Friday, July 30, 2010

A raft of hopes

The following piece is an excerpt from what I hope will be a work in progress. --JC

It is, for the two main characters, one of the more tedious Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Jim are saddled with the self-styled "Duke" and "Dauphin," a pair of rogues who fleece the denizens of Mississippi River towns any way they can, among them selling tickets for bogus Shakespeare performances and then skipping town before those denizens can execute their plans to exact revenge.  One night after a particularly good haul, Huck and Jim enjoy a rare moment of respite from the increasingly imperious demands of the sleeping hucksters, and converse quietly on their raft.

"Don't it 'sprise you, de way dem kings carries on, Huck?"
"No," I says, "it don't."
"Why don't it, Huck?"
"Well, it don't, because it's in the breed. I reckon they're all alike."
"But, Huck, dese kings o' ourn is reglar rapscallions; dat's jist what dey is; dey's reglar rapscallions."
"Well, that's what I'm a-saying; all kinds is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out."
"Is dat so?"
"You read about them once -- you'll see."

Huck is speaking rhetorically here. Even if there was an obvious way to do so, Jim wouldn't read about them, because he can't: He's illiterate and he's a slave. Depending on his location, learning to read would be discouraged if not illegal (not that it would likely stop Huck, even if, as his current state of mind in harboring a fugitive suggests, he'd be afflicted with guilt about it.)

But Huck is literate. We're told early in the book that he attended school regularly over a period of months, to the point where the tough-loving widow who's raising him says he was "coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory." She's not even embarrassed by him anymore, he reports. Indeed, Huck's education might well have continued a good deal longer had not his n'er-do-well pap returned. Irritated to learn that his son has been in school, pap demands that he read a book. Huck obliges with "something about George Washington and the wars." Appalled, his father knocks the volume away. "If I catch you about that school I'll tan you good," he says. "First you know you'll get religion, too. I never see such a son."

To at least some extent, however, the damage has already been done. Huck summarizes the state of his education this way: he "could spell, and read, and write just a little, and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don't reckon I could ever get any further than if I was to live forever. I don't take no stock in mathematics, anyway."

But he does take stock in history. There's an unmistakable overtone of pride as he proceeds to explain to Jim why kings of all kinds are mostly rapscallions: "My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning." Huck not only conflates the factual story of Henry VIII with the fictional one of The Arabian Nights; he attributes the William the Conqueror's Domesday Book to his Tudor successor a half-millenia later. He also confuses him with George III in the following capsule summary of the American Revolution:

Well, Henry he takes a notion he wants to get up some trouble with this country. How does he go at it -- give notice -- give the country a show? No. All of a sudden he heaves all the tea in Boston Harbor overboard, and whacks out a declaration of independence, and dares them to come on. That was his style -- he never give anybody a chance.

Jim listens attentively to this lecture (which goes on a while; Henry VIII apparently had suspicions about his son, the Duke of Wellington). But the pupil doesn't understand why this particular king smells so much. ("We can't help the way a king smells; history don't tell no way," Huck replies.) Jim notes that the Duke is less troublesome than the Dauphin. But, he concludes, "I doan' hanker for no mo' un um, Huck. Dese is all I kin scan'." Huck agrees. "But we've got them on our hands, and we got to remember what they are, and make allowances. Sometimes I wish we could hear of a country that's out of kings." Huck then goes to sleep, leaving Jim on watch as the raft courses the river. He later observes that Jim does not wake him when it was Huck's turn to cover.

This anecdote is funny on so many levels -- and so moving in its conclusion -- that it would be ham-fisted to try and unpack the reasons why. For our purposes, what matters is the way a sense of history informs the way these two people decide the handle the situation in which they find themselves. They're going to make "allowances," even if neither if them feels that the Duke or the Dauphin are using the authority they've arrogated to themselves legitimately. For Jim, such a conclusion is largely the result of moral criteria and situational pragmatism. Such considerations are at work for Huck as well, but he also self-consciously applies the lessons of history, for his sake as well as Jim's, and both make an active decision to abide by that lesson, at least for the time being.

Rarely, however, has a history lesson been so evidently garbled. Of course the key word in the previous sentence is "evidently": in fact, such garbling takes place many multiple times every single day. That's because most people aren't Ph.Ds in history, or history majors, or have even taken a history course since finishing high school (if indeed they do). It's also because those who have enjoyed such privileges have nevertheless been subjected to bad teachers, inaccurate information, or changing generational sensibilities (if not all three). A sophisticated grasp of history is the rare exception, not the rule, and one thing that defines a sophisticated grasp of history is a consciousness of the way that both interpretively and in terms of the information available, the past keeps changing. Yesterday's common sense is tomorrow's myth. Lessons are fluid.

Not that this stops any of us from using history. We couldn't stop even if we tried, even if we're told, and accept, that the very concept of a "lesson" is epistemologically suspect. A sense of time is as deeply human as a sense of place -- or, for that matter, a sense of smell. It orients us. A person who believes -- out of some inevitable combination of lived experienced and received wisdom -- that you can't fight City Hall is likely to act differently than someone who think that history (U.S. history, anyway) is a story of progress.

This is not an argument for historical primitivism. As with many things, informed instincts, conscious thoughts
yield results that we experience as better, just such disciplined attention can help one blow a horn or swing a bat with greater grace and efficiency. I realize this is not a self-evident truth, and that indeed across time and space many people have argued that intellectualizing experience can actually get in the way and impair our experience of the world. Indeed, one of the painful joys of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is watching a child unlearn a 200 year-old lesson that it's wrong to steal someone else's (human) property.

Though it may appear so, I don't believe the satiric exchange I've cited here finally condemns the value of a formal education, historical or otherwise.However appallingly inept, Huckleberry Finn learned, with the help of books about "George Washington and the wars," that kings are rapscallions. Thomas Jefferson would surely be satisfied with -- in fact he explicitly argued in favor of propounding -- this historical judgment, not withstanding Huck's attribution of his Declaration of Independence to Henry VIII. But hey, nobody's perfect, least of all Jefferson.

To be sure, Huck's reading of history confirms both his beliefs and his experience. History almost always does. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; sometimes, as in this case, it's helpful to get reassurance. I'm willing to believe that you pay close attention to versions of history with which you strongly disagree. I'm also willing to bet that it doesn't happen all that often. But even when we place ourselves in the cozy confines of our predispositions, the limits of the human ability to apprehend reality means that there will always be loose ends, unanswered questions, and subversive propositions in the stories of the past that we tell ourselves. It's these things that give history its vitality, its kick. And there's always the possibility that it can keep us honest.

For a society born of revolution, there are consequences in condoning and even encouraging children in the belief that kings are rapscallions, consequences that can be readily accepted and furthered by those, like Jim, that hear them expressed implicitly and explicitly. Huck is wrong on the facts and right on the truth when he expresses the wish for "a country that's out of kings." There were still kings in Twain's time; there are still kings in ours. But where there's history, there's hope. It's just a question of where you look for it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

General diffusion

In the Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker launches a campaign to rethink a conflict, with mixed results

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

My first reaction to encountering this substantial, handsome volume is puzzlement: strategy and the Civil War? What does Professor Stoker mean by strategy? This sense of curiosity intensified when I read the jacket and promotional copy promising that the book is a rare one of its kind, and still more when I opened it -- as one often does when casing a book -- to a random page and entered a conversation that didn't sound much different than what you'd hear in a book by James McPherson or Shelby Foote. Actually reading The Grand Design both clarifies and disappoints: the book does indeed offer some fresh angles on a familiar subject, but, like many of the people it criticizes, the author loses the forest in a maze of what by now are some well-marked trees.

In his vigorous introduction, Stoker, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College in Monterrey, distills what are clearly years of teaching by demarcating some boundaries and defining terms in an approach heavily influenced by Carl von Clausewitz. Stoker notes, and dispenses with, the common contemporary conflation of the words "strategy" and "tactics," distinguishing between them by correlating the former with ends and the latter with means. But then he goes beyond that: actually, he says, strategy is embedded in a larger intellectual construct that includes "operations" (a midpoint between strategy and tactics), and, especially, the concept of "policy," which stands at the top of an inverted pyramid. To establish a policy is in effect to determine war aims. The next strata down are "grand strategy" (which is as likely to be political and economic as it is military) and "strategy" (typically more narrowly military). These are effectively the approach one adopts to realize a policy. The next layer down the pyramid  is "operations," the plans one formulates to implement the strategy; at the bottom are "tactics," ground-level movements in the service of operations. Example (in reverse, from bottom to top): Pickett's Charge was a tactic in the Gettysburg operation, part of a larger Confederate strategy to take the military as well as political initiative and thus achieve the policy objective of Confederate independence.

This appears to be a reasonably clear taxonomy, but if you find it a bit confusing, you're not alone: Stoker notes that many Civil War political and military leaders had the same problem, which is why the war went on as unnecessarily long as it did. By way of illustration, you might think -- as, for example, someone like Union general George McClellan did, at least for a while -- that winning the Civil War was a matter of capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. But here you would have to ask why you think so. Presumably, it's because taking Richmond would destroy the Confederate capacity to fight. But if snuffing out an insurrection is really the goal (that is to say policy) of a given military campaign (that is to say operation), then defeating the Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would be a better strategy than seizing the admittedly valuable piece of real estate that Richmond represented. Much to his exasperation, this is something that Abraham Lincoln came to understand better than everybody he put in charge of the U.S. armed forces for the first three years of the war. Conversely, when Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania in 1863, he was as mindful of the impact his actions would have on Northern public opinion as he was in impeding Union efforts to conduct its own offensives. Indeed, Lee never thought he could actually stay in Gettysburg or anywhere else north of the Potomac River for very long; his offensive operations were really part of a larger defensive strategy that sometimes required him to go on the attack operationally.

The problem with military leadership in the Civil War, Stoker says, is that far too few generals (and he would include the officious Jefferson Davis here) could think straight. It is this capacity to implement well-thought ideas -- not personalities, not ideology, not even material resources -- that ultimately decides the outcome of conflicts, he asserts. Unfortunately, this resource was in hopelessly short supply. Confederate general Leonidas Polk may have thought he was bringing the pivotal border state of Kentucky into the rebel fold when he invaded it in 1862, but he did precisely the opposite in mobilizing Unionist resistance there. McClellan celebrated driving the invader from "our soil" at Antietam, only to be reminded by a furious Lincoln that as far as McClellan should have been concerned, it was all U.S. soil, which was not really the point in any case: Lee's army was. Both sides diffused their energies in 1863 by paying far too much attention to the perimeter of the war in places like Texas rather than the Confederate heartland, and both sides allowed indecisive generals to lose sight of one of one of the most critical commodities of war: time. The longer wars go on, Stoker notes, the more remorseless they become, and the more time you take to get your ducks lined up in order, the more time you give your enemy to do the same.

Inevitably, however, it becomes difficult to separate ideas from the character of the person who advances them, and this becomes one of the ways the book bogs down. Stoker makes a fairly good brief for McClellan as a strategic thinker, but his assessment inevitably ends up where just about everybody else's does: Good ideas are worthless if you don't have the will to act on them. Ditto for the man Lincoln called a "first-rate clerk," Henry Halleck. Stoker notes that Jefferson Davis seemed incapable of the kind of big-picture thinking that Lincoln and Lee routinely performed. But the principal reason for that incapacity was the pettiness and vanity that Stoker repeatedly cites.

Not that either Lee or Lincoln escape criticism here. Even when his actions were rational, Stoker finds, many of Lee's decisions proved counterproductive. Similarly, Lincoln had real reason to question the resolve for his string of commanders that ran from Irvin McDowell to George Meade, but his ideas were of limited value at best, and his meddling (which, ironically, might actually have been less bad if he ordered more and suggested less) sapped administrative morale.

These are the kinds of points -- along with counter-intuitive thinking about the limits of Ulysses S. Grant's capture of Vicksburg, or the way the Civil War hearkened back to the American Revolution at least as much as it anticipated the First World War -- that make for interesting reading. Far too often, however, Stoker makes precisely the same mistake that he laments: he gets bogged down in page after page of operational detail in a book that's explicitly about strategy. I mean, who cares about the endless indecisive squabbling between Halleck and Don Carlos Buell? Can Stoker just get on with it -- or, at least, remind us why such details matter? He spends much more time setting up the battles than actually describing what happens, which is logical in its way. But you're left with the worst of both worlds: lots of largely irrelevant hypotheticals without the payoff you get in the hands of masters like McPherson and Foote, who for all their differences shared a deft grasp of the big picture that Stoker claims as his own but far too often loses.

I actually think there's a good book still in here that remains to be written, perhaps after the volume on Clausewitz I understand Stoker is currently researching. This would involve boiling down the diffuse intelligence that's evident here and distilling it to its essence. Perhaps this would be a slim volume organized around the strategic visions of particular people, or sorting out a set of strategic approaches and the people who adopted (or, as the case may be, abandoned) them. For my part, I would have also liked to see a bit more consideration of how political factors like emancipation and the enlistment of African American soldiers had bona fide military implications and consequences at the level of strategy. Stoker gives us a lot to think about in The Grand Design. It's in his own design dimension where he should be thinking a little more strategically.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Father (figure) Knows Best?

The surprising traditionalism at the heart of a new movie about a non-traditional family

In the beautifully acted ensemble piece The Kids Are All Right, Annette Bening plays Nic, the breadwinning doctor in a lesbian family of four that includes her spouse Jules (Julianne Moore), an 18 year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska), and a 15 year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson). In interactions that alternate between bickering and affection, we are to understand them as a normal -- i.e. neurotic, but stable -- family. The complicating factor in their lives occurs when the children reach out to their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who turns out to be a genial fellow; his reaction to the family arrangement -- "I love lesbians!" -- has already become a signature line of the movie. Though it's immediately apparent that Paul has no real commitment to anything except the restaurant that he owns, he has something emotionally to offer each of the characters in the movie except Nic, whose growing resentment of Paul results in growing estrangement from the rest of her family.

From the start, it's clear that Nic's character is the least attractive in the movie: controlling, arrogant, and passive aggressive when not overtly so. Yet it's also clear that she's really the only adult in the story. Joni (as in Joni Mitchell -- there's a wonderful scene of Bening singing lines from Blue by way of explaining her daughter's name) is bright, responsible, and increasingly self-assertive, not surprising as the story takes place in the summer before she goes off to college. Laser is less mature, involved with a friend who's clearly not worthy of him, a subplot of the story. Jules, the more instinctive and permissive of the parents, is a very appealing person to all involved  -- audience included -- though her insecurity and impulsivity brings the family into crisis when she accepts Paul's casual offer to help her resume a career in landscape gardening, a development that serves to bring the class dimension of the story into focus in the two characters' stance toward the hired (Latino) help.

One of the more surprising aspects of The Kids Are All Right are its gender politics. Ostensibly, it has a liberal moral that verges on smugness: We're going to show you that homosexuals are just like everybody else. But the movie has a surprisingly conservative message: families need father figures. In this case, it so happens that the "father" is a woman (the man in the picture is ultimately a boy). Yes, of course, Nic is difficult. But the rules she sets and concerns she has are largely valid, and her economic role is almost surely indispensable, whether or not the family would have been better off with two-incomes (an issue for the couple). More than any of the other characters, Nic is self-aware about her limitations and makes active efforts to remedy them. She also proves to be stoic, a characteristic that seems in relatively short supply in movies these days, just like it appears to be everywhere else. None of these traits are inherently male, but they're coded in the movie as such -- nowhere more so than when Nic finally intervenes to set a boundary by slamming a door -- as indeed they are in society at large. But in the end it's less important that they're there in gender terms than on family ones.

Indeed, Nic can't claim all the credit here. Jules clearly has a shaping hand in raising the kids, who are, as the title indicates, "all right." Which points to another element of traditionalism in the gender politics of the film: an assertion on behalf of the two-parent family. Each provides ballast for the other's excesses, which a child may need as much as any particular trait a parent has to offer. While this particular deck happens to be stacked a particular way -- "I really wish you were gay," an exasperated Jules tells Laser at one point. "You'd be so much more sensitive" --we also see two parents working hard to give a child roots and wings.

Insofar as the messages here are effective, it's because in the end they're delivered with a light touch. Fair-minded, funny, and deftly executed, The Kids Are All Right represents an honest attempt to capture both continuity and change in the American bourgeois family of the 21st century.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Playing in the Shadows of the Boss

The Gaslight Anthem roars to life with American Slang

Even though I have an iPod  (mostly for classroom use, so I can illustrate a point with a song while teaching), I'm one of those geezers who still buys and listens to CDs. That's largely because my dinosaur Honda Accord -- which is about the only place in my life where I still have room for music -- has a CD player, and because I'm of that generation for whom buying and collecting sound artifacts still exerts a residual pull on my imagination. Having performed the requisite demographic identification here, I'll now say that for me, the summer of 2010 will be the summer of The Gaslight Anthem. The band's latest album, American Slang, is a pure shot of adrenaline that will, among other things, keep you surging on the highway, or maybe just awake at a traffic light.

I'm particularly enamored of the title track of American Slang. It begins with a few measures of throbbing drums and bass that sets up a five-note riff that drives the melody in the best pop tradition -- a tradition in this case of the guitar-based, post-punk variety.  Lead singer Brian Fallon sounds like a wounded animal, bleeding but ferally alive. As far as I can tell, he's unlucky in love, but he ties his romantic grief to the zeitgeist in a not-quite cryptic way:

Look at the damage
the fortunes came for richer men
while we're left with the gallows
waiting for us liars to come down and hang

In the chorus, the protagonist say he "called for my father/but my father had died," literally and figuratively alluding to a loss of faith. This reference, and the one alluding to liars, suggests a Catholic sense of sin.

But it's the music more than the lyrics that bring "American Slang" to life. The band roars behind Fallon, who overdubs harmonies that are both shouted and almost impossible to decipher during the chorus, giving the song a sense of thrilling desperation.

One of the songs on the album is called "The Spirit of Jazz," and I've heard/read Fallon describe the role of the blues in shaping the band's sound. This is surely true as far as it goes, but it may be an anxiety of influence at work here that leads the Gaslight Anthem, a New Jersey band, to displace its most obvious influences, which include Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, in spirit, "American Slang" is a grittier version of Springsteen's "Backstreets" -- which may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it isn't. "Backstreets," from Born to Run, had a kind of romantic grandeur about it that Springsteen wisely left behind before it curdled into parody; American Slang has a rougher, working-class edge that the Springsteen of Darkness on the Edge of Town never fully developed but which the Gaslight Anthem has been apparently mining for some years now, edging closer to commercial pay dirt. Or, at any rate, what passes for pay dirt in a music industry that has disintegrated into bits. Had it come along earlier, the band might have had a major label recording contract (they're signed to the small punk label SideOneDummy), or they may have disappeared into the mist of a thousand bar bands. This is the hand they've been dealt, and they're playing it for all it's worth. God bless 'em -- I'm sure happy to be along for the ride.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Astounding Mounds

In Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, Timothy R. Pauketat digs a view of a vanished American civilization

The following  review appeared this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Look in any recent U.S. history textbook and you're likely to find a passing reference to Cahokia, a thousand year-old Native American civilization best known for its scores of huge earthen mounds, near the site of modern-day St. Louis. It's likely to be a passing mention, in part because textbooks handle just about everything in drive-by fashion. But it's also because compared with the much-better known Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations, Cahokia remains a bit mysterious to the archeologists and anthropologists who have been studying it. In Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, anthropologist Timothy Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides an overview of a half-century's worth of study about Cahokian society as well as indicates some recent directions of research and interpretation.  The book, published last year by Viking and just out in paperback, is part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History.

Pauketat describes the flowering of Cahokian civilization as part of a "big bang" that occurred circa 1050 CE, and appears to have been a response to a supernova whose effects were visible in the sky around the globe. This event appears to have had some kind of religious significance, and prompted the effective replacement of one settlement ('Old Cahokia") with a much larger and more ambitious one. The still-evident feature of a city-sized settlement bigger than the London of its time -- one whose traces were evident to French and Spanish explorers, as well as Lewis and Clark and countless other visitors near what is now East St. Louis -- included gigantic sculpted piles of earth, whose massive construction was carefully sited and executed.

Recent digs near these sites have made a number of other discoveries. Besides discovering evidence of a widely and durably popular Native American game called "chunkey," a forerunner of lacrosse, researchers have also found evidence of widely dispersed Cahokian pottery, cuisine, and language. It's a great mystery that a civilization that appears to have sprawled from Wisconsin to the Mexican border has left behind so few traces. But the most striking recent discoveries at ground zero of Cahokia is the realization that the mounds there have been elaborately organized repositories for bodies that were buried in layers. This layering suggests a strongly hierarchical society, in which violent ritual human sacrifice was common, as indicated by dismembered remains at the bottom, as well as careful interments of what appear to be authority figures near the top.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Cahokia is Pauketat's generational approach to describing interpretations of this civilization, and the way changes in American intellectual life shape the priorities and emphasis in archeological research. New attitudes about gender, for example, appear to have sensitized researchers to the role of women in Cahokian society and mythology. Pauketat notes that recent scholars have embraced a more avowedly speculative approach to understanding Native American cultures, a tendency he embraces in a vivid chapter in which he "walks" his way into the heart of the settlement. Researchers have been confounded in their efforts to establish an unambiguous link between Cahokia and the much more densely documented Mesoamerican Indian societies, but Pauketat aligns himself with those who have extrapolated their way to concluding that such ties were strong.

In short, Cahokia is as much an introduction to the study of defunct civilizations as it is a survey of this one in particular. It's a brief, evocative little book that makes a nice addition for anyone trying to integrate an element of diversity into the study of American history.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A note to my readers

The arrival of high summer, and the evolution of my online presence, will result in some editorial changes in the rhythm and content of American History Now. Since its launch about a year and a half ago, this site has had a steady schedule of thrice-weekly blog postings. These posts have been of two varieties. About half took the form of brief episodes in the life of a teacher, first in the form of "The Felix Chronicles" (during the spring of 2009) and then in the form of "The Maria Chronicles (during the 2009-10 school year). The other half took the form of short essays of cultural commentary, very often in the form of book reviews. All told, there have been about 225 of these pieces, ranging anywhere from 500 to 1500 words in length, along with shorter posts to mark holidays and vacation times.

One of the most important professional developments in my life in the last year has been my work for the History News Network website, where I am now one of four Book Editors. Since last spring, I have written dozens of reviews and essays for the site, all of which have been cross-posted at this blog. I plan to continue writing for HNN, and to post those pieces here. However, I will not be publishing at the site with the same pace and consistency as I have before.

The main reason for this change is my desire end what has been a three-year hiatus since I was last working steadily on a book, and intensify research I've been doing on the way history is portrayed in film. It is my hope that over time a workable project will take shape, and that I can use this blog as a means for essaying ideas along the way. I plan to post new content in the site in the coming days on this work.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my readers over these months, and to express my hope that you will continue to visit. I've been very grateful for your kind words and interest.

Jim Cullen

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Moving Movements

Ira Berlin offers a masterful distillation of black history with The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Ira Berlin is a national treasure. Scholars of American history are indebted  to him for his pivotal editorial role in the vast collective project Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, a multi-volume treasure-trove of primary source materials that capture the African American experience from slavery through freedom, which appeared through the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade, Berlin has moved from the hard and important work of excavating and arranging these sources to contextualizing and explaining them in a series of books that greatly enhance our understanding of the black experience in the United States from the colonial era to the present. To say that this is a story he could tell in his sleep is to make a statement not about his prose -- which is notable for its clarity -- but rather the depth of his saturation in American history and his ability to convey information with seeming effortlessness.

Berlin's latest book, The Making of African America, manages to distill this vast story from an intriguing angle. He makes the arresting assertion that black history can be seen as a set of four migrations. The first, and best-known, is the so-called "Middle Passage," the brutal experience of enslavement and transportation across the Atlantic Ocean. The numbers involved grew over the course of the seventeenth century and ebbed by the end of the eighteenth. The second great migration was the movement of slaves from the Atlantic seaboard to the nation's interior in the first half of the nineteenth century, where they were used to build the great cotton kingdoms of the plantation South. The third -- long actually called "The Great Migration" -- was the movement of emancipated slaves from the Southern countryside to Northern (and Southern) cities in the first half of the twentieth century. The final migration, now currently underway, is that of the peoples of African descent (including Latin America) into the United States, finally weaving black people into the fabric of traditional immigration history. This is the most novel chapter of the book, and brings this epic tale up to date.

Throughout the book, Berlin demonstrates a supple ability to make large generalizations while texturing them with counter-currents. He is attuned, for example, to the dialectical way an emphasis on movement alternates with a sense of place, a tension captured in Black Atlantic scholar Paul Gilroy's phrase "routes and roots." He notes the way black people had their identities imposed on them -- they only became "African," a designation without much meaning for tribal peoples until they arrived on American shores -- as well as the ways they resisted and reinvented themselves every step of the way. He also notes that even words like "black" and "African American" have become newly fraught, reflecting tensions between native and immigrant -- tensions comparable to those that also occurred in earlier migrations. Berlin is able to illustrate many of his examples with recourse to the great African-American musical tradition that courses from shouts to hip-hop, reflecting simultaneous continuity and change. He ends the book with a discussion of Barack Obama, who embodies many of the themes of traditional African American history as well as the more recent black immigrant experience.

An easy read that's notable for its brevity (240 pages), The Making of African America is a powerful teaching tool. That's because it's so neatly segmented, as well as so broad in its narrative trajectory. There's something wonderfully skillful about this book; it represents the finest aspects of the contemporary historical enterprise, and is likely to be a durable resource for some time to come.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Temporary Reading

Eventually, e-books may replace the traditional college textbook -- and the high prices they impose. In the meantime, textbook rentals are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the used book market

Guest post by Brennon

A little more than a month from now, on any given college campus, students will once again be lining up at the university bookstore to purchase stacks of new textbooks. But how long can this annual tradition survive?

A recent article in Good magazine, "The Demise of the $200 Textbook,"suggests that the collegiate mainstay of the shiny new textbook will soon be a thing of the past.

As the story explains, the textbook retail industry isn't keeping up with the national initiatives to make college more affordable. In fact, the author says the price of textbooks in recent years is rising at more than two times the rate of inflation.

The College Board reports that students spent an average $1122 on textbooks last year. So it's no surprise that in a report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 60 percent of students who had dropped out of college said the hefty textbook bill was a factor in their decision to leave school. What's more surprising, though, is a statistic released by the U.S. Department of Education. It shows that for students who attended two-year public schools, textbook fees accounted for 72 percent of their education costs.

Sadly, the less students who buy books retail, the higher prices become, as publishers desperately try to recoup their costs. The used book market has long been a factor in textbook industry, one publishers have tried to combat by regularly issuing revised editions. But a growing market for rentals, in which students pay for the temporary right to read a book, has become an increasingly significant factor in its own right.

Last year, about 300 schools around the country offered students a textbook rental program, according to the National Association of College Stores. This year, the Association expects to see five times as many. A recent story in New Jersey's Star-Ledger says many of the state's schools, including Rutgers, Montclair State, and Fairleigh Dickinson are joining the trend.

The growing popularity of these programs is partly due to grants the federal government started offering colleges last year as an incentive, the Ledger reports.

As for those schools that have not yet taken the government up on the over, there are also online sources available where students can rent books at deep discounts, often cutting their bills in half.

While the rental industry may not be a complete or permanent solution, Nicole Allen of the Student Interest Research Group told the Ledger that "We are taking steps in the right direction."

Brennon is a writer who works for, an online bookstore.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bruised Apple

In You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, music journalist Peter Doggett depicts a less-than-Fab Four

The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
I'll admit that I was seduced into buying this book on the basis of its cover: the image of a green Apple on black vinyl conjured up strong emotions from my childhood. (This a time when such a logo had nothing to do with computers; as we learn here, it was an inspiration to Steve Jobs and the basis of a whole lot of subsequent litigation as a result.) Though I was barely in elementary school when the Beatles were still a group -- my first memory of the band was Let It Be -- I nevertheless grew up with the music and followed the members' solo careers avidly in the 1970s. So while I knew much of their story, having read some of the countless books, I welcomed a volume with the somewhat offbeat angle of apparently focusing on their business empire and their post-Beatle careers.

Alas, this is one of those cases -- and it seems to me that there are a lot of them these days, perhaps a direct result of marketers determining the title of books -- where we're somewhat misled. The subtitle here is "The Beatles After the Breakup," but a full third of this 350-page book covers very familiar territory that stretches from the creation of the band's corporate arm, Apple, in 1967 and the group's disintegration in wrangles over the band's and the company's management three years later. Moreover, such segmentation represents the worst of all worlds, because it seems to me that if you're going to trudge through this tawdry story, you should at least go back far enough to understand what was lost, i.e. to spend a little time describing the magical collaboration of the early sixties that led to the creation of Apple in the first place, before you go on to explain how a company that was created to be a force of counter-cultural liberation became a millstone around the neck of anyone (except lawyers) who ever had anything to do with it. 

Music journalist Peter Doggett, who began his career writing for The Beatles Book fanzine 30 years ago, and got access to many important figures, including Yoko Ono (but not the two living Beatles) demonstrates mastery of the truly byzantine detail surrounding the breakup of the band. But after a certain point, it becomes a little like learning the details of a parent's divorce: you just don't want to know or be reminded. Here I refer not simply to the numbing financial maneuvers, but also the worst traits of the principals: John Lennon's solipsism; Paul McCartney's petty desire for control; George Harrison's dour moralism; Ringo Starr's pathetic insecurity. Ironically, for all their personal differences, you can actually attribute each of these traits to the others.

The lost opportunity here is any serious attempt to evaluate the four solo careers musically. To be sure, the pickings are arguably slim, and it's clear that none of the Beatles produced much in the way of memorable music after 1980. Still, all four members produced records that both registered commercially at the time and reveal something about what they actually brought to the band in its heyday. (This is particularly true of Harrison, whose talents were less prodigious than those of Lennon or McCartney but who nevertheless enjoyed surprisingly durable commercial success in the late eighties with his 1987 album Cloud Nine and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, and who was capable of real wit, as attested to his work with the Monty Python troupe in its satire of the Beatles, the fictional Rutles of the 1978 mock-documentary All You Need is Cash.) John Lennon's first two post Beatles' albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), are harrowing even now in their honesty and intensity, and hold their own with anything the Beatles did. Yet we hear almost nothing about the making of these albums, much less "Imagine," a song I regard as overrated but was nevertheless a generational anthem.

You Never Give Me Your Money does make a few points worth noting, however. Perhaps the most important is the flip side of the complaints here: The Beatles really gave us the best of themselves in 1962-70, and we weren't missing much in the oft-invoked, but never realized, desire on their part to reunite. (Their one effort in this regard, the posthumous-Lennon group collaborations on his songs "Free as a Bird"  and "Real Love," part of The Beatles Anthology documentary in 1995, was underwhelming.) Another is that it's McCartney, not Lennon, who has a better claim on the spirit of experimentation that characterized the group's later records -- indeed, Lennon's work looked musically backward, not forward, in the final phases of his career. Perhaps most important is Doggett's suggestion that Lennon's reunion with Yoko Ono in 1975 after a tempestuous rupture in their notorious relationship effectively short-circuited a promising artistic revival. He argues Lennon was a hen-pecked husband, not a happy stay-at-home dad, in the years that followed.

It is curious, though, how a man who professes in his acknowledgments to consider the band a formative influence on his life and career has so little love to express or explain. And such, You Never Give Me Your Money serves as a cautionary tale. It's all fine and good and necessary to say why something (or someone) doesn't work.  The real challenge lies in helping us understand and care about who or what does. Surely there are more good Beatle books there.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Raising Cane

In The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War, Williamjames Hoffer takes a fresh look at a familiar subject -- and tries to solve a perennial pedagogical problem

The following review was published last week the Books page of the History News Network site.

It's the classic dilemma of the History teacher: On the hand, the most interesting classes come from discussions of specific subjects (usually, but not always, grounded in primary sources). On the other, it's hard for students to really understand those subjects without context, and context takes time.  You can deliver it by lecturing, which can be efficient in limited doses, though rarely comprehensive. You can also provide it by assigning textbook reading, though this tends to be regarded as dull when it's done at all (and textbooks, as any cost-conscious student knows, have become very expensive).

The new "Witness to History" series launched by Johns Hopkins University Press under the editorial supervision of the father-son team of Peter Charles and Williamjames Hoffer offers a solution to this problem. These short volumes on prismatic moments in U.S. history also provide brief overviews of the period immediately preceding and following the event in question. As such, the books represent a variation on Oxford University Press's "Pivotal Moments in U.S. History" (which are more interpretively ambitious) and Bedford's "Series in History and Culture," series which packs an editorial apparatus around a set of primary sources. "Witness to History" books, by contrast, are brief secondary sources pitched to an undergraduate audience. As such, they may hit a commercial sweet spot.

The inaugural volume in the series is The Caning of Charles Sumner, by Hoffer the younger (Williamjames). This notorious episode of antebellum history will be familiar to any student of the Civil War, though usually as a passing one; indeed, I'm not aware of any recent scholarly study, which makes it a shrewd choice for a 133-page treatment. After a brief introduction, the book opens with a detailed rendition of the single minute on May 22, 1856 that South Carolina Congressman Preston beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner within an inch of his life with a cane inside the hallowed halls of Congress. As Hoffer shows, this eruption of violence was by no means an isolated incident, but reflected a lingering frontier ethos -- one with a Southern, Code Duello tinge -- that characterized national political life until the Civil War. Hoffer also shows that notwithstanding some intriguing parallels between the two men, Brooks and Sumner were virtual synechdoches for the two sections they represented in a political system that was veering toward a breakdown.

The second chapter of the book then steps back from this moment and retraces the origins of the antebellum crisis in the half-century preceding the Brooks-Sumner affair. This is a very familiar story that stretches from the framing of the Constitution to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But what it lacks in novelty -- not the point, in any case --  it makes up for in compression, distilling the era into a compact 30 pages: a night's homework. The chapter that follows then looks at the aftermath of the caning, tracing the legal process (Brooks got off absurdly easy) and media treatment of the case, the latter in particular intriguing because its modern infrastructure was just emerging at the time. Hoffer's point here-- the thesis of the book, really -- is that the incident shows that by 1856 the two sides in the slavery debate were essentially incapable of really communicating with each other, as partisans simply interpreted events to suit their purposes and mobilize their constituencies in ways that would finally culminate in Civil War. I can imagine a nice conversation coming out of this about the possibilities and limits of forging consensus generally in American politics, and the three chapters as essentially a week's worth of curriculum in a survey or Civil War course.

The final two chapters trace what happened after the Brooks-Sumner affair, tracing landmark moments such as the Dred Scott Case, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and secession. But these chapters may also suggest the limits of the caning as a historical peg, because while it did help frame the issues in the presidential election of 1856, in which the Republican Party emerged as a national force, the event quickly became yesterday's news. Brooks was dead within about a year, and Sumner's influence declined relative to other members of the Republican Radical wing. In this regard, the caning was perhaps less consequential than, say, John Brown's Raid. This is not so much an argument against a book about the caning of Sumner than a shorter one with a smaller historical radius, though this in turn raises the question of the viability of effectively selling 100 pages of text for $20, the book's list price (about $15 on Interestingly, Preston Brooks's defense of his actions -- an obvious primary source foil for The Caning of Charles Sumner -- recently became available as a $1 Kindle book at Amazon. Hoffer's book is not available in this format, something that would surely improve its utility, not to mention its durability.

The second book in the "Witness to History" series, Tim Lehman's Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, is also now available. Unlike the caning of Sumner, Little Bighorn is a topic that has not lacked chroniclers, most recently Nathaniel Philbrick. This may reflect that somewhat larger bulk (about 200 pages) of Lehman's volume. But again, this is an undergraduate-friendly text that would seem to slot easily into a course on the West as well as the survey. But the key word here may well be "seem": given the acute sense of technological transition in publishing, and the acute sense of economic transition in academe, any solutions to classic dilemmas appear to be provisional. For the moment, at least, these books are helpful.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Jim is observing the Independence Day holiday. Much of his recent reading has been pedagogically-minded, as he prepares to team-teach an interdisciplinary English/Ethics/History curriculum centered around the theme of freedom in the fall of 2010. To that end, he's been reacquainting himself with the work of Toni Morrison. As with re-reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time in 20 years (see his recent post on this), encountering Morrison's Beloved again for the first time in about the same interval has been a happy experience. Like Shakespeare or Faulkner, Morrison is both a richer and easier experience the second time around: structure and language are easier to observe and appreciate once you have a working knowledge of the context and plot, in this case the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 an its impact on an American family in the generation that followed. Though it's only been about  year since he read Morrison's A Mercy, first published in 2008, it, too, holds up very well. This short novel, set in the relatively fluid slave system of the mid-Atlantic in 1682 demonstrates an absolutely masterful grasp of colonial history even as it presents a vivid array of characters, black and white, male and female. It stands with her best work, of which Beloved will surely always rank first.

Jim has also been to the movies a few times lately. He recommends A Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas in a repellent character study -- a cut-rate Gordon Gekko, albeit a more three-dimensional one. Though the movie relies on a creaky device that frames it at either end, it nevertheless raises interesting -- and haunting -- questions about the durability of character and our ability to really learn from experience. The acting of course is terrific, with Douglas getting able assistance from Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, Daanny DeVito as an old pal, and Mary-Louise Parker  as a wronged, and vengeful, lover. Also truly worthwhile is Toy Story 3, which retains the truly astounding resonance of the first two installments of the series. Endlessly clever, the story manages the neat trick of seeming unpredictable while you're watching it and inevitable in retrospect. It may well be that work of art about the human condition currently in circulation features a cast of inanimate objects.

May you experience a sense of joyful freedom in the last leg of this commemoration of the nation's birthday.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Window

Franklin. Adams. Roommates. Summer, 1776

[In honor of our Founding Fathers, an archive edition of American History Now]

So there they are, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, one a youthful 70 and the other a fussy 41, sharing a bed at an inn in New Jersey. They’re on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island, part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress to negotiate with Admiral Lord Richard Howe of the Royal Navy, in the hopes of avoiding a full-blown war between England and her American colonies. Two weeks earlier, George Washington’s fledgling army escaped seemingly certain destruction in Brooklyn and is for now, at least, alive to fight another day. Lord Howe hopes he can talk his American friends out of making a huge mistake. Adams considers Howe a phony, his overtures nothing more than “Machiavellian maneuvers.” That’s why he was chosen to be one of the negotiators. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a man who had been reluctant to support independence (he has, and will, worry about the preservation of slavery) is another. And old Ben Franklin, who knew Howe back in England, will be the third.

It is the evening of September 9, 1776. The negotiators pause in their journey to spend the night in Brunswick, New Jersey. Unfortunately, there’s not much lodging to be had in the local taverns. Franklin and Adams agree to share a tiny room, no fireplace, with a single bed and a single open window. It is chilly, and Adams, a self described invalid, is “afraid of the air in the night” and shuts it. “Oh!” says Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.” When Adams relates his fears of coming down with an illness from the bad night air, Franklin, ever the scientist, replies by saying that the air in the room is far more likely to be a problem than that outside. “Come!” he tells Adams. Open the window and come to bed and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”

Adams complies and joins Franklin in bed. He is curious, even at “the risqué of a cold,” to hear Franklin’s reasoning. Lying there in the dark, side by side, Franklin begins his explanation, which, while apparently of some interest to Adams, literally puts him to sleep (“I left him and his Philosophy together,” he will later write, hearing Franklin trail off just as he does.) They will argue the point again, and in his account of their exchanges Adams will muse on Franklin’s reasoning but remain unconvinced.

At this point in his life, Adams admires Franklin. He likes to say that had Franklin done nothing more than invent the lightning rod, the world would justly honor this “great and good man.” But the next time they team up again, this time in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French government
a phase of the two men's careers brilliantly captured in the 2008 HBO series, John Adams, from which the above photo was taken Adams begins to have his doubts. Mr. “Early to Bed and Early to Rise” sleeps late all the time. (He slept through a lot of the Continental Congress, and though Adams will not be there to catch him, Franklin will sleep through a lot of the Constitutional Convention as well.) He drinks too much; he spends too much. And his behavior with French women is downright embarrassing. Adams feels self-conscious about his French, but as he learns it himself he begins to realize that Franklin understands a lot less than he lets on. And when Adams – once again playing bad cop, albeit a bit over his head – annoys the French foreign minister, Franklin writes a letter to Congress telling them that Adams is foolishly tampering with Franklin’s own delicate diplomacy. Adams will never forget or forgive Franklin for that.

Franklin is probably right to dump Adams. Adams probably knows Franklin is right, too. He is over his head. Adams is an intelligent and decent man. But he’s too stubborn, moralistic and vain to be a successful diplomat. He’s honest to a fault – he can’t play the game the way Franklin, who laughs right along when the King puts his image on the bottom his courtesan’s chamber pot, does. He tries not to lie, even to himself.

Part of the reason why someone like Franklin is such a trial to Adams is that he understands that the man really does exhibit traits Adams himself would be lucky to have. Franklin’s cool cheerfulness is a rebuke to Adams’s repressed stolidity. But a hunger for recognition, a hunger that’s never really sated, will not give Adams rest. His wonderfully acidic expression of resentment in 1790 encapsulates his frustration: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” (It was Adams who had proposed Washington take command of the Continental Army – and excellent idea, and one he can’t help but at least partially regret.)

Adams had about as successful a career as any person could ever rationally hope. From modest beginnings as a shoemaker’s son, he became a self-educated lawyer, political activist, and diplomat. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, and his work on the Massachusetts constitution was a major influence on the federal one. He managed to spend eight years generally keeping his mouth shut as vice president (no small achievement, particularly for him), and went on to become president himself. And he had the good sense and good fortune to marry Abigail, who brought wisdom, humor, and joy into his life. He lived to see his son John Quincy, become president. We should all be so lucky.

But somehow, you rarely get the impression that John Adams was happy. To be sure, he had legitimate sorrows, among them a son who drank himself to death and a daughter who died of cancer. He had powerful enemies, notably Alexander Hamilton and his erstwhile friend Thomas Jefferson, who, despite hating each other, worked to deny Adams a second term as president. (It’s to their credit that Adams and Jefferson were later able to patch things up – though perhaps it’s no accident that they did so while remaining 500 miles apart.) Still, you get the sense that the hardest single thing about John Adams’s life is that he had to live with John Adams. Feeling that way is hard enough. But it’s even harder when you’ve got people like Franklin, so seemingly self-assured, by your side.

Adams recorded the scene of his night with Franklin in the autobiography he began writing after his forced retirement from politics following his failed bid for re-election in 1800. Though he had a diary to draw on, the editor of the Adams Papers, L.H. Butterfield, reported in 1961 that he wrote this scene “from unaided memory.” I see him at his estate, Peacefield, in Quincy, Massachusetts, an old man remembering himself as a younger one, with Franklin, who had been dead for years, alive and likeable. Adams had been upset earlier that September day when he saw what he regarded as the indiscipline and “dissipation” of the American soldiers he had seen on the road (my guess is that he was being prudishly unrealistic). But he was “determined that it should not dishearten me.” I can’t be sure, but it seems like he’s succeeding, and that the memory of that night brings him pleasure and maybe even comfort in the long twilight of his life. Writing it down gives him something to do.

And us something to celebrate. Thank you, Mr. Adams (and Mr. Franklin).