Review of: Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, by Elizabeth R. Varon

As the sesquicentennial fades, I sought to abandon binge-reading Civil War books and to move on to the postwar era of Reconstruction and Redemption. Appomattox: AppomattoxVictory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, by Elizabeth R. Varon, randomly plucked from the shelves of a local bookstore, turned out to be an excellent choice for the transition.

Varon, professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of several previous books on the Civil War and the antebellum period, effectively asserts that Appomattox was a seminal event that has assumed a mythological place in both the history and the historiography of the war – so much so that its myth frequently but quietly intrudes and distorts historical accounts. How many times have we heard the story of Lee gallantly proffering his ceremonial sword to Grant, who graciously refuses it? It never happened, yet that singular imagery persists in historical memory so stubbornly that it has been repeated even in scholarly retellings. The story of the fictional sword is yet however only a metaphor in some ways for far more pernicious elements of the myth of Appomattox that even historians often have to struggle to shake off.

Varon argues convincingly that within minutes of the historic surrender, the military constituent of the “Lost Cause” myth was conceived. It is worth pausing here to reflect on the “Lost Cause,” born in the postwar era, which has both political and military components, and continues to resonate to this day. The political piece holds that the doctrine of states’ rights was the primary motivation for secession and discounts slavery as the central core of the rebellion. The authors of this well-constructed prevarication after the war were often the same prominent figures who were the primary architects of what was proudly advertised as a “slave republic” on the eve of hostilities, which is best made manifest by juxtaposing what they wrote in 1860 and in the years following the Confederacy’s defeat. This aspect of the “Lost Cause” myth has repeatedly been effectively rebutted by a consensus of scholars, but it remains alive and well and has seen an unfortunate resurgence in recent years as an element of contemporary right-wing ideology.

Varon focuses instead upon the birth of the perhaps less nefarious but yet equally misleading military component of the “Lost Cause” myth, which imagines the heroic defeat of the noble and valiant rebels, led by vastly superior generals, who nevertheless finally succumb to the overwhelming men and materiel of their more vulgar and less competent northern adversaries. No less invented than the fiction of its political complement, the military portion has proved a more difficult theme to rebut, largely because on the face of it the north did indeed possess greater manpower and resources than its southern counterparts. Still, the Confederacy did not need to win – only not to lose – in order to achieve its independence and prevail. It had several million slaves to serve as support behind the lines, freeing up more white men to serve as soldiers. It had the benefit of fighting on its own territory; on the two occasions when Lee left that comfort zone to go north – Antietam and Gettysburg – he was soundly beaten. Finally, while Lee can rightly be considered the greatest field general of the war, the south had as many or more bad generals as the north: Bragg, Polk, Pemberton, countless others. To Lincoln’s chagrin, all eyes tended to be in the eastern theater where the north had a true dearth of talent in McClellan, Burnside and Hooker, but the union was consistently triumphant in the west with the likes of Grant, Sherman and Thomas, and when Grant – whom historian Gary Gallagher rightly calls the “best soldier of the war” – came east he finished the job.

In Appomattox, Varon identifies the moment of creation of this military part of the “Lost Cause” myth with the deliberate understatement of the troops under Lee’s command at the time of surrender and its enshrinement in Lee’s “Farewell Address” known officially as General Order #9, which opens with: “After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” Varon carefully deconstructs Lee’s words and the efforts of those around him to report an ever-shrinking band of tatterdemalions overcome solely by superior numbers. Early reports that Lee has a mere 8,500 men under arms are soon put to the lie when the much coveted written parole Grant had issued so that the former Confederates could venture home unmolested are claimed by an additional twenty thousand rebels! Yes, Lee was indeed still outnumbered, but this was a reality because of the many losses inflicted by Grant’s army on Lee’s in the past eleven months. Lee had not won a significant battlefield victory in nearly two years – since Chancellorsville in May 1863 – and had not been on the offensive since his great loss at Gettysburg in July shortly thereafter. Grant’s “Overland Campaign” of 1864 – often criticized then and now for the huge sacrifices of men to suit the strategic objective and the origin of the unfair “Grant-the-Butcher” myth – had choked off Lee’s options and forced him to the siege at Petersburg, which could only end as it did with the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond. Lee had been squarely beaten by Grant, and there was much more to it than an excess of supply wagons and greater numbers of boots on the ground.

Varon spends a good deal of time on the magnanimous terms offered by Grant with Lincoln’s blessing to Lee’s army in capitulation, which Lee himself had hardly anticipated. Rather than the harsh punishments Confederates had braced for, the generous terms of the surrender treated the defeated foe with respect, issued blanket paroles, and even (although it was not specified in writing) permitted soldiers to keep their horses. Grant also provided some 25,000 rations to the hungry Confederates. (Given the number of rations, it was obviously clear at the outset that Lee had more than the 8,500 men it was disingenuously claimed.) Before too long, early “Lost Causers” were claiming Grant’s magnanimity was spawned less by generosity and much more by his sense of shame at having bested such a noble and gracious foe. Nonsense, of course, but it made for great myth-making.

We often tend to forget how rapidly the northern celebration of Appomattox on April 9th was drowned out by the horror of Lincoln’s assassination only six days later. Calls by some for punishing the rebels – largely muted by the festivities of victory — grew more strident following Lincoln’s martyrdom by a known southern sympathizer. Still, reason ruled in the north and even in deep mourning calls for revenge were shunted aside; an official commitment to mercy upon the conquered prevailed.

Varon neatly chronicles how all of that mercy and magnanimity was manipulated by legions of former Confederates who sought to restore their respective antebellum power bases and rule the roost once more, even if their precious “peculiar institution” had to be abandoned along the way. With Lincoln dead – whose vision of reconstruction seems to have included both benevolence towards the defeated and provisions to protect their former slave property – the politics of the victorious north became polarized in a vicious clash between the new President, Andrew Johnson, who favored leniency for the secessionists but had little concern for the millions of newly freed but disenfranchised blacks, and the Congressional majority of Radical Republicans who advocated punishing the former rebels severely and demanding full and immediate citizenship rights for African-Americans. The closest to a great moderate of Lincoln’s stripe was Grant, and both sides sought to claim him for their own.

As all of this played out to shrill invective that eventually led to Johnson’s impeachment and narrow acquittal, the old guard of ex-Confederates quietly took control of southern political institutions, and the myth-making began in earnest: an outnumbered band of the chivalrous, dedicated to a Constitution that promised rights to the states, sought against all odds to create an independent nation devoted to the values that the republic was originally founded upon. Finally defeated due to overwhelming odds, they sought nothing more than to peacefully reassert their role in the United States as now loyal citizens. Conspicuous in its absence in this narrative was mention of the human chattel that their slave republic was founded upon, or reference to the millions of freedmen who found themselves in a vague purgatory of disenfranchisement, neither slave nor citizen. The seeds of another myth, of a greatly exaggerated oppressive era of reconstruction, took root at this time, as well. The reality was that Johnson’s leniency turned into a kind of appeasement: African-Americans were sidestepped and even as early as the summer of 1865 in Richmond were subject to oppressive “black laws” that were reminiscent of the old “negro laws” of slave days; and soon after former Confederate elites regained political power in a coup of restoration that surprised many by its swiftness on both sides. It was only to get worse: the true horror of “Redemption” for African-Americans in the former Confederacy was still some years away.

Grant was largely disappointed in Lee, whom Grant had hoped would assume a leading role in a genuine peace of reconciliation, but Lee was held in such esteem even in the north that he was asked to testify before Congress, where he lobbied for the unconditional restoration of rights to southern elites. Blacks would remain … well . . . invisible. Soon, the surrender at Appomattox came to be viewed by many in the north – including Grant – as a “golden moment” that was squandered in a rush towards reunion at any price. By 1866, already it was seen that the north had won a long costly war yet had very quickly lost the peace. Johnson had vetoed the “Civil Rights Bill” in Congress. Unrepentant Confederate elites served as unapologetic architects of newly restored southern political institutions. Myths of the war, of an outsized gallant Lee and his noble army, of a brutal Grant, of the “Lost Cause,” of a proud but defeated south only seeking a helping hand as they gratefully rejoined the union – myths that effectively erased the visages of millions of African-Americans, slave and free – all of these were born and thrived in the months that followed Appomattox, and sadly, a good deal of these persist to this day.

Varon’s Appomattox is an excellent work, although somewhat hampered by a structure that at times reads like a long research paper. Extremely well documented with abundant notes, occasionally the narrative relies too much on quotations from notable historians in the abundant catalog of historiography on this era rather than a focus upon the primary sources that while considered are yet less frequently cited. Still, I would highly recommend this book for those seeking to comprehend more fully how the memory of the Civil War continues to resound in this nation a century and a half after that tumultuous and still somewhat unresolved day at Appomattox.

Review of: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, is a novel I probably never would have picked up had it not come to me as a gift from my daughter Sara, whom I am ever hounding to read the many books I send her way. So it was with a certain sense of obligation that I took this heavy volume out to my deck on a recent sunny Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and turned to chapter one. It was dusk on the next day with an emptying bottle of beer in the fading crepuscular light when I finished it. In between, I did little else but read this book, a complex work of literary fiction that runs well over five hundred pages yet is so compelling and so well-written that it seems impossible to let it go. I cannot recall the last time a book of this merit and intricacy has gripped me with such force, literally from cover-to-cover. No wonder that All the Light We Cannot See was the winner of both the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, as well as other prestigious awards.

Doerr, an otherwise little-known author, has written a dazzling multifaceted masterpiece that cannot adequately be described or deconstructed in a review format. The premise of the storyline sounds simple and perhaps so sentimental that it might make the potential reader turn away: the lives of a blind teenaged French girl and a brilliant young orphaned German soldier intersect in unlikely circumstances during the tumultuous liberation of World War II German-occupied France. But there is virtually nothing simple or sentimental in this multilayered narrative that in a microcosm manages to trace the growth of fascism in Depression-era Germany, explores the art of the locksmith, the science of electromagnetic waves, the evolution of mollusks, the construction of a radio from spare parts, the literature of Jules Verne (in Braille!), the methods of a small-town French Resistance cell, the architecture of a medieval city, the perils of combat on the Russian front – and even includes as its central character a legendary and priceless diamond that could possibly bestow upon its owner both a unique blessing and a terrible curse.

There is so much to extol about this extraordinary book! What appears to be an obvious metaphor in the title turns out to be a wide panoply of allegory embedded in the narrative structure of the tale, but – in a testament to the craft of the writer – much of it is hardly evident until the closing stages of the work. All of the characters are exceedingly well-drawn with a sophisticated dimensionality not weighed down by unnecessary detail. And the prose – well this is the shining glory of it all because Doerr writes so well that the complicated architecture of the novel never slows down the pace, so paragraphs and chapters can be gulped down by the reader as if it was pulp, which it most certainly is not. In this and in many ways I am reminded of Hemingway, although the author’s voice could not be more different in its expression. Hemingway too used complex literary techniques like the objective correlative, but these were often only palpable for the reader on reflection and never slowed the narrative down. Like Hemingway, there is not a single extraneous bit of information in the entire novel: Doerr imparts only and exactly what you need to know, about the characters, about the place and time, about the plot. Thus Doerr takes apart and rebuilds a radio the way Hemingway would a rifle, not only to add veracity to the tale but because it is essential to the story.

This novel truly is almost perfect. The only fault I could find is with the protagonist’s agoraphobic great-uncle, who strikes me as perhaps just a bit too old to be a veteran of the Great War in his youth as portrayed. But this is such a minor quibble that it is perhaps hardly worth mentioning, except by way of illustrating that only in such nitpicks can we locate flaws, and even these are so minor as to barely warrant attention. I highly recommend this superlative novel to every audience.

I have reviewed other novels by Anthony Doerr here:

Review of: About Grace, by Anthony Doerr

Review of: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Review of: Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan

Death of a River Guide is the fourth novel that I have read by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan, who ranks – along with Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami – as one of my top three living authors of literary fiction. I am not alone in my admiration: Flanagan has won a number of prominent awards for his work, and his most recent tour de force, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was the recipient of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. [My review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is here:]

My first encounter with Flanagan was a serendipitous stumble upon Gould’s Book of Fish, truly one of the finest works of literature of the new millennium in my opinion, which boasts a distinctive brand of magical realism that perhaps can be said to sail in the same sea of this genre with a Murakami or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez yet remains a unique vessel of unmatched craft. Gould’s has the distinction of being the only novel that I have ever read through and then – after the final paragraph on the final page – turned back to page one and started all over, reading it straight through for a second time!

Death of a River Guide may not qualify as the same brand of masterpiece as Gould’s, but yet it handily earns superlatives in its own right, especially because it was Flanagan’s first novel. It is truly so rare as to be remarkable for a first novel to contain such kinds of complexity, characterization, narrative structure and commanding prose. I do not typically cite other critics in my own reviews, but in this case the blurb on the jacket cover – “The sort of stunt Faulkner and Ambrose Bierce together might have concocted …” (Raleigh News & Observer) – is worth reiterating because it is both telling and spot on the mark. Like Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, for instance, Death of a River Guide time hops effortlessly, although here the very dimension of time is far more epic. Like Bierce, there is imagination, irony and sometimes horror. I might also add to that the comedic mockery of a Kurt Vonnegut and the biting sarcasm of a Mark Twain. Yet, none of it is derivative. Readers of Gould’s will no doubt detect the roots of the magical realism that come to define the latter work, the echoes of passion and tragedy that form surprising links between individuals in disparate times and places who otherwise might appear unrelated yet in fact share human experiences – often heartbreaking – that despite their distances resonate profoundly among them.

It has long been alleged that during the drowning process the victim sees their life “flash before their eyes,” and this imaginary mechanism is the foundation of the narrative structure in Death of a River Guide, which also employs the more familiar literary device of the “journey motif,” as the protagonist, hapless river guide Aljaz Cossini – who has known far more misfortune than not in his life to that point – finds a rare moment of courage and purpose rewarded with the awful calamity of finding his head trapped between rocks beneath the violent waters of a rushing river, awaiting certain death yet granted dramatic yet disjointed visions that showcase his own history and the lives of those who preceded him, both immediate antecedents and far distant ancestors, which reverberate with the palpable atavism of sometimes unlikely forerunners not only of kinship but of geography and spiritual commonality.

Make no mistake, this novel contains great complexity on multiple levels, and as such while the prose is quite engaging this is by no means an easy read. As in Faulkner’s Sartoris-Sutpen novels, critical details of similar but related characters over several generations are subtly revealed throughout the narrative, so I found myself more than once thumbing back through the pages wondering if I had missed a key particular that in fact had not yet been disclosed. But it is truly worth the effort. In the final chapter, I pondered whether the tale had not perhaps gone on too long after all, if I was about to happen upon some jagged flaw that would reduce the fine estimation I had for the novel thus far. Then, reading the second to the last paragraph on the penultimate page, my eyes suddenly and quite unexpectedly filled with tears. And it was not cheap. And it was not sentimental. Flanagan can do that … and he does. Death of a River Guide is a truly great novel. Don’t miss it.

Review of: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

I may possibly have been the last Civil War enthusiast yet to read The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, a historical novel I have heard repeatedly referenced by historians, battlefield guides, reenactors and Civil War buffs of virtually every stripe. Now I can officially proclaim that I have read it too! But what took me so long?

I was actually reared on historical fiction – Michener, Clavell, Vidal – and I read voraciously in this arena, which had a profound effect upon my intellectual development with regard to both history and literature. Later, as I determined to become a historian, I deliberately eschewed this genre. Why? Because quality historical fiction tends to deeply ingrain its impressions in the synapses: to this day I have to vigorously resist identifying as authentically biographical the characters of Burr and Lincoln that Gore Vidal so brilliantly conceived in those marvelous eponymous historical novels.

The Killer Angels was actually pressed upon me by a friend who had often nagged me to read it. Finally, he mailed me a copy, which thus enforced a sense of guilt and obligation upon me. I still did not turn to it immediately, but I did take it along with me on a recent trip. My Master’s Degree in History was conferred at a ceremony held in National Harbor, Maryland, and it seemed fitting that my next stop post-commencement should be in the realm of the multiple Civil War battlefields at Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was in that vicinity, overlooking a tranquil pond on the deck of a rented 1830s-era log cabin in Spotsylvania, with a cup of coffee in the early morning sun just prior to a battlefield tour, that I began The Killer Angels. And I could not stop reading it.

As promised by its many fans, it is an outstanding read on a variety of levels, not least in its talent for recreating the time and circumstances, effortlessly placing the reader in that milieu to walk with the characters on those crucial days that saw what was the largest land battle in North America. A complex yet engaging storyline that never grows dull, perhaps its greatest strength is in its skilled characterizations that truly bring colorful animation to a long-dead cast of otherwise monochromatic figures. The grand scale of Gettysburg is resurrected, as well as what this battle would mean for each side in a clash that while hardly deciding the war nevertheless placed a pronounced exclamation mark in the course of how its narrative would be writ ever afterward.

Although the characters were exceedingly well drawn, I did not need to fear that I would confuse fiction for biography here, since I have previously read more than a little about central players such as Lee, Longstreet and Chamberlain. I have visited the battlefield, once with a guide in my car and on foot, and again on a walking tour with the legendary Ed Bearss. I had not believed that a novel set on those grounds on those days would hold much value for me, but in this I was mistaken: Shaara’s deliberately understated prose that deftly wove history with literature made me “feel” the events there as I never thought possible. I was indeed stirred in a way I never could have anticipated.

In the end, I do not regret waiting this long to read this fine novel. While I am thankful that I had a firm historical foundation in place prior to entertaining the drama, I am yet even more grateful then for that drama. If it turns out that I was not truly the absolute last person to read this book, I would urge those who have taken my place to pick up a copy: you truly will not regret it.

Review of: Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, by Joseph Wheelan

After a lifetime of reading and studying the Civil War that was even more profoundly focused by the sesquicentennial years, I have been ranging around looking for books to put an exclamation mark on the final phases of the war. I had read Jay Winik’s masterful April 1865 some time ago, and more recently the impressive work Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, by Nelson Lankford, but in the hopes of locating something with perhaps a wider compass I selected Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, the latest book by Joseph Wheelan. A reporter rather than a historian, Wheelan has built a fine reputation writing narrative histories about Jefferson, the Mexican War, and the Civil War, including last year’s well-received installment about Grant’s famous “Overland Campaign,” Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate.

Their Last Full Measure – an engaging, generally well-written but occasionally uneven and by some measures deeply-flawed narrative – surveys the critical events in chronological chapters with titles for each of the final months of the war. This is a welcome technique in that the full sweep of the war is brought to bear in much of its several theaters, the way it might have been viewed by its contemporaries on both sides of the conflict, rather than the more traditional approach that tends to segment events by geography. The only drawback to this approach is that some chapters – such as “April 1865” – will of necessity be substantially longer than others, but this is a quibble.

Following a succinct prologue, in the first chapter, “January 1865,” Wheelan admirably constructs a skeleton of the essentials requisite to bring the reader up to the first days of that calendar and then competently and colorfully puts flesh upon those bones with the events that follow. All eyes may have been on Richmond – or more accurately the besieged Petersburg which was the real gateway to the Confederate capital, and the stalemated forces of Lee and Grant before it – but it was not the only show in town. There was Sherman wreaking havoc in the Carolinas. There was increased pressure by Union forces on the dwindling rebel presence in the west. There was the critical fall of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. The Northern public was growing impatient with Grant, with whom so much faith had been placed the year before, and Richmond still stubbornly held under the auspices of the increasingly delusional Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but the reality was that the Confederacy was on the brink, in tatters on all of its fronts, and it was Grant’s strategic vision that had delivered this outcome.

Wheelan is a talented writer who carries the reader along effortlessly through a great deal of material in multiple arenas with prose that rarely gets bogged down or boring. The exception possibly is in the description of battles, where he switches his narrative gear so drastically that it feels as if another writer has taken his pen: fans of military history will appreciate the careful fine detail, the general reader perhaps less so. This is exacerbated to some degree by the dearth of maps included in the volume, which makes military maneuvers more difficult to follow without resort to outside references.

Sometimes, it should be said, the narrative is heavy with anecdote, some familiar, some less so. Is there anyone who still has not yet learned the story of Wilmer McLean’s luckless move from his house on the Manassas battlefield to Appomattox, where his home hosted the surrender? Perhaps fewer have heard about Confederate Secretary of War John Breckenridge’s ire at Sherman’s alleged stinginess with his whiskey at the less familiar surrender of Joe Johnston’s army. Such stories indeed add color and personality to the drama, and as such are welcome, but what is missing of more value to historians that might have filled these paragraphs instead?

Conspicuous in its absence is any kind of detailed coverage of African-Americans in this critical period of the war’s conclusion, either as slaves, or free, or contraband, or as the proud members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) that made up a full ten percent of Union forces by 1865 and were pivotal to the end stage of the war effort. This is highly unusual for a Civil War history published in 2015. Blacks are referenced rarely and typically only peripherally, such as in the accusations leveled against Sherman with regard to their treatment. I honestly thought I must have overlooked something, so I later turned to the index for confirmation. There is no listing for “African-Americans” or “USCT;” there are listings for “blacks” and “slaves,” but only with a mere handful of referenced pages. I looked to other recent books on the era to confirm my theory, and in the end it has to be concluded that Wheelan essentially overlooked the vital African-American dimension to the final months of the Civil War. As such, there is an outsize block missing in the narrative that leaves an unfortunate gaping hole that the average reader might stumble past but that the trained historian cannot help but stumble upon.

The greatest weakness to Their Last Full Measure, however, is the “Epilogue” – which to my mind should never have been written. It seems obvious that once his central story was told, Wheelan hoped to write a grand conclusion, not only about end of the war, but about the Civil War itself, about its aftermath, about how it resonates to this day. He is not the first to attempt this, but he may be the latest to fall flat with his effort, which unfortunately – as it is the penultimate chapter – drags the rest of the work down with it, perhaps unfairly. Still, the “Epilogue” is so flawed that it cuts a grove across the entire volume, and it at last betrays the fact that Wheelan after all is not a professional historian, because it becomes increasingly obvious in these final pages that he is largely unfamiliar with the latest scholarly historiography.

In this concluding flourish, Wheelan seems to have fallen victim to many of the incorrect notions of decades past which have been firmly discarded by today’s generation of Civil War historians. For instance, Wheelan asserts that “The Confederacy’s military leaders were superior to the Union’s during the war’s early stages, and so were their troops …” [p338] This anecdotal observation has been thoroughly discredited and even at the time was known to be a fully false assumption. All eyes were indeed on Richmond throughout the war, to Lincoln’s great frustration, but for all the bad generals and lost battles in the east that captivated the public’s eye, the western theater showed a string of Union successes: Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Memphis, New Orleans. The South had bright lights like Lee and Longstreet and Jackson in the east, but they also had dreadful generals like Polk and Bragg in the west and a grand strategic failure in the martyred Albert Sidney Johnston. The Union had such bumblers as Burnside and Hooker in the east, as well as the timid, tentative George McClellan, but they also had Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and Thomas in the west – and some of these later came east and crushed the Confederacy in the end. Noted Civil War historian Gary Gallagher rightly credits Lee as the greatest general in the field on either side, but counters that Grant was the greatest soldier.

Wheelan also recycles the core “Lost Cause Myth” excuse – a central tenet of Lee’s “farewell address” – that “The North’s daunting advantages in manpower and resources … were decisive over the course . . .” of the war, and repeats the misguided assertion – I think it was coined by Shelby Foote – that the Union “… fought the South one-handed.” [p339] While the north did indeed generally enjoy greater resources, this argument has repeatedly been disallowed by modern scholars, who note that the south’s slave property serving as support freed up a greater number of men for military service, and that the Confederacy never needed to conquer the United States, only to avoid being conquered by a weary and divided north in order to maintain their independence. It was, on many occasions, a very close call, and they might very well have prevailed.

There are finally, in the epilogue, grave historical errors. Wheelan claims that the Confederacy’s enactment of the draft, internal taxes, and a focus upon government centralization were all in reaction to similar moves by the Federals. Actually, most of these components were innovations of the ever wary yet determined rebels. Of greater consequence, he insists that Richmond reacted to Washington’s enlistment of black troops by recruiting slaves to the army. In fact, the Union had enrolled African-Americans since 1863 while it was not until the final weeks before Richmond fell that the Confederate Congress, despairing of its crippled manpower, gave in to the pleas of the exalted Robert E. Lee and there were then visible drilling in the streets of the doomed capital the strange anomaly of blacks recruits, men who never actually saw service.

In the end, while there is great value in much of the book its flaws are somewhat fatal. I do not regret reading Their Last Full Measure and I would not discourage readers from it, but there are so many top-notch Civil War histories that I would suggest it belongs more properly to the middle of your list than at the top of it.

Review of: Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, by Christopher Dickey

It is a mark of how rare it is to encounter a book on the American Civil War that offers an entirely fresh perspective, adds measurably to our understanding of critical aspects of the conflict, and yet is extremely well written, that I found myself championing its merits well before I had actually finished it. Such a volume is Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, by Christopher Dickey – published in the final sesquicentennial year of the rebellion that left such a deep scar on the nation that it still resonates in the contemporary political landscape – which I had the privilege to obtain in the form of an uncorrected proof as part of an early reviewer’s program. The official publication date is scheduled for July 21, 2015.

I have had mixed luck with books obtained through the early reviewer program; more than one I forced my way through out of obligation rather than enjoyment or intellectual enrichment. Our Man in Charleston was a thoroughly delightful exception to what has been trending towards a somewhat dreary rule, and it could not have arrived at a better time. While I have spent a lifetime reading and studying about the Civil War, I have devoted the sesquicentennial years to a deeper appreciation that has included battlefield tours and even a weekend seminar with noted historian Ed Bearss in his ninetieth year, who giddily ran ahead of me and a devoted group of the less physically fit on rocky outcrops at Antietam and windy overlooks at Gettysburg, all the while steadily lecturing us in his inimitable stentorian voice. I am fresh from walking at the commencement ceremony for my Masters in History from APUS, obtained partially by fulfilling the final program requirement of an internship that in my case entailed spearheading a project with a local museum for digitizing a lost trove of Civil War diaries, memoirs and correspondence – which also earned me the Academic Scholar Student of the Year Award from the School of Arts and Humanities. On the way home, I spent time at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. In other words, I am invested in the larger topic at hand, one that according to some sources has been the subject of more than 70,000 books, with new ones published all the time; that may in fact be a low reckoning. So, as they say on the block, I don’t impress easy. This book thoroughly impresses me.

Dickey, a journalist rather than a trained historian who has an impressive resume that includes works both of fiction and non-fiction, managed to target an extremely unique character and perspective and put these to pen admirably, drawing the reader into the narrative in the first few pages and never letting him or her go until the tale is complete. Our Man in Charleston is literally Robert Bunch, a relatively minor character who has until now essentially been lost to history, the British consul stationed in Charleston, South Carolina through much of the final decade of the antebellum years, who remained at his post until 1863. The view is decidedly a British one, which is both unfamiliar and highly informative for students of the era who in general do not look to the war from the vantage point of foreign soil. Bunch finds himself a witness – and sometimes more – to key events that include the explosive Democratic convention held in Charleston which resulted in the terminal fracture of the party that was to ensure Lincoln’s eventual win, the lead up to secession in the very nucleus of its inception, the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor that inaugurated the war, and a host of other events of great significance as the rebellion and the Confederacy took shape. As a journalist, author Dickey must have deliciously imagined what it must have been like to have been an eyewitness to history taking shape in this way; as a writer of a solid book of history that contains a thick sheaf of citations, rather than imagination Dickey relied upon outstanding resources in the paper trail that Bunch left behind. The author admirably sets Bunch’s perspective into the broader context of war, diplomacy, politics and much more, and it is clear that he is no novice to the wider arena in which these events occurred.

The first third of the book is focused upon something that seems at first to have nothing to do with the later secession of South Carolina, which is some years away when Bunch arrives in Charleston in 1853 with instructions from his government to use all diplomatic means to urge a change in policy that up to that time had seen black British seaman seized and held by the authorities when ships with such crews flying the Union Jack were in port. Under the “Negro Seaman Act,” first enacted in Charleston in 1822, which inspired similar acts elsewhere in the south, free black British sailors – primarily of West Indian heritage – were seen as a kind of contagion that could potentially inspire slave uprisings: “Liberated blacks were seen as carriers of an insurrectionary plague that must be quarantined.” [p12] The law provided for this “quarantine” by mandating that such seaman be incarcerated as long as the ship was in port and holding the captain liable for the expenses this entailed; a refusal to cover such costs could result in penalties that included seizing and selling these sailors into slavery. There was also the very real danger that during incarceration they could be kidnapped and sold as human “livestock.”

Two critical elements present here that were to assume much larger significance in historical retrospect. The first is that the British, who economically represent a huge market for southern cotton, are nevertheless appalled by slavery, which has been abolished throughout their empire. The second is that the Charlestonians cannot comprehend that there is an alternative perspective to their own, which holds that per God and man the optimal role of blacks is to serve as human chattel property. The contrast in these essentially irreconcilable positions is underscored as Bunch learns that not only is there zero sympathy for even the mildest antislavery position, but the South Carolinians are leading advocates of the reopening of the slave trade, outlawed since 1807, to fuel their massive appetite for plantation labor. Curiously, their concern is less for international outrage than the opprobrium they might invite from the more northerly southern states, like Virginia, where since Jefferson’s time slave labor had become economically unfeasible but slave breeding thrived; prices would likely plummet once importation began anew. In the meantime, Bunch learns, there was such a thing as smuggling.

The British were committed to interdicting the illegal slave trade out of Africa and vigorously employed their navy to prevent slavers from making it to the Americas – sometimes these were ports in the US, more often Brazil and Cuba. The United States was technically committed, as well, but the effort was lukewarm at best as the Buchanan Administration sought to avoid raising southern ire. The exception was the capture of the Echo, a slaver that was towed into Charleston Harbor. In today’s south – where remarkably the Confederate Battle Flag still flies at the South Carolina State House*, roads named after Confederate politicians and generals crisscross the landscape, and there has been a new and vehement resurgence of the “Lost Cause Myth” that promotes the lie that the rebellion was predicated upon states’ rights rather than the proud creation of an independent “slave republic” – slavery is commonly downplayed and the treatment of slave property has been euphemized as generally beneficent. As historians of the antebellum period are well aware, this is nonsense: slaves were often treated cruelly and always arbitrarily, frequently whipped or otherwise mistreated and sometimes murdered with no legal repercussions. In 1830, a slave named Jerry accused of rape was duly sentenced by a South Carolina court and subsequently executed by burning alive! Still, a full knowledge of these realities hardly prepares the reader for what awaits when Bunch and others see the Echo in the harbor:

“Vomit and urine and feces and blood had seeped deep into the raw wood of the sunless, slapped-together slave decks in the hold, staining them indelibly with filth. Cockroaches by the millions seethed among the boards, and clouds of fleas and gnats rose up from them. The stench that came from this vessel wasn’t the smell of a ship full of cattle and horses, but that peculiar smell that surrounds humans, and only humans who are very afraid and very sick or dying or dead . . . Some 455 Africans had been taken on board the Echo near Kabinda on the African coast. More than 140 had perished during the weeks at sea and were thrown overboard. (“The shark of the Atlantic is still, as he has ever been, the partner of the slave trader,” wrote a British editorialist.) It took the U.S. Navy prize crew six days to sail the Echo to Charleston Harbor, the most important American port within reach of the fetid vessel. By then, another eight captives had died. And they just kept dying . . . ‘Their condition on leaving the brig Echo was painful and disgusting in the extreme. They had been huddled together closer than cattle, and slept at night in as close contact as spoons when packed together. Privation of every kind, coupled with disease, had reduced all of them to the merest skeletons, and to such a state of desuetude and debility that on entering the fort they could not so much as step over a small beam, one foot high, in the doorway, but were compelled to sit on it and balance themselves over. It is impossible for you to imagine their sad and distressed condition.’” [p90-94]

The survivors were herded into the still incomplete Fort Sumter. The death of nearly three dozen more under the watchful authority of the U.S. marshal, formerly a proud supporter of reopening the slave trade, changed his mind for good. Most Charlestonians, however, were decidedly unfazed: in fact their dander was up over the humiliating treatment afforded to the captain and crew of the vessel when paraded through town upon their capture. Bunch, like any modern audience reading this account, was horrified.

As British council, Bunch does his best to form positive relationships with his American hosts, but his correspondence reveals that he clearly detests most of them. Perhaps he most admired James Petigru, the politician who opposed secession and famously declared that: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” But even Petigru was a slaveholder. Bunch’s visceral antislavery orientation, shared by most key members of the British Parliament in both parties, was an anathema to almost all South Carolinians. Bunch was present in Charleston through the secession crisis, the firing on Sumter, the formation of the nascent Confederacy, the diplomatic crises with Britain over blockade and the seizing of Mason and Slidell by an overeager Union navy captain, and much more. He even took part in some “undercover” diplomacy with Richmond in the interests of the British, which sadly backfired and unfairly characterized him in the eyes of the Lincoln Administration as a Confederate sympathizer. South Carolina – and the entire Confederacy – bet that a British hunger for southern cotton would trump any opposition to slavery on the other side of the Atlantic and foster both recognition and even military assistance. As history has demonstrated, this was hardly a sound gamble, especially as southerners burned their cotton in the early stages of the war to increase demand. The British sought and located alternative markets, and at the end of the day it was very difficult for British politicians to trumpet support for the Confederacy, whose economy and in fact raison d’être was predicated upon the human chattel slavery Britain was committed to oppose on every shore. South Carolinians, as revealed by the Dickey book, could never possibly comprehend any of that.

It is impossible to find anything significant to criticize in this fine work. Our Man in Charleston is original, well-written, carefully documented and presented as only the very best narrative history is meant to be: it offers a unique perspective on a critically important subject in a thoroughly original manner. I highly recommend this book and I predict that it will earn more than one award for its contribution to American Civil War studies.


*Postscript: On July 10, 2015, spurred by the shooting massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Confederate battle flag was finally removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. Less a Civil War relic than a modern symbol of racism – the flag was raised in 1961 and flew primarily to celebrate the state’s stubborn resistance to Civil Rights – the cynical on each side of the flag debate can claim that the move was either opportunistic or politically correct, yet it nevertheless represents a step forward for the state that spawned secession and the sanguinary struggle that was to follow. As President Obama tweeted that day: “South Carolina taking down the confederate flag – a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”

Review of: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami is the twelfth of his eighteen published works that I have read to date. Two more beckon to me from a nearby shelf in my study. Obviously I am a fan.

Despite its complexity, I usually recommend Kafka on the Shore to those who have never read Murakami, because it is in my opinion his finest novel. I would now offer Sputnik Sweetheart as an alternative that is shorter, less convoluted and a much easier read yet still captures the quintessential Murakami. There is a passive, complacent male protagonist. There are well-drawn complicated female characters, in this case two of them. There are cats, or at least stories about cats. There is a passion for music, either jazz or classical. There is awkward sex and unrequited love. There is a sense of dark foreboding. There are puzzling circumstances. There is the author’s unique brand of magical realism that is trademark Murakami, although it is far less manifest in this 1999 work than it would be in Kafka on the Shore (2002) or 1Q84 (2010); still there remains a wisp of a hint of some kind of parallel universe that occasionally intersects with our own. And, in typical Murakami style, it closes with issues unresolved and questions that linger.

The title of the novel is derived from an ironic conflating of terms in an early conversation between fledgling young writer Sumire and a beautiful older woman named Miu, for whom Sumire develops a powerful lesbian attraction. Sumire brings up Jack Kerouac, which Miu comically and mistakenly places in the “sputnik” rather than the “beatnik” genre. The original Sputnik, of course, was actually the Soviet satellite that launched the Cold War space race in 1957, the year of my own birth. Sputnik is a Russian word meaning “satellite” that translates literally as “fellow traveler” and in the novel it serves as a larger metaphor with a dual significance.

I felt like I had read parts of Sputnik Sweetheart before, and it turns out that I had: certain ingredients of the novel were plucked from the pages of Murakami’s short story “Man-Eating Cats” that appeared in The New Yorker in 1991 – which ironically I had only very recently read as part of his short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. [For my review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, see] The novel is actually quite different from the short story, but the elements he incorporates are both striking and memorable. This is a much shorter and easier book to read than the novel that preceded it, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95), or the one that followed it some seven years later, Kafka on the Shore, but it nevertheless remains as rich with complexity and nuance in its style and presentation. Since I have reviewed Murakami previously, I will not risk redundancy by restating my own personal love-hate relationship to the author based upon his brilliant prose and often frustrating lack of plot resolution. I will state unequivocally that this is one of Murakami’s best novels and one that I would highly recommend both to those who are veteran readers of his fiction and to those who are new to his work.

[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami — his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” – is available online at:]

I have reviewed other Murakami fiction here:

Review of: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Review of: Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

Review of: South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami

Review of: Hear the Wind Sing, and Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami

Review of: After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami

Review of: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

Review of: Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species, by J.A. Mills

In the very first chapter of Blood of the Tiger: A Story of Conspiracy, Greed, and the Battle to Save a Magnificent Species, by J.A. Mills, we are introduced to the horrors of Asian bear farming and bile milking: bears kept in cages no larger than the animal itself with tubes surgically implanted into their gall bladders to drain bile for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), fueled by an apparently limitless demand in China and East Asia for such products which include bear paws, rhino and elephant horns, and various parts of tigers, as well as soup and wine derived from the bodies of tigers! The author colorfully describes her first encounter with a bear farm as “Dachau for bears . . .” [p28] and she makes a promise to herself to do something about this travesty.

This is a promising start, but alas the book declines from this point forward into a tedious and rather poorly-written narrative that is part-memoir and part-manifesto, long on the reporting of meetings and events in the narrow sense – i.e. the author attended the meeting/event and recounts it purely through her eyes – and far too short on the articulation of the wider theme outside of her parochial context. The book jacket proclaims it “heart-pounding” – from a review by noted author Amy Tan – but never once did I feel my pulse race over the long slog of nearly 250 pages that more than anything else encompassed a dull concatenation of conferences with the author ever shocked at her own naiveté and always surprised as events conspired to defeat her efforts to preserve wild tigers and outlaw tiger farming. Full disclosure: I obtained this book as part of an early reviewers program, so I felt obligated to read it through in order to fairly evaluate it; I kept reading long after I otherwise might have abandoned it.

That this is not a well-written book should not overshadow the cause Mills is championing. For those who believe that Traditional Chinese Medicine is just bunk, it turns out that tiger bone and other TCM products do contain certain potentially salubrious substances. At the same time, in the twenty-first century the far superior pharmaceuticals of modern medicine have virtually replaced the need to hunt wild animals on the verge of extinction to feed the demand of the superstitious chasing traditional remedies. And this demand continues to grow exponentially. Bear and tiger farms have been introduced in China and elsewhere in Asia to satisfy this demand by “farming” captive animals to turn into parts and distill into wine for an eager audience. Mills and her allies argue convincingly that apart from their inherent cruelty, such farms  perpetuate and exacerbate the problem of the threat to endangered species both because these blur the line between legal and illegal trade, further enabling poachers, and because many Asians still believe that the wild product is superior to the farmed one which the wealthy among them will pay a premium to obtain. Due to the stubborn refusal of China to outlaw the use of exotic animals in the TCM market, there has been an explosion of poaching: in faraway Africa this has resulted in the decimation of vast numbers of rhinos and elephants for the cherished ivory in their tusks, thought to be an aphrodisiac. Much of Blood of the Tiger details the struggle between those committed to protecting wildlife and the Chinese government, which officially decries poaching but actively cultivates the tiger farming that fuels the demand.

Mills comes from a journalism background, but as many other former journalists have discovered, composing a coherent book length manuscript is not the same as writing feature articles. Strengths in the latter often are weaknesses in the former. This is apparent throughout Blood of the Tiger both in the “I-attended-the-conference-and-this-is-what-happened” reporting style and in the choppy narrative flow from chapter to chapter. Her attempts to burnish the unremarkable prose with various literary techniques repeatedly fall flat. Because endangered tigers are ostensibly the protagonists, she is apparently tickled by the irony of the idiom “herding cats,” which in context is no more appropriate the fifth time she employs it than the first. One chapter even gets the hokey title “Sino-US Cat Fight.” She identifies the “good guys” and “bad guys” (as she tags them) in her tale by an annoying use of nicknames, so that the friends of wildlife become “The Great Dane” and the “The Welsh Warrior,” while the enemies – and these are predominantly Chinese – are identified as “The Fonz” and “The Dragon.” The characters of shifting alliances turn into “Montagues and Capulets.” As the book progresses, she attempts to add a clever intellectual spin to her meeting notes by awkwardly interspersing parenthetical Sun Tzu Art of War aphorisms that cannot help but make the reader’s eyes roll. Meanwhile, although she reveals very little of her private life outside of her crusade to save tigers and bears, she occasionally delivers jarring personal information, such as in a chapter that opens with the author awakened by the police pounding on her door because a long distance colleague believed her to be suicidal. A paragraph later, it is back to the “cat fight.”

Throughout the narrative, Mills complains about how misled and naïve she has been, how poorly she has misjudged people and policies, how hopeless her efforts seem to be. Reading this, I often wondered: did she ever do any research? Did she ever seek the advice of others? Was she really mature enough to take on this fight? In the “Epilogue,” Mills loftily states that “. . . this story isn’t about me . . .” [p233] but clearly to anyone who has read this volume, it certainly seems to be.

Despite the many weaknesses of this book, I did manage to learn much about the demand for TCM products and how this jeopardizes wildlife across the continents. Fighting tiger farms is a just cause and I am now a firm adherent. Mills has indeed dedicated herself to saving tigers in the wild, through her work with TRAFFIC – the wildlife trade monitoring network – as well as World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and Save the Tiger Fund. She cannot be faulted for her commitment. Still, it is unfortunate that such an important story as this is told through such a weak narrative. If I will not go so far as to recommend this book, I will encourage readers to explore this topic further by other means and to add their voices to those who loudly demand that such dreadful practices as tiger farming come to a swift end in our time.

Review of: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I often make the mistake with short story collections of reading them end-to-end, like a novel, so that I am struck by the discontinuity of the tales – which typically have unique provenance separated by many years that were never intended to be housed together. Thus, by the time I finish the collection the stories are just a blur. I took a far different tack with Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami, dipping into it irregularly over many months, savoring each one.   Whether it was due to this new approach or because of the quality of the selection, I found Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman a far more satisfying read than The Elephant Vanishes, another collection I read a couple of years back that left me (except for the title story) mostly underwhelmed.

Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with Haruki Murakami, whose novels are usually stirring and well-written yet often lack resolution with critical characters and plotlines so that by the last page the reader is not so much dissatisfied as unsatisfied. Still, Murakami – along with Cormac McCarthy and Richard Flanagan – remains solidly among my top three living authors of fiction. I have read eleven of his eighteen published works, and I just began another, Sputnik Sweetheart, which makes me a serious and perhaps obsessive fan. The first one I read, Kafka on the Shore, was recommended to me by a barista and remains my favorite Murakami novel as well as one of my favorite novels of the new century. I liked the celebrated Norwegian Wood far less, although most fans would take issue with me here. Two others – Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 – were terrific reads that left me so frustrated due to lack of resolution that I gave them less credit than they deserved at the time, yet I have not stopped thinking about either in the years that followed. Side note: I entitled my review of 1Q84 on Amazon in 2013 as “Tedious Epic” and awarded it a mere three stars. Today, despite its flaws, I would revise that to at least four stars and have even considered rereading it. That’s Murakami for you!

Many writers start with short stories and progress to novels, but in the “Introduction to the Eighth Edition” of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami reveals that he only began writing short stories after publishing his first two novels, and that he only writes short stories when he is not working on a novel: “The two types of writing may well engage different parts of the brain, and it takes some time to get off one track and switch to the other.” Since I am far from new to Murakami, I set off with a trained eye looking for evidence of such trends, especially curious as to whether patterns in the character development of his protagonists differed from those in his novels, as well as how these may have changed over time: Murakami’s females are generally strong, complex, sometimes flamboyant characters, while the males are often passive, complacent, even dull and wishy-washy, as evinced in Norwegian Wood, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84. I hoped to trace an evolution in this regard, but my edition lacked dates for the stories. Fortunately these days we have Wikipedia, where I learned that the twenty-four tales in this collection were written over the period 1980-2005, as well as where these were published. [,_Sleeping_Woman]

As it was, my literary “theory of evolution” failed to materialize; although elements of both the characters and techniques apparent in his novels are evident in many of his stories, these barely changed over time. The very early “Firefly” (1983) personifies the weak-willed, complacent male protagonist. (“Firefly” actually gets new life as a segment in the novel Norwegian Wood.) The same can be said for the title story, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” (1983). Most of his stories from this era – about half the collection, many of which appeared in the New Yorker – were not among my favorites, and reading “The Year of Spaghetti” (1981) and “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story” (1980) especially kindled memories of the kinds of short stories that were popular in the New Yorker and elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s by a number of authors of contemporary fiction that usually left me shaking my head at the lack of direction or resolution. The exception is in several early stories – such as “Crabs” (1984) and “Man-Eating Cats” (1991) – that hint at the magical-realism that is later so impressively developed in novels like Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. My two favorites in the collection are magical-realism all the way: “Dabchick” (1981), which could be the script for an episode of Twilight Zone, and the masterful “The Ice Man” (1991), both of which adeptly mix magic, irony and allegory. More down to earth, it is worth mentioning the extremely well-written Tony Takitani” (1990) that neatly captures Murakami’s gift for fine story-telling with an ever-present wisp of vague metaphor. I cannot resist pointing out that Murakami’s weird earlobe fetish shows up both in “Birthday Girl” (2002) and “Chance Traveler” (2005). My other favorite stories in the collection were all written in 2005, which perhaps implies that the author hit his stride with short story writing in that year. In addition to “Chance Traveler,” these include “Hanalei Bay,” “Where I’m Likely to Find It,” “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day,” and the oddball “A Shinagawa Monkey” that strangely reminded me of something from Rudyard Kipling.

If you are a Murakami fan, this collection deserves a read. If you are new to the author, some of these stories may indeed tickle your fancy, although I would recommend instead that you start with one of the novels, such as Kafka on the Shore. Either way, you may find yourself as obsessively hooked as I am, and unable to resist going back for more.

[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami — his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” – is available online at:]

Review of: The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman’s dense, panoramic and controversial The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason is actually three books synthesized into a single volume. One characterizes the marked transition from the ancient pagan rational philosophical and scientific world – especially in the west – into an increasingly rigid doctrinaire faith-driven Christian domain. This will come as quite a surprise to those who believed that this was a much later development characteristic of the medieval period subsequent to the fall of Rome. The second serves essentially as a history of Christianity and Christian theology that catalogs a merciless evolution into a static creed that not only unequivocally rejected scientific and rational thought but embraced an unquestioning dogmatism that brooked neither dissent nor even inquiry, and frequently brutally punished those who did not satisfactorily conform as heretics, much like a brand of Stalinism with a crucifix. The third is Freeman’s exploration of his thesis as spelled out in the book’s full title that Christianity was indeed responsible for what he terms “the fall of reason:” the end of science and philosophy and rational thought that thrived in the Classical World, whether by design or unintended consequence.

This is rather heady stuff, more than dizzying at times and by no means a light Saturday afternoon read. I myself read this book over several months along with multiple others, which allowed me more time to contemplate the contents. And there is much to contemplate! The book jacket credits Freeman with an “. . . encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient world,” which the text of this volume clearly reveals to be no idle boast. I have read Freeman before and he is always ambitious but this effort steps beyond ambition to the comprehensive and the magisterial and in this he mostly succeeds, although the complexity and the overwhelming wealth of detail will leave many readers behind in a swirl of ancient schools of philosophy, early Christian sects, asceticism, ecumenical councils, eschatology, emperors, bishops, martyrs, heretics and much more to make the heads of the uninitiated spin. In other words, don’t tread lightly as you open the covers of this work.

At the outset it should be noted that certain readers will no doubt queue up at diametrically opposed fault lines in reaction to this book, with true believers of the Christian faith likely to be hostile to a theme that might be happily embraced by the unapologetically atheist anti-religious school of a Richard Dawkins devotee. Much of the rest of us probably don’t fall neatly into either camp of extremes, although I myself would rather have a beer with Dawkins than Mike Huckabee. Among historians, I suspect most non-evangelical Christians and most secularists will have few passions stirred, but will instead read and study Freeman with exactly the kind of healthy skepticism more characteristic of Classical pre-Christian times than that which came after. Full disclosure: I am a historian and I have studied both philosophy and religious studies to some depth. I was raised with a Christian faith that precipitously tumbled after a long summer devoted to reading much of the King James Version, Old and New Testaments; by the fall I tagged myself an “atheist.” Much later in life, I find that term far too arrogant, so I often describe myself – with tongue fully in cheek – as a “dogmatic skeptic.” Whatever your beliefs, faith must be set aside in any rational study of history.

Edward Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome. Freeman hardly goes so far, but he does unequivocally hold it responsible for the fall of reason. Gibbon’s thesis has largely been rebuffed by later historical analysis. It will be more difficult to dislodge Freeman. At first blush, I expected Freeman’s approach to be – like Gibbon’s in this regard – far too simplistic for such a complex topic, but as it turns out there is nothing even remotely simplistic about Freeman. Very slowly and methodically, Freeman walks us through how the most famous philosopher to embrace the supernatural – Plato – rewrites the logos of Greek reason to represent a higher perfection that can only be seen in rough reflection in this world (i.e. the perfect chair metaphor), which later Christians would rewrite yet again in a different form in the Holy Spirit. It is at once clear why and how Christianity was able to absorb and accept Plato as a noble pagan, while generally rejecting Aristotle the natural scientist. Christianity simply could not abide differing views, even between and especially among other Christian communities. This was true from the very birth of the faith, even in the legendary days of persecution and martyrdom, but its adoption as the official worship of Rome fueled its rage at dissent and likewise provided the tools to crush it. It was not as if there was a kind of conspiracy between the Roman state and the Christian creed to demand unquestioned obedience and orthodoxy, yet once the two became entangled it seemed impossible for any other course to prevail. This hardly abated when the central authority later weakened and powerful bishops enforced conformity instead.

In pre-Christian times, the gods of others – especially the conquered – were often absorbed into the prevailing deities of the conqueror, a process known as religious syncretism. The exception was Jewish monotheism which developed in Hellenistic times out of the earlier Hebrew henotheism; still, Jews hardly expected or desired other peoples to worship Yahweh. In Classical times, there were dozens of competing schools of philosophy, as well as budding explorations of science and the natural world, of which Aristotle was perhaps the most prolific writer. Persecutions of opposing beliefs were rare. Everyone who has studied the era knows that Socrates was not really condemned by the Athenians for disrespecting the gods, but rather for unfortunate political connections in the aftermath of the disastrous Peloponnesian War. Christian martyrs in pagan Rome were less common than advertised, but when this occurred it was more about their refusal to honor the Emperor Cult in worship than about their faith. But when Christianity became preeminent, all of this was to change – forever.

There is so much material in this book on so many interrelated topics that a solid review could easily run a dozen pages and still fall short. I will spare the reader that but instead focus on some key points. First of all, Freeman reminds us how little of Christianity really has much to do with Jesus at all, something most contemporary Christians and especially Roman Catholics are often shocked to discover. The gospels – with their often conflicting accounts of the life and death of Christ – were written long after his death and decidedly not by any of the original twelve apostles. The actual founder of Christianity was Paul, the erstwhile Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen who never met Christ in life but whose dramatic vision of the resurrected Jesus transformed him into an indefatigable proselytizer who constructed the foundation of Christianity as a universal religion rather than a Judaic cult. More than half of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul, who seems to have been a difficult man obsessed with guilt and a horror of human sexuality. As Christianity – with its emphasis on the afterlife rather than the world of the living – spread throughout the Roman Empire, its earlier theology struggled with its many contradictions, not the least of which was the character of Jesus: was he God or man? As such, there were schisms almost from the very start, much like that whimsically portrayed in the satiric Monty Python’s Life of Brian in the sect that formed around Brian’s lost shoe. But there was nothing funny about early Christian theological disputes, which often turned bloody.

Once Christianity achieved dominance in the Empire, it became critical that orthodoxy be established and enforced at the point of the sword if necessary. The most famous example of this was the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine, which essentially established the most fundamental orthodoxy of Christianity – that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of a single immutable “Trinity.” Not only is this notion nowhere to be found in scripture, but scripture decidedly contradicts it on more than one occasion with its portrayals of a very human Jesus struggling with doubt. No matter: this was deemed the correct interpretation and to reject it was heretical. And this tradition, that as Freeman notes “. . . castigates intellectuals and glories in paradox” long pre-dates Nicaea, has its roots in Paul and perhaps its best expression in Tertullian writing circa second/third century CE: “The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” [p272]. As such, logic, science, and rational thought were deliberately crushed. Much more was to come as bishops, councils and great thinkers from Eusebius to Augustine created new manifestations of faith such as a pantheon of angels and demons, the cult of Mary, relics of martyrs, spurious miracles and new doctrines of theology, all of which brooked no room for dissent. In the late fourth century, the unquestionably brilliant Augustine became obsessed with the pessimistic notion of inescapable “original sin” that condemned much of mankind at birth, which also had little basis in scripture. Freeman argues that essentially “. . . Augustine’s rejection of reason and the wider philosophical tradition of the classical world had led him to a philosophical dead end.” [p290] And while Augustine was himself less sanguinary than most, from the very dawn of Christianity’s evolution it was a metaphorical “my way or the highway,” and that highway was often littered with the bloodied corpses of dissenters from the “true faith” — as current doctrine had defined it. It was less that rigid orthodoxy and a rejection of reason was a byproduct of a later medieval corruption of a more pure early church, but that these flaws were present at the creation, so to speak. Many will no doubt be as surprised as I was to learn that the vicious and often merciless persecution of Jews by Christians dates back to the very early days and was far more institutional than random.

Another significant victim was science, which like philosophy was no longer needed nor desired; if it was not part of scripture or theology, then it had no purpose. Hovering over it all was to my mind the image of Dr. Zaius crumpling up the paper airplane in the original chilling film version of Planet of the Apes. As Freeman reports: “Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation . . . The last recorded astronom­ical observation in the ancient Greek world was one by the Athenian philosopher Proclus in A.D. 475, nearly 1,100 years after the prediction of an eclipse by Thales in 585 B.C., which traditionally marks the begin­ning of Greek science. It would be over 1,000 years—with the publica­tion of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543—before these studies began to move forward again.” [p322]

I would have liked to see Freeman devote more time to the Roman “Cult of the Emperor” and how that enabled a transition to a state religion wrapped around Christ. I would also have been interested in an exploration of how Hebrew monotheism was turned on its head in its Christian offshoot to not only invite universal participation but to demand universal loyalty. But is there actually room to explore more ideas and concepts in this thick tome? Freeman will no doubt also be taken to task by some readers for failing to identify or focus upon the positive contributions that Christianity may have offered to Western Civilization, but I suspect that will be more of an issue with believers than secularists. Regardless of your perspective, I would recommend this book as very well-researched, well-written and highly thought-provocative.

Note: I reviewed Freeman’s follow-up work, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, here: 

Review of: The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, by Charles Freeman