A Student of History

May 11, 2007

A Fun Dilema

Filed under: Great books — John Maass @ 6:53 pm

I’m going to be on my own for 8 days in Ireland again, starting Tuesday, and will have a lot of airplane time, and sitting in airports too.  That means–bring a good book.  However, I don’t want to lug around more than one, so I am deciding what to bring with me.

One choice is Bill Freehling’s second volume of his work on secession.  It is Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant.  It covers 1854-1861, a fascinating and exciting time and I am looking forward to getting lots of detail on this period.  I started to read it just to see how it flows, and it is….well, not so great.  I think his prose is too stilted, and he makes far too many anticipatory allusions with mildly tortured prose that I find it a little less than enjoyable to read.  Maybe I was tired when I tried it so I am going to give it another chance, but from what I have encountered so far, it is not a page turner. Here is what Oxford University Press says about it, underlines are mine:

It is one of the great questions of American history–why did the Southern states bolt from the Union and help precipitate the Civil War? Now, acclaimed historian William W. Freehling offers a new answer, in the final volume of his monumental history The Road to Disunion. Here is history in the grand manner, a powerful narrative peopled with dozens of memorable portraits, telling this important story with skill and relish. Freehling highlights all the key moments on the road to war, including the violence in Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brooks’s beating of Charles Sumner in the Senate chambers, the Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and much more. As Freehling shows, the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked a political crisis, but at first most Southerners took a cautious approach, willing to wait and see what Lincoln would do–especially, whether he would take any antagonistic measures against the South. But at this moment, the extreme fringe in the South took charge, first in South Carolina and Mississippi, but then throughout the lower South, sounding the drum roll for secession. Indeed, The Road to Disunion is the first book to fully document how this decided minority of Southern hotspurs took hold of the secessionist issue and, aided by a series of fortuitous events, drove the South out of the Union. Freehling provides compelling profiles of the leaders of this movement–many of them members of the South Carolina elite. Throughout the narrative, he evokes a world of fascinating characters and places as he captures the drama of one of America’s most important–and least understood–stories. 

OUP calls it “A compelling, vivid portrait of the final years of the antebellum South,” but so far it ain’t.

My second possibility is a bit far out of my field, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1609-1947 (Belknap, 2006).  At almost 700 pages, it is a whopper and that means quite a bit of time to invest in it.  However, the time span of the book makes me really interested, to show change over time on such a grand scale.  Moreover, I read Clark’s biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II (part of the “Profiles in Power” series) several years ago for a paper I did in one of Mark Grimsley’s courses I took at OSU, and was very impressed by it. 

Iron Kingdom

The press website describes the book as such:

There is also a NYT review of Clark’s book, which is favorable.

And to further complicate matters, I am supposed to receive on Monday a copy of John Ferling’s new book, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, also an OUP imprint.   This will be to review it for N.C. Historical Review.  So maybe I should bring that one along instead?  It is 700 pages too…..

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