In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a remarkable dinner for more than four dozen Nobel Prize winners and assorted other luminaries drawn from the top echelons of the arts and sciences. With his characteristic wit, JFK pronounced it “The most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” One of the least prominent guests that evening was the novelist William Styron, who attended with his wife Rose, and recalled his surprise at the invitation. Styron was not yet then the critically-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon he was to later become, but he was hardly an unknown figure, and it turns out that his most recent novel of American expatriates, Set This House on Fire, was the talk of the White House in the weeks leading up to the event. So he had the good fortune to dine not only with the President and First Lady, but with the likes of John Glenn, Linus Pauling, and Pearl Buck—and in the after-party forged a long-term intimate relationship with the Kennedy family.
My first Styron was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read as a teen. Its merits somewhat unfairly subsumed at the time by the controversy it sparked over race and remembrance, it remains a notable achievement, as well as a reminder that literature is not synonymous with history, nor should it be held to that account. I found Set This House on Fire largely forgettable, but as an undergrad was utterly blown away when I read Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel and a true masterpiece that while yet indisputably original clearly evoked the Faulknerian southern gothic. I went on to read anything by the author I could get my hands on. Also a creature of controversy upon publication, Sophie’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, remains in my opinion one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
I thought I had read all of Styron’s fiction, so it was with certain surprise that I learned from a friend who is both author and bibliophile of the existence of A Tidewater Morning, a collection of three novellas I had somehow overlooked. I bought the book immediately, and packed it to take along for a pandemic retreat to a Vermont cabin in the woods where I read it through in the course of the first day and a half of the getaway, parked in a comfortable chair on the porch sipping hot coffee in the morning and cold beer in late afternoon. Perhaps it was the fact that this was our first breakaway from months of quarantine isolation, or maybe it was the alcohol content of the IPA I was tossing down, but there was definitely a palpable emotional tug for me reading Styron again—works previously unknown to me no less—so many decades after my last encounter with his work, back when I was a much younger man than the one turning these pages. The effect was more pronounced, I suppose, because the semi-autobiographical stories in this collection look back to Styron’s own youth in the Virginia Tidewater in the 1930s and were written when he too was a much older man.
“Love Day,” the first tale of the collection, has him as a young Marine in April 1945 yet untested in combat, awaiting orders to join the invasion of Okinawa and wrestling the ambivalence of chasing heroic destiny while privately entertaining “gut-heaving frights.” There’s much banter among the men awaiting their fate, but the story of real significance is told through flashbacks to an episode some years prior, he still a boy in the back seat of his father’s Oldsmobile, broken down on the side of the road. War is looming—the very war he is about to join—although it was far from certain then, but the catastrophe of an unprepared America overrun by barbaric Japanese invaders is the near-future imagined in the Saturday Evening Post piece the boy is reading in the back of the stalled car. Simmering tempers flare when he lends voice to the prediction. His mother, stoic in her leg brace, slowly dying of a cancer known to all but unacknowledged, had earlier furiously rebuked him for mouthing a racist epithet and now upbraided him again for characterizing the Japanese as “slimy butchers,” while belittling the notion of a forthcoming war. Unexpectedly, his father—a mild, highly-educated man quietly raging at his own inability to effect a simple car repair—lashes out at his wife, branding her “idiotic” and “a fool” for her naïve idealism, then crumbles under the weight of his words to beg her forgiveness. It is a dramatic snapshot not only of a moment of a family in turmoil, but of a time and a place that has long faded from view. Only Styron’s talent with a pen could leave us with so much from what is after only a few pages.
The third story is the title tale, “A Tidewater Morning,” which revisits the family to follow his mother’s final, agonizing days. It concludes with both the boy and his father experiencing twin if unrelated epiphanies. It’s a good read, but I found it a bit overwrought, lacking the subtlety characteristic of Styron’s prose.
Sandwiched between these two is my own favorite, “Shadrach,” the story of a 99-year-old former slave—sold away to an Alabama plantation in antebellum days—who shows up unpredictably with the dying wish to be buried in the soil of the Dabney property where he was born. The problem is that the Dabney descendant currently living there is a struggling, dirt-poor fellow who could be a literary cousin of one of the Snopes often resident in Faulkner novels. The law prohibits interring a black man on his property, and he likewise lacks the means to afford to bury him elsewhere. On the surface, “Shadrach” appears to be a simple story, but on closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a very complex one peopled with multidimensional characters and layered with vigorous doses of both comedy and tragedy.
I highly recommend Styron to those who have not yet read him. For the uninitiated, (spoiler alert!) I will close this review with a worthy passage:
“Death ain’t nothin’ to be afraid about,” he blurted in a quick, choked voice … “Life is where you’ve got to be terrified!” he cried as the unplugged rage spilled forth. … Where in the goddamned hell am I goin’ to get the money to put him in the ground? … I ain’t got thirty-five-dollars! I ain’t got twenty-five dollars! I ain’t got five dollars!” … “And one other thing!” He stopped. Then suddenly his fury—or the harsher, wilder part of it—seemed to evaporate, sucked up into the moonlit night with its soft summery cricketing sounds and its scent of warm loam and honeysuckle. For an instant he looked shrunken, runtier than ever, so light and frail that he might blow away like a leaf, and he ran a nervous, trembling hand through his shock of tangled black hair. “I know, I know,” he said in a faint, unsteady voice edged with grief. “Poor old man, he couldn’t help it. He was a decent, pitiful old thing, probably never done anybody the slightest harm. I ain’t got a thing in the world against Shadrach. Poor old man.” …
“And anyway,” Trixie said, touching her husband’s hand, “he died on Dabney ground like he wanted to. Even if he’s got to be put away in a strange graveyard.”
“Well, he won’t know the difference,” said Mr. Dabney. “When you’re dead nobody knows the difference. Death ain’t much.” [p76-78]
Africa. My youth largely knew of it only through the distorted lens of racist cartoons peopled with bone-in-their-nose cannibals, B-grade movies showcasing explorers in pith helmets who somehow always managed to stumble into quicksand, and of course Tarzan. It was still even then sometimes referred to as the “Dark Continent,” something that was supposed to mean dangerous and mysterious but also translated, for most of us, into the kind of blackness that was synonymous with race and skin color.
My interest in Africa came via the somewhat circuitous route of my study of the Civil War. The central cause of that conflict was, of course, human chattel slavery, and nearly all the enslaved were descendants of lives stolen from Africa. So, for me, a closer scrutiny of the continent was the logical next step. One of the benefits of a fine personal library is that there are hundreds of volumes sitting on shelves waiting for me to find the moment to find them. Such was the case for Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader, which sat unattended but beckoning for some two decades until a random evening found a finger on the spine and then the cover was open and the book was in my lap. I did not turn back.
With a literary flourish rarely present in nonfiction combined with the ambitious sweep of something like a novel of James Michener, Reader attempts nothing less than the epic as he boldly surveys the history of Africa from the tectonic activities that billions of years ago shaped the continent, to the evolution of the single human species that now populates the globe, to the rise and fall of empires, to colonialism and independence, and finally to the twin witness of the glorious and the horrific in the peaceful dismantling of South African apartheid and the Rwandan genocide. In nearly seven hundred pages of dense but highly readable text, the author succeeds magnificently, identifying the myriad differences in peoples and lifeways and environments while not neglecting the shared themes that then and now much of the continent holds in common.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent, and it hosts by far the largest number of sovereign nations: with the addition of South Sudan in 2011—twelve years after Reader’s book was published—there are now fifty-four, as well as a couple of disputed territories. But nearly all of these states are artificial constructs that are relics of European colonialism, lines on maps once penciled in by elite overlords in distant drawing rooms in places like London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and those maps were heavily influenced by earlier incursions by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. Much of the poverty, instability, and often dreadful standards of living in Africa are the vestiges of these artificial borders that mostly ignored prior states, tribes, clans, languages, religions, identities, lifeways. When their colonial masters, who had long raped the land for its resources and the people for their self-esteem, withdrew in the whirlwind decolonization era of 1956-1976—some at the strike of the pen, others at the point of the sword—the exploiters left little of value for nation-building to the exploited beyond the mockery of those boundaries. That of the ancestral that had been lost in the process, had been irrevocably lost. That is one of Reader’s themes. But there is so much more.
The focus is, as it should be, on sub-Saharan Africa; the continent’s northern portion is an extension of the Mediterranean world, marked by the storied legacies of ancient Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and the later Arab conquest. And Egypt, then and now, belongs more properly to the Middle East. But most of Africa’s vast geography stretches south of that, along the coasts and deep into the interior. Reader delivers “Big History” at its best, and the sub-Saharan offers up an immense arena for the drama that entails—from the fossil beds that begat Homo habilis in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, to the South African diamond mines that spawned enormous wealth for a few on the backs of the suffering of a multitude, to today’s Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya that we learn is not as we would suppose a remnant of some ancient pristine habitat, but rather a breeding ground for the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse fly that turned once productive land into a place unsuitable for human habitation.
Perhaps the most remarkable theme in Reader’s book is population sustainability and migration. While Africa is the second largest of earth’s continents, it remains vastly underpopulated relative to its size. Given the harsh environment, limited resources, and prevalence of devastating disease, there is strong evidence that it has likely always been this way. Slave-trading was, of course, an example of a kind forced migration, but more typically Africa’s history has long been characterized by a voluntary movement of peoples away from the continent, to the Middle East, to Europe, to all the rest of the world. Migration has always been—and remains today—subject to the dual factors of “push” and “pull,” but the push factor has dominated. That is perhaps the best explanation for what drove the migrations of archaic and anatomically modern humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe. The recently identified 210,000-year-old Homo sapiens skull in a cave in Greece reminds us that this has been going on a very long time. Homo erectus skulls found in Dmansi, Georgia that date to 1.8 million years old underscore just how long!
Slavery is, not unexpectedly, also a major theme for Reader, largely because of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Africa and how it forever transformed the lifeways of the people directly and indirectly affected by its pernicious hold—culturally, politically and economically. The slavery that was a fact of life on the continent before the arrival of European traders closely resembled its ancient roots; certainly race and skin color had nothing to do with it. As noted, I came to study Africa via the Civil War and antebellum slavery. To this day, a favored logical fallacy advanced by “Lost Cause” apologists for the Confederate slave republic asks rhetorically “But their own people sold them as slaves, didn’t they?” As if this contention—if it was indeed true—would somehow expiate or at least attenuate the sin of enslaving human beings. But is it true? Hardly. Captors of slaves taken in raids or in war by one tribe or one ethnicity would hardly consider them “their own people,” any more than the Vikings that for centuries took Slavs to feed the hungry slave markets of the Arab world would have considered them “their own people.” This is a painful reminder that such notions endure in the mindset of the deeply entrenched racism that still defines modern America—a racism derived from African chattel slavery to begin with. It reflects how outsiders might view Africa, but not how Africans view themselves.
The Atlantic slave trade left a mark on every African who was touched by it as buyer, seller or unfortunate victim. The insatiable thirst for cheap labor to work sugar (and later cotton) plantations in the Americas overnight turned human beings into Africa’s most valuable export. Traditions were trampled. An ever-increasing demand put pressure on delivering supply at any cost. Since Europeans tended to perish in Africa’s hostile environment of climate and disease, a whole new class of “middle-men” came to prominence. Slavery, which dominated trade relations, corrupted all it encountered and left scars from its legacy upon the continent that have yet to fully heal.
This review barely scratches the surface of the range of material Reader covers in this impressive work. It’s a big book, but there is not a wasted page or paragraph, and it neither neglects the diversity nor what is held in common by the land and its peoples. Are there flaws? The included maps are terrible, but for that the publisher should be faulted rather than the author. To compensate, I hung a map of modern Africa on the door of my study and kept a historical atlas as companion to the narrative. Other than that quibble, the author’s achievement is superlative. Rarely have I read something of this size and scope and walked away so impressed, both with how much I learned as well as the learning process itself. If you have any interest in Africa, this book is an essential read. Don’t miss it.
Some years ago, I had the pleasure to stay in a historic cabin on a property in Spotsylvania that still hosts extant Civil War trenches. Those who imagine great armies clad in blue and grey massed against each other with pennants aloft on open fields would not be wrong for the first years of the struggle, but those trenches better reflect the reality of the war as it ground to its slow, bloody conclusion in its final year. Those last months contained some of the greatest drama and most intense suffering of the entire conflict, yet often receive far less attention than deserved. A welcome redress to this neglect is Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by journalist and historian S.C. Gwynne, that neatly marries literature to history and resurrects for us the kind of stirring narratives that once dominated the field.
Looking back, for all too many Civil War buffs it might seem that a certain Fourth of July in 1863—when in the east a battered Lee retreated from Gettysburg on the same day that Vicksburg fell in the west—marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. But experts know that assessment is overdrawn. Certainly, the south had sustained severe body blows on both fronts, but the war yet remained undecided. Like the colonists four score and seven years prior to that day, these rebels did not need to “win” the war, only to avoid losing it. As it was, a full ninety-two weeks—nearly two years—lay ahead until Appomattox, some six hundred forty-six days of bloodshed and uncertainty for both sides, most of what truly mattered compressed into the last twelve months of the war. And, tragically, those trenches played a starring role.
Hymns of the Republic opens in March 1864, when Ulysses Grant—architect of the fall of Vicksburg that was by far the more significant victory on that Independence Day 1863—was brought east and given command of all Union Armies. In the three years since Fort Sumter, the war had not gone well in the east, largely as the result of a series of less-than-competent northern generals who had squandered opportunities and been repeatedly driven to defeat or denied outright victory by the wily tactician, Robert E. Lee. The seat of the Confederacy at Richmond—only a tantalizing ninety-five miles from Washington—lay unmolested, while European powers toyed with the notion of granting them recognition. The strategic narrative in the west was largely reversed, marked by a series of dramatic Union victories crafted by skilled generals, crowned by Grant’s brilliant campaign that saw Vicksburg fall and the Confederacy virtually cut in half. But all eyes had been on the east, to Lincoln’s great frustration. Now events in the west were largely settled, and Lincoln brought Grant east, confident that he had finally found his general who would defeat Lee and end the war. But while Lincoln’s instincts proved sound in the long term, misplaced optimism for an early close to the conflict soon evaporated. More than a year of blood and tears lay ahead.
Much of the battle tactics are a familiar story—Grant Takes Command was the exact title of a Bruce Catton classic—but Gwynne updates the narrative with the benefit of the latest scholarship that not only looks beyond the stereotypes of Grant and Lee, but the very dynamics of more traditional treatments focused solely upon battles and leaders. Most prominently, he resurrects the African Americans that until somewhat recently were for too long conspicuously absent from much Civil War history, buried beneath layers of propaganda spun by unreconstructed Confederates who fashioned an alternate history of the war—the “Lost Cause” myth—that for too long dominated Civil War studies and still stubbornly persists both in right-wing politics and the curricula of some southern school systems to this day. In the process, Gwynne restores the role of African Americans as central players to the struggle who have long been erased from the history books.
Erased. Remarkably, most Americans rarely thought of blacks at all in the context of the war until the film Glory (1989) and Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War (1990) came along. And there are still books—Joseph Wheelan’s Their Last Full Measure: The Final Days of the Civil War, published in 2015, springs to mind—that demote these key actors to bit parts. Yet, without enslaved African Americans there would have never been a Civil War. The centrality of slavery to secession has been just as incontrovertibly asserted by the scholarly consensus as it has been vehemently resisted by Lost Cause proponents who would strike out that uncomfortable reference and replace it with the euphemistic “States’ Rights,” neatly obscuring the fact that southern states seceded to champion and perpetuate the right to own dark-complected human beings as chattel property. Social media is replete with concocted fantasies of legions of “Black Confederates,” but the reality is that about a half million African Americans fled to Union lines, and so many enlisted to make war on their former masters that by the end of the war fully ten percent of the Union army was comprised of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Blacks knew what the war was about, and ultimately proved a force to be reckoned with that drove Union victory, even as a deeply racist north often proved less than grateful for their service.
Borrowing a page from the latest scholarship, Gwynne points to the prominence of African Americans throughout the war, but especially in its final months—marked both by remarkable heroism and a trail of tragedy. His story of the final year of the conflict commences with the massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 of hundreds of surrendering federal troops—the bulk of whom were uniformed blacks—by Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The author gives Forrest a bit of a pass here—while the general was himself not on the field, he later bragged about the carnage—but Gwynne rightly puts focus on the long-term consequences, which were manifold.
The Civil War was the rare conflict in history not marred by wide scale atrocities—except towards African Americans. Lee’s allegedly “gallant” forces in the Gettysburg campaign kidnapped blacks they encountered to send south into slavery, and while Fort Pillow might have been the most significant open slaughter of black soldiers by southerners, it was hardly the exception. Confederates were enraged to see blacks garbed in uniform and sporting a rifle, and thus they were frequently murdered once disarmed rather than taken prisoner like their white counterparts. Something like a replay of Fort Pillow occurred at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, although the circumstances were more ambiguous, as the blacks gunned down in what rebels termed a “turkey shoot” were not begging for their lives as at Pillow. This was not far removed from official policy, of course: the Confederate government threatened to execute or sell into slavery captured black soldiers, and refused to consider them for prisoner exchange. This was a critical factor that led to the breakdown of the parole and exchange processes that had served as guiding principles throughout much of the war. The result bred conditions on both sides that led to the horrors of overcrowding and deplorable conditions in places like Georgia’s Andersonville and Camp Douglas in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Grant was hardly disappointed with the collapse of prisoner exchange. To his mind, anything that denied the south men or materiel would hasten the end of the war, which was his single-minded pursuit. Grant has long been subjected to calumnies that branded him “Grant the Butcher” because he seemed to throw lives away in hopeless attempts to dislodge a heavily fortified enemy. The most infamous example of this was Cold Harbor, which saw massive Union casualties. But Lee’s tactical victory there—it was to be his last of the war—further depleted his rapidly diminishing supply of men and arms which simply could not be replaced. Grant had a strategic vision that set him apart from the rest. That Lee pushed on as the odds shrunk for any outcome other than ultimate defeat came to beget what Gwynne terms “the Lee paradox: the more the Confederates prolonged the war, the more the Confederacy was destroyed.” [p252] And that destruction was no unintended consequence, but a deliberate component of Grant’s grand strategy to prevent food, munitions, pack animals, and slave labor from supporting the enemy’s war effort. Gwynne finds fault with Sherman’s generalship, but his “march to the sea” certainly achieved what had been intended. And while a northern public divided between those who would make peace with the rebels and those impatient with both Grant and Lincoln for an elusive victory, it was Sherman who delivered Atlanta and ensured the reelection of the president, something much in doubt even in Lincoln’s own mind.
There is far more contained within the covers of this fine work than any review could properly summarize. Much to his credit, the author does not neglect those often marginalized by history, devoting a well-deserved chapter to Clara Barton entitled “Battlefield Angel.” And the very last paragraph of the final chapter settles upon Juneteenth, when—far removed from the now quiet battlefields—the last of the enslaved finally learned they were free. Thus, the narrative ends as it has begun, with African Americans in the central role in the struggle too often denied to them in other accounts. For those well-read in the most recent scholarship, there is little new in Hymns of the Republic, but the general audience will find much to surprise them, if only because a good deal of this material has long been overlooked. Perhaps Gwynne’s greatest achievement is in distilling a grand story from the latest historiography and presenting it as the kind of exciting read Civil War literature is meant to be. I highly recommend it.
A familiar construct for students of European history is what is known as “The Long Nineteenth Century,” a period bookended by the French Revolution and the start of the Great War. The Great War. That is what it used to be called, before it was diminished by its rechristening as World War I, to distinguish it from the even more horrific conflict that was to follow just two decades hence. It is the latter that in retrospect tends to overshadow the former. Some are even tempted to characterize one as simply a continuation of the other, but that is an oversimplification. There was in fact far more than semantics to that designation of “Great War,” and historians are correct to flag it as a definitive turning point, for by the time it was over Europe’s cherished notions of civilization—for better and for worse—lay in ruins, and her soil hosted not only the scars of vast, abandoned trenches, but the bones of millions who once held the myths those notions turned out to be dear in their heads and their hearts.
The war ended with a stopwatch of sorts. The Armistice that went into effect on November 11, 1918 at 11AM Paris time marked the end of hostilities, a synchronized moment of collective European consciousness it is said all who experienced would recall for as long as they lived. Of course, something like 22 million souls—military and civilian—could not share that moment: they were the dead. Nearly three thousand died that very morning, as fighting continued right up to the final moments when the clock ran out.
What happened next? There is a tendency to fast forward because we know how it ends: the imperfect Peace of Versailles, the impotent League of Nations, economic depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, American isolationism, Hitler invades Poland. In the process, so much is lost. Instead, Daniel Schönpflug artfully slows the pace with his well-written, highly original strain of microhistory, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. The author, an internationally recognized scholar and adjunct professor of history at the Free University of Berlin, blends the careful analytical skills of a historian with a talented pen to turn out one of the finest works in this genre to date.
First, he presses the pause button. That pause—the Armistice—is just a fragment of time, albeit one of great significance. But it is what follows that most concerns Schönpflug, who has a great drama to convey and does so through the voices of an eclectic array of characters from various walks of life across multiple geographies. When the action resumes, alternating and occasionally overlapping vignettes chronicle the postwar years from the unique, often unexpected vantage points of just over two dozen individuals—some very well known, others less so—who were to leave an imprint of larger or smaller consequence upon the changed world they walked upon.
There is Harry S Truman, who regrets that the military glory he aspired to as a boy has eluded him, yet is confident he has acquitted himself well, and cannot wait to return home to marry his sweetheart Bess and—ironically—vows he will never fire another shot as long as he lives. Former pacifist and deeply religious Medal of Honor winner Sergeant Alvin York receives a hero’s welcome Truman could only dream of, but eschews offers of money and fame to return to his backwoods home in Tennessee, where he finds purpose by leveraging his celebrity to bring roads and schools to his community. Another heroic figure is Sergeant Henry Johnson, of the famed 369th Infantry known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who incurred no less than twenty-one combat injuries fending off the enemy while keeping a fellow soldier from capture, but because of his skin color returns to an America where he remains a second-class citizen who does not receive the Medal of Honor he deserves until its posthumous award by President Barack Obama nearly a century later. James Reese Europe, the regimental band leader of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who has been credited with introducing jazz to Europe, also returns home to an ugly twist of fate.
And there’s Käthe Kollwitz, an artist who lost a son in the war and finds herself in the uncertain environment of a defeated Germany engulfed in street battles between Reds and reactionaries, both flanks squeezing the center of a nascent democracy struggling to assert itself in the wake of the Kaiser’s abdication. One of the key members of that tenuous center is Matthias Erzberger, perhaps the most hated man in the country, who had the ill luck to be chosen as the official who formally accedes to Germany’s humiliating terms for Armistice, and as a result wears a target on his back for the rest of his life. At the same time, the former Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm von Preussen, is largely a forgotten figure who waits in exile for a call to destiny that never comes. Meanwhile in Paris, Marshal Ferdinand Foch lobbies for Germany to pay an even harsher price, as journalist Louise Weiss charts a new course for women in publishing and longs to be reunited with her lover, Milan Štefánik, an advocate for Czechoslovak sovereignty.
Others championing independence elsewhere include Nguyễn Tất Thành (later Hồ Chí Minh), polishing plates and politics while working as a dishwasher in Paris; Mohandas Gandhi, who barely survives the Spanish flu and now struggles to hold his followers to a regimen of nonviolent resistance in the face of increasingly violent British repression; T.E. Lawrence, increasingly disillusioned by the failure of the victorious allies to live up to promises of Arab self-determination; and, Terence MacSwiney, who is willing to starve himself to death in the cause of Irish nationhood. No such lofty goals motivate assassin Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who only seeks revenge on the Turks; nor future Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, who emerges from the war an eager and merciless recruit for right-wing paramilitary forces.
There are many more voices, including several from the realms of art, literature, and music such as George Grosz, Virginia Woolf, and Arnold Schönberg. The importance of the postwar evolution of the arts is underscored in quotations and illustrations that head up each chapter. Perhaps the most haunting is Paul Nash’s 1918 oil-on-canvas of a scarred landscape entitled—with a hint of either optimism or sarcasm—We Are Making a New World. All the stories the voices convey are derived from their respective letters, diaries, and memoirs; only in the “Epilogue” does the reader learn that some of those accounts are clearly fabricated.
Many of my favorite characters in A World on Edge are ones that I had never heard of before, such as Moina Michael, who was so inspired by the sacrifice of those who perished in the Great War that she singlehandedly led a campaign to memorialize the dead with the poppy as her chosen emblem for the fallen, an enduring symbol to this very day. But I found no story more gripping than that of Marina Yurlova, a fourteen year old Cossack girl who became a child soldier in the Russian army, was so badly wounded she was hospitalized for a year, then entered combat once more during the ensuing civil war and was wounded again, this time by the Bolsheviks. Upon recovery, Yurlova embarked upon a precarious journey on foot through Siberia that lasted a month before she was able to flee Russia for Japan and eventually settle in the United States, where despite her injuries she became a dancer of some distinction.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I received an advance reader’s edition (ARC) of A World on Edge as part of an early reviewer’s program way back in November 2018, but then let it linger in my to-be-read (TBR) pile until I finally got around to it near the end of June 2020. I loved the book but did not take any notes for later reference. So, by the time I sat down to review it in January 2021, given the size of the cast and the complexity of their stories, I felt there was no way I could do justice to the author and his work without re-reading it—so I did, over just a couple of days! And that is the true beauty of this book: for all its many characters, competing storylines, and what turns out to be multilevel, deeply profound messaging, for something of the grand saga that it is it remains a fast-paced, exciting read. Schönpflug’s technique of employing bit players to recount an epic tale succeeds so masterfully that the reader is hardly aware of what has been happening until the final pages are being turned. This is history, of course, this is indeed nonfiction, but yet the result invites a favorable comparison to great literature, to a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, or to a novel by André Brink. If European history is an interest, A World on Edge is not only a recommended read, but a required one.
Women are conspicuously absent in most Civil War chronicles. With a few notable exceptions—Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Mary Todd Lincoln—female figures largely appear in the literature as bit players, if they make an appearance at all. Author Karen Abbott seeks a welcome redress to this neglect with Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, an exciting and extremely well-written, if deeply flawed account of some ladies who made a significant contribution to the war effort, north and south.
The concept is sound enough. Abbott focuses on four very different women and relates their respective stories in alternating chapters. There is Belle Boyd, a teenage seductress with a lethal temper who serves as rebel spy and courier; Emma Edmonds, who puts on trousers to masquerade as Frank Thompson and joins the Union army; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, an attractive widow who romances northern politicians to obtain intel for the south; and, Elizabeth Van Lew, a prominent Richmond abolitionist who maintains a sophisticated espionage ring that infiltrates the inner circles of the Confederate government. Each of these is worthy of book-length treatment, but weaving their exploits together is an effective technique that makes for a readable and compelling narrative.
I had never heard of Karen Abbott—the pen name for Abbott Kahler—a journalist and highly acclaimed best-selling author dubbed the “pioneer of sizzle history” by USA Today. She is certainly a gifted writer, and unlike all too many works of history, her prose is fast-moving and engaging. I was swept along by her colorful recounting of the 1861 Battle of Bull Run, with flourishes such as: “Union troops fumbled backward and the Confederates rammed forward, a brutal and uneven dance, with soldiers felled like rotting trees.” I got so carried away I almost made it through the following passage without stumbling:
Some Northern soldiers claimed that every angle, every viewpoint, offered a fresh horror. The rebels slashed throats from ear to ear. They sliced off heads and dropkicked them across the field. They carved off noses and ears and testicles and kept them as souvenirs. They propped the limp bodies of wounded soldiers against trees and practiced aiming for the heart. They wrested muskets and swords from the clenched hands of corpses. They plunged bayonets deep into the backsides of the maimed and the dead. They burned the bodies, collecting “Yankee shin-bones” to whittle into drumsticks, and skulls to use as steins. [p34]
Almost. But I have a master’s degree in history and have spent a lifetime studying the American Civil War, and I have never heard this account of such barbarism at Bull Run. So I paused and flipped to Abbott’s notes for the corresponding page at the back of the book, where with a whiff of insouciance she admits that: “Throughout the war both the North and the South exaggerated the atrocities committed by the enemy, and it’s difficult to determine which incidents were real and which were apocryphal.” [p442] Which is another way of saying that her account is highly sensationalized, if not outright fabrication.
To my mind, Abbott commits an unpardonable sin here. A little research reveals that there were in fact a handful of allegations of brutality in the course of the battle, including the mutilation of corpses, but much of it anecdotal. There were several episodes of Confederate savagery later in the war, principally inflicted upon black soldiers in blue uniforms, but that is another story. How many readers of a popular history would without question take her at her word about what transpired at Bull Run? How many when confronted with stories of testicles taken as souvenirs would think to consult her citations? Lively paragraphs like this may certainly make for “sizzle”—but where’s the history? Historical novels have their place—The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, are among my favorites—but that is not the same thing as history, which must abide by a strict allegiance to fact-based reporting, informed analysis, and documentation. Apparently, this author demonstrates little loyalty to such constraints.
I read on, but with far more skepticism. Abbott’s style is seductive, so it’s easy to keep going. But sins do continue to accumulate. I have a passing familiarity with three of the four main characters, but fact-checking remained essential. Certainly the best known and most consequential was Van Lew, a heroic figure who aided the escape of prisoners of war and provided key intelligence to Union forces in the field. Greenhow is often cited as her counterpart working for the southern cause. Belle Boyd, on the other hand, has become a creature of legend who turns up more frequently in fiction or film than in history texts. I had never heard of Emma Edmonds, but I came to find her story the most fascinating of them all.
It seems that the more documented the subject—such as Van Lew, for example—the closer Abbott’s portrait comes to reliable biography. Beyond that, the imaginative seems to intrude, indeed dominate. The astonishing tale of Emma Edmonds has her not only impersonating a male Union soldier, but also variously posing as an Irish peddler and in blackface disguised as a contraband, engaged in thrilling espionage missions behind enemy lines! It rang of the stuff that Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man was made of. I was suitably sucked in, but also wary. And rightly so: Abbott’s version of Emma Edmonds’ life is based almost entirely on Edmonds’ own memoir, with little that corroborates it, but the author doesn’t bother to reveal that in the narrative. That Edmonds pretended to be a man in order to enlist seems plausible; her spy missions perhaps only fantasy. We simply just don’t know; a true historian would help us draw conclusions. Abbott seems content to let it play out as so much drama to tickle her audience.
But the worst of all is when the time comes to reveal the fate of luckless Confederate spy Greenhow, who drowns when her lifeboat capsizes with Union vessels bearing down on the steamer she abandoned, the moment where the superlative talent of Abbott’s pen collides with her concomitant disloyalty to scholarship:
She was sideways, upside down, somersaulting inside the wet darkness. She screamed noiselessly, the water rushing in. She tried to hold her breath—thirty seconds, sixty, ninety—before her mouth gave way and water filled it again. Tiny streams of bubbles escaped from her nostrils. A burning scythed through her chest. That bag of gold yanked like a noose around her neck. Her hair unspooled and leeched to her skin, twining around her neck. She tried to aim her arms up and her legs down, to push and pull, but every direction seemed the same. No moonlight skimmed along the surface, showing her the way; there was no light at all. [p389]
Entertaining, right? Outstanding writing, correct? Solid history—of course not! Imagining Greenhow’s final agonizing moments of life with a literary flourish may very well enrich the pages of a work of fiction, but it is nothing less than an outrage to a work of history.
This book was a fun read. Were it a novel I would likely give it high marks. But that is not how it is packaged. Emma Edmonds pretended to be a man to save the Union. Karen Abbott pretends to be a historian to sell books. Both make for great stories. But don’t confuse either with reliable history.
When I visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago, the object I found most stunning was the “Monteleone Chariot,” a sixth century Etruscan bronze chariot inlaid with ivory. I stood staring at it, transfixed, long enough for my wife to shuffle her feet impatiently. Still I lingered, dwelling on every detail, especially the panels depicting episodes from the life of Homeric hero Achilles. By that time, I had read The Iliad more than once, and had long been immersed in studies of ancient Greece. How was it then, I wondered, that I could speak knowledgeably about Solon and Pisistratus, but yet know so little about the Etruscans who crafted that chariot in the same century those notables walked the earth?
Long before anyone had heard of the Romans, city-states of Etruria dominated the Italian peninsula—and, along with Carthage and a handful of Greek poleis—the central Mediterranean, as well. Later, Rome would absorb, crush or colonize all of them. In the case of the Etruscans, it was to be a little of each. And somehow, somewhat incongruously, over the millennia Etruscan civilization—or at least what the living, breathing Etruscans would have recognized as such—has been lost to us. But not lost in the way we usually think of “lost civilizations,” like Teotihuacan, for instance, or the Indus Valley, where what remains are ruins of a vanished culture that disappeared from living memory, an undeciphered script, and even the uncertain ethnicity of its inhabitants. The Etruscans, on the other hand, were never forgotten, their alphabet can be read although their language largely defies translation, and their DNA lingers in at least some present-day Italians. Yet, by all accounts they are nevertheless lost, and tantalizingly so.
Such a conundrum breeds frustration, of course: Romans supplanted the Etruscans but hardly exterminated them. Moreover, unlike other civilizations deemed “lost to history,” the Etruscans appear in ancient texts going as far back as Hesiod. There are also hundreds of excavated tombs, rich with decorative art and grave goods, the latter top-heavy with Greek imports they clearly treasured. So how can we know so much about the Etruscans and at the same time so little? Fortunately, Lucy Shipley, who holds a PhD in Etruscan archaeology, comes to a rescue of sorts with her well-written, delightful contribution to the scholarship, entitled simply The Etruscans, a volume in the digest-sized Lost Civilization series published by Reaktion Books.
Most Etruscan studies are dominated by discussions of the ancient sources and—most prominently—the tombs, which are nothing short of magnificent. But where does that lead us? Herodotus references the Etruscans, as does Livy. But are the sources reliable? Rather dubious, as it turns out. Herodotus may be a dependable chronicler of the Hellenes, but anyone who has read his comically misguided account of Egyptian life and culture is aware how far he can stray from reality. And Roman authors such as Livy routinely trumped a decidedly negative perspective, most evident in disdainful memories of the unwelcome semi-legendary Etruscan kings that are said to have ruled Rome until the overthrow of “Tarquin the Proud” in 509 BCE.
Then there are the tombs. Attempts to extrapolate what ancient life was like from the art that decorates the tombs of the dead—awe inspiring as it may be—can present a distorted picture (pun fully intended!) that ignores all but the wealthiest elite slice of the population. Much like Egyptology’s one-time obsession for pyramids and the pharaoh’s list tended to obscure the no less interesting lives of the non-royal—such as those of the workers who collected daily beer rations and left graffiti within the walls of pyramids they constructed—the emphasis on tombs that is standard to Etruscan studies reveals little of the lives of the vast majority of ordinary folks that peopled their world.
Shipley neatly sidesteps these traditional traps by failing to be constrained by them. Instead, she relies on her training as an archaeologist to ask questions: what do we know about the Etruscans and how do we know it? And, perhaps more critically: what don’t we know and why don’t we know it? In the process, she brings a surprisingly fresh look to an enigmatic people in a highly readable narrative suitable to both academic and popular audiences. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the author selects a specific artifact or site for each chapter to serve as a visual trigger for the discussion. Because Shipley is so talented with a pen, it is worth pausing to let her explain her methodology in her own words:
Why focus on the archaeology? Because it is the very materiality, the physicality, the toughness and durability of things and the way they insidiously slip and slide into every corner of our lives that makes them so compelling … We are continually making and remaking ourselves, with the help of things. I would argue that the past is no different in this respect. It’s through things that we can get at the people who made, used and ultimately discarded them—their projects of self-production are as wrapped up in stuff as our own. And always, wrapped up in these things, are fundamental questions about how we choose to be in the world, questions that structure our actions and reactions, questions that change and challenge how we think and what we feel. Questions and objects—the two mainstays of human experience. [p19-20]
Shipley’s approach succeeds masterfully. Because many of these objects—critical artifacts for the archaeologist but often also spectacular works of art for the casual observer—are rendered in full color in this striking edition, the reader is instantly hooked: effortlessly chasing the author’s captivating prose down a host of intriguing rabbit holes in pursuit of answers to the questions she has mated with these objects. Along the way, she showcases the latest scholarship with a concise treatment of a broad range of topics informed by the kind of multi-disciplinary research that defines twenty-first century historical inquiry.
This includes DNA studies of both cattle and human populations in an attempt to resolve the long debate over Etruscan origins. While Herodotus and legions of other ancient and modern detectives have long pointed to legendary migrations from Anatolia, it turns out that the Etruscans are likely autochthonous, speaking a pre-Indo European language that may possibly be related to the one spoken by Ötzi, the mummified iceman, thousands of years ago. Shipley also takes the time to explain how it is that we can read enough of the Etruscan alphabet to decipher proper names while remaining otherwise frustrated in efforts aimed at meaningful translation. Much that we identify as Roman was borrowed from Etruria, but as Rome assimilated the Etruscans over the centuries, their language was left behind. Later, Etruscan literature—like all too much of the classical world—fell victim to the zeal of early Christians in campaigns to purge any remnants of paganism. Most offensive in this regard were writings that described the practices of the “haruspex,” a specialist who sought to divine the future by examining the livers of sacrificial animals, an Etruscan ritual later integrated into Roman religious practices. Texts of haruspices appear prominently in the “hit lists” drawn up by Christian thinkers Tertullian and Arnobius.
My favorite chapter is entitled “Super Rich, Invisible Poor,” which highlights the inevitable distortion that results from the attention paid to the exquisite art and grave goods of the wealthy elite at the expense of the sizeable majority of the inhabitants of a dozen city-states comprised of numerous towns, villages and some larger cities with populations thought to number in the tens of thousands. Although, to be fair, this has hardly been deliberate: there remains a stark scarcity in the archaeological record of the teeming masses, so to speak. While it may smack of the cliché, the famous aphorism “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” should be triple underscored here! The Met’s Monteleone Chariot, originally part of an elaborate chariot burial, makes an appearance in this chapter, but perhaps far more fascinating is a look at the great complex of workshops at a site called Poggio Civitate, more than a hundred miles from Monteleone, where skilled craftspeople labored to produce a whole range of goods in the same century that chariot was fashioned. But what of those workers? There seemed to be no trace of them. You can clearly detect the author’s delight as she describes recent excavations that uncovered remains of a settlement that likely housed them. Shipley returns again and again to her stated objective of connecting the material culture to the living Etruscans who were once integral to it.
Another chapter worthy of superlatives is “Sex, Lives and Etruscans.” While it is tempting to impose modern notions of feminism on earlier peoples, Etruscan women do seem to have had claimed lives of far greater independence than their classical contemporaries in Greece and Rome. And there are also compelling hints at an openness in sexuality—including wife-sharing—that horrified ancient observers who nevertheless thrilled in recounting licentious tales of wicked Etruscan behavior! Shipley describes tomb art that depicts overt sex acts with multiple partners, while letting the reader ponder whether legendary accounts of Etruscan profligacy are given to hyperbole or not.
In addition to beautiful illustrations and an engaging narrative, this volume also features a useful map, a chronology, recommended reading, and plenty of notes. It is rare that any author can so effectively tackle a topic so wide-ranging in such a compact format, so Shipley deserves special recognition for turning out such an outstanding work. The Etruscans rightly belongs on the shelf of anyone eager to learn more about a people who certainly made a vital contribution to the history of western civilization.
In Hearts of Atlantis, Stephen King channels the fabled lost continent as metaphor for the glorious promise of the sixties that vanished so utterly that nary a trace remains. Atlantis sank, King declares bitterly in his fiction. He has a point. If you want to chart the actual moments those collective hopes and dreams were swamped by currents of reaction and finally submerged in the merciless wake of a new brand of unforgiving conservatism, you absolutely must turn to Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, Rick Perlstein’s brilliant, epic political history of an era too often overlooked that surely echoes upon America in 2020 with far greater resonance than perhaps any before or since. But be warned: you may need forearms even bigger than the sign-spinning guy in the Progressive commercial to handle this dense, massive 914-page tome that is nevertheless so readable and engaging that your wrists will tire before your interest flags.
Reaganland is a big book because it is actually several overlapping books. It is first and foremost the history of the United States at an existential crossroads. At the same time, it is a close account of the ill-fated presidency of Jimmy Carter. And, too, it is something of a “making of the president 1980.” This is truly ambitious stuff, and that Perlstein largely succeeds in pulling it off should earn him wide and lasting accolades both as a historian and an observer of the American experience.
Reaganland is the final volume in a series launched nearly two decades ago by Perlstein, a progressive historian, that chronicles the rise of the right in modern American politics. Before the Storm focused on Goldwater’s ascent upon the banner of far-right conservatism. This was followed by Nixonland, which profiled a president who thrived on division and earned the author outsize critical acclaim; and, The Invisible Bridge, which revealed how Ronald Reagan—stridently unapologetic for the Vietnam debacle, for Nixon’s crimes, and for angry white reaction to Civil Rights—brought notions once the creature of the extreme right into the mainstream, and began to pave the road that would take him to the White House. Reaganland is written in the same captivating, breathless style Perlstein made famous in his earlier works, but he has clearly honed his craft: the narrative is more measured, less frenetic, and is crowned with a strong concluding chapter—something conspicuously absent in The Invisible Bridge.
The grand—and sometimes allied—causes of the Sixties were Civil Rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, but concomitant social and political revolutions spawned a myriad of others that included antipoverty efforts for the underprivileged, environmental activism, equal treatment for homosexuals and other marginalized groups such as Native Americans and Chicano farm workers, constitutional reform, consumer safety, and most especially equality for women, of which the right to terminate a pregnancy was only one component. The common theme was inclusion, equality, and cultural secularism. The antiwar movement came to not only dominate but virtually overshadow all else, but at the same time served as a unifying factor that stitched together a kind of counterculture coat of many colors to oppose an often stubbornly unyielding status quo. When the war wound down, that fabric frayed. Those who once marched together now marched apart.
This fragmentation was not generally adversarial; groups once in alliance simply went their own ways, organically seeking to advance the causes dear to them. And there was much optimism. Vietnam was history. Civil Rights had made such strides, even if there remained so much unfinished business. Much of what had been counterculture appeared to have entered the mainstream. It seemed like so much was possible. At Woodstock, Grace Slick had declared that “It’s a new dawn,” and the equality and opportunity that assurance heralded actually seemed within reach. Yet, there were unseen, menacing clouds forming just beneath the horizon.
Few suspected that forces of reaction quietly gathering strength would one day unite to destroy the progress towards a more just society that seemed to lie just ahead. Perlstein’s genius in Reaganland lies in his meticulous identification of each of these disparate forces, revealing their respective origin stories and relating how they came to maximize strength in a collective embrace. The Equal Rights Amendment, riding on a wave of massive bipartisan public support, was but three states away from ratification when a bizarre woman named Phyllis Schlafly seemingly crawled out of the woodwork to mobilize legions of conservative women to oppose it. Gay people were on their way to greater social acceptance via local ordinances which one by one went down to defeat after former beauty queen and orange juice hawker Anita Bryant mounted what turned into a nationwide campaign of resistance. The landmark Roe v. Wade case that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose sparked the birth of a passionate right-to-life movement that soon became the central creature of the emerging Christian evangelical “Moral Majority,” that found easy alliance with those condemning gays and women’s lib. Most critically—in a key component that was to have lasting implications, as Perlstein deftly underscores—the Christian right also pioneered a political doctrine of “co-belligerency” that encouraged groups otherwise not aligned to make common ground against shared “enemies.” Sure, Catholics, Mormons and Jews were destined to burn in a fiery hell one day, reasoned evangelical Protestants, but in the meantime they could be enlisted as partners in a crusade to combat abortion, homosexuality and other miscellaneous signposts of moral decay besetting the nation.
That all this moral outrage could turn into a formidable political dynamic seems to have been largely unanticipated. But, as Perlstein reminds us, maybe it should not have been so surprising: candidate Jimmy Carter, himself deeply religious and well ahead in the 1976 race for the White House, saw a precipitous fifteen-point drop in the polls after an interview in Playboy where he admitted that he sometimes lusted in his heart. Perhaps the sun wasn’t quite ready to come up for that new dawn after all.
Of course, the left did not help matters, often ideologically unyielding in its demand to have it all rather than settle for some, as well as blind to unintended consequences. Nothing was to alienate white members of the national coalition to advance civil rights for African Americans more than busing, a flawed shortcut that ignored the greater imperative for federal aid to fund and rebuild decaying inner-city schools, de facto segregated by income inequality. Efforts to advance what was seen as a far too radical federal universal job guarantee ended up energizing opposition that denied victory to other avenues of reform. And there’s much more. Perlstein recounts the success of Ralph Nader’s crusade for automobile safety, which exposed carmakers for deliberately skimping on relatively inexpensive design modifications that could have saved countless lives in order to turn out even greater profits. Auto manufacturers were finally brought to heel. Consumer advocacy became a thing, with widespread public support and frequent industry acquiescence. But even Nader—not unaware of consequences, unintended or otherwise—advised caution when a protégé pressed a campaign to ban TV ads for sugary cereals that targeted children, predicting with some prescience that “if you take on the advertisers you will end up with so many regulators with their bones bleached in the desert.” [p245] Captains of industry Perlstein terms “Boardroom Jacobins” were stirred to collective action by what was perceived as regulatory overreach, and big business soon joined hands to beat all such efforts back.
Meanwhile, subsequent to Nixon’s fall and Ford’s defeat to Carter in 1976, pundits—not for the last time—prematurely foretold the extinction of the Republican Party, leaving stalwart policy wonks on the right seemingly adrift, clinging to their opposition to the pending Salt II arms agreement and the Panama Canal Treaty, furiously wielding oars of obstruction but yet still lacking a reliable vessel to stem the tide. Bitterly opposed to the prevailing wisdom that counseled moderation to ensure not only relevance but survival, they chafed at accommodation with the Ford-Kissinger-Rockefeller wing of the party that preached détente abroad and compromise at home. They looked around for a new champion … and once again found Ronald Reagan!
The former Bedtime for Bonzo co-star and corporate shill had launched his political career railing against communists concealed in every cupboard, as well as shrewdly exploiting populist rage at long-haired antiwar demonstrators. As governor of California he directed an especially violent crackdown known as “Bloody Thursday” on non-violent protesters at UC Berkeley’s People’s Park that resulted in one death and hundreds of injuries after overzealous police fired tear gas and shotguns loaded with buckshot at the crowd. In a comment that eerily presaged Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark, Reagan declared that “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, you must expect … that people … will make mistakes on both sides.” But a year later he was even less apologetic, proclaiming that “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” This was their candidate, who—remarkably one would think—had nearly snatched the nomination away from Ford in ’76, and then went on to cheer party unity while campaigning for Ford with even less enthusiasm than Bernie Sanders exhibited for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many hold Reagan at least partially responsible for Ford’s loss in the general election.
But Reagan’s neglect of Ford left him neatly positioned as the front-runner for 1980. As conservatives dug in, others of the party faithful recoiled in horror, fearing a repeat of the drubbing at the polls they took in 1964 with Barry “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” Goldwater at the top of the ticket. And Reagan did seem extreme, perhaps more so than Goldwater. The sounds of sabers rattling nearly drowned out his words every time he mentioned the U.S.S.R. And he said lots of truly crazy things, both publicly and privately, once even wondering aloud over dinner with columnist Jack Germond whether “Ford had staged fake assassination attempts to win sympathy for his renomination.” Germond later recalled that “He was always a man with a very loose hold on the real world around him.” [p617] Germond had a good point: Reagan once asserted that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal,” boosted the valuable recycling potential of nuclear waste, and insisted that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”—prompting some joker at a rally to decorate a tree with a sign that said “Chop me down before I kill again.”
But Reagan had a real talent with dog whistles, launching his campaign with a speech praising “states’ rights” at a county fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. He once boasted he “would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” claimed “Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine,” and bemoaned the Voting Rights Act as “humiliating to the South.” A whiff of racism also clung to his disdain for Medicaid recipients as a “a faceless mass, waiting for handouts,” and his recycling ad nauseum of his dubious anecdote of a “Chicago welfare queen” with twelve social security cards who bilked the government out of $150,000. Unreconstructed whites ate this red meat up. Nixon’s “southern strategy” reached new heights under Reagan.
But a white southerner who was not a racist was actually the president of the United States. Despite the book’s title, the central protagonist of Reaganland is Jimmy Carter, a man who arrived at the Oval Office buoyed by public confidence rarely seen in the modern era—and then spent four years on a rollercoaster of support that plummeted far more often than it climbed. At one point his approval rating was a staggering 77% … at another 28%—only four points above where Nixon’s stood when he resigned in disgrace. These days, as the nonagenarian Carter has established himself as the most impressive ex-president since John Quincy Adams, we tend to forget what a truly bad president he was. Not that he didn’t have good intentions, only that—like Woodrow Wilson six decades before him—he was unusually adept at using them to pave his way to hell. A technocrat with an arrogant certitude that he had all the answers, he arrived on the Beltway with little idea of how the world worked, a family in tow that seemed like they were right out of central casting for a Beverly Hillbillies sequel. He often gravely lectured the public on what was really wrong with the country—and then seemed to lay blame upon Americans for outsize expectations. And he dithered, tacking this way and that way, alienating both sides of the aisle in a feeble attempt to seem to stand above the fray.
In fairness, he had a lot to deal with. Carter inherited a nation more socio-economically shook up than any since the 1930s. In 1969, the United States had proudly put a man on the moon. Only a few short years later, a country weaned on wallowing in American exceptionalism saw factories shuttered, runaway inflation, surging crime, cities on the verge of bankruptcy, and long lines just to gas up your car at an ever-skyrocketing cost. And that was before a nuclear power plant melted down, Iranians took fifty-two Americans hostage, and Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. All this was further complicated by a new wave of media hype that saw the birth of the “bothersiderism” that gives equal weight to scandals legitimate or spurious—an unfortunate ingredient that remains so baked into current reporting.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Reaganland is Perlstein’s superlative rendering of what America was like in the mid-70s. Stephen King’s horror is often so effective at least in part due to the fads, fast food, and pop music he uses as so many props in his novels. If that stuff is real, perhaps ghosts or killer cars could be real, as well. Likewise, Perlstein brings a gritty authenticity home by stepping beyond politics and policy to enrich the narrative with headlines of serial killers and plane crashes, of assassination and mass suicide, adroitly resurrecting the almost numbing sense of anxiety that informed the times. DeNiro’s Taxi Driver rides again, and the reader winces through every page.
Carter certainly had his hands full, especially as the hostage crisis dragged on, but it hardly ranked up there with Truman’s Berlin Airlift or JFK’s Cuban missiles. There were indeed crises, but Carter seemed to manufacture even more—and to get in his own way most of the time. And his attempts to reassure consistently backfired, fueling even more national uncertainty. All this offered a perfect storm of opportunity for right-wing elements who discovered co-belligerency was not only a tactic but a way of life. Against all advice and all odds, Reagan—retaining his “very loose hold on the real world around him”—saw no contradiction bringing his brand of conservatism to join forces with those maligning gays, opposing abortion, stonewalling the ERA, and boosting the Christian right. Corporate CEO’s—Perlstein’s “Boardroom Jacobins”—already on the defensive, were more than ready to finance it. Carter, flailing, played right into their hands. Already the most right-of-center Democratic president of the twentieth century, he too shared that weird vision of the erosion of American morality. And Perlstein reminds us that the debacle of financial deregulation usually traced back to Reagan actually began on Carter’s watch, the seeds sown for the wage stagnation, growth of income inequality, and endless cycles of recession that has been de rigueur in American life ever since. Carter failed to make a good closing argument for why he should be re-elected, and the unthinkable occurred: Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. The result was that the middle-class dream that seemed so much in jeopardy under Carter was permanently crushed once Reagan’s regime of tax cuts, deregulation, and the supply-side approach George H.W. Bush rightly branded as “voodoo economics” became standard operating policy. Progressive reform sputtered and stalled. The little engine that FDR had ignited to manifest a social and economic miracle for America crashed and burned forever on the vanguard of Reaganomics.
Some readers might be intimidated by the size of Reaganland, but it’s a long book because it tells a long story, and it contains lots of moving parts. Perlstein succeeds magnificently because he demonstrates how all those parts fit together, replete with the nuance and complexity critical to historical analysis. Is it perfect? Of course not. I’m a political junkie, but there were certain segments on policy and legislative wrangling that seemed interminable. And if Perlstein mentioned “Boardroom Jacobins” just one more time, I might have screamed. But these are quibbles. This is without doubt the author’s finest book, and I highly recommend it, as both an invaluable reference work and a cover-to-cover read.
In Hearts of Atlantis, Stephen King imagines the sixties as bookended by JFK’s 1963 assassination and John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Perlstein seems to follow that same school of thought, for the final page of Reaganland also wraps up with Lennon’s untimely death. In an afterword to his work of fiction, King muses: “Although it is difficult to believe, the sixties are not fictional; they actually happened.” If you are more partial to nonfiction and want the real story of how the sixties ended, of how Atlantis sank, you must read Reaganland.
[Note: this review goes to press just a few days before the most consequential presidential election in modern American history. This book and this review are reminders that elections do matter.]
Nearly two decades have passed since Charles Freeman published The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, a brilliant if controversial examination of the intellectual totalitarianism of Christianity that dated to the dawn of its dominance of Rome and the successor states that followed the fragmentation of the empire in the West. Freeman argues persuasively that the early Christian church vehemently and often brutally rebuked the centuries-old classical tradition of philosophical enquiry and ultimately drove it to extinction with a singular intolerance of competing ideas crushed under the weight of a monolithic faith. Not only were pagan religions prohibited, but there would be virtually no provision for any dissent with official Christian doctrine, such that those who advanced even the most minor challenges to interpretation were branded heretics and sent to exile or put to death. That tragic state was to define medieval Europe for more than a millennium.
Now the renowned classical historian has returned with a follow-up epic, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700, recently published in the UK (and slated for U.S. release, possibly with a different title) which recounts the slow—some might brand it glacial—evolution of Western thought that restored legitimacy to independent examination and analysis, that eventually led to a celebration, albeit a cautious one, of reason over blind faith. In the process, Freeman reminds us that quality, engaging narrative history has not gone extinct, while demonstrating that it is possible to produce a work that is so well-written it is readable by a general audience while meeting the rigorous standards of scholarship demanded by academia. That this is no small achievement will be evident to anyone who—as I do—reads both popular and scholarly history and is struck by the stultifying prose that often typifies the academic. In contrast, here Freeman takes a skillful pen to reveal people, events and occasionally obscure concepts, much of which may be unfamiliar to those who are not well versed in the medieval period.
The fall of Rome remains a subject of debate for historians. While traditional notions of sudden collapse given to pillaging Vandals leaping over city walls and fora engulfed in flames have long been revised, competing visions of a more gradual transition that better reflect the scholarship sometimes distort the historiography to minimize both the fall and what was actually lost. And what was lost was indeed dramatic and incalculable. If, to take just one example, sanitation can be said to be a mark of civilization, the Roman aqueducts and complex network of sewers that fell into disuse and disrepair meant that fresh water was no longer reliable, and sewage that bred pestilence was to be the norm for fifteen centuries to follow. It was not until the late nineteenth century that sanitation in Europe even approached Roman standards. So, whatever the timeline—rapid or gradual—there was indeed a marked collapse. Causes are far more elusive. But Gibbon’s largely discredited casting of Christianity as the villain that brought the empire down tends to raise hackles in those who suspect someone like Freeman attempting to point those fingers once more. But Freeman has nothing to say about why Rome fell, only what followed. The loss of the pursuit of reason was to be as devastating for the intellectual health of the post-Roman world in the West as sanitation was to prove for its physical health. And here Freeman does squarely take aim at the institutional Christian church as the proximate cause for the subsequent consequences for Western thought. This is well-underscored in the bleak assessment that follows in one of the final chapters in The Closing of the Western Mind:
Christian thought that emerged in the early centuries often gave irrationality the status of a universal “truth” to the exclusion of those truths to be found through reason. So the uneducated was preferred to the educated and the miracle to the operation of natural laws … This reversal of traditional values became embedded in the Christian tradition … Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation … [p322]
Awakening picks up where Closing leaves off as the author charts the “Reopening of the Western Mind” (this was the working title of his draft!) but the new work is marked by far greater optimism. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, Freeman puts focus not only upon the recovery of concepts long forgotten but how rediscovery eventually sparked new, original thought, as the spiritual and later increasingly secular world danced warily around one another—with a burning heretic all too often staked between them on Europe’s fraught intellectual ballroom. Because the timeline is so long—encompassing twelve centuries—the author sidesteps what could have been a dull chronological recounting of this slow progression to narrow his lens upon select people, events and ideas that collectively marked milestones on the way that comprise thematic chapters to broaden the scope. This approach thus transcends what might have been otherwise parochial to brilliantly convey the panoramic.
There are many superlative chapters in Awakening, including the very first one, entitled “The Saving of the Texts 500-750.” Freeman seems to delight in detecting the bits and pieces of the classical universe that managed to survive not only vigorous attempts by early Christians to erase pagan thought but the unintended ravages of deterioration that is every archivist’s nightmare. Ironically, the sacking of cities in ancient Mesopotamia begat conflagrations that baked inscribed clay tablets, preserving them for millennia. No such luck for the Mediterranean world, where papyrus scrolls, the favored medium for texts, fell to war, natural disasters, deliberate destruction, as well as to entropy—a familiar byproduct of the second law of thermodynamics—which was not kind in prevailing environmental conditions. We are happily still discovering papyri preserved by the dry conditions in parts of Egypt—the oldest dating back to 2500 BCE—but it seems that the European climate doomed papyrus to a scant two hundred years before it was no more.
Absent printing presses or digital scans, texts were preserved by painstakingly copying them by hand, typically onto vellum, a kind of parchment made from animal skins with a long shelf life, most frequently in monasteries by monks for whom literacy was deemed essential. But what to save? The two giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, were preserved, but the latter far more grudgingly. Fledgling concepts of empiricism in Aristotle made the medieval mind uncomfortable. Plato, on the other hand, who pioneered notions of imaginary higher powers and perfect forms, could be (albeit somewhat awkwardly) adapted to the prevailing faith in the Trinity, and thus elements of Plato were syncretized into Christian orthodoxy. Of course, as we celebrate what was saved it is difficult not to likewise mourn what was lost to us forever. Fortunately, the Arab world put a much higher premium on the preservation of classical texts—an especially eclectic collection that included not only metaphysics but geography, medicine and mathematics. When centuries later—as Freeman highlights in Awakening—these works reached Europe, they were to be instrumental as tinder to the embers that were to spark first a revival and then a revolution in science and discovery.
My favorite chapter in Awakening is “Abelard and the Battle for Reason,” which chronicles the extraordinary story of scholastic scholar Peter Abelard (1079-1142)—who flirted with the secular and attempted to connect rationalism with theology—told against the flamboyant backdrop of Abelard’s tragic love affair with Héloïse, a tale that yet remains the stuff of popular culture. In a fit of pique, Héloïse’s father was to have Abelard castrated. The church attempted something similar, metaphorically, with Abelard’s teachings, which led to an order of excommunication (later lifted), but despite official condemnation Abelard left a dramatic mark on European thought that long lingered.
There is too much material in a volume this thick to cover competently in a review, but the reader will find much of it well worth the time. Of course, some will be drawn to certain chapters more than others. Art historians will no doubt be taken with the one entitled “The Flowering of the Florentine Renaissance,” which for me hearkened back to the best elements of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, showcasing not only the evolution of European architecture but the author’s own adulation for both the art and the engineering feat demonstrated by Brunelleschi’s dome, the extraordinary fifteenth century adornment that crowns the Florence Cathedral. Of course, Freeman does temper his praise for such achievements with juxtaposition to what once had been, as in a later chapter that recounts the process of relocating an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 331 tons that had been placed on the Vatican Hill by the Emperor Caligula, which was seen as remarkable at the time. In a footnote, Freeman reminds us that: “One might talk of sixteenth-century technological miracles, but the obelisk had been successfully erected by the Egyptians, taken down by the Romans, brought by sea to Rome and then re-erected there—all the while remaining intact!” [p492n]
If I was to find a fault with Awakening, it is that it does not, in my opinion, go far enough to emphasize the impact of the Columbian Experience on the reopening of the Western mind. There is a terrific chapter devoted to the topic, “Encountering the Peoples of the ‘Newe Founde Worldes,’” which explores how the discovery of the Americas and its exotic inhabitants compelled the European mind to examine other human societies whose existence had never before even been contemplated. While that is a valid avenue for analysis, it yet hardly takes into account just how earth-shattering 1492 turned out to be—arguably the most consequential milestone for human civilization (and the biosphere!) since the first cities appeared in Sumer—in a myriad of ways, not least the exchange of flora and fauna (and microbes) that accompanied it. But this significance was perhaps greatest for Europe, which had been a backwater, long eclipsed by China and the Arab middle east. It was the Columbian Experience that reoriented the center of the world, so to speak, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which was exploited to the fullest by the Europeans who prowled those seas and first bridged the continents. It is difficult to imagine the subsequent accomplishments—intellectual and otherwise—had Columbus not landed at San Salvador. But this remains just a quibble that does not detract from Freeman’s overall accomplishment.
Full disclosure: Charles Freeman and I began a long correspondence via email following my review of Closing. I was honored when he selected me as one of his readers for his drafts of Awakening, which he shared with me in 2018, but at the same time I approached this responsibility with some trepidation: given Freeman’s credentials and reputation, what if I found the work to be sub-standard? What if it was simply not a good book? How would I address that? As it was, these worries turned out to be misplaced. It is a magnificent book and I am grateful to have read much of it as a work in progress, and then again after publication. I did submit several pages of critical commentary to assist the author, to the best of my limited abilities, hone a better final product, and to that end I am proud see my name appear in the “Acknowledgments.”
I do not usually talk about formats in book reviews, since the content is typically neither enhanced nor diminished by its presentation in either a leather-bound tome or a mass-market paperback or the digital ink of an e-book, but as a bibliophile I cannot help but offer high praise to this beautiful, illustrated edition of Awakening published by Head of Zeus, even accented by a ribbon marker. It has been some time since I have come across a volume this attractive without paying a premium for special editions from Folio Society or Easton Press, and in this case the exquisite art that supplements the text transcends the ornamental to enrich the narrative.
Interest in the medieval world has perhaps waned over time. But that is, of course, a mistake. How we got from point A to point B is an important story, even if it has never been told before as well as Freeman has told it in Awakening. And it is not an easy story to tell. As the author acknowledges in a concluding chapter: “Bringing together the many different elements that led to the ‘awakening of the western mind’ is a challenge. It is important to stress just how bereft Europe was, economically and culturally, after the fall of the Roman empire compared to what it had been before.” [p735]
Those of us given to dystopian fiction, concerned with the fragility of republics and civilization, and wondering aloud in the midst of a global pandemic and the rise of authoritarianism what our descendants might recall of us if it all fell to collapse tomorrow cannot help but be intrigued by how our ancestors coped—for better or for worse—after Rome was no more. If you want to learn more about that, there might be no better covers to crack than Freeman’s The Awakening. I highly recommend it.
NOTE: My review of Freeman’s earlier work appears here:
“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films,’” Quentin Tarantino famously quipped. While I’m no iconic director, I too “went to films,” in a manner of speaking. I was raised by my grandmother in the 1960s—with a little help from a 19” console TV in the living room and seven channels delivered via rooftop antenna. When cartoons, soaps, or prime time westerns and sitcoms like Bonanza and Bewitched weren’t broadcasting, all the remaining airtime was filled with movies. All kinds of movies: drama, screwball comedies, war movies, gangster movies, horror movies, sci-fi, musicals, love stories, murder mysteries—you name the genre, it ran. And ran. And ran. For untold hours and days and weeks and years.
Grandma—rest in peace—loved movies. Just loved them. All kinds of movies. But she didn’t have much of a discerning eye: for her, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was no better or worse than Bedtime for Bonzo. At first, I didn’t know any better either, and whether I was four or fourteen I watched whatever was on, whenever she was watching. But I took a keen interest. The immersion paid dividends. My tastes evolved. One day I began calling them films instead of movies, and even turned into something of a “film geek,” arguing against the odds that Casablanca is a better picture than Citizen Kane, promoting Kubrick’s Paths of Glory over 2001, and shamelessly confessing to screening Tarantino’s Kill Bill I and II back-to-back more than a dozen times. In other words, I take films pretty seriously. So, when I noticed that Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood was up for grabs in an early reviewer program, I jumped at the opportunity. I was not to be disappointed.
In an extremely well-written and engaging narrative, film critic and journalist Karina Longworth has managed to turn out a remarkable history of Old Hollywood, in the guise of a kind of biography of Howard Hughes. In films, a “MacGuffin” is something insignificant or irrelevant in itself that serves as a device to trigger the plot. Examples include the “Letters of Transit” in Casablanca, the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, and the briefcase in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Howard Hughes himself is the MacGuffin of sorts in Seduction, which is far less about him than his female victims and the peculiar nature of the studio system that enabled predators like Hughes and others who dominated the motion picture industry.
Howard Hughes was once one of the most famous men in America, known for his wealth and genius, a larger-than-life legend noted both for his exploits as aviator and flamboyance as a film producer given to extravagance and star-making. But by the time I was growing up, all that was in the distant past, and Hughes was little more than a specter in supermarket tabloids, an eccentric billionaire turned recluse. It was later said that he spent most days alone, sitting naked in a hotel room watching movies. Long unseen by the public, at his death he was nearly unrecognizable, skeletal and covered in bedsores. Director Martin Scorsese resurrected him for the big screen in his epic biopic “The Aviator,” headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio and a star-studded cast, which showcased Hughes as a heroic and brilliant iconoclast who in turn took on would-be censors, the Hollywood studio system, the aviation industry and anyone who might stand in the way of his quest for glory—all while courting a series of famed beauties. Just barely in frame was the mental instability, the emerging Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that later brought him down.
Longworth finds Hughes a much smaller and more despicable man, an amoral narcissist and manipulator who was seemingly incapable of empathy for other human beings. (Yes, there is indeed a palpable resemblance to a certain president!) While Hughes carefully crafted an image of a titan who dominated the twin arenas of flight and film, in Longworth’s portrayal he seems to crash more planes than he lands, and churns out more bombs than blockbusters. In the public eye, he was a great celebrity, but off-screen he comes off as an unctuous villain, a charlatan whose real skill set was self-promotion empowered by vast sums of money and a network of hangers-on. The author gives him his due by denying him top billing as the star of the show, rather giving scrutiny to those in his orbit, the females in supporting roles whom he in turn dominated, exploited and discarded. You can almost hear refrains of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain interposed in the narrative, taunting the ghost of Hughes with the chorus: “You probably think this song is about you”—which by the way would make a great soundtrack if there’s ever a screen adaptation of the book.
If not Hughes, the real main character is Old Hollywood itself, and with a skillful pen, Longworth turns out a solid history—a decidedly feminist history—of the place and time that is nothing less than superlative. The author recreates for us the early days before the tinsel, when a sleepy little “dry” town no one had ever heard of almost overnight became the celluloid capital of the country. Pretty girls from all over America would flock there on a pilgrimage to fame; most disappointed, many despairing, more than a few dead. Nearly all were preyed upon by a legion of the contemptible, used and abused with a thin tissue of lies and promises that anchored them not only to the geography but to the predominantly male movers and shakers who dominated the studio system that literally dominated everything else. This is a feminist history precisely because Longworth focuses on these women—more specifically ten women involved with Hughes—and through them brilliantly captures Hollywood’s golden age as manifested in both the glamorous and the tawdry.
Howard Hughes was not the only predator in Tinseltown, of course, but arguably its most depraved. If Hollywood power-brokers overpromised fame to hosts of young women just to bed them, for Hughes sex was not even always the principal motivation. It went way beyond that, often to twisted ends perhaps unclear to even Hughes himself. He indeed took many lovers, but those he didn’t sleep with were not exempt to his peculiar brand of exploitation. What really got Howard Hughes off was exerting power over women, controlling them, owning them. He virtually enslaved some of these women, stripping them of their individual freedom of will for months or even years with vague hints at eventual stardom, abetted by assorted handlers appointed to spy on them and report back to him. Even the era of “Me Too” lacks the appropriate vocabulary to describe his level of “creepy!”
One of the women he apparently did not take to bed was Jane Russell. Hughes cast the beautiful, voluptuous nineteen year old in The Outlaw, a film that took forever to produce and release largely due to his fetishistic obsession with Russell’s breasts—and the way these spilled out of her dress in a promotional poster that provoked the ire of censors. Longworth’s treatment of the way Russell unflappably endured her long association with Hughes—despite his relentless domination over her life and career—is just one of the many delightful highlights in Seduction.
The Outlaw, incidentally, was one of the movies I recall watching with Grandma back in the day. Her notions of Hollywood had everything to do with the glamorous and the glorious, of handsome leading men and lovely leading ladies up on the silver screen. I can’t help wondering what she might think if she learned how those ladies were tormented by Hughes and other moguls of the time. I wish I could tell her about it, about this book. Alas, that’s not possible, but I can urge anyone interested in this era to read Seduction. If authors of film history could win an Academy Award, Longworth would have an Oscar on her mantle to mark this outstanding achievement.
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.