Review of: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan

To my mind, great literature is best defined by the visceral reaction it triggers and its stubborn lingering effect. After the plot has faded, the names of the characters erased, The Sound of One Hand Clappingand the book itself diminished by passing time into a sort of vague mental snapshot of its encounter, the way a great novel makes you feel while you read it cuts a kind of indelible groove that resonates long after the cover is closed. That is not only fine writing: that is art. And that is the art in the novels crafted by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan.

My first encounter with Flanagan was Gould’s Book of Fish, a stunningly original and brilliant blend of satire, heartache, love, cruelty, comedy, and existential tragedy, tossed with a superb use of magical realism. Think William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Irving, all stirring the same pot with different shaped spoons. Originally published in 2001, I consider it the finest novel of the millennium to date. I have since read five of the six books Flanagan has written, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. *

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a much earlier work, published in 1997. The central character is Sonja Buloh, a strong but troubled woman in her late-thirties who returns to her birthplace in Tasmania. The novel’s title–adapted from the famous Zen kōan–evokes the bleak narrative that marked the formative years of Sonja’s life, abandoned at three years old by a mother who disappears into a blizzard, and thereafter shuttled between various temporary households by her often alcoholic and sometimes violent father, Bojan Bojan, a Slovenian immigrant whose parenting ranges from adoration to abuse. Flourishing a technique reminiscent of André Brink in A Chain of Voices, Flanagan skillfully moves between moments in time without losing anchor to the present, exploring Sonja’s childhood and, significantly, Bojan’s young manhood, which smacks of memories littered with atrocities and corpses of Nazis and Slovenian partisans. This is a book of much tragedy, of much disappointment, yet also one of hope and redemption. There is just a hint of the magical realism later manifested Gould’s Book of Fish. But there is here, as in all of Flanagan’s fiction, an abundance of fine prose as well as a masterful use of the objective correlative–a literary device that conjures emotion in the inanimate–often seen in the works of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping has much of the feel of a first novel, although it is not. Flanagan’s first novel was the magnificent Death of a River Guide, which was no doubt a hard act to follow. ** One Hand Clapping seems rougher and less sophisticated than River Guide. There are portions that seem extraneous and beg for edit. It can be slow-going, especially because the elements that make you want to care about the characters are not fully fleshed out until the last third of the book. On more than one occasion there is the thud of the anticlimactic dully falling flat. And yet …

And yet the quality of the prose never disappoints; warts-and-all this is a novel that generously rewards the reader for patience and loyalty to the narrative. After it is done, there remains a powerful urge to read it through again. There are few writers of contemporary literary fiction that can deliver at this level, something a review like this can certainly attest but by all rights demands to be heard in Flanagan’s own voice:

In the great forests beyond, the devils and quolls and possums and potaroos and wombats and wallabies also came to curious life in the night, and they roamed the earth for what little they could scavenge to keep themselves alive, and when they mistakenly ventured onto the new gravel roads that were everywhere invading their world, it was to be mesmerised by the sudden shock of moving electric light that rendered them no longer an element of the great forests or plains, but a poor pitiful creature alone whose fate it was to be crushed between rubber and metal. Having being shown by the electric light to have no existence or meaning or world beyond a glaring outline upon the gravel, each animal was killed easily by the men who drove drunk to and from their place of work, heading to or from the whores and grog and the card games of the bigger towns. By day the roads were speckled red with the resultant carnage and startled hawks feasting on the carcasses would hastily rise into the air dragging rapidly unravelling viscera behind them, a shock of bloodied intestine stretching across the blue sky as if the world itself were wounded. Jiri had told Bojan some people believed that the animals reincarnated as spirits or other animals or even as people. But when Bojan hit a fellow animal he hoped he had done it a favour and relieved it of the burden of life forever. [p268-69]

            That is great literature. That is art. That is why, even if it is not his finest novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping should be penciled into everyone’s to-be-read list.

 

* I reviewed The Narrow Road to the Deep North here: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/

** I reviewed Death of a River Guide here: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/

 

 

Review of: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf

Breaking news that recent discoveries may push back traces of the earliest forms of life on earth to a remarkable 3.77 billion years ago brings new relevance to Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, a dazzling exploration of cradle of lifehow science was able to overcome substantial obstacles to look back to the very edges of the dawn of life on our planet. Schopf, professor of earth sciences at UCLA, is a paleobiologist with a long, impressive resume that includes service as NASA’s principal investigator of lunar samples during the golden age of manned moon landings. More significantly, it was Schopf himself who in 1965 was the first to discover Precambrian microfossils of prokaryotic life in stromatolitic sediments in Australia’s Apex chert dated to 3.5 billion years ago, the oldest confirmed evidence for life at the time. Because new breakthroughs in this field are rare and the science moves forward at a somewhat glacial pace, Cradle of Life–first published in 1999–remains fresh and fascinating.

If references to “prokaryotic life” and “stromatolitic sediments” sound intimidating, the reader should take some comfort in that Schopf’s fast-moving and well-written chronicle is largely accessible to the non-scientist.  At the same time, do not overlook the implied caution in “some comfort” and “largely accessible,” but neither should that serve as roadblock to his rewarding if sometimes complicated account. I frequently challenge myself to read above my level, and these forays typically orbit around science and mathematics, where my strengths in historical analysis are of little service to me.  I will long remember how humbled I was by The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll’s brilliant exposition on the hunt for the Higgs Boson. Such books are a reminder of how smart you aren’t! I came better equipped to Schopf than to Carroll, largely because of my long self-taught study of evolution and paleontology, yet still I found myself tested as I trod through the evidence for ancient microbial life and how it functioned in an ecosystem so distant in time to us that it compels the reader to brave the contours of both science and imagination.

The earth was formed some 4.54 billion years ago, but as recently as the late nineteenth century it was believed to be only 100 million years old. Darwin, who advanced his theory of evolution before the earth’s antiquity was established, was troubled by what he viewed within that framework as the lack of requisite time for the slow process of natural selection to occur.  Later, with the age of the planet at least approximated, it yet remained rather fuzzy when organic life first appeared, today believed to be as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Until relatively recent times, it was accepted wisdom that whatever life–simple and microscopic–may have existed before the fossil-rich Cambrian Period (the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, which began 541 million years ago) left no verifiable remains.

In the opening chapters of Cradle of Life, Schopf neatly summarizes for the non-specialist the fundamentals of earth science, geology, and plate tectonics, as well as the key concepts of evolutionary biology, before moving on to recount the various attempts to locate evidence of Precambrian life.  It turns out that such traces are often ambiguous, and vestiges of life in the layered mineral record bear a striking resemblance to similar nonbiologic designs in sedimentary rock. Experts who fell victim to such errors brought disrepute to the field when shown to be mistaken, which engineered a strong resistance to authentic microfossils when these came to light.  Fortunately, for all of its wrong turns, science is self-correcting, and the bulk of this fine book relates the discovery of indisputable ancient fossil life and how that has impacted what we know about evolutionary paleobiology.

Schopf, as noted, was at the forefront of this dramatic breakthrough, which was manifested in his discovery of microfossils of cyanobacteria preserved in stromatolites–accretionary layers produced by the activities of mat-building microorganisms–in the sedimentary rock of some of the oldest pristine continental crust still extant on the planet, in northwestern Australia’s Pilbara Craton. Cyanobacteria, formerly and incorrectly tagged “blue-green algae,” are an ancient single-celled organism that, lacking a nucleus, are characterized as prokaryotes. Cyanobacteria still exist, but were of outsize significance to an early earth that was both starved for oxygen and subject to punishing UV radiation unshielded by an ozone layer that was yet to exist. Critical to the evolution of much of life as we know it, it was cyanobacteria’s pioneering strategy of oxygen-producing photosynthesis that literally created the environment suitable for the explosion of the diversity and complexity of organisms that later populated the planet.  As cyanobacteria flourished, vast quantities of oxygen were pumped into the atmosphere that not only created conditions salubrious to evolving life but led to the formation of the protective ozone layer essential to the latter’s survival. In the meantime, cyanobacteria demonstrated an astonishing level of adaptability to a whole host of habitats, a testament to how it is that this “living fossil” remains with us today.

While I see no inherent conflict between science and religion, as a self-styled “dogmatic skeptic” the evolution of life strikes me as even more wondrous and miraculous without the presence of a creator god.  Schopf underscores that every form of life on earth is linked to one another, that: “Whether large or small, living or fossil, life comes in just two varieties …” the nonnucleated single-celled prokaryotes like cyanobacteria, and the eukaryotes, which “have chromosomes packaged in a saclike nucleus.” Eukaryotes encompass both single-celled creatures as well as all of the more complex multicellular organisms–like azaleas, ants, frogs and humans–that exist on our planet. The author rhetorically chides us for our “big-organism bias” that puts frequent focus upon plants, fungi and animals–the only three branches of life that “include large, many-celled organisms,” as well as microscopic ones. [p237] Cradle of Life reminds us that the most noteworthy creatures can be those that are invisible to the naked eye. Cyanobacteria, measured in micrometers–a millionth of a meter–are not nearly as wide as a human hair. Life’s four most critical biogenic elements are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON), so the contributions of oxygen producing cyanobacteria–a microbial single-celled prokaryote–to the evolutionary processes unleashed cannot be overstated. Schopf argues that cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthesis, and the much later innovation of eukaryotic sex that fueled genetic variation, are the two “surpassingly important” components of evolution ever devised. [p249]

While much of Schopf’s delightful book is accessible to the non-specialist, portions nevertheless present some difficulty to those outside of this field. The complexity is, however, much mitigated by photographs, illustrations, timelines and a comprehensive glossary of terms that I found most helpful. Moreover, Schopf’s prose is both articulate and engaging. While I found some of this read challenging, I came away from the work much rewarded for the effort. For those little familiar with the origins of life on earth and the line that can be drawn from that hazy ancient past to my very fingers typing out this review, Cradle of Life comes highly recommended.

Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi

There perhaps could not be a more timely and relevant book to see publication than Who Lost Russia: How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi.  As this review is written, friction between the United States and Russia is currently at levels not Who Lost Russia How the World Entered a New Cold Warwitnessed since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The sound of saber-rattling echoes from potential flashpoints across the globe. Russia has annexed Crimea–which resulted in loud condemnation from the West as well as crippling economic sanctions–and actively sponsors civil war in Ukraine through its support of two breakaway self-proclaimed republics, much as it has done in Georgia, another former Soviet state, but with greater vigor and less restraint.

President Vladimir Putin has remade his role as an elected official in an emerging democracy into that of an iron-fisted old-style autocrat, and seeks to refashion Russia into a key actor in the global arena once more. Relying on a toolkit that includes political and economic intimidation, misinformation campaigns and election meddling, a newly resurgent Russia is actively reasserting itself with states once part of the Soviet Union, with former allies, and in efforts directed at destabilizing the Western alliance. Russia has intervened in Syria, a traditional Soviet ally, ostensibly to fight ISIL but in fact to prop up the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, putting it at direct odds with US interests in a highly unstable region.  A new American President won the White House under a cloud of suspicion as it has become increasingly clear not only that Russia intervened in the election, but that it did so to promote Donald Trump. Twin committees in both houses of Congress are currently investigating whether there was active collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump himself seems struck with a kind of boyhood admiration of Putin and his brand of authoritarianism, which may or may not have been put to the test when he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Russia seems unfazed, brandishing its military might, leaving spy ships lingering off the American coast, and buzzing American fighter jets. It’s almost like a flashback to the 1960s.

But, as Peter Conradi reminds us with this insightful and well-written study, it did not start off that way, and perhaps it did not have to come to this. Conradi, foreign editor of the UK’s The Sunday Times, and thus absent the bias that seems to inform the outlook of Americans from all ends of the political spectrum, revisits the collapse of the Soviet Union–which he witnessed first-hand as a foreign correspondent in Moscow–and the heady optimism that came along with it in Europe and the United States.  The world marveled at unfolding events then, cheering on first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, as the fear of nuclear annihilation gave way to the welcoming of Russia to a community of nations predicated upon democracy and a market economy. Few in the West paid much attention as a similar, initial buoyancy within Russia itself rapidly deteriorated into a growing sense of humiliation as shell-shocked citizens came to grips with their new status. No longer a superpower, stripped of vast territories–including Ukraine and the Central Asian republics–that were historically part of Greater Russia, the dawn of democracy and capitalism brought to a much-diminished state political uncertainty and economic chaos, along with crime and corruption. It was this Russia that with a mixture of hope and shame held out its hands to a West that championed its rebirth and rewarded it with … a loan package insufficient to truly stabilize the economy, thunderous encouragement, and very little else.

In a fast-moving, highly articulate narrative that neatly blends the arts of historian and journalist, Conradi recounts events and assigns historical context that is frequently overlooked, with an eye for analysis that is largely unblemished by typical Western bias. The author underscores that it was the USSR–in its manic attempt to create fictional Soviet republics with faux autonomy within the historic Greater Russia–that encouraged secession when the Soviet Union dissolved. Ukraine had been a part of Russia for hundreds of years. So too was Crimea, which was only ceremoniously gifted to Ukraine in 1954, when it had almost no practical significance. Today Russian nationalists look upon these former territories and others as the “near abroad,” and demand to have a say in their respective destinies. These points are not made to justify recent Russian aggression, but to place them in the appropriate context, something often conspicuous in its absence in media coverage.

I noted before the advantage of Conradi as a non-American observer.  I am reminded of the distorted perspective in the United States every time a partisan or pundit acclaims Reagan for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which in fact he had little to do with. (Historian Richard Reeves credits Reagan only for insisting, against the advice of his inner circle, that Gorbachev’s reforms were genuine and that he deserved to be reckoned with. While that certainly merits significance, it hardly translates into winning the Cold War.) Conradi’s thesis, which he argues convincingly, is that it was this kind of loud triumphalism in the West, coupled with an aggressive expansion of NATO to the edges of the Russian border, that drove the relationship in the last two and a half decades to its current state of confrontation. He does not speak as an apologist of Putin and his increasing belligerence. Far from it.  He recognizes Putin as the amoral autocrat that he is, murdering or jailing rivals and opponents alike, presiding over the dismantling of democratic institutions and–as the emerging agent of realpolitik projecting power over a reasserted Russian sphere of influence–a true threat to the Western community of nations. But he also suggests that it was the various missteps by the West–and the mishandling of the fledgling new Russia that emerged from the ashes of the USSR–that set the stage for someone like Putin to seize power and sustain overwhelming support from the populace.

I am old enough to recall the terror that gripped our home during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary school, and the flawed domino theory that led to the tragedy of Vietnam. We all expected that Iron Curtain to define the next century, but then one day it turned out that the Soviet Union was simply one massive Potemkin Village, a fact that had somehow eluded us all along despite billions of dollars spent on intelligence gathering, and only made manifest as it imploded before our wondering eyes.  One day, unexpectedly, the USSR simply went out of business.

I watched that happen too, and what followed, through the pages of the New York Times. I recall bemoaning that such momentous historical events–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the rise of new states from the ashes of the old Soviet Union and its dramatic aftermath–unfolded with Oval Office occupants, first George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton, who seemed to lack the vision to shape the future that lay ahead. Who Lost Russia appears to underscore my anecdotal observations as the author points to a series of lost opportunities under a succession of American Presidents.  He also notes that along with tone-deaf triumphalism there was a consistent, pronounced arrogance that failed to accord proper respect to Russia and its security concerns.  This was, of course, evident in the expansion of NATO to include not only former Warsaw Pact allies but also former Soviet Republics in the Baltic states, the unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the very real possibility that what were once integral parts of Russia–Georgia, Ukraine, and especially the critically strategic Crimean Peninsula–were lining up as NATO candidates that could serve as hosts to missiles pointed at Moscow.  It was within this context that Putin acted on the Crimea.

Conradi also reminds us that initially Putin’s Russia objected but largely accepted NATO expansion.  That Putin himself offered strategic airspace as support to George W. Bush in the aftermath of 911, and did not balk when the US invaded Afghanistan, a site of the last foreign adventure of the USSR where much blood and treasure was expended.  It was only the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States that finally cut a deep fault line in Russian-American relations, as Putin branded this a calculated act of foreign aggression.  Few outside of the United States would disagree with this characterization.

Conradi goes on to objectively chronicle the failed “reset” efforts by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, noting that Obama, like those before him, seemed plainly unaware of what really went to the heart of Russia’s concerns. The author appears to disapprove of Obama’s absence of decisive action in Syria, which no doubt signaled weakness to Putin, yet he neglects to advance an available option that would have avoided exacerbating the multiplicity of competing conflicts on the ground there. Perhaps, I would suggest, doing nothing is better than decisively doing the wrong thing.

It is disconcerting that an unschooled and unpredictable man now sits in the White House as the prospect of nuclear war again looms before us. Conradi’s account of the wrong turns taken by his better qualified predecessors leaves us little room for optimism. Who Lost Russia is a brilliant book that should be required reading for those who have the current President’s ear. Our only opportunity to offset disaster is to carefully review what has once again set us on the brink.

[Note: I read an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, but the book is hot off the press as of April 11, 2017. Buy it and read it!]

 

Review of: Across the River and into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway

While browsing a used bookstore, it was with no little surprise that I came across a novel by Ernest Hemingway published during his lifetime that I had never read. Hemingway’s fiction cut a deep groove in me as a young man, so it was fitting that I spent the weekend across the rivof my sixtieth birthday reading Across the River and into the Trees cover to cover. The author was not even two years older than that when he took his own life in 1961, but he was already an old man in so many ways. Indeed, it might be fair to suggest that as an artist he had aged, long before his time, even a decade prior when he penned this work.

I consider Hemingway not only one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, but also one of the greatest American writers of all time, among a distinguished handful that includes Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. I would put Hemingway a notch beneath Twain, but perhaps controversially a notch or two above Melville. To my mind, his novels A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls rank at the very top of the American literary tradition.  I was never a fan of African big-game hunting or the Spanish bullfighting tradition, but Hemingway’s respective nonfiction treatments of these in The Green Hills of Africa and Death in the Afternoon are not only great reads but are almost without parallel in his unique marriage of memoir and literature. And then there are the many superlative stories and vignette scraps collected in the original Scribner edition of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  Finally, there is the critically acclaimed The Old Man and the Sea; I never thought it as worthy as that which preceded it, but it was nevertheless art, even if perhaps lesser art than came before.

In contrast, Across the River and into the Trees falls far short. The book’s title is a paraphrase of the final words reportedly uttered in delirium by the dying Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and to some degree the novel sounds a kind of death knell of its own. It was the last full-length work before The Old Man and the Sea, the 1952 novella that revitalized his reputation but yet was the last thing he turned out before his death.  He had by then left his peak as an artist to another era. Like Elvis Presley, Ernest Hemingway lived long enough to become a kind of caricature of himself and not long enough to step beyond that which, like Elvis, diminished his talent. After a while Hemingway-the-author and Hemingway-the-man became conflated, not only to his audience but to Hemingway himself. Thus, like Hemingway-the-man, the characters Hemingway-the-author crafted later in life became less authentic.

So it is with Richard Cantwell–known throughout much of the narrative simply as “the Colonel”–the gratuitously self-indulgent protagonist of Across the River and into the Trees, who comes across strikingly as Hemingway-the-man as he imagined himself to be, and then further idealized in this fictional characterization. The Colonel is fifty-one, not without coincidence the same age as his creator, and like him has vivid recollections of Italy in the Great War.  Once a general but demoted for some military debacle in the Second World War, Colonel Cantwell is in Venice five years after the war’s end visiting his unlikely girlfriend, a beautiful nineteen year old wealthy aristocrat he calls “Daughter” and with whom he carries on a not entirely platonic relationship that is also never entirely consummated. More significantly, the Colonel is dying of some unspecified heart ailment, and is making a conspicuous effort to meet his end graciously and heroically.  All of this is thrust before the reader with little art or subtlety.

Aficionados of Hemingway will often point to his spare prose, his crisp dialogue, and his use of the objective correlative–a literary device that evokes emotion in description of an inanimate object. Much of these trademarks are absent in this novel. The short sentences lack the “punch” found in his other works. The symbolism is facile, even superficial. And while most of the entire book takes the form of dialogue, it is only as a clumsy platform for the Colonel to ponder aloud and pontificate. The writing is often lazy in both style and technique: the novel is almost entirely related from the Colonel’s point of view, but briefly and awkwardly slips into omniscience when convenient. Worse, it is artificial.  As Hemingway struggles to remember the young man in the first war and to craft the older dying man after the second war, he turns his character into his own mixed metaphor, a tough guy with a hard edge and a quick fist, yet also a polished intellectual who feasts on only the finest food and wine and literature and women, all this while basking in cynicism and disillusionment yet striving to confront his mortality with his signature grace under pressure motif.  At the same time, the author’s literary doppelganger–like the real-life Hemingway–can be rude, abusive and act the bully when it suits him. Hemingway, a master of authenticity, has managed to construct a mostly inauthentic character.

But then, just as the reader is about to dismiss this work for all of its many flaws, the unique Hemingway “voice” comes through unexpectedly in a single passage and it grips you so powerfully that you are at once willing to forgive all of its other literary sins:

We met a truck at this place and slowed up, and he had the usual gray face and he said, “Sir, there is a dead GI in the middle of the road up ahead, and every time any vehicle goes through they have to run over him, and I’m afraid it is making a bad impression on the troops.”

“We’ll get him off the road.”

So we got him off the road.

And I can remember just how he felt, lifting him, and how he had been flattened and the strangeness of his flatness. [p256-57]

Reading this at sixty I was struck with the same force that I was at sixteen. It is why we read Hemingway.  It is why I read Hemingway. When I finished the book, a friend asked what I thought of it.  I said: “It’s not the best Hemingway, but it is Hemingway and therefore it is the best.”

Review of: Atlas of Slavery, by James Walvin

An atlas is typically a go-to reference rather than a cover-to-cover read, but there are rare exceptions, such as the Atlas of Slavery, by James Walvin, which turned out to be so notable for both its maps and accompanying narrative that I carefully read and studied every page. Atlas of SlaveryMy interests lean decidedly towards the American Civil War as well as the antebellum African-American experience; Walvin’s fine treatment neatly dovetailed with each of these. Moreover, the skilled graphical treatment in this work both adds perspective and enhances comprehension on a macro level.

My ongoing complaint with many books of history is a dearth of good maps or sometimes any maps at all. It can be maddening to read about key events in an unfamiliar geography without a suitable visual frame of reference. One way to mitigate this frustration is to assemble your own collection.  And I have: I own a podium-sized atlas stand and its one great shelf is mostly stocked with historical atlases, which as a category generously spills over to other adjacencies. The atlas genre, of large and small formats, tends to fall into three categories. The first is the traditional book of reference maps, with little or no accompanying text.  The second features maps and an abbreviated, complementary text. The third is an atlas in which the maps and the text are integral to one another. The latter is the case with Atlas of Slavery, a smaller format trade paper volume featuring a highly informative, well-written narrative as well as finely detailed black-and-white maps that serve as an essential foundation to the author’s account.

While Atlas of Slavery sets the stage with an overview of slavery in the ancient world, the focus of the book is on the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the millions of Africans swept up in it, as well as the Europeans who exploited their labor. The author correctly identifies the African slavery made manifest by that trade as entirely distinct from human chattel slavery as it existed elsewhere in time and geography. Slavery for life based solely upon race and color which extended to subsequent generations was something very different from that which preceded it.  Most welcome here is both a textual and graphical exploration of the political entities of Africa and how the traditional slavery of Africa and the Arab world was radically transformed by European demand.  The racist and the ignorant have been known to feebly defend the institution of African slavery by declaring that: “They sold their own people.” Walvin soundly corrects this flawed assertion by pointing out that “The concept of being an African had no meaning for the people involved. The terms African and Africa were European terms … Africans felt no more uneasy about enslaving other Africans, from different cultures, then European traders felt uneasy when buying Africans on the coast.” [p57] In other words, people from different tribes or different kingdoms on the African continent had as little in common with each other as citizens of England and France had in that same era.

At the same time, the author unflinchingly underscores how the dramatic increase in demand by Europeans fueled a rapid expansion in the aggressive procurement of slaves from wider environs and their subsequent transport to the west coast of Africa for sale. Prior to 1700, gold and other commodities made up the bulk of African exports, before human beings became the dominant currency. This change was primarily driven by the explosive growth of the highly profitable but labor-intensive sugar cultivation in the Americas, where there happened to be a shortage of cheap labor. Not only did the pathogens unleashed in the Columbian Experience decimate indigenous populations in the New World, but the Roman Catholic church had officially proscribed enslaving the natives.  At the same time, disease and climate in Africa proved a death trap for Europeans, making sugar cultivation there untenable.  The confluence of these factors generated a perfect storm for those helpless victims brutally forced into the holds of slave ships bound for the Middle Passage and destined for an uncertain future in faraway lands where they were often literally worked to death on sugar plantations.

Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at University of York, has written extensively on slavery and the slave trade and thus brings an expertise to the task often lacking by those who treat slavery on the periphery of related studies. The reward for the reader is a number of insights that probe frequently overlooked aspects of the institution, especially as it later developed in North America.  Historians have long noted the bitter resistance of African-Americans in the nineteenth century to schemes that would “colonize” them back to Africa. While their ancestors may have been cruelly stolen from the African continent, these descendants, slave and free, identified with America rather than a foreign land on the other side of the Atlantic. According to Walvin, the origin of this sense of identity can be traced to specific circumstances:

Until the 1720s, the black population in North America grew via imported Africans. Thereafter, it began to increase naturally rather than via the Atlantic slave trade. The consequences of the diminishing importance of the Atlantic slave trade on North America were enormous. Africa and its multitude of cultures receded as a demographic force in the lives of local slaves: there were fewer and fewer Africans in slave communities. This had the effect of inevitably reducing the cultural influence of Africa … [p 100]

Likewise, the author connects the development of slavery in colonial North America to its post-Revolution evolution into the essential building block of the southern cotton plantation economy:

When the American colonies broke away from Britain in 1776, they took with them half a million blacks; by 1810, that had increased to 1.4 million, overwhelmingly in the old South. It was this established American slave population that was to make possible the development of the enslaved cotton revolution of the nineteenth century and the consequent westward movement of slavery from the former colonies to the new cotton frontier. When cotton thrived in the new states of the South and the frontier in the nineteenth century, the new cotton plantations turned for their labour not to Africa but to the slave populations of the old slave systems on the east coast . . . In the process, slavery was thus transformed from a British colonial institution into a critical element in the early growth and expansion of the infant republic. The slavery of British colonial North America gave birth to slavery in the USA.  [p107]

Walvin’s often brilliant analyses frequently point to ironies and unintended consequences.  One is that while “. . . the forms of slavery that Europeans created in the Americas proved to be among the most hostile and repressive in recorded history . . . [t]he paradox remains that Europe saw the gradual securing of individual rights to ever more people in Europe at the very same time that Europeans expanded and intensified slavery across vast tracts of the Americas.” [p15] Another is that the majority of those ripped away from their homelands and shipped to the Americas as property came via British ships, yet it was the later conscience-driven dedication to abolition in England that eventually not only shut down the Atlantic slave trade but also sparked a multinational movement towards emancipation. [p121-23]

There is a great deal more. In fact, more than enough to encourage others with interest in this topic to find this book and devour it with relish the way I did. Of course, something should also be said of the wealth of superlative maps included here—there are eight-seven of them—all derived from a variety of historical atlases and other sources, which as previously noted are absolutely integral to the narrative. For all of his achievements, Walvin’s otherwise magnificent book is not without a couple of glaring flaws, one of fact and the other of interpretation.  The first is his claim that slaves built the pyramids of ancient Egypt, [p16] which historians know was not the case. The other is his contention, repeated more than once, [p110, p124] that the American Civil War was not caused by slavery.  In fact, the scholarly consensus is that slavery was indeed the central cause of southern secession and the war that act triggered. Still, there are few such imperfections. Much of this fine book begs for readers seeking a deeper perspective of this unique variation of human chattel slavery that tragically proved to be the very foundation for economic development of the modern western world.

Review of: Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss

Worst. Biography. Ever.

Perhaps that seems overly harsh, but Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss, is not only worst president evermore poorly constructed than its awkwardly convoluted title, but it features some of the most abysmal writing that I have come across in years.  I really hate to write bad reviews, but this is truly a very bad book, on so many levels.  Even poor James Buchanan, worst president or not, deserves better than this.

Historians have been rating former presidents for some time. The top three are fairly consistent, with Washington and Lincoln typically jockeying for first place and FDR coming in third.  The bottom three tends to vary from one list to another, but Buchanan is almost invariably ranked dead last, with sometimes strong competition from Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, and more recently, George W. Bush. Buchanan, known in the parlance of the time as a “doughface” for his Southern sympathies, was an otherwise unexceptional career politician who waited his turn for the White House but had the bad fortune to win election as the country was coming apart over slavery.  Unfortunately, he seemed to lack both the vision and the conviction to act constructively to mitigate the looming crisis, instead putting the weight of his office on the wrong side of explosive issues such as the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, as well as the effort by pro-slavery partisans to foist the illegitimate Lecompton Constitution upon Kansas territory, where a bloody prequel to the Civil War was raging.  A staunch Unionist but also a strict Constitutional constructionist, Buchanan seemed paralyzed by inaction as secession unfolded in the months between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which then occurred in March rather than January. It was Buchanan’s failure to act during that long interregnum that consigns him to last place by most historians who compile such rankings.

Strauss’ book was released during the tumultuous 2016 election season, which made it seem all the more relevant. Buchanan, not a popular subject, has not had many biographers. While I know much about his tenure from other works on the antebellum period, I had never read his biography. But I have read more than two dozen biographies of American presidents, written for both scholarly and popular audiences. Some were masterful, some ponderous, some insightful, and still others unremarkable. I have read Flexner, Ellis, Meacham, McCullough, Donald, Remini, Dallek, Reeves, Caro and many more. The best products of this genre not only chronicle the life of its subject but adroitly explore the era when he walked the earth, revealing the complexity and nuance of people and events that a careful historian brings to a studied analysis. Unfortunately, all of that is conspicuous in its absence in Worst. President. Ever.  This is especially regrettable because a quality, balanced treatment of Buchanan would be a welcome addition to the historiography.

Instead, the narrative is choppy and superficial, and offers almost no thoughtful analysis.  Rife with clichés and clumsy metaphors, the author’s voice utterly lacks authority. The entire book is delivered in an idiomatic, conversational tone, as if it was related by a random person sitting on the barstool next to you. While the style, if we can call it that, is suitable to a tavern milieu, it has absolutely no place in a serious work of history.  And the writing is bad. Really bad. More than once I found myself flipping to the back flap of the dustjacket to confirm the author’s résumé, which apparently includes reporting for the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated—and teaching a non-fiction writing class at the University of Pennsylvania!  I rarely include multiple excerpts from a book in reviews, but I am going to make an exception here, for unless you read such excerpts you may judge me harshly for my harsh judgments!  So here we go:

On the economic panic of 1857: “By midsummer no one could take a ride on the Reading, as Uncle Pennybags does in the Monopoly game, since it had shut down…” [p160]

Regarding Andrew Jackson’s accession to the presidency: “He was a general and loved being in charge. Further, he was miffed about how the previous election had come out, with Adams and Clay back-door dealing, which he presumed meant they thought of him not smart enough to be the big boss.” [p75]

On the nominating process for the election of 1852: “With Polk bowing out … Buchanan again figured he was deserving of the nomination. His scheme was the usual … say little controversial, and then proclaim: ‘Aw, shucks, well, OK…'” [p110]

Strauss frequently makes broad, simplistic statements about critical historical events that simply made me wince.  As in:

On the great issue of slavery: “Most Northerners let the issue ride. They might’ve been against slavery personally, but like a tic a neighbor might have that they shrugged their shoulders about, they tolerated slavery for the places where it already existed . . . [p115] And: “Still, much like the Southeastern Conference against the Big Ten in football today, whatever helps the ‘team’ got strong support from all concerned … So slavery became the chicken, not just the egg.” [p133]

Clichés abound, and there are many more wild and weird analogies between Buchanan’s time and ours, as well, such as:

On Buchanan’s relationship with James K. Polk: “The office of secretary of state was different then than in the twentieth century and beyond. There was no jetting off to seventy-five countries a year and meeting with statesmen every week.” [p107]

On Jesse Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont: “Like Kris Kardashian, whose fame started when she began to burnish the reputation of her Olympian husband Bruce Jenner … Jesse Benton, knowing the way of politics from her father, saw that kind of legend in her husband … She was unafraid of what might seem like a dicey past.” [p127] And on a campaign song that pays tribute to her: “It does not seem likely that calling, say, Michelle Obama or Laura Bush —or even Sarah Palin—’the flower of the land’ would’ve made it in the feminist twenty-first century, but the song does show what a celebrity Jesse Fremont had become…” [p147]

Sadly, there is much, much more of these painful passages, interspersed with occasional odd tangents about the author’s various field trips and what sparked his interest in history. Surprisingly, despite the book’s subtitle, there is precious little analysis of what actually constitutes bad ratings for presidents and why Buchanan is at the bottom, although there are hints throughout, as in a discussion of the Dred Scott case that asserts: “… James Buchanan would find his way to intercede in it—and on that intercession, get quickly as he could on the road to becoming the Worst. President. Ever.” [p149] There is finally a brief chapter that runs down the list of troubled presidencies and makes a poor attempt at appropriate evaluation, which can only be properly summarized by still another excerpt:

“Andrew Johnson was no prize as a president, but he did keep the country from buckling after the Civil War… Johnson was impeached because of his policies … and survived being shown the door by just one Senate vote.” [p167] And “…though he really blew it with Kansas-Nebraska, Pierce at least advocated that the Union was paramount … Pierce was no prize but he kept the United States intact …” Only then does Strauss pass judgment: “Buchanan, then, takes that prize. Though he had some positives, they were primarily social and short-lived. He was not an evil man personally and had a partying spirit when it came time for that, but even there, he could not bring himself to be even a mediocre administrator.” [p174]

I am sure that this review will find critics among those who appreciate Strauss’ chaotic, bantering style, but I am even more certain that few who would defend this work are serious students of American history. Was Buchanan really the worst president ever?  Do not look to this book to find out.

Review of: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart

The ancient Athenian democracy featured a unique political safety valve known as ostracism that allowed for the ten-year exile of any citizen of the polis based solely upon the votes of his fellow citizens. Senators in ancient Rome could be impeached and expelled impeachedfrom the Senate for malfeasance, another kind of safety valve that unfortunately did not apply to the Emperor. It was to Rome that framer Benjamin Franklin looked during the 1787 Constitutional Convention when he observed that without the legal alternative to impeach the President “. . . in cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious . . . [the only] … recourse was … assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.” Hotly debated, Franklin’s point of view nevertheless prevailed, although it was to be decidedly vague as articulated in Article II Section 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It has never really been clear what constitutes these “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” although in the current political climate it might be especially relevant to bone up on the concept. Gerald Ford once (1970) said that: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Most would agree with author David O. Stewart that the embarrassing 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton was little more than an example of “. . . House Republicans . . . throwing [a] . . . moralistic temper tantrum . . . [that sought to impeach] Clinton for actions totally unrelated to his official duties [p321]  But in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, Stewart reminds us that there are times when impeachment is a legitimate recourse. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid almost certain impeachment and conviction in the Watergate scandal, making Gerald Ford (with some irony given the comment above) President of the United States.  In his 1868 Senate impeachment trial, Andrew Johnson avoided removal by only a single vote.

In this well-written narrative, Stewart looks beyond historiography and brings to bear his own experience as a constitutional lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. and later served as principal defense counsel for U.S. District Judge Walter L. Nixon, Jr. in a 1989 impeachment trial before the United States Senate, to place impeachment in context and to bring a fresh perspective to the attempt to remove Johnson. Stewart recalls that it was President Jefferson who first attempted to utilize the impeachment statute for political purposes as he sought to remove unfriendly federal judges appointed by his Federalist predecessor. His efforts met with limited success and thus he abandoned them.  The impeachment tool largely lay dormant until the Johnson era.

Tennessean Andrew Johnson was a staunch Unionist and the sole Senator from a southern state to not resign his seat during the secession crisis and the onset of the Civil War.  In the 1864 national campaign to re-elect Lincoln (who himself believed he would likely not prevail), Johnson – a Democrat – was added to the VP spot of the “National Union Party” ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances that November. Johnson, a somewhat vulgar character who was known to tip the bottle a bit too frequently, was drunk on Inauguration Day.  Forty-two days later, as the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson was President of the United States.

There was tension almost immediately with the simultaneous dawn of Reconstruction and Johnson’s accession to the Presidency. It at once became clear that Johnson was at odds with Congress on virtually every aspect of the process that would readmit the seceded states back into the union, punish or pardon former rebels, protect the millions of newly freed African-American former slaves, and the role that federal troops and the federal government would play in these sometimes-conflicting arenas. Lincoln died before his vision for Reconstruction could be fully shaped, but he was a political moderate who endorsed reconciliation and the speedy readmittance of the former Confederate states, yet certainly had concerns for the welfare of black freedmen. Congress was controlled by Radical Republicans, who largely sought to both punish the rebellious southern states and elevate African-Americans to some kind of relative equality. Johnson took a vastly different approach that was almost diametrically opposed in every case to that advocated by the Congressional majority.  Johnson, an opponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, favored the immediate readmittance of the seceded states, a policy of unilateral forgiveness for the former rebels, and a strict constitutional view of states’ rights that afforded virtually no role for the federal government in protecting African-Americans from harsh and often brutal treatment by their former masters. Johnson went so far as to remove several generals commanding occupation forces in former Confederate states for the too diligent enforcement of Reconstruction policies and the active defense of the otherwise helpless population of recently freed blacks.

Before long, antagonism between the legislative and executive branches reached unprecedented levels of hostility that spawned multiple attempts at impeachment. Two of these failed before the third took hold. The critical issues were that the actions of the Johnson Administration seemed to negate the essence of the Union victory in the Civil War, further endangered the millions of freed African-Americans struggling in a hostile climate, and jeopardized the Lincoln legacy. General Ulysses Grant, the most admired man in America in the wake of Lincoln’s death and the presumptive Republican nominee in 1868, shared these concerns. Efforts to recruit the more conservative General William Tecumseh Sherman – perhaps the second most admired man in America –  to Johnson’s cause failed because of the unshakeable loyalty between Grant and Sherman.  Most of the cabinet officials Johnson inherited from Lincoln were on board with him, with the notable exception of the highly respected yet irascible War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who blocked Johnson at every turn.  An attempt by Johnson to replace Stanton collided with the recently enacted “Tenure of Office Act” that sought legislative control over presidential appointments and led finally to an impeachment action.

Those familiar with the Civil War will recognize many of the characters who walk the stage in the detailed trial drama that unfolds, including Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a weak and dying man who is nevertheless Johnson’s most potent adversary, mediocre general but fiery political chameleon Benjamin Butler, who leads the prosecution forces in the Senate trial, and Salmon P. Chase, once Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court to avoid potential rivalry in the ’64 election, now presiding over the trial.  There are many others.

Stewart takes a decidedly revisionist approach and argues with some conviction that the position underscored in traditional historiography, which perhaps received the most prominence in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage – that Johnson’s acquittal was a welcome victory for the Executive branch in the Constitutional separation of powers – is a flawed interpretation to the actual events and their aftermath. In fact, Stewart demonstrates in his well-reasoned study that impeachment, as Benjamin Franklin imagined it, was perfectly suited to the Johnson case. The problem, as the author underscores, was not the case against Johnson but the way Congress bungled it. As it turned out, the linchpin of the case, the Tenure of Office Act, was hardly a convincing ploy against Johnson in these circumstances.  There were multiple other articles, all vague, none irrefutable.  Butler, who could be a brilliant tactician, was also often all ego and bluster, and Stevens was too frail to take the kind of lead that might have produced an entirely different outcome.  In a fascinating articulation of his deep research into the people and events of the trial, Stewart points to multiple backstories that traditional studies have overlooked.  It was clear that Grant was not only the likely nominee in November of that year but also would soon be President; what difference would a few months make? And if Johnson was removed from office, under the rules of the day the new President would be none other than Benjamin Wade, president pro tempore of the Senate, a Radical Republican who was also seen as too radical by too many. (One newspaper wrote, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”) Significantly, much patronage and graft was at stake if the President was removed and another took his place.  Most prominent here was the massive corruption surrounding the tax and siphoning off of the tax dollars on whiskey, which contributed to funding the Union effort in the Civil War.  There was also much wagering on the outcome of impeachment, and gambling bought or sold many votes.  Finally, there were bribes, pure and simple, that put a Senator’s vote in one camp or another.  Stewart concludes that his research points to the purchase of the decisive vote for acquittal by Senator Edmund G. Ross, long otherwise lionized for his courage of principle.

Whatever your opinion on the merits of impeachment, Stewart notes that the result of Johnson’s acquittal was clear.  Prominent former Confederates were seamlessly elected to Congressional seats in the newly readmitted former Confederate states, Johnson issued a blanket pardon to rebel political and military officials, and blacks were routinely repressed and terrorized throughout the south. African-Americans and the entire nation paid a century-long penalty for the failure to remove Johnson.  Stewart notes that in 1868 alone:

Estimates of the election-year carnage in the South were staggering though often imprecise. The House Committee on Elections found that in Louisiana more than 1,000 blacks and white Unionists were killed and an equal number wounded, more than 600 killed in Kentucky, and dozens more in South Carolina. From August to October, the Freedman’s Bureau reported, Georgia saw 31 killings of blacks and white Unionists, 43 nonfatal shootings, 5 stabbings, and 63 beatings. A Republican Congressman from Arkansas was assassinated for political reasons. Fifty armed men attacked a plantation owned by a Unionist in Texas, killing seven freedmen. The Ku Klux Klan claimed credit for murdering leading Republicans in Alabama, in Georgia, in Texas, and in South Carolina . . . Many freedmen were blocked from voting. Others were compelled to vote for Democrats. Much of the worst violence continued to be in Texas. A former gov­ernor reported in May 1868 that 250 “union men” had been murdered in the state in the preceding six months. For a price, gangs would kill blacks, Republicans, or federal soldiers. Efforts at self-defense by the poorly armed freedmen often brought catastrophe. Civil war broke out in Brazos County, with whites and blacks forming militias. Twenty-five freedmen died in a battle that drove most blacks and Union families from the area. [p302]

If there is a fault in this fine book it is that there is too much detail, too many characters, too much attention to the blow-by-blow of the trial outcome.  But then, the author is a lawyer, so attention to detail is, I suppose, especially requisite. I did not pick this book up planning to learn as much as I did about the impeachment process, but I closed the cover firmly convinced that Benjamin Franklin was on to something most significant when he noted that there needed to be an avenue to remove a Chief Executive who has “rendered himself obnoxious.” Perhaps this will be a road that beckons travel yet again soon.

Review of: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry

The vision of a frightened African-American woman on the auction block clutching her child to her chest as the bidding commenced renders an iconic image that has often served the-price-for-their-pound-of-fleshas a powerful ingredient in fiction to conjure up the helplessness and hopelessness that beset chattel slaves in the antebellum south. Such as:

Adeline reluctantly stepped up on the block amid a crowd of unfamiliar onlookers. Arms crossed, head covered, she gripped her young to her chest to shield him from the spectacle of shame they were about to experience. The audience admired her dark olive skin and her evidence of fecundity. Her ten-week-old son was living proof that she was a child-bearing woman. Adeline had “a very fine forehead, pleasing countenance and mild, lustrous eyes,” while her son was a “light-colored, blue eyed curly-silked-haried [sic] child” Positioned on the Columbia, South Carolina, courthouse steps, the two awaited their fate. “Gentlemen, did you ever see such a face, and head, and form, as that?” the auctioneer inquired, taking off her hood.” She is only 18 years old, and already has a child [who] will consequently make a valuable piece of property for someone. The bidder and Adeline struggled with her hood as he praised her skill. “She is a splendid housekeeper and seamstress,” he continued. By this time, tears filled her eyes, “and at every licentious allusion she cast a look of pity and woe at the auctioneer, and at the crowd.” As the sale continued, the auctioneer took Adeline’s hood off three more times to show “her countenance” and every time, she quickly replaced it. When he was exposed, her son “cast a terrified look on the auctioneer and bidders,” each time his face was revealed. Perhaps at his young age, he sensed his mother’s terror. Within minutes, the sale was complete, and Adeline “descended the courthouse steps, looked at her new master, looked at the audience, looked fondly to her sweet child’s face, and pressed it warmly to her bosom,” while the auctioneer jeered, “that child wouldn’t trouble her purchaser long.” The threat of separation followed enslaved people to the auction block.  [p10-11]

Yet, the foregoing is not an overwrought scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a sensationalist TV movie, but rather the report of an actual slave auction from the opening chapter of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.  In a remarkably original contribution to the historiography of African-American slavery in the United States, Daina Ramey Berry, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, reminds us that Adeline and her infant were subjected to this humiliating dehumanization on those long-ago courthouse steps for a specific reason: they each held a tangible value associated with real dollar signs for the buyer and the seller.  Adeline especially was worth something because, as we learn from this account, she was an attractive young woman, she had household skills, and she was fecund. Adeline in this sense was not a human being, but property, plain and simple, and property has a value.

In a well-written, thought-provocative, and strikingly innovative addition to the existing body of scholarship on American slavery, Berry sets out to locate what that specific value was and how it was rationally determined, not only for Adeline but for all of the many millions of those once held in bondage: men, women, children, infants – even the dead.  In this slim volume, based on extensive research, she largely succeeds, but even more significantly her work profoundly alters the way historians will conceptualize the slave-person ever after. In Maps of Time, “Big History” scholar David Christian aptly dubs slaves as human batteries. That is a useful construct. Berry’s construct is equally useful, as she hangs a dollar sign around every neck and demonstrates how, in the peculiar version of African slavery that developed in the United States, some human beings, bought and sold just like batteries adapted for specific utilizations, came to be worth more than others, and how that value changed over a lifetime.

In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, it is clear that there were a whole host of values for human chattel slaves that are commonly overlooked.  For instance, there was an appraised value, which was often noted in account books and wills.  There was also a market value, which just like in an automobile or a home could pointedly differ from appraisal. Rarely acknowledged, there was also the value placed upon a slave when insured against loss by their owner, and the premium that was paid, again just like a car or a house. Some of this value was based upon what role the slave property could perform.  A strong man who could work in the fields was worth X. A competent woman who could sew or keep house was worth Y. A young woman who was fertile and could be bred like livestock was worth Z. If she was attractive, like Adeline, and could serve as an object of the flesh for her owner, all the better, and her value increased. Age was also a strong determinant in assigned values.  In an era of high infant and child mortality, babies and small children were worth very little, but each year that they survived their assessed value increased until at fourteen they achieved something like adult status. Slaves had the greatest value during their prime years, driven by capability and productivity.  Berry articulates this in a chilling passage:

Sellers prepared the enslaved for display determined the condition of their health and sometimes rated them on a five-point scale of 0 to 1 in increments of 0.25. Prime or full hands had a rating of 1 or A1 Prime, which represented a projection of the amount of work a person could perform in a given day. Prime hands, typically between the ages of fifteen and thirty, were the strongest laborers on farms and plantations . . . Other enslaved people had their rates set at three-fourth hand, one-half hand, or for those unable to work or contribute to the plantation economy, zero. This rating system resembles US Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat grades, in which beef undergoes a “composite evaluation” to determine quality. [p68]

Naturally, supply and demand and transportation costs all factored into the price. Slaves could also be rented out to others, and their labor valued in fractions, much as they were famously assessed as fractional persons for the purposes of representation in the Constitution of the United States. [p84] Value diminished as the slave aged past forty. The author dubs the elderly and past-their-prime “superannuated,” and this class saw their value drop with great significance.

Surprisingly, slaves also had a certain value after death, what Berry terms their “ghost value.”  A slave executed for a crime by the state, for instance, had an assessed value that was paid to the owner for his loss in being deprived of their labor.  [p98; 112] And the skull and skin of the infamous, such as insurrectionist Nat Turner, commanded a premium on a clandestine market for such goods. [p102-105] Much more astonishing, however, was that the corpses of dead slaves (as well as grave-robbed free blacks!) served as currency for the cadaver trade to medical schools, north and south. With an inspired sense of optimism layered over the revulsion that each of these valuations implies, Berry adds one more value that restores a certain dignity to the dehumanized humanity that she chronicles: “soul value.”  The soul value, she underscores, is the value the human slave person placed upon their own life, a value that could not be bought or sold, a value that led one ringleader of a slave revolt to jump from the gallows with a rope around his neck and die on his own terms rather than wait for the trap to drop. [p146]

This is an outstanding book that nevertheless suffers from a handful of flaws.  First of all, as Berry assigns average values for her subjects throughout the volume, it soon becomes clear that the exceptions to the rules far outnumber the rules.  In other words, values clearly are far less quantifiable than she would suggest. That hardly diminishes the quality of the theme, but nevertheless frustrates the reader as she repeatedly notes what the values should be at the head of the chapter only to detail scores of values that fail to fall into these ranges. In another arena, Berry risks damaging her historical scholarship by repeated attempts to draw bold lines between the slave experience and the contemporary African-American experience and the Black Lives Matter movement.  While there is merit to these insights and my own politics happens to coincide with hers, there is no place in a work of history (beyond the preface or epilogue, etc.) to introduce such editorials.

Finally, in a personal quibble, I must admit that I always chafe at the reducing of the greatest pejorative directed at African-Americans by plantation owners and latter day racists to the euphemistic N— or N-word.  I realize the word is offensive.  It should be!  Just as a famous  curse loses all power when rendered as the F-word, so too does a word used to denigrate human beings lose the power to shock and repulse when abbreviated and euphemized this way.  As the late George Carlin noted with striking political incorrectness, it is all about context. Rap singers and urban youth, black and brown, use the word as kinship, even as a term of endearment.  Slave auctioneers used it to dehumanize.  Spell it out.  Make us wince.  We should wince. We should feel the passion and the pain.

Just as we are repulsed by the ordinary, mundane, striking normalcy in the colorless bureaucrats who were the cogs in the wheels of the Nazi death camps, so too are we as readers struck with revulsion for the complicity of all those who participated in the institution of human chattel slavery as well as those who did not object, or objected too little, north and south. The genius in Berry’s work is that by assigning values as she has in this fine narrative we are far more moved by the plight of those otherwise anonymous millions who were valued and used as meat, rather than dignified as unique humans.  We can see and feel their soul values, even if they were largely denied these in life. We can honor them further by reading this excellent book and sharing its message.

[Note: I received this edition as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, by Holger Hoock

Some years ago, before it was shuttered to the public, my son and I took a road trip to check out the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT, an abandoned copper mine that was turned into a prison in the late eighteenth century.We had the benefit of electric lights, scars-of-independenceand modern stairways have replaced the ladders that prisoners were forced down to the pit and tunnels some seventy feet underground, but even so the sense of claustrophobic isolation was palpable. Much of the cavern is narrow and cramped, with sloped floors and low rock ceilings. It is ever a cold and dank fifty-five degrees, and as penitentiary it was also dark, largely airless and no doubt horrifying for those confined there. [p49-52] That many of those hapless occupants were Loyalists imprisoned here during the American Revolution may have been mentioned by the guide, but hardly emphasized. Loyalists are the invisible actors in the drama that saw the colonies become a nation. newgateguardhouse-e1327606361824While some estimates peg the Loyalist segment as high as twenty percent of the white population, perhaps some five hundred thousand colonists, they have largely vanished with little trace in American history.

Fortunately, a new generation of historians – most notably among these Alan Taylor – have rediscovered them, as well as the Native Americans and African-Americans long disregarded by more traditional studies.  Now Holger Hoock neatly advances this trend in the historiography with Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, slated for release in May 2017, which restores Loyalists – long relegated to inconsequential cameos – to central characters that once walked on that tumultuous stage. In this fine contribution to the latest scholarship, the author treats the American Revolution as a kind of “civil war,” not only between the colonists and the British, but more critically between Patriots and Loyalists.  These were, after all, friends and neighbors and relatives, some of whom were banished to that hell hole at Newgate, others on both sides who were brutalized far worse than that.

As the book’s subtitle – America’s Violent Birth – suggests, Hoock not only revisits the tame, lamely whitewashed version of the Revolution that we have grown up with to resurrect the Loyalists and challenge the myth of consensus among the colonists in their bid for independence, but he strives to locate and identify the violence in the conflict that has somehow been excised from most of the history texts. That violence dominates the theme in this well-written narrative, on the battlefield and especially beyond it. The author reminds us, for instance, that to be tarred and feathered – a favored device for the public humiliation of Loyalists – was hardly benign, but that hot tar often seared and permanently scarred the flesh. And that was, tragically, the least of it, as Patriots and Loyalists and British regulars and Hessian troops often visited terrible cruelties upon one another, and exponentially worse brutalities upon the Native Americans and blacks, slave and free, that found themselves in the orbit of the struggle. Hoock, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, brings a kind of fresh perspective to this subject especially because, as he notes in the “Introduction,” he is a “German born specialist in British history who did not grow up with the national myths of either Britain or America.” [p22]

There were certain accepted norms for rules of engagement and codes of conduct for eighteenth century war and the treatment of prisoners.  These were routinely violated. Dubbing the angry incident between a snowballing-tossing mob and British regulars the “Boston Massacre” made for great public relations long before actual hostilities broke out, but during the War of Independence there were indeed massacres, mostly perpetrated by British soldiers and their Hessian allies that did not view rebels employing guerrilla tactics worthy of quarter. Bayonets made grim examples of men begging for their lives. Over the course of the war, many more were taken prisoner than executed, but their fate often made Old Newgate look like a nice place to visit. Those Americans who were captured were often condemned to horrific confinement in the fetid holds of British prison ships, replete with abysmal conditions and mortality rates that frequently ranged from forty to seventy percent! [p226] British prisoners typically received far better treatment by their colonial captors, due not only to Washington’s strict codes of conduct towards enemy forces, but also because Americans were better capable of caring and feeding captives within their lines than were their counterparts. Loyalists, of course, existed in a kind of grey area, and thus were subject to arbitrary treatment in local environments. The violence was hardly one-sided, and there were examples of “. . . sadistic American-on American cruelty . . .” manifested in torture and murder on both sides. [p324-25]

Hoock also draws attention to segments of the population typically overlooked. The British dangled freedom before the eyes of enslaved Africans willing to assist the war effort, an attractive offer that sent tens of thousands of blacks into British lines.  [p310] The unintended consequence was that this acted as an incentive to rebellion for otherwise uncommitted white plantation owners, pregnant with fear of slave uprisings. [p100] Hoock notes that  “Blacks were    . . .  used as a psychological cudgel.”  A selective one. In one case a patrol whipped the overseer of a Patriot plantation in full view of the slaves.  But Loyalist slaves were protected as property, and sometimes executed by the British for attempting rebellion.  [p310-311] For their part, Patriots often inflicted terrible injustice upon African-Americans, slave and free, whom they suspected of inciting revolt or recruiting slaves to the British cause. [p98] For the most part, the British showed little loyalty to blacks when less than convenient, as when they abandoned a thousand dead or dying African-Americans on the Virginia coast following the bombardment of Norfolk. [p103] Native-Americans, drawn into the struggle primarily as allies of the British, fared little better.  Their ways of war were seen as barbaric, and this barbarism was repaid tenfold by the victorious Patriots. [p280-299]

Something like one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the thirteen colonies during the war and its aftermath.  Many settled in Canada, although some were to return in the coming years. Reconciliation, led by Alexander Hamilton and others, ultimately triumphed over bitterness and recrimination for the winning side.  [p382] Many, but not all, of the Loyalists who remained after the Revolution assimilated back into society.  This was also true for some who fled and later returned.  But the unspoken mandate for reconciliation was unconditional silence.  “The price for the losers’ reintegration into America was to keep their own scars hidden.” [p397] The disease of Loyalism was essentially expunged from the national consciousness.  It was publicly forgotten, even by most historians.  We can be grateful to Holger Hoock and Scars of Independence for helping us to remember.

[Note: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition uncorrected proof that I received through an Early Reviewer’s program]

More on Old Newgate Prison http://www.cultureandtourism.org/cct/cwp/view.asp?a=2127&q=302258 ; http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/old-newgate-prison

More on Loyalists http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/the-road-to-independence/loyalists-during-the-american-revolution.php

Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, true-flagalthough this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still thriving human being was born in 1899. Still, when prompted how many could conjure up more than a caricature of buck-toothed Teddy Roosevelt bedecked with pince-nez and cowboy hat leading the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill? But although the “splendid little war” – as it was famously dubbed by John Hay – was little more than a minor military adventure fought and won over a brief four-month period, it was nevertheless highly consequential, as it marked the dawn of a new era of American overseas intervention and imperialism. In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer does a remarkable job of resurrecting the Spanish American War from the dustbin of our national amnesia and restoring its critical historical significance, despite an abysmal concluding chapter (more on this later!) that mars an otherwise fine work.

The United States has been an aggressive, expansionist, even predatory nation since its very foundation. What came to be called “manifest destiny” meant both the disenfranchisement of the aboriginal native peoples and the eviction – by force or treaty – of the British, French and Spanish that got in the way of the path “from sea to shining sea.” But except for some daydreams by antebellum Southerners of colonizing portions of Central America in order to extend slavery, Americans restrained themselves from overseas conquest and were passive observers of the late nineteenth century European rush to imperialism, as Britain, France and Germany competed for colonial empire. One of the most notable opponents of such restraint was Theodore Roosevelt, who actively called for a more internationalist – and interventionist – approach by the United States. As The True Flag neatly outlines, Roosevelt urged a war with Spain to divest her of her Caribbean colonies, turned himself into a hero once the war unfolded, and then used these events as a springboard to the vice-presidency. The assassination of President McKinley later put the nation’s most prominent imperialist into the Oval Office.

After five centuries, all that remained for Spain of the vast territory in the New World that Columbus had stumbled upon was a tiny toehold in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Americans were both hostile to Spain and sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who sought liberation. There was a growing cry for intervention.  In addition to Roosevelt, there was an eager cast of notables – Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Thayer Mahan – urging action. President McKinley was at first a reluctant, albeit easily converted, warrior. When a likely mechanical malfunction caused an explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor with hundreds of fatalities, a rush to judgment blamed the disaster on a mine and with calls of “Remember the Maine” the United States went to war. It did not last very long. Vastly inferior Spanish forces in Cuba and in its faraway Pacific colony in the Philippines fell rapidly before American military might on land and sea. It had been more than three decades since the end of the Civil War, and while a new generation cheered this adventure, some veterans of the Union and the Confederacy even entered combat on the same side, a celebrated rapprochement by old enemies that added to the feel-good notions of righteousness that saw Spain finally expelled from the Americas and those it had long oppressed set free.  Most Americans, including its great intellectual icon, Mark Twain, championed the virtue of this crusade for justice and liberation. At first.

If for most, details of the Spanish-American War are murky, few even know that its immediate aftermath ignited another conflict – the Philippine-American War – of a much longer duration with far more casualties.   For an America seeking to expand its political power and economic reach on the world stage, the Philippines was a far greater prize than Cuba and there was a great reluctance to let her go once hostilities ended. Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo at first welcomed Americans as allies and liberators, but were later bitterly disappointed as the United States opted to simply replace Spain as a colonial overlord.  What followed was a long, ruthless, bloody war of oppression to crush Philippine resistance that turned out to be a tragic preview of American interventionism in the years to come. In what came to be a campaign of terror justified by race, national interests and necessity, combatants and civilians fell victim to American antiguerrilla efforts that included torture and murder. Water torture, a specialty of the Spanish, became a regular part of the American toolkit. As Kinzer notes: “This was the first time American soldiers had systematically brutalized a civilian population overseas.” [p194] As the result of the war, as well as attendant starvation and epidemics, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died.

The stark evolution of Americans from liberators to oppressors spawned a wide movement at home of anti-imperialists, with Mark Twain as one of its most ardent spokesmen. Although he privately deemed it “rather poor poetry,” Roosevelt — a Social Darwinist at heart who justified a world order dominated by Eurocentric white supremacy over the “lesser races” – extolled Rudyard Kipling’s latest poem written to encourage annexation, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” which was to become a rallying cry for imperialism. It’s first stanza began [p120]:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Less famously, Twain countered this sentiment by rewriting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to reflect the rapacious nation we had become [p184]:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword,
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death is scored,
His lust is marching on.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not apply overseas, but the war in the Philippines grew very unpopular at home. Still, Roosevelt, who became President after McKinley’s assassination, vigorously pursued victory under the guise of offering enlightened civilization to the misguided brown people who otherwise spurned it. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur’s father) obliged with ruthless tenacity. His homeland devastated, a kidnapped and imprisoned Aguinaldo eventually gave in to his new colonizers. (He lived to witness the birth of Philippine independence in 1945 and then on to his nineties; during World War II he supported the Japanese occupiers who ousted the Americans.) Meanwhile, something called the Platt Amendment created an emasculated independent Cuba dominated by the United States that endured for decades. America also controlled Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii (annexed in 1898).  The United States was now indeed a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, but there were unintended consequences. The unsuccessful anti-imperialist movement withered away, and so too did an appetite for further conquest abroad; a war-weary public fell into isolationism just in time for the outbreak of World War I.

Kinzer’s well-written narrative puts the Spanish-American War into its appropriate historic context, something missing in most other treatments.  This was the same timeframe that saw the United States annex Hawaii, not long after supporting its white planter elite’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was the same era that saw the British employ machine guns to mow down thousands of native Ndebele warriors in Rhodesia, and to create the first concentration camps for civilians in the South African Boer War.  These were the same years of the celebrated “Open Door Policy” in China, that asserted the right of the United States to prey upon Chinese markets as aggressively as their foreign counterparts, and to lend forces to put down Chinese nationals in the “Boxer Rebellion.” Like all events, this war and its aftermath did not occur in a vacuum.

Then the author nearly spoils it all with a dreadful concluding chapter that seeks to connect all subsequent American foreign engagement to the events of this period.  One could indeed argue with some conviction that the Spanish-American War represented a line that was crossed in American foreign policy that encouraged overseas interventionism and occupation justified by a vague and often unconvincing crusade of good intentions. With that and especially with the imbroglio of the Philippines in mind, one could perhaps draw a line to the quagmire of Vietnam, and especially to the late misadventure in Iraq.  Yet, Kinzer makes the mistake of painting all that followed with far too broad of a brush. Isolationism is not always the vindication of anti-imperialism, as he seems to posit, nor is interventionism always its antonym. For instance, the role the United States played, or failed to play, in the run-up to World War II had little to do with the issues of 1898.  There are many varieties of intervention, as well as isolation. History is nuance and complexity that always suffers when blurred with attempts to impose grand over-arching themes.  In his final chapter, the author tries too hard to connect all the dots as if it was one common image.  In this, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Still, the flaws of that last chapter should not deter anyone from reading The True Flag, an otherwise outstanding work that restores a long-overlooked chapter in American history to its appropriate prominence.

[NOTE: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition I received through an Early Reviewer’s program.]