Monday, January 31, 2011


In Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety Gideon Rachman charts the decline of Euro-American geopolitical optimism

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

A more accurate title for this book would be "The Rise and Fall of the Western Win-Win Theory of Globalization." It's not really until two-thirds of the way through the book that zero-sum theory of the title is broached. Which suggests that marketing considerations trumped editorial ones in positioning the book (the notion that American-led globalization has not exactly turned out as planned is not exactly a news flash, after all), or a lack of editorial supervision in telescoping the book into tighter, sharper parameters. Or both.

Not that this is a plodding read. Journalist Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, produces informed and readable prose. Almost too readable: the approximately 10-page, 24 chapters that comprise the book read a bit like extended "leaders," those finely crafted editorials one finds at the front of the Economist, Rachman's former employer. The effect is to make Zero-Sum Future feel like a collection of magazine articles. Perfect for a transcontinental flight, perhaps. But not a fully satisfying book.

Zero-Sum Future is transcontinental in other ways too. Like Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights (2002), this is a view of the world at 30,000 feet. Rachman peppers his analysis with first-hand observations gleaned at Davos conferences and meetings with senior economic and political figures, which lends his analysis an air of authority. But his wisdom is thoroughly conventional.

Rachman's three-part story is clear enough. Once upon a time in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led their nations in shaking off their Keynsian torpor and spread the Good News of the Market beyond their borders (he calls this "the age of transformation"). By the 1990s, their success became common sense among not only the elites of the West, but apparently those of the East, too (this was "the age of optimism"). But in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan and the market crash of 2008, what once seemed like the stubborn refusal of Communist China to align its authoritarian politics with liberal economics now seems like the prescient patience of the incipient hegemon. In this new "age of anxiety," Chinese logic is being applied in other places such as Russia and Venezuela. And the U.S. inability to keep its financial house in order will make it increasingly difficult to manage its military affairs as well. From this vantage point, the period bounded by the fall of the Berlin Wall (or, he posits, the first Iraq War) until 2008 seems like a golden age. Or maybe just Indian Summer.

Rachman doesn't have much more of a clue than the rest of us about what Americans or Europeans can do now. He notes that the U.S., China and other global powers have shared interests in controlling nuclear proliferation, and he notes China's growing willingness to participate in the United Nations bodes well for its future legitimacy. He wishes, like the rest of us, that the United States would address its severe and growing budgetary problems. But it's hard to escape the conclusion in finishing this book that there's not much we can do to stop the tides of history. On the other hand, you also finish it thinking that elite opinion is a little like the New England weather. If you don't like it, just wait. It will change.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An epic, in brief

In The Civil War: A Concise History, Louis P. Masur performs a masterful, and highly useful, act of distillation

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.
The Civil War is not a topic that inspires brevity. For a generation now, the standard one-volume work, James McPherson's magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom, clocks in at close to 900 pages (to McPherson's great credit, it reads faster than its length suggests). It's a measure of the marketplace that a forthcoming new edition of popular historian James L. Stokesbury's Short History of the Civil War is listed at 384 pages -- huge by non-Harry Potter standards. A decade ago, Reid Mitchell managed to cover the war in under 200, taking a thematic approach (and carrying an extortionate $26 current paperback price). The last few times I've taught a Civil War course, I've relied on the now-classic Ken Burns documentary as my primary narrative "text," packing a panoply of primary and secondary sources around it. Yet I've never regarded this as an entirely satisfactory arrangement for a number of reasons, not the least of which, interestingly enough, is a sense of video fatigue on the part of students.

So it's with a sense of real relief that I breezed my way through Louis Masur's svelte narrative, which manages to cover all the major bases in under 100 pages.  This is important because, again, there is so much to talk about when the subject is the Civil War, and yet having discussions is difficult without some kind of factual framework as a touchstone for the rich political, cultural, social, economic, and military dimensions of the conflict, among others. The war is so much more than the Battle of Antietam, but without a concise account of what happened on September 17, 1862, all kinds of other things, from U.S. foreign policy to Abraham Lincoln's extraordinary political skills, will remain murky.

Masur is an ideal guide. An able cultural historian on topics that range from capital punishment to Bruce Springsteen, he is also the editor of The Real War Will Never Get in the Books, an elegant anthology of primary sources notable for the quality of its apparatus as well as its brevity. (Alas, it too has gotten expensive -- the hour of mass downloading better arrive soon, because academic publishers are going to destroy themselves if they can't find a better way to serve a captive student market than jacking up prices to compensate for used books and photocopiers.) Masur's deft touch is reflected in the judicious way he mines his material, which includes analysis for the set of illustrations included in the text.

The core strategy, and the core virtue, of this book is chronology. Each year of the war gets a chapter of anywhere from ten to fifteen pages, which leaves an instructor room to augment it (or not, as the case may be) with any manner of supplemental materials. The narrative is prefaced by an introductory chapter on the origins of the war, which is usefully divided into "long-term origins," "short-term origins," and "triggers." It book concludes with a final chapter on the year 1865 and its aftermath, which includes a graceful distillation of Reconstruction.

A former student of McPherson, Masur follows the main interpretive line in contemporary treatments of the Civil War -- which means, among other things, attention to the reluctant and unwitting transformation of Northern and Southern society wrought by the war, particularly in the realm of race relations. But he makes a novel argument that Reconstruction was effectively over by 1870, years before the Hayes-Tilden presidential election in 1876 that is usually considered the punctuation mark of the era. One finishes this book, whether read over the course of hours or months, with a sense of having traced the outlines of a vast historiographic territory.

It was Walt Whitman, who presides over the epilogue here, who said "the real war will never get in the books." But that's never stopped people, Whitman among them, from trying -- real hard and at real length. But Masur makes it look easy in doing much by saying little. As a result, he aid us in our impossible, but necessary, attempts to comprehend the ineffable.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A newly published essay

Common-Place, an online magazine covering U.S. history prior to 1900, has just published an excerpt from my work-in-progress, "Sensing History: Hollywood Actors as Historians." The excerpt comes from the introduction. I'd be grateful if you had a look. --JC

Thursday, January 20, 2011

'Blood,' run cold

In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis shows how greed as an end in itself is, well, an end

The following post is part of a work-in-progress about Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.

Daniel Plainview, the protagonist Daniel Day-Lewis portrays in There Will Be Blood, projects a paradoxical sense of self-containment. But more than any of his predecessors in Day-Lewis's canon of characters, he moves deliberatively toward the fixed objective of mastering an independent domain, seizing opportunities and exploiting them with an element of calm deliberation that seems less reactive than his roles as John Proctor, Hawkeye, Bill Cutting, or even Newland Archer, all of whom are responding to events rather than consciously shaping them. Day-Lewis is able to convey this sense of methodical purpose without uttering a word; indeed, in a splendidly audacious piece of filmmaking, the first 18 minutes of There Will be Blood is silent, literally evoking the early days of the film, but in full color with brilliant sunlight desert landscapes and the unnerving soundtrack of Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame).   In calm but nevertheless fast-paced sequence that moves from 1898 to 1912, we watch Plainview begin as a sole wildcatter to building a small business. When one of his workers accidently gets killed when equipment falls down a well, Plainview adopts the child, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) as his own. We quickly realize that whatever his personal motives may have been, such a move is a shrewd investment, because it allows him to depict himself as a family man when he seeks leases from individual Californians to drill on their property. (The first time we hear him speak is to make a sales pitch with the boy at his side; the cacophony of greedy squabbling – and Plainview’s departure – that follows happens to be one of the scenes from the novel.)
Over the course of the story, Plainview shows real devotion to the child, even though his work comes first, and even though his work will exact a price on his adoptive son, when a gushing derrick injures the by making him permanently deaf. He also shows some devotion to that which the child is devoted. When Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who has a major role in the novel but a minor one in the movie, arrives at his office to say that his family property is likely to have oil under it, father and son visit the Sundays under the pretense of quail hunting. It is here that the two meet Eli Sunday (also played by Dano, which I will confess confused me for a while) and Mary Sunday (Sydney McCallister), who will eventually become H.W.’s wife. When Plainview learns from his son that the family patriarch, Abel Sunday (David Willis), is abusing Mary, Plainview quietly but effectively threatens him amid the celebration that follows the opening of the pumping operation. Noting the new dress he’s bought her in front of her father, Plainview asks, “Daddy doesn’t hit you anymore, does he?” When she shakes her head no, he adds, “Better not. I’ll take care of you. No more hitting, right?” Abel’s humiliation in this scene is complete – and thrilling. Plainview’s power is such that it’s hard not be moved when deployed for good ends, even as we know he’s not a very good man.
In some sense, Plainview’s virtue is beside the point: it’s that power that compels our attention – and, perhaps, our reluctant admiration. Yet at the very moment of his triumph we begin to see him unravel. Some corporate types offer to buy Plainview out; they’re literally and figuratively seeking to capitalize on his hard work, but they’re also willing to make him a millionaire in the process. But Plainview will have none of it: What would he do then? I don’t know, one of the men, H.M. Tilford (Daniel Warshofsky) tells him more than once, you could spend more time your boy. This is an innocuous remark, part of a set of essentially polite remarks about H.W.’s handicap that Tilford makes as part of his sales pitch. But Plainview’s reaction is utterly irrational. “Did you just tell me how to run my family?” he asks in his voice of quiet rage. “One night I’m going to come into your house, wherever you’re sleeping, and cut your throat.” Tilford is stunned. “What are you talking about?” he asks. “Have you gone crazy, Daniel?”
Not entirely, but he’s on his way. With a mania that seems as much a matter of spite, Plainview not only refuses to sell but builds a pipeline to the Pacific so that he can retain control over the flow of his oil. He still cares about his family, but does so in a dysfunctional way, sending H.W. away to a special school against the boy’s will.  When a man shows up claiming to be his long lost brother Henry, (Kevin J. O’Connor) Plainview accepts him into the fold.  One night he confides to Henry, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” He takes comfort in Henry’s company. But when he figures out, at the moment of his triumph, that Henry is not in fact his brother, Plainview’s reaction is utterly remorseless in its savagery.
It turns out that there are people in Plainview’s life that can be a ruthless as he is. When proprietor (Colton Woodward) of the so-called “Bandy tract” that Plainview covets finally agrees to sell his land, he blackmails Plainview into baptism at Eli Sunday’s church, an opportunity Eli makes the most of in avenging his humiliations at Plainview’s hands. But these setbacks are merely temporary and amusing; what’s unnerving is the way Plainview’s emotional and material avarice twist him into madness and self-destruction.  In the last half-hour of the film, which is principally set at the Plainview estate in 1927, we watch the now-alcoholic Plainview alienate H.W. for good by revealing that his son is not actually his child in a cruelly calculating manner. We also see a blackly comical showdown with the slick but desperate Eli, in which Plainview reveals he’s sucked wealth right out from under the preacher – the screenplay dialogue “I drink your milkshake!” is adapted from actual testimony in the Teapot Dome Scandal – and culminates in a final scene of grisly violence that shows Plainview is beyond redemption. The acquisitive imperatives at the heart of the frontier mentality, unmoored from any broader social, cultural, or affective ties, devour those who embrace them. The frontier, which more than anything else was a state of mind, has become an addictive, end in its own right, and mindless nihilism as a result. Bill the Butcher died for something; Hawkeye and Newland Archer lived for something. But Daniel Plainview lost his way sucking wealth from the land. The frontier may not be closed, but his mind has.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Monday morning fan

On being a team non-player

I've just finished watching the New York Jets -- my team of 35 seasons, going back to childhood bleacher seats watching the twilight of Joe Namath -- defeat the New England Patriots in the divisional playoff of the 2010 season. And I am utterly exhausted. Watching games like that are not really fun. Yes, of course, there are thrilling moments of excitement, and I finally allowed myself to breathe in the final minute, when I believed that they really were going to win it. But a Jets game is usually a matter of three or so hours of stress.

The real pleasure in a Jets win comes after the game is over. It's having the leading commentators and sports writers to talk about it. Listening to the fans on sports radio savor it. Wearing the colors on my baseball cap with pride. The sense of quiet contentment that comes from that is the real payback for the anguish of the game.

I realize that my way of thinking about all of this may sound a bit unorthodox. But it nevertheless points toward the bizarre reality of sports fandom, which involves relinquishing one's sense of emotional well-being to the vicissitudes of fate. Football, like all sports, is only a game, but a game is by definition an event whose outcome is, no matter how great the apparent mismatch, uncertain. Sometimes uncertainty seems like a pretty scarce commodity in modern life, in which so much is planned, slotted, seemingly inevitable. And to the extent it isn't, uncertainty is more often than not a source of unease, if not alarm. But in sports uncertainty is bearable, even pleasurable, because at the end of the day it really doesn't matter. Only a game. So when the Jets lose -- which, in the course of my life, they've done more often than they've won -- I usually can get on with my life for a week and avoid sports radio, the newspaper, and the ribbing of my friends.

But not this week. For now, I get another week of psychic dividends. Can't be sure that will be true after the game in Pittsburgh next Sunday. So I'm going to steal it and savor it -- and talk about it -- while it's still fun.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oil!, refined

The tranformation of an Upton Sinclair novel into There Will Be Blood

The following post is part of a larger work in progress about Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.

At first glance, Daniel Plainview, the fourth figure in Daniel Day-Lewis’s American gallery, marks a return to the fierce intensity of John Proctor in The Crucible, Nathaniel Poe/Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, and William Cutting/Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. He is, moreover, a bona fide westerner – about as western you can get: a Californian (the genuine frontier article, which is to say a transplant).  In this movie, he arrives after the frontier in 1898, five years after Turner delivered his famous “Significance of the Frontier” address, and almost a decade after the frontier was declared closed. But starting out in the rocky desert of the Golden State, he is a pathfinder nonetheless, the prophet of a new frontier who connects a promised land to the Pacific. His name is deceptively simple in its remorseless clarity: Daniel Plainview. His rise – and, significantly, his fall – is charted in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood.
Like most Day-Lewis projects, this one is grounded, albeit loosely, in on old literary source, the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil! Sinclair (pictured above left) first came to fame on the strength of his 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle, which detailed the often appalling state of the meatpacking industry and led a reluctant President Theodore Roosevelt, who preferred to lead than follow in forcing social reform, to sign the Pure Food and Drug Act the same year. Sinclair had a very long and commercially successful career that stretched well into the 1950s, but The Jungle is the really the only novel for which he is remembered today. (“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach,” is his famous line on the book.”) Actually, Sinclair could write prose of riveting social realism, but tended to undercut it with a didactic impulse that often veered into propaganda. That’s what happened in The Jungle, which ends as a virtual Socialist tract – Sinclair ran unsuccessfully for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934, with a platform to End Poverty in California (EPIC) – and these traits are evident in Oil! as well. The novel tells the story of James Arnold Ross, a fictionalized composite character partially resembling Edward Doheny through the eyes of his son, Ross Jr., nicknamed “Bunny.” A former teamster and merchant, we meet the Ross and his son in 1912 as he gets his start in petroleum drilling. Over the course of the next fifteen years he becomes a major operator, reluctantly drawn into a cartel whose illegal activities culminate in the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which naval oil reserves in Wyoming were leased to private operators in exchange for a bribe.[1] The scandal did much to tarnish the administration of President Warren Harding, whose reputation waned rapidly after his unexpected death in 1923.
Oil! had been culturally dormant for decades when it was discovered by Eric Schlosser, a modern-day muckraker whose expose Fast Food Nation garnered a good deal of attention when it was published in 2001. (Schlosser in effect did to French fries what Sinclair did for ground beef.)[2] Not surprisingly, Schlosser was asked a lot about Sinclair, who he knew chiefly from The Jungle. Schlosser was nevertheless curious about his polemical godfather, and dipped into Sinclair’s vast body of work. He was particularly intrigued by Oil!, which he thought could make a good movie. So he optioned the rights from the Sinclair estate. At the same moment, it turned out there was someone else interested in the novel: the screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson had discovered Oil! in a used bookstore in London, where he was struggling with a screenplay, and was captivated by it. He contacted Schlosser and the two met to discuss the project. Although initially skeptical, Schlosser was impressed by Anderson’s vision.[3]
When Anderson began working on the project circa 2004, he was still only in his early thirties. He had made four of relatively small movies that were nevertheless hailed for their striking originality, among them Boogie Nights (1997) a surprisingly loving portrait of a group of pornographic filmmakers and Magnolia (1999), a sprawling family saga with seemingly disparate characters whose lives converge. The screenplay that Anderson eventually produced, renamed There Will Be Blood, would only use a sliver of Sinclair’s novel, principally the father-son relationship in the oil business and a clutch of incidents like the death of a worker on an oil derrick.
But the difference between novel and screenplay are about more than plot details. Oil! is at heart a story of labor. The main narrative line is that of Bunny’s gradual radicalization and the need to break free of his father’s loving but misguided hopes. Ross Sr. is certainly an arch capitalist, but one whose love for his son leads him to make allowances and tolerate people far different from even plutocratic allies to whom he tends to defer. In Anderson’s screenplay, however, the Ross character, now renamed Daniel Plainview, is a ruthless independent operator who proves as hostile to bigger operators as he does smaller ones. But his primary adversary in the movie are not workers or even fellow oil titans, but instead an evangelical preacher named Eli Sunday, a minor figure in the novel clearly patterned on the somewhat dubious preachers of the twenties like Aimee Semple McPherson (whose extramarital affair and claims of being kidnapped became a national joke). This is, in my view a mistake, and perhaps an illustration of the way that neoconservative politics and economics have impoverished our imagination about class conflict, which was much more vivid and urgent then than it is now. Philosophically pure plutocrats have always a bigger problem than hypocritical preachers, and Anderson’s elevation of Eli Sunday to a major character says more about the politics of the Bush era than it does the Harding era.[4]
Certainly the Daniel Plainview of Daniel Day-Lewis would have been as capable of staring down a labor leader as anybody else. Actually, Anderson wrote the screenplay with Day-Lewis in mind. Day-Lewis, for his part, had seen and liked Anderson’s 2002 film Punch Drunk Love, an unusual love story starring the unlikely figure of Saturday Night Live alumnus Adam Sandler. He signed on to the project even before the screenplay was finished. And as was true with his previous characters he made this one wholly his own – and indeed won his second Academy Award for it.

[1] Upton Sinclair, Oil! (1927; New York: Penguin, 2007). We learn of Ross’s background on p. 14. On Doheny, see Margaret Leslie Davis, The Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
[2] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Chapter 5 deals with the fries – or what passes for fries.
[3] Eric Schlosser, “’Oil!’ and the History of Southern California,” The New York Times, February 22, 2008. Accessed via
[4] My thinking on this matter has been influenced by Timothy Noah; see his piece “What’s Wrong with ‘There Will Be Blood,” Slate, January 3, 2008, accessed at (Dec. 17, 2010). Noah says at the outset that he had not read Sinclair’s novel; as I hope my remarks above make clear, I have.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Blood-colored foliage

In Red Herring, Archer Mayor updates a vibrant tradition of local color in crime fiction

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

To a surprising extent, contemporary crime fiction occupies a place on the literary landscape similar to that of local color writing in the late nineteenth century.  Back then, local colorists like Sarah Orne Jewett (Maine), Hamlin Garland (Ohio) or Bret Harte (California) sated the appetites of armchair travelers who craved the pleasures of particularity, whether out of a sense of nostalgia or an insistence on an alternative to the homogenizing impact of a national economy.  Nowadays, such cravings are as likely to be quenched by microbrews and bird-watching. But the impulses, for better or worse, are similar.

There are, of course, significant differences between crime novelists and local colorists. The latter were typically interested in rural life; crime novelists are almost always urban. Local color was an elite genre; crime fiction is the closest thing to a mass audience in publishing. But the underlying functions are similar.  Down-and-dirty Washington DC is as much a character as Derek Strange in the novels of George Pelancanos; ditto for Chicago/V.I. Warshawski for Sara Paretsky and Los Angeles/Harry Bosch for Michael Connelly. We also tend to take these writers' word for it when they describe the latest advances in forensics and other aspects of detective work, which often get a fillip of credibility with the list of thanks to law enforcement officials that fill the acknowledgment pages of their books.

Literally and figuratively, the novels of Archer Mayor are on the fringe of this world. His terrain is Vermont -- a state, not a city, and yet a state with a smaller population than many metropolises. (A jack of all trades, Mayor has performed various kinds of police work, including death investigator.)  His metier is the sub-genre of police procedural, conducted through the fictional organization of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI) headed by a decidedly dowdy figure named Joe Gunther. The Spenser of Robert B. Parker and Kinsey Millhone of Sue Grafton, though former police officers, stake their identity as free-ranging private investigators. Harry Bosch has an antagonistic relationship -- at best -- with the LAPD. But Joe Gunther is a company man. His unshakeable institutional commitment makes a difference in the organization for which he works, and the motley crew, like the psychically tortured and physically disabled veteran Willy Kunkle and his feisty partner, Sammie Martens, who pledge their loyalty to him as a result.

Mayor is a writer of quiet satisfactions. Yes, it is true that we witness any number of grisly crimes -- four murders in his latest novel alone, in a state which Gunther observes that there are typically only about a dozen annually -- and he goes out of his way to illustrate the seamier side of life, like predatory Internet chat rooms, in a place that the academic-minded tourist is likely to prize for its seemingly pristine distance from criminal activity. But it's in the quotidian moments, like when his protagonist gropes his way toward a conversational approach with families of murder victims, or intervenes in an internecine quarrel, or queries an expert from an avowed vantage of layman, that we gradually come to savor Gunther's fallible decency and Mayor's great care as a writer. We also get, in those long drives that Gunther takes from one end of the state to the other, plenty of that Vermont beauty that brings its own set of pleasures.

In Red Herring, the 21st Joe Gunther novel, the VBI gets involved in a string of seemingly unrelated deaths perplexingly connected by a dab of blood that does not come from any of the victims -- hence the title --  and emerges as the signature of a serial killer. When Gunther and Co. have the opportunity of availing themselves the advanced scientific techniques of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, they make a detour to Long Island that becomes part of the case. (As is often true of crime fiction, Mayor has his characters make such field trips; in the the 2002 novel The Sniper's Wife, for example, Willy Kunkle spends a substantial amount of time in Manhattan.) Gradually Gunther and his team connect dots that link crimes which, as it turns out, are motivated more by a desire to punish the survivors of these crimes than animus against the victims. The novel gradually builds narrative momentum, and the climax this time is both more forceful and open-ended than many of Mayor's previous novels.

The major reason for this is that Red Herring also devotes time, as all his novels do, to Gunther's personal life. A widower, he was for many books the partner of Gail Zigman, a rape survivor and local politician who is now running for governor. He also had a brief affair with the memorably sketched medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom in The Second Mouse (2006), who shows up here. But for the last few books his partner has been Lyn Silva, whose family was at the center of Mayor's last novel, The Price of Malice (2009). This time Lyn is both jealous of, and drawn to, Zigman. Their paths intersect on the campaign trail with fateful results.

As is true with many of these writers, it's possible to jump in at any point and work your way backward or forward. In a way, it's actually better to do this, because if you find a writer you like you can work through a body of work without waiting for the annual issue that is the standard interval for such books, as indeed it has been for Mayor for many years now. Joe Gunther is by no means the flashiest protagonist you're going to find in this genre. But he's someone whose company you will genuinely enjoy, and someone who can give you plausible belief in the ongoing vitality of American democracy in the corrupt, but still vital, provinces of this hard land.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Red State

In Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, Brian Hicks turns a tragic chapter of American history into a powerful family saga

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

The saga of the Cherokee in the first half of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Trail of Tears, is a vaguely familiar one to those with a survey of American history under their belts (or anyone lucky enough to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway before its closing at the end of the 2010 holiday season). Certainly the behavior of the federal government in this sorry affair is among its very worst failures to follow its own laws. In Toward the Setting Sun, journalist and popular historian Brian Hicks -- who, according to family lore, is descended from key Cherokee figures-- synthesizes this story, gives it a clear narrative arc, and positions it as a literal and figurative family saga.

Though only the chief who presided over the Cherokee migration, John Ross, is named in the title, Toward the Setting Sun has three principal characters spanning three generations. The first is Major Ridge, often referred to as "The Ridge," who rose to influence among the Cherokees on the basis of his firm resistance to land concessions to the United States, even as he fought alongside General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-1814 and in the First Seminole War of 1817-18. The second is the Ridge's protégé, Ross, who was more of a financial and political leader. Ross was ultimately elected to leadership of the Cherokees on a platform of implacable opposition to concessions amid growing pressure from the state of Georgia and the federal government. He also presided over the modernization of his people and the implementation of a U.S.-styled Constitution. Ross maintained his hard-line stance toward the U.S. even as The Ridge and the third major figure here, his son John, ultimately concluded that the Cherokees effectively had no choice but to migrate to what is now Oklahoma, John becoming a leader of that faction. Ironically, it was Ross's very opposition to the Ridges and their allies that made him the most credible among die-hard Cherokees to lead that migration in the late 1830s, which he did amid what proved to be a humanitarian disaster, and managed to survive all manner of internal and external challenges until his death in 1866.

In the course of telling this story, Hicks renders relatively familiar portraits of U.S. political figures like Jackson (ruthless but rational), John Calhoun (chilly but candid), John Marshall (helpful but self-interested), and John Quincy Adams (sympathetic but ineffectual). The real interest here is in the secondary characters, among them Cherokee Phoenix publisher Elias Boudinot and his brother, Stand Waitie, who would go on to a career as a Confederate general. We also get glimpses of the surprisingly sympathetic Davy Crockett (though this was probably a function of his antipathy to Jackson), and George Guess, also known as Sequoyah, who, as a western Cherokee for much of the story, is thus peripheral to it, notwithstanding his achievements as a linguist, which are touched on here.

The most obvious lesson of this book is that the mere threat of political and military coercion is usually sufficient to reveal -- or create -- fissures in a community. A divide-and-conquer strategy was a fixture of U.S. policy toward Native Americans since colonial times, usually abetted by bribes to those who would personally benefit at the expense of their fellow Indians. The tragedy here, as rendered by Hicks, is that figures like Ross and the Ridges were deeply principled people who refused to submit to such exploitation. Their growing rift, which ultimately led their supporters to murderous measures, were rooted in sincere differences about how to make the best of an impossible situation. Hicks is less interested in who was right, or in the fact that Ross, like many mixed-blood Cherokees, was a slaveholder.  His story is one of a people responding to a multifaceted imperialism, along with a testimonial to the resilience of a chieftain and his followers who managed to make a new life for themselves despite the oppressions they faced.

As back-cover testimonials from Jon Meacham and Nathaniel Philbrick attest, Toward the Setting Sun is a well-written, well-researched, and highly accessible narrative history. It is an excellent introduction to an important episode in U.S. history, and a gateway to further Native American study.

Monday, January 3, 2011

True Western

True Grit as a post-revisionist Western

In terms of the frequency of its production, at least, the Golden Age for the film genre of the Western was the 1950s. Ever since, a variety of critics and filmmakers have hailed any number of movies as "revisionist." Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the sixties (featuring the emerging Clint Eastwood); Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969); Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970): all were seen, at the time and since, as convention-shattering, even as they repeatedly referenced Western mythology. The genre went into eclipse through the seventies and eighties, exceptions like The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Dances with Wolves (1990) notwithstanding. Eastwood himself kick-started the genre again with Unforgiven (1992), which won the Academy Award Best Picture -- and, of course, was hailed with the same term.

Revisionism is a term that's various and elastic; sometimes it refers to attitudes toward violence, toward Native Americans, or simply toward the narrative conventions of the western itself. Occasionally even "classic" western filmmakers like John Ford are considered their own revisionist, as when Ford followed a paradigmatic Western like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with the valedictory Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Revisionism has come to mean everything, and thus nothing -- except perhaps a kind of condescension toward the past on the part of those who conflate "new" with "sophisticated" and "old" with "simplistic."

It is in this context that I very happily very happily viewed -- for what I hope will be the first of many screenings -- of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit last weekend. The Coens, who are among the most productive and satisfying filmmakers now working, nabbed a Best Picture Oscar for their 2007 project No Country for Old Men, a movie which, notwithstanding its 20th century setting, is essentially a western. True Grit, located in Choctaw territory in in the late 1870s, qualifies as a Western by just about any definition.

And it's here I will say flatly that True Grit is a post-revisionist Western. Yes, it is a remake of the 1969 movie starring John Wayne in a role that won him an Oscar on what was largely considered a collective sense of sentiment on the part of Academy members. (Jeff Bridges has the role of Rooster Cogburn this time, and makes it seem wholly his, and wholly effortless, as he always does.) And yes, the protagonist happens to be a fourteen year-old girl (played with really true grit by Hailee Steinfeld in an Oscar worthy performance herself). But there's no obvious effort to subvert, reconfigure, allegorize or anything else here -- except tell a very good story about a daughter trying to avenge the death of her father within the conventions of a genre that includes big landscapes, exciting shootouts, and rough justice administered with minimal government involvement. And lots of horses.

Of course, there are all kinds of nods to modern sensibilities here, ranging from the greater sense of agency on the part of the female character to the wry sense of humor that is the Coens' trademark. But they feel no need to somehow place nuance and beauty outside the boundaries of genre. The good guys, notably Bridges and the Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, have their limitations. The bad guys (notably Josh Brolin) have partially redeeming values, ranging from a sense of humor to the good sense to recognize a smart, tough girl when confronted by one. And the oddly formal, but compelling language of Charles Portis's 1968 novel is imported to give the movie a distinctive voice. But what True Grit does more than anything else is make a case for the Western as a viable mode of artistic communication in the 21st century. And it succeeds, in gorgeous, parched colors.

Good to know something still works in this country.