Review of: “Napoleon: A Life” by Adam Zamoyski
PODCAST#9 … Review of Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zomoyski
The most consequential figure of what historians dub Europe’s “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914)—from the start of the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I—came to virtually define the first part of that era while setting forces into motion that shaped all that was to follow. Over the course of a single decade, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled not only much of the territory on the continent, but the entirety of its destiny. When he fell from power, the peace that was crafted in his wake largely held for a full century. The Europe that was obliterated by the catastrophe of the Great War that followed was the Europe both made and unmade by Napoleon. And even well beyond that, in the nearly two centuries since he walked the earth, no other individual—not Bismarck, not Stalin, not Churchill, not even Hitler—has emerged in the West, for ill or for good, to rival his significance or challenge his legacy. Yet for most, these days Napoleon is, if not exactly a forgotten character, a much overlooked one, a rarely referenced ghost of a distant past whose specter though perhaps unnoticed nevertheless still haunts the twenty-first century capitals of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow.
An outstanding remedy to our collective negligence is Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zamoyski, a noted historian and author with a long resume who masterfully resurrects the outsize character that was the living man and places him in the context of his times. At nearly seven hundred pages, at first glance this hefty tome might seem intimidating, but Zamoyski writes so well that there are few sluggish spots in a fast-moving, highly accessible narrative that will likely take its place in the historiography as the definitive single-volume biography. And this is surely the treatment his subject deserves.
There could perhaps not have been a more unlikely individual to command the world stage and change the course of history than Napoleon Bonaparte, born to a family of minor Italian nobility of quite modest means on Corsica in 1769, somewhat ironically in the same year that the Republic of Genoa ceded the island to France. It may be a minor point but it certainly adds to that irony that the future Emperor of France apparently ever spoke French with an atrocious accent, which—knowing the conceit of those native to the language—could only have rankled those in his orbit, both friend and foe. Yet, this is just one of the many, many contradictions that cling to Napoleon’s person. As a child, he was sent to a religious school in France, and later attended a military academy, which led to his commission as a second lieutenant in the artillery.
It was the outbreak of the French Revolution a few short years later that catapulted him onto the world stage in a bizarre trajectory that saw him first as a fervent Corsican nationalist seeking the island’s independence from France, then a pro-republican pamphleteer allied with Robespierre, and then artillery commander at the Siege of Toulon, where he first demonstrated his military genius. He was wounded but survived to be promoted to brigadier general at the age of twenty-four and later placed in command in Italy, where he led the army to victory in virtually every battle, while taking time out to crush a Royalist rebellion in Paris. He also survived his association with Robespierre. Proving himself as gifted in the partisan arena as he was on the battlefield, he adroitly commandeered the dangerous and ever-shifting political ground of revolutionary France to engineer a coup and make himself dictator, euphemistically styled as First Consul of what was now a republic in little more than name only. He was just thirty years old. Within five years, he was Emperor of France in a retooled monarchy that both resembled and served as counterpoint to the ancien régime that revolution had swept away.
The rare general with talents equally exceptional in the tactical and the strategic, Napoleon managed both on and off the battlefield to defeat a succession of great power coalitions aligned against him until he commanded much of Europe directly or through his proxies, while crippling British trade through his “continental system” that controlled key ports. Like Alexander two millennia before him, Napoleon was brilliant, courageous, opportunistic and lucky—all the ingredients necessary for unparalleled triumph on such a grand scale. Unlike Alexander, he outlived his conquests to try to remake his realm, in his case by spreading liberal reforms, stamping out feudalism, promoting meritocracy and codifying laws. But he also lived to fall from power and to fall hard. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the ancient Greeks invented the term hubris to describe the tragedy in the excessive pride personified by men just such as Napoleon. Whereas Alexander looked to Achilles and the Olympic pantheon, Napoleon looked only to his own “star,” which he fully relied upon to guarantee his success in every endeavor. And one day that star dimmed. He famously overreached with the ill-conceived invasion of Russia that turned to debacle, but it was more than that. For all his genius, he ruled the French Empire like a medieval lord—or a crime boss—placing on the thrones of puppet states that served him members of his extended family or his cronies, most of whom lacked competence or even loyalty. His dramatic rise was met with an equally dramatic fall, and he ended his days in exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic, slowly succumbing to what was likely stomach cancer at the age of fifty-one.
Of course, you could learn all of this from the prevailing literature—there are literally thousands of books that chronicle Napoleon—but Zamoyski’s rare achievement is to capture the essential nature of his subject, something that too often eludes biographers. The Napoleon he conjures for us is a basket of contradictions: at once kind, despotic, magnanimous, ruthless, noble, petty, confident, insecure, charismatic, and socially awkward. Zamoyski does not stoop to play psychoanalyst, but the Napoleon that emerges from the narrative often smacks of a narcissist and depressive who frequently rode waves of highs and lows. If nothing else, he was certainly a very peculiar man who was repellent to some just as others were somehow drawn to him irresistibly, a paradox perhaps captured best in this passage recounting the recollections of those who knew him as a young man:
He was out of his depth, not so much socially as in terms of simple human communication: he showed a curious lack of empathy which meant that he did not know what to say to people, and therefore either said nothing or something inappropriate. His gracelessness, unkempt appearance, and poor French … did not help … He could sit through a comedy … and remain impassive while the whole house laughed, and then laugh raucously at odd moments … [He once told] a tasteless joke about one of his men having his testicles shot off at Toulon, and laughing uproariously while all around sat horrified. Yet there was something about his manner that some found unaccountably attractive. [p92]
Zomoyski does not pass judgment on Napoleon, but deftly brings color, form and substance to his sketches of him so that the reader is rewarded with a genuine sense of familiarity with the living man, an accomplishment that cannot be overstated. If there is a flaw, it is that the work is skimpy on the historical backdrop, on the prequel to Napoleon; those not already well-schooled with the milieu of late eighteenth century Europe may be at a disadvantage. But this is perhaps a quibble, for to do so competently would have further swelled the size of the book and risked an unwieldy text. On the other hand, there is a welcome supply of many fine maps, as well as copious notes.
Napoleon’s ambition left thousands of dead in his wake, and he left his mark far beyond the Europe he transformed. Modern Egyptology was born out of Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt; the famous “Rosetta Stone” was among the spoils of war, although it ultimately ended up in British rather than French hands. Napoleon was the force behind the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the size of the nascent United States. It was the impressment of American seamen during the Napoleonic Wars that was a leading Casus belli in the War of 1812, and it was British exhaustion at the conclusion of that conflict that spared the young republic a harsher price for peace. Look closely and you will find Napoleon’s fingerprints nearly everywhere—and you will see them in far greater detail if you treat yourself to Zamoyski’s magnificent biography, which surely does justice to his legacy.
[CORRECTION: the podcast version of this review misidentifies the location of Napoleon’s death as on an island in the Pacific rather than in the South Atlantic, which has been corrected in the written text above.]
While browsing a bookstore sometime in 1982, I picked up a thick hardcover entitled The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro. I had never heard of Caro, but the jacket flap told of his winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his very first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I had never heard of Moses either, but in the days before smartphones and Google might let me dig a little deeper, that accolade spoke directly to the author’s reputation. I did—and still do—like to browse bookstores and to read books about American presidents. The twenty bucks I shelled out to buy that book was probably most of the cash I had in my wallet that afternoon, something else that was and remains characteristic of me to this day: given a choice between buying lunch or a new book, I will almost always choose the latter. I mean, I can wait until dinner …
That volume of The Path to Power is 768 pages of small print, not including notes and back matter, of mostly dense material, but Caro’s voice is so commanding that I found myself both absorbed and obsessed. For those who have not read him, it is difficult to describe Caro’s style, which exists somewhere at the confluence of incisive reporting and towering epic, a kind of literary salad that blends the best of Edward R. Murrow and Robert Penn Warren—seasoned with a dash or two of Thucydides—that the reader is driven to devour.
There are great presidential biographers out there—think Robert Remini, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Jon Meacham—yet Caro is in a league all his own. And unlike the others, he has not been prolific, devoting the decades since the publication of The Path to Power to just three books, all part of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson saga, one of which—Master of the Senate—is a landmark synthesis of history and biography and politics that won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Another ten years passed before the release of The Passage of Power, which only just follows LBJ into his first months in the White House. Now an octogenarian still doggedly at work on what is to be the final book in the series, Caro has broken precedent by releasing a slim volume that is a study of the author rather than his subjects.
This latest book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, is less a memoir than a profile of what Caro has set out to do and how he has approached the process, as neatly summarized by the subtitle. Surprisingly, Caro is not a historian, but instead started off as a journalist who won the respect of an old-fashioned hardboiled editor when his diligence in the field turned up info vital to a storyline. The editor, who had barely acknowledged him before, advised: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” That has been his mantra ever since.
Caro is fascinated by power and those who wield it, and especially by the ways power can be obtained and exercised outside of ordinary channels. For instance, his first subject— “master builder” Robert Moses—was never elected to any office, yet at one point simultaneously held twelve official titles and used his accumulated authority to preside over the utter and lasting reshaping of New York City and its suburbs. In his research on LBJ, by turning “every page,” Caro encountered an obscure reference that led him to learn that Lyndon Johnson’s political rise and own personal wealth was closely linked to a long-secret relationship with the principals of Brown & Root, a construction company that built roads and dams and was later enriched by government contracts sent their way by Johnson; in turn, their largesse was to overflow LBJ’s campaign coffers. The rest is—quite literally—history.
A silent partner in Caro’s award-winning achievements has long been his wife Ina, who has quietly devoted her life to aiding his research and managing the household so that he could concentrate entirely on his book projects. In Working, Caro reveals that Ina once sold their home—without telling him—in order to ensure their financial solvency. Another time, when he announced they were moving to the Texas Hill Country for three years to continue his research on LBJ, Ina cracked: “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” But she went along, without complaint. And Caro makes it clear that Ina was no mere admin or assistant: she often sat across from him at long library tables and turned over half of those “goddamned pages” herself.
By my own calculation, I have read nearly three thousand pages of Robert Caro in his four volumes on Lyndon Johnson. I eagerly and impatiently await the final book. I did not know what to expect from Working, which is closer to memoir than autobiography but truly defies categorization. Most great writers are incapable of talking about themselves without something like bitterness or bravado. Hemingway certainly couldn’t do it. Steinbeck—think Travels with Charley—was better at it, but he tended to conflate fiction and nonfiction along the way. Caro would have none of that. His work has always had a singular focus that has been about the unvarnished facts, about the warts and all, about the inconvenient truths that swirl about the lives of his subjects, and he delivers no more and certainly nothing less when he turns the lens on himself.
Working would be a party favor if written by anyone but Robert Caro. But because he is a magnificent writer gifted with extraordinary insight, it is a kind of a minor masterpiece packaged in an undersized edition that is an easy read of less than two hundred pages. If there is a fault, it is the odd inclusion of an interview with The Paris Review from 2016 that is not only superfluous but distracting; I would urge skipping it. But that’s a quibble. Even if you have never heard of Robert Caro yet are fascinated with history and how solid research serves as the foundation to analysis, interpretation and an ever-evolving historiography, you should read this. If you have read Caro’s other books, of course, then you must read this one!
PODCAST#8 … Review of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, by Patrick H. Breen
In August 1831, in Virginia’s Southampton County, a literate, highly intelligent if eccentric enslaved man—consumed with such an outsize religious fervor that he was nicknamed “The Prophet” by those in his orbit—led what was to become the largest slave uprising in American history. Nat Turner’s Rebellion turned out to be a brief but bloody affair that resulted in the largely indiscriminate slaughter of dozens of whites—men, women, children, even infants—before it was put down. The failed revolt itself was and remains far less important than its repercussions and the dramatic echoes that still resounded many years hence during the secession crisis. Rarely would any historian of the American Civil War cite Nat Turner as a direct cause of the conflict—after all, the rebellion took place three decades prior to Fort Sumter—but it is almost always part of the conversation. Turner’s uprising not only reinforced but validated a deep-simmering paranoia of southern whites—who like ancient Spartans vastly outnumbered by Helots were often in the minority to their larger chattel population—and spawned a host of reactionary legislation in Virginia and throughout much of the south that outlawed teaching blacks to read and white, and prohibited religious gatherings without a white minister present. And while for those below the Mason-Dixon it was an underscore to the perils of their peculiar institution, at a time when abolitionism was in its infancy it also served to remind at least some of their northern brethren that the morally questionable practice of owning other human beings was part of the fabric of southern life. Indeed, one could argue that the true dawn of what we conceive of as the antebellum era began with Nat Turner.
For such a pivotal event in the nation’s past, the historiography has been somewhat scant. There is the controversial “confession” that Turner dictated to lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray in the days between his capture, trial and hanging, which some take at face value and others dispute. But in the intervening years, surprisingly few scholars have carefully scrutinized the rebellion and its legacy, which remains far better known to a wider audience from William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner than from the analytical authority of credentialed historians.
A welcome remedy can be found in The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, a brilliant if uneven treatment of the uprising and its aftermath by Patrick H. Breen, first published in 2016, that likely will serve as the academic gold standard for some time to come. While giving a respectful nod to the existing historiography—which has tended to breed competing narratives that pronounce Turner hero or villain or madman—Breen, an Associate Professor of History at Providence College, instead went all in by conducting an impressive amount of highly original research that locates the revolt within the greater sphere of the changing nature of the institution of slavery in southeastern Virginia in the early 1830s, which as a labor mechanism was in fact in a slow but pronounced decline. Nat Turner and his uprising certainly did not occur in a vacuum, but prior to Breen’s keen analysis, the rebellion was generally interpreted out of its critical context, which thus distorted conclusions that often pronounced it an anomaly nurtured by a passionate if deranged figure. For the modern historian, of course, this is not all that shocking, since the uncomfortable dynamics found in the relationships of the enslaved with wider communities of whites and other blacks (both free and enslaved) has until recent times been typically afforded only superficial attention or entirely overlooked. It is nevertheless surprising—given the notoriety of the Turner revolt—that until Breen there was such a lack of scholarly focus in this arena.
The book has eight chapters but there are three clear divisions that follow a distinct if sometimes awkward chronology. The first part traces the start and course of the rebellion and presents the full cast of characters of conspirators and victims. The second is devoted to subsequent events, including both the extrajudicial murder by whites of blacks swept up in the initial hysteria spawned by the revolt, as well as the carefully orchestrated trials and executions of many of the participants. The final and shortest section concerns the fate of Nat Turner himself, who evaded capture for two months—long after many of his accomplices had been tried and hanged.
The general reader may find the first part slow-going. The story of the revolt should be an exciting read, especially given the passion of prophecy that consumed Turner and the violence that it begat with its slaughter of innocents by an unlikely band of recruits whose motives were ambiguous. Instead, the prose at times is so dispassionate that the drama slips away. In my opinion, this is less Breen’s fault—he is, after all, a talented writer—than the stultifying structure of academic writing that burdens the field, the unfortunate reason why most best-selling works of history are not written by historians. But I would encourage the discouraged to press on, because the effort is intellectually rewarding; the author has deftly stripped away myth and legend to separate fact from the surmise and invention pregnant in other accounts. If there can be such a thing as a definitive study of the Nat Turner rebellion, Breen has delivered it.
It is clear from the character of the narrative that follows that Breen’s true passion lies in the aftermath of the revolt, where he serves as revisionist to what has long been taken for granted as settled history. This is as it should be, because it was the repercussions of the rebellion and the way it was remembered (north and south) in the thirty years leading up to secession that was always of far greater importance to history than the uprising itself. And it is unfortunately this echo—much of which has been unsubstantiated—which has tainted later scholarship. The central notion that prevailed, which Breen challenges, is that the reaction to Nat Turner was a widespread bloodbath of African Americans by unruly mobs whose suspicion was that all blacks were complicit or were simply driven by revenge. The other, also disputed by Breen, is that whatever trust might have once existed between white masters and the enslaved had forever evaporated, the former ever in fear that the latter were secretly plotting a repeat of the Turner episode. Finally, Breen takes issue with the view of many historians that the authorial voice in Turner’s “confession” is unreliable because it was dictated to a white man who was guided by his own agenda when he published it.
Breen refutes the first by lending scrutiny to the empirical evidence in the extant records of the enslaved population. A little general background for the uninitiated here: the enslaved were treated as taxable chattel property in the antebellum era, so meticulous records were kept and a good deal of that survives. Many slave-owners insured their human “property,” often through insurance companies based in the north. If an enslaved person was convicted of a capital crime, the state compensated the slave-owner for the executed offender. Breen, as a good historian, simply reviewed the records to determine if prevailing views of the rebellion’s aftermath were accurate or exaggerated. What he learned was that there was indeed much hyperbole in reports of widespread massacres of African Americans. Yes, certain individuals and militias did commit atrocities by murdering blacks, and sometimes torturing them first. But the numbers were vastly overstated. And local officials quickly put a stop to this, motivated perhaps far less by ethical concerns than in an effort to protect valuable “property” from the extrajudicial depredations of the mob, whose owners would not then be duly compensated. Breen should be commended for his careful research—which demonstrates that long-accepted reports of mass murder are simply unsupported by the records—yet it seems astonishing that those who came before him failed to follow the same road of due diligence that he traveled. This should underscore to all budding historians out there that there remains lots of solid history work ahead, even and especially in otherwise familiar areas like this one where what turns out to be a flawed analysis has long been taken for granted as the scholarly consensus.
This business of assigning value to chattel human property is uncomfortable stuff for modern students of this era, but as those who have read The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry’s outstanding treatment of the topic, it is absolutely essential to understanding how slavery operated in the antebellum south. The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood steps beyond the specifics of Nat Turner to offer a wider perspective in this vein, as well. The enslaved were often subject to the arbitrary sanctions of their masters, but those accused of capital crimes were technically granted a kind of due process of law. Breen points out that special courts of “Oyer and Terminer” that lacked juries—the same kind that convicted and hanged those accused of witchcraft in Salem—were ordained in Virginia to judge such cases. Initially enacted to expedite the trial process of the enslaved, the courts—captained by five magistrates who were typically wealthy slave-owners, and which duly supplied defense attorneys to the accused—came to have the opposite effect, convicting only about a third of those brought before them. [p108] Much of the reason for these results seems to be connected to an effort to limit the cost of the state for compensation for those sent to the gallows for their crimes.
It turns out that these same courts also had a tempering effect on the trials of those accused of taking part in the rebellion. But this time, it wasn’t only about the money. Breen argues convincingly that the elite magistrates who controlled the trial process also created and marketed to the wider community a reassuring narrative that the uprising was a small affair involving only a small number of the misguided. In the end, eighteen were executed, more than a dozen were transported and there were even some acquittals. Thus, state liability was limited, and the peculiar institution was protected.
That reassurance seems to have been effective: freedom of movement for the enslaved subsequent to the revolt was not as constrained as some have maintained, as evidenced by the fact that Nat Turner was discovered in hiding and betrayed by other enslaved individuals who were hardly prohibited from wandering alone after dark. By the time Nat Turner was captured and executed, the rebellion was almost already history. As to the veracity of Turner’s “confessions” to Grey, Breen makes a compelling argument in support of Turner’s words as recorded, but that will likely remain both controversial and open to interpretation. So too will the person of Nat Turner. The horror of human chattel slavery might urge us to cheer Nat and his accomplices in their revolt, while the murder of babies in the course of events can’t help but give us pause. Likewise, we might harshly judge those white slave-owners who dared to judge them. But, of course, that is not the strict business of historians, who must sift through the nuance and complexity of people and events to get to the bottom of what really happened, warts and all.
I first learned of The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood when I sat enthralled by Breen’s presentation of his research at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2019 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and I purchased a copy at the college bookstore. While I have some quibbles with the style and arrangement of the book, especially to the strict adherence to chronology that in part weakens the narrative flow, the author has made an invaluable contribution to the historiography with what is surely the authoritative account of the Nat Turner Rebellion. This is and should be required reading for all students of the antebellum era.
[My review of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry, is here: https://regarp.com/2017/02/11/review-of-the-price-for-their-pound-of-flesh-the-value-of-the-enslaved-from-womb-to-grave-in-the-building-of-a-nation-by-daina-ramey-berry/ ]
There’s an abiding irony to the fact that the United Nations, formed in the wake of a catastrophic global war to keep the peace, instead gave sanction to the first and most significant multinational armed conflict since World War II, not even five full years after Japan’s capitulation. It never would have happened had Stalin not ordered Soviet delegates to boycott that Security Council session in protest over the seating of Chiang Kai-shek’s government-in-exile on Taiwan instead of Mao’s de facto People’s Republic of China. It might never have happened if United States President Truman was not under enormous political pressure due to a hysterical campaign of right-wing outrage known as “Who Lost China” born out of Mao’s surprise victory in 1949, the same year that the Cold War grew much hotter when the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb, and fears of global communist domination magnified. It probably never would have found the support of so many other nations if the memories of appeasement to Hitler were still not so fresh and compelling.
“It”—of course—was the Korean War, which took place on a wide swath of East Asian geography that remains unresolved to this very day. Historically, the Korean peninsula hosted at various times both competing kingdoms and a unitary state but was always dominated by its more powerful neighbors: China, Russia and Japan. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, and an especially brutal occupation ensued. Following the Japanese defeat, the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two zones administered in the north by the Soviet Union and in the south by the United States. Cold War politics enabled the creation of two separate states in the two zones, each mutually hostile to one another. In June 1950, the Soviet-backed communist regime in the north invaded the pro-western capitalist state in the south, which spawned a UN resolution to intervene and launched the Korean War. At first South Korea fared poorly, but an American-led multinational coalition eventually pushed communist forces back across the 38th parallel. The fateful decision was then made by the Truman Administration to pursue the enemy and expand full-scale combat operations into North Korea. This brought China into the war and a long bloody struggle to stalemate ensued. Like a weird Twilight Zone loop, more than sixty-six years later a state of war still exists on the peninsula, and Kim Jong-un—the erratic supreme leader of a now nuclear-armed North Korea who regularly taunts the United States—is the grandson of supreme leader Kim Il-sung, whose invasion of the south sparked the conflict!
The origins, history and consequences of the Korea War makes for a fascinating story that—especially given both its scope and its dramatic contemporary echo—has received far less attention in the literature than it deserves. Unfortunately, Michael Pembroke’s recent attempt, Korea: Where the American Century Began, contributes almost nothing worthwhile to the historiography. This is a shame, because Pembroke—a self-styled historian who currently serves as a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia—is a talented writer who seems to have conducted significant research for this work. Alas, he squanders it all on what turns out to be little more than a lengthy philippic that serves as a multilayered condemnation of the United States.
As the subtitle suggests, Pembroke’s bitter polemic is directed not only at US intervention in Korea, but at the subsequent muscular but misguided American foreign policy that has begat a series of often pointless wars at a terrible cost in blood and treasure not only for the United States but also for the allies and adversaries in her orbit. Many—including this reviewer—might be in rough agreement with a good portion of that assessment. But the author sacrifices all credibility with a narrative that repeatedly acts as apologist for Mao, Kim Il-sung and even Stalin! For Pembroke, Truman takes on an outsize stature of a bloodthirsty monster who is not satisfied with the hundreds of thousands he vaporized at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but is willing and even eager to sacrifice millions more in order to achieve his nefarious goal of global domination. Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, simply had their reasons, and were often misunderstood. Left unexplained is why, invested with that motivation and given that the United States in that era had overwhelming strategic nuclear and conventional superiority, Truman and his successors chose not to deploy that capability to pave a dramatic sanguinary road to hegemony.
To my mind, America’s war in Korea was a calamitous misstep, further exacerbated by the escalation that ensued with the crossing of the 38th parallel after achieving the initial objective of driving communist forces from the south. And one could make a good argument that none of the seemingly endless conflicts the United States has engaged in since that time was worth the life of a single American serviceman or woman. Yet, it is a hideous distortion to disfavorably juxtapose America—warts and all—with the endemic mass murder of Stalin’s Soviet Union. History, as I have often noted, is a matter of complexity and nuance, a perspective that seems utterly alien to Michael Pembroke in a book that is neither a history nor an analysis but simply an almost breathless diatribe that reduces characters to caricature and events to a bizarre comic book style of exposing villainy—but in this case all the villains happen to be American.
Because I received this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, I felt an obligation to plod through it to the very last page. In other circumstances, I would have abandoned it far, far earlier. As a reviewer, rarely would I suggest that a work has absolutely no value to a reader, but here I will make an exception: the best-case scenario for this book is for it to go out of print.
PODCAST#7 … Review of Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard
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!
Hawkes letters referenced above are accessible at: https://31massinf.wordpress.com/correspondence/letters-of-joshua-w-hawkes-part-4-1863/
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.
[I have reviewed several other novels by Richard Flanagan here: Death of a River Guide: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/; The Sound of One Hand Clapping: https://regarp.com/2017/06/04/review-of-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping-by-richard-flanagan/; The Narrow Road to the Deep North: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/; and, First Person: https://regarp.com/2018/09/02/review-of-first-person-a-novel-by-richard-flanagan/]
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.
[My review of: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, referenced above, is here: https://regarp.com/2017/05/14/review-of-cradle-of-life-the-discovery-of-earths-earliest-fossils-by-j-william-schopf/ ]