Review of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman
Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Freeman published The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, a brilliant if controversial examination of the intellectual totalitarianism of Christianity that dated to the dawn of its dominance of Rome and the successor states that followed the fragmentation of the empire in the West. Freeman argues persuasively that the early Christian church vehemently and often brutally rebuked the centuries-old classical tradition of philosophical enquiry and ultimately drove it to extinction with a singular intolerance of competing ideas crushed under the weight of a monolithic faith. Not only were pagan religions prohibited, but there would be virtually no provision for any dissent with official Christian doctrine, such that those who advanced even the most minor challenges to interpretation were branded heretics and sent to exile or put to death. That tragic state was to define medieval Europe for more than a millennium.
Now the renowned classical historian has returned with a follow-up epic, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, recently published in the UK (and slated for U.S. release, possibly with a different title) which recounts the slow—some might brand it glacial—evolution of Western thought that restored legitimacy to independent examination and analysis, that eventually led to a celebration, albeit a cautious one, of reason over blind faith. In the process, Freeman reminds us that quality, engaging narrative history has not gone extinct, while demonstrating that it is possible to produce a work that is so well-written it is readable by a general audience while meeting the rigorous standards of scholarship demanded by academia. That this is no small achievement will be evident to anyone who—as I do—reads both popular and scholarly history and is struck by the stultifying prose that often typifies the academic. In contrast, here Freeman takes a skillful pen to reveal people, events and occasionally obscure concepts, much of which may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in the medieval period.
The fall of Rome remains a subject of debate for historians. While traditional notions of sudden collapse given to pillaging Vandals leaping over city walls and fora engulfed in flames have long been revised, competing visions of a more gradual transition that better reflect the scholarship sometimes distort the historiography to minimize both the fall and what was actually lost. And what was lost was indeed dramatic and incalculable. If, to take just one example, sanitation can be said to be a mark of civilization, the Roman aqueducts and complex network of sewers that fell into disuse and disrepair meant that fresh water was no longer reliable, and sewage that bred pestilence was to be the norm for fifteen centuries to follow. It was not until the late nineteenth century that sanitation in Europe even approached Roman standards. So, whatever the timeline—rapid or gradual—there was indeed a marked collapse. Causes are far more elusive. But Gibbon’s largely discredited casting of Christianity as the villain that brought the empire down tends to raise hackles in those who suspect someone like Freeman attempting to point those fingers once more. But Freeman has nothing to say about why Rome fell, only what followed. The loss of the pursuit of reason was to be as devastating for the intellectual health of the post-Roman world in the West as sanitation was to prove for its physical health. And here Freeman does squarely take aim at the institutional Christian church as the proximate cause for the subsequent consequences for Western thought. This is well-underscored in the bleak assessment that follows in one of the final chapters in The Closing of the Western Mind:
Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws … This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradition … Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation … [p322]
Awakening picks up where Closing leaves off as the author charts the “Reopening of the Western Mind” (this was the working title of his draft!) but the new work is marked by far greater optimism. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, Freeman puts focus not only upon the recovery of concepts long forgotten but how rediscovery eventually sparked new, original thought, as the spiritual and later increasingly secular world danced warily around one another—with a burning heretic all too often staked between them on Europe’s fraught intellectual ballroom. Because the timeline is so long—encompassing twelve centuries—the author sidesteps what could have been a dull chronological recounting of this slow progression to narrow his lens upon select people, events and ideas that collectively marked milestones on the way that comprise thematic chapters to broaden the scope. This approach thus transcends what might have been otherwise parochial to brilliantly convey the panoramic.
There are many superlative chapters in Awakening, including the very first one, entitled “The Saving of the Texts 500-750.” Freeman seems to delight in detecting the bits and pieces of the classical universe that managed to survive not only vigorous attempts by early Christians to erase pagan thought but the unintended ravages of deterioration that is every archivist’s nightmare. Ironically, the sacking of cities in ancient Mesopotamia begat conflagrations that baked inscribed clay tablets, preserving them for millennia. No such luck for the Mediterranean world, where papyrus scrolls, the favored medium for texts, fell to war, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, as well as to entropy—a familiar byproduct of the second law of thermodynamics—which was not kind in prevailing environmental conditions. We are happily still discovering papyri preserved by the dry conditions in parts of Egypt—the oldest dating back to 2500 BCE—but it seems that the European climate doomed papyrus to a scant two hundred years before it was no more.
Absent printing presses or digital scans, texts were preserved by painstakingly copying them by hand, typically onto vellum, a kind of parchment made from animal skins with a long shelf life, most frequently in monasteries by monks for whom literacy was deemed essential. But what to save? The two giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, were preserved, but the latter far more grudgingly. Fledgling concepts of empiricism in Aristotle made the medieval mind uncomfortable. Plato, on the other hand, who pioneered notions of imaginary higher powers and perfect forms, could be (albeit somewhat awkwardly) adapted to the prevailing faith in the Trinity, and thus elements of Plato were syncretized into Christian orthodoxy. Of course, as we celebrate what was saved it is difficult not to likewise mourn what was lost to us forever. Fortunately, the Arab world put a much higher premium on the preservation of classical texts—an especially eclectic collection that included not only metaphysics but geography, medicine and mathematics. When centuries later—as Freeman highlights in Awakening—these works reached Europe, they were to be instrumental as tinder to the embers that were to spark first a revival and then a revolution in science and discovery.
My favorite chapter in Awakening is “Abelard and the Battle for Reason,” which chronicles the extraordinary story of scholastic scholar Peter Abelard (1079-1142)—who flirted with the secular and attempted to connect rationalism with theology—told against the flamboyant backdrop of Abelard’s tragic love affair with Héloïse, a tale that yet remains the stuff of popular culture. In a fit of pique, Héloïse’s father was to have Abelard castrated. The church attempted something similar, metaphorically, with Abelard’s teachings, which led to an order of excommunication (later lifted), but despite official condemnation Abelard left a dramatic mark on European thought that long lingered.
There is too much material in a volume this thick to cover competently in a review, but the reader will find much of it well worth the time. Of course, some will be drawn to certain chapters more than others. Art historians will no doubt be taken with the one entitled “The Flowering of the Florentine Renaissance,” which for me hearkened back to the best elements of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, showcasing not only the evolution of European architecture but the author’s own adulation for both the art and the engineering feat demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s dome, the extraordinary fifteenth century adornment that crowns the Florence Cathedral. Of course, Freeman does temper his praise for such achievements with juxtaposition to what once had been, as in a later chapter that recounts the process of relocating an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 331 tons that had been placed on the Vatican Hill by the Emperor Caligula, which was seen as remarkable at the time. In a footnote, Freeman reminds us that: “One might talk of sixteenth-century technological miracles, but the obelisk had been successfully erected by the Egyptians, taken down by the Romans, brought by sea to Rome and then re-erected there—all the while remaining intact!” [p492n]
If I was to find a fault with Awakening, it is that it does not, in my opinion, go far enough to emphasize the impact of the Columbian Experience on the reopening of the Western mind. There is a terrific chapter devoted to the topic, “Encountering the Peoples of the ‘Newe Founde Worldes,’” which explores how the discovery of the Americas and its exotic inhabitants compelled the European mind to examine other human societies whose existence had never before even been contemplated. While that is a valid avenue for analysis, it yet hardly takes into account just how earth-shattering 1492 turned out to be—arguably the most consequential milestone for human civilization (and the biosphere!) since the first cities appeared in Sumer—in a myriad of ways, not least the exchange of flora and fauna (and microbes) that accompanied it. But this significance was perhaps greatest for Europe, which had been a backwater, long eclipsed by China and the Arab middle east. It was the Columbian Experience that reoriented the center of the world, so to speak, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which was exploited to the fullest by the Europeans who prowled those seas and first bridged the continents. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent accomplishments—intellectual and otherwise—had Columbus not landed at San Salvador. But this remains just a quibble that does not detract from Freeman’s overall accomplishment.
Full disclosure: Charles Freeman and I began a long correspondence via email following my review of Closing. I was honored when he selected me as one of his readers for his drafts of Awakening, which he shared with me in 2018, but at the same time I approached this responsibility with some trepidation: given Freeman’s credentials and reputation, what if I found the work to be sub-standard? What if it was simply not a good book? How would I address that? As it was, these worries turned out to be misplaced. It is a magnificent book and I am grateful to have read much of it as a work in progress, and then again after publication. I did submit several pages of critical commentary to assist the author, to the best of my limited abilities, hone a better final product, and to that end I am proud see my name appear in the “Acknowledgments.”
I do not usually talk about formats in book reviews, since the content is typically neither enhanced nor diminished by its presentation in either a leather-bound tome or a mass-market paperback or the digital ink of an e-book, but as a bibliophile I cannot help but offer high praise to this beautiful, illustrated edition of Awakening published by Head of Zeus, even accented by a ribbon marker. It has been some time since I have come across a volume this attractive without paying a premium for special editions from Folio Society or Easton Press, and in this case the exquisite art that supplements the text transcends the ornamental to enrich the narrative.
Interest in the medieval world has perhaps waned over time. But that is, of course, a mistake. How we got from point A to point B is an important story, even if it has never been told before as well as Freeman has told it in Awakening. And it is not an easy story to tell. As the author acknowledges in a concluding chapter: “Bringing together the many different elements that led to the ‘awakening of the western mind’ is a challenge. It is important to stress just how bereft Europe was, economically and culturally, after the fall of the Roman empire compared to what it had been before.” [p735]
Those of us given to dystopian fiction, concerned with the fragility of republics and civilization, and wondering aloud in the midst of a global pandemic and the rise of authoritarianism what our descendants might recall of us if it all fell to collapse tomorrow cannot help but be intrigued by how our ancestors coped—for better or for worse—after Rome was no more. If you want to learn more about that, there might be no better covers to crack than Freeman’s The Awakening. I highly recommend it.
NOTE: My review of Freeman’s earlier work, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, appears here:
This review is also available as a podcast:
PODCAST#22 … Review of The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman
PODCAST#21 … Review of Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, by Karina Longworth
“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films,’” Quentin Tarantino famously quipped. While I’m no iconic director, I too “went to films,” in a manner of speaking. I was raised by my grandmother in the 1960s—with a little help from a 19” console TV in the living room and seven channels delivered via rooftop antenna. When cartoons, soaps, or prime time westerns and sitcoms like Bonanza and Bewitched weren’t broadcasting, all the remaining airtime was filled with movies. All kinds of movies: drama, screwball comedies, war movies, gangster movies, horror movies, sci-fi, musicals, love stories, murder mysteries—you name the genre, it ran. And ran. And ran. For untold hours and days and weeks and years.
Grandma—rest in peace—loved movies. Just loved them. All kinds of movies. But she didn’t have much of a discerning eye: for her, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was no better or worse than Bedtime for Bonzo. At first, I didn’t know any better either, and whether I was four or fourteen I watched whatever was on, whenever she was watching. But I took a keen interest. The immersion paid dividends. My tastes evolved. One day I began calling them films instead of movies, and even turned into something of a “film geek,” arguing against the odds that Casablanca is a better picture than Citizen Kane, promoting Kubrick’s Paths of Glory over 2001, and shamelessly confessing to screening Tarantino’s Kill Bill I and II back-to-back more than a dozen times. In other words, I take films pretty seriously. So, when I noticed that Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood was up for grabs in an early reviewer program, I jumped at the opportunity. I was not to be disappointed.
In an extremely well-written and engaging narrative, film critic and journalist Karina Longworth has managed to turn out a remarkable history of Old Hollywood, in the guise of a kind of biography of Howard Hughes. In films, a “MacGuffin” is something insignificant or irrelevant in itself that serves as a device to trigger the plot. Examples include the “Letters of Transit” in Casablanca, the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, and the briefcase in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Howard Hughes himself is the MacGuffin of sorts in Seduction, which is far less about him than his female victims and the peculiar nature of the studio system that enabled predators like Hughes and others who dominated the motion picture industry.
Howard Hughes was once one of the most famous men in America, known for his wealth and genius, a larger-than-life legend noted both for his exploits as aviator and flamboyance as a film producer given to extravagance and star-making. But by the time I was growing up, all that was in the distant past, and Hughes was little more than a specter in supermarket tabloids, an eccentric billionaire turned recluse. It was later said that he spent most days alone, sitting naked in a hotel room watching movies. Long unseen by the public, at his death he was nearly unrecognizable, skeletal and covered in bedsores. Director Martin Scorsese resurrected him for the big screen in his epic biopic “The Aviator,” headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio and a star-studded cast, which showcased Hughes as a heroic and brilliant iconoclast who in turn took on would-be censors, the Hollywood studio system, the aviation industry and anyone who might stand in the way of his quest for glory—all while courting a series of famed beauties. Just barely in frame was the mental instability, the emerging Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that later brought him down.
Longworth finds Hughes a much smaller and more despicable man, an amoral narcissist and manipulator who was seemingly incapable of empathy for other human beings. (Yes, there is indeed a palpable resemblance to a certain president!) While Hughes carefully crafted an image of a titan who dominated the twin arenas of flight and film, in Longworth’s portrayal he seems to crash more planes than he lands, and churns out more bombs than blockbusters. In the public eye, he was a great celebrity, but off-screen he comes off as an unctuous villain, a charlatan whose real skill set was self-promotion empowered by vast sums of money and a network of hangers-on. The author gives him his due by denying him top billing as the star of the show, rather giving scrutiny to those in his orbit, the females in supporting roles whom he in turn dominated, exploited and discarded. You can almost hear refrains of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain interposed in the narrative, taunting the ghost of Hughes with the chorus: “You probably think this song is about you”—which by the way would make a great soundtrack if there’s ever a screen adaptation of the book.
If not Hughes, the real main character is Old Hollywood itself, and with a skillful pen, Longworth turns out a solid history—a decidedly feminist history—of the place and time that is nothing less than superlative. The author recreates for us the early days before the tinsel, when a sleepy little “dry” town no one had ever heard of almost overnight became the celluloid capital of the country. Pretty girls from all over America would flock there on a pilgrimage to fame; most disappointed, many despairing, more than a few dead. Nearly all were preyed upon by a legion of the contemptible, used and abused with a thin tissue of lies and promises that anchored them not only to the geography but to the predominantly male movers and shakers who dominated the studio system that literally dominated everything else. This is a feminist history precisely because Longworth focuses on these women—more specifically ten women involved with Hughes—and through them brilliantly captures Hollywood’s golden age as manifested in both the glamorous and the tawdry.
Howard Hughes was not the only predator in Tinseltown, of course, but arguably its most depraved. If Hollywood power-brokers overpromised fame to hosts of young women just to bed them, for Hughes sex was not even always the principal motivation. It went way beyond that, often to twisted ends perhaps unclear to even Hughes himself. He indeed took many lovers, but those he didn’t sleep with were not exempt to his peculiar brand of exploitation. What really got Howard Hughes off was exerting power over women, controlling them, owning them. He virtually enslaved some of these women, stripping them of their individual freedom of will for months or even years with vague hints at eventual stardom, abetted by assorted handlers appointed to spy on them and report back to him. Even the era of “Me Too” lacks the appropriate vocabulary to describe his level of “creepy!”
One of the women he apparently did not take to bed was Jane Russell. Hughes cast the beautiful, voluptuous nineteen year old in The Outlaw, a film that took forever to produce and release largely due to his fetishistic obsession with Russell’s breasts—and the way these spilled out of her dress in a promotional poster that provoked the ire of censors. Longworth’s treatment of the way Russell unflappably endured her long association with Hughes—despite his relentless domination over her life and career—is just one of the many delightful highlights in Seduction.
The Outlaw, incidentally, was one of the movies I recall watching with Grandma back in the day. Her notions of Hollywood had everything to do with the glamorous and the glorious, of handsome leading men and lovely leading ladies up on the silver screen. I can’t help wondering what she might think if she learned how those ladies were tormented by Hughes and other moguls of the time. I wish I could tell her about it, about this book. Alas, that’s not possible, but I can urge anyone interested in this era to read Seduction. If authors of film history could win an Academy Award, Longworth would have an Oscar on her mantle to mark this outstanding achievement.
PODCAST#20 … Review of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, by Elizabeth A. Fenn
Imagine there’s a virus sweeping across the land claiming untold victims, the agent of the disease poorly understood, the population in terror of an unseen enemy that rages mercilessly through entire communities, leaving in its wake an exponential toll of victims. As this review goes to press amid an alarming spike in new Coronavirus cases, Americans don’t need to stretch their collective imagination very far to envisage that at all. But now look back nearly two and a half centuries and consider an even worse case scenario: a war is on for the existential survival of our fledgling nation, a struggle compromised by mass attrition in the Continental Army due to another kind of virus, and the epidemic it spawns is characterized by symptoms and outcomes that are nothing less than nightmarish by any standard, then or now. For the culprit then was smallpox, one of the most dread diseases in human history.
This nearly forgotten chapter in America’s past left a deep impact on the course of the Revolution that has been long overshadowed by outsize events in the War of Independence and the birth of the Republic. This neglect has been masterfully redressed by Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, a brilliantly conceived and extremely well-written account by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Elizabeth A. Fenn. One of the advantages of having a fine personal library in your home is the delight of going to a random shelf and plucking off an edition that almost perfectly suits your current interests, a volume that has been sitting there unread for years or even decades, just waiting for your fingertips to locate it. Such was the case with my signed first edition of Pox Americana, a used bookstore find that turned out to be a serendipitous companion to my self-quarantine for Coronavirus, the great pandemic of our times.
As horrific as COVID-19 has been for us—as of this morning we are up to one hundred thirty four thousand deaths and three million cases in the United States, a significant portion of the more than half million dead and nearly twelve million cases worldwide—smallpox, known as “Variola,” was far, far worse. In fact, almost unimaginably worse. Not only was it more than three times more contagious than Coronavirus, but rather than a mortality rate that ranges in the low single digits with COVID (the verdict’s not yet in), variola on average claimed an astonishing thirty percent of its victims, who often suffered horribly in the course of the illness and into their death throes, while survivors were frequently left disfigured by extensive scarring, and many were left blind. Smallpox has a long history that dates back to at least the third century BCE, as evidenced in Egyptian mummies. There were reportedly still fifteen million cases a year as late as 1967. In between it claimed untold hundreds of millions of lives over the years—some three hundred million in the twentieth century alone—until its ultimate eradication in 1980. There is perhaps some tragic irony that we are beset by Coronavirus on the fortieth anniversary of that milestone …
I typically eschew long excerpts for reviews, but Variola was so horrifying and Fenn writes so well that I believe it would be a disservice to do other than let her describe it here:
Headache, backache, fever, vomiting, and general malaise all are among the initial signs of infection. The headache can be splitting; the backache, excruciating … The fever usually abates after the first day or two … But … relief is fleeting. By the fourth day … the fever creeps upward again, and the first smallpox sores appear in the mouth, throat, and nasal passages …The rash now moves quickly. Over a twenty-four-hour period, it extends itself from the mucous membranes to the surface of the skin. On some, it turns inward, hemorrhaging subcutaneously. These victims die early, bleeding from the gums, eyes, nose, and other orifices. In most cases, however, the rash turns outward, covering the victim in raised pustules that concentrate in precisely the places where they will cause the most physical pain and psychological anguish: The soles of the feet, the palms of the hands, the face, forearms, neck, and back are focal points of the eruption … If the pustules remain discrete—if they do not run together— the prognosis is good. But if they converge upon one another in a single oozing mass, it is not. This is called confluent smallpox … For some, as the rash progresses in the mouth and throat, drinking becomes difficult, and dehydration follows. Often, an odor peculiar to smallpox develops… Patients at this stage of the disease can be hard to recognize. If damage to the eyes occurs, it begins now … Scabs start to form after two weeks of suffering … In confluent or semiconfluent cases of the disease, scabbing can encrust most of the body, making any movement excruciating … [One observation of such afflicted Native Americans noted that] “They lye on their hard matts, the poxe breaking and mattering, and runing one into another, their skin cleaving … to the matts they lye on; when they turne them, a whole side will flea of[f] at once.” … Death, when it occurs, usually comes after ten to sixteen days of suffering. Thereafter, the risk drops significantly … and unsightly scars replace scabs and pustules … the usual course of the disease—from initial infection to the loss of all scabs—runs a little over a month. Patients remain contagious until the last scab falls off … Most survivors bear … numerous scars, and some are blinded. But despite the consequences, those who live through the illness can count themselves fortunate. Immune for life, they need never fear smallpox again. [p16-20]
Smallpox was an unfortunate component of the siege of Boston by the British in 1775, but—as Fenn explains—it was far worse for Bostonians than the Redcoats besieging them. This was because smallpox was a fact of life in eighteenth century Europe—a series of outbreaks left about four hundred thousand people dead every year, and about a third of the survivors were blinded. As awful as that may seem, it meant that the vast majority of British soldiers had been exposed to the virus and were thus immune. Not so for the colonists, who not only had experienced less outbreaks but frequently lived in more rural settings at a greater distance from one another, which slowed exposure, leaving a far smaller quantity of those who could count on immunity to spare them. Nothing fuels the spread of a pestilence better than a crowded bottlenecked urban environment—such as Boston in 1775—except perhaps great encampments of susceptible men from disparate geographies suddenly crammed together, as was characteristic of the nascent Continental Army. To make matters worse, there was some credible evidence that the Brits at times engaged in a kind of embryonic biological warfare by deliberately sending known infected individuals back to the Colonial lines. All of this conspired to form a perfect storm for disaster.
Our late eighteenth-century forebears had a couple of things going for them that we lack today. First of all, while it was true that like COVID there was no cure for smallpox, there were ways to mitigate the spread and the severity that were far more effective than our masks and social distancing—or misguided calls to ingest hydroxychloroquine, for that matter. Instead, their otherwise primitive medical toolkit did contain inoculation, an ancient technique that had only become known to the west in relatively recent times. Now, it is important to emphasize that inoculation—also known as “variolation”—is not comparable to vaccination, which did not come along until closer to the end of the century. Not for the squeamish, variolation instead involved deliberately inserting the live smallpox virus from scabs or pustules into superficial incisions in a healthy subject’s arm. The result was an actual case of smallpox, but generally a much milder one than if contracted from another infected person. Recovered, the survivor would walk away with permanent immunity. The downside was that some did not survive, and all remained contagious for the full course of the disease. This meant that the inoculated also had to be quarantined, no easy task in an army camp, for example.
The other thing they had going for them back then was a competent leader who took epidemics and how to contain them quite seriously—none other than George Washington himself. Washington was not president at the time, of course, but he was the commander of the Continental Army, and perhaps the most prominent man in the rebellious colonies. Like many of history’s notable figures, Washington was not only gifted with qualities such as courage, intelligence, and good sense, but also luck. In this case, Washington’s good fortune was to contract—and survive—smallpox as a young man, granting him immunity. But it was likewise the good fortune of the emerging new nation to have Washington in command. Initially reluctant to advance inoculation—not because he doubted the science but rather because he feared it might accelerate the spread of smallpox—he soon concluded that only a systematic program of variolation could save the army, and the Revolution! Washington’s other gifts—for organization and discipline—set in motion mass inoculations and enforced isolation of those affected. Absent this effort, it is likely that the War of Independence—ever a long shot—may not have succeeded.
Fenn argues convincingly that the course of the war was significantly affected by Variola in several arenas, most prominently in its savaging of Continental forces during the disastrous invasion of Quebec, which culminated in Benedict Arnold’s battered forces being driven back to Fort Ticonderoga. And in the southern theater, enslaved blacks flocked to British lines, drawn by enticements to freedom, only to fall victim en masse to smallpox, and then tragically find themselves largely abandoned to suffering and death as the Brits retreated. There is a good deal more of this stuff, and many students of the American Revolution will find themselves wondering—as I did—why this fascinating perspective is so conspicuously absent in most treatments of this era?
Remarkably, despite the bounty of material, emphasis on the Revolution only occupies the first third of the book, leaving far more to explore as the virus travels to the west and southwest, and then on to Mexico, as well as to the Pacific northwest. As Fenn reminds us again and again, smallpox comes from where smallpox has been, and she painstakingly tracks hypothetical routes of the epidemic. Tragic bystanders in its path were frequently Native Americans, who typically manifested more severe symptoms and experienced greater rates of mortality. It has been estimated that perhaps ninety percent of pre-contact indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were exterminated by exposure to European diseases for which they had no immunity, and smallpox was one of the great vehicles of that annihilation. Variola proved to be especially lethal as a “virgin soil” epidemic, and Native Americans not unexpectedly suffered far greater casualties than other populations, resulting in death on such a wide scale that entire tribes simply disappeared to history.
No review can properly capture all the ground that Fenn covers in this outstanding book, nor praise her achievement adequately. It is especially rare when a historian combines a highly original thesis with exhaustive research, keen analysis, and exceptional talent with a pen to deliver a magnificent work such as Pox Americana. And perhaps never has there been a moment when this book could find a greater relevance to readers than to Americans in 2020.
If you have studied evolution inside or outside of the classroom, you have no doubt encountered the figure of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the discredited notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics attributed to him known as “Lamarckism.” This has most famously been represented in the example of giraffes straining to reach fruit on ever-higher branches, which results in the development of longer necks over succeeding generations. Never mind that Lamarck did not develop this concept—and while he echoed it, it remained only a tiny part of the greater body of his work—he was yet doomed to have it unfortunately cling to his legacy ever since. This is most regrettable, because Lamarck—who died three decades before Charles Darwin shook the spiritual and scientific world with his 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species—was actually a true pioneer in the field of evolutionary biology that recognized there were forces at work that put organisms on an ineluctable road to greater complexity. It was Darwin who identified this force as “natural selection,” and Lamarck was not only denied credit for his contributions to the field, but otherwise maligned and ridiculed.
But even if he did not invent the idea, what if Lamarck was right all along to believe, at least in part, that acquired characteristics can be passed along transgenerationally after all—perhaps not on the kind of macro scale manifested by giraffe necks, but in other more subtle yet no less critical components to the principles of evolution? That is the subject of Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present, by the noted paleontologist Peter Ward. The book’s cover naturally showcases a series of illustrated giraffes with ever-lengthening necks! Ward is an enthusiast for the relatively new, still developing—and controversial—science of epigenetics, which advances the hypothesis that certain circumstances can trigger markers that can be transmitted from parent to child by changing the gene expression without altering the primary structure of the DNA itself. Let’s imagine a Holocaust survivor, for instance: can the trauma of Auschwitz cut so deep that the devastating psychological impact of that horrific experience will be passed on to his children, and his children’s children?
This is heady stuff, of course. We should pause for the uninitiated and explain the nature of Darwinian natural selection—the key mechanism of the Theory of Evolution—in its simplest terms. The key to survival for all organizations is adaptation. Random mutations occur over time, and if one of those mutations turns out to be better adapted to the environment, it is more likely to reproduce and thus pass along its genes to its offspring. Over time, through “gradualism,” this can lead to the rise of new species. Complexity breeds complexity, and that is the road traveled by all organisms that has led from the simplest prokaryote unicellular organism—the 3.5-billion-year-old photosynthetic cyanobacteria—to modern homo sapiens sapiens. This is, of course, a very, very long game; so long in fact that Darwin—who lived in a time when the age of the earth was vastly underestimated—fretted that there was not enough time for evolution as he envisioned it to occur. Advances in geology later determined that the earth was about 4.5 billion years old, which solved that problem, but still left other aspects of evolution unexplained by gradualism alone. The brilliant Stephen Jay Gould (along with Niles Eldredge) came along in 1972 and proposed that rather than gradualism most evolution more likely occurred through what he called “punctuated equilibrium,” often triggered by a catastrophic change in the environment. Debate has raged ever since, but it may well be that evolution is guided by forces of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. But could there still be other forces at work?
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance represents another so-called force and is at the cutting edge of research in evolutionary biology today. But has the hypothesis of epigenetics been demonstrated to be truly plausible? And the answer to that is—maybe. In other words, there does seem to be studies that support transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, most famously—as detailed in Lamarck’s Revenge—in what has been dubbed the “Dutch Hunger Winter Syndrome,” that saw children born during a famine smaller than those born before the famine, and with a later, greater risk of glucose intolerance, conditions then passed down to successive generations. On the other hand, the evidence for epigenetics has not been as firmly established as some proponents, such as Ward, might have us believe.
Lamarck’s Revenge is a very well-written and accessible scientific account of epigenetics for a popular audience, and while I have read enough evolutionary science to follow Ward’s arguments with some competence, I remain a layperson who can hardly endorse or counter his claims. The body of the narrative is comprised of Ward’s repeated examples of what he identifies as holes in traditional evolutionary biology that can only be explained by epigenetics. Is he right? I simply lack the expertise to say. I should note that I received this book as part of an “Early Reviewers” program, so I felt a responsibility to read it cover-to-cover, although my own interest lapsed as it moved beyond my own depth in the realm of evolutionary biology.
I should note that this is all breaking news, and as we appraise it we should be mindful of how those on the fringes of evangelicalism, categorically opposed to the science of human evolution, will cling to any debate over mechanisms in natural selection to proclaim it all a sham sponsored by Satan—who has littered the earth with fossils to deceive us—to challenge the truth of the “Garden of Eden” related in the Book of Genesis. Once dubbed “Creationists,” they have since rebranded themselves in association with the pseudoscience of so-called “Intelligent Design,” which somehow remains part of the curriculum at select accredited universities. Science is self-correcting. These folks are not, so don’t ever let yourself be distracted by their fictional supernatural narrative. Evolution—whether through gradualism and/or punctuated equilibrium and/or epigenetics—remains central to both modern biology and modern medicine, and that is not the least bit controversial among scientific professionals. But if you want to find out more about the implications of epigenetics for human evolution, then I recommend that you pick up Lamarck’s Revenge and challenge yourself to learn more!
Note: While you are at it, if you want to learn more about 3.5-billion-year-old photosynthetic cyanobacteria, I highly recommend this:
PODCAST#19 … Review of Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson wrote those very words and sketched out the obelisk they would be carved upon. For those who have studied him, that he not only composed his own epitaph but designed his own grave marker was—as we would say in contemporary parlance—just “so Jefferson.” His long life was marked by a catalog of achievements; these were intended to represent his proudest accomplishments. Much remarked upon is the conspicuous absence of his unhappy tenure as third President of the United States. Less noted is the omission of his time as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, marred by his humiliating flight from Monticello just minutes ahead of British cavalry. Of the three that did make the final cut, his role as author of the Declaration has been much examined. The Virginia statute—seen as the critical antecedent to First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty—gets less press, but only because it is subsumed in a wider discussion of the Bill of Rights. But who really talks about Jefferson’s role as founder of the University of Virginia?
That is the ostensible focus of Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor, perhaps the foremost living historian of the early Republic. But in this extremely well-written and insightful analysis, Taylor casts a much wider net that ensnares a tangle of competing themes that not only traces the sometimes-fumbling transition of Virginia from colony to state, but speaks to underlying vulnerabilities in economic and political philosophy that were to extend well beyond its borders to the southern portion of the new nation. Some of these elements were to have consequences that echoed down to the Civil War; indeed, still echo to the present day.
Students of the American Civil War are often struck by the paradox of Virginia. How was it possible that this colony—so central to the Revolution and the founding of the Republic, the most populous and prominent, a place that boasted notable thinkers like Jefferson, Madison and Marshall, that indeed was home to four of the first five presidents of the new United States—could find itself on the eve of secession such a regressive backwater, soon doomed to serve as the capitol of the Confederacy? It turns out that the sweet waters of the Commonwealth were increasingly poisoned by the institution of human chattel slavery, once decried by its greatest intellects, then declared indispensable, finally deemed righteous. This tragedy has been well-documented in Susan Dunn’s superlative Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, as well as Alan Taylor’s own Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832. What came to be euphemistically termed the “peculiar institution” polluted everything in its orbit, often invisibly except to the trained eye of the historian. This included, of course, higher education.
If the raison d’être of the Old Dominion was to protect and promote the interests of the wealthy planter elite that sat atop the pyramid of a slave society, then really how important was it for the scions of Virginia gentlemen to be educated beyond the rudimentary levels required to manage a plantation and move in polite society? And after all, wasn’t the “honor” of the up-and-coming young “masters” of far greater consequence than the aptitude to discourse in matters of rhetoric, logic or ethics? In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Taylor takes us back to the nearly forgotten era of a colonial Virginia when the capitol was located in “Tidewater” Williamsburg and rowdy students—wealthy, spoiled sons of the planter aristocracy with an inflated sense of honor—clashed with professors at the prestigious College of William & Mary who dared to attempt to impose discipline upon their bad behavior. A few short years later, Williamsburg was in shambles, a near ghost town, badly mauled by the British during the Revolution, the capitol relocated north to “Piedmont” Richmond, William & Mary in steep decline. Thomas Jefferson’s determination over more than two decades to replace it with a secular institution devoted to the liberal arts that welcomed all white men, regardless of economic status, is the subject of this book. How he realized his dream with the foundation of the University of Virginia in the very sunset of his life, as well as the spectacular failure of that institution to turn out as he envisioned it is the wickedly ironic element in the title of Thomas Jefferson’s Education.
The author is at his best when he reveals the unintended consequences of history. In his landmark study, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor underscores how American Independence—rightly heralded elsewhere as the dawn of representative democracy for the modern West—was at the same time to prove catastrophic for Native Americans and African Americans, whose fate would likely have been far more favorable had the colonies remained wedded to a British Crown that drew a line for westward expansion at the Appalachians, and later came to abolish slavery throughout the empire. Likewise, there is the example of how the efforts of Jefferson and Madison—lauded for shaking off the vestiges of feudalism for the new nation by putting an end to institutions of primogeniture and entail that had formerly kept estates intact—expanded the rights of white Virginians while dooming countless numbers of the enslaved to be sold to distant geographies and forever separated from their families.
In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, the disestablishment of religion is the focal point for another unintended consequence. For Jefferson, an established church was anathema, and stripping the Anglican Church of its preferred status was central to his “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” that was later enshrined in the First Amendment. But it turns out that religion and education were intertwined in colonial Virginia’s most prominent institution of higher learning, Williamsburg’s College of William & Mary, funded by the House of Burgesses, where professors were typically ordained Anglican clergymen. Moreover, tracts of land known as “glebes” that were formerly distributed by the colonial government for Anglican (later Episcopal) church rectors to farm or rent, came under assault by evangelical churches allied with secular forces after the Revolution in a movement that eventually was to result in confiscation. This put many local parishes—once both critical sponsors of education and poor relief—into a death spiral that begat still more unintended consequences that in some ways still resonate to the present-day politics and culture of the American south. As Taylor notes:
The move against church establishment decisively shifted public finance for Virginia. Prior to the revolution, the parish tax had been the greatest single tax levied on Virginians; its elimination cut the local tax burden by two thirds. Poor relief suffered as the new County overseers spent less per capita than had the old vestries. After 1790, per capita taxes, paid by free men in Virginia, were only a third of those in Massachusetts. Compared to northern states, Virginia favored individual autonomy over community obligation. Jefferson had hoped that Virginians would reinvest their tax savings from disestablishment by funding the public system of education for white children. Instead county elites decided to keep the money in their pockets and pose as champions of individual liberty. [p57-58]
For Jefferson, a creature of the Enlightenment, the sins of medievalism inherent to institutionalized religion were glaringly apparent, yet he was blinded to the positive contributions it could provide for the community. Jefferson also frequently perceived his own good intentions in the eyes of others who simply did not share them because they were either selfish or indifferent. Jefferson seemed to genuinely believe that an emphasis on individual liberty would in itself foster the public good, when in reality—then and now—many take such liberty as the license to simply advance their own interests. For all his brilliance, Jefferson was too often naïve when it came to the character of his countrymen.
Once near-universally revered, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson often triggers ambivalence for a modern audience and poses a singular challenge for historical analysis. A central Founder, Jefferson’s bold claim in the Declaration “that all men are created equal” defined both the struggle with Britain and the notion of “liberty” that not only came to characterize the Republic that eventually emerged, but gave echo with a deafening resonance to the French Revolution—and far beyond to legions of the oppressed yearning for the universal equality that Jefferson had asserted was their due. At the same time, over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned hundreds of human beings as chattel property. One of the enslaved almost certainly served as concubine to bear him several offspring who were also enslaved, and she almost certainly was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.
The once popular view that imagined that Jefferson did not intend to include African Americans in his definition of “all men” has been clearly refuted by historians. And Jefferson, like many of his elite peers of the Founding generation—Madison, Monroe, and Henry—decried the immorality of slavery as institution while consenting to its persistence, to their own profit. Most came to find grounds to justify it, but not Jefferson: the younger Jefferson cautiously advocated for abolition, while the older Jefferson made excuses for why it could not be achieved in his lifetime—made manifest in his much quoted “wolf by the ear” remark—but he never stopped believing it an existential wrong. As Joseph Ellis underscored in his superb study, American Sphinx, Jefferson frequently held more than one competing and contradictory view in his head simultaneously and was somehow immune to the cognitive dissonance such paradox might provoke in others.
It is what makes Jefferson such a fascinating study, not only because he was such a consequential figure for his time, but because the Republic then and now remains a creature of habitually irreconcilable contradictions remarkably emblematic of this man, one of its creators, who has carved out a symbolism that varies considerably from one audience to another. Jefferson, more than any of the other Founders, was responsible for the enduring national schizophrenia that pits federalism against localism, a central economic engine against entrepreneurialism, and the well-being of a community against personal liberties that would let you do as you please. Other elements have been, if not resolved, forced to the background, such as the industrial vs. the agricultural, and the military vs. the militia. Of course, slavery has been abolished, civil rights tentatively obtained, but the shadow of inequality stubbornly lingers, forced once more to the forefront by the murder of George Floyd; I myself participated in a “Black Lives Matter” protest on the day before this review was completed.
Perhaps much overlooked in the discussion but no less essential is the role of education in a democratic republic. Here too, Jefferson had much to offer and much to pass down to us, even if most of us have forgotten that it was his soft-spoken voice that pronounced it indispensable for the proper governance of both the state of Virginia and the new nation. That his ambition extended only to white, male universal education that excluded blacks and women naturally strikes us as shortsighted, even repugnant, but should not erase the fact that even this was a radical notion in its time. Rather than disparage Jefferson, who died two centuries ago, we should perhaps condemn the inequality in education that persists in America today, where a tradition of community schools funded by property taxes meant that my experience growing up in a white, middle class suburb in Fairfield, CT translated into an educational experience vastly superior to that of the people of color who attended the ancient crumbling edifices in the decaying urban environment of Bridgeport less than three miles from my home. How can we talk about “Black Lives Matter” without talking about that?
The granite obelisk that marked Jefferson’s final resting place was chipped away at by souvenir hunters until it was relocated in order to preserve it. A joint resolution of Congress funded the replacement, erected in 1883, that visitors now encounter at Monticello. The original obelisk now incongruously sits in a quadrangle at the University of Missouri, perhaps as far removed from Jefferson’s grave as today’s diverse, co-ed institution of UVA at Charlottesville is at a distance from the both the university he founded and the one he envisioned. We have to wonder if Jefferson would be more surprised to learn that African Americans are enrolled at UVA—or that in 2020 they only comprise less than seven percent of the undergraduate population? And what would he make of the white supremacists who rallied at Charlottesville in 2017 and those who stood against them? I suspect a resurrected Jefferson would be no less enigmatic than the one who walked the earth so long ago.
Alan Taylor has written a number of outstanding works—I’ve read five of them—and he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He is also, incidentally, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, so Thomas Jefferson’s Education is not only an exceptional contribution to the historiography but no doubt a project dear to his heart. While I continue to admire Jefferson even as I acknowledge his many flaws, I cannot help wondering how Taylor—who has so carefully scrutinized him—personally feels about Thomas Jefferson. I recall that in the afterword to his magnificent historical novel, Burr, Gore Vidal admits: “All in all, I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does …” If someone puts Alan Taylor on the spot, I suppose that could be as good an answer as any …
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here:
Review of Imagine John Yoko, by John & Yoko Lennon