The best book I ever read about Theodore Roosevelt was actually about a river, with T.R. in a supporting role. By lending focus to just a single episode in the colorful drama of his remarkable life in The River of Doubt, Candice Millard’s insight and gifted prose delivered a superlative study of the existential Roosevelt that has often eluded biographers, while recounting the little-known challenge of his sunset years that nearly broke him.
Millard brings a similar technique to her third and most recent effort, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. With pen dipped in the inkwells of careful scholarship as well as great storytelling, the author adroitly marries history and literature to deliver an unexpectedly original and fascinating tale that reads like something from Robert Louis Stevenson. If there are similarities to her earlier work, there is also a twist, with the storied figures in nearly inverse circumstances. Rather than the late-in-life challenge that nearly does the central character in, this is the chronicle of a young man’s extraordinary adventure that was to launch his long celebrity.
Not that Churchill was ever really anonymous. But first: is it even possible to imagine a young Churchill? Think of the man and what comes to mind is the steely but beefy, even rotund British leader who was already all of sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister at the onset of World War II, after many decades both in and out of power. (And he was to live yet another two decades after Hitler’s defeat, again both in and out of power!) But the Churchill of Hero of the Empire is a slight fellow in his early twenties with an outsize ego and seemingly boundless ambition who talks too much and annoys most of those in his orbit. Yet, even then, he was hardly unknown, born into the upper echelons of the aristocracy, scion of a famous father who committed a kind of political suicide before his own early death, and the celebrated and sometimes notorious American beauty Jennie Randolph, a brilliant iconoclast legendary for her many lovers. Before the action unfolds in Hero of the Empire, the twenty-four-year-old Winston had already traveled much of the world, had a brief career as an army officer, served as war correspondent, published two books, and made an unsuccessful run for Parliament.
Anticipating what would become known as the Second Boer War and determined to be in the thick of the fray, in 1899 Churchill obtained credentials as a journalist and set off for Cape Town, then on to Ladysmith amid fierce hostilities. Journalist or not, when his train came under Boer attack, he took the lead and mounted a heroic defense that although it ultimately ended with his capture is credited with saving countless lives of those aboard, most of whom were in uniform. His time as prisoner of war and his bold escape is the central focus of the narrative.
Telling this story as well as Millard does might well be achievement enough, but this book succeeds far beyond that because the author not only brings a singular authenticity to her portrait of Churchill, but also to the wider canvas of the milieu that was England, the British empire, and the Boer republics at the turn of the century. This is especially impressive because rather than a trained historian, Millard comes to her craft with a master’s degree in literature, although there is no lack of citations to underscore the meticulous research that is the foundation of her work.
Millard’s account of Churchill’s escape from prison in Pretoria is no less than thrilling, tracing his footsteps as he wandered alone in unknown territory, stowed away on freight trains, and even concealed himself for a time in the bowels of a mine. Eventually he made it to safety, hundreds of miles away at what was then Portuguese East Africa. The British public followed Churchill’s exploits with great excitement, and at war’s end he returned home to wide acclaim. His next attempt at Parliament met with success; his long career in politics and public service had begun.
What would any Churchill book be without the anecdotes born of his eccentricities? Hero of the Empire has its share, especially as it recounts his captivity, where he demonstrated that regardless of his circumstances he was and ever would be a creature of the elite. So it was that as P.O.W. Churchill nevertheless regularly indulged in fine wines, traced troop movements on wall-size maps, and was only missed after his audacious escape because the local barber he had hired refused to be turned away by fellow prisoners when the time came for his regularly scheduled haircut!
Churchill has fallen out of favor to large portions of our modern audience. His racism, his imperialism, his misogyny, are all somewhat cringeworthy nearly one hundred fifty years after his birth. And it is not all political correctness: many of his views were well out of step with others more enlightened in his own era. At the same time, warts and all, Churchill was indeed a great man. It is impossible to imagine England under the siege of the Nazi war machine without Churchill cheering the Brits on, collaborating with FDR, demanding the sacrifice of the nation, and his clarion call to “Never, never, never give in.” The character, the determination, the heroism, the steadfastness of that iconic figure is already manifest in the form of that spindly young overconfident fellow brought back to life for us once more in the pages of this fine book. There are indeed too few characters like Winston Churchill to animate our history, and far too few writers like Candice Millard to deliver such readable accounts of past times.
From the start of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans sensed the opportunity for freedom as Union forces seized territory at the outer margins of seceded states. Initially, there was the odd phenomenon of officers in blue uniforms turning over escapees to their slave masters. But all that changed in 1861 at Fort Monroe, at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, when the famously chameleonlike General Benjamin Butler refused to return the three enslaved men who fled to his lines. Butler himself, at least at this stage of his life, could care less about blacks, slave or free, but reasoning that the Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied to the seceded states, and observing that every enslaved person serving as support behind Confederate lines freed up a white soldier to fire upon Union ranks, Butler ruled that such escapees be treated as “contrabands” of war and confiscated. Contraband was an unfortunate term that equated the enslaved with property instead of people, but it nevertheless stuck—but then so too did Butler’s policy, which only a few months later was enshrined by Congress in the Confiscation Act of 1861.
What began as a trickle to Butler’s fort turned into a veritable flood that eventually was to bring something like a half-million formerly enslaved people to seek shelter with the Union army over the next four years. About one-fifth of these would later serve, often heroically, as soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), but what about the other roughly four hundred thousand? What became of them? If their fate never occurred to you before, it is because the story of this huge, largely anonymous population has remained conspicuous in its absence in much of the vast historiography of the Civil War—at least until Amy Murrell Taylor’s brilliant, groundbreaking recent book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps.
Fleeing to Union lines was only possible if the army was in your vicinity, which put this option out of reach to much of the south’s enslaved population. That approximately one-seventh of the Confederacy’s enslaved population of 3.5 million fled to the surmised safety of Union lines when this limited opportunity knocked gives lie to the notion that the “peculiar institution” was benign and that the majority of the enslaved were satisfied with their lot—a sadly resurgent fiction promoted by “Lost Cause” apologists that has again found an unfortunate home within contemporary political discourse. These 500,000 men, women and children—and yes, Taylor learned, there were indeed significant numbers of children—were of course not “contrabands” but refugees, as that term was understood both then and now. And they fled, usually in great peril, with little more than the rags on their backs, to what may have been a promise of freedom but also an unknown future fraught with difficulty.
What would become of them? It turns out that rather than a single shared outcome there was a variety of experiences that depended upon geography, the fortunes of war, and the arbitrary rule of local commanders. Neither the Union army nor the civilian north was prepared for the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of black refugees, and the result was often not favorable to those who were the most vulnerable. At the dawn of the war, abolitionists still comprised only a tiny minority in the United States. Most of the north remained deeply racist, and those championing “free soil” generally had little concern for the welfare of African Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. This reality informed policy, which even when well-intentioned tended to be patronizing, and was in fact frequently ignored. Embattled Freedom describes how orders were issued mandating both payments and provisions for refugees, who if physically capable were expected to provide the kind of support to the army as paid laborers that they might otherwise have given to the Confederate effort as slaves. But in practice, they were rarely paid, their wages euphemistically diverted to the “general welfare,” or simply stolen by dishonest opportunists. And military necessity trumped all: there was a war on, blood was being shed, and the existential future of the nation was at stake. Refugees would ever remain a lower priority, at the mercy of the corrupt or the indifferent. Rarely consulted, decisions were made for them that often proved less than ideal. The author treats us to a number of examples of this, but perhaps the most ironic is the campaign by well-meaning missionaries to equip refugee shelters with windows, when their occupants assiduously eschewed these for the sake of privacy and security.
Then there was the case of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved in Confederate-controlled territory, but paradoxically did not apply to areas controlled by the Union army. Only a rather obscure directive that would cashier any soldier returning a person to slavery served as an unlikely safety-net for refugees. More significantly, there was the border state of Kentucky, which when it opted not to join the Confederacy became the largest slave state in the Union, something that endured until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, well beyond the end of the war. Refugee camps in Kentucky were ringed by slaveowners; wandering outside of camp could result in capture and enslavement that could be nearly impossible to dispute by a black person in a state where slavery was both legal and widespread.
Refugees ever lived at risk elsewhere in what can only be described as uncertain sanctuaries. Camps evolved into “freedman’s villages”—replete with churches, schools, stores and tidy public squares—that sprang up at the edges of Confederate territory occupied by Union troops, but long-term security was tenuous, dependent entirely on these garrisons. If the army was redeployed, refugees were suddenly thrust into great danger and forced to flee once more lest they be captured and returned to slavery by roving bands of locals. It is well documented that Confederates habitually executed USCT troops wounded or seeking surrender. Less familiar perhaps was the devastation visited upon these undefended villages by rebels and their partisan allies enraged at the formerly enslaved living in freedom in their midst. Hunger often accompanied the refugee, even in the best of circumstances; a camp or village razed and burned could portend starvation.
The end of the war and abolition seemed to suggest a new beginning, but optimism was short-lived. Lincoln’s untimely death sent Andrew Johnson to the White House. The new president was deeply hostile to African Americans, and ensuing years saw pardons issued to former CSA political and military elites, property returned to once dislodged slave masters, and refugees terrorized and murdered, ultimately driven off the lands that once hosted thriving freedman’s villages. Where can you see a freedman’s village today? You can’t: they were all plowed under, sometimes along with the bones of occupants less than willing to be displaced.
Embattled Freedom is an especially valuable resource because it contains not only a panoramic view of the refugee experience but an expertly narrowed lens that zooms in upon a handful of individuals that Taylor’s careful research has redeemed from obscurity. Especially fascinating is the saga of Edward and Emma Whitehurst, an enslaved couple that had managed over time to stockpile a surprisingly large savings through Edward’s side work, in a unique arrangement with his owner. Fleeing slavery, the entrepreneurial Whitehurst’s turned their nest egg into a highly successful and profitable store at a refugee camp in Virginia—only to one day lose it all to retreating Union forces desperate for supplies. There is also the inspiring story of Eliza Bogan of Helena, Arkansas, who as refugee leaves the harsh existence of picking cotton behind only to endure one obstacle after another in her pursuit of life as a free woman in uncertain circumstances. There are other stories, as well. These personal studies not only enrich a well-written narrative, but ever engage the reader well beyond the typical scholarly work.
A week after I finished reading Embattled Freedom, I sat in the audience during Amy Taylor’s presentation at the Civil War Institute Summer Conference 2019 at Gettysburg College, which highlighted both her passion and her scholarship. During the Q&A, I asked what surprised her most during her research. Hard-pressed to answer, she finally settled on the number of children that turned up in the refugee population. I would suggest that as a topic for her next book. In the meantime, drop everything and read Embattled Freedom. You will not regret it.
PODCAST … Review of The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, by Peter S. Carmichael
A few years ago, I had the honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry, which turned up more than a century after these were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished. In a lifetime of studying the American Civil War, soldiers’ letters were hardly new to me, of course, but I found myself surprisingly emotional as I became one of the very first in so many decades to get a glimpse at the sometimes-hidden hearts of these long-dead souls. And there was something else: rather than the random excerpt, often highlighted for its dramatic impact, that makes a familiar appearance in the pages of history books, these materials represent continuous strands of communication by nearly two dozen individuals, some of which stretched over a three-year period. The stories they tell run the gamut from the mundane to the comedic to the horrific, but collectively the nature and the personalities of the storytellers emerge to reveal authenticity in their experience too frequently lost in grand narratives about the war. A careful read of a man’s letters home over several years often unexpectedly expose truths that are omitted or deliberately distorted by the correspondent.
This overarching point is subtly but expertly made again and again in historian Peter S. Carmichael’s magnificent work, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, certainly one of the most significant recent contributions to the historiography. As primary sources, surviving letters from the front are critical and invaluable, but even more critical may be interpretation, which can be misled by taking these at face value, or plucking them out of context, or being seduced by the words of a man who wants his wife or mother—or especially himself—to believe that he is courageous or confident or committed to his cause when only some or none of those may be true.
In a dense, but highly readable account that brings a surprisingly fresh perspective to a frequently overlooked aspect of Civil War studies, Carmichael defies often prevailing generalizations of soldiers north and south that tend to predominate in the literature, reminding the reader that a tendency to oversimplification distorts the reality on the ground. Something like a total of 2.75 million men fought on both sides in the Civil War. These were living, breathing human beings, not simply the statistical figures fed into databases to produce the broad generalities pervasive in many narratives. At the same time, he does not fail to locate and identify the commonalities in the rank and file that exist in multiple arenas, but his skillful approach to this end is guided by the nuance and complexity that is the mark of a great historian.
Carmichael’s well-written chronicle explores almost all aspects of a soldier’s life in camp, on the march and in battle, but that nuance is made most manifest in the chapter entitled “Desertion and Military Justice.” The accepted wisdom has long argued that bounty jumpers constituted the majority of those shot for desertion over the course of the war, and perhaps with some justification. But while the numbers underscore that there were plenty who likely fit that profile, Carmichael’s research demonstrates that such a broad brush obscures a reality that saw men on both sides leaving the lines and returning, frequently more than once, and typically with little or no penalty. This was especially common among Confederates, who usually fled not out of cowardice or convenience but rather to aid starving families back home desperate for survival. And there was, in many cases, a fine line between AWOL and desertion. It is surprising how often luck or simply the vagaries of enforcement separated men made to sit on their own coffins with eyes bandaged while the firing squad formed up from those docked a month’s pay instead. It does seem that Lincoln’s moral compass was more finely oriented to the circumstances of the soldier missing from his company—even if this found friction among the Union brass—than was the case on the other side, for the reality was that by percentage far more men clad in gray were put to death than those in blue, and some of these were mass executions before the lines. What is clear is that on both sides, the common soldier—even the veteran accustomed to the gore and slaughter of battle—was deeply disturbed when compelled to witness the cold-blooded murder of a fellow soldier, even if he thought the man got his just deserts.
A review such as this cannot possibly touch upon all of the themes Carmichael surveys in this outstanding study, but I was especially drawn to his treatment of the phenomenon of malingering, which instantly found a familiar face in Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, one of my men from the 31st, who bragged in letters to his mother about his health while he served away from the cannon fire as part of the occupation army in New Orleans, even taking swipes at those pretending to be ill to avoid duty. Yet later, on the very eve of combat, he fell victim first to “diarrhoea” and then to a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints that kept him confined to a hospital bed for months until he was eventually discharged for disability. I read this man’s letters in isolation, of course, but Carmichael’s impressive research demonstrates not only that this soldier’s manufactured symptoms put him in the company of thousands of other “shirkers,” but also underscores how difficult it was for doctors equipped with the primitive diagnostic tools of mid-nineteenth century medicine to distinguish the truly afflicted from those talented at feigning illness to avoid combat or earn a discharge. As such, there were men who genuinely suffered sent back to come under enemy fire, while others who were quite healthy succeeded in dodging the same.
Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of unpublished letters from George W. Gould, a Massachusetts private killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. I transcribed his correspondence and created a website for public access to honor him, and I visit his grave in Paxton MA several times a year. When I placed a flag on his grave to commemorate Memorial Day 2019, I found myself in somber reflection of not only the sacrifice of Private Gould, but also of the vast territory covered in The War for the Common Soldier, because although his name appears nowhere in the narrative this book is surely about George W. Gould and every man who marched alongside him, as well as every man he marched against in opposition with musket held high. Pvt. George W. Gould and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes are just two of the millions who either gasped their last breaths on Civil War battlefields or drank beer at memorials in the decades that followed. If you want to understand that terrible war, you should indeed visit battlefields and explore the latest historiography, but you should also pause to read Carmichael’s superlative work. The truth is that you will never comprehend the Civil War until you come to understand the Civil War soldier. Some books should be required reading. This is one of them.
[REVIEW ADDENDUM: Some years back, I had the great honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry—a regiment that first served with Benjamin Butler as an occupying force in New Orleans, and later as part of the Red River campaign under Nathaniel Banks—which turned up in the archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History more than a century after they were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished due to his untimely death. These materials can be accessed at: https://31massinf.wordpress.com
I found Carmichael’s treatment of malingerers especially fascinating, because it related to my own work with the Massachusetts 31st and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, who in letters to his mother made dozens of references to his generally good health during the first portion of his service, where he thrived as part of the occupying force under Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. In one missive from the autumn of 1862 [letter 10/18/62], he even bragged about how quickly he recovered from the “ague” while taking a swipe at those who pretended to be ill, noting that while he was “back to duty now there is so much playing off sick I do not wish any such name.” Ironically then, in April 1863, on the eve of what would have been his first foray into combat, [letter 04/17/63] Hawkes was beset with “diarrhoea” [SIC] which eventually led to his return to New Orleans, this time to the St. James Hospital, where a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints kept him confined—but not incapable of eating fairly well, such as “an egg in the morning, a piece of toasted bread each meal and a little claret wine,” [letter 6/4/63] and occasionally exploring the city when granted a pass—until he eventually succeeded in gaining a discharge for disability in July 1863. In one of his more histrionic letters to mother, he proclaims:
“I am perhaps disposed to magnify my ails, but when I have seen men brought in here who had been forced to march with diarrhoea [SIC] … coming here too weak to walk and living but a week or two, then I have thought it was not best to beg to be sent away to the exposures of an army on active duty in the field. They can call me a coward, a shirk, what they choose, but I think it a duty to take care of my health not only for myself but on my mother’s account, what do you think of this logic?” [letter 06/04/63]
Apparently, this “logic” served Hawkes’ well, since he was sent home without ever coming under enemy fire and lived on until 1890!
Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of the unpublished letters of Pvt. George W. Gould, who was killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. He has come to serve as my “adopted” Civil War soldier, so by honoring him I likewise honor all of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I scanned and transcribed his letters and created a website to honor him, which can be accessed at: https://resurrectinglostvoices.com
I have attached this addendum not because these particular soldiers who fell or survived have a greater or lesser import than any of the other hundreds of thousands who served in the American Civil War, but rather to add meaningful context, and to underscore the essential point of Carmichael’s wonderful book, which is that you must read far more deeply into what these men had to say in their letters home if you really want to try to understand the war at all.]
Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan has written seven novels, one of which—Gould’s Book of Fish—I would rank among the very finest of twenty-first century literature to date. I primarily read books of history, biography and science these days, but I do stray to the realm of fiction from time to time. When I happen upon a writer whose literary output not only consistently transcends the best published fiction of its day, but is so iconic that it comes to define its own genre—Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami also come to mind—I latch on to that novelist and set out to read their full body of work. Wanting marks my completion of all of Flanagan’s novels, and it turns out that I saved one of the very best for the very last.
There is irony here because I have long resisted it, based upon its off-putting description on Flanagan’s Wikipedia page—“Wanting tells two parallel stories: about the novelist Charles Dickens in England, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by Sir John Franklin, the colonial governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin”—which struck me as a formula for fictional disaster! It turns out that I could not have been more wrong.
While several of Flanagan’s novels include characters from history, it would not be accurate to tag these as historical fiction, the way that category is generally understood. But then, the author’s work often defies classification. Flanagan is all about redefining genres—or creating new ones. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, André Brink: Richard Flanagan truly belongs in that league.
The real Sir John Franklin did indeed serve as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania), but he is better remembered as the arctic explorer who made a tragic end in 1847 in a disastrous attempt to chart the Northwest Passage, when his ships became icebound, resulting in his death as well as that of his entire crew. The legend of the lost expedition he commanded, and the true fate of his crew, have been the subject of much speculation right down to the present day, and Franklin has often been lionized for his heroism. But the John Franklin of Wanting is not only less heroic, but rather instead a grotesque, self-absorbed, disturbing individual. Franklin and his equally narcissistic wife, Lady Jane—desperate for a child of her own—ignore prevailing taboos to adopt Mathinna, also a historic figure, one of the few full-blooded aborigines still remaining on the island after a sustained reign of terror by colonial settlers and a succession of pandemics had reduced their numbers to near extinction. What at first glance smacks of altruism masks more questionable desires by each of the Franklins—their brand of “wanting”—that Mathinna comes to fulfill, or fails to fulfill. The tragedy of Mathinna is brilliantly revealed through the nuance and complexity of a masterfully written narrative that subtly draws the reader in to expose a series of horrors hidden among the mundane that is ever chilling yet never stoops to the gratuitous.
As if these characters and themes were not sufficiently complicated for any work of fiction, the novel contains an equally compelling parallel tale, told in alternating chapters, of author Charles Dickens in London, some ten thousand miles away. The connection of the Franklins to Dickens was a visit by Lady Jane to the famed novelist, seeking his support. In the years after her husband was lost to the Arctic, Lady Jane devoted her life both to memorializing him and sponsoring expeditions to locate him, in the feeble hope that he survived. Then evidence emerged that Franklin was in fact dead, hinting that in their last gasps he and the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive. Franklin’s widow will have none of it, and she enlists the aid of England’s most celebrated figure to defend Franklin’s honor against such horrid innuendo. Dickens, a Victorian rags-to-riches miracle who is both brilliant and wildly successful while yet morose and dissatisfied, haunted by the death of a favored child and locked in a loveless marriage, is plagued by his own sort of “wanting.” The intersection of his unrequited deepening well of discontent and Lady Jane’s determination to restore her husband’s reputation serves as the linchpin of the novel, spawning new purpose in Dickens even as Lady Jane basks in anticipation of the martyred explorer’s vindication. Dickens is far more intelligent and far more accomplished than either of the hapless Franklins, but despite his genius and outsize public persona he shares a similar unmistakable shallowness in his nature. In Flanagan’s Wanting, Dickens struggles to exist outside of the characters in his novels, and then takes it upon himself to produce, direct and cast himself in a role on the stage that permits him to stand before an audience as the heroic, romantic figure he longed to be.
Fiction reviews should largely avoid spoilers so I will leave it here, but history buffs will certainly google the main characters to learn what really happened. It won’t be giving much away to note that six years after Wanting was published in 2008, the wreck of the HMS Erebus—one of Franklin’s ships—was discovered, and two years after that his second ship was found, the HMS Terror, said to be in pristine condition. Even prior to that, evidence that cannibalism was in fact part of the crew’s final days was substantiated, contradicting both Lady Jane and the ardent defense mounted by Dickens. I will withhold the fate of poor Mathinna, other than to note that her gripping story—in the novel and in real life—will likely shadow the reader long after the last page of this book is turned.
I believe that every fiction review should include a snippet of the author’s own pen for those unfamiliar with their style and talent. This bit concerns a minor character—if any of Flanagan’s characters can be said to be minor ones—an aging actress in Dickens’ London:
On the night she had received the news of Louisa’s death, leaving her the only surviving member of her family, Mrs Ternan had stifled her weeping with a pillow so her daughters would not hear her heart breaking and would never suspect what she now knew: that every death of those you love is the death also of so many shared memories and understanding, of a now irretrievable part of your own life; that every death is another irrevocable step in your own dying, and it ends not with the ovation of a full house, but the creak and crack and dust of the empty theatre. [p90]
That powerful excerpt is just a tiny sample of Flanagan’s superlative prose. Wanting ranks amongst his finest novels, which in addition to Gould’s Book of Fish should also include Death of a River Guide, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, although there is not a bad one in the catalog. For the uninitiated who would like to experience Flanagan’s art, Wanting is a great place to start. Perhaps you may find yourself, like this reviewer, going on to read them all.
As a reader, some of my most serendipitous finds have been plucked off the shelves of used bookshops. Such was the case some years ago with Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, a fascinating account of how the author 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 on earth at the time. My 2017 review of Cradle of Life—nearly twenty years after it was first published—sparked an email exchange with Bill Schopf that later led to his sending me a signed edition of his most recent book, Life in Deep Time: Darwin’s “Missing” Fossil Record. He did not ask me to read and review it, but naturally I did.
In this work, Schopf—an unusually modest man of outsize accomplishment—typically credits good fortune rather than his own estimable talents, often emphasizing the centrality of teamwork in the pursuit of sound science, as well as frequently paying tribute to the notion that each discovery and its discoverers are after all “standing on the shoulders of the giants” that preceded them. A young grad student when he first got into the game, at seventy-seven the author now remains the most significant living survivor of those paleobiologists that devoted decades in an effort to identify and substantiate traces of the most ancient forms of life on the planet. He feels the clock ticking, and thus is strongly motivated by a desire to leave a record of the journey that led to such consequential discoveries now that most of his peers have passed on.
The result is Life in Deep Time, a curious book—actually something of a blend of three different kinds of books—that succeeds more often than not in its efforts, even if at times it can be an uphill climb for the general reader. It is first and foremost a memoir that dwells for a surprisingly long time on the author’s youth and upbringing, which can be awkward at times because of his decision to employ a third-person limited literary technique in the narrative, so that it is “Bill wondered about …” rather than “I wondered about …” Early on, the reader might grow a bit impatient as Bill negotiates high school, often under the disapproving glare of his father, an admirable man who nevertheless sets impossibly high standards for his son and is quite difficult to please. Yet, even then Schopf is ever the optimist, always grateful for that which goes his way, and treating that which does not as a valuable learning experience. Rather than being scarred from the travails of enduring a demanding parent, he seems to sit in awe of a father who sets challenges that are always another chalk-mark higher than Bill can grasp. Such circumstances for another might leave that child a substance abuser or a ne’er-do-well, but it simply inspires Bill Schopf to be the best-of-the-best, fully absent an uncontainable ego or an axe to grind.
Beyond memoir, the second focal point of the book recounts Schopf’s scientific achievements, while paying tribute to those he worked with, many of whom are little known or entirely unknown outside of the paleobiology community. Science, the author repeatedly underscores, is a team effort. While the ever-modest Schopf does not dodge the recognition he clearly deserves for his key contributions to the field, he makes certain that credit gets appropriately shared among mentors and colleagues and even assistants.
Schopf’s work has spawned controversy that sometimes spilled over into the public arena. In the first case, there was pushback on his remarkable find of those 3.5-billion-year-old microfossils. Peer-reviewed science upheld his claim, although a prominent rival paleobiologist continued to dispute it. In the second, Schopf was brought in by NASA in 1996 to evaluate the extraordinary if premature announcement that life had been identified in a Martian meteorite, which was trumpeted by scientists, politicians and the media. Schopf was skeptical, and subsequent careful research proved him correct. The author’s well-written examination of these controversies is both coherent and enlightening, although blemished a bit by the continued use of that third-person limited literary technique, which feels especially awkward as he answers his critics through the narrative.
Schopf’s greatest triumph was certainly his discovery of those ancient fossils in Australia’s Apex chert, detailed in Cradle of Life and revisited in Life in Deep Time. Modern science has established that the earth is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, but in the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin devised his theory of evolution, no one could be sure what the true age of the planet was, although most scientists knew it was far older than the six thousand years that theologians claimed. In his groundbreaking 1859 treatise, On the Origin of Species, Darwin estimated that the erosion of England’s Sussex Weald must have taken some 300 million years, but he was taken to task on this by the famed Lord Kelvin, who publicly scolded that the earth could not possibly be older than 100 million years. Whatever the actual number, Darwin was deeply troubled because the process of natural selection that he envisioned would take much, much longer in order for higher life forms to evolve. In the century that followed Darwin, greater scientific sophistication established the true age of the earth with greater specificity, but it turned out that identifying the planet’s earliest life forms proved quite elusive. This is because traces of these unicellular organisms lacking a membrane-bound nucleus—the prokaryotes that include Archaea and Bacteria—can be maddeningly difficult to identify, and often actually appear to be inorganic remains with strikingly similar characteristics. A famous false positive in this venue set paleobiology back for many decades. As a result, even as late as 1965, Schopf’s find of 3.5-billion-year-old microfossils of prokaryotic life proved controversial, although eventually gained full acceptance by the scientific community.
The science behind all this is remarkably complex, and that is the third focus in Life in Deep Time, a welcome addition for those comfortable with textbooks on paleobiology, but often inaccessible to the general reader. I am trained in history rather than science, so I found some challenging moments in Cradle of Life that had me re-reading a paragraph or two, but much of it was indeed comprehensible to me as a non-scientist, which is not always the case with the final section of Life in Deep Time, which casually includes sentences such as this one:
“By this time, Bill had gained sufficient knowledge of the chemistry of kerogen, the coaly carbonaceous matter of which ancient microscopic fossils are composed, that he imagined that if the dominating polycyclic aromatic ring structures of the fossil kerogen were irradiated with an appropriate wavelength of laser light, they too would fluoresce and produce the images he sought.” [p186]
Material like this is certainly not impenetrable for an educated reader, but long discourses in this vein can lose a wider audience not schooled in paleobiology. Perhaps this content, although critical to scientists reading the book, might have been better placed in the appendix so as not to lose the flow of an otherwise engaging narrative.
While portions of Life in Deep Time may be difficult to navigate for the general reader, I would nevertheless recommend it. Bill Schopf is a remarkable man, a great scientist and a fine writer. The various threads of the tale he relates here add up to a storied saga of the evidenced-based search for the earliest life on the planet, as well as that of the distinguished if often otherwise anonymous men and women who were responsible for marking one of the greatest milestones in recent scientific history. The voice of Bill Schopf is a humble yet commanding one: it deserves to be heard.
Apparently, Sigmund Freud spent the final year of his long and productive life as a refugee from the Nazi menace, in a house in London that is now a museum to his legacy. On the great exile’s preserved desk still sits a good number of statuettes from ancient cultures that he collected, including on one corner a carved stone baboon—known as the “Baboon of Thoth”—symbolic of that ancient Egyptian deity identified with both writing and wisdom. “Freud’s housekeeper recalled that he often stroked the smooth head of the stone baboon, like a favourite pet.” [p13] This anecdote serves as an introduction to Egypt, by Christina Riggs, a 2017 addition to the wonderful Lost Civilizations series that also features volumes devoted to the Etruscans, the Persians, and the Goths.
I was so taken by one of these—The Indus, by Andrew Robinson—that I put the others on a birthday list later fulfilled by my wonderful wife, so I now own the remainder of the set, each one destined to sit in queue in my ever-lengthening TBR until its time arrives. Egypt came up first. But it turns out that Riggs’ book stands apart from the others because it is not at all a history of Egyptian civilization, but rather a studied essay on the numerous ways that ancient Egypt came to be understood by subsequent cultures, its historical record manipulated and frequently distorted to support forced interpretations that suited its various interpreters. The toolkit deployed to construct sometimes elaborate visions that reflected far more kindly upon the later civilizations that succeeded it rather than accurately representing the ancient one that inspired these included its monumental architecture, its tomb painting, its mummified dead, its hieroglyphs, even abstract and unfounded notions of race and superiority—as well as, of course, objets d’art like the “Baboon of Thoth.”
Riggs, whose background is in art and archaeology, writes well and presents a series of articulate arguments to support her examination of all the ways Egypt has echoed down through the ages. It is often overlooked that to the first century Roman tourists who scribbled graffiti on tombs in the Nile valley, the pyramids of Giza were more ancient by half a millennium than those long-dead Romans are to us today! So, it is a very long echo indeed. Alas, for all of Rigg’s talent, I myself made a poor audience for her narrative. I opened the cover yearning to learn more about Egypt, not more about how we recall it. I might not have made the mistake had I noticed at the outset how her title—which is absent the definitive article—differed from the others in the series. There is The Indus, The Barbarians, The Etruscans. Riggs’ edition is simply Egypt. That should have been a clue! But that is, as we say on the street, “my bad,” not the author’s. Despite this, I did find enough to hold my interest, to finish the book, and to recommend it—but only to those with a far greater interest in art history and interpretation than I possess.
A small island called “Bermeja” in the Gulf of Mexico that was first charted in 1539 was—after an extensive search of the coordinates—found to be a “phantom” that never actually existed in that latitude, or anywhere else for that matter. It turns out that this kind of thing is not unusual, that countless phantom islands, some the stuff of great legend, appeared on countless charts dating back well beyond the so-called “Age of Discovery” to the very earliest maps of antiquity. What is unusual about Bermeja is that its nonexistence was only determined in 2009, after showing up on maps for almost five hundred years!
The reader first encounters Bermejo in the “Introduction” to The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, a delightful, beautifully illustrated volume that is marked by both the eclectic and the eccentric. But the island that never was also later gets its due in its own chapter, along with a wonderful, detailed map of its alleged location. This is just one of nearly sixty such chapters that explores the mythical and the fantastical, ranging from the famous and near-famous—such as the Lost Continent of Atlantis and the Kingdom of Prester John—to the utterly obscure, like Bermeja, and the near-obscure, like the island of Wak-Wak. While the latter, also known as Waq-Waq in some accounts, apparently existed only in the imagination of the author of one of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights, it nevertheless made it into the charts courtesy of Muhammad al-Idrisi, a respected twelfth-century Arab cartographer.
But The Phantom Atlas is not just all about islands. There are mythical lands, like El Dorado and the Lost City of the Kalahari; cartographic blunders, such as mapping California and Korea as islands; even persistent wrong-headed notions like the Flat Earth. There is also a highly entertaining chapter devoted to the outlandish beings that populate the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle Map,” featuring such wild and weird creatures as the “six-handed man,” hairy women known as “Gorgades,” the four-eyed Ethiopian “Nistyi,” and the dog-headed “Cynocephali.” That at least some audiences once entertained the notion that such inhabitants thrived in various corners of the globe is a reminder that the exotic characters invented by Jonathan Swift for Gulliver’s Travels were not so outrageous after all.
One of the longer and most fascinating chapters, entitled “Earthly Paradise,” relates the many attempts to fix the Biblical Garden of Eden to a physical, mapped location. The author places that into the context of a wider concept that extends far beyond the People of the Book to a universal longing that he suggests is neatly conjured up with the Welsh word “Hiraeth,” which he loosely defines as “an overwhelming feeling of grief and longing for one’s people and land of the past, a kind of amplified spiritual homesickness for a place one has never been to.” [p92] It is charming prose like that which marks Brooke-Hitching as a talented writer and distinguishes this volume from so many other atlases that are often simply a collection of maps mated with text to serve as a kind of obligatory device to fill out the pages. In happy contrast, there are enchanting stories attached to these maps, and the author is a master raconteur. But the maps and other illustrations, nearly all in full color, clearly steal the show in The Phantom Atlas.
Because I obtained this book as part of an Early Reviewers program, I felt an obligation to read it cover-to-cover, but that is hardly necessary. A better strategy is to simply pick up the book and let it open to any page at random, then feast your eyes on the maps and pause to read the narrative—if you can take your eyes off the maps! From al-Idrisi’s 1154 map of Wak-Wak, to Ortelius’s 1598 map of the Tartar Kingdom, to a 1939 map of Antarctica featuring Morrell’s Island—which of course does not really exist—you are guaranteed to never grow bored with the visual content or the chronicles.
There are, it should be noted, a couple of drawbacks in arrangement and design, but these are to be laid at the feet of the publisher, not the author. First of all, the book is organized alphabetically—from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of the Zeno—rather than grouped thematically, which would have no doubt made for a more sensible editorial alternative. Most critically, while the volume is somewhat oversize, the pages are hardly large enough to do the maps full justice, even with the best reading glasses. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive but given the quality of the art this well-deserves treatment in a much grander coffee table size edition. Still, despite these quibbles, fans of both cartography and the mysteries of history will find themselves drawn to this fine book.
The phantom island of Bermeja, featured in an 1846 map.
PODCAST … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers
When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Civil War was often dubbed a struggle of “brother against brother,” uttered with a smack of wonderment at how it was that a nation united by so many commonalities could have could come apart like that, only one short century prior, taking more than six hundred thousand lives in the process? Then, as the centrality of slavery came to be properly emphasized, both historiography and sentiment shifted. Certainly, there were plenty of families divided by war—perhaps most famously Mary Lincoln’s, whose brothers fought for the Confederacy—but the real division turned out to be geographic and defined more by the South’s “peculiar institution” than habit or climate. Alexis de Tocqueville’s oft-cited anecdotal 1835 comments, in Democracy in America, that sharply characterized the vast cultural gulf that lay between free and slave states on opposite sides of the Ohio River, turned out to reflect a true demarcation that saw two different visions of America evolve within a single nation. Slavery defined the south, even if most southerners were not slaveowners, so that long before secession the south had indeed become another country.
That such conclusions can also be overdrawn was brilliantly demonstrated by historian Edward Ayers in his magnificent 2003 work, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, which surveys the “Great Valley” that stretches north of the Mason-Dixon line to encompass Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and south of it to include Augusta County, Virginia. Slavery was indeed part of the fabric of life in the lower valley in cities like Staunton, Virginia, yet on the eve of the war its citizens still had much more in common than not with denizens of the upper valley in cities like Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which was free soil. Relationships that went well beyond trade flourished in a porous border of communities that shared a largely common identity. Much of Augusta County was old Whig and staunchly Unionist; when the secession crisis was upon them most fiercely resisted calls to leave the Union. But when Virginia joined the Confederacy, those loyalties quickly shifted. Franklin County had little sympathy for what it viewed as the treason of their southern brethren. Men from both sides eagerly—or not so eagerly, depending upon the man—grabbed muskets and rushed off to the killing fields in the name of honor and duty or simply obligation. The war truly tore the Great Valley asunder, and before it was through both sides were littered with death and destruction utterly unimaginable just a few years earlier.
In his latest work, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, Ayers picks up where he left off, taking the saga from the critical turning points of the war that characterized the summer of 1863 to Appomattox and its aftermath, and beyond that through Reconstruction and what was to be its tragic legacy for African Americans. In chapters often bracketed by an italicized overview that puts events in the valley in context with the wider perspective of the war, Ayers narrows the lens to focus upon key individuals emblematic of the struggle on the ground. It is in these human stories that it becomes clear that the noise of cannon fire, calls to glory, and the plaintive cries of the wounded and the dying coming from the valley was actually something of a small-scale version of the greater thunder that echoed across the national landscape in a terrible, bloody conflict that claimed so very many lives before the guns fell silent.
Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had long been the bread basket for the Confederacy, and its citizens still proudly recalled when Stonewall Jackson made a mockery of three Union armies in its environs in his brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862. But Jackson was dead now, a victim of friendly fire at Chancellorsville, and Federal forces threatened both the farms and the rails that delivered their precious products to grey-clad stomachs. One of the chief motives that took Lee—sans his most famed lieutenant—to Gettysburg was an attempt to divert Union forces to take the pressure off valley farmers and protect cherished crops. Despite his failure there, the valley did win a brief respite, and—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—Lee managed an orderly retreat with a wounded yet still formidable army that was to persist in the field for nearly two full years. In between, the men in Lee’s army were forsworn from the kind of destruction and plunder that they found so abhorrent in the ravages—both real and imagined—visited upon the Shenandoah by the Union, which was universally branded by southerners as uncivilized. The exception was to be the African American, formerly enslaved or just of a matching color, that the Army of Northern Virginia gleefully rounded up and sent south to become chattel. Their version of civilization remained unrattled by such acts of cruelty.
The point has been made that the “total war” of the twentieth century was presaged by the acts of Union forces upon civilians in the Civil War, but that is manifestly overdrawn. Even at its height, as Sherman marched to the sea and Sheridan despoiled the Shenandoah, Grant’s strategic imperative designed to deny the Confederacy foodstuffs and matériel hardly resulted in the slaughter of innocents seen in 1914 and beyond. At the same time, for those who lived through it, it seemed a line had been crossed from an earlier age, even if historians might argue that same line had already been crossed by the British some four-score years prior. There was palpable pain on both sides, even if the south suffered more as the war ground on to its final conclusion. Federal forces indeed quite ruthlessly put farms and factories out of business in the Shenandoah. Earlier restraint eventually gave way, and Confederates mercilessly and without regret retaliated by burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864.
Virginia was, of course, the central battleground of the Civil War in the eastern theater, so she had more stories to tell. Many of these stories come from the valley, and some truly tear at the heartstrings:
On [one Virginia] farm, a Union officer ordered a fine mare bridled and led away. When the mare’s colt followed its mother, the farm woman begged them not to take an animal so young that it could be of no use to an army. The officer agreed the animal was useless and simply commanded one of his men to shoot the colt. The woman wept over its body. People remembered these stories for generations. [p240]
But the tear in the reader’s eye for the dead colt and the sobbing woman is quickly washed away and replaced with horror as Ayers recounts another telling episode:
[In Saltville, in 1864,] Confederates, enraged after discovering that they were fighting against black men, killed the wounded African-American soldiers left behind after the failed Union attack. [Diaries of those at the scene reported] … Confederate soldiers … “shooting every wounded negro they could find” [and] that scouts “went all over the field and … sung the death knell of many a poor negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday. Our men took no negro prisoners. Great numbers of them were killed yesterday and today…” [General John Breckinridge arrived and] “ordered that the massacre should be stopped. He rode away and—the shooting went on. The men could not be restrained.” The murder continued for six more days, culminating with guerrillas forcing their way into a makeshift hospital at Emory & Henry College and shooting men, black and white, in their beds … A Richmond newspaper printed a tally that showed telling numbers: 150 black Union soldiers had been killed and only 6 wounded, while 106 white soldiers had been killed and 80 wounded. The ratios testified that dozens of wounded African-Americans had been killed …The Richmond paper celebrated the rare Confederate victory over all the “niggers” and Federal troops. [p242-43]
In extremely well-written accounts like these that marry a passionate narrative to solid history aimed at both the scholarly and popular audience, Ayers artfully brings the heartbreaking realities of war in the valley on both sides to our modern doorstep, forbidding us to look away, and compelling us to pick up and cradle the truth of what really transpired.
Of course, as the postwar “Lost Cause” myth took hold, we know now that stories like the dead colt would not only frequently be repeated, but magnified and romanticized, while the slaughter of wounded blacks in Saltville would deliberately be erased. Since most histories of the conflict end at Appomattox or shortly thereafter, readers are denied the painful epilogue of how that came to be so. Here Ayers bucks that trend and keeps going all the way to 1902.
A potent strain in the most recent historiography argues convincingly that while the north claimed military victory, the south ultimately won the Civil War. A week after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was dead, replaced by Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who welcomed the ex-Confederates who seized political power as the states that had seceded were restored to the Union, while demonstrating little regard for the millions of formerly enslaved African Americans cast adrift in a hostile and economically devastated southern landscape. Despite the efforts of the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress to seek justice for blacks through Reconstruction, Johnson dominated events, and blacks found themselves terrorized and murdered by former Confederate elites who would not tolerate steps towards fairness and equality. With emancipation, the former “three-fifths” rule that defined representation was no more, and with millions of blacks now counted as actual persons, newly readmitted states actually gained more political power than they had possessed in the antebellum years. Institutionalized terror kept African Americans from the ballot box and transformed their status into that of second-class citizen, which was hardly challenged in the century to follow.
If the valley was a kind of microcosm of the Civil War in America, by extending his narrative Ayers superbly demonstrates that so too was its unfortunate aftermath for African Americans. The Thin Light of Freedom is an outstanding work on multiple levels, not least in its success in conjuring empathy for all of the victims on both sides, and guiding us to a greater appreciation of how and why the many unresolved elements of that long ago conflict continue to resonate, often uncomfortably, for the United States in the twenty-first century.
NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:
PODCAST#4 … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers
It was late and I was on my way home, rock n’ roll blasting on the car radio. It was the one-week anniversary of our very first apartment together as a couple, so there was a kind of glow around the day. Then the music cut off abruptly and the news broke: John Lennon had been shot. John Lennon was dead. When the tunes resumed, it was all Beatles and Lennon solo stuff. One of the songs was, of course, Imagine. Tears streamed down my face. It was December 8, 1980.
Imagine had been recorded and released in 1971, but as the year 1980 closed out that already felt like fifty years ago. The Vietnam War and Nixon were long gone. The sense of radicalism, of tumult—as well as innovative creative expression in music and the arts—had slipped away, its wake littered with the detritus of cocaine, schlocky pop music, and a kind of national ennui. Most men, including myself, didn’t wear their hair shoulder-length anymore. Almost exactly a month before Lennon’s murder, Ronald Reagan was elected President, leaving many of us far more shaken than stirred.
John Lennon had recently reemerged after a long hiatus from the studio and public life. He was just forty, but he looked much older than that. Double Fantasy—his first album in five years, featuring songs by John and Yoko—was released just three weeks before his death. I personally found it weak and disappointing. But I bought it just days after it hit the record stores—of course—it was music from John Lennon! Lennon had been my favorite Beatle, as well as a kind of personal hero: a peace activist, an iconoclast, a man who found himself trapped by the money and fame and lifestyle that others salivated for, a man willing to throw it all away (well, perhaps not all the money) for the love of his life, avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, even if many of us were puzzled by his obsession with her. It turned out that the sum of its parts that was the Beatles would ever far outshine the solo work of its members, including Lennon, but perhaps his best work was the album Imagine that featured that eponymous song of hope that remains a soft-rock national anthem. John’s murder sent Double Fantasy skyrocketing on the charts, if not to critical acclaim, but Imagine is the real legacy of John Lennon.
Thirty-eight Christmases after Lennon’s assassination, the stark white cover of the beautiful outsize volume Imagine John Yoko emerged beneath festive wrapping paper, a gift from my wife. Compiled by Yoko, but with author credits to John and Yoko Lennon, this gorgeous coffee table edition boasts extensive interviews, black and white photography, liner notes, illustrations, and ephemera, crafted to tell the “definitive inside story” of the making of the Imagine album and film of the same name at their English country mansion estate, Tittenhurst Park.
The spotlight is not only upon John and Yoko, but also on a generous cast of characters, including co-producer Phil Spector, then-giants of the music scene such as George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins and Mike Pinder, as well as lesser-known figures, plus all sorts of production assistants and the often uncredited folks who each play a significant if not always acknowledged role in the final cut of a masterpiece like Imagine. Interview excerpts are not dated; some are contemporary to production, while others look back from decades ahead. Sadly, like Lennon, many have passed on, including Harrison and Hopkins; King Curtis, who sat in on saxophone, was murdered in late summer of that same year. Ironically, Phil Spector and drummer Jim Gordon—of Derek and the Dominos fame—are both in prison serving life sentences for murder. Almost all the rest who are still alive have faded into obscurity. But thumbing through this magnificent book, for a moment it is the early part of 1971 again: John Lennon is just thirty, madly and obsessively in love with the older Yoko Ono, who just as madly and obsessively reciprocates. John has left the Beatles behind, his long collaboration and once-close friendship with Paul McCartney on the rocks, but there is a palpable sense of great promise in what the future holds for John and Yoko.
The very next day after I began perusing Imagine John Yoko—and before it turned into a cover-to-cover read for me—I dug out my old vinyl copy of Imagine and gave it a spin. I had not listened to it in many years and I had forgotten what a truly great album it is. The title track tends to get all the attention, but to my mind Gimme Some Truth is the best song on the record. Other iconic tunes include Crippled Inside, Jealous Guy and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. Some might argue that none of it lives up to Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness is a Warm Gun, but there’s little doubt that the collection of songs on Imagine is outstanding and certainly Lennon’s best post-Beatles work. It was re-listening to the album after all this time that led me to carefully read, rather than skim, the entire book. Along the way, I also screened the Blu-ray DVD that contains the full length “rockumentary” film Imagine, replete with innovative music videos from the Imagine album as well as selections from Yoko’s Fly album, as well as a companion “making-of-Imagine” film entitled Gimme Some Truth. Icing on the cake includes cameos from Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Dick Cavett and Jack Palance. I highly recommend these audio-visual companions to the book to help to make it come to life in all its brilliance once more.
The highlight of the book and the film is John in the “White Room” at Tittenhurst recording Imagine, singing and playing on the all-white Steinway grand piano that he gave to Yoko for her birthday that year, while Yoko slowly opens a series of white shutters to let light stream in. At the end, Yoko is seated beside John at the piano, and they exchange looks that reflect such a degree of genuine mutual love and affection and admiration that that one single moment serves to validate the entire project. The combined experience of immersing myself in the book, the album and the films made me not only come to better appreciate the superlative achievement of Imagine, but also the integral role that Yoko represented as artist and inspiration throughout. Like much of the public, back in the day I found it difficult to grasp John’s utter infatuation with Yoko, but the testimony of so many in this book underscores Yoko’s essential piece in the creation of this masterpiece. At the same time, listening to her vocals on portions of the Imagine film have yet to convince me that she has talent as a singer. Still, Yoko was clearly full partner to Imagine, not some assistant. It would never have been if not for her presence in John’s life.
One of my favorite bits in the book and in the Gimme Some Truth film feature Claudio, a Vietnam Vet suffering from PTSD, who was found to be living for some days in the woods at Tittenhurst. Claudio had become convinced that John was communicating with him through his lyrics. Disheveled and confused, he is brought before John, who tells him that “I’m just a guy who writes songs,” and patiently explains to an obviously crestfallen Claudio that the lyrics have nothing to do with him. There is a brief pause, and then John, with much empathy, asks: “Are you hungry?” John then brings him in and feeds him at his table. Claudio was both disturbed and obsessed with John Lennon, and the recounting of this episode made me wonder how things might have turned out differently if John had managed to similarly engage someone else who was disturbed and obsessed with him—Mark David Chapman—before it was too late.
On the final pages of Imagine John Yoko, they each speak to us. There’s an excerpt from an interview with John saying of he and Yoko that “We’d like to be remembered as the Romeo and Juliet of the 1970s.” When asked if he had a picture of “When I’m 64,” John replied:
“I hope we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that—looking at our scrapbook of madness. My ultimate goal is for Yoko and I to be happy and try and make other people happy through our happiness. I’d like everyone to remember us with a smile . . . The whole of life is a preparation for death. I’m not worried about dying. When we go, we’d like to leave behind a better place.” [p298]
Those days of turning scrapbook pages were, sadly, not to be. As a fan, as a reviewer, I would urge you to buy this book and to read it, but it is not for me but rather for Yoko to deliver the coda, of course:
“It was such an incredible loss when I think about it . . . See, most people think, ‘Well, he’s a rocker and just kind of rough, maybe,’ but no. At home he was a very gentle person and extremely concerned about me but also concerned about the world too. I still miss him, especially now because the world is not quite right and everybody seems to be suffering. And if he was here it would have been different, I think. I think that in many ways John was a simple Liverpool man right to the end. He was a chameleon, a bit of a chauvinist, but so human. In our fourteen years together he never stopped trying to improve himself from within. We were best friends. To me, he is still alive. Death alone doesn’t extinguish a flame and a spirit like John.” [p298]
The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. A history of European monarchs engaging in war by fiat informed this caution in limiting the ability of the executive branch to act without the consent of the legislative. Yet, although the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war was in 1942 (against Axis-allied Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria), the United States has waged a number of significant wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as dozens of other military interventions—like those in the Dominican Republic, Granada and Panama—with little more than vague and somewhat flimsy congressional authorizations, or no authorization at all. By October 2018, the War in Afghanistan had gone on for seventeen years, more than four times the length of the Civil War or U.S. involvement in World War II, making it not only our longest war, but—as characterized by historian and retired-colonel Andrew Bacevich—a kind of “endless war.” In Afghanistan, as in every other instance of the use of military force since World War II, war has had its origin in the White House, and a succession of presidents has conducted it with Congress as bystander.
How we ended up here, clearly at wide variance from the intentions of the Framers, is the subject of Presidents of War, an ambitious, uneven, and deeply flawed recent book by Michael Beschloss. The premise is simple. Starting with the War of 1812 and James Madison, a couple of chapters are devoted to each major conflict and the POTUS most closely associated with it, with an eye on precedents set as well as the unintended consequences that seem to have bolstered the confidence of successive chief executives to make war by misleading, bypassing or simply ignoring Congress. I have read Beschloss before. He is a leading historian of the modern American presidency, a gifted writer who has authored or edited a number of books in this milieu, and he often appears as media commentator. So, it is surprising that someone with his resume and talents would turn out a thick volume like this beset with a wordy and meandering narrative that falls so far short of its potential.
For one thing, there is a jarring lack of uniformity in the seventeen chapters in Presidents of War. Indeed, this is so striking that some of these chapters almost appear to have been penned by different authors. This may be because, as revealed in the “Acknowledgements,” the book was written over a ten-year span, begetting a distinct style and focus shift. The inconsistency might be less glaring if read as separate essays rather than assembled into a single work that purports to tell a cohesive story. It is also plagued by far-too-frequent asterisked footnotes populated with further clarification or “fun facts,” in the maddening tradition of a David Foster Wallace. The saving grace, if there is one, is that Beschloss has an engaging writing style that is appealing to a popular audience, and the narrative is heavy on anecdote, which frequently carries the reader along.
The first three chapters—centered around the War of 1812—are styled completely differently than the ones that follow. (We can only imagine that these were the first ones written, a decade prior.) More academic in orientation than the rest of the book and sometimes marred by dull passages that too often fall to quotation in the florid prose of the era—which unnecessarily interrupts the flow—this portion of the book is yet far more focused and coherent, as well as loyal to thesis and theme. The otherwise brilliant James Madison—who like his predecessor and frequent partner Thomas Jefferson proved a far more able Founder than president—along with a complicit Congress stumbled into a war against a much more powerful adversary, then bumbled its prosecution. Elected in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson—with Madison’s assistance—had vastly reduced the armed forces and begun dismantling the fiscal policies that were the legacy of Hamilton and the Federalists, so that by 1812 the United States was woefully unprepared both militarily and financially to take on the United Kingdom, itself engaged in an existential struggle against Napoleonic France. Grandiose plans to annex Canada ended with Washington D.C. in flames and Madison fleeing for his life. The nation survived largely because once Napoleon was vanquished, the Brits were weary of combat and eager to resume trade.
Beschloss covers the war competently, then—in a pattern repeated with subsequent conflicts—dedicates a few concluding pages to analysis that seeks to pass judgment on the achievements and shortcomings of the president who conducted it. This framework reveals the challenge of abridging the story of a consequential war to a couple of chapters, as the author is forced to be highly selective with what to include and what to omit. For instance, Beschloss devotes a number of pages to the Chesapeake–Leopard affair of 1807, which saw the humiliating capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by a British warship searching for deserters from the Royal Navy, spawning a lasting bitterness that poisoned Anglo-American relations and echoed down to the run-up of the War of 1812. Much color is added to the narrative with the backstory of the hapless captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, who is unfairly held to account for the disaster. The multi-page tale of Barron’s disgrace adds flair, but nevertheless begs the question: how essential is it to the larger story? And what has been excised to make room for it? Unimportant to the casual reader, these questions will repeatedly nag those more widely read in the historiography in the chapters ahead.
Perhaps the best of these chapters is given to the Mexican War, launched and prosecuted by President James K. Polk on a deliberately manufactured pretext with a secret, nefarious scheme to annex a third of the territory of our southern neighbor, which succeeds all too well. The morally bankrupt Polk was nevertheless the most consequential one term president in American history. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the question of whether the newly acquired territories should be slave or free was the match that lit the secession crisis, although little is made of that in the narrative. The Civil War chapters that follow neatly summarize the latest scholarship, but there is nothing new here. More entertaining for the general reader is coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898, sustained by much anecdote, especially with regard to another unlucky ship’s captain, this time in Havana harbor.
While Beschloss faithfully underscores how presidents looked to the wartime experiences of their predecessors in the Oval Office for both caution and guidance, what is most conspicuous in its absence is the connective tissue that binds one era to the next. The best example of this is his treatment of Wilson and World War I. The nation’s isolationism and Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war against Germany, even after the many American lives lost to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by relatively recent history. The Spanish-American War had achieved great territorial gains for a budding American imperialism in a very popular short war with limited loss of life, but sparked a long, bloody rebellion in the Philippines that by the time it was brutally suppressed had largely turned the nation against foreign adventures. And—almost exactly a year before the Lusitania went down—Wilson had blundered into military intervention in Mexico that went sideways, forcing him to pull back and reassess. These events are mentioned in passing, but Beschloss fails to emphasize the critical impact both the Philippine Insurrection and the incursion into Mexico had upon the nation and upon Wilson in contemplation of American involvement in an increasingly catastrophic European war.
The book’s approach to Franklin Roosevelt and World War II is quite curious. FDR is generally ranked as America’s third greatest president—after Lincoln and Washington—but that heroic figure is largely absent from the text of Presidents of War. Beschloss glosses over much of Roosevelt’s achievements in shepherding the nation through economic depression and world war, but instead devotes most of his ink to the president’s faults: his failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the less-than-robust efforts to rescue European Jewry from Hitler’s executioners. While there is indeed some merit to the reproach, for this to dominate the emphasis is a distortion of the outsize role FDR played in American life. And, given that emphasis, it was no less than stunning to confront the stark incongruity of the author’s final analysis, that the “President deserves the verdict of the New York Times … that ‘men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House,’” adding that: “It is difficult to imagine any other American leader of that generation guiding, with such success, a resistant nation toward intervention and ultimate victory in this most momentous of history’s wars, as well as taking Americans into a postwar assembly that would strive to enforce the peace.” [p432]
Beschloss wraps up WWII in just a few pages following FDR’s death, although the defeat of Japan remained uncertain and it was for the new president—Harry Truman—to face the critical atomic option that brought hostilities to the end, something only treated peripherally in the narrative. The next chapters concern Korea, but remarkably there is a complete lack of analysis of how Truman’s role as commander in chief in the final months of WWII and his decision to use the bomb may have informed his leadership in the Korean War.
Then it is on to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss has studied LBJ closely, serving as editor to two volumes of Johnson’s White House Tapes (Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both of which I have read). And although he cites LBJ biographer Robert Caro (who has written four volumes on Johnson’s life to date, which I have also read), he ignores Caro’s thesis that the vast portion of Lyndon Johnson was given to political opportunism. Instead, the author seems to take every sentence privately uttered by LBJ about Vietnam at face value, even though these often smack of the height of calculation clearly designed to cultivate a specific audience. Eventually, Beschloss even goes so far as to conclude that: “To this day it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in a conflict … he … seemed to have so little hope.” [p528] This analysis strikes the reader as the height of political naiveté. Strangely, although the war long outlasts Johnson, the next commander in chief—Richard Nixon—only gets a bit part in the narrative.
Then, except for a brief (six pages!) “Epilogue,” Presidents of War ends abruptly. Without explanation, there is no study of Bush, father or son, nor the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Maybe Beschloss was simply tired and ran out of steam. Perhaps his editor told him that at nearly six hundred pages enough was enough. Again, the informed reader cannot help but question the author’s decisions on what to include and what to discard. Can anyone really competently cover the Civil War in eighty-four pages, or World War II in seventy-five pages? In the end, there were many pages that seemed unnecessary, and yet so much that begged for further study. In addition to the absence of a strong concluding chapter, it might have been a welcome juxtaposition to have included a section on presidents who achieved foreign policy objectives without resorting to full-scale war, such as Eisenhower, and especially JFK—who during his crisis-driven tenure managed to circumvent pressures upon him to go to war over Laos, Berlin and the missiles in Cuba. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to imagine such a grand overview confined to a single book: adding a second volume may have resulted in a work more thorough and less unwieldy.
Michael Beschloss is an outstanding historian with credentials that far exceed my own, so I must admit discomfort in judging his book so harshly. Still, I have a master’s degree in history, and I have spent a lifetime studying American history and American presidents, so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. In the final analysis, Presidents of War may be an entertaining read for a popular audience, but as solid history it largely misses the mark.
NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:
PODCAST#1 … Review of “Presidents of War,” by Michael Beschloss