Review of The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, by Thomas T. Allsen
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In the aftermath of a clash in Turkistan in 1221, a woman held captive by Mongol soldiers admitted she had swallowed her pearls to safeguard them. She was immediately executed and eviscerated. When pearls were indeed recovered, Genghis Khan “ordered that they open the bellies of the slain” on the battlefield to look for more. [p23] Such was the consequence of pearls for the Mongol Empire.
As this review goes to press (5-12-21), the value of a single Bitcoin is about $56,000 U.S. dollars—dwarfing the price for an ounce of gold at a mere $1830—an astonishing number for a popular cybercurrency that few even accept for payment. Those ridiculing the rise of Bitcoin dismiss it as imaginary currency. But aren’t all currencies imaginary? The paper a dollar is printed on certainly is not worth much, but it can be exchanged for a buck because that United States government says so, subject to inflation of course. All else rises and falls on a market that declares a value, which varies from day-to-day. Then why, you might ask, in the rational world of the twenty-first century, are functionally worthless shiny objects like gold and diamonds (for non-industrial applications) worth anything at all? It’s a good question, but hardly a new one—long before the days of Jericho and Troy people have attached value to the pretty but otherwise useless. Circa 4200 BCE, spondylus shells were money of a sort in both Old Europe and the faraway Andes. Remarkably, cowries once served as the chief economic mechanism in the African slave trade; for centuries human beings were bought and sold as chattel in exchange for shells that once housed sea snails!
The point is that even the most frivolous item can be deemed of great worth if enough agree that it is valuable. With that in mind, it is hardly shocking to learn that pearls were treasured above all else by the Mongols during their heady days of empire. It may nevertheless seem surprising that this phenomenon would be worthy of a book-length treatment, but acclaimed educator, author and historian Thomas T. Allsen makes a convincing case that it does in his final book prior to his passing in 2019, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire, which will likely remain the definitive work on this subject for some time to come.
The oversize footprint of the Mongols and their significance to global human history has been vast if too often underemphasized, a casualty of the Eurocentric focus on so-called “Western Civilization.” Originally nomads that roamed the steppe, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the transcontinental Mongol Empire formed the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, encompassing parts or all of China, Southeast Asia, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. Ruthlessly effective warriors, numerous kingdoms tumbled before the fierce onslaughts that marked their famously brutal trails of conquest. Less well-known, as Allsen reveals, was their devotion to plunder, conducted with both a ferocious appetite and perhaps the greatest degree of organization ever seen in the sacking of cities. No spoils were prized more than pearls, acquired from looted state treasuries as well as individuals such as that random unfortunate who was sliced open at Genghis Khan’s command. Pearls were more than simply booty; the Mongols were obsessed with them.
This is a story that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unexpected. The author’s approach is highly original, cogently marrying economics to political culture and state-building without losing sight of his central theme. In a well-written if decidedly academic narrative, Allsen focuses on the Mongol passion for pearls as symbols of wealth and status to explore a variety of related topics. One of the most entertaining examines the Yuan court, where pearls were the central element for wardrobe and fashion, and rank rigidly determined if and how these could be displayed. At the very top tier, naturally, was the emperor and his several wives, who were spectacularly identifiable in their extravagant ornamentation. The emperor’s consorts wore earrings of “matched tear-shaped pearls” said to be the size of hazelnuts, or alternately, pendant earrings with as many as sixty-five matched pearls attached to each pendant! More flamboyant was their elaborate headgear, notably the tall, unwieldy boot-shaped headdress called a boghta that was decorated with plumes and gems and—of course—many more pearls! [p52-53]
Beyond the spotlight on court life, the author widens his lens to explore broader arenas. The Mongols may have been the most fanatical about acquiring pearls, but they certainly were not the first to value them, nor the last; pearls remain among the “shiny objects” with no real function beyond adornment that command high prices to this day. Allsen provides a highly engaging short course for the reader as to where pearls come from and why the calcium carbonate that forms a gemstone in one oyster is—based upon shape, size, luster, and color—prized more than another. This is especially important because of the very paradox the book’s title underscores: it is remarkable that products from the sea became the most prized possession for a people of the steppe! There is also a compelling discussion of the transition from conquering nomad warrior to settled overlord that offers a studied debate on whether the “self-indulgent” habit of coveting consumer goods such as “fine textiles, precious metals, and gems, especially pearls” was the result of being corrupted by the sedentary “civilized” they subjected, or if such cravings were born in a more distant past. [p61]
While I enjoyed The Steppe and the Sea, especially the first half, which concludes with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, this book is not for everyone. Academic writing imposes a certain stylistic rigidity that suits the scholarly audience it is intended for, but that tends to create barriers for the general reader. In this case accessibility is further diminished by Allsen’s translation of Mongolian proper names into ones likely unfamiliar to those outside of his field: Genghis Khan is accurately rendered as Chinggis Qan, and Kubalai Khan as Qubilai Qan, but this causes confusion that might have been mitigated by a parenthetical reference to the more common name. And the second part of the book, “Comparisons and Influence,” which looks beyond the Mongol realm, is slow going. It seemed like a better tactic might have been to incorporate much of it into the previous narrative, strengthening connections and contrasts while improving readability. On the plus side, sound historical maps are included that proved a critical reference throughout the read.
The Mongol Empire is ancient history, but these days a wild pearl of high quality could still be worth as much as $100,000, although most range in price from $300 to $1500. It seems like civilization is still pretty immature when it comes to shiny objects. On the other hand, this morning, an ounce of palladium—a precious metal valued for its use in catalytic converters and multi-layer ceramic capacitors rather than jewelry—was priced at almost $3000, some 62% more than an ounce of gold! So maybe there is hope for us, after all. I wish Dr. Allsen was still alive so I could reach out via email and find out his thoughts on the subject. Since that is impossible, I can only urge you to read his final book and consider how little human appetites have changed throughout the ages.
Review of A Tidewater Morning, by William Styron. Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a remarkable dinner for more than four dozen Nobel Prize winners and assorted other luminaries drawn from the top echelons of the arts and sciences. With his characteristic wit, JFK pronounced it “The most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” One of the least prominent guests that evening was the novelist William Styron, who attended with his wife Rose, and recalled his surprise at the invitation. Styron was not yet then the critically-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon he was to later become, but he was hardly an unknown figure, and it turns out that his most recent novel of American expatriates, Set This House on Fire, was the talk of the White House in the weeks leading up to the event. So he had the good fortune to dine not only with the President and First Lady, but with the likes of John Glenn, Linus Pauling, and Pearl Buck—and in the after-party forged a long-term intimate relationship with the Kennedy family.
My first Styron was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read as a teen. Its merits somewhat unfairly subsumed at the time by the controversy it sparked over race and remembrance, it remains a notable achievement, as well as a reminder that literature is not synonymous with history, nor should it be held to that account. I found Set This House on Fire largely forgettable, but as an undergrad was utterly blown away when I read Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel and a true masterpiece that while yet indisputably original clearly evoked the Faulknerian southern gothic. I went on to read anything by the author I could get my hands on. Also a creature of controversy upon publication, Sophie’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, remains in my opinion one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
I thought I had read all of Styron’s fiction, so it was with certain surprise that I learned from a friend who is both author and bibliophile of the existence of A Tidewater Morning, a collection of three novellas I had somehow overlooked. I bought the book immediately, and packed it to take along for a pandemic retreat to a Vermont cabin in the woods where I read it through in the course of the first day and a half of the getaway, parked in a comfortable chair on the porch sipping hot coffee in the morning and cold beer in late afternoon. Perhaps it was the fact that this was our first breakaway from months of quarantine isolation, or maybe it was the alcohol content of the IPA I was tossing down, but there was definitely a palpable emotional tug for me reading Styron again—works previously unknown to me no less—so many decades after my last encounter with his work, back when I was a much younger man than the one turning these pages. The effect was more pronounced, I suppose, because the semi-autobiographical stories in this collection look back to Styron’s own youth in the Virginia Tidewater in the 1930s and were written when he too was a much older man.
“Love Day,” the first tale of the collection, has him as a young Marine in April 1945 yet untested in combat, awaiting orders to join the invasion of Okinawa and wrestling the ambivalence of chasing heroic destiny while privately entertaining “gut-heaving frights.” There’s much banter among the men awaiting their fate, but the story of real significance is told through flashbacks to an episode some years prior, he still a boy in the back seat of his father’s Oldsmobile, broken down on the side of the road. War is looming—the very war he is about to join—although it was far from certain then, but the catastrophe of an unprepared America overrun by barbaric Japanese invaders is the near-future imagined in the Saturday Evening Post piece the boy is reading in the back of the stalled car. Simmering tempers flare when he lends voice to the prediction. His mother, stoic in her leg brace, slowly dying of a cancer known to all but unacknowledged, had earlier furiously rebuked him for mouthing a racist epithet and now upbraided him again for characterizing the Japanese as “slimy butchers,” while belittling the notion of a forthcoming war. Unexpectedly, his father—a mild, highly-educated man quietly raging at his own inability to effect a simple car repair—lashes out at his wife, branding her “idiotic” and “a fool” for her naïve idealism, then crumbles under the weight of his words to beg her forgiveness. It is a dramatic snapshot not only of a moment of a family in turmoil, but of a time and a place that has long faded from view. Only Styron’s talent with a pen could leave us with so much from what is after only a few pages.
The third story is the title tale, “A Tidewater Morning,” which revisits the family to follow his mother’s final, agonizing days. It concludes with both the boy and his father experiencing twin if unrelated epiphanies. It’s a good read, but I found it a bit overwrought, lacking the subtlety characteristic of Styron’s prose.
Sandwiched between these two is my own favorite, “Shadrach,” the story of a 99-year-old former slave—sold away to an Alabama plantation in antebellum days—who shows up unpredictably with the dying wish to be buried in the soil of the Dabney property where he was born. The problem is that the Dabney descendant currently living there is a struggling, dirt-poor fellow who could be a literary cousin of one of the Snopes often resident in Faulkner novels. The law prohibits interring a black man on his property, and he likewise lacks the means to afford to bury him elsewhere. On the surface, “Shadrach” appears to be a simple story, but on closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a very complex one peopled with multidimensional characters and layered with vigorous doses of both comedy and tragedy.
I highly recommend Styron to those who have not yet read him. For the uninitiated, (spoiler alert!) I will close this review with a worthy passage:
“Death ain’t nothin’ to be afraid about,” he blurted in a quick, choked voice … “Life is where you’ve got to be terrified!” he cried as the unplugged rage spilled forth. … Where in the goddamned hell am I goin’ to get the money to put him in the ground? … I ain’t got thirty-five-dollars! I ain’t got twenty-five dollars! I ain’t got five dollars!” … “And one other thing!” He stopped. Then suddenly his fury—or the harsher, wilder part of it—seemed to evaporate, sucked up into the moonlit night with its soft summery cricketing sounds and its scent of warm loam and honeysuckle. For an instant he looked shrunken, runtier than ever, so light and frail that he might blow away like a leaf, and he ran a nervous, trembling hand through his shock of tangled black hair. “I know, I know,” he said in a faint, unsteady voice edged with grief. “Poor old man, he couldn’t help it. He was a decent, pitiful old thing, probably never done anybody the slightest harm. I ain’t got a thing in the world against Shadrach. Poor old man.” …
“And anyway,” Trixie said, touching her husband’s hand, “he died on Dabney ground like he wanted to. Even if he’s got to be put away in a strange graveyard.”
“Well, he won’t know the difference,” said Mr. Dabney. “When you’re dead nobody knows the difference. Death ain’t much.” [p76-78]
NOTE: To learn more about JFK’s Nobel Dinner, check out this outstanding book, which contains a foreword by Rose Styron: Review of: Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito
Africa. My youth largely knew of it only through the distorted lens of racist cartoons peopled with bone-in-their-nose cannibals, B-grade movies showcasing explorers in pith helmets who somehow always managed to stumble into quicksand, and of course Tarzan. It was still even then sometimes referred to as the “Dark Continent,” something that was supposed to mean dangerous and mysterious but also translated, for most of us, into the kind of blackness that was synonymous with race and skin color.
My interest in Africa came via the somewhat circuitous route of my study of the Civil War. The central cause of that conflict was, of course, human chattel slavery, and nearly all the enslaved were descendants of lives stolen from Africa. So, for me, a closer scrutiny of the continent was the logical next step. One of the benefits of a fine personal library is that there are hundreds of volumes sitting on shelves waiting for me to find the moment to find them. Such was the case for Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader, which sat unattended but beckoning for some two decades until a random evening found a finger on the spine and then the cover was open and the book was in my lap. I did not turn back.
With a literary flourish rarely present in nonfiction combined with the ambitious sweep of something like a novel of James Michener, Reader attempts nothing less than the epic as he boldly surveys the history of Africa from the tectonic activities that billions of years ago shaped the continent, to the evolution of the single human species that now populates the globe, to the rise and fall of empires, to colonialism and independence, and finally to the twin witness of the glorious and the horrific in the peaceful dismantling of South African apartheid and the Rwandan genocide. In nearly seven hundred pages of dense but highly readable text, the author succeeds magnificently, identifying the myriad differences in peoples and lifeways and environments while not neglecting the shared themes that then and now much of the continent holds in common.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent, and it hosts by far the largest number of sovereign nations: with the addition of South Sudan in 2011—twelve years after Reader’s book was published—there are now fifty-four, as well as a couple of disputed territories. But nearly all of these states are artificial constructs that are relics of European colonialism, lines on maps once penciled in by elite overlords in distant drawing rooms in places like London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and those maps were heavily influenced by earlier incursions by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Much of the poverty, instability, and often dreadful standards of living in Africa are the vestiges of these artificial borders that mostly ignored prior states, tribes, clans, languages, religions, identities, lifeways. When their colonial masters, who had long raped the land for its resources and the people for their self-esteem, withdrew in the whirlwind decolonization era of 1956-1976—some at the strike of the pen, others at the point of the sword—the exploiters left little of value for nation-building to the exploited beyond the mockery of those boundaries. That of the ancestral that had been lost in the process, had been irrevocably lost. That is one of Reader’s themes. But there is so much more.
The focus is, as it should be, on sub-Saharan Africa; the continent’s northern portion is an extension of the Mediterranean world, marked by the storied legacies of ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the later Arab conquest. And Egypt, then and now, belongs more properly to the Middle East. But most of Africa’s vast geography stretches south of that, along the coasts and deep into the interior. Reader delivers “Big History” at its best, and the sub-Saharan offers up an immense arena for the drama that entails—from the fossil beds that begat Homo habilis in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, to the South African diamond mines that spawned enormous wealth for a few on the backs of the suffering of a multitude, to today’s Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya that we learn is not as we would suppose a remnant of some ancient pristine habitat, but rather a breeding ground for the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that turned once productive land into a place unsuitable for human habitation.
Perhaps the most remarkable theme in Reader’s book is population sustainability and migration. While Africa is the second largest of earth’s continents, it remains vastly underpopulated relative to its size. Given the harsh environment, limited resources, and prevalence of devastating disease, there is strong evidence that it has likely always been this way. Slave-trading was, of course, an example of a kind forced migration, but more typically Africa’s history has long been characterized by a voluntary movement of peoples away from the continent, to the Middle East, to Europe, to all the rest of the world. Migration has always been—and remains today—subject to the dual factors of “push” and “pull,” but the push factor has dominated. That is perhaps the best explanation for what drove the migrations of archaic and anatomically modern humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe. The recently identified 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull in a cave in Greece reminds us that this has been going on a very long time. Homo erectus skulls found in Dmansi, Georgia that date to 1.8 million years old underscore just how long!
Slavery is, not unexpectedly, also a major theme for Reader, largely because of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Africa and how it forever transformed the lifeways of the people directly and indirectly affected by its pernicious hold—culturally, politically and economically. The slavery that was a fact of life on the continent before the arrival of European traders closely resembled its ancient roots; certainly race and skin color had nothing to do with it. As noted, I came to study Africa via the Civil War and antebellum slavery. To this day, a favored logical fallacy advanced by “Lost Cause” apologists for the Confederate slave republic asks rhetorically “But their own people sold them as slaves, didn’t they?” As if this contention—if it was indeed true—would somehow expiate or at least attenuate the sin of enslaving human beings. But is it true? Hardly. Captors of slaves taken in raids or in war by one tribe or one ethnicity would hardly consider them “their own people,” any more than the Vikings that for centuries took Slavs to feed the hungry slave markets of the Arab world would have considered them “their own people.” This is a painful reminder that such notions endure in the mindset of the deeply entrenched racism that still defines modern America—a racism derived from African chattel slavery to begin with. It reflects how outsiders might view Africa, but not how Africans view themselves.
The Atlantic slave trade left a mark on every African who was touched by it as buyer, seller or unfortunate victim. The insatiable thirst for cheap labor to work sugar (and later cotton) plantations in the Americas overnight turned human beings into Africa’s most valuable export. Traditions were trampled. An ever-increasing demand put pressure on delivering supply at any cost. Since Europeans tended to perish in Africa’s hostile environment of climate and disease, a whole new class of “middle-men” came to prominence. Slavery, which dominated trade relations, corrupted all it encountered and left scars from its legacy upon the continent that have yet to fully heal.
This review barely scratches the surface of the range of material Reader covers in this impressive work. It’s a big book, but there is not a wasted page or paragraph, and it neither neglects the diversity nor what is held in common by the land and its peoples. Are there flaws? The included maps are terrible, but for that the publisher should be faulted rather than the author. To compensate, I hung a map of modern Africa on the door of my study and kept a historical atlas as companion to the narrative. Other than that quibble, the author’s achievement is superlative. Rarely have I read something of this size and scope and walked away so impressed, both with how much I learned as well as the learning process itself. If you have any interest in Africa, this book is an essential read. Don’t miss it.
Some years ago, I had the pleasure to stay in a historic cabin on a property in Spotsylvania that still hosts extant Civil War trenches. Those who imagine great armies clad in blue and grey massed against each other with pennants aloft on open fields would not be wrong for the first years of the struggle, but those trenches better reflect the reality of the war as it ground to its slow, bloody conclusion in its final year. Those last months contained some of the greatest drama and most intense suffering of the entire conflict, yet often receive far less attention than deserved. A welcome redress to this neglect is Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by journalist and historian S.C. Gwynne, that neatly marries literature to history and resurrects for us the kind of stirring narratives that once dominated the field.
Looking back, for all too many Civil War buffs it might seem that a certain Fourth of July in 1863—when in the east a battered Lee retreated from Gettysburg on the same day that Vicksburg fell in the west—marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. But experts know that assessment is overdrawn. Certainly, the south had sustained severe body blows on both fronts, but the war yet remained undecided. Like the colonists four score and seven years prior to that day, these rebels did not need to “win” the war, only to avoid losing it. As it was, a full ninety-two weeks—nearly two years—lay ahead until Appomattox, some six hundred forty-six days of bloodshed and uncertainty for both sides, most of what truly mattered compressed into the last twelve months of the war. And, tragically, those trenches played a starring role.
Hymns of the Republic opens in March 1864, when Ulysses Grant—architect of the fall of Vicksburg that was by far the more significant victory on that Independence Day 1863—was brought east and given command of all Union Armies. In the three years since Fort Sumter, the war had not gone well in the east, largely as the result of a series of less-than-competent northern generals who had squandered opportunities and been repeatedly driven to defeat or denied outright victory by the wily tactician, Robert E. Lee. The seat of the Confederacy at Richmond—only a tantalizing ninety-five miles from Washington—lay unmolested, while European powers toyed with the notion of granting them recognition. The strategic narrative in the west was largely reversed, marked by a series of dramatic Union victories crafted by skilled generals, crowned by Grant’s brilliant campaign that saw Vicksburg fall and the Confederacy virtually cut in half. But all eyes had been on the east, to Lincoln’s great frustration. Now events in the west were largely settled, and Lincoln brought Grant east, confident that he had finally found his general who would defeat Lee and end the war. But while Lincoln’s instincts proved sound in the long term, misplaced optimism for an early close to the conflict soon evaporated. More than a year of blood and tears lay ahead.
Much of the battle tactics are a familiar story—Grant Takes Command was the exact title of a Bruce Catton classic—but Gwynne updates the narrative with the benefit of the latest scholarship that not only looks beyond the stereotypes of Grant and Lee, but the very dynamics of more traditional treatments focused solely upon battles and leaders. Most prominently, he resurrects the African Americans that until somewhat recently were for too long conspicuously absent from much Civil War history, buried beneath layers of propaganda spun by unreconstructed Confederates who fashioned an alternate history of the war—the “Lost Cause” myth—that for too long dominated Civil War studies and still stubbornly persists both in right-wing politics and the curricula of some southern school systems to this day. In the process, Gwynne restores the role of African Americans as central players to the struggle who have long been erased from the history books.
Erased. Remarkably, most Americans rarely thought of blacks at all in the context of the war until the film Glory (1989) and Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War (1990) came along. And there are still books—Joseph Wheelan’s Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, published in 2015, springs to mind—that demote these key actors to bit parts. Yet, without enslaved African Americans there would have never been a Civil War. The centrality of slavery to secession has been just as incontrovertibly asserted by the scholarly consensus as it has been vehemently resisted by Lost Cause proponents who would strike out that uncomfortable reference and replace it with the euphemistic “States’ Rights,” neatly obscuring the fact that southern states seceded to champion and perpetuate the right to own dark-complected human beings as chattel property. Social media is replete with concocted fantasies of legions of “Black Confederates,” but the reality is that about a half million African Americans fled to Union lines, and so many enlisted to make war on their former masters that by the end of the war fully ten percent of the Union army was comprised of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Blacks knew what the war was about, and ultimately proved a force to be reckoned with that drove Union victory, even as a deeply racist north often proved less than grateful for their service.
Borrowing a page from the latest scholarship, Gwynne points to the prominence of African Americans throughout the war, but especially in its final months—marked both by remarkable heroism and a trail of tragedy. His story of the final year of the conflict commences with the massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 of hundreds of surrendering federal troops—the bulk of whom were uniformed blacks—by Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The author gives Forrest a bit of a pass here—while the general was himself not on the field, he later bragged about the carnage—but Gwynne rightly puts focus on the long-term consequences, which were manifold.
The Civil War was the rare conflict in history not marred by wide scale atrocities—except towards African Americans. Lee’s allegedly “gallant” forces in the Gettysburg campaign kidnapped blacks they encountered to send south into slavery, and while Fort Pillow might have been the most significant open slaughter of black soldiers by southerners, it was hardly the exception. Confederates were enraged to see blacks garbed in uniform and sporting a rifle, and thus they were frequently murdered once disarmed rather than taken prisoner like their white counterparts. Something like a replay of Fort Pillow occurred at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, although the circumstances were more ambiguous, as the blacks gunned down in what rebels termed a “turkey shoot” were not begging for their lives as at Pillow. This was not far removed from official policy, of course: the Confederate government threatened to execute or sell into slavery captured black soldiers, and refused to consider them for prisoner exchange. This was a critical factor that led to the breakdown of the parole and exchange processes that had served as guiding principles throughout much of the war. The result bred conditions on both sides that led to the horrors of overcrowding and deplorable conditions in places like Georgia’s Andersonville and Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Grant was hardly disappointed with the collapse of prisoner exchange. To his mind, anything that denied the south men or materiel would hasten the end of the war, which was his single-minded pursuit. Grant has long been subjected to calumnies that branded him “Grant the Butcher” because he seemed to throw lives away in hopeless attempts to dislodge a heavily fortified enemy. The most infamous example of this was Cold Harbor, which saw massive Union casualties. But Lee’s tactical victory there—it was to be his last of the war—further depleted his rapidly diminishing supply of men and arms which simply could not be replaced. Grant had a strategic vision that set him apart from the rest. That Lee pushed on as the odds shrunk for any outcome other than ultimate defeat came to beget what Gwynne terms “the Lee paradox: the more the Confederates prolonged the war, the more the Confederacy was destroyed.” [p252] And that destruction was no unintended consequence, but a deliberate component of Grant’s grand strategy to prevent food, munitions, pack animals, and slave labor from supporting the enemy’s war effort. Gwynne finds fault with Sherman’s generalship, but his “march to the sea” certainly achieved what had been intended. And while a northern public divided between those who would make peace with the rebels and those impatient with both Grant and Lincoln for an elusive victory, it was Sherman who delivered Atlanta and ensured the reelection of the president, something much in doubt even in Lincoln’s own mind.
There is far more contained within the covers of this fine work than any review could properly summarize. Much to his credit, the author does not neglect those often marginalized by history, devoting a well-deserved chapter to Clara Barton entitled “Battlefield Angel.” And the very last paragraph of the final chapter settles upon Juneteenth, when—far removed from the now quiet battlefields—the last of the enslaved finally learned they were free. Thus, the narrative ends as it has begun, with African Americans in the central role in the struggle too often denied to them in other accounts. For those well-read in the most recent scholarship, there is little new in Hymns of the Republic, but the general audience will find much to surprise them, if only because a good deal of this material has long been overlooked. Perhaps Gwynne’s greatest achievement is in distilling a grand story from the latest historiography and presenting it as the kind of exciting read Civil War literature is meant to be. I highly recommend it.
I reviewed Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan, here: Review of: Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan
The definitive study of the massacre at Fort Pillow is River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward, which I reviewed here: Review of: River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward
A familiar construct for students of European history is what is known as “The Long Nineteenth Century,” a period bookended by the French Revolution and the start of the Great War. The Great War. That is what it used to be called, before it was diminished by its rechristening as World War I, to distinguish it from the even more horrific conflict that was to follow just two decades hence. It is the latter that in retrospect tends to overshadow the former. Some are even tempted to characterize one as simply a continuation of the other, but that is an oversimplification. There was in fact far more than semantics to that designation of “Great War,” and historians are correct to flag it as a definitive turning point, for by the time it was over Europe’s cherished notions of civilization—for better and for worse—lay in ruins, and her soil hosted not only the scars of vast, abandoned trenches, but the bones of millions who once held the myths those notions turned out to be dear in their heads and their hearts.
The war ended with a stopwatch of sorts. The Armistice that went into effect on November 11, 1918 at 11AM Paris time marked the end of hostilities, a synchronized moment of collective European consciousness it is said all who experienced would recall for as long as they lived. Of course, something like 22 million souls—military and civilian—could not share that moment: they were the dead. Nearly three thousand died that very morning, as fighting continued right up to the final moments when the clock ran out.
What happened next? There is a tendency to fast forward because we know how it ends: the imperfect Peace of Versailles, the impotent League of Nations, economic depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, American isolationism, Hitler invades Poland. In the process, so much is lost. Instead, Daniel Schönpflug artfully slows the pace with his well-written, highly original strain of microhistory, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. The author, an internationally recognized scholar and adjunct professor of history at the Free University of Berlin, blends the careful analytical skills of a historian with a talented pen to turn out one of the finest works in this genre to date.
First, he presses the pause button. That pause—the Armistice—is just a fragment of time, albeit one of great significance. But it is what follows that most concerns Schönpflug, who has a great drama to convey and does so through the voices of an eclectic array of characters from various walks of life across multiple geographies. When the action resumes, alternating and occasionally overlapping vignettes chronicle the postwar years from the unique, often unexpected vantage points of just over two dozen individuals—some very well known, others less so—who were to leave an imprint of larger or smaller consequence upon the changed world they walked upon.
There is Harry S Truman, who regrets that the military glory he aspired to as a boy has eluded him, yet is confident he has acquitted himself well, and cannot wait to return home to marry his sweetheart Bess and—ironically—vows he will never fire another shot as long as he lives. Former pacifist and deeply religious Medal of Honor winner Sergeant Alvin York receives a hero’s welcome Truman could only dream of, but eschews offers of money and fame to return to his backwoods home in Tennessee, where he finds purpose by leveraging his celebrity to bring roads and schools to his community. Another heroic figure is Sergeant Henry Johnson, of the famed 369th Infantry known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who incurred no less than twenty-one combat injuries fending off the enemy while keeping a fellow soldier from capture, but because of his skin color returns to an America where he remains a second-class citizen who does not receive the Medal of Honor he deserves until its posthumous award by President Barack Obama nearly a century later. James Reese Europe, the regimental band leader of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who has been credited with introducing jazz to Europe, also returns home to an ugly twist of fate.
And there’s Käthe Kollwitz, an artist who lost a son in the war and finds herself in the uncertain environment of a defeated Germany engulfed in street battles between Reds and reactionaries, both flanks squeezing the center of a nascent democracy struggling to assert itself in the wake of the Kaiser’s abdication. One of the key members of that tenuous center is Matthias Erzberger, perhaps the most hated man in the country, who had the ill luck to be chosen as the official who formally accedes to Germany’s humiliating terms for Armistice, and as a result wears a target on his back for the rest of his life. At the same time, the former Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm von Preussen, is largely a forgotten figure who waits in exile for a call to destiny that never comes. Meanwhile in Paris, Marshal Ferdinand Foch lobbies for Germany to pay an even harsher price, as journalist Louise Weiss charts a new course for women in publishing and longs to be reunited with her lover, Milan Štefánik, an advocate for Czechoslovak sovereignty.
Others championing independence elsewhere include Nguyễn Tất Thành (later Hồ Chí Minh), polishing plates and politics while working as a dishwasher in Paris; Mohandas Gandhi, who barely survives the Spanish flu and now struggles to hold his followers to a regimen of nonviolent resistance in the face of increasingly violent British repression; T.E. Lawrence, increasingly disillusioned by the failure of the victorious allies to live up to promises of Arab self-determination; and, Terence MacSwiney, who is willing to starve himself to death in the cause of Irish nationhood. No such lofty goals motivate assassin Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who only seeks revenge on the Turks; nor future Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, who emerges from the war an eager and merciless recruit for right-wing paramilitary forces.
There are many more voices, including several from the realms of art, literature, and music such as George Grosz, Virginia Woolf, and Arnold Schönberg. The importance of the postwar evolution of the arts is underscored in quotations and illustrations that head up each chapter. Perhaps the most haunting is Paul Nash’s 1918 oil-on-canvas of a scarred landscape entitled—with a hint of either optimism or sarcasm—We Are Making a New World. All the stories the voices convey are derived from their respective letters, diaries, and memoirs; only in the “Epilogue” does the reader learn that some of those accounts are clearly fabricated.
Many of my favorite characters in A World on Edge are ones that I had never heard of before, such as Moina Michael, who was so inspired by the sacrifice of those who perished in the Great War that she singlehandedly led a campaign to memorialize the dead with the poppy as her chosen emblem for the fallen, an enduring symbol to this very day. But I found no story more gripping than that of Marina Yurlova, a fourteen year old Cossack girl who became a child soldier in the Russian army, was so badly wounded she was hospitalized for a year, then entered combat once more during the ensuing civil war and was wounded again, this time by the Bolsheviks. Upon recovery, Yurlova embarked upon a precarious journey on foot through Siberia that lasted a month before she was able to flee Russia for Japan and eventually settle in the United States, where despite her injuries she became a dancer of some distinction.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I received an advance reader’s edition (ARC) of A World on Edge as part of an early reviewer’s program way back in November 2018, but then let it linger in my to-be-read (TBR) pile until I finally got around to it near the end of June 2020. I loved the book but did not take any notes for later reference. So, by the time I sat down to review it in January 2021, given the size of the cast and the complexity of their stories, I felt there was no way I could do justice to the author and his work without re-reading it—so I did, over just a couple of days! And that is the true beauty of this book: for all its many characters, competing storylines, and what turns out to be multilevel, deeply profound messaging, for something of the grand saga that it is it remains a fast-paced, exciting read. Schönpflug’s technique of employing bit players to recount an epic tale succeeds so masterfully that the reader is hardly aware of what has been happening until the final pages are being turned. This is history, of course, this is indeed nonfiction, but yet the result invites a favorable comparison to great literature, to a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, or to a novel by André Brink. If European history is an interest, A World on Edge is not only a recommended read, but a required one.