (parts of which might have served better as a preface) that it is "a story, a narrative, a yarn." Once upon a time, making such an assertion about a work of history would have been tautological. But, he notes in an important counterintuitive observation, "such an approach is more controversial than one might imagine, because historians have a complicated relationship with narrative." Indeed, one might say the story of the profession in the last century has been the replacement of narrative with analysis -- of the what with the why. "Narrative is sneaky," he explains from the point of view of skeptics. "Its writers find it all too easy to smuggle into a story ideas and assertions that would not hold up if they were stated explicitly and accompanied by careful analysis of the evidence." Storytellers, in short, are often liars.

But Rice, a professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh, asserts that the situation is not that simple. Unreliable narrators tell a kind of truth. Imposing structures on a story has the effect of revealing tensions that otherwise may not be apparent. He's right about that. (It's also a pleasure to find Jane Smiley, a novelist with more than a dollop of historical sophistication, in his footnotes.) Historians may like analysis, but readers need -- in a deep, anthropological way -- narratives. "Show, don't tell," has long been an axiom of non-fiction writing, historical and otherwise. But stories don't get shown; they get told. The key is telling them in compelling ways in which an analytic intelligence -- revealed in the choices the writer makes -- animates, without overshadowing, the tale.

So how does James Rice do in telling the story he does here, part of a Oxford University Press series called "New Narratives in American History"? The answer is quite well, even if his compact tale might have been tighter still.

He's got good, if challenging, material to deal with in Bacon's Rebellion, one of the more vivid and confusing episodes in American colonial history.  The great Edmund Morgan, whose presence looms large here, describes it as "a rebellion with abundant causes but without a cause." In the narrowest sense, Bacon's Rebellion was an uprising contained within the year 1676, when the elite transplant Nathaniel Bacon tapped a vein of populist resentment against local Indians -- essentially all Indians -- and demanded that colonial administration, led by long-time governor William Berkeley, deputize him to push them beyond their existing frontiers. Whether because of diplomatic caution or indifference to the plight of poor farmers (traditional accounts favor the latter, Rice leans toward the former) Berkeley angrily rejected the demands of Bacon and his followers, resulting in a brief but intense civil war that included raids against Indians as well as against the capital of Jamestown. Momentum swung wildly over a period of months, resulting in the exile of Berkeley until Bacon's unexpectedly early death, apparently from typhus contracted in the swampy climate led the insurrection to fizzle.

For Rice, however, Bacon's Rebellion was an event with roots and reverberations far beyond 1676.  Bacon's death represents on the first act of what he has structured as a two-act drama. In the second part of the book, he connects the uprising to a much broader set of issues that include struggles between Catholics and Protestants in late Stuart England and the instability of a single-crop tobacco economy in which low prices fed discontent, resulting in a 1682 incident in which protesters destroyed the crops of their neighbors. He also widens the geographic focus of the story to encompass the political landscape of New York and (especially) Maryland.

For Morgan, as for Rice, the the core source of all this unrest is racial. Morgan focused on African Americans in American Slavery, American Freedom; in Tales from a Revolution, however, Rice focuses on the Native Americans, those he describes as "the people with most at stake in the conflict." Though Indians figure in all accounts of the uprising,  Rice gives the Pamunkeys, Susquehannocks, and Piscataways more sustained and sympathetic attention than any recent account of Bacon's Rebellion. Which is a good and helpful thing in a story that manages to be brief and comprehensive.

It doesn't quite feel cohesive, however. There seem to be a lot of balls in the air here, and Rice's two-part segmentation feels a bit unwieldy and even strained, notwithstanding the fact that contemporaries (usually those defending the status quo) invoked Bacon as a cause of other woes years after his death. The treatment of the events that would culminate in the Glorious Revolution seems perfunctory; the move to incorporate other colonies leads one to wonder why the simultaneous King Philip's War in New England receives only passing mention. More than most events in American history, Bacon's Rebellion defies simple narration. One nevertheless finishes this book feeling like it might have worked better as a seamless garment whose implications were suggested rather than covered.

Still, Rice accomplishes a good deal with this provocative piece of storytelling. As a work of colonial history it is notably user-friendly and resonant. And as a work of historiography it poses pressing questions that all students of history should take seriously.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Invasive procedures

In Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, Peter Heather rewrites broad swaths of history

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.    

This book was supposed to be summertime leisure reading. I make no pretense toward familiarity with the historiography Roman Empire, whether early or late (I know more a little more about the republic than either). Actually, the subtitle of the book -- "the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" -- is misleading; as the author says explicitly, the former is only peripherally in his purview. What we really get here is a survey of what used to be called "the Dark Ages." It's a deeply suggestive one, not only an explanation of 500 years of history, but a model for thinking about the demographic dynamics of peoples much closer to home.

Seven hundred pages and two decades in the making, Empires and Barbarians has the heft of a generational statement. (First published by Macmillan in Britain in 2009, it has just been issued in paperback in the U.S. by Oxford.) As such, it can be considered a piece of counter-revisionism. Once upon a time, the story goes, the Roman Empire was destroyed when its ability to repel wave upon wave of barbarian hordes was finally worn down. After hundreds of years of trying, the marauders finally broke through in the fifth century CE, and, like drunken party guests, wrecked a civilization. In recent decades, however, this invasion hypothesis has been deconstructed. "Barbarians," after all, is a loaded term that reflected the ethnocentrism of Mediterraneans; what we were really seeing was an encounter between peoples. And they weren't hordes, either -- they were small groups of people, and very often what happened was not so much a violent overthrow of "civilization" (another loaded term) as a transfer of power from one elite to another. The old story said more about the nationalist preoccupations of the twentieth century (and the curious nationalism of Soviet bloc Marxists, who poured impressive resources into archeology) than the realities of the ancient world.

Peter Heather, a professor of Medieval History at Kings College, London, does not deny that the old version of the story is problematic. But he believes that the attempts to overturn it -- which have calcified into a refusal to consider evidence that doesn't comport with post-nationalist notions -- miss some important indications that there were, in fact significant, broad-based movements of people south and west into Europe in the second half of the first millennium. It's not that the revisionists are entirely wrong, or that their model has not applied in other historical circumstances -- the eleventh century Norman invasion of Britain is pretty much a textbook illustration of their notions. But it didn't really happen that way when the Angles and Saxons showed up 500 years earlier, or for that matter, in many other places on the continent in that era, either.

Here's the key to understanding what happened as far as Heather is concerned: a significant disequilibrium in development -- defined here in terms of resources, technological sophistication and political organization -- that evened out over a 500 year period. When the first millennium began, the wealth and power of Europe ran in a rough oval corresponding to the shores of the Mediterranean. Above it was a strip of loosely organized Germanic peoples whose contact with the Romans formed a frontier of intercultural contact. Above that was another frontier formed by the near outsiders with far ones.  As has been long understood, the end of Roman empire was not so much a matter of destruction by the near outsiders as it was far outsiders (like the notorious Huns) pushing their way into the turf of the near outsiders (like the Goths), who in turn pushed a weakened and distracted Western empire to collapse.

This was not a pretty process. It required a massive allocation of resources -- which had to be expropriated to attain the scale necessary for a successful push -- and required mobilization on a scale much more significant than anything that immediately preceded or followed it. The migration may not have been a billiard ball of people moving from one point to another, as the old Grand Narrative would have it. Instead, it was more like a snowball: not necessarily large at first, but increasingly and inevitably substantial, pulling women, children, and slaves along with it, if for no other reason as logistical support. (The book is salted with vivid analogies like this.) And it was highly dynamic, not just Germans sweeping into Rome, but Slavs sweeping onto German turf, and then Vikings sweeping onto Slavic turf. This transformation was nasty, brutish, and long. When it was over, the locus of civilization had shifted north and west and had taken on a Frankish hue. This is a big deal, an epochal change that turned the edge of a continental landmass into a place we have come to know as Europe.

I'm not in a good position to judge how iconoclastic an argument this really is in the context of its field (though I am familiar with the work of Brian Ward-Perkins, whose 2005 The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization I found quite edifying, and which seems consonant with Heather's findings here). But as Heather wrote of Ostogroths and Magyars -- with occasional references to Rwandans and Kosovars as a point of comparsion -- I found myself thinking of Puritans and Algonquins. In what sense was what happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Atlantic basin a barbarian invasion? Was the U.S. acquisition of Texas a case of elite transfer? I think the answers to these questions is superficially yes, though I suspect Heather and others would qualify and texture them. In any event, the overall paradigm here is a deeply resonant one. Heather can't claim all the credit for that -- his interdisciplinary approach to his subject is clearly shared and part of a lively scholarly literature -- but the breadth, depth and brio of Empires and Barbarians is a significant accomplishment and a welcome gateway for the curious as well as the deeply informed.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Da bomb on The Crater

In Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, Kevin Levin captures 150 years of race relations through the prism of a Civil War engagement

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.    

Kevin Levin is quietly reinventing the historical profession. This quest is particularly intriguing because he lacks a Ph.D. (he holds a master's degree in History from the University of Richmond), has never taught a college course at more than an adjunct level, and recently left his teaching position at St. Anne's-Belfield, a boarding school in Charlottesville, Virginia. One thing Levin does have, however, is a blog. Of course, so do a lot of people. But Levin's blog, Civil War Memory, is exceptional in its technological savvy, ability to attract advertisers, and the prodigious quantity of content he generates for it.

Of course, none of that would matter if Civil War Memory wasn't interesting. But it is, deeply so. Levin writes gracefully and with real insight about race relations, the academic/public divide, and often fiercely contested questions of collective memory, in arenas that range from battlefield sites to popular culture. He's got over a thousand regular followers, and gets almost 50,000 page views a month. Actually, Levin does what what a successful academic scholar is supposed to do: participate in -- and enlarge -- intellectual conversation by drawing on recent research. This was the noble dream at the heart of the creation of the modern university system, but one that has been fitfully realized at best.

People are starting to take notice of Levin. His coverage of a dispute between scholars over their respective books on Mississippi's Jones County during the Civil War got the attention of the New York Times, and Levin's work has since appeared there as well as in publications like The Atlantic.  He typically has a few speaking engagements a month, which in recent months have included talks at the OAH and at Yale. It's a little unclear how, or whether, he's actually making a living from all this, but his editorial work ethic has clearly been paying at least some dividends, figurative or otherwise. Given the contraction in the historical profession, it's hard not to believe what he's doing will become some form of the norm for anyone who wants to make it in this business. Years from now people will say he showed the way.

This context seems worth reviewing as a prelude to discussing Levin's first book, Remembering the Crater, which has just been published as part of the University of Kentucky's "New Directions in Southern History" series. One of the more surprising aspects of this good piece of scholarship is how traditional it is, a brief monograph of the kind you expect from a recent Ph.D. staking a historiographic claim he hopes will land the brass ring of an assistant professorship. The notes section registers the requisite list of visits to archives, the notes are rich in primary and secondary sources, and the blurbs come from scholarly heavyweights in Middle Period history like David Blight and Earl Hess. The book effectively ratifies Levin as a switch hitter, a guy who can hold his weight with the old guard even as he pushes out on an electronic frontier. This is high praise (with a few reservations I'll get to shortly).

Levin positions himself squarely in the sub-field of memory, a specialty that emerged about two decades ago, and one in which the Civil War has been a particularly fruitful frame of reference. The point of departure here is Battle of the Crater, which took place on July 30, 1864. The engagement, part of a rotating wheel of struggle between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864-65 for control of Richmond, began as an attempt by the part of the Union army to break the impasse by seizing control of Petersburg, the rail lifeline to the capital of the Confederacy. When an initial attempt to use stealth failed, Federal engineers developed a plan that involved tunneling under Rebel lines, planting thousands of pounds of explosives, and exploiting the confusion that would follow exploding them by sending an offensive to break Southern defenses. A key part of the plan involved using specially trained forces of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), a fraught tactical decision given the racial dimension of the war and recent atrocities against black soldiers by Confederates at Fort Pillow, Arkansas earlier in 1864. Such factors and the racial prejudices against African Americans among Union officers (as well as concern they would be cannon fodder) led to a change of plan that resulted in the USCT participating, but not leading, the assault. It proved to be a debacle -- the last real Confederate victory in the war. Levin rehearses the military background of the battle skillfully. He does a particularly nice job in his attentiveness to the Petersburg landscape, which puts him on the cutting edge of recent Civil War scholarship.

His real interest, however, is less the battle than the way it has been remembered by subsequent generations in Virginia and elsewhere. At first, the need to avoid antagonizing the victorious federal government led to relatively discreet memorials that acknowledged, if minimized, a black role. But the end of the Reconstruction era brought with it increasingly insistent affirmations of the Lost Cause and an attendant desire to erase African Americans from collective memory, one particularly evident in the 1903 re-enactment of the battle, where black Union participants were entirely absent. (This was an event witnessed by a teenaged Douglas Southall Freeman, and an inspiration for his famous multi-volume biography of Lee.)

Yet such an erasure was not always as easy as one might think. Levin pays particular attention to the career of Brigadier General William Mahone, who led the successful counterattack at the Crater.  He later went on to play a major role in postwar Virginia politics, where he collaborated with northern Republicans and Virginia African Americans to fashion a relatively progressive program that supported state-funded public schools, for example. Mahone's military credentials made it difficult for his critics to assault his credibility, but that didn't stop them from trying -- and ultimately succeeding.

Eventually, however, the long night of Jim Crow was followed by the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Media coverage of the struggle for equality peaked during the Civil War centennial, complicating the efforts of segregationists and Civil War traditionalists (who of course were often the same people) and gradually bringing about a more inclusive vision of the war. That sense of inclusiveness involved not only reintegrating the USCT into the story of the Crater and the Civil War generally, but also widening the focus of battlefield study to include more social and cultural history. 

In its broadest outlines, this is a familiar story. As Levin acknowledges, it fits squarely in the paradigm of the reconciliationist, white supremacist, and emancipationist phases of post-Civil War history traced by David Blight in his landmark 2001 book Race and Reunion. Levin asserts that Blight "does not go far enough in explaining the interplay of race and politics in national reconciliation as well as the deep divisions between former Confederates and white Virginians." Certainly Levin explores some intriguing nuances here; Mahone's career in particular stands out in this regard. But the outcome of the story is plain (and, in the wider context of Southern history, predictable) enough.

One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history -- or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on "heritage," whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they're affirming a heritage of -- one wonders if the story is this simple.  What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.

A final critique: the subtitle of this book is "war as murder." Yes, the (racial) ferocity of the battle, and the summary executions that followed, make it different than other battles of the Civil War, or other battles in U.S. history generally. And the attempt to forget these atrocities are an essential part of the story. But Levin's larger point is less about the racial violence per se than how an event is remembered and gets used for later partisan and/or ideological purposes. It's not so much war as murder as it is war as palimpsest (though "palimpsest" is probably not a great word for the cover of a book for anyone but Gore Vidal).

In any event, Remembering the Battle of the Crater is itself a document of a profession in transition. Faithful in his fidelity to traditional scholarship, Levin a particularly credible and engaging vessel for taking it into the 21st century. Long may he wave.