A Student of History

December 20, 2007

Paper: Past makes the present understandable

Filed under: Early America,New books — John Maass @ 2:35 pm

Even USA Today gets it!  Here’s from their on-line version today:

Learning about the past makes the present so much more understandable. And comfort can be found in reading about how Americans have overcome previous challenges and even catastrophes.

This is a lead in to a story on 4 new history book titles, including Joe Ellis’ new book on the founders; Jon Kukla on Jefferson’s women; Steven Berry on Lincoln and his in-laws; and David Blight’s book on slavery and emancipation.

<STRONG><EM>Mr. Jefferson's Women</EM></STRONG><BR>By Jon Kukla<BR>Knopf, 276 pp., $26.95

December 6, 2007

John Adams, David McCullough, and Popular History

Filed under: Early America,New books,The Academy — John Maass @ 10:09 pm

For those interested in the debate that still seems to rage on the subject of popular vs. academic history, there’s an interesting article (although it is 2 years old now) entitled “The Unpopularity of Popular History in the Academy: An Academic’s Thoughts on David McCullough’s Visit to Campus,” Oakland Journal (Winter 2006): 9-26.  This obscure journal is from Oakland Univ., in Michigan and was written by Todd Estes, a professor of American history there.   The entire article can be accessed here.

The article is a good one and makes a number of points worth considering, especially about “what’s wrong” with popular history.  Estes is a good writer, but one should be forewarned that Estes focuses almost exclusively on that question, and largely avoids the opposite side of the debate: why doesn’t the reading public like/read/buy/acclaim academic history. As such, Estes article is quite one-sided, and in fact presents some debatable assertions.  He faults McCullough for focusing on Adams’ character and ignoring politics and ideology, failing to put Adams within his times.   I suspect many readers would disagree with this notion.  Perhaps Estes was looking too much for the esoterica so popular in history departments, which was not in John Adams.  Isn’t it OK to provide a solid general background to the story of a man’s life (as McCullough does), without getting into, say, the meanings of parades and fetes and political culture of the 1790s, an over-emphasis on cultural history?  Sure it is.  McCullough’s focus on character is not “obsessive” as Estes says, it is central to the story he wants to tell.

In fact, Estes doesn’t really like stories, and even sympathizes with another historian’s complaint about John Adams:  its “narrative, narrative, narrative.”  Leave it to two academics to bemoan the fact that a book has too much narrative, and tells a story.  Estes goes on to quote from a review of so-called “Founders Chic” (a term that I actually find to be useful, as does Estes) by academic historian David Waldstreicher of Temple University.  He is a prize-winning author of one of the most poorly written history books I have ever suffered through: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (1997).  This is not to say that Waldstreicher’s research is faulty or that he’s a bad academic–not at all, in fact, quite the contrary.  The problem is, his prose is abyssmal, the book is one of the driest examples of cultural history (a genre already on suspect foundations), and he doesn’t really tell a story.  Yes, he tells the reader (if they can manage through it, which over 2/3 of my graduate seminar could not in 2003) facts, interpretation, information.  But how ’bout some narrative!?!?  

This gets to an important point:  because academics focus on interpretation (which is fine) to distraction, narrative and story suffer.  Hence, nobody reads their books!  Maybe there’s the rub, as noted in a Slate column several years ago called “That Barnes and Noble Dream.”  Doing history the way academics do means little public interest, no sales, and irrelevance–not to mention bitter jealousies toward folks like McDonough and Tuchman who actually write well about interesting topics.   Estes fails to engage with this question about why most folks detest academic histories, especially those that are written as salvos in petty historiographical wars of no interest and little meaning.

See also my previous post on this issue from 2006.

December 3, 2007

Howe Interview

Filed under: Early America,New books — John Maass @ 1:09 pm

Daniel W. Howe’s book, What Hath God Wrought, continues to generate a lot of talk in the book world.  For an interview of Howe by the National Review, click here.

November 23, 2007

Top Books

Filed under: Great books,New books — John Maass @ 4:35 pm

Below are the non-fiction selections in the “Top 100 Books” list from the NYT Book Review:

AGENT ZIGZAG: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal. By Ben Macintyre. (Harmony, $25.95.) The exploits of Eddie Chapman, a British criminal who became a double agent in World War II.

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE: A Life. By Hugh Brogan. (Yale University, $35.) Brogan’s combative biography takes issue with Tocqueville’s misgivings about democracy.

ALICE: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. By Stacy A. Cordery. (Viking, $32.95.) A biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s shrewd, tart-tongued older daughter.

AMERICAN CREATION: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. By Joseph J. Ellis. (Knopf, $26.95.) This history explores an underappreciated point: that this country was constructed to foster arguments, not to settle them.

THE ARGUMENT: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. By Matt Bai. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) An exhaustive account of the Democrats’ transformative efforts, by a political reporter for The New York Times Magazine.

ARSENALS OF FOLLY: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. By Richard Rhodes. (Knopf, $28.95.) This artful history focuses on the events leading up to the pivotal 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE ART OF POLITICAL MURDER: Who Killed the Bishop? By Francisco Goldman. (Grove, $25.) The novelist returns to Guatemala, a major inspiration for his fiction, to try to solve the real-life killing of a Roman Catholic bishop.

BROTHER, I’M DYING. By Edwidge Danticat. (Knopf, $23.95.) Danticat’s cleareyed prose and unflinching adherence to the facts conceal an undercurrent of melancholy in this memoir of her Haitian family.

CIRCLING MY MOTHER. By Mary Gordon. (Pantheon, $24.) Gordon’s deeply personal memoir focuses on the engaged and lively Catholicism of her mother, a glamorous career woman who was also an alcoholic with a body afflicted by polio.

CLEOPATRA’S NOSE: 39 Varieties of Desire. By Judith Thurman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.95.) These surgically analytic essays of cultural criticism showcase themes of loss, hunger and motherhood.

CULTURAL AMNESIA: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts. By Clive James. (Norton, $35.) Essays on 20th-century luminaries by one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals.

THE DAY OF BATTLE: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy. By Rick Atkinson. (Holt, $35.) A celebration of the American experience in these campaigns.

THE DIANA CHRONICLES. By Tina Brown. (Doubleday, $27.50.) The former New Yorker editor details the sordid domestic drama that pitted the Princess of Wales against Britain’s royal family.

THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCE: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War. By Graham Robb. (Norton, $27.95.) Robb presents France as a group of diverse regions, each with its own long history, intricate belief systems and singular customs.

DOWN THE NILE: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. By Rosemary Mahoney. (Little, Brown, $23.99.) Mahoney juxtaposes her solo rowing journey with encounters with the Egyptians she met.

DRIVEN OUT: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. By Jean Pfaelzer. (Random House, $27.95.) How the Chinese were brutalized and demonized in the 19th-century American West — and how they fought back.

DUE CONSIDERATIONS: Essays and Criticism. By John Updike. (Knopf, $40.) Updike’s first nonfiction collection in eight years displays breathtaking scope as well as the author’s seeming inability to write badly.

EASTER EVERYWHERE: A Memoir. By Darcey Steinke. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) A minister’s daughter confronts her own spiritual rootlessness.

EDITH WHARTON. By Hermione Lee. (Knopf, $35.) This meticulous biography shows Wharton’s significance as a designer, decorator, gardener and traveler, as well as a writer.

THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. By Tom Bissell. (Pantheon, $25.) Bissell mixes rigorous narrative accounts of the war and emotionally powerful scenes of the distress it brought his own family.

THE FLORIST’S DAUGHTER. By Patricia Hampl. (Harcourt, $24.) In her fifth and most powerful memoir, Hampl looks hard at her relationship to her Midwestern roots as her mother lies dying in the hospital.

FORESKIN’S LAMENT: A Memoir. By Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $24.95.) With scathing humor and bitter irony, Auslander wrestles with his Jewish Orthodox roots.

GOMORRAH: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. By Roberto Saviano. Translated by Virginia Jewiss. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) This powerful work of reportage started a national conversation in Italy when it was published there last year. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. By Wilfrid Sheed. (Random House, $29.95.) A rich homage to Gershwin, Berlin and other masters of the swinging jazz song.

HOW DOCTORS THINK. By Jerome Groopman. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.) Groopman takes a tough-minded look at the ways in which doctors and patients interact, and at the profound problems facing modern medicine.

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. By James L. Kugel. (Free Press, $35.) In this tour through the Jewish scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament, more or less), a former professor of Hebrew seeks to reclaim the Bible from the literalists and the skeptics.

HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ. By Pierre Bayard.Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. (Bloomsbury, $19.95.) A French literature professor wants to assuage our guilt over the ways we actually read and discuss books.

IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. By Rajiv Chandrasekaran. (Knopf, $25.95.) The author, a Washington Post journalist, catalogs the arrogance and ineptitude that marked America’s governance of Iraq.

THE INVISIBLE CURE: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. By Helen Epstein. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Rigorous reporting unearths new findings among the old issues.

LEGACY OF ASHES: The History of the CIA. By Tim Weiner. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for The New York Times.

LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. By Steven Bach. (Knopf, $30.) How Hitler’s favorite director made “Triumph of the Will” and convinced posterity that she didn’t know what the Nazis were up to.

LEONARD WOOLF: A Biography. By Victoria Glendinning. (Free Press, $30.) Glendinning shows Virginia Woolf’s accomplished husband as passionate, reserved and, above all, stoical.

A LIFE OF PICASSO: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. By John Richardson. (Knopf, $40.) The third, penultimate installment in Richardson’s biography spans a dauntingly complicated time in Picasso’s life and in European history.

LITTLE HEATHENS: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. By Mildred Armstrong Kalish. (Bantam, $22.) Kalish’s soaring love for her childhood memories saturates this memoir, which coaxes the reader into joy, wonder and even envy.

LONG WAY GONE: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. (Sarah Crichton/-Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.) A former child warrior gives literary voice to the violence and killings he both witnessed and perpetrated during the Sierra Leone civil war.

THE NINE: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. By Jeffrey Toobin. (Doubleday, $27.95.) An erudite outsider’s account of the cloistered court’s inner workings.

THE ORDEAL OF ELIZABETH MARSH: A Woman in World History. By Linda Colley. (Pantheon, $27.50.) Colley tracks the “compulsively itinerant” Marsh across the 18th century and several continents.

PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. By Joan Breton Connelly. (Princeton University, $39.50.) A scholar finds that religion meant power for Greek women.

RALPH ELLISON: A Biography. By Arnold Rampersad. (Knopf, $35.) Ellison was seemingly cursed by his failure to follow up “Invisible Man.”

THE REST IS NOISE: Listening to the Twentieth Century. By Alex Ross. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) In his own feat of orchestration, The New Yorker’s music critic presents a history of the last century as refracted through its classical music.

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS: A Biography. By David Michaelis. (Harper/ Harper-Collins, $34.95.) Actual “Peanuts” cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man.

SERVICE INCLUDED: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. By Phoebe Damrosch. (Morrow, $24.95.) A memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se.

SOLDIER’S HEART: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. By Elizabeth D. Samet. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) A civilian teacher at the Military Academy offers a significant perspective on a crucial social and political force: honor.

STANLEY: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. By Tim Jeal. (Yale University, $38.) Of the many biographies of Henry Morton Stanley, Jeal’s, which profits from his access to an immense new trove of material, is the most complete and readable.

THE STILLBORN GOD: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. (Knopf, $26.) With nuance and complexity, Lilla examines how we managed to separate, in a fashion, church and state.

THOMAS HARDY. By Claire Tomalin. (Penguin Press, $35.) Tomalin presents Hardy as a fascinating case study in mid-Victorian literary sociology.

TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton. By Sara Wheeler. (Random House, $27.95.) The story of the man immortalized in “Out of Africa.”

TWO LIVES: Gertrude and Alice. By Janet Malcolm. (Yale University, $25.) Sharp criticism meets playful, absorbing biography in this study of Stein and Toklas.

THE WHISPERERS: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. By Orlando Figes. (Metropolitan, $35.) An extraordinary look at the gulag’s impact on desperate individuals and families struggling to survive. (Review will be available Friday evening, Nov. 23.)

THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. By Saul Friedländer. (HarperCollins, $39.95.) Individual testimony and broader events are skillfully interwoven.

November 21, 2007

Preaching Eugenics

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 12:42 pm

About a year old, but this review is not to be missed:

In Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen has produced a first-rate, highly informative study of the American clergy’s involvement in eugenics from the 1880s through the 1920s. Ever since Hitler’s day, eugenics has been linked with Nazism, but Rosen demonstrates how it was first promoted by a clergy that preached the gospel of Progress. Having embraced a “higher criticism” of the Bible that drained Christianity of its supernatural substance, these clergy now gave Christ a Judas-kiss by teaching that His Kingdom would be realized not in Heaven, but on earth, by means of the compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.” One cannot help but reflect that this clergy was the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood clergy — who serve as chaplains in abortuaries, publish articles that purport to reconcile the Bible with abortion, and hold annual prayer breakfasts on television to celebrate the carnage.

Preaching Eugenics

November 15, 2007

More on Howe

Filed under: Early America,New books — John Maass @ 1:48 pm

Following up on my prior post on Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, the newest volume in the Oxford “History of the United States” series, there is a related article by Howe on HNN.  It starts:

I have just finished writing a thick book about a comparatively thin slice of history:  What Hath God Wrought:  The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  Am I any the wiser for having done so?  I’m sure that I am—for my book did not simply confirm in detail a set of preconceived hypotheses.  I wrote the book to tell a story, not to demonstrate the truth of an argument.  Now that it is done, I am starting to comprehend the implications of its story.
I wrote the book in response to an invitation from Oxford University Press to contribute a volume to their series called “The Oxford History of the United States.”  Some volumes in the series had already appeared, so I knew they were all big books with strong narratives.  I also knew I wanted to combine traditional history (political, diplomatic, and military events) with the newer kinds of history (social, cultural, economic) that had attracted so many historians in recent years.  Both are essential, I am convinced, to a full understanding of the past.  I also knew that I wanted to address (for the first time in my career) not only other historians and their students, but the general literate public.

Also, see a review of the book in the Washington Post, by Jonathan Yardley.

November 8, 2007

Lepore on “What Hath God Wrought”

Filed under: Early America,New books — John Maass @ 11:47 am

In a previous post, I noted the publication of Daniel Walker Howe’s new book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (Oxford; $35).  It is part of the Oxford History of the US series, now (hopefully) coming to completion.

Jill Lepore

In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore has a review of this massive tome.  She says:

“What Hath God Wrought” is both a capacious narrative of a tumultuous era in American history and a heroic attempt at synthesizing a century and a half of historical writing about Jacksonian democracy, antebellum reform, and American expansion.

Here is the publisher’s own description of this book:

The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought , historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent. 

Howe’s panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America’s economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs–advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans–were the true prophets of America’s future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women’s rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe’s story of American expansion culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States.  By 1848 America had been transformed. What Hath God Wrought provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs and Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln .

November 6, 2007

Easter Rising 1916

Filed under: Ireland,New books — John Maass @ 9:33 am

H-War has just published a book review I wrote on Charles Townsend’s Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (2006). 

This can be viewed at http://www.h-net.org/~war/.

October 25, 2007

Reading the Man

Filed under: Early America,New books,The strange place called the South — John Maass @ 11:18 am

The LyceumOn Wed. night I attended a presentation made at the Alexandria Historical Society at the Lyceum, by Elizabeth Pryor.  She is the author of Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters.  It was excellent, as Ms. Pryor is a superb presenter (if not sufficiently loud!) and has done a remarkable job with the “truck letters” recently found at Burke & Herbert Bank in Alexandria.  Among the more interesting points she made:

  • Lee was pro-slavery (this flies in the face of some well-know Lee quotes)
  • Lee was bitter after the war
  • He regretted his decision to enter a military career
  • Lee may actually have been born in 1806, not 1807
  • Lee’s religious beliefs were complicated and evolving

Here’s some info from the publisher:

Robert E. Lee’s war correspondence is well known, and here and there personal letters have found their way into print, but the great majority of his most intimate messages have never been made public. These letters reveal a far more complex and contradictory man than the one who comes most readily to the imagination, for it is with his family and his friends that Lee is at his most candid, most engaging, and most vulnerable. Over the past several years historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor has uncovered a rich trove of unpublished Lee materials that had been held in both private and public collections. Her new book, a unique blend of analysis, narrative, and historiography, presents dozens of these letters in their entirety, most by Lee but a few by family members. Each letter becomes a departure point for an essay that shows what the letter uniquely reveals about Lee’s time or character. The material covers all aspects of Lee’s life—his early years, West Point, his work as an engineer, his relationships with his children and his slaves, his decision to join the South, his thoughts on military strategy, and his disappointments after defeat in the Civil War. The result is perhaps the most intimate picture to date of Lee, one that deftly analyzes the meaning of his actions within the context of his personality, his relationships, and the social tenor of his times.

Robert E. Lee Photograph

September 12, 2007

Whatever You Resolve to Be

Filed under: New books,Wars — John Maass @ 6:46 am

Here is a link to the book review I wrote for H-CivilWar of Wilson Greene’s Whatever You Resolve to Be: Essays on Stonewall Jackson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.) 

Wilson Greene’s well-written volume is a collection of five essays on various aspects of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and his involvement in the American Civil War. While certainly not a hagiography, this study is by and large a favorable assessment of Jackson’s performance during the Civil War, even during the Seven Days battles in 1862. Lucid prose is surely Greene’s strongest asset, which no doubt will make this book appealing to a general audience. Scholars of the war and Jackson’s role in it will also find the essays of interest as well, although they are not without their shortcomings.

September 8, 2007

Rush’s Lancers

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 9:27 pm

Eric Wittenburg’s new book on Rush’s Lancers is very favorably received here.

June 28, 2007

Our First Revolution

Filed under: Early America,New books — John Maass @ 6:27 pm

In the Washington Post‘s book section of June 24th, biographer H. W. Brands reviews Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, a book by Michael Barone about England’s Glorious Revolution of the 1680s.

Publisher’s Weekly states: “The author describes the origins of the revolution, a mostly bloodless change of government, as a mixture of religious, political and diplomatic factors. King James II’s Roman Catholicism, hostility to Parliament, and French sympathies alienated an increasing number of his powerful subjects including John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, who invited Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange and his wife, Mary, James’s sister, to intervene. Among the revolution’s consequences was a Bill of Rights that limited the monarch’s powers and strengthened representative government.”

The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers

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