Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South … here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.  Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered … A Civilization gone with the wind …

The preceding is the title card screen prologue to a 1939 epic film that was so tightly woven into the fabric of popular culture that no American of my generation, or the two generations that preceded it, could be unfamiliar with it. Its musical score was as taraimprinted upon our DNA as were any number of snippets of dialog, such as the frightened slave Prissy screeching “De Yankees is comin!,” the antihero Rhett Butler uttering the scornful retort, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the manipulative vixen Scarlett herself, in the final scene, voicing an irrepressible optimism with “Tara! Home. I’ll go home … After all … tomorrow is another day.” Tara.  That was the storybook plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the locus for the romantic legend in the novel by Margaret Mitchell and its movie adaptation, that title card writ large in an imaginary dimension where gallant giants walked the earth and dutiful slaves like Mammy and Prissy lived in terror of invading Yankees instead of in gleeful anticipation of fleeing to freedom in their lines.  And much more than a classic movie, Gone with the Wind served as the most successful paean to the myth of the “Lost Cause” since Birth of a Nation, with less malevolence and a much larger and more enduring audience.

In her highly original, thought-provocative study, Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton walks back from the Tara of that iconic spectacle to its historical roots in an antebellum era erased by war that then spawned a revisionism that has not only stubbornly persisted but has seen a disturbing late renaissance as a similarly fanciful emergent heritage claimed by present-day right-wingers wrapped in Confederate flags. The current generation of the latter not only promotes the justice of rebellion, but even imagines tens of thousands of African-Americans garbed in gray and willingly wielding carbines to defend the Confederacy!

The scholarly consensus is that a narrow slice of elite planters committed to an expansion of slavery brought on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans. The north at first put men at arms only to preserve the union, although emancipation later became a war aim. The south lost the war but in some sense won the peace. As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption,” former Confederates regained control of the south and the freed African-Americans – who had enjoyed a brief period of near equal protection under the law – were terrorized, murdered and reduced to a second class status that persisted into the 1960s and beyond. The defeated promulgated a myth of the “Lost Cause” that rewrote history to claim that the conflict was about states’ rights rather than slavery, focused upon the depredations of Northern carpetbaggers, and especially upon the imagined threats of black men preying upon helpless white women.  The “Lost Cause” was the creation mythology of this post-war south, and its vast success can be measured by the fact that its tissue of lies managed to convert much of the north in the decades to come, as reconciliation turned into a universal goal and the institutionalized abuse of African-Americans was rarely even acknowledged.

In Tara Revisited, Clinton focuses upon the plantation legend that is integral to central elements of the “Lost Cause” myth and turns it on its head. While she acknowledges there were indeed women like Scarlett O’Hara from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her cohort comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women.  In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women.  More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Plantations like Tara probably accounted for less than ten percent of the total, which is why its persistence in Lost Cause plantation legend is so notable. As such, Clinton takes us on a tour of the real antebellum south and the real white women who inhabited it: typically wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Some worked in manufacturing to support the war effort, some volunteered to care for the wounded, some served as spies – for both sides – but most focused simply on keeping themselves and their families alive in a time of little food and great deprivation. She also reveals those who are often invisible to history, enslaved African-American women who lived hand-to-mouth in lean and dangerous times, most of whom were unable to escape to Union lines yet eagerly anticipated a northern victory that would ensure their liberation. Masters tried to instill fear in their slaves about the coming blue marauders, but most blacks saw right through this; if there was a cry of “De Yankees is comin!” it was more likely to be in celebration than distress.

Clinton also traces the growth of the legend of “rose colored plantation life” from its roots in a kind of forbidden literary tradition dubbed “Confederate porn” [p203-04] that glorified whites while demeaning blacks, to its central public role within “Lost Cause” theology from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond. The living breathing cheerleaders of this fantasy are the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization founded in 1894 to celebrate Confederate culture that continues to thrive today.  It is no coincidence that there was both a rebirth of the “Lost Cause” and a resurgence of Confederate heritage during the Dixiecrat resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The controversial Stars & Bars that was recently removed from the South Carolina statehouse was only first raised in 1962 by the then governor to protest desegregation. Since 1965, the UDC has coordinated an annual “Massing of the Flag” ceremony in Richmond on Jefferson Davis’s birthday in which the participants pledge “I salute the Confederate flag, with affection, reverence and undying remembrance.” [p186] There is of course for us in 2016 something both disturbing and surreal about this event, which seems to lionize the forces of rebellion while dishonoring the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in blue who died to preserve the United States, not to mention the millions of African-Americans who were first enslaved beneath this flag and then terrorized and degraded by it for a century afterward.

Catherine Clinton, who is currently the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a long resume as a historian that goes back to the PhD from Princeton that she earned with the completion of her dissertation under the direction of eminent Civil War scholar James M. McPherson.  She wrote Tara Revisited in 1995, and I cannot help but wonder if she is at all surprised by yet another generational resurgence of the “Lost Cause” as an element of contemporary right-wing politics.

I recently screened Gone with the Wind on DVD. In retrospect, it is not really a very good film and it does not stand up well over time; the acting is often histrionic, the dialogue overwrought. It is dwarfed by other notable films of the same era.  Unlike those of my generation, most millennials have probably never seen it. Yet, there remains a stubborn resilience in the notion of Tara, as underscored by the ongoing popularity of pilgrimage weeks in the south, “in which plantations recreate the Old South with costumes and other trappings,” and, as the author articulately observes, “in many ways embalm a departed south that perhaps never lived outside Confederate imaginations.” [p187] As such, the central theme of this well-written and eclectic work retains its relevance today.  I highly recommend it.

Review of: The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee

It so happened that I finished reading The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee, in the same tragic week as the worst mass shooting in modern American history at Pulse, a gay nightclub in The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights MovementOrlando, an event no less emblematic of a hate crime than the Charleston black church massacre of the previous year. But most Americans, especially white Americans, do not recall – or do not want to recall – that until relatively recent times hate used to be baked into the quotidian course of existence for African-Americans in Florida and in South Carolina and throughout the south of the old Confederacy. This hate was most manifest in exclusion, and it was so mundane it was unremarkable – at least until a re-energized and resolute Civil Rights movement had the audacity to stand against it; then an appalled nation that did not really want to know of such things came to understand that red blood on black skin was the true emblem of the white unreconstructed south. As The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement aptly details, there were actually areas in Florida that an African-American could not visit without a white escort.  [p31] Yet, in the exploration of nuance and complexity that true historians thrive upon, in this fascinating analysis Altensee reveals that civil rights was not all rock-throwing and police dogs, and that Orlando offered a surprising alternative to conflict that slowly but successfully desegregated the public spheres of their police force and the school system.

Full disclosure: Fred Altensee received his Master’s Degree in History from American Public University one year before I did. As such, we are acquainted with each other through both the virtual world of online education and social networking.  Fred sent me a copy of this book and asked me review it.  I must admit I dreaded this as much as I do when a friend urges me to see his band play at a local bar and seeks my opinion of the performance: the notion of drinking poison rather than commenting is an attractive alternative. So it was with great relief and attendant pleasure that I read Fred’s book and found it exceptionally informative and revealing. This volume is a published version of the author’s master’s thesis, based upon extensive original research including his oral history interviews with surviving members of the first African-American officers to serve on the Orlando police force. Augmenting this authenticity is the fact that Altensee is a former police officer himself, and a current resident of Orlando.

The relationship of African-Americans and the police throughout the south was most palpably defined by a culture dominated by the Ku Klux Klan and a police force devoted to enforcing Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination.  Not only were blacks subject to being herded to the back of the bus and consigned to separate restrooms, but they were not welcome in many business establishments at all, and certain geographies were entirely forbidden to them, especially after dark. A failure to abide met not only with intimidation but often violence and sometimes death. That was the reality of the day. So what distinguished Orlando from many other locales was far less recalcitrance towards at least some forms of integration, and especially the establishment of biracial committees that achieved a major step forward as a handful of African-Americans were hesitatingly but nevertheless successfully added to the rolls of the Orlando police force.  By today’s standards, this was a baby step at best: black cops patrolled only black neighborhoods, could not carry guns, lacked radios or patrol cars and could arrest someone only insofar as they could escort the perpetrator to a call box and wait for white officers to arrive.  Black officers “could not arrest or even testify against a white person.” [p44-45] Yet, this initial integration was accomplished without court order or the national guard, an especially remarkable feat given the times. Altensee reminds us that:

In 1951, the same year Orlando hired its first African-American police officers, the Klan held two cross burnings in downtown Orlando . . .  In February, an African-American janitor was beaten and shot for allegedly entering the girls restroom in a white elementary school unescorted. A month later, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, his brother-in-law is beaten, flogged and shot to death – the only reported lynching in the United States in 1951. In July, an apartment building is dynamited after the owner rented an apartment to a black family . . .  in November, the Creamette Frozen Custard Stand . . .  is bombed for refusing to serve blacks and whites at separate windows. [p39]

Despite an environment of volatility and violence, Altensee’s studied analysis demonstrates that it was possible for cautious and respected members of the white and black communities to come together to achieve at least a foundation for long-term meaningful change. It is difficult for us to imagine or appreciate black police officers with no radios, cars or guns, but in Orlando in 1951 – and across much of the south – it was even more fantastical that there were black police officers at all!

The chief weakness of Altensee’s otherwise fine book is that as a thesis paper it is thus constricted in style and presentation. I would like to see it rewritten and expanded, as I suspect there is much more material that did not make the final cut given the academic audience. Also, the portion of the book devoted to desegregating the public schools does not receive nearly as much attention as the focus upon the police department, which probably deserves a book length treatment of its own. Another quibble is Altensee’s handling of the famous N-word, a despicable epithet hurled by a white supremacist like David Duke, a typical component to a song lyric by a rapper like Ludacris, a snatch of an excerpt from a Mark Twain novel, and a harmless colloquialism among black and brown people across America today. I’m with the late George Carlin on this one: it is just a word; it is the context that matters. But in the context of this book, as experienced by the African-Americans who had it used again them, it was extremely defamatory, intimidating, insulting, dehumanizing. Yet, in the narrative it appears as N________, which to my mind reduces the power of the word as an offensive curse, as it was then intended.  When asked about this, Fred notes that he abhors the word and would not spell it out in his own personal journal, and I can respect that.  But I can’t help feeling that by inserting it in euphemistic abbreviation the expletive loses the power to make the reader wince the way the subjects of such derision must have winced at the time.

These minor points aside, I highly recommend this extremely well-written and insightful slender volume.  I was truly surprised by how much that I learned from Altensee’s focused account of how one city in the segregated south managed to take positive steps towards a new future. Despite the recent terror at Pulse, Orlando today is light-years away from where it was in the mid-twentieth century, especially for the African-Americans who were once relegated to second class status, and of course there is no longer any novelty to blacks serving on its police force.  But racism remains a stubborn problem in the United States, and not only in the south, although the uneasy currents are perhaps more palpable there. Even today, while 29% of Orlando’s population is African-American, only some 16% of its police are, and we can hardly overlook the significance in these kinds of disparities.  Still, there is no doubt that Orlando has dramatically evolved from the days when it gingerly recruited a handful of black cops who were not even trusted with firearms.  Special thanks to Fred Altensee and this fine book for an opportunity to look back thoughtfully and analytically at times very different from our own.

Review of: New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren

Early on in New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, a telling story is related that dates back to 1638, not even two decades removed from the Mayflower, of an New England BoundEnglish colonist near Boston who owned three enslaved Africans – two women and one man – that he sought to turn into breeding stock.  When one of the females refused, he ordered the male slave to rape her in an attempt to impregnate her.  The rape victim went out of her way to report what had occurred to another Englishman nearby, who in his written account of their conversation seemed to show some sympathy; however, his very next journal entry was a humorous description of his encounter with a wasp.  [p7-8] It is clear that as property she otherwise lacked recourse under the circumstances. What does this one unusual anecdotal incident at the dawn of the colonial New England experience really tell us?  It turns out that it is far more instructive than the reader might at first suspect, as Princeton University Professor Wendy Warren’s fascinating new contribution to the history of slavery in colonial North America reveals in the pages that follow.

While many fine works of history in the past several decades have rightly restored the long-overlooked role of New England in the triangle trade that was central to the growth of slavery in the colonies, little attention has been paid to slavery as it actually existed in those northern colonies prior to abolition. The standard tale is that slavery never really caught on there, largely because the region lacked the climate and the crop for the plantation agriculture it was best suited for, and as such this untenable anachronism gradually faded away. There is so much truth to that summary that few have bothered to dissect the actual slave experience while it thrived in New England, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the southern colonies and the West Indies. This neglect has badly shortchanged the historiography of the origins of human chattel slavery in colonial North America.

By moving the focal point away from the traditional emphasis upon the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and the Caribbean, Warren has surprisingly uncovered how much slavery in New England actually had in common with slavery in those other more familiar locales. The rape story she opens with is unexpectedly emblematic of the institution of African slavery in the Americas. Slave women had no rights as property, and therefore no control over their own bodies, which meant they could indeed serve as breeding stock, a financial boon in Virginia even in Jefferson’s time as slavery became less profitable in the Chesapeake while prices soared for field hands on the cotton plantations of the deep south. It also meant that they could be compelled to sexual relations with their owners, which is why, as South Carolina’s Mary Chestnut drily noted in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children . . .”  That meant of course that English common law needed to be turned on its head, so that the children of slaves were condemned to inherit the condition of perpetual servitude from their mothers, regardless of whether their fathers were slave or free.  This was codified in Virginia in 1662 as Partus sequitur ventrem but Warren reminds us that it was already clearly understood as such in Massachusetts in 1638. [p156]

Interestingly, Warren also reveals that a 1690 Connecticut law mandating a curfew for “Negroes” managed to presage portions of the slave codes popular in the south by several decades. Massachusetts adopted a similar ordinance. [p201] The ambivalence towards the cruelties inherent to slavery is nevertheless also evident. When it became clear that owners were freeing slaves when they became too old or infirm to profitably toil as units of labor, Connecticut passed a law in 1702 directing slave-owners to care for elderly slaves, whether or not they had been freed, something otherwise left to arbitrary custom in the south. [p176] But apparently those in New England were not immune to the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted upon wrongdoers who happened to be African slaves:  Increase Mather chillingly reports that in 1681 the enslaved Maria, convicted of arson and murder, was burned alive at the stake. [p199] Regardless of geography, slaves were often underfed, and sometimes resorted to theft for sustenance. In Connecticut in 1699, a slave who stole “a bisket” on the Sabbath suffered the medieval punishment of thirty lashes and a brand to the forehead. [p211] Whipping and branding became quite common in the Antebellum south. Also echoing another common practice in the south, Warren reports that in 1698 hunting dogs were employed to track down a “Negro.” [p207-08] Warren reminds us that Amerindians were also enslaved, although this was much less widespread, but tellingly a 1697 broadside seeking a runaway Native American slave also neatly anticipates the runaway slave advertisements later so common in newspapers below the Mason-Dixon. [p212]

It is in her coverage of Amerindian slavery that Warren falls short, if only because she seems to promise more than she delivers.  The slavery of Native Americans, who were often sold to the West Indies, is a little-known element of early Americana and probably deserves a book-length treatment of its own.  Given the scant number of pages Warren devotes to the topic, she might have best simply left it alone. Yet, this is perhaps only a quibble when one considers how well the author succeeds in demonstrating that slavery was indeed integral to all geographies of the English colonies and was shockingly similar in its elemental form both north and south. That New England always seemed to harbor a certain sense of guilt about the immorality of slavery –and that it eventually acted to bring this heinous practice to an end – perhaps mitigates some of its culpability in perpetrating this great evil, yet by no means can that serve as an excuse to overlook or forgive its deep complicity in it.  Every student of the history of the institution of slavery and of early American history would benefit from reading Warren’s fine book.

Review of: 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, by David Pietrusza

In an election year that at first glance seems unprecedented – the Republican nominee is not really a Republican, a woman is likely for the first time to head up a national ticket, 1920and her stubborn rival for the Democratic nomination is not really a Democrat – I turned to historian David Pietrusza for a reminder that this is hardly the first Presidential electoral cycle branded with the air of the peculiar. I’m a big fan of Pietrusza: his frenetic retelling of two of the most consequential elections of the postwar twentieth century – 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America, and 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies – represent some of the best accounts I have read about modern politics and elections, and his style is often both compelling and irresistible.

This time, I selected his earlier work, the fascinating but in my opinion deeply flawed 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, which recounts how in the days when deals made in smoke-filled rooms overruled primaries, an unlikely dark horse from Ohio named Warren Harding became the Republican nominee and eventually the President of the United States.  Harding – who on the convention’s first ballot polled a dreadful sixth with only 65 votes while the top two contenders garnered 287 and 211 votes respectively – became the eventual nominee largely because, as famously noted by Republican Connecticut Senator Frank Brandegee, “We’ve got a lot of second-raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second-raters.” [p225]

The book’s subtitle is a little misleading: one of the “Six Presidents” is actually Theodore Roosevelt, who actually died before he could fulfill or dispel predictions that after some years of exile due to his 1912 third-party revolt he would again be the Republican Party’s standard bearer, and Pietrusza does not really explore how the ghost of his probable candidacy weighed on the election. Another is Woodrow Wilson, the reigning President, a stroke victim broken both physically and emotionally, who dreams of a third term that virtually no one else considers possible. The remainder, in addition to Harding, are indeed future Presidents: Herbert Hoover, at this point a progressive whom (like the future Dwight Eisenhower) no one is sure is Republican or Democrat; Calvin Coolidge, the laconic and little-known governor of Massachusetts who becomes Harding’s Vice-President; and, Franklin Roosevelt, the handsome pre-polio rising star who becomes the vice-presidential candidate on the opposing ticket.

The level of detail in 1920 is daunting, but a little lop-sided on the Republican side.  There is a deep study of the biographies of Harding and Coolidge and a host of other party regulars, as well as moment-by-moment coverage of the Republican convention, but I walked away still knowing almost nothing of substance about James Cox, the other dark horse from Ohio who became Harding’s opponent on the Democratic side, and the coverage of the latter convention was superficial in comparison. One wonders whether this is because Pietrusza is a conservative historian, although that is hardly detectable in his later works, 1960 and 1948, where he appears to disdain all candidates equally. In 1920, on the other hand, he seems unable to suppress his admiration for Harding, who nevertheless comes off as an intellectual lightweight and somewhat of a cad who is most successful at accumulating much younger mistresses. He also clearly favors Coolidge, a strange man and kind of a political stick-figure who rose to national prominence by crushing a police strike, and then unexpectedly ascends to the Oval Office on the death of Harding.

For Democrat FDR, on the other hand, Pietrusza reserves a kind of barely suppressed loathing.  Nearly two chapters are disproportionately devoted to exploring unseemly scandals involving homosexual sailors during Roosevelt’s tenure as Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration. For instance, the author roundly condemns FDR for his responsibility in the return to active duty of former inmates of a naval prison – many who were termed “moral perverts” – to the consternation of ranking officers.  While it is true that there was great antipathy at the time towards what were termed “unlawful and unnatural acts,” what is striking and perhaps cringe-worthy in this narrative is that Pietrusza writing from a twenty-first century perspective cannot disguise his own horror at those he freely terms “perverts” roaming navy ships at will [p134-35]. There is of course a certain irony in historical retrospect: Harding presided over one of the most irresponsibly corrupt administrations in the nation’s history; Coolidge – whose economic policies are lauded by the author – was barely out of office before the nation suffered catastrophic economic collapse; yet it is FDR, who provided existential leadership through depression and war, who is widely heralded by historians as the nation’s third greatest President of all time, following only Lincoln and Washington.

Pietrusza’s other books are generally fast-paced; this one often gets bogged down with minutiae, but there are highlights that draw both sharp contrasts and parallels to this election season nearly a century beyond it. And the topic of “gays in the military” is not the only one that resounds to the present day. This was the first election where women had the franchise; almost a hundred years later there is yet to be a female President, although Hillary Rodham Clinton may very well change that in November.  Socialism and progressivism, as well as populism, were central albeit fading elements of political discourse. Terrorism – in this case bombs lobbed by anarchists – was much in the news. Business and labor were at odds, and the proper role of government in this and other arenas was much debated. Most striking was the chilling anti-immigrant nativism that reverberates today … cross out and replace the ethnicities in the quote below from Woodrow Wilson’s own shamefully resurrected 1903 commentary on the nation’s “wretched refuse” and 2016 sounds too much like 1920:

“Now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population, the men whose standards of life and of work were such as American workmen had never dreamed of hitherto.” [p326-27]

[Now replay this scary echo: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists . . .” – Donald Trump, 2015]

Internationalism vs isolationism was also a potent issue.  World War I was part of the fabric of the very recent past and both major parties were sharply divided within their own ranks about whether to embrace or reject Wilson’s beloved but doomed offspring of the peace, the League of Nations.  And this is in my estimation where the greatest fault of 1920 is most detectable, for conspicuous in its absence is a focused examination of this single great issue that dominated the national contest like no other. The reader will learn where each candidate stood on the League – or how well he waffled about it – but not the weightier arguments that defined the debate. Perhaps pages devoted to blow-by-blow tallies of convention votes, detailed accounts of Harding’s numerous peccadillos, and Roosevelt’s role in the scandals of gay sailors might better have been redirected to a more thorough exploration of this critical topic.

While this is certainly not his finest book, Pietrusza is both a talented writer and historian, which is far more admirably evident in his later works.  And despite its flaws, 1920 is a worthwhile drive-through of an often overlooked election that ends up telling us perhaps more than we would like to know about our own times and about how little we have grown up nearly a century later. To channel Jean-Baptiste Karr, (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose) “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Review of: On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope

Every once in a while, a unique work of nonfiction appears with little pretension that nevertheless delivers unexpected superlatives in every quarter. Such a surprising and On the Trail of Genghis Khanextraordinary book is On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope.  Ostensibly an installment to the travel and adventure genre, Cope’s book offers so much more, including studies in history, geopolitics, culture, geography and lifestyle, all tightly integrated into a narrative that never loses pace with the journey itself.

In 2004, when he was just twenty-five years old, a young Australian adventurer named Tim Cope began an epic three year mostly solo expedition on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary – some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles) – roughly retracing the routes followed by the steppe nomads of the great conqueror Genghis Khan (1162-1227 CE). Remarkably, his only previous attempt at riding a horse left him with a broken arm as a child, but even as a young man Cope had a résumé of sorts as an adventurer, having ridden a recumbent bicycle more than 6000 miles from Moscow to Beijing just a few years previous to this far more ambitious excursion through long stretches of often isolated, largely primitive and a somewhat punishing environment with only three horses and a dog as his companions. Yet, it turns out that far more dangerous than the extreme cold and prowling wolves were the uncertain human encounters with the occasional alcoholic predatory rogue who looked at Cope’s horses and saw only dollar (or ruble) signs!

Still, much of the author’s experiences with people along the way were overwhelmingly positive.  There is a long tradition of hospitality along the vast multi-national steppe highway that welcomes travelers with widely open arms, and Cope recounts the warm embrace of numerous yurts whose inhabitants had few possessions but did not hesitate to shelter the author and his animals. This hospitality would often also extend to more populated areas such as villages, although small camps and lone outposts were far more typical of Cope’s journey, which encompassed a wide swath of mostly remote territory, typically skirting cities and towns, in a part of the world that is little known to most of us. Cope’s route includes portions of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea (then part of Ukraine, recently annexed by Russia), Ukraine and Hungary.

Steppe nomads are perhaps the most consequential element of global history that are typically overlooked. Yet, the historical narrative has been writ large by their numerous collisions with settled agrarian civilizations over several thousand years. The root word for horse in Indo-European – the language family that includes English, Hindi, French and some forty percent of the other tongues spoken in the world today – can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European (PIE) spoken by the steppe nomads that according to David Anthony’s magnificent The Horse, the Wheel and Language first domesticated the horse six thousand years ago and later in conquest introduced the animal and its unique war machine, the chariot, to Europe. The Huns that brought Attila to the gates of Rome were steppe nomads. So too originally were the Turks that until a century ago controlled all of the Middle East and significant portions of Eastern Europe. And so too were the Mongols, who created a global empire and even conquered China. These are only the most famous nomads; there were scores of others. Horses were the key to their dominance in the frosty northern Eurasian steppe corridor of vast grasslands that stretched for thousands of miles, where the techniques of equestrian warfare were perfected that made them virtually invincible in battle against the settled civilizations they targeted until the advent of effective artillery in the late middle ages. The steppes also served as a highway of trade, most notably the famous Silk Road.

I came to On the Trail of Genghis Khan in a rather circuitous manner, because I wanted to learn more about steppe nomads. I am such a nerd that instead of blasting Led Zeppelin in the car I typically listen to audio college courses on CD, and this time around I was deeply invested in The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, by noted historian and Tulane University Professor Kenneth Harl. I like to supplement these courses with suitable books that match the theme. I happened to see Cope’s unlikely title in a bookstore display and picked it up on impulse.  In the realm of history, there is the romance of history (how a cope press-release-pic-map
people or a culture want to remember the past) and there is actual history (what the past was really like). To Cope’s great credit, both of these are inherent components of his fine book. The romantic notion is intrinsic in the title, but the author is surprised to discover that the romance of the freedom of a steppe nomad on horseback is still remembered a millennium afterwards by the fierce atrocities and hundreds of thousands of dead that were left in the wake of their conquest. But the Mongols were, as noted, only one set of steppe nomads.  There were many others, and their disparate descendants on the Eurasian steppes have variously abandoned or clung to remnants of their respective heritages, with many compromises and trade-offs in between.  There are some great stories. Cope frequently traveled solo with his three horses and his dog, but carried a laptop and a satellite phone. This incongruity was trumped by his encounter with a remote modern nomad camp which was an echo of centuries past yet nevertheless included a generator, satellite dish and tiny television set. His hosts somewhat regretted their hospitality when the author unintentionally drained their battery charging his own equipment and their little TV went dark.

The best part of Cope’s book is that it never devolves into the introspective heartfelt diary of the author’s inner journey characteristic of many books like this. Not that it lacks of the personal: we feel Tim’s pain as he struggles with whether to abandon his animals to fly to Europe to be at his girlfriend’s side when she needs surgery (and he lets the reader decide whether he made the right choice), and many chapters later when his father’s unexpected death sends him home to Australia in a spiral of grief for several months. But Cope makes sure that this book is not about him, but about the country he traverses, about the animals that are his closest companions, about the cultures he encounters, about the families that embrace him and those who do not. His greatest asset can be said to be his ability to act as an observer who is not so detached that he cannot empathize, yet not so invested that he loses perspective.  His other great strength is his craft as a writer as he describes both the natural and the human landscape with an eye for detail and an outstanding narrative skill.  The book also benefits from truly terrific maps that always places the reader on the author’s path in spots on the geography most of us have never heard of, plus a glossary of words and phrases in currency in the various languages and cultures, and even a biographical listing of historic figures cited in the course of the work.  On the Trail of Genghis Khan is one of the finest books I have read in any genre, and I would urge everyone to take the time to read it.

Review of: Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin

It was my great good fortune to happen upon a copy of Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin, at a used book store some months prior to my Jefferson and Monticello The Biography of a Builder2scheduled “Behind the Scenes” tour of Monticello. I had read about half of the book by the day of the tour, and when I mentioned it to the outstanding docent who led us through the unique architecture of Jefferson’s lifetime building project – including steep staircases to upstairs bedrooms and the iconic dome not part of the standard tour – he nodded approvingly and exclaimed that it is a “great book.” I read the second half in the days that followed the tour, and upon completion I have to agree with my guide: it is a truly great book on every level! And while I did not plan to read it in two installments, with the Monticello visit sandwiched in, in fact it certainly enriched the experience.

Perhaps my favorite comment about Thomas Jefferson was the one made by President John F. Kennedy at a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  JFK’s remarks were hardly glib: Jefferson was a remarkably brilliant man who mastered seven languages, possessed an encyclopedic mind, had a highly intuitive, analytic intellect and brought innovation to virtually everything he touched or encountered.

Jefferson was also a polymath extraordinaire: author, thinker, political philosopher, statesman, inventor, musician, wine connoisseur, farmer, scientist, meteorologist, equestrian, politician – the list goes on and on. IMG_1935And that catalog usually includes architect and builder, but what is eminently clear from visiting his mansion and reading McLaughlin’s fine work is that for Jefferson Monticello – it means “little mountain” – was not simply another of his multifarious projects and obsessions, but rather it was part of his DNA. Jefferson spent his lifetime building, tearing down, rebuilding and adding to Monticello. The “museum” visitors tour today was only structurally completed (with the installment of the Doric columns on the West Portico) in 1823, some three years before Jefferson’s death; it probably never looked exactly the way it does today at any actual moment of Jefferson’s lifetime.  It was always, like the man himself, a work in progress. In his provocative work The Phenomenon of Man, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advocated for turning each new day into a process of “becoming” a new person based upon the insight and experience gleaned from the days that have gone before. While the latter was written more than a century after he was gone, in a way it seems that Jefferson lived his life in just this fashion and that Monticello was the structural reflection of his own unique evolution of “becoming.”  It remains his most tangible physical legacy. Thus the subtitle of McLaughlin’s wonderful book — The Biography of a Builder – is especially apt. The author helps the reader to understand that Jefferson and Monticello were in a sense twin manifestations of a single soul.

While there are breaks to explore specific themes, Jefferson and Monticello generally traces Jefferson’s life and the construction of Monticello in parallel.  Jefferson’s design of IMG_1952Monticello was inspired by the influential sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was himself deeply influenced by classical Greek and Roman forms. But the genius of Jefferson was ever his ability to innovate and transform, so while Palladio’s work remained a significant model, Monticello took shape as nothing less than a true iconic Jefferson structure. Along the way, McLaughlin teaches the uninitiated much about architecture and building techniques in the eighteenth century and the kinds of compromises requisite when under construction in the relative wilds of Virginia in those days.  I never knew, for instance, that the reason why brick buildings of that era varied so markedly in color across regions was because brick was typically fired on-site with local clays mixed with water. Jefferson added an additional challenge by choosing to build on a mountain top, something almost unheard of at the time, which meant there were issues with accessibility to resources – and especially to water, which is the other essential ingredient to brickmaking. In the end, rather than attempt to transport tens of thousands of bricks to the mountaintop, Jefferson opted to source water and build kilns on the site. Nails were also made there.  McLaughlin, somewhat of a polymath himself, was not only professor of English and Humanities at Clemson University, but he also built his own home. His passion for both history and construction is evident in his prose, which is almost poetic at times. He relates a fascinating story with some pregnant detail, yet the narrative never grows dull.

With all of his talents, Jefferson also had a paradoxical side, as showcased superbly in Joseph Ellis’ masterwork, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson had an uncanny ability to hold two almost diametrically opposed notions in mind simultaneously without the sort of cognitive dissonance this would provoke for most people. The dark side of this contradiction is tragically underscored as he famously decried the great evil of chattel slavery yet throughout his lifetime owned some two hundred human beings and likely fathered a half-dozen children by one of them.  IMG_1862Despite his obvious admiration for his subject, McLaughlin hardly gives Jefferson a pass in this regard, devoting an exceptional chapter entitled “To Possess Living Souls,” to this great incongruity.  As McLaughlin and the tour guides these days at Monticello make incontrovertibly clear, it was primarily the labor of African-American slaves that built Monticello, and their master was the great statesman who wrote that “All men are created equal.”  The author makes clear that while Jefferson was not a cruel master, and that he seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of his “property,” human slavery in itself is a cruelty. Moreover, slaves were whipped at Monticello, as on other plantations, and those who did not fall into line were sold away from their families to distant lands.  Although this book was published in 1988, before DNA evidence seems to have settled the argument about rumors of the long liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, McLaughlin implies that he takes this for fact and repeatedly points to the special treatment members of the Hemings family received at Monticello. On her deathbed, Jefferson promised his wife Martha (“Patty”) that he would never again wed, but this pledge did not stop him apparently from begetting some six children with (ironically!) Martha’s much younger mulatto half-sister, Sally.  For all of his accomplishments, this paradox of Jefferson as slave-owner will forever leave an indelible stain on the great man’s reputation.

Jefferson and Monticello, which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is one of the finest books I have read in some time on a variety of levels.  IMG_1867Sadly, Jack McLaughlin died very recently (in November 2015, at eighty-nine years old) so I could not share my praise of this wonderful volume with him. Still, his work lives on.  I highly recommend this book to all who seek a greater understanding of Jefferson, of American history, and of architecture.  And be sure to visit Monticello, because in that ancient homestead a part of Thomas Jefferson still thrives.

Review of: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh

How do we define atheism today? What exactly constitutes an atheist? Although I am not a believer in magical sky gods, I avoid describing myself as an atheist, which not only has a Battling the Gods Atheism in the Ancient Worldbit of an arrogant ring to it but these days is additionally burdened by the negative fallout from the militant atheism – actually “anti-theism” – of a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher, as of late further tarnished by blatant Islamophobia. On the other hand, agnostic sounds a bit tentative, so I coined my own term, “dogmatic skeptic,” to sum up my outlook in this regard. My point here is that while there are lots of variations of the religious experience, there may be just as many varieties and degrees of non-belief (un-belief?). Armed with a stunningly encyclopedic knowledge of ancient times, renowned Classicist Tim Whitmarsh sets out in Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World to establish that atheism is not only a post-Enlightenment phenomenon but has as well a solid foundation in the remote past.

There are problems almost from the very start. Once more, how do we define atheism? If one rejects established religion, does that establish them as atheist? Hardly.  Plato rejected the Olympian pantheon, but he believed in mysterious perfect forms and a vague supreme being, so he was hardly atheist. And we know a lot about Plato from the relatively large body of his work that has survived. In contrast, most of what we know about the rest of the ancient world is fragmentary, so much interpretation is required, and whenever possible Whitmarsh interprets to suit his thesis. What if all we had were portions of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses challenging the Roman Catholic Church on indulgences? We might conclude that Luther was an atheist, but we would of course be very wrong.

I would take this one step further: there remains a heated debate in some circles of twenty-first century American historiography as to the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of the various Founders, with some even asserting that Jefferson or Madison were atheists, and others vigorously challenging that notion. In this case, we have a vast collection of writings both by the subjects in question and by those who knew them intimately, yet much dispute remains. This is further complicated by the fact that spiritual beliefs can change dramatically over a lifetime; many become more devout as they grow older and mortality looms. A perfect example is Hamilton, a devoted Presbyterian in his youth who seemed to lose interest in religion entirely during the Revolution; he later briefly flirted with Deism (according to biographer Ron Chernow), and yet on his deathbed spoke with great passion about his commitment to a loving god.  These men lived only a little more than a couple of centuries ago, yet there remains great ambiguity.  How can we then reach back thousands of years with fragmentary evidence and make pronouncements with such certainty?

Whitmarsh takes us on an extremely well-written and often delightful tour of the philosophical and religious realms of the ancient Mediterranean in his studied attempt to turn up committed atheists, but leaves me mostly unconvinced, not because they did not exist but because after all he presents little incontrovertible evidence of their presence. The author himself hints at them more than locating them in their respective haystacks.  At one point, Whitmarsh cites the famous rhetorical flourish of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes: “Now if cows, horses or lions had hands, and were able to draw with those hands and create things as humans do, horses would draw gods in the form of horses, and cows in the form of cows, and create bodies just like they had.” Yet, on the very next page he concedes that Xenophanes, a believer in “one god, greatest among gods and mortals, not at all like mortals in body or thought,” is hardly the atheist the former quotation might suggest. [p60-61] Battling the Gods is replete with such material.  I have no reason to doubt that there were atheists at the very dawn of the human experience, but I remain unconvinced that they ever comprised more than a very tiny minority. I would also grant that this number may have been greater during the heyday of ancient Greek and Roman scientific inquiry, but if in the twentieth-first century at the height of modern science and medicine so many billions stubbornly cling to supernatural beliefs, we should not be surprised if these numbers were dramatically larger in the days when the forces of earthquakes and lightening remained objects of some great and terrible mystery.

I was a bit troubled by the treatment of Socrates in this work, whom Whitmarsh buzzes around tenuously in dozens of references.  We all know that Socrates was charged with impiety (More specifically according to Xenophon’s Memorabilia for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.”) but there is a consensus among historians that this was but a pretext to punish the great gadfly for his former association with members of the “Thirty Tyrants,” the Spartan-supported reactionary regime that came to briefly rule Athens after her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and especially his one-time pupil, Critias, their cruel leader.  Whitmarsh makes much of the fact that the existence of the capital charge of impiety had to imply that there was a wealth of the impious, but I find him careless in failing to underscore that Socrates was hardly an example of the same.

The charges levied against Socrates, however, do raise an issue that Whitmarsh barely explores but perhaps buttresses his thesis: if you could likely be put to death simply for challenging religious orthodoxy – never mind atheism – in an unusually open society like the Athenian polis, few would advertise such proclivities nor leave written confirmation of the same. Thus, as they say, absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence.  Susan Jacoby’s marvelous book Freethinkers resurrects the relatively large cast of agnostics that publically populated nineteenth century America, but they lived in a free society where they could perhaps be shunned but not jailed or burned at the stake.  You would hardly expect to find something similar elsewhere on the globe back then, or in such places as Saudi Arabia today.  Atheist remains a dirty word in the United States in 2016, but at least in Massachusetts you cannot be stoned to death for proclaiming yourself one.

Remarkably, while I often found Battling the Gods to lack focus and ultimately concluded that Whitmarsh failed to substantively make his case, I still enjoyed reading this book for the author’s wide acquaintance and articulate commentary upon philosophy, religion and ancient history. I would caution that some background in these disciplines is requisite in order for the reader to properly place the narrative in context, as this volume is hardly suitable for the general audience.  Finally, I would note that while I agree with Whitmarsh that atheism is not purely a modern phenomenon, I would maintain that in the past its adherents likely remained lurking quietly at the periphery, even much more so than they do today.

Review of: An Ape’s View of Human Evolution, by Peter Andrews

In the search for a common ancestor, Peter Andrews points out in An Ape’s View of Human Evolution, we should not expect a hominid that resembles living great apes or Apes View of Human Evolutionhumans, only one that contains certain traits that are present in both populations today. For instance, since the lack of a tail is a defining characteristic to each group, we would expect that our common ancestor would have lost its tail, as well. This is a fascinating perspective that immediately brought to mind something in an entirely different field that while unrelated is somewhat analogous: linguists searching for the common origins to the hundreds of Indo-European languages that are today spoken across more than forty percent of the globe have constructed a framework ancestral language known as Proto Indo-European (PIE); our living languages are descended from it with detectable ties to root words and grammar. Elements of PIE are still extant in languages as disparate as English and Hindi, just as there are elements of that ancient hominid in both chimps and humans today. Andrews, a renowned anthropologist who once studied under the legendary Louis Leakey and went on to spend much of his career at London’s Natural History Museum, has brought a lifetime of scholarship to bear in this study of fossil apes and their environments that offers clues to what this common progenitor might have been like.

The surviving “great apes” consist of humans, orangutans, gorillas, and the two species of chimpanzees and bonobos that are our closest relatives. Collectively they and their extinct ancestors are known as hominids. (Gibbons are also apes, but are classified separately as “lesser apes.”) Human ancestors subsequent to the human-chimpanzee divergence are known more specifically as hominins. Thus, that enigmatic and elusive most recent common ancestor represents the parent stock to both humans and chimps. The search for this forebear is complicated by the scarcity of hominid fossils. The once famous claim that all hominid fossils could be displayed on a billiard table is both wildly exaggerated and certainly obsolete, as thousands of such fossils have been recovered in recent decades. Still, these remain no less rare, and much of what we do have is fragmentary. I have always especially been struck by the paucity of hominin fossils, but it turns out that this represents a veritable abundance next to the scant traces of fossil apes that have come down to us. Andrews wonders aloud about the rich array and potential numbers of extinct apes that might have once walked the earth, while he painstakingly takes the reader through a carefully detailed examination of the fossil evidence in hand, much of it from the Miocene Epoch (roughly 23 to 5 MYA).

I am grateful to the Cambridge University Press for providing me with a copy of this book for review, but I might not have requested it had I known that it was such a highly specialized work. I have followed studies in human evolution for many years, but my training is in history not paleontology, so I found portions of the book a challenging read, especially the many chapters given to descriptive fossil morphology, pregnant with anatomical detail. An Ape’s View of Human Evolution is clearly not intended for a general audience, although the reader with a strong background in evolutionary studies can well appreciate the first six chapters as Andrews reviews what is known about fossil apes in general, and artfully reconstructs the respective environments that hosted them. His discussion of the isotopic signatures that reveal the kinds of food that nourished them – C4 plants vs. C3 grasses – is a reminder of the wealth of detail today’s science can bring to bear in evaluating fossil evidence. And this is, of course, a field open to constant revision: Andrews notes that the once popular view that knuckle-walking, the unique form of locomotion seen in chimps and gorillas, might be a kind of forerunner to bipedalism and therefore present in a common ancestor, has largely been refuted by studies that seem to indicate that knuckle-walking developed similarly but independently in each of these great apes and is therefore not a key to their common evolution. In fact, it turns out that knuckle-walking does not even establish a sister relationship between chimpanzees and gorillas; like wings that developed independently in birds and bats, this unusual type of locomotion is analogous rather than homologous. [p25-26]

This is great stuff! Unfortunately, the narrative thread abruptly breaks off as subsequent chapters are devoted almost exclusively to fossil ape morphology, which felt more like the kind of material suitable to an appendix. In a similar vein, I was reminded of the middle portion of David Anthony’s otherwise magnificent The Horse, the Wheel and Language, when it appears as if Anthony has incongruously inserted a sizeable chunk of his archaeological dig notes smack dab into the center of the chronicle. Fortunately, Anthony later resumes the narrative. This cannot be said of Andrews, who only very briefly revisits earlier themes in his final section, which merely consists of some twenty pages of text. It is clear that the morphological material that makes up roughly half of this volume is intended to buttress reasoned arguments for what we can expect to find in a common ancestor, but a stronger concluding chapter that connected all of the dots with greater clarity would have been most welcome. Still, as noted earlier, this book is intended for a specialized audience and the abundance of material included by Andrews in this scholarly work is no doubt a welcome addition to the literature in this exciting field as we continue to seek and evaluate critical evidence to chart the course of human evolution.

Review of: Hornswogglers, Fourflushers & Snake-Oil Salesmen: True Tales of the Old West’s Sleaziest Swindlers, by Matthew P. Mayo

I take my responsibility as an “Early Reviewer” very seriously, so when I obtain a book under such circumstances, I feel an obligation to both the author and the Early Reviewers hornswogglersprogram to read it through cover-to-cover in order to fairly evaluate it. Absent that strong sense of commitment, I would certainly have abandoned Hornswogglers, Fourflushers & Snake-Oil Salesmen: True Tales of the Old West’s Sleaziest Swindlers, by Matthew P. Mayo, somewhere around page twelve. Instead, I agonizingly forced my way through all of its twenty-two chapters and two hundred seventy-seven pages of character sketches – which unfortunately simply reinforced my first impression.

In fairness to the author, I am probably the wrong audience for a book like this, as reader or reviewer. Still, in fairness to me it is billed as American History – which is why I initially requested it – and the back cover duly claims it as History/US-19th Century. But more importantly, in fairness to actual historians who painstakingly research, analyze, interpret and write books about history, Hornswogglers hardly qualifies as history at all, except perhaps in the very broadest sense in that its content is concerned with the past. This book is written for a popular rather than a scholarly academic audience, but I do not object to that; I commonly read both kinds of histories and am comfortable evaluating each on their respective merits. I might, in general, take exception to the absence of notes, which is sloppy for either kind of work, but in this case that is really the very least complaint a reviewer could raise. To my mind, this is simply a dreadfully bad book on a variety of levels.

Deafening alarm bells went off on the third page of the “Introduction” as Mayo nonchalantly reveals that: “At various points I used poetic license by adding dialogue and supporting characters where firsthand accounts were scarce.” [p xiii] Really??? I must admit a sense of astonishment: this is my first experience with an author of an ostensible work of history who has freely and insouciantly confessed to the manufacture of conversations as well as some of the individuals peopling his chronicle. We have a name for books that fall into this category – historical fiction – a perfectly legitimate genre that has produced magnificent works by the likes of Michael Shaara, Mary Renault and Gore Vidal. But these are emphatically not styled as history.

By way of exception, I will grant a willingness to give a pass to Thucydides, who in his magisterial The History of the Peloponnesian War clearly imagines exchanges between key individuals that he could not have witnessed. But nothing in Hornswogglers comes up even close to the level of the “Melian Dialogue.” In fact, concocted inner-monologues and dialogues characterize at least eighty percent of the narrative, and much of it reeks with simply bad writing, of the “dark and stormy night” variety. Moreover, it lacks all measure of authenticity, especially because it tries so hard to be authentic. Imagine, if you would, the kinds of scripts written for popular “Grade-B” Westerns in the Hollywood of the 1940s, with a character actor such as Walter Brennan cast as a grizzled prospector downing a foamy beer in a saloon while spouting the derivative canned vernacular that was a typical ingredient of an old-fashioned celluloid horse opera – much of Hornswogglers is a poorer echo of that!

And what of the author, Matthew P. Mayo? The back cover bio proudly touts that he “is a Spur Award-winning writer” (an award for writers of Western fiction), and goes on to note that: “He roves the highways and byways of North America . . . in search of high adventure, hot coffee, and tasty whisky.” His website adds only that he is an Eagle Scout and an “on-screen expert for a popular BBC-TV series about lost treasure.” Whether he has had a formal education or any training for writing proper history is conspicuous in its absence. My guess would be not so much.

I suppose there are those who would be entertained by some of the colorful character vignettes in this book, but I would suspect that those like myself concerned with the documentary history of the American West would not be a part of this audience. A “hornswoggler” is apparently defined as a deceiver who dupes a hapless victim: I cannot help but feel that I was hornswoggled into reading this book.


Review of: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild

Tragically, inhumanity on an epic scale is not reserved to a single time or a single place. Which is why Francis Ford Coppola could so effortlessly pluck Kurtz out of Joseph Conrad’s King Leopold’s GhostAfrica and deposit him into the Southeast Asian milieu of Apocalypse Now. The original Kurtz of Heart of Darkness was indeed a fictional character, but nevertheless served as an emblem of authenticity for historic individuals, actual events, a specific geography and an almost unimaginable cruelty that has been virtually forgotten by much of the world, even by the descendants of the victims. In King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild forces us to remember.

During the mad scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, European powers ruthlessly carved up the continent into colonial possessions irrespective of historic boundaries or tribal loyalties. But the Congo, where Conrad’s visit found inspiration for Kurtz, was not one of those colonies. It was rather quite remarkably and singularly the vast personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II, a constitutional monarch with almost no political power at home, who managed to create his very own African empire and milked it for everything he could with a terror machine worthy of envy by the worst later twentieth century totalitarians. If this is a book of heroes and villains – although Hochschild is too much a student of nuance and complexity to paint with such a broad brush – Leopold was indeed a great villain. Still another was the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of Stanley and Livingstone fame, who manufactured his own identity, managed to serve and subsequently desert from both sides in the American Civil War, routinely brutalized natives on expedition, had such a streak of sadism that he once fed his dog its own tail that he had severed – and through his efforts nearly single-handedly secured the Congo for Leopold to menace and exploit.

But these two pale in comparison to the agents of Leopold’s rule who squeezed the territory and its hapless population for every last drop of wealth, from an initial focus on ivory to the exploding market for rubber. A review such as this is too limited in scope to contain even a summary of all of the atrocities committed in this regard, and it would take a thick tome of single-spaced text in a tiny font to list all of the otherwise nameless and colorless Kurtz’s who dispassionately carried out the long litany of crimes against humanity that characterized Leopold’s rule of the Congo, often magistrates or members of what was called the Force Publique. Some of the more notable mounted heads on poles or collected skulls as souvenirs, inspiring Conrad, but most – like Hitler’s bureaucrats or Stalin’s executioners – were easily forgotten anonymous murderers who quietly went about their sanguinary duties. Hochschild cites Primo Levi’s observations of his Auschwitz experience: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the . . . functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” [p121]

Leopold successfully disguised his appropriation of a huge chunk of Africa for his personal domain through a disingenuous campaign against slavery by Arab traders. But through a clever sleight of hand it was Leopold who enslaved the native population, compelling them to forced labor in unimaginably inhumane conditions, chained together by the neck and routinely punished with hundreds of lashes by a rawhide whip known as a chicotte, while conducting mass campaigns of extermination against those who resisted or ran away. The Force Publique were issued rations of bullets and expected to return with either unused shells or the severed right hands of those they had killed. Thousands of hands were collected, in some cases from living human beings. It was a terror on a scale never before seen on the continent.

There were also heroes, white and black, although like most heroic figures in history they remained unrewarded in life. Leopold’s forces were quite formidable, as were his public relations resources. Still, eventually an odd alliance of brave souls – a black American missionary, a British agitator and journalist, and a British Consul with grave secrets – gradually brought to light the misdeeds that plagued the Congo and spurred an international effort towards redress. The latter, a descendant of the nineteenth century anti-slavery crusade, was the last great Pan-European human rights movement of that era and ultimately proved successful, more or less, by forcing Leopold to divest himself of the Congo, which became a colony of Belgium and saw the end of the worst kinds of abuses that once ran rampant there. This movement is also largely forgotten, along with the cruelties it sought to relieve, eclipsed in human memory by the greater horrors of World War I and sympathy for the victimized and overrun Belgium.

The exploitation of the Congo continued, however, although the terror was much diminished. Few even among the reformers recognized the greater crimes of colonialism and the abuses it spawned. Towards the end of this outstanding book, Hochschild reminds us that although Europe rose in righteous indignation at Leopold’s cruelties, it turned a blind eye to much of the rest of the crimes against humanity that raged in colonial Africa and beyond, including the 1904 mass extermination of tens of thousands of Hereros in German South West Africa, today’s Namibia. The British massacre of aborigines in Australia hardly caused a stir. Few noticed as the United States pursued a counter-guerrilla effort in the Philippines “that killed 20,000 rebels and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of war-related hunger or disease.” [p282] There were plenty of villains to go around, usually masked by the bureaucracy of the state rather than the figure of a single individual such as Leopold.

As for the heroes, they are forgotten also. The journalist Edmund Morel (who resurfaces in Hochschild’s magnificent book, To End All Wars) is later imprisoned for his loud opposition to England’s involvement in World War I. The Congo experience acted to springboard former British Consul Roger Casement into anticolonial agitation that crossed the line in a wartime collaboration with Germany that sought to effect Irish independence; he later served as an inspiration for Nehru but was smeared for his covert homosexuality and ended his life on the gallows. Black missionary William Sheppard, disgraced for extramarital affairs, returned to an America of second class citizenship; a white woman in his Virginia hometown reminisced that: “He was such a good darky. When he returned from Africa he remembered his place and always came to the back door.” [p283]

In the Congo, the institution of the Force Publique also persisted. When the era of colonialism ended just as the Cold War was heating up, the CIA sponsored a coup that resulted in the overthrow and death of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was seen as unfriendly to western interests. The thug recruited as a key agent in this effort was Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, a former NCO in the Force Publique, who came to power and – rewarded by US support for his staunch anti-communism – for decades afterwards terrorized and bankrupted his country. In this sense, King Leopold’s ghost is still with us.


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