Review of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, by Elizabeth A. Fenn
Imagine there’s a virus sweeping across the land claiming untold victims, the agent of the disease poorly understood, the population in terror of an unseen enemy that rages mercilessly through entire communities, leaving in its wake an exponential toll of victims. As this review goes to press amid an alarming spike in new Coronavirus cases, Americans don’t need to stretch their collective imagination very far to envisage that at all. But now look back nearly two and a half centuries and consider an even worse case scenario: a war is on for the existential survival of our fledgling nation, a struggle compromised by mass attrition in the Continental Army due to another kind of virus, and the epidemic it spawns is characterized by symptoms and outcomes that are nothing less than nightmarish by any standard, then or now. For the culprit then was smallpox, one of the most dread diseases in human history.
This nearly forgotten chapter in America’s past left a deep impact on the course of the Revolution that has been long overshadowed by outsize events in the War of Independence and the birth of the Republic. This neglect has been masterfully redressed by Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, a brilliantly conceived and extremely well-written account by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Elizabeth A. Fenn. One of the advantages of having a fine personal library in your home is the delight of going to a random shelf and plucking off an edition that almost perfectly suits your current interests, a volume that has been sitting there unread for years or even decades, just waiting for your fingertips to locate it. Such was the case with my signed first edition of Pox Americana, a used bookstore find that turned out to be a serendipitous companion to my self-quarantine for Coronavirus, the great pandemic of our times.
As horrific as COVID-19 has been for us—as of this morning we are up to one hundred thirty four thousand deaths and three million cases in the United States, a significant portion of the more than half million dead and nearly twelve million cases worldwide—smallpox, known as “Variola,” was far, far worse. In fact, almost unimaginably worse. Not only was it more than three times more contagious than Coronavirus, but rather than a mortality rate that ranges in the low single digits with COVID (the verdict’s not yet in), variola on average claimed an astonishing thirty percent of its victims, who often suffered horribly in the course of the illness and into their death throes, while survivors were frequently left disfigured by extensive scarring, and many were left blind. Smallpox has a long history that dates back to at least the third century BCE, as evidenced in Egyptian mummies. There were reportedly still fifteen million cases a year as late as 1967. In between it claimed untold hundreds of millions of lives over the years—some three hundred million in the twentieth century alone—until its ultimate eradication in 1980. There is perhaps some tragic irony that we are beset by Coronavirus on the fortieth anniversary of that milestone …
I typically eschew long excerpts for reviews, but Variola was so horrifying and Fenn writes so well that I believe it would be a disservice to do other than let her describe it here:
Headache, backache, fever, vomiting, and general malaise all are among the initial signs of infection. The headache can be splitting; the backache, excruciating … The fever usually abates after the first day or two … But … relief is fleeting. By the fourth day … the fever creeps upward again, and the first smallpox sores appear in the mouth, throat, and nasal passages …The rash now moves quickly. Over a twenty-four-hour period, it extends itself from the mucous membranes to the surface of the skin. On some, it turns inward, hemorrhaging subcutaneously. These victims die early, bleeding from the gums, eyes, nose, and other orifices. In most cases, however, the rash turns outward, covering the victim in raised pustules that concentrate in precisely the places where they will cause the most physical pain and psychological anguish: The soles of the feet, the palms of the hands, the face, forearms, neck, and back are focal points of the eruption … If the pustules remain discrete—if they do not run together— the prognosis is good. But if they converge upon one another in a single oozing mass, it is not. This is called confluent smallpox … For some, as the rash progresses in the mouth and throat, drinking becomes difficult, and dehydration follows. Often, an odor peculiar to smallpox develops… Patients at this stage of the disease can be hard to recognize. If damage to the eyes occurs, it begins now … Scabs start to form after two weeks of suffering … In confluent or semiconfluent cases of the disease, scabbing can encrust most of the body, making any movement excruciating … [One observation of such afflicted Native Americans noted that] “They lye on their hard matts, the poxe breaking and mattering, and runing one into another, their skin cleaving … to the matts they lye on; when they turne them, a whole side will flea of[f] at once.” … Death, when it occurs, usually comes after ten to sixteen days of suffering. Thereafter, the risk drops significantly … and unsightly scars replace scabs and pustules … the usual course of the disease—from initial infection to the loss of all scabs—runs a little over a month. Patients remain contagious until the last scab falls off … Most survivors bear … numerous scars, and some are blinded. But despite the consequences, those who live through the illness can count themselves fortunate. Immune for life, they need never fear smallpox again. [p16-20]
Smallpox was an unfortunate component of the siege of Boston by the British in 1775, but—as Fenn explains—it was far worse for Bostonians than the Redcoats besieging them. This was because smallpox was a fact of life in eighteenth century Europe—a series of outbreaks left about four hundred thousand people dead every year, and about a third of the survivors were blinded. As awful as that may seem, it meant that the vast majority of British soldiers had been exposed to the virus and were thus immune. Not so for the colonists, who not only had experienced less outbreaks but frequently lived in more rural settings at a greater distance from one another, which slowed exposure, leaving a far smaller quantity of those who could count on immunity to spare them. Nothing fuels the spread of a pestilence better than a crowded bottlenecked urban environment—such as Boston in 1775—except perhaps great encampments of susceptible men from disparate geographies suddenly crammed together, as was characteristic of the nascent Continental Army. To make matters worse, there was some credible evidence that the Brits at times engaged in a kind of embryonic biological warfare by deliberately sending known infected individuals back to the Colonial lines. All of this conspired to form a perfect storm for disaster.
Our late eighteenth-century forebears had a couple of things going for them that we lack today. First of all, while it was true that like COVID there was no cure for smallpox, there were ways to mitigate the spread and the severity that were far more effective than our masks and social distancing—or misguided calls to ingest hydroxychloroquine, for that matter. Instead, their otherwise primitive medical toolkit did contain inoculation, an ancient technique that had only become known to the west in relatively recent times. Now, it is important to emphasize that inoculation—also known as “variolation”—is not comparable to vaccination, which did not come along until closer to the end of the century. Not for the squeamish, variolation instead involved deliberately inserting the live smallpox virus from scabs or pustules into superficial incisions in a healthy subject’s arm. The result was an actual case of smallpox, but generally a much milder one than if contracted from another infected person. Recovered, the survivor would walk away with permanent immunity. The downside was that some did not survive, and all remained contagious for the full course of the disease. This meant that the inoculated also had to be quarantined, no easy task in an army camp, for example.
The other thing they had going for them back then was a competent leader who took epidemics and how to contain them quite seriously—none other than George Washington himself. Washington was not president at the time, of course, but he was the commander of the Continental Army, and perhaps the most prominent man in the rebellious colonies. Like many of history’s notable figures, Washington was not only gifted with qualities such as courage, intelligence, and good sense, but also luck. In this case, Washington’s good fortune was to contract—and survive—smallpox as a young man, granting him immunity. But it was likewise the good fortune of the emerging new nation to have Washington in command. Initially reluctant to advance inoculation—not because he doubted the science but rather because he feared it might accelerate the spread of smallpox—he soon concluded that only a systematic program of variolation could save the army, and the Revolution! Washington’s other gifts—for organization and discipline—set in motion mass inoculations and enforced isolation of those affected. Absent this effort, it is likely that the War of Independence—ever a long shot—may not have succeeded.
Fenn argues convincingly that the course of the war was significantly affected by Variola in several arenas, most prominently in its savaging of Continental forces during the disastrous invasion of Quebec, which culminated in Benedict Arnold’s battered forces being driven back to Fort Ticonderoga. And in the southern theater, enslaved blacks flocked to British lines, drawn by enticements to freedom, only to fall victim en masse to smallpox, and then tragically find themselves largely abandoned to suffering and death as the Brits retreated. There is a good deal more of this stuff, and many students of the American Revolution will find themselves wondering—as I did—why this fascinating perspective is so conspicuously absent in most treatments of this era?
Remarkably, despite the bounty of material, emphasis on the Revolution only occupies the first third of the book, leaving far more to explore as the virus travels to the west and southwest, and then on to Mexico, as well as to the Pacific northwest. As Fenn reminds us again and again, smallpox comes from where smallpox has been, and she painstakingly tracks hypothetical routes of the epidemic. Tragic bystanders in its path were frequently Native Americans, who typically manifested more severe symptoms and experienced greater rates of mortality. It has been estimated that perhaps ninety percent of pre-contact indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were exterminated by exposure to European diseases for which they had no immunity, and smallpox was one of the great vehicles of that annihilation. Variola proved to be especially lethal as a “virgin soil” epidemic, and Native Americans not unexpectedly suffered far greater casualties than other populations, resulting in death on such a wide scale that entire tribes simply disappeared to history.
No review can properly capture all the ground that Fenn covers in this outstanding book, nor praise her achievement adequately. It is especially rare when a historian combines a highly original thesis with exhaustive research, keen analysis, and exceptional talent with a pen to deliver a magnificent work such as Pox Americana. And perhaps never has there been a moment when this book could find a greater relevance to readers than to Americans in 2020.
If you have studied evolution inside or outside of the classroom, you have no doubt encountered the figure of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the discredited notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics attributed to him known as “Lamarckism.” This has most famously been represented in the example of giraffes straining to reach fruit on ever-higher branches, which results in the development of longer necks over succeeding generations. Never mind that Lamarck did not develop this concept—and while he echoed it, it remained only a tiny part of the greater body of his work—he was yet doomed to have it unfortunately cling to his legacy ever since. This is most regrettable, because Lamarck—who died three decades before Charles Darwin shook the spiritual and scientific world with his 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species—was actually a true pioneer in the field of evolutionary biology that recognized there were forces at work that put organisms on an ineluctable road to greater complexity. It was Darwin who identified this force as “natural selection,” and Lamarck was not only denied credit for his contributions to the field, but otherwise maligned and ridiculed.
But even if he did not invent the idea, what if Lamarck was right all along to believe, at least in part, that acquired characteristics can be passed along transgenerationally after all—perhaps not on the kind of macro scale manifested by giraffe necks, but in other more subtle yet no less critical components to the principles of evolution? That is the subject of Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present, by the noted paleontologist Peter Ward. The book’s cover naturally showcases a series of illustrated giraffes with ever-lengthening necks! Ward is an enthusiast for the relatively new, still developing—and controversial—science of epigenetics, which advances the hypothesis that certain circumstances can trigger markers that can be transmitted from parent to child by changing the gene expression without altering the primary structure of the DNA itself. Let’s imagine a Holocaust survivor, for instance: can the trauma of Auschwitz cut so deep that the devastating psychological impact of that horrific experience will be passed on to his children, and his children’s children?
This is heady stuff, of course. We should pause for the uninitiated and explain the nature of Darwinian natural selection—the key mechanism of the Theory of Evolution—in its simplest terms. The key to survival for all organizations is adaptation. Random mutations occur over time, and if one of those mutations turns out to be better adapted to the environment, it is more likely to reproduce and thus pass along its genes to its offspring. Over time, through “gradualism,” this can lead to the rise of new species. Complexity breeds complexity, and that is the road traveled by all organisms that has led from the simplest prokaryote unicellular organism—the 3.5-billion-year-old photosynthetic cyanobacteria—to modern homo sapiens sapiens. This is, of course, a very, very long game; so long in fact that Darwin—who lived in a time when the age of the earth was vastly underestimated—fretted that there was not enough time for evolution as he envisioned it to occur. Advances in geology later determined that the earth was about 4.5 billion years old, which solved that problem, but still left other aspects of evolution unexplained by gradualism alone. The brilliant Stephen Jay Gould (along with Niles Eldredge) came along in 1972 and proposed that rather than gradualism most evolution more likely occurred through what he called “punctuated equilibrium,” often triggered by a catastrophic change in the environment. Debate has raged ever since, but it may well be that evolution is guided by forces of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. But could there still be other forces at work?
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance represents another so-called force and is at the cutting edge of research in evolutionary biology today. But has the hypothesis of epigenetics been demonstrated to be truly plausible? And the answer to that is—maybe. In other words, there does seem to be studies that support transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, most famously—as detailed in Lamarck’s Revenge—in what has been dubbed the “Dutch Hunger Winter Syndrome,” that saw children born during a famine smaller than those born before the famine, and with a later, greater risk of glucose intolerance, conditions then passed down to successive generations. On the other hand, the evidence for epigenetics has not been as firmly established as some proponents, such as Ward, might have us believe.
Lamarck’s Revenge is a very well-written and accessible scientific account of epigenetics for a popular audience, and while I have read enough evolutionary science to follow Ward’s arguments with some competence, I remain a layperson who can hardly endorse or counter his claims. The body of the narrative is comprised of Ward’s repeated examples of what he identifies as holes in traditional evolutionary biology that can only be explained by epigenetics. Is he right? I simply lack the expertise to say. I should note that I received this book as part of an “Early Reviewers” program, so I felt a responsibility to read it cover-to-cover, although my own interest lapsed as it moved beyond my own depth in the realm of evolutionary biology.
I should note that this is all breaking news, and as we appraise it we should be mindful of how those on the fringes of evangelicalism, categorically opposed to the science of human evolution, will cling to any debate over mechanisms in natural selection to proclaim it all a sham sponsored by Satan—who has littered the earth with fossils to deceive us—to challenge the truth of the “Garden of Eden” related in the Book of Genesis. Once dubbed “Creationists,” they have since rebranded themselves in association with the pseudoscience of so-called “Intelligent Design,” which somehow remains part of the curriculum at select accredited universities. Science is self-correcting. These folks are not, so don’t ever let yourself be distracted by their fictional supernatural narrative. Evolution—whether through gradualism and/or punctuated equilibrium and/or epigenetics—remains central to both modern biology and modern medicine, and that is not the least bit controversial among scientific professionals. But if you want to find out more about the implications of epigenetics for human evolution, then I recommend that you pick up Lamarck’s Revenge and challenge yourself to learn more!
Note: While you are at it, if you want to learn more about 3.5-billion-year-old photosynthetic cyanobacteria, I highly recommend this:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson wrote those very words and sketched out the obelisk they would be carved upon. For those who have studied him, that he not only composed his own epitaph but designed his own grave marker was—as we would say in contemporary parlance—just “so Jefferson.” His long life was marked by a catalog of achievements; these were intended to represent his proudest accomplishments. Much remarked upon is the conspicuous absence of his unhappy tenure as third President of the United States. Less noted is the omission of his time as Governor of Virginia during the Revolution, marred by his humiliating flight from Monticello just minutes ahead of British cavalry. Of the three that did make the final cut, his role as author of the Declaration has been much examined. The Virginia statute—seen as the critical antecedent to First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty—gets less press, but only because it is subsumed in a wider discussion of the Bill of Rights. But who really talks about Jefferson’s role as founder of the University of Virginia?
That is the ostensible focus of Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor, perhaps the foremost living historian of the early Republic. But in this extremely well-written and insightful analysis, Taylor casts a much wider net that ensnares a tangle of competing themes that not only traces the sometimes-fumbling transition of Virginia from colony to state, but speaks to underlying vulnerabilities in economic and political philosophy that were to extend well beyond its borders to the southern portion of the new nation. Some of these elements were to have consequences that echoed down to the Civil War; indeed, still echo to the present day.
Students of the American Civil War are often struck by the paradox of Virginia. How was it possible that this colony—so central to the Revolution and the founding of the Republic, the most populous and prominent, a place that boasted notable thinkers like Jefferson, Madison and Marshall, that indeed was home to four of the first five presidents of the new United States—could find itself on the eve of secession such a regressive backwater, soon doomed to serve as the capitol of the Confederacy? It turns out that the sweet waters of the Commonwealth were increasingly poisoned by the institution of human chattel slavery, once decried by its greatest intellects, then declared indispensable, finally deemed righteous. This tragedy has been well-documented in Susan Dunn’s superlative Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, as well as Alan Taylor’s own Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832. What came to be euphemistically termed the “peculiar institution” polluted everything in its orbit, often invisibly except to the trained eye of the historian. This included, of course, higher education.
If the raison d’être of the Old Dominion was to protect and promote the interests of the wealthy planter elite that sat atop the pyramid of a slave society, then really how important was it for the scions of Virginia gentlemen to be educated beyond the rudimentary levels required to manage a plantation and move in polite society? And after all, wasn’t the “honor” of the up-and-coming young “masters” of far greater consequence than the aptitude to discourse in matters of rhetoric, logic or ethics? In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Taylor takes us back to the nearly forgotten era of a colonial Virginia when the capitol was located in “Tidewater” Williamsburg and rowdy students—wealthy, spoiled sons of the planter aristocracy with an inflated sense of honor—clashed with professors at the prestigious College of William & Mary who dared to attempt to impose discipline upon their bad behavior. A few short years later, Williamsburg was in shambles, a near ghost town, badly mauled by the British during the Revolution, the capitol relocated north to “Piedmont” Richmond, William & Mary in steep decline. Thomas Jefferson’s determination over more than two decades to replace it with a secular institution devoted to the liberal arts that welcomed all white men, regardless of economic status, is the subject of this book. How he realized his dream with the foundation of the University of Virginia in the very sunset of his life, as well as the spectacular failure of that institution to turn out as he envisioned it is the wickedly ironic element in the title of Thomas Jefferson’s Education.
The author is at his best when he reveals the unintended consequences of history. In his landmark study, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor underscores how American Independence—rightly heralded elsewhere as the dawn of representative democracy for the modern West—was at the same time to prove catastrophic for Native Americans and African Americans, whose fate would likely have been far more favorable had the colonies remained wedded to a British Crown that drew a line for westward expansion at the Appalachians, and later came to abolish slavery throughout the empire. Likewise, there is the example of how the efforts of Jefferson and Madison—lauded for shaking off the vestiges of feudalism for the new nation by putting an end to institutions of primogeniture and entail that had formerly kept estates intact—expanded the rights of white Virginians while dooming countless numbers of the enslaved to be sold to distant geographies and forever separated from their families.
In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, the disestablishment of religion is the focal point for another unintended consequence. For Jefferson, an established church was anathema, and stripping the Anglican Church of its preferred status was central to his “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” that was later enshrined in the First Amendment. But it turns out that religion and education were intertwined in colonial Virginia’s most prominent institution of higher learning, Williamsburg’s College of William & Mary, funded by the House of Burgesses, where professors were typically ordained Anglican clergymen. Moreover, tracts of land known as “glebes” that were formerly distributed by the colonial government for Anglican (later Episcopal) church rectors to farm or rent, came under assault by evangelical churches allied with secular forces after the Revolution in a movement that eventually was to result in confiscation. This put many local parishes—once both critical sponsors of education and poor relief—into a death spiral that begat still more unintended consequences that in some ways still resonate to the present-day politics and culture of the American south. As Taylor notes:
The move against church establishment decisively shifted public finance for Virginia. Prior to the revolution, the parish tax had been the greatest single tax levied on Virginians; its elimination cut the local tax burden by two thirds. Poor relief suffered as the new County overseers spent less per capita than had the old vestries. After 1790, per capita taxes, paid by free men in Virginia, were only a third of those in Massachusetts. Compared to northern states, Virginia favored individual autonomy over community obligation. Jefferson had hoped that Virginians would reinvest their tax savings from disestablishment by funding the public system of education for white children. Instead county elites decided to keep the money in their pockets and pose as champions of individual liberty. [p57-58]
For Jefferson, a creature of the Enlightenment, the sins of medievalism inherent to institutionalized religion were glaringly apparent, yet he was blinded to the positive contributions it could provide for the community. Jefferson also frequently perceived his own good intentions in the eyes of others who simply did not share them because they were either selfish or indifferent. Jefferson seemed to genuinely believe that an emphasis on individual liberty would in itself foster the public good, when in reality—then and now—many take such liberty as the license to simply advance their own interests. For all his brilliance, Jefferson was too often naïve when it came to the character of his countrymen.
Once near-universally revered, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson often triggers ambivalence for a modern audience and poses a singular challenge for historical analysis. A central Founder, Jefferson’s bold claim in the Declaration “that all men are created equal” defined both the struggle with Britain and the notion of “liberty” that not only came to characterize the Republic that eventually emerged, but gave echo with a deafening resonance to the French Revolution—and far beyond to legions of the oppressed yearning for the universal equality that Jefferson had asserted was their due. At the same time, over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned hundreds of human beings as chattel property. One of the enslaved almost certainly served as concubine to bear him several offspring who were also enslaved, and she almost certainly was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.
The once popular view that imagined that Jefferson did not intend to include African Americans in his definition of “all men” has been clearly refuted by historians. And Jefferson, like many of his elite peers of the Founding generation—Madison, Monroe, and Henry—decried the immorality of slavery as institution while consenting to its persistence, to their own profit. Most came to find grounds to justify it, but not Jefferson: the younger Jefferson cautiously advocated for abolition, while the older Jefferson made excuses for why it could not be achieved in his lifetime—made manifest in his much quoted “wolf by the ear” remark—but he never stopped believing it an existential wrong. As Joseph Ellis underscored in his superb study, American Sphinx, Jefferson frequently held more than one competing and contradictory view in his head simultaneously and was somehow immune to the cognitive dissonance such paradox might provoke in others.
It is what makes Jefferson such a fascinating study, not only because he was such a consequential figure for his time, but because the Republic then and now remains a creature of habitually irreconcilable contradictions remarkably emblematic of this man, one of its creators, who has carved out a symbolism that varies considerably from one audience to another. Jefferson, more than any of the other Founders, was responsible for the enduring national schizophrenia that pits federalism against localism, a central economic engine against entrepreneurialism, and the well-being of a community against personal liberties that would let you do as you please. Other elements have been, if not resolved, forced to the background, such as the industrial vs. the agricultural, and the military vs. the militia. Of course, slavery has been abolished, civil rights tentatively obtained, but the shadow of inequality stubbornly lingers, forced once more to the forefront by the murder of George Floyd; I myself participated in a “Black Lives Matter” protest on the day before this review was completed.
Perhaps much overlooked in the discussion but no less essential is the role of education in a democratic republic. Here too, Jefferson had much to offer and much to pass down to us, even if most of us have forgotten that it was his soft-spoken voice that pronounced it indispensable for the proper governance of both the state of Virginia and the new nation. That his ambition extended only to white, male universal education that excluded blacks and women naturally strikes us as shortsighted, even repugnant, but should not erase the fact that even this was a radical notion in its time. Rather than disparage Jefferson, who died two centuries ago, we should perhaps condemn the inequality in education that persists in America today, where a tradition of community schools funded by property taxes meant that my experience growing up in a white, middle class suburb in Fairfield, CT translated into an educational experience vastly superior to that of the people of color who attended the ancient crumbling edifices in the decaying urban environment of Bridgeport less than three miles from my home. How can we talk about “Black Lives Matter” without talking about that?
The granite obelisk that marked Jefferson’s final resting place was chipped away at by souvenir hunters until it was relocated in order to preserve it. A joint resolution of Congress funded the replacement, erected in 1883, that visitors now encounter at Monticello. The original obelisk now incongruously sits in a quadrangle at the University of Missouri, perhaps as far removed from Jefferson’s grave as today’s diverse, co-ed institution of UVA at Charlottesville is at a distance from the both the university he founded and the one he envisioned. We have to wonder if Jefferson would be more surprised to learn that African Americans are enrolled at UVA—or that in 2020 they only comprise less than seven percent of the undergraduate population? And what would he make of the white supremacists who rallied at Charlottesville in 2017 and those who stood against them? I suspect a resurrected Jefferson would be no less enigmatic than the one who walked the earth so long ago.
Alan Taylor has written a number of outstanding works—I’ve read five of them—and he has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for History. He is also, incidentally, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, so Thomas Jefferson’s Education is not only an exceptional contribution to the historiography but no doubt a project dear to his heart. While I continue to admire Jefferson even as I acknowledge his many flaws, I cannot help wondering how Taylor—who has so carefully scrutinized him—personally feels about Thomas Jefferson. I recall that in the afterword to his magnificent historical novel, Burr, Gore Vidal admits: “All in all, I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does …” If someone puts Alan Taylor on the spot, I suppose that could be as good an answer as any …
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here:
Review of Imagine John Yoko, by John & Yoko Lennon
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum could very well be the Latin phrase most familiar to a majority of Americans. Roughly translated as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” it has been emblazoned on tee shirts and coffee mugs, trotted out as bumper sticker and email signature, and—most prominently—has become an iconic feminist rallying cry for women. That this famous slogan is not really Latin or any language at all, but instead a kind of schoolkid’s “mock Latin,” speaks to the colossal cultural impact of the novel where it first made its appearance in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, as well as the media then spawned, including the 1990 film featuring Natasha Richardson, and the acclaimed series still streaming on Hulu. Consult any random critic’s list of the finest examples in the literary sub-genre “dystopian novels,” and you will likely find The Handmaid’s Tale in the top five, along with such other classic masterpieces as Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is no small achievement for Atwood.
For anyone who has not been locked in a box for decades, The Handmaid’s Tale relates the chilling story of the not-too-distant-future nation of “Gilead,” a remnant of a fractured United States that has become a totalitarian theonomy that demands absolute obedience to divine law, especially the harsh strictures of the Old Testament. A crisis in fertility has led to elite couples relying on semi-enslaved “handmaids” who serve as surrogates to be impregnated and carry babies to term for them, which includes a bizarre ritual where the handmaid lies in the embrace of the barren wife while being penetrated by the “Commander.” The protagonist is known as “Offred”—or “Of Fred,” the name of this Commander—but once upon a time, before the overthrow of the U.S., she was an independent woman, a wife, a mother. It is Offred who one day happens upon Nolite te bastardes carborundorum scratched upon the wooden floor on her closet, presumably by the anonymous handmaid who preceded her.
Brilliantly structured as a kind of literary echo of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, employing Biblical imagery—the eponymous “handmaid” based upon the Old Testament account of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah—and magnificently imagining a horrific near-future of a male-dominated society where all women are garbed in color-coded clothing to reflect their strictly assigned subservient roles, Atwood’s narrative achieves the almost impossible feat of imbuing what might otherwise smack of the fantastic with the highly persuasive badge of the authentic.
The 1990 film adaptation—which also starred Robert Duvall as the Commander and Faye Dunaway as his infertile wife Serena Joy—was largely faithful to the novel, while further fleshing out the character of Offred. But it is has been the Hulu series, updated to reflect a near-contemporary pre-Gilead America replete with cell phones and technology—and soon to beget (pun fully intended!) a fourth season—which both embellished and enriched Atwood’s creation for a new generation and a far wider audience. And it has enjoyed broad resonance, at least partially due to its debut in early 2017, just months after the presidential election. The coalition of right-wing evangelicals, white supremacists, and neofascists that has come to coalesce around the Republican Party in the Age of Trump has not only brought new relevance to The Handmaid’s Tale, but has also seen its scarlet handmaid’s cloaks adopted by many women as the de rigueur uniform of protest in the era of “Me Too.” Meanwhile, the series—which is distinguished by an outstanding cast of fine ensemble actors, headlined by Elisabeth Moss as Offred—has proved enduringly terrifying for three full seasons, while largely maintaining its authenticity.
Re-enter Margaret Atwood with The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, released thirty-four years after the original novel. As a fan of both the book and the series, I looked forward to reading it, though my anticipation was tempered by a degree of trepidation based upon my time-honored conviction that sequels are ill-advised and should generally be avoided. (If Godfather II was the rare exception in film, Thomas Berger’s The Return of Little Big Man certainly proved the rule for literature!) Complicating matters, Atwood penned a sequel not to her own novel, but rather to the Hulu series, which brought back memories of Michael Crichton’s awkward The Lost World, written as a follow-up to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie rather than his own book.
My fears were not misplaced.
The action in The Testaments takes place in both Gilead and in Atwood’s native Canada, which remains a bastion of freedom and democracy for those who can escape north. The timeframe is roughly fifteen years after the conclusion of Hulu’s Season Three. The narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of three separate protagonists, one of whom is Aunt Lydia, the outsize brown-clad villain of book and film known for both efficiency and brutality in her role as a “trainer” of handmaids. Aunt Lydia turns out to have both a surprising pre-Gilead backstory as well as a secret life as an “Aunt,” although there are no hints of these in any previous works. Still, I found the Lydia portion of the book most interesting, and perhaps the more plausible in a storyline that often flirts with the farfetched.
In order to sidestep spoilers, I cannot say much about the identities of the other two main characters, who are each subject to surprise “reveals” in the narrative—except that I personally was less surprised than was clearly intended. Oh yes, I get it: the butler did it … but I still have hundreds of pages ahead of me. But that was not the worst of it.
The beauty of the original novel and the series has remained a remarkably consistent authenticity, despite an extraordinary futuristic landscape. The test of all fiction—but most especially in science-fiction, fantasy, and the dystopian—is: can you successfully suspend disbelief? For me, The Testaments fails this test again and again, most prominently when one of our “unrevealed” characters—an otherwise ordinary teenage girl—is put through something like a “light” version of La Femme Nikita training, and then in short order trades high school for a dangerous undercover mission without missing a beat! Moreover, her character is not well-drawn, and the words put in her mouth ring counterfeit. It seems evident that the eighty-year-old Atwood does not know very many sixteen-year-old girls, and culturally this one acts and sounds like she was raised thirty years ago and then catapulted decades into the future. Overall, the plot is contrived, the action inauthentic, the characters artificial.
This is certainly not vintage Atwood, although some may try to spin it that way. The Handmaid’s Tale was not a one-hit wonder: Atwood is a prolific, accomplished author and I have read other works—including The Penelopiad and The Year of the Flood—that underscore her reputation as a literary master. But not this time. In my disappointment, I was reminded of my experience with Khaled Hosseini, whose The Kite Runner was a superlative novel that showcased a panoply of complex themes and nuanced characters that remained with me long after I closed the cover. That was followed by A Thousand Splendid Suns, which though a bestseller was dramatically substandard to his earlier work, peopled with nearly one-dimensional caricatures assigned to be “good” or “evil” navigating a plot that smacked more of soap-opera than subtlety.
The Testaments too has proved a runaway bestseller, but it is the critical acclaim that I find most astonishing, even scoring the highly prestigious 2019 Booker Award—though I can’t bear to think of it sitting on the same shelf alongside … say … Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took the title in 2014. It is tough for me to review a novel so well-received that I find so weak and inconsequential, especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the author’s catalog. I keep holding out hope that someone else might take notice that the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes, but the bottom line is that lots of people loved this book; I did not.
On the other hand, a close friend countered that fiction, like music, is highly subjective. But I take some issue with that. Perhaps you personally might not have enjoyed Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, for that matter, but you cannot make the case that these are bad books. I would argue that The Testaments is a pretty bad book, and I would not recommend it. But here, it seems, I remain a lone voice in the literary wilderness.
DISCLAIMER: The review that follows and the book that is its subject each include a fact-based timeline, political polemic, and inflammatory language, some or all of which may be highly offensive to certain individuals, especially those who identify with the MAGA movement or abjure critical thinking. If you or someone you care about fits that description, is highly sensitive, or is unable to handle views that contradict your political narrative, you are urged to stop reading now and put this review aside. Those who proceed further do so at their own risk, and this reviewer will hold himself blameless for any fits of rage, dangerous increases in blood pressure, or Rumpelstiltskin-like attempts to stomp the ground so hard that the reader sinks into a chasm, that may result from continuing beyond this point …
President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader. It’s not just that the special counsel looms large. Or that the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump’s leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hellbent on his downfall. The dilemma—which he does not fully grasp—is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them.
That is the opening excerpt from an Op-Ed entitled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” published in the New York Times on September 5, 2018, along with this note from the editors: “The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.”
The Op-Ed was written on the eve of the mid-term elections, before the release of the Mueller report, the murder of Khashoggi, the shutdown of the Trump Foundation for what was described as “a shocking pattern of illegality,” the expulsion of most remaining adults-in-the-room including Mattis and Kelly and Rosenstein, the “perfect call” with Volodymyr Zelensky that led to impeachment—which was just one shocking by-product of an erratic foreign policy of appeasement to Putin, ongoing saber-rattling with the Ayatollah and kissy-face with Kim Jung-un, the granting of dispensation to Mohammed bin Salman, and the green-lighting of Erdoğan to take out our Kurdish allies in Syria, not to mention the continuing crisis at home of kids in cages, and the ousting of any civil servant who dared contradict the President with a fact-based narrative. And there was so very much more that it is truly a blur. In September 2019, Trump doctored a map with a Sharpie and flashed it on television to prove he was right all along about the path of Hurricane Dorian. In October 2019, the President of the United States actually expressed interest in constructing an electrified moat filled with alligators along the Mexican border and shooting migrants in the legs to slow them down! Who even remembers that now?
Shortly after the moat full of alligators rose to a brief crest in the 24 hour cable news cycle and then sank beneath the weight of the tide of whatever was next that no one can really recall anymore, while we collectively held our breaths for the next wave of … well, who knows what? … A Warning, by Anonymous—the same “senior Trump administration official” who was author of that NYT editorial—was published. A Warning set a record for preorders and made the bestseller list, and while the staggering revelations by a senior insider that it contains would have no doubt thrust any other administration into a tailspin so severe that it could never have recovered, this book—much like the misadventures it chronicles—is essentially as forgotten to an overwhelmed amnesiac public as the moat full of alligators. The notion that “nothing matters” has become such a cliché precisely because—as the subsequent impeachment acquittal underscored—when it comes to Trump, nothing truly does matter anymore. Or really ever has.
The thesis of A Warning—which picks up where the author’s editorial left off—is that 1) all hyperbole on left-leaning media aside, President Trump really is as he appears to the non-brainwashed observer: an unhinged, irrational, narcissistic, incompetent clown who left to his own devices would no doubt steer the clown car with all of us aboard right into the abyss; and 2) if not for the valiant efforts of the author and his or her furtive cohorts, working ceaselessly behind the scenes to curtail Trump’s most dangerous instincts, we would likely already be acquainted with said abyss. “Anonymous” claims that he/she is generally supportive of the administration’s conservative right-wing agenda, but fears what the President’s unbalanced behavior could bring. While Trump rambles on paranoiacally about the so-called imaginary “Deep State” plotting to undermine him, the author of A Warning refutes the notion of said “Deep State” while emphasizing what he/she terms the “Steady State,” an unidentified alliance at the top tier of “glorified government babysitters” who quietly strive to “keep the wheels from coming off the White House wagon.”
But apparently the axle nuts are getting looser every day, and those wheels are about to let go, as underscored in the very first chapter, aptly entitled “Collapse of the Steady State,” where the author admits that:
I was wrong about the “quiet resistance” inside the Trump Administration. Unelected bureaucrats and cabinet appointees were never going to steer Donald Trump in the right direction in the long run, or refine his malignant management style. He is who he is. Americans should not take comfort in knowing whether there are so-called adults in the room. We are not bulwarks against the president and shouldn’t be counted upon to keep him in check. That is not our job. That is the job of the voters …
If the original editorial was an attempt to reassure us that while the President was often indeed as mindlessly dangerous as a runaway bull amok in the national china shop, there was yet a significant presence of others sane and rational to rein him in before too much of value was irreparably wrecked, A Warning goes much further, urging a broad coalition to defeat him in 2020, especially targeting those in the right lane who otherwise cheer the lower taxes, frantic deregulation, and the ascent of ultraconservative Supreme Court justices that have been a byproduct of Trumpism. But does such a cohort actually exist?
For Trump and a polarized America in 2020, there are essentially four audiences to play to: 1) Donald Trump represents an existential threat to our values of freedom and democracy in our sacred Republic; 2) Donald Trump is a savior for America sent by the almighty God to restore our sacrosanct traditional values and lock up anyone who would even think about having an abortion; 3) Donald Trump is an absolutely offensive buffoon—of course—but the economy has been supercharged so why don’t they just let him do his job?; and, 4) Donald Trump is the same as Joe Biden, and if Bernie Sanders was President we’d all have free college and healthcare and everything else and if you don’t agree you should just die. A Warning makes a compelling argument, but I don’t see it changing anyone’s mind. Either the Emperor is wearing those new clothes or he isn’t.
Each chapter of A Warning is headed by a quotation from a former president—Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, Reagan, etc.—that speaks to an aspect of government or the character of its leadership. What then follows are accounts of Trump’s resistance to expertise, paranoid ramblings, irrational behavior, and “malignant management style” that clearly stand as counterpoints to these ideals. At one point, the author reveals that: “Behind closed doors his own top officials deride him as an “idiot” and a “moron” with the understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader.” [p63] This excerpt that describes briefings with the President is a bit longish but perhaps most illustrative:
Early on, briefers were told not to send lengthy documents. Trump wouldn’t read them. Nor should they bring summaries to the Oval Office. If they must bring paper, then PowerPoint was preferred because he is a visual learner. Okay, that’s fine, many thought to themselves, leaders like to absorb information in different ways. Then officials were told that PowerPoint decks needed to be slimmed down. The president couldn’t digest too many slides. He needed more images to keep his interest—and fewer words. Then they were told to cut back the overall message (on complicated issues such as military readiness or the federal budget) to just three main points. Eh, that was still too much … Forget the three points. Come in with one main point and repeat it—over and over again, even if the president inevitably goes off on tangents—until he gets it. Just keep steering the subject back to it. One point. Just that one point. Because you cannot focus the commander-in-chief’s attention on more than one goddamned thing over the course of the meeting, okay? [p29-30]
This is just one of many persuasive arguments that the President is unfit for office, but again: whom is it likely to persuade?
A couple of things struck me about this book that have little to do with its message. First of all, it is not well-written. Not at all. It may be that it was deliberately dumbed-down to target a less educated audience, but I don’t think so. More likely, the author simply isn’t a very talented writer. A Warning has a conversational style, and my guess is that it was dictated and transcribed by someone who is not generally comfortable with a pen.
Second, the author attempts to use history to make his/her point—beyond quotes from presidents, there are also numerous references in the narrative that reach back to ancient Greece and Rome. But the effort is clumsy, at best, and at worst just completely off the mark. At one point, when tracing the origins of the GOP, the author identifies it with “states’ rights,” which while a core value of the modern Republican Party was a hundred fifty years ago closely associated with rival Democrats. [p95] (In fact, one could argue that today’s “Party of Lincoln” has little in common with Lincoln at all.) Elsewhere, there is an awkward tussle with fact-based history as the author struggles to mine democracy in ancient Greece for workable analogies with today’s politics. Athenian demagogue Cleon is cast as a cloak-wearing precursor to Trump “… who will sound familiar to readers … [as he] … inherited money from his father and leveraged it to launch a career in politics.” The famous episode from Thucydides that has Cleon calling for the slaughter of the Mytilenean rebels is posited as an alleged signpost to the decline and fall of Athenian democracy. The later massacre of the Melians is also referenced, as is the execution of Socrates, along with a wild claim that “the latter was an exclamation point on the death of Athenian democracy …” [p183-86] All this is not only completely out of context but downright silly, and—as any historian of ancient Greece would point out—the radical democracy of Athens actually thrived for decades after the death of Socrates in 399 BCE, and even persisted well beyond the subjugation of the polis by Phillip II in 338 BCE.
But that the author is both a bad writer and a lousy historian to my mind just adds to his/her authenticity, as a “senior Trump administration official.” After all, we know that the cabinet is comprised of second and third-rate individuals, and the quality—especially as we have made the shift to “acting” secretaries that don’t require Senate approval—has seen a pronounced downward slope. Of course, the author’s lack of talent hardly diminishes the tale that is told.
The reason A Warning lacks shock-value to some degree is because we have heard much or all of this before, from multiple sources, some more respected than others. While it might be easy to dismiss such schlocky work as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the much-celebrated expose of the administration that was frequently as long on bombshells as it was short on substantiation, it is far more difficult to ignore the chilling accounts from award-winning journalist Bob Woodward, whose 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House identifies then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis as the source of the “fifth or sixth grader” quote. Woodward also reports then-Chief of Staff John Kelly describing the President as “unhinged”—exclaiming: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.” Far more worrisome than such anecdotes is Woodward’s revelation that then-Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn—alarmed that Trump was about to sign a document ending a key trade agreement with South Korea that also dove-tailed with a security arrangement that would alert us to North Korean nuclear adventurism—simply stole the document off the President’s desk! And the President never missed it …
Much of this material has been substantiated by insiders, and there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest Trump is utterly incapable of serving as Chief Executive. But would anything convince his loyal acolytes of this? Apparently not, which is why A Warning both preached to the chorus and otherwise fell on deaf ears. In February 2020, fifty-two Republican Senators voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial—and you can bet that most or all of these “august” legislators know exactly what Donald Trump is really like behind closed doors.
As this review goes to press, we are in the midst of global pandemic that has hit the United States far harder than it should have, largely due to the ongoing incompetence of the President, who is not unsurprisingly the very worst person to be in charge during what is surely the greatest threat to the nation since Pearl Harbor, perhaps since Fort Sumter. We need a Lincoln or a FDR or a JFK at the helm, and what we have is Basil Fawlty … although even that is unfair: Basil would have recognized that he was in over his head and sought Polly’s help, who would have enlisted Manual’s assistance, and we would at least have a chance. Trump, being Trump, believes he has all the answers; and thousands more succumb to the virus as the days go by …
So, who is the author of A Warning? Who exactly is “Anonymous?” There has been some speculation, but if I had to assign authorship, I would put my money on Kellyanne Conway. One clue that narrows it down a bit is that the tone in the narrative hints at a female voice rather than a male one, although I could be mishearing that. More persuasive is the style, which sounds an awful lot like Kellyanne in conversation, albeit spouting utterances diametrically opposed to those outrageous defenses of the President she concocts for the media. Perhaps most compelling is the fact that Kellyanne has uncharacteristically outlasted most members of the administration, especially striking in light of the fact that her husband, attorney George Conway, is a loud and prominent critic of the President that has long called for his removal from office. That Kellyanne has managed to somehow keep her job despite this suggests that she has something on Trump that guarantees her tenure, and makes me think she more than anyone inside that circus tent wants us to hear this warning of why the ringmaster must be denied four more years …
UPDATE 10-28-20 I was wrong … it wasn’t Kellyanne Conway https://milestaylor.medium.com/a-statement-a13bc5173ee9
Link to: NYT Op-Ed: “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”