Review of: Grant, by Ron Chernow

It was something of a Greek tragedy: A man of humble origins seeking his fortune stumbles again and again, but then the advent of a great war plucks him from obscurity and he gains heroic renown as the architect of magnificent battlefield victories, which in GRANTpeacetime catapults him to the pinnacle of authority, as ruler of the land.  But he dares to flirt with the hubris that his talent as a military commander will endow him with the sagacity to govern, which it surely does not. Tarnished by scandal, he abandons the ship of state to embark instead upon a grand journey across the globe, all the while plotting a return to power, which upon his homecoming is just within his grasp before it slips away forever. He then consoles himself with a lavish private life, amassing great riches, but is bilked by a charlatan, loses everything, and is reduced to abject poverty. Just then, when he is at his lowest ebb, the great hero suffers still another blow, as he is struck down by an illness with no cure. But he perseveres through many months of terrible suffering, penning a magnificent epic that he completes just before his death which restores his reputation and rescues his family from privation. His funeral is a national event, and his body is later entombed in a grand mausoleum that serves as a landmark for many generations to come.

That great hero was Ulysses S. Grant, and who could be better suited to resurrect his significance for a modern audience than Ron Chernow, author of acclaimed biographies of Hamilton and Washington? Chernow largely succeeds is this superbly written, glorious treatment of Grant’s life that is flawed only in its sometime lack of objectivity for its subject. Those who have read Chernow’s magisterial Hamilton will be encouraged to know that while this one is no less brilliant, it is a much more fast-moving narrative, not bogged down by the minutiae that often made that earlier, distinguished yet wordy tome slow-going. Still, at nearly a thousand pages, Grant, while hardly a brick, nevertheless remains quite the commitment.

In his time, Grant was the most famous man in America and nearly as celebrated abroad. He was considered by many to be not only one of the greatest generals of his era, but of all of history.  He was praised almost equally for his prowess in battle as he was for his magnanimity to the forces of the defeated. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s murder, he stood at once as both a symbol of reconciliation with the conquered south, and a savior for the millions of formerly enslaved left to the mercy—and frequent brutality—of their former masters.  With Lincoln dead and the postwar power of Reconstruction in the hands of the accidental President Andrew Johnson—whose hatred (and envy!) of southern white elites was matched only by his loathing of newly emancipated blacks—the entire nation, including the defeated south, looked to Grant as Lincoln’s authentic descendant as a moderate dedicated to reconciliation and the rebuilding of a fractured nation. A Congress controlled by the Radical Republican wing went to war with Johnson, who at first seemed hell-bent on punishing the former rebels—in opposition to the spirit of Appomattox inspired by Lincoln and decreed by Grant—but later swung to a position that was nearly diametrically opposed, championing the restoration of political privileges for ex-Confederates while almost gleefully trampling upon rights newly granted to formerly enslaved African Americans. Johnson barely survived impeachment, but his political career was over. Grant was the anointed, and soon the general who had beaten Robert E. Lee and saved the union—a man who had not that long before been forced out of the peacetime army for alcoholism and had endured such failure in private life that he had been reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s store—was the President of the United States.

So why is it that a hundred years later, when I was studying history in grade school, did Grant barely earn a mention beyond the requisite reference to Appomattox? How did someone so famous and so significant become so overlooked?  It turns out that this has a lot more to do with the staying power of the south’s “Lost Cause” myth—once again resurgent in right-wing politics—than in Grant’s actual legacy.

Modern scholarship has debunked every aspect of the Lost Cause mythology, an ahistorical fiction devised by postwar Confederate political and military elites to supplant history with a make-believe heritage that falsely denies the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, and posits that the south bravely fought for a glorious cause with far better generals, but only met defeat due to prodigious northern resources and an overwhelming number of bluecoats. It also holds that Reconstruction was an oppressive period dominated by rapacious northern carpetbaggers who pillaged the defeated south, and saw coarse, uneducated blacks herded to polling places to serve as tools of northern interests to maintain political control over a conquered people.  Grant, as a key player in the conflict and its aftermath, naturally figures in much of this myth-making and suffers as the result. Chernow’s Grant seeks to set the record straight.

In fact, both sides had an excess of bad generals and a dearth of competent ones, but—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—most eyes were focused on the eastern theater, where a series of mediocre Union generals were derailed by the gifted Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants. But in the west, there were far more talented generals, most notably Grant, an understated strategic genius who assembled a string of victories. The same weekend that Meade famously defeated Lee at Gettysburg, Grant delivered what was a far more significant, decisive blow to the south at Vicksburg in a brilliant campaign studied by military strategists for decades to follow.  And then Grant came east, assuming control of all Union forces. The Lost Cause narrative casts Grant as “the butcher,” hurling blue lives senselessly into rebel lines, but the reality was that Grant had a grand strategy to defeat Lee that never wavered, and the result was Appomattox. Renowned historian Gary Gallagher rightly praises Lee as perhaps the finest field general of the war, but credits Grant as its greatest soldier.

There is nothing new in Chernow’s bold account of Grant’s war years—which closely mirrors the current scholarly consensus—but his fast-paced narrative skillfully restores to life the drama of an often rumpled but rarely ruffled hero with a preternaturally quiet confidence who could frequently see the war through the eyes of his opponents and turn that advantage into repeated triumphs.  Chernow starts with the young Ulysses, rescued from his dysfunctional family by West Point and the Mexican War, and rescued once more by his love for Julia, a plain, cross-eyed, slaveowner’s daughter whom Grant is smitten by. When he is separated from Julia, he drinks, and drink is his downfall. Chernow treats Grant’s alcoholism more carefully and clinically than most biographers. Unlike most alcohol abusers, Grant was neither a daily nor a binge drinker, but rather someone incapable of a single glass of spirits without getting falling-down drunk. This handicap, in an age when people commonly drank to great excess, was a calamity for Grant that forced him out of the service early in his career and hounded his reputation for the rest of his life, although it seems that he rarely drank at all.

Grant appears to have been extremely skilled in three areas: riding horses, commanding armies, and—which was not evident until near the end of his life—literary endeavors. In most other pursuits, he was mediocre or failing, and that is how the war found him, just barely scraping by. He proved to be an impressive commander, but most superiors dismissed him or plotted to remove him, except for a scant few that included, most notably, Abraham Lincoln, who wisely observed that unlike virtually all of his peers Grant not only never gave up, but always went after a retreating enemy. Grant was to become Lincoln’s general, and Lincoln let him win the war. Chernow’s Grant is another addition to the recent scholarship that has restored Grant to his rightful place as a military genius, a man who in his time was favorably compared to Napoleon and Caesar.

After the war, Grant shielded Lee and others from persecution by a north driven vengeful by Lincoln’s assassination, but never wavered in his support of freed slaves cast adrift by emancipation to an uncertain future.  When Grant became President, after Johnson had derailed key elements of Reconstruction, it was Grant who used the power of the White House to protect blacks from waves of murder and terror by southern whites dedicated not only to denying them political rights but to reducing them to a new kind of servile status. It was Grant’s ultimate failure in this enterprise—in a tenure dominated by chaos and scandal—that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction. Throughout the south, ex-Confederate “redeemers” brutally terrorized blacks into submission as they recaptured control of state governments and institutionalized what came to be called Jim Crow. Actual history was sanitized, even erased, and a fictional Lost Cause version of the era came to falsely dominate the historiography for more than a century.   Modern scholarship has disclosed the truth about Reconstruction, and Chernow’s work successfully restores Grant to his central role in it.

If there is a fault, it is that the author clearly admires his subject just a bit too much. Grant’s military record in the war was blemished by his 1862 issue of General Order 11, which expelled Jews—suspected of war profiteering—from his military district. While Chernow rightly condemns this egregious action, he makes excuses for Grant’s decision that feel just a bit thin. And Chernow desperately wants us to revisit Grant’s presidency—which most rank poorly—with a far more favorable eye. But it is the author’s own careful chronicle as a meticulous historian that makes for the most compelling quarrel with his own thesis in this regard. While the virulently racist Andrew Johnson certainly sought to sever Reconstruction at its roots, it seems eminently clear from Chernow’s account that Reconstruction actually succumbed to a kind of death of a thousand cuts during Grant’s two terms in the White House.

That was certainly not his intent: Grant courageously went to war with the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and stood as protector-in-chief for terrorized blacks targeted by the Klan and other kindred groups, who sought “redemption” by restoring government and society to unreconstructed whites who adamantly refused to respect the rights of the formerly enslaved, at the ballot box and beyond. In this, he scored some early success, but in the long run it seems clear that this cause—and Grant himself—was defeated by his apparent lack of acumen for executive office. Out of his element, he struggled to navigate Washington politics. Himself utterly incorruptible, he was a terrible judge of people, and with few exceptions managed to surround himself with the dishonest and the incompetent. A brilliant mind in military matters turned out not to translate well into matters of civilian governance, as he managed to mimic the worst attributes of several unsuccessful future presidents. Like Hoover, he sometimes clung to ideology over practicality.  Like Carter, he frequently agonized and vacillated.  But, most damaging, like G.W. Bush, he felt an obligation to ever be the decision-maker, even when he was the least informed and least qualified to do so.  The result were two chaotic terms that rode upon his personal popularity but were repeatedly marked by an inconsistency in approach and execution that ultimately destroyed nearly everything he sought to achieve.

A weary Grant, worn down and frustrated by the burdens of eight years in office, was nevertheless widely celebrated as he travelled around the world. Still, he yearned for a return to the White House. That was not to be, but much worse disappointment was to follow. As easily hoodwinked by the corrupt out of office as he was while in power, he entrusted a swindler with his fortune and lost everything. He then developed a painful, lingering throat cancer that physically crippled him while he heroically held on to write his memoirs, a great literary achievement that was such a success that its sales after his death restored his family from poverty and renewed his own reputation.

For all his flaws, Ulysses S. Grant was a great hero and the nation owes his legacy a great debt long left unpaid. Perhaps second only to Lincoln, Grant led the effort to crush the rebellion, save the Union, and end human chattel slavery.  Without him, there might be no United States today. Chernow’s Grant is a remarkable achievement. It deserves to be read by every American.

 

 

Review of: In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, by Danny Goldberg

I was ten years old in the “Summer of Love” of 1967 and mostly unaware—if not entirely blissfully—of the cultural and political turbulence rocking our nation far beyond the confines of my comfortable New England middle-class home, where the sounds of Buck In Search of the Lost ChordOwens and the Buckaroos rose from our record player rather than that of Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane. Music industry veteran Danny Goldberg—author of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea—was only seven years older than I in that pivotal year, but those few extra cycles of the sun put him dead center into an era that extolled youth and decried the over-thirty crowd. As such, Goldberg was both an observer and a participant in what was a radical, albeit fleeting, transformation of America that carved some indelible grooves in the nation, yet often feels as far distant from our times as the American Civil War.

In his ambitious In Search of the Lost Chord, Goldberg delivers a well-written and wildly polychromatic snapshot of an epochal moment that is, alas, just about as tangential, unfocused and uneven as the year 1967 was. What Goldberg sets out to do is to describe with one single long rhythmic stroke of his pen all the concurrent aspects of the emerging counterculture that were manifested on both coasts: folk and blues morphing into a new brand of rock; antiwar activism ramping up to radical resistance; the civil rights struggle evolving into militant black power; the sexual revolution; pot and LSD and the drug scene; extreme variations in religion and spiritualism; a renaissance in art and literature; television and mass media; hippies and yippies standing against “the Man.” Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll.  And much more. And a huge cast of characters. All in just over three hundred pages. Goldberg tries to do it all, to fit it all in, and of course falls short, but not for lack of effort. In the end, it reads like one long Rolling Stone article, which in style is certainly emblematic of the era he chronicles, a rough blend of memoir, history and anecdote.

Looking back, it seems as if America was never the same after John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963, but all of the forces that defined the rest of the decade were roiling beneath the nation’s superficial complacency long before Dallas. The Eisenhower years were famously dubbed by one historian as “the time of the great postponement,” because Ike’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked a plethora of dangerous cans down the road in the fractured landscape of civil rights, urban decay, poverty, and other looming crises. JFK’s death led to the accidental presidency of the less cool-headed Lyndon Johnson, whose cavalier decision to introduce large-scale ground troops into Vietnam proved to be the grand hypocenter for a legion of foreshocks of coalescing discontent. 1967 was the year the veneers cracked spectacularly, unleashing elements equal parts utopian and malign, although that was hardly clear at the time, near the dawn of the “hippie idea.” The real faults ruptured the following year, in 1968, with anarchy and assassination.

The problem with In Search of the Lost Chord is that it lacks historical context.  Imagine a history of the Civil War that began with Fort Sumpter, with no backdrop to the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, John Brown or the election of 1860. Like those first shots at Sumpter, the ideas and events of 1967 were not products of a virgin birth, but emerged from a long gestation that Goldberg fails to probe. Another complaint is that while the narrative explores the counter-culture, there is almost no sense of what is going on in the rest of the nation or the rest of the world in 1967, with all of those people who were not hanging out with George Harrison or Jerry Garcia or Allen Ginsberg or Abbie Hoffman—with the vast majority of the country who were listening to Nancy Sinatra on the radio instead of Janis Joplin. Conspicuous in its absence is the larger picture of what was going on in the jungles of Vietnam, in the Cold War standoff with the Soviets, or with LBJ’s Great Society experiment; yet each and every one of these are critically related to the social revolution gaining ground in San Francisco, L.A., New York City and beyond.  The audience to Goldberg’s book comes upon these various movements and the people that made them much like Gulliver washing up on a distant shore to find strange cities and exotic inhabitants like none he has ever encountered before. I lived through the era, so I recognized most, if not all of it. A reader of another generation would simply be lost. To his credit, Goldberg does include a timeline of 1967 events as appendix, although it is too brief and disconnected to the narrative to be of much use. More helpful perhaps would have been a biographical index of the large number of individuals who people this chronicle, since so many names are dropped it is a great challenge for the reader to recall all of them and their various connections.

It is manifestly impossible to describe the LSD experience to someone who has never dropped acid. But you need not have lived through 1967 to study it as history. Goldberg is a fine writer, but he is no historian. Given the year and the topic, it may especially verge on cliché to describe Goldberg’s effort as kaleidoscopic, but nevertheless that is often what the narrative feels like, packed with so much material tossed at the reader from so many angles that in the end it is far stronger on content than on coherence. That may be more of the fault of the editor than of the author, but it remains a fault nonetheless.  That is not to say I would advise against reading In Search of the Lost Chord, only that it cannot be your sole guide to 1967, because if it is, you will no doubt find yourself disoriented: it won’t be a bad trip, just a confusing one.

In 1973, sixteen years old and wearing shoulder length hair, six full summers after the “Summer of Love,” I was among 600,000 people at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen—according to the Guinness Book of World Records the “largest audience at a pop festival” ever—listening to the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers. The chord of that hippie era I was trying to embrace was already lost to us, but we did not know it then. Nixon, who had come to represent all that was wrong with America, would resign the following year, in the wake of Watergate. But not even seven years later, Reagan was President and America rewound to Eisenhower. Revolution and renaissance were indefinitely postponed.

A half-century later, we can perhaps remember 1967 best as a year that promised a great many possibilities, most of which went sadly unfulfilled. As this review goes to press, on the final day of 2017—perhaps the worst year in American history since 1968—the metaphorical “lost chord” of 1967 seems even further beyond our reach.  Still, this has ever been a nation of reinvention, of reimagining ourselves, of stubborn and irrepressible optimism.  Reading Goldberg’s book is a reminder that there was a time that optimism put on legs and took to the streets as well as the airwaves. We may never find that lost chord, but we may yet again strike a new one that carries longer and with more vigor, in the years to come.

[Note: I read an Advance Reading Copy edition of this book, as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]

 

Review of: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso

I have long observed that the reason why every effort to adapt The Iliad to film fails so spectacularly is because the gods—so integral to Homer’s epic—are somehow excluded from the big screen. It was not entirely his fault that beefcake Brad Pitt looked so marriage-cadmus-harmonyridiculous trying to channel Achilles in Oliver Stone’s 2004 dreadful attempt: Homer’s Achilles is himself half-divine, spawn of the sea nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus, and it is the intervention of the Olympian gods to palliate the rage of Achilles when he is wronged by Agamemnon that is the essential theme of The Iliad. Absent the gods, Achilles lacks all authenticity and the plot makes no sense.

In his unique and spectacular The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso—in a translation by Tim Parks—reminds us that ancient Greek civilization also made no sense without its gods, which were as integral to the lives of the Hellenes as food, and sleep, and sex. For the Greeks—to borrow a line from an old Jethro Tull lyric—their gods were “not the kind that you wind up on Sundays.” In a remarkable achievement, Calasso has written his very own epic to rival those of the ancients, and in the process masterfully succeeds in restoring the gods to their essential role in the lives of the Greeks, a constant that ran through the Bronze Age and the Dark Age that followed, and all through the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic and the Roman eras—until Christianity first crippled then crushed them forever. The Greeks of Homer asserted that the gods could never die, but then they never anticipated Augustine . . .

It is sometimes difficult for the modern mind (of the theist or the atheist) to wrap itself around the gods of the ancient Greeks.  The violent and vengeful Yahweh of the Torah mellowed into a much nicer deity once appropriated by Christianity, but both versions came bundled with a certain set of laws and morality. The Hellenic gods were very different, much more akin to the mortals who worshiped them, warts and all, and rather than paragons of virtue they often showcased the worst traits of humanity. Cadmus and Harmony opens with the abduction of Europa by Zeus, disguised as a bull. On another occasion, Zeus rapes Leda, this time in the guise of a swan. The gods do as they please. Zeus, especially, takes his sexual pleasure at will—of both girls and boys—while his jealous Olympian wife Hera seethes at a distance. The mortals always get the worst of it, even when they stumble innocently, as when the hunter Actaeon happens upon the naked Artemis, bathing in a spring: in punishment the hapless Actaeon is turned into a stag whose fate is to be torn apart by his own dogs. The Greek gods are not to emulate, but rather to avoid whenever possible, for it is within their orbit that mere humans are to be tossed about on a rocky universe of pain and suffering. Absent the free-will of Judeo-Christianity, the Greek mortals have almost no responsibility for their own behavior; Homer tells us that all of the bloodshed on the plain of Ilium was simply due to fate and to the will of the gods. Men and gods are here inextricably entwined with one another, but that is dangerous business. Thus, the title of Calasso’s work becomes his thesis:

After that remote time when gods and men had been on familiar terms, to invite the gods to one’s house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a source of wrongs and curses, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise in relations between heaven and earth. At the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Aphrodite gives the bride a necklace which, passing from hand to hand, will generate one disaster after another right up to the massacre of the Epigoni beneath the walls of Thebes and beyond. [p387]

I came to Calasso with what I thought was a pretty strong background in ancient Greek literature and history. I have read The Iliad three times, in three different translations, and The Odyssey once; I have also read much of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. On the temporal side, I have read Herodotus, Thucydides, Diodorus and a good deal more, not to mention another dozen modern books about the ancients. But The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony humbled me almost from the first. It seems as if Calasso has read everything ever written by the ancient Greeks or about the ancient Greeks, especially of their gods, myths and epics. Not only read, though, but studied, analyzed, and memorized every detail. To praise the extent of his command of the subject as encyclopedic still seems to fall short somehow. While the twelve Olympians get most of the press in popular culture, there were many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of lesser deities in the Greek pantheon, and while Calasso doesn’t reference every single one, I have little doubt that if put to the test he could name them all. As much as I enjoyed the topic and the prose, my repeated reaction as I turned the pages was that I am not worthy!

One of the benefits of having a fine personal library, as I do, is that I can usually put my fingers on a powerful work of reference which—even in the age of Google—can still offer a fond comfort. I kept my hardcover copy of The Concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology, by Pierre Grimal, on my nightstand alongside Cadmus and Harmony for the duration. But after a while, I stopped looking up everything unfamiliar or forgotten, and instead just allowed myself to indulge in Calasso’s wonderful prose, which—like Faulkner, for instance—is a joy to get lost within even if you do not always know exactly what he is talking about. It is impossible to describe except by excerpt, as in this one that underscores the centrality of Zeus to all things:

Night was the wet nurse of the gods; her very substance was ambrosia. She advised Zeus to swallow up Phanes, the Protogonos, firstborn of the sovereigns of the world, and then to swallow the other gods and goddesses born from him, and the universe too. Thus gods, goddesses, earth and starry splendor, Ocean, rivers, and the deep cavern of the underworld all wound up in Zeus’s sacred belly, which now contained everything that had been and ever would be. Everything grew together inside him, clutching his innards as a bat clutches to a tree or a bloodsucker to flesh. Then Zeus, who had been just another of the Titans’ children, became, alone, the beginning, the middle, and the end. [p199]

There’s almost four hundred pages of stylized prose like that, evidence of a splendid work of genius that Calasso has crafted in a singular brand of literature that defies genre, and ultimately leaves the reader dizzied and in awe.  It would be fair to say that The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is hardly suitable for every audience, but now that I have read it, I would strongly recommend it to those, like myself, who have been bitten by that bug that begets an irrepressible passion for the ancient Greeks, who themselves—if hardly the fathers of our own civilization—were without doubt our hoary great-grandfathers. There is, of course, a calculated risk in getting caught up in great literature, just as there is in letting yourself get tangled up with the gods. But for that I will let Calasso have the last word here, plucked from a paragraph towards the end of this magnificent work:

What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living.  It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. [p387]

Review of Bush, by Jean Edward Smith

I lived through the entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, paying careful attentions to the events and their echoes.  His boosters, with a kind of unintended oxymoronic flourish, vigorously maintained that “he kept us safe.” The reality was Bush bookinstead an ongoing rebuke to that assertion, a tragically comic counter-intuitive timeline of disaster. Those two terms of Bush were instead marked by: the most significant attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, with a greater loss of life, months after the termination of the previous administration’s program to target those adversaries; the invasion of Afghanistan to bring those attackers to justice, who instead slipped away, leaving American troops endlessly bogged down in a conflict that defies resolution; the expense of much more blood and treasure in the gratuitous invasion of Iraq on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction that never existed, permanently fracturing that nation, and effecting a dramatic destabilization of the Middle East; the death of nearly two thousand Americans in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as the nation stood by paralyzed by inaction; the first detonation of a nuclear bomb by North Korea; the reignition of the Cold War with Russia marked by hostilities in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, sparked by NATO expansion and American unilateralism; and finally, a near cataclysmic economic collapse in the most significant financial downturn since the Great Depression, in the wake of rash deregulation that included the crippling of the net capital rule. If “W” kept us safe, danger seemed like a welcome respite. Even the space shuttle exploded! While it is hardly fair to blame him for the latter, I recall wondering at the time whether even that tragedy might have been averted had Bush not selected as NASA Administrator a skeptic of Big Bang cosmology. Regardless, catastrophe seemed to cling to President Bush—he seemed incapable of carrying a cup of coffee across the room without spilling it.

With his 2016 biography, Bush, “Francis Parkman Prize” winner Jean Edward Smith became the first bona fide historian to profile the life of George W. Bush and chronicle his calamitous tenure as Commander in Chief. Smith, a noted author and academic, has among his prolific credits biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower, so he comes to the task with both an established resume and frame of reference. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the author seems to barely contain his bewilderment as events unfolded around Bush-43 that spawned one wrong turn after another.  At the same time, the book underscores that my own memory of that era was hardly hyperbolic—it really was that bad—while it challenges some of the analyses made by those of us on the outside.

Most significantly, Smith rebuts once and for all the dark suspicion shared by many Americans that the real power behind the façade of the Bush Administration was the sinister Dick Cheney, villainously yanking on the puppet strings from within the confines of his secret bunker. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While Cheney did serve as proud parade marshal for the darkest of the dark avenues in the administration’s roadmap to torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, regime change, domestic surveillance, and much more, he was hardly the mastermind many imagined him to be. Instead—and this is the book’s well-argued thesis—George W. Bush really was “The Decider” that he confidently alleged, a much-ridiculed claim that turns out to be surprisingly accurate.  And that, according to Smith, was exactly the problem: Bush’s intellect and expertise were vastly outgunned by the crises he either encountered or manufactured, but he never ventured for perspective beyond a small circle of advisors, and yet remained vitally loyal to the conviction—ever bolstered by his religious faith—that it was his responsibility to make every decision in every arena.

Presidents from Buchanan to Hoover to Carter have been pilloried for dithering—for a failure to act decisively in a time of national crisis.  Decisiveness is generally considered a strength for the Chief Executive; George W. Bush may well be the first occupant of the Oval Office to prove an exception to that rule.  While Bush has often been grouped with Buchanan by historians who rate him among the worst of our chief executives, a perhaps more apt comparison might be to another often ranked near the bottom, Andrew Johnson. Like the latter, Bush seemed guided by an absolute unwavering certainty that he was always in the right, acting for very best interests of the country, even as evidence accumulated to the contrary. Because of Bush’s determination to leave no issue undecided, he not only made repeated bad judgements but frequently cast verdicts in areas perhaps better left to the vague or implicit, spawning doctrines in American foreign and domestic policy that would endure far beyond his time in office.

Unlike a Lincoln or a JFK, Bush rarely solicited the opinions outside of his immediate orbit, especially from those who might challenge him. This was underscored, for instance, when he arbitrarily ruled that al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants were not entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention.  This highly consequential verdict was pronounced by the President without consulting the National Security council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, or the State Department! Both the military and the State Department objected, to no avail. Smith rightly dubs this as “another unfortunate example of the personalization of presidential power under George W. Bush.” [p284] Sadly, it was but one of many.

Smith’s biography does not dwell much on Bush’s early years, which were hardly marked by accomplishment, but instead centers on his time in the White House.  That is a sound decision, under the circumstances, and a reminder that while some men came to the Oval Office with an impressive resume—Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, for example—others, such as Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman, had little to show for themselves before destiny called. George W. Bush was a scion of a notable family who played the role of prodigal son, dabbling in whiskey and cocaine, barely showing up to play his Texas Air National Guard get-out-of-Vietnam-card, until Jesus Christ, mountain biking and Laura Welch Bush came along to save him. There isn’t much of a tale to tell, and unlike other biographers—God save us from Lincoln’s “The Prairie Years”—Smith doesn’t drag the reader through years of irrelevancy until he takes the national stage. Yes, Bush was Governor of Texas, but for those who don’t know, that is a largely powerless position that entails little more than serving as a master of ceremonies at a beauty pageant.  Smith zeroes in on the most significant aspect of Bush’s pre-presidential years, which was his “born-again” experience that rescued him from his wayward tendencies and engraved upon him a conviction that he was doing God’s work, something that was to resound unfortunately upon the nation when he became Chief Executive.

Bush, who relied on his faith in Christ, did not permit his so-called Christian values to interfere with his pursuit of his version of justice, championing torture—euphemistically re-branded as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as a critical tool of the war on terror. The Philippine Insurrection of the early 1900s was an especially brutal if long-forgotten foreign adventure that saw American forces commit often horrific war crimes, yet even in this morally- ambiguous environment an army officer was court-martialed for waterboarding (then tagged “the water cure”) Philippine insurgents. Bush specifically advocated waterboarding enemy combatants; Abu Zubaydah—still held in Guantanamo in 2017, by the way—was waterboarded eighty-three times, and Bush vigorously defended the practice. [p297] In this case, “The Decider” decided to go medieval. We have to assume Christ was along for the ride.

Bush’s faith was indeed genuine, if somewhat fanatical and … yes, even somewhat mad: Smith cites a communication with France’s President Chirac, in which Bush asserts: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophesies are being fulfilled. This confrontation was willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Chirac had no clue what Bush was raving about, but once he figured it out, it became even more clear that there was no place for France in this kind of unhinged religious crusade. [p339]

If Smith’s Bush sounds like a hatchet job, it clearly is not. The author goes out of his way to try to find the positive in the man and his leadership, although for those who are not his loyalists this is truly a challenge. Smith does not overlook Bush’s dedication to education in the “No Child Left Behind” initiative or in the senior prescription drug plan he advanced, even if these efforts suffered in various degrees from poor execution and a lack of funding. Nor does he fail to credit Bush for his commitment to immigration reform, even as the President found himself badly out of step with his own party on this issue, its voters already rehearsing for the message of a demagogue waiting in the wings.

Smith’s biography does rescue from a kind of ignominy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who—while fully on the team for the initial decision to go forward with the Iraq War debacle—not only objected to the direction of post-war nation-building that attempted to impose a Western-style democracy on Iraq, but prior to the war itself prepared a remarkably prescient memo that contained twenty-nine things that could go sideways in American intervention, which Smith recognizes as “a precise compendium” of what actually did go wrong in Iraq. [p328] Dick Cheney, as noted, is revealed as no less malevolent than expected but also far less commanding.  Colin Powell clearly stands out exactly as America perceived him at the time: a man with a firm moral center who was used and abused by the Bush Administration as the face of an indefensible policy of aggression that tarnished our nation before the world and forever humbled Powell’s political ambitions. Condoleezza Rice, who strived so hard to be Bush’s Kissinger, comes across as many of us always suspected, an intellectual wedded to ideology who prominently talked the talk but was way above her pay grade in the complex realm of realpolitik. At the end of the day, a flawed and largely incompetent President was served by a gang of colorful but weak—if flamboyant—underlings.

Presidential biography is one of my favorite genres. I have read bios of more than a third of our Chief Executives, and surveys of a dozen more, so I have taken on a profound sense of what these individuals have had to contend with while sitting, ever precariously, at the seat of such immense power. By every test, George W. Bush fared very badly in that role, and whatever his intentions left our nation far worse off by the close of his tumultuous tenure than it was when he came to it.

When he left office in January 2009, Bush’s approval rating was at a historic low of twenty-two percent. As it was, the best turn for his legacy was the election of Donald Trump, which has fostered—at least among Republicans—a kind of nostalgia for the Bush era, warts and all.  This is—one might snarkily suggest—like a lung cancer victim looking back fondly on an episode with pneumonia. Bush advocates might chastise Smith’s work, arguing that Bush had strengths not adequately showcased, but even supporters have to admit that “W” presided over an era of unmitigated disaster, leaving the nation battered and polarized so severely that we are still reeling from it nearly a decade later. Smith will hardly be the last historian to profile Bush, and as time passes it is likely that perspectives will be modified, and judgments will be tweaked.  In the meantime, I highly recommend Smith’s biography for an unsparing chronicle of eight years that forever altered America.

Review of: JFK’S Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, by Thurston Clarke

I was only six years old, but I can recall it with great clarity: the principal visited our classroom—the President had been shot. My mother was crying when she picked me up from school; my teacher was crying; everyone was crying.  I was too young to remember JFK Last Hundred Days (2)Eisenhower; John F. Kennedy was the only President I had known.  He was THE President. It was hard to wrap my head around the news that he was dead, assassinated—a word I had never heard before. He was so young and handsome, so full of life, so much in command, our savior against the Russians, who I was told wanted to drop nuclear bombs on us and kill us all.  And I had a kid’s crush on his beautiful wife, Jacqueline, so much so that I memorized how to print her name.  She was on our black and white television that day, her dress covered in blood.

This review goes to press on the fifty-fourth anniversary of that day, November 22, 1963, that ever altered American history. The nation has never been the same since the assassination, and the act itself has never been satisfactorily explained, spawning a wealth of conspiracy theories that still resound in the millennium. Just recently, thousands of classified documents, long shrouded in secrecy, have been released, while some are yet withheld.  Like most Americans, I have never accepted the official explanation, that Oswald acted alone. As a historian, I know full well that history is ever replete with irony and coincidence.  Still, there has always seemed to be far too many strange circumstances, far too many coincidences, for the Warren Commission conclusions to completely ring true.  The mystery clings, but recedes into the past. This year marks one hundred years since Kennedy’s birth, but those of my generation will always see him in a grainy color photo as a vibrant forty-six, flashing white teeth in a wide smile on a ruddy face, seated in a limousine, with an unwittingly wave goodbye to an America about to be damaged so gravely that some might argue it has never fully recovered.

In a remarkable achievement, author Thurston Clarke has adroitly rewound the clock to the time just prior to that great goodbye with JFK’S Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. I have read more than a half-dozen books on JFK, and I was delighted to find one that actually brought a fresh and surprisingly unique look to a subject that has been covered by so many from so many angles. So much that was Kennedy has become myth; Clarke has presented us with a chronicle of the last days of the living man, and lets us draw our own conclusions.

Kennedy was only President for less than three years, yet his time in office was so tumultuous for America—Bay of Pigs, Berlin Crisis, Civil Rights, Laos, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis that set us on the edge of nuclear cataclysm—that looking back it seems impossible that so much could have transpired in such a compressed timeline, amounting to a mere 1,036 days. Scion of wealth and notoriety, war hero, intellect, playboy, undistinguished legislator, the dashing and witty Kennedy stumbled into office to push the button on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion he inherited, then was humiliated in his first summit meeting with Khrushchev, who treated him like a foolish boy. But JFK quickly learned on his feet. He was highly intelligent, had strong instincts, demonstrated flexibility, and ever carried about him a sense of history. His political acumen accorded him that rare ability to be able to peek out from the eyes of his adversaries, and to put that perspective to work to his own advantage. Thus, he deftly negotiated his way out of a looming conflict in Laos, knew where to draw the line in Berlin to protect American interests without provoking war, and—most significantly—brilliantly sidestepped a potential Armageddon with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba so that peace prevailed without dishonor to either side. Kennedy was a markedly changed man after that: the seasoned leader who shepherded the landmark Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to passage was not the truculent cold warrior of three years prior who came to office denouncing a non-existent missile gap. The change echoed beyond that too, in almost everything that informed the remainder of his time in office. Alas, that time was to be very brief, and much hung in the balance.

The standard report card of a new President in the modern era is the “First Hundred Days,” but what about the “Last Hundred?” Is that relevant?  Rarely, but as it turns out there are important exceptions. Lincoln’s last hundred included Appomattox, and the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of Civil War, with clues of some significance as to how he might steward Reconstruction. FDR’s final months also edged to the conclusion of a great war, with victory in view but not yet obtained, and hints at how a post-war world might be constructed. Thurston Clarke’s magnificent work demonstrates that Kennedy’s last quarter rivals these in consequence and leaves many more questions.

Clarke does not go there, but many before him have juxtaposed Lincoln and Kennedy, who came to office exactly a century apart, presided over a great existential crisis, and then died at the hands of an assassin. It might be a stretch: Lincoln was clearly the greater figure, the greater President.  But there were nevertheless striking parallels in their respective trajectories: Lincoln’s prime directive was to save the union; Kennedy’s was to save the world from nuclear annihilation. This virtually demoted all other considerations into secondary matters, which was a magnet for critics and tarnished their legacies.  Ironically, the shared central element was the fate of African-Americans. For Lincoln, it was his failure to embrace and move faster on abolition. For Kennedy, it was his own failure to embrace and move faster on Civil Rights, a direct descendant of Lincoln’s struggle.  Both men were solid centrists who continuously fought off pressure from the left and right flanks of their own parties.  And both were superb politicians who understood that politics was ever and only the art of the possible.  Lincoln came to office with a loathing for slavery tempered by an acceptance of the institution as constitutionally protected; he came to abolition slowly and much later, driven by the events of secession and war. For Lincoln, saving the Union was paramount, with or without slavery.

In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Clarke echoes the now familiar reproach to Kennedy’s slow journey to the championing of Civil Rights as the great moral cause of his day, although he was indeed moving in that direction. But Clarke does not have to spell out what the great body of his narrative quietly underscores: like Lincoln’s devotion to the Union, for Kennedy—especially after the close call of the Missile Crisis—there was no greater issue than the prospect of nuclear war and how to avert it. Still, it was hardly his only focus. With a 58% approval rating, Kennedy fully expected to be re-elected in 1964, and he was mapping out strategies that looked beyond the need to depend upon the support of the solid bloc of southern Democratic segregationists in Congress, especially with regard to Civil Rights.  And that is the great ghost that looms over the narrative.  What would Kennedy have done, or strived to do, had he lived?

We know what did happen after he was gone: escalation in Vietnam, race riots, massive protests, a near breakdown of society, violence and more assassinations (including JFK’s brother and political heir), two consecutive failed Presidencies led by men—Johnson and Nixon—Kennedy had privately confided that he thought unfit for office. America cannot help but collectively wonder how history might have been written had JFK not gone to Dallas, but such musings must be informed by the man he was becoming in the months leading up to that day. In the wake of the related yet diametrically opposed extremes of the Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty, for JFK literally everything was on the table. He looked to developing a more permanent détente with the USSR. He considered long-term accommodation with Castro: if Fidel divorced himself from the Soviet orbit, he might treat Cuba as a kind of Caribbean Yugoslavia. For his domestic agenda, he looked beyond a sometime recalcitrant Congress to the aftermath of the next election for both tax cuts and Civil Rights. He wondered whether he could replace LBJ—who lacked Kennedy’s confidence and remained isolated in the administration—on the ’64 ticket.  It seems likely that part of his strategy in undertaking the somewhat thorny trip to Dallas was to gauge whether he could carry Texas without Johnson.

The greatest controversy has always swirled about the potential fate of American involvement in Vietnam had Kennedy lived. There is no new material in Clarke’s book, but what there is reinforces what we already know. In his famous interview with Walter Cronkite, as well as his private comments, it seems clear that Kennedy was seeking a way out. The changing relationship with Khrushchev could present opportunities to do just that. The model of both Laos and Berlin demonstrates that Kennedy liked to have that “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt once brandished, but—to the frequent consternation of his more hawkish generals—he was reluctant to use it except as last resort.  A decorated combat veteran who nearly lost his own life in the Pacific, JFK decried more than once the casual eagerness of those who would lightly spend American lives in war. Ambivalent about blessing the coup to topple Diem that was urged upon him, JFK was truly horrified by Diem’s death—only weeks before Dallas—which seemed to steel his determination to look to pull back the growing corps of “advisors” and seek a non-combat solution.   Given all of this, it seems highly unlikely Kennedy would have countenanced the commitment of ground troops in Vietnam, certainly not on the kind of pretext Johnson was to use in the Gulf of Tonkin.

If the subtitle of Clarke’s work— The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President—hints at a kind of fawning, court biography, that is not at all the case. The author clearly admires his subject, but hardly overlooks Kennedy’s many flaws, especially his addiction to serial philandering that ever put his Presidency, and his chances for re-election, at risk. Nor, as noted, does he excuse JFK’s tone deafness to the clarion call of Civil Rights, which won his sympathy but hardly unqualified commitment. Clarke skillfully places all of it in carefully nuanced context, and lets the narrative speak for itself.

That narrative—a numbered countdown of days that just barely contains a palpable sense of impending doom—is ever ominous, bookended early on by the death of Kennedy’s infant son (like Lincoln once more, Kennedy lost a child in the White House), and the assassination.  Famously, Kennedy compartmentalized his life, and Jackie—despite the glamour and prestige in her role as First Lady—was frequently the sad and lonely occupant of one of those walled chambers. The tragic death of their baby seems to have brought Jack and Jackie closer together than ever before. Yet, like Lincoln before him, JFK could not really devote the appropriate time to mourn, or to comfort his wife; the fate of the nation, even the world, demanded that he ever be present and in command.  Of course, Kennedy himself could only approach each day and ponder his options, while the reader is fraught with the terrible knowledge of how the story will end.

It is said that Lincoln dreamt of his own death in the days that preceded it. There are disturbing harbingers here, as well. It seems eerily prescient when Kennedy muses about his odds of being murdered, once even play-acting his own assassination. He confided to a friend that death by gunshot would be best because “You never know what’s hit you.” As he jousted with the generals—especially LeMay, who to JFK’s horror advocated for first use of nuclear weapons and privately disparaged the President as a coward—Kennedy thought a military coup possible, and perhaps even likely. He read himself into the plot of the recently published novel based on just this scenario, Seven Days in May, which he took as a forewarning of what might befall him. An Ian Fleming fan, Kennedy was also reportedly at work on writing a kind of James Bond style thriller of a coup masterminded by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. For some reason, no drafts of this effort survive …

In The Phenomenon of Man, Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin speaks to the process of “becoming,” in which an individual evolves and is transformed each day into a changed human being who has been informed by all of the days that preceded that one.  Thurston Clarke’s fine study clearly shows that Kennedy was, on each and every day, likewise “becoming” and transforming. That is, until November 22, 1963.

 

 

Review of: The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler

I don’t typically read or review “Young Adult” books, but The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler, came my way via an Early Reviewer’s program and—full disclosure—I did not realize it was YA when I requested it! Of course, Whydahthe “Young Adult” genre has come a long way since my own youth, when it tended to only run to the lowest common denominator of the youngest readers.  In contrast, just about any adult non-specialist could peruse The Whydah and perhaps not even realize it was written for a YA audience.

Pirates are the stuff of both myth and history, an enduring legend that dominates the imagination in pulp fiction, swashbuckling films, and even Halloween costume parties and amusement park rides. The reality, of course, was starkly different from the romanticism, as revealed through both historical scholarship and—especially in recent decades—its partnership with the increasingly sophisticated technology of underwater archaeology. Sandler, a prolific author of books for adults and children (his Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad was previously reviewed on the Regarp Book Blog.*), artfully brings this marriage of history and archaeology to bear in this well-written work that focuses on noted pirate captain Black Sam Bellamy, his flagship vessell Whydah, and the culture of early eighteenth century piracy—as well as the recovery of the wreck and interpretation of the artifacts.

Born in England, like many young men of his era Sam Bellamy went to sea in the British navy.  A veteran of naval combat in the War of Spanish Succession, at twenty-four Bellamy found himself out of a job when that conflict ended in 1714, and tens of thousands were released from service. His next stop was Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, where he partnered up with a fellow-adventurer and returned to sea, this time on his own terms. When a promising salvage venture went sour, Bellamy instead turned to piracy, where he proved himself a highly successful raider along the east coast of America. One of his greatest prizes was the Whydah, a slaver that had recently traded its human cargo for vast riches that became the bountiful plunder of Sam Bellamy and his crew, and was transformed into Bellamy’s flagship. In what amounted to but a single year, Black Sam distinguished himself as one of the most successful pirates of all times—before he fell victim to equal parts greed and the treacherous seas off of Cape Cod that sank the Whydah in 1717, and drowned Bellamy and most of his mates. The wreck—and a bounty of artifacts—were not recovered until 1984.

Sandler’s thin volume is rich with detail, not only for his subjects but the milieu of piracy these inhabited. Pirates, it turns out, could indeed live up to the lore that has portrayed them as brutal and ruthless, but they also lived by a code of honor that was rigorously upheld.  Most extraordinary in this code was its stark element of democracy. In a time when all the world was organized by hierarchy and class, all pirates, regardless of their specialized roles aboard ship, were essentially equals; the captain was little more than a first among equals, although he received two shares of plunder rather than the one due to an ordinary seaman. Nearly every aspect of their communal existence was governed by consensus, and determined by an equal vote from each member of the crew. When they raided other ships, their treatment of those who manned the prize was determined largely by the level of resistance. If the ship under attack surrendered without a fight, pirates typically showed great lenience, sparing the lives of officers and crew alike, who would be released to the sea with provisions on small boats if the ship was taken. Those who gave battle, on the other hand, often saw no quarter, ending their lives in a sometimes-horrific fashion marked by outsize cruelty. Thus, it was little wonder that the majority of ships beset by pirates often promptly surrendered. More surprising, perhaps, was that the surrendered crew was frequently offered a chance to join up with the very pirates that had overrun them—and that many availed themselves of this opportunity!

The last third of the book is devoted to finding and excavating the Whydah—which has continued for decades—as well as exploring the art and technology of diving and underwater archaeology. Here too the author presents the material in a competent, engaging fashion that holds the interest of the reader of all ages. Sandler aptly demonstrates how the artifacts recovered from the Whydah have contributed to a renaissance in the interpretation of what life must have been like on a pirate vessel three centuries ago.

Yet, this otherwise laudable work is unfortunately marred when it credulously repeats the fanciful notion that has Alexander the Great as an early pioneer in underwater exploration, here depicted in a medieval painting being lowered beneath the sea in a primitive glass diving bell, in the fourth century BCE! [p125] This ahistorical myth belongs to the literature of the so-called “Romance of Alexander” that was imagined many centuries after his death, and that to my knowledge has no scholarly support. (Endnotes include a reference to a defunct URL, but further research on the reference itself lends it little credence.) There was also a glaring error of historical interpretation in Sandler’s Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation, this one regarding slavery and the Civil War, which makes me wonder about his reliability as a historian.* Sandler has many books and projects and awards to his credit, much of them focused on history, as well as a background as an educator, so these uncharacteristic flaws seem especially incongruous. Of course, both author and publisher should be taken to account for such carelessness.

Despite this imperfection, The Whydah has much to recommend it overall to a popular audience of both the young adult and their parents. This is fascinating material, and Sandler’s skill as a writer who can weave multiple themes into a coherent account shines throughout the narrative.  All of this is further enhanced in the presentation, which includes a number of sidebars, illustrations and maps. The Whydah demonstrates that the real story of pirates can be as enthralling as their swashbuckling legends.

[*See my review of Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad, by Martin W. Sandler,  at: https://regarp.com/2015/11/29/review-of-iron-rails-iron-men-and-the-race-to-link-the-nation-the-story-of-the-transcontinental-railroad-by-martin-w-sandler/]

Review of: The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by John R. Mulkern

Massachusetts in the early 1850s had undergone dramatic changes that had radically upended the social, economic, and political dynamics of its very recent past. It had become “the nation’s most densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized state,” [p83] The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts The Rise and Fall of a People_s Movement,with thriving mills and factories that employed legions of laborers that often worked long hours in terrible conditions for very low wages, with traditional agricultural and rural lifeways in steep decline.  Efforts at reform were thwarted by the dominant pro-business Whig party. A market hungry for labor only encouraged an exponential increase in the population of the foreign born, already swollen by a rising tide of desperate immigrants from Ireland fleeing starvation, their numbers pregnant with an unfamiliar culture and a religious faith despised by most Americans. A growing discontent fueled a rage directed at the elite and their failed institutions, spawning a populist revolt that manifested itself in racism, hatred, xenophobia, exclusion and a determination to overthrow the old order and start afresh.  The result was a shocking and unprecedented sweep to power of the American Party—popularly known as the Know-Nothings—who captured all but three seats of the state legislature and even the office of the governor!

Invited to write an article about Know-Nothings for a nativism-themed journal, the very first source I turned to for background on my research was The Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts: The Rise and Fall of a People’s Movement, by the late John R. Mulkern. It turned out to be such a fine work of history that I read it cover-to-cover. And it served to inspire and define the narrower focus of my own article.

Accounts of the antebellum era often gloss over the Know-Nothings as a brief flare that served to signal the collapse of the established political order that had acted as an uncertain glue to the larger looming geographical fissure, which has sadly doomed the movement to unwarranted obscurity.  And while the ascent of the Know-Nothings was indeed a national phenomenon coincident to the larger fracture of the two-party system over the slavery issue, only in Massachusetts was its impact so extensive and profound. On its face, the sudden rise to power of such magnitude of a racist, nativist régime seems especially surprising, since by most measures the Bay State was the most egalitarian in the nation, with a comfortable African-American community, as well as a significant anti-slavery element. But, as Mulkern—formerly Professor of History at Babson College—underscores in this well-written, comprehensive volume, this manifestation of the Know-Nothings was truly peculiar to Massachusetts, once again proving the maxim often associated with former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.”

Mulkern skillfully guides the reader through the tangle of issues and interests that shaped the advent and unlikely political monopoly held ever so fleetingly by the Know-Nothings on Beacon Hill.  It all began with the complacency of a pro-business Whig Party that—aligned with the captains of industry—seemed to have an iron grip on power. Reforms that had taken hold in other states—such as districting and plurality—were absent in Massachusetts. Gubernatorial candidates rarely achieved the requisite majority, so the race was tossed to the Whig-dominated legislature, thereby assuring that their man got the job. Rural areas had little voice in state government. Rather than working in agriculture and living in small towns as their grandfathers had, great numbers of citizens crowded in the urban east and worked as wage laborers in sometimes deplorable conditions. Lobbies for a “Ten-Hour Law” that would restrict the work day were repeatedly rebuffed.  Jacksonian Democrats, long in lonely opposition, were yet too wedded to laissez-faire economics to seize this issue and run with it. Meanwhile, other voices in temperance, nativism and free-soil remained muted and increasingly frustrated. Add to this combustible mix a great influx of desperately poor unskilled Irish refugees who brought with them strange customs and Roman Catholicism, a faith universally despised by the Protestant native-born. There was such a hunger for labor that not a single American was displaced, but the presence of masses of foreign workers fed a false yet compelling narrative that jobs were at risk.

Traditional social and political institutions were incapable of redressing or even containing the growing discontent that was a by-product of these competing forces. It was the Free-Soil Party that first exploited it, sensing an opportunity and seizing the moment to join with anti-corporate Democrats (styled as “locofocos”), disaffected Whigs, and others to spring to power in a surprise “Coalition” government that permanently unseated Whig dominance. A grand attempt at constitutional reform failed even more grandly, but there was lasting historical significance to the Coalition’s short-lived grip on the reins of legislative authority when it sent the notable Charles Sumner to the U.S. Senate.  Closer to home, it bulldozed the established order, paving the way for the emergence of the Know-Nothings.
Know-nothing-flagThe Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were an ostensibly nativist organization that traced their roots back to the virulently anti-Irish “Native American” party.  Based in local, fraternal lodges across the state, their power base lay in gatherings of friends, relatives and neighbors who met in secret to voice their grievances. A shared sense of alienation and political impotence eclipsed the veneer of nativism and united disparate voices on the outside—including those of anti-slavery and pro-temperance—in a populist surge that took the state by surprise with their sudden coup in the 1854 elections. In an unexpected landslide, Know-Nothings elected the governor, all forty state senators and all but three house representatives; most of those elected had never before served in government. The once dominant Whigs—damaged by their earlier displacement at the hands of the Coalition, and further weakened in a state unfriendly to slave interests by their association with the Compromise of 1850 and its hated Fugitive Slave Act—were fatally wounded by their startling rout.

What followed was a plethora of efforts to restrict citizenship and contain the burgeoning Irish population, most of which came to nothing. Part of that was due to the fact that most of those elected were political neophytes, but more importantly, it was because the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts were actually a shadowy coalition of progressives and reactionaries. Once again, the Free-Soilers—led by the wily, chameleon-like, soon-to-be United States Senator Henry Wilson—saw an opportunity and seized it, commanding an outsize role in the movement.  But they were not alone.  At the end of the day, reformism trumped reactionary. The Know-Nothings did not retain power long, but their legacy included an astonishing amount of extremely progressive reform legislation, creating laws to protect workingmen and ending imprisonment for debt.  There were also laws that provided an overall boost to public school expenditure, made vaccination compulsory, funded libraries, took tentative steps to regulate child labor, and strikingly improved women’s rights in property, marriage and divorce. Arguably of the greatest significance was a law that mandated integration of blacks and whites in public education, landmark legislation which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban school segregation!  [The latter became the topic of my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which is accessible at: www.know-nothings.com]

It was not to last. Despite their dramatic takeover and flamboyant dominance, the Know-Nothings faded as rapidly as they flared. Still, while they may have been just a flash-in-the-pan locally as well as nationally, the Massachusetts incarnation made a bold mark on what was to follow.  Gearing up for the 1856 presidential race, the national Know-Nothings met in convention and declared the party agnostic on slavery, seeking to unite the country behind nativism. Massachusetts Know-Nothings, however, met in Springfield and, while championing nativism, countered with a free-soil and anti-slavery position known as the “Springfield Platform.” This severely wounded the national party, which ultimately went down to defeat as anti-slavery votes hemorrhaged to the emerging Republican Party.  The Know-Nothings were essentially relegated to a footnote in history.

In retrospect, the Know-Nothings in Massachusetts represented nearly a textbook case of a populist movement that combined both reactionary and progressive elements, a topic analyzed elsewhere at great length by the historian Ronald P. Formisano, who argues that populism can frequently marshal a mosaic of forces to serve as engine to revolt against the status quo. Thus rage and revolt take center stage over policy and agenda.  This is what best accounts for the incongruous 1968 drift of many supporters of the liberal Robert Kennedy to the segregationist George Wallace after the assassination. Similarly, some estimate that as many as ten percent of those who backed Bernie Sanders ultimately voted for Donald Trump in 2016!

Mulkern artfully wields the tools of complexity and nuance critical to historical analysis from start to finish in this definitive chronicle of a long overlooked political movement in a barely remembered moment of Massachusetts history.  All too often, a truly magnificent work directed at a narrow academic audience gets buried in the library stacks. Published back in 1990, this volume probably has not received the attention that it deserves. I am grateful that I found it, but full of regret that I could not share my praise—and a copy of my completed article that was nurtured by his scholarship—with the author, who passed away in 2012. I can only hope that this review serves to bring others to read it, so that the product of Mulkern’s fine effort will live on for generations to come.

[NOTE: Some of the content of this review was lifted from my journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” which—along with related materials—is freely accessible to the public at a website I created to explore this topic, www.know-nothings.com]

Review of: Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt

“You are what you eat,” nutritionist Victor Lindlahr once famously declared. That certainly turned out to be true for the ill-fated Fore tribe in the highlands of Papua New Cannibalism A Perfectly Natural HistoryGuinea, who until fairly recently engaged in ritualized cannibalism of their deceased relatives in a rite of honor that unknowingly condemned hundreds of them annually to a devastating and ultimately fatal disease called “kuru” that was—due to its bizarre symptoms—popularly known as the “laughing death.” This story of the Fore and how their consumption of the brains of family members transmitted a peculiar epidemic is just one of the fascinating tales in Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt, a well-written, entertaining but occasionally flawed account of a topic that is often as much taboo as it is irresistible.

Indeed, there is something that is equal parts enthralling and horrifying about the subject of cannibalism that attracts an audience that nevertheless wants to shrink away from it. For many, The Road is Cormac McCarthy’s most memorable and disturbing novel—rather than his far more nuanced excursion into man’s inhumanity to man, Blood Meridian—precisely because people are not simply slaughtered, but devoured.  The most unforgettable serial killers—both real and fictional—remain Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lechter, respectively.  There’s a good reason why people who know almost nothing about American history still seem to know something about the whaleship Essex and the Donner Party.  For us, cannibalism is a rare and horrid deviation from the norm.  To that conclusion, Bill Schutt would say: not so fast!

When I was a small child, I was really excited when my pet gerbil gave birth, then horrified when in short order she methodically ate her own young. The image of scattered pink and furless baby gerbil parts littering the terrarium remains seared into my memory. My distressed gerbil was engaged in something called filial cannibalism, but the practice of one member of a particular species consuming all or part of another of the same species is hardly aberrant in nature, as the spoiler in the subtitle—A Perfectly Natural History—suggests. In fact, as the author reveals, it is remarkably prevalent, occurring for a variety of reasons under a whole host of various conditions, and much less often linked to starvation desperation than might be supposed, although far less common among mammals than creatures such as insects and mollusks, for instance.

In the first third of the book, Schutt—professor of biology at LIU Post and research associate in residence at the American Museum of Natural History—takes the reader on a tour of this peculiar habit among fauna both familiar and foreign. Schutt treats us to some great tidbits along the way. It turns out that everything we thought we knew about sexual cannibalism with Black Widow spiders and praying mantises is wrong, not because it does not occur but because, like almost everything else in the universe, there is a great deal more complexity to the phenomenon.

But things get really interesting when Schutt gets around to higher life forms. Apparently, cannibalism often occurs as a reproductive strategy—termed heterocannibalism—as when lions that take over a pride eat the cubs sired by another male. An evolutionary adaptation has played a weird trick on male spotted hyenas to deter them from similar behavior: female spotted hyenas produce high levels of testosterone, their vulva seals to form a pseudoscrotum, and they develop a bizarre elongated clitoris that becomes a pseudopenis that violently ruptures when large full-term hyena fetuses pass through it during birth.  Female hyenas are the tough guys on the block; no males would dare to eat their babies. [p65] But there are no such obstacles to similar practices by sea lions, polar bears and—our closest living relatives—chimpanzees. And there are tantalizing clues that cannibalism may have once took place among some species of therapod dinosaurs.

After leaving the animal kingdom behind, Schutt turns to the human experience, and here is where things get a bit uneven. Among humans, cannibalism—known as anthropophagy—assumes many forms and is naturally a thornier subject. The unfortunate Kore practiced what is known as endocannibalism, a ritualized consumption of relations driven by honor and respect.  A variation of that once occurred in other aboriginal groups when they ate the bodies of their enemies in order to capture their strength and spirit; that is one form of exocannibalism. But exocannibalism also encompasses the more familiar desperate measures taken to ward off starvation.  Much of the rest of the book serves as a platform for the debate about how wide of a net can be cast for anthropophagy.  Is gnawing on your fingernails a form of cannibalism? Some actually think so. That’s one extreme.  Another is voiced by an expert “denier” who argues that the vast majority of reports of cannibalism are examples of hyperbole or downright fiction.

There are many roads unfortunately not traveled. Early on, the author informs us that he does not want to stoke sensationalism by dwelling on serial killers like Dahmer and the like, but a deeper discussion of why people who are not starving—other than aborigines guided by tribal custom—would choose to eat other people is largely absent. Apparently, there were incidents of cannibalization-for-sustenance of American POWs by their Japanese captors in World War II, but—more intriguingly—also cases where their livers were served up as delicacies to Japanese officers, a fate only narrowly avoided by downed pilot George H.W. Bush. Schutt references Bush’s bare miss, but fails to train the lens on the dynamic that nearly put him on the menu, which seems like a missed opportunity of some significance.

There are others. A now famous case of starvation cannibalism followed the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex that left survivors stranded on whaleboats, where they proceeded to eat the dead, then drew lots among the living for who would serve as the next course. This episode has been chronicled at length in book and film, but it is less well well-known that this was a very common—although essentially unadvertised—practice among shipwrecked sailors, euphemistically termed the “custom of the sea.” I kept hoping Schutt would probe this macabre maritime tradition with such a storied history over several centuries, but I was left disappointed. Instead, a very long chapter is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of the Donner Party incident, which has been done to death for mass consumption (puns fully intended!) in so many venues that here it inspires little more than impatient yawns.

Still, despite sins of omission, Schutt’s Cannibalism remains well worth reading. His strength as a scientist shines through and mitigates some of the weaknesses in the total product. Most importantly, he is also an excellent writer whose well-crafted prose neatly carries this fascinating narrative.

 

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story, by Lee Berger and John Hawks

Back in 2014, I took a challenging but rewarding MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), “Human Evolution: Past and Future,” a free online course taught by University of almost humanWisconsin-Madison professor of anthropology Dr. John Hawks. Hawks, who might be described as both genial and genius, seems equally devoted to both advancing studies in paleoanthropology, and sharing data cross-discipline for the greater good of scientists, students, and the wider public audience—a heresy that cuts against the grain in scientific as well as academic circles among those who jealously guard their discoveries in order to be the first in line for credit and publication. The course introduced via video clips a leading paleontologist in the field, Lee Berger, whose two remarkable and vastly dissimilar hominin finds in South Africa have each literally shifted the landscape in studies of human evolution.

Berger, who frequently partners with National Geographic, has in common with Hawks an absolute devotion to open access, which has made him unpopular among some of his more traditional peers.  Berger and Hawks passionately believe that—especially given today’s technology and speeds of communication, as well as tendencies towards ever increasing specialization—that such free and open access is essential to fostering advances in all of the related fields. This passion also extends to the general audience, as evidenced in Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story, by Lee Berger and John Hawks, a well-written, fast-paced narrative that puts a focus to the latest finds and the cutting-edge technology and techniques of paleoanthropology.

My training is as a historian rather than a paleontologist, but I have been fascinated by fossil finds ever since I was a boy, when I followed the adventures of the Leakey’s in National Geographic, and later bought books by Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson that sit on my shelves to this day. The discovery of the magnificent 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed “Lucy” was a big deal for this teenager! So, I have to confess to some delight when Berger reveals in the opening chapters that as a youth, on his somewhat circuitous route to paleoanthropology, he thrilled to these very same volumes. Back in those days, it was once remarked that our entire collection of hominin fossils could be displayed on a single large table. As Berger and Hawks remind us in Almost Human, those days are long past!

This is a very exciting time for studies in human evolution, both because of a plethora of new fossil discoveries, as well as stunning advances in technology that permit a far more detailed knowledge of the lifeways of our early hominin antecedents. For instance, we can now determine with some certainty, based upon carbon isotopes retrieved from fossil teeth, what the owners of those teeth once dined upon. And rather than the familiar “tree of evolution” found in early textbooks, we now know that the model is far “bushier,” with many descendants of a distant common ancestor that turned into dead ends.  Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only surviving species of the genus Homo, but paleoanthropology has revealed that we have many extinct relatives, and we will likely stumble upon many more.  In addition to Lucy, there were several other australopithecines, which are not in our direct line of descent, as well as a number of Homo varieties, including the recent surprising and controversial discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the “Hobbit,” a kind of dwarf hominin that inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. Far less ancient Denisovans have been found in Asia that are, like Neanderthals, archaic humans. Clearly there is no straight line from our ancestors to us.

Perhaps nothing underscores that more than the two astonishing discoveries directed by Lee Berger.  The first, the nearly two-million-year-old fossils of Australopithecus sediba, was actually found not by Berger but by his nine-year-old son in 2008. What is remarkable about sediba is that despite its antiquity, it sports surprisingly modern hands and quite humanlike ankles, yet also—significantly—retains the more ape-like attributes often characteristic to an australopithecine.  Such a weird amalgam of features both ancient and more recent are termed “mosaics” by paleontologists, and there was probably no greater example of this than sediba.

At least, that is, until Berger had a look at the fossils of what was later to be called Homo naledi, first discovered in 2013 by recreational cavers exploring the Rising Star cave system, in the vicinity of Johannesburg.  Homo naledi, a mere 300,000 years old, nevertheless demonstrated mosaic features far more archaic than would be expected from a hominin significantly younger than other specimens of Homo known for larger brains and more modern characteristics. At the same time, there were also distinct anatomical features that clearly identified it as part of the Homo lineage. What those cavers had stumbled upon, at the end of a narrow chute, was the long-isolated Dinaledi Chamber, littered with fossils that turned out to represent more than a dozen naledi individuals. This extraordinary discovery was the foundation of Berger’s Rising Star Cave Expedition that is the central focus of Almost Human.

The Rising Star Cave Expedition, which included Hawks and a truly remarkable team, was presented with a unique set of excavation challenges. The 650 foot (200 meter) labyrinthine route to the Dinaledi Chamber included a particularly claustrophobic segment tagged as “Superman’s Crawl,” a short tunnel less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide, so-called because traversing it requires a bodily contortion with one arm stretched above your head and the other held tight against your body, like Superman flying. This was followed by a vertical climb of some 65 feet (20 meters) up an underground ridge called Dragon’s Back, and then a perilous descent through a 39 foot (12 meter) vertical chute that narrows at one point to only some 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide! Berger brilliantly overcame this daunting hurdle by recruiting the most qualified paleoanthropologists, with climbing and caving experience, who were also physically of the smallest stature, and therefore best suited to probing the narrowest passages. The six who were selected, all women as it turned out, were nicknamed the “Underground Astronauts.”

dinaledi

The story of these intrepid explorers makes for an exciting tale that is sometimes related breathlessly, yet never sinks to pulp. While it is eminently clear that this expedition is underway in the first part of the twenty-first century—replete with state-of-the-art technology and communication—there remains an ever-present palpable element of old-fashioned danger as flesh-and-blood scientists slowly and painstakingly navigate Superman’s Crawl, and then later descend that very narrow chute, to retrieve those precious bones that have lain undisturbed for several hundred thousand years. The narrative is so well-written that the reader can almost hear Berger’s heart thumping in his chest as he monitors the steady progress of his Underground Astronauts, ever alert that there are indeed things that can go very wrong in this extreme environment that could mean injury or death for them.

I must admit just a hint of disappointment with Almost Human at first, for while it is hardly dumbed-down, I had hoped for a bit more emphasis on the fossil morphology, and perhaps a more technical examination of how naledi fit with the rest of the evolutionary bush. But that quickly passed.  This is not that kind of book. Instead, Almost Human is an adventure story of discovery in a field that these days is all about breaking news, told by two men with the talent to articulate it. And Berger’s commitment to open access means that the news of such discoveries is actually getting out, at least in his arena, rather than remaining squirreled away for years as had long been standard practice. Homo naledi and the progress of the Rising Star Expedition has been the stuff of social media for several years now; I learned of the publication of Almost Human on Twitter.

Race, we now know, is a meaningless construct: all living humans today are more closely related to each other genetically than the two chimpanzee populations of west and east Africa are to one another. But it was not always that way.  The search for human origins is a complex one, and new discoveries and interpretations ever alter the contours of the twigs on that bush.  It is a fascinating story, but much of it is often given to the secrecy and arcane jargon of science and academia, and thus lost to a wider audience.  Almost Human is a welcome respite from that, and I highly recommend joining Berger and Hawks and their Underground Astronauts on this fascinating journey to resurrect a piece of our past and proudly show it off to the world.

 

 

Review of: The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell

iliad-mitchell

The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.
–Mitchell lyric translation The Iliad

That is the opening seven lines of the quirky, modern, lyric translation of Homer’s The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. This was my third read of The Iliad, arguably the foundational work of literature in Western Civilization, which I consider the finest book ever written. Like many, I grew up fascinated with the Trojan War, my volume of The Iliad in decorative binding beckoning to me from my bookshelves since I was about twelve years old. That edition, the prose version by Samuel Butler, which I read for the first time with some dramatic impact in middle age, reproduces those same lines as:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
–Butler prose translation of The Iliad

Verse may have been too great an obstacle for me on that first, untrained read, but my experience with the nineteenth century Butler version—which lacks poetic beauty and, worse, employs the associated Roman names for the Greek gods—nevertheless sponsored an obsession with the history and literature of ancient Greece that has carried me with great fervor for nearly two decades hence. And it inspired my next read, some years later, of the beautiful lyric translation by Richard Lattimore, which renders those lines as:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
–Lattimore lyric translation of The Iliad

Now that is poetry! It sounds even better in Greek than English, of course, but I can yet imagine something like that rhythm as bards recited the epic to audiences thousands of years ago! The Iliad is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter meter that depends on the differentiation between long syllables and short syllables for the rhythm in its verse. It was written in Homeric Greek in 15,693 lines that later were divided into 24 books—23 books in the Mitchell edition, but more on that later. Here’s what those opening lines look like in Greek:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
The Iliad in Greek

Archaeology has demonstrated that the existence of Troy—ancient Ilium, now the site of multiple layers of excavated ruins going back to 3000 BCE at the tell of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey—is not a myth, even if history cannot prove that the legendary conflict between a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks and Troy ever occurred. Still, while Homer’s account was certainly fictional, most accept that the war was a historic event, if only because the Trojan War cuts such a deep groove in the memory of the ancient Greeks that it seems unlikely that it was created out of whole cloth. There is evidence that the archaeological level denoted as Troy VIIa—likely a vassal state of the Hittites strategically situated near the mouth of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles)—was destroyed by war circa 1184 BCE, at the cusp of the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean World. This remains the best candidate for the city that tradition said succumbed to the decade-long warfare and siege at the swords of the Greeks.

But The Iliad is not actually about the Trojan War. Rather, The Iliad—although it indeed takes place during the Trojan War—is instead specifically about what has come to be called “the wrath of Achilles.” The Iliad covers only about fifty-one days in the tenth and final year of the war. The events leading up to the war and its conclusion—the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, by Paris, Prince of Troy, which sparked it, and the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse that finally brought the city to ruin—would have been well-known to the ancient Greeks and thus receive little or no attention in this narrative. (This is no less true of the many episodes of the war revealed in non-Homeric tales contained in what has come to be called the “Epic Cycle,” or the stories of its aftermath told in Homer’s Odyssey.)

The Iliad opens as the Greek army is beset by plague sent by Apollo because Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces, refuses to return the daughter of a priest of Apollo he has abducted as a spoil of war. Eventually Agamemnon capitulates, but then takes in her place a woman belonging to Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, an allied force from Thessaly. This sparked the famous wrath of Achilles, a great hero who in his anger withdraws in a sulk from the fight. Achilles is the son of a goddess whom he asks to prevail upon Zeus to favor the Trojans in the war so that the Greeks—known variously here as Achaeans, Danaans or Argives—will come to appreciate in their suffering how essential Achilles is to any hope for victory. In addition to intrigue, much of what follows includes some of the greatest scenes of warfare ever written, with an unsparing eye for the blood and gore of battle. This is also a story with much complexity. The characters—gods and humans—are extremely well-crafted, there is outstanding dialogue, as well as some of the finest applications of analogy as a literary device in the entire canon of western literature. The Achaeans suffer mightily as Achilles spitefully sits out the war. Eventually, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus borrows his armor and goes out to fight in his place, only to be slain by Hector, the mighty hero who is brother to Paris and son of King Priam of Troy. Now Achilles settles his differences with Agamemnon, magnificent new armor is forged for him by the gods, and he returns to battle, killing Hector and dragging his body by chariot around the walls of Troy to defile it in the eyes of his father. Later, Priam visits and supplicates himself before Achilles, begging for the body of his son so he can properly perform funeral rites. Moved, Achilles grants his wish. The Iliad concludes with the merciless sacrifice of Trojan prisoners upon the pyre of Patroclus, and elaborate funeral games presided over by Achilles.

The ancient Greek audience would know the rest of the story: that Paris, Priam and Achilles would all forfeit their lives, that Troy would fall, that Helen would return to Sparta with Menelaus, that Agamemnon would return to Mycenae only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. But none of that has any importance to this tale, which is always and ever about Achilles. Achilles, half-god and half-man, has always seemed to me to be the mirror-image of humanity for all of its grace and its savagery. Achilles can be ugly: Achilles would see his friends and allies slaughtered to redeem his spite; Achilles revels in envy, in anger, in unparalleled sulk; Achilles is savage, is vengeful, is merciless, is unrepentant. But yet Achilles is also beautiful, physically and spiritually. Achilles is remarkably courageous, fiercely loyal, is capable of irrepressible love and grace and kindness and empathy. Achilles could be your very worst enemy as well as your very best friend, in a single heartbeat. Achilles is the Bronze Age. Achilles is the blood-spattered twentieth century. Achilles is our god and our devil. Achilles is you and me.

The Iliad, a story equally of gods and men, is the closest the ancient Greeks ever had to something like the Christian Bible. It was born out of an oral tradition, and no doubt was recited from memory for generations before it was written down. The civilization of the Mycenaeans collapsed along with the Bronze Age; the subsequent “Dark Age” saw Greeks lose literacy as their “Linear B” writing system went extinct. When they rediscovered writing centuries later—borrowing the alphabet from the Phoenicians and brilliantly adding vowels—the very first thing they seem to have written down was Homer’s epics, circa the mid-eighth century BCE. It is unknown whether Homer himself was the real author or even a real person, or simply a literary construct, but that controversy hardly seems to matter, for The Iliad, and its companion quasi-sequel, The Odyssey, are without question outstanding literature that resonate far beyond their tales or their age.

But in English translation, each version is a different story of sorts, hence the temptation to read it again and again, channeled through different masters. And there are many. In addition to Butler, Lattimore, and Mitchell, there are celebrated versions by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald; I personally also own translations by A.T. Murray and Andrew Lang. That is but a mere handful of the available choices. There is a beauty in reading The Iliad, every time, in every iteration, but for me the Mitchell translation was the most eccentric, and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, and on the plus side, Mitchell literally takes no prisoners as he renders the brutal, sanguinary battle scenes as the fast-moving action narratives they were meant to be. On the other, the realism in the modern vernacular occasionally sacrifices authenticity in the work; Mitchell has Achilles refer to Agamemnon as a “son of a bitch,” which reminded me unfavorably of how the literary splendor of the King James Version of the Old Testament is often painfully cratered by modern “hip” translations. Mitchell also opts to reduce redundancy in the narrative by eliminating the repetition of such famously descriptive epithets as “swift-footed” Achilles, “horse-taming” Hector, and “white-armed” Hera, that underscore the poetry in motion; the final product suffers for this omission. Homeric scholars most object to Mitchell’s deliberate excise of The Iliad’s “Book Ten,” a tale of Odysseus and Diomedes on a nighttime adventure between the battle lines, which some hold to be a later addition to the Homeric canon worthy of deletion. For myself, I see little merit in his decision, but neither does the cut inflict a fatal wound upon the epic.

Yet, for all of that, there is indeed outstanding literature in Mitchell’s Homer, as in this excerpt from Book Seventeen:

But apart from the battle, Achilles’ horses were weeping;
they had not stopped since the moment they learned that Patroclus
had just been cut down at the hands of man-killing Hector.
Automedon did whatever he could; he hit them
again and again with his whistling whip, and he tried
persuading them with soft words, then angry threats.
But the horses refused to budge; they would not go back
to the ships, nor would they go forward into the fighting.
Motionless as a gravestone that has been set
upon the funeral mound of some lord or lady,
they stood there in front of the chariot, hanging their heads.
Hot tears flowed from their eyes and fell to the ground
as they mourned for their charioteer, who was gone forever,
And their long, luxuriant manes became filthy and trailed
in the dirt, from the collar on either side of the yoke.

Now that is a great translation! I am not certain that I would recommend Mitchell to the uninitiated for a first time read of The Iliad, but neither would I necessarily dissuade it. My own favorite version remains Lattimore, which I think best catches the spirit and the cadence of the work, but I do not regret my time with Mitchell. His was a fine effort that deserves praise for turning out something new and beautiful from something old and wonderful. There truly can be no fault in that.