Review of: The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, by Peter S. Carmichael


PODCAST … Review of The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, by Peter S. Carmichael

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A few years ago, I had the honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry, which turned up more than a century after The War for the Common Soldierthese were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished. In a lifetime of studying the American Civil War, soldiers’ letters were hardly new to me, of course, but I found myself surprisingly emotional as I became one of the very first in so many decades to get a glimpse at the sometimes-hidden hearts of these long-dead souls. And there was something else: rather than the random excerpt, often highlighted for its dramatic impact, that makes a familiar appearance in the pages of history books, these materials represent continuous strands of communication by nearly two dozen individuals, some of which stretched over a three-year period. The stories they tell run the gamut from the mundane to the comedic to the horrific, but collectively the nature and the personalities of the storytellers emerge to reveal authenticity in their experience too frequently lost in grand narratives about the war. A careful read of a man’s letters home over several years often unexpectedly expose truths that are omitted or deliberately distorted by the correspondent.

This overarching point is subtly but expertly made again and again in historian Peter S. Carmichael’s magnificent work, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought and Survived in Civil War Armies, certainly one of the most significant recent contributions to the historiography. As primary sources, surviving letters from the front are critical and invaluable, but even more critical may be interpretation, which can be misled by taking these at face value, or plucking them out of context, or being seduced by the words of a man who wants his wife or mother—or especially himself—to believe that he is courageous or confident or committed to his cause when only some or none of those may be true.

In a dense, but highly readable account that brings a surprisingly fresh perspective to a frequently overlooked aspect of Civil War studies, Carmichael defies often prevailing generalizations of soldiers north and south that tend to predominate in the literature, reminding the reader that a tendency to oversimplification distorts the reality on the ground. Something like a total of 2.75 million men fought on both sides in the Civil War. These were living, breathing human beings, not simply the statistical figures fed into databases to produce the broad generalities pervasive in many narratives.  At the same time, he does not fail to locate and identify the commonalities in the rank and file that exist in multiple arenas, but his skillful approach to this end is guided by the nuance and complexity that is the mark of a great historian.

Carmichael’s well-written chronicle explores almost all aspects of a soldier’s life in camp, on the march and in battle, but that nuance is made most manifest in the chapter entitled “Desertion and Military Justice.” The accepted wisdom has long argued that bounty jumpers constituted the majority of those shot for desertion over the course of the war, and perhaps with some justification. But while the numbers underscore that there were plenty who likely fit that profile, Carmichael’s research demonstrates that such a broad brush obscures a reality that saw men on both sides leaving the lines and returning, frequently more than once, and typically with little or no penalty. This was especially common among Confederates, who usually fled not out of cowardice or convenience but rather to aid starving families back home desperate for survival. And there was, in many cases, a fine line between AWOL and desertion.  It is surprising how often luck or simply the vagaries of enforcement separated men made to sit on their own coffins with eyes bandaged while the firing squad formed up from those docked a month’s pay instead. It does seem that Lincoln’s moral compass was more finely oriented to the circumstances of the soldier missing from his company—even if this found friction among the Union brass—than was the case on the other side, for the reality was that by percentage far more men clad in gray were put to death than those in blue, and some of these were mass executions before the lines. What is clear is that on both sides, the common soldier—even the veteran accustomed to the gore and slaughter of battle—was deeply disturbed when compelled to witness the cold-blooded murder of a fellow soldier, even if he thought the man got his just deserts.

A review such as this cannot possibly touch upon all of the themes Carmichael surveys in this outstanding study, but I was especially drawn to his treatment of the phenomenon of malingering, which instantly found a familiar face in Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, one of my men from the 31st, who bragged in letters to his mother about his health while he served away from the cannon fire as part of the occupation army in New Orleans, even taking swipes at those pretending to be ill to avoid duty. Yet later, on the very eve of combat, he fell victim first to “diarrhoea” and then to a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints that kept him confined to a hospital bed for months until he was eventually discharged for disability. I read this man’s letters in isolation, of course, but Carmichael’s impressive research demonstrates not only that this soldier’s manufactured symptoms put him in the company of thousands of other “shirkers,” but also underscores how difficult it was for doctors equipped with the primitive diagnostic tools of mid-nineteenth century medicine to distinguish the truly afflicted from those talented at feigning illness to avoid combat or earn a discharge. As such, there were men who genuinely suffered sent back to come under enemy fire, while others who were quite healthy succeeded in dodging the same.

Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of unpublished letters from George W. Gould, a Massachusetts private killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. I transcribed his correspondence and created a website for public access to honor him, and I visit his grave in Paxton MA several times a year. When I placed a flag on his grave to commemorate Memorial Day 2019, I found myself in somber reflection of not only the sacrifice of Private Gould, but also of the vast territory covered in The War for the Common Soldier, because although his name appears nowhere in the narrative this book is surely about George W. Gould and every man who marched alongside him, as well as every man he marched against in opposition with musket held high. Pvt. George W. Gould and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes are just two of the millions who either gasped their last breaths on Civil War battlefields or drank beer at memorials in the decades that followed.  If you want to understand that terrible war, you should indeed visit battlefields and explore the latest historiography, but you should also pause to read Carmichael’s superlative work. The truth is that you will never comprehend the Civil War until you come to understand the Civil War soldier. Some books should be required reading. This is one of them.


[REVIEW ADDENDUM: Some years back, I had the great honor of being selected for a key role on a team engaged in scanning, transcribing and digitizing a trove of recently rediscovered letters, diaries and narratives of the Massachusetts 31st Infantry—a regiment that first served with Benjamin Butler as an occupying force in New Orleans, and later as part of the Red River campaign under Nathaniel Banks—which turned up in the archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History more than a century after they were compiled by their regimental historian but left unpublished due to his untimely death. These materials can be accessed at:

I found Carmichael’s treatment of malingerers especially fascinating, because it related to my own work with the Massachusetts 31st and Cpl. Joshua W. Hawkes, who in letters to his mother made dozens of references to his generally good health during the first portion of his service, where he thrived as part of the occupying force under Benjamin Butler in New Orleans.  In one missive from the autumn of 1862 [letter 10/18/62], he even bragged about how quickly he recovered from the “ague” while taking a swipe at those who pretended to be ill, noting that while he was “back to duty now there is so much playing off sick I do not wish any such name.” Ironically then, in April 1863, on the eve of what would have been his first foray into combat, [letter 04/17/63] Hawkes was beset with “diarrhoea” [SIC] which eventually led to his return to New Orleans, this time to the St. James Hospital, where a bewildering set of ever-shifting complaints kept him confined—but not incapable of eating fairly well, such as “an egg in the morning, a piece of toasted bread each meal and a little claret wine,” [letter 6/4/63] and occasionally exploring the city when granted a pass—until he eventually succeeded in gaining a discharge for disability in July 1863.  In one of his more histrionic letters to mother, he proclaims:

“I am perhaps disposed to magnify my ails, but when I have seen men brought in here who had been forced to march with diarrhoea [SIC] … coming here too weak to walk and living but a week or two, then I have thought it was not best to beg to be sent away to the exposures of an army on active duty in the field. They can call me a coward, a shirk, what they choose, but I think it a duty to take care of my health not only for myself but on my mother’s account, what do you think of this logic?” [letter 06/04/63]

Apparently, this “logic” served Hawkes’ well, since he was sent home without ever coming under enemy fire and lived on until 1890!

Hawkes letters referenced above are accessible at:

Some years after my project with the 31st, I was given access to a private collection of the unpublished letters of Pvt. George W. Gould, who was killed at the bloody battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. He has come to serve as my “adopted” Civil War soldier, so by honoring him I likewise honor all of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I scanned and transcribed his letters and created a website to honor him, which can be accessed at:

I have attached this addendum not because these particular soldiers who fell or survived have a greater or lesser import than any of the other hundreds of thousands who served in the American Civil War, but rather to add meaningful context, and to underscore the essential point of Carmichael’s wonderful book, which is that you must read far more deeply into what these men had to say in their letters home if you really want to try to understand the war at all.]

Review of: Wanting, by Richard Flanagan


Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan has written seven novels, one of which—Gould’s Book of Fish—I would rank among the very finest of twenty-first century literature to wanting bookcoverdate.  I primarily read books of history, biography and science these days, but I do stray to the realm of fiction from time to time. When I happen upon a writer whose literary output not only consistently transcends the best published fiction of its day, but is so iconic that it comes to define its own genre—Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami also come to mind—I latch on to that novelist and set out to read their full body of work. Wanting marks my completion of all of Flanagan’s novels, and it turns out that I saved one of the very best for the very last.

There is irony here because I have long resisted it, based upon its off-putting description on Flanagan’s Wikipedia page—“Wanting tells two parallel stories: about the novelist Charles Dickens in England, and Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan adopted by Sir John Franklin, the colonial governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin”—which struck me as a formula for fictional disaster! It turns out that I could not have been more wrong.

While several of Flanagan’s novels include characters from history, it would not be accurate to tag these as historical fiction, the way that category is generally understood. But then, the author’s work often defies classification. Flanagan is all about redefining genres—or creating new ones. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, André Brink: Richard Flanagan truly belongs in that league.

The real Sir John Franklin did indeed serve as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania), but he is better remembered as the arctic explorer who made a tragic end in 1847 in a disastrous attempt to chart the Northwest Passage, when his ships became icebound, resulting in his death as well as that of his entire crew.  The legend of the lost expedition he commanded, and the true fate of his crew, have been the subject of much speculation right down to the present day, and Franklin has often been lionized for his heroism. But the John Franklin of Wanting is not only less heroic, but rather instead a grotesque, self-absorbed, disturbing individual. Franklin and his equally narcissistic wife, Lady Jane—desperate for a child of her own—ignore prevailing taboos to adopt Mathinna, also a historic figure, one of the few full-blooded aborigines still remaining on the island after a sustained reign of terror by colonial settlers and a succession of pandemics had reduced their numbers to near extinction.  What at first glance smacks of altruism masks more questionable desires by each of the Franklins—their brand of “wanting”—that Mathinna comes to fulfill, or fails to fulfill.  The tragedy of Mathinna is brilliantly revealed through the nuance and complexity of a masterfully written narrative that subtly draws the reader in to expose a series of horrors hidden among the mundane that is ever chilling yet never stoops to the gratuitous.

As if these characters and themes were not sufficiently complicated for any work of fiction, the novel contains an equally compelling parallel tale, told in alternating chapters, of author Charles Dickens in London, some ten thousand miles away. The connection of the Franklins to Dickens was a visit by Lady Jane to the famed novelist, seeking his support.  In the years after her husband was lost to the Arctic, Lady Jane devoted her life both to memorializing him and sponsoring expeditions to locate him, in the feeble hope that he survived. Then evidence emerged that Franklin was in fact dead, hinting that in their last gasps he and the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive. Franklin’s widow will have none of it, and she enlists the aid of England’s most celebrated figure to defend Franklin’s honor against such horrid innuendo. Dickens, a Victorian rags-to-riches miracle who is both brilliant and wildly successful while yet morose and dissatisfied, haunted by the death of a favored child and locked in a loveless marriage, is plagued by his own sort of “wanting.” The intersection of his unrequited deepening well of discontent and Lady Jane’s determination to restore her husband’s reputation serves as the linchpin of the novel, spawning new purpose in Dickens even as Lady Jane basks in anticipation of the martyred explorer’s vindication. Dickens is far more intelligent and far more accomplished than either of the hapless Franklins, but despite his genius and outsize public persona he shares a similar unmistakable shallowness in his nature.  In Flanagan’s Wanting, Dickens struggles to exist outside of the characters in his novels, and then takes it upon himself to produce, direct and cast himself in a role on the stage that permits him to stand before an audience as the heroic, romantic figure he longed to be.

Fiction reviews should largely avoid spoilers so I will leave it here, but history buffs will certainly google the main characters to learn what really happened. It won’t be giving much away to note that six years after Wanting was published in 2008, the wreck of the HMS Erebus—one of Franklin’s ships—was discovered, and two years after that his second ship was found, the HMS Terror, said to be in pristine condition. Even prior to that, evidence that cannibalism was in fact part of the crew’s final days was substantiated, contradicting both Lady Jane and the ardent defense mounted by Dickens.  I will withhold the fate of poor Mathinna, other than to note that her gripping story—in the novel and in real life—will likely shadow the reader long after the last page of this book is turned.

I believe that every fiction review should include a snippet of the author’s own pen for those unfamiliar with their style and talent.  This bit concerns a minor character—if any of Flanagan’s characters can be said to be minor ones—an aging actress in Dickens’ London:

On the night she had received the news of Louisa’s death, leaving her the only surviving member of her family, Mrs Ternan had stifled her weeping with a pillow so her daughters would not hear her heart breaking and would never suspect what she now knew: that every death of those you love is the death also of so many shared memories and understanding, of a now irretrievable part of your own life; that every death is another irrevocable step in your own dying, and it ends not with the ovation of a full house, but the creak and crack and dust of the empty theatre. [p90]

That powerful excerpt is just a tiny sample of Flanagan’s superlative prose. Wanting ranks amongst his finest novels, which in addition to Gould’s Book of Fish should also include Death of a River Guide, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, although there is not a bad one in the catalog. For the uninitiated who would like to experience Flanagan’s art, Wanting is a great place to start. Perhaps you may find yourself, like this reviewer, going on to read them all.

[I have reviewed several other novels by Richard Flanagan here: Death of a River Guide Sound of One Hand Clapping; The Narrow Road to the Deep North; and, First Person:]

Review of: Life in Deep Time: Darwin’s “Missing” Fossil Record, by J. William Schopf


As a reader, some of my most serendipitous finds have been plucked off the shelves of used bookshops. Such was the case some years ago with Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, a fascinating account of how the author in Life in Deep Time1965 was the first to discover Precambrian microfossils of prokaryotic life in stromatolitic sediments in Australia’s Apex chert dated to 3.5 billion years ago, the oldest confirmed evidence for life on earth at the time. My 2017 review of Cradle of Life—nearly twenty years after it was first published—sparked an email exchange with Bill Schopf that later led to his sending me a signed edition of his most recent book, Life in Deep Time: Darwin’s “Missing” Fossil Record.  He did not ask me to read and review it, but naturally I did.

In this work, Schopf—an  unusually modest man of outsize accomplishment—typically credits good fortune rather than his own estimable talents, often emphasizing the centrality of teamwork in the pursuit of sound science, as well as frequently paying tribute to the notion that each discovery and its discoverers are after all “standing on the shoulders of the giants” that preceded them.  A young grad student when he first got into the game, at seventy-seven the author now remains the most significant living survivor of those paleobiologists that devoted decades in an effort to identify and substantiate traces of the most ancient forms of life on the planet.  He feels the clock ticking, and thus is strongly motivated by a desire to leave a record of the journey that led to such consequential discoveries now that most of his peers have passed on.

The result is Life in Deep Time, a curious book—actually something of a blend of three different kinds of books—that succeeds more often than not in its efforts, even if at times it can be an uphill climb for the general reader. It is first and foremost a memoir that dwells for a surprisingly long time on the author’s youth and upbringing, which can be awkward at times because of his decision to employ a third-person limited literary technique in the narrative, so that it is “Bill wondered about …” rather than “I wondered about …” Early on, the reader might grow a bit impatient as Bill negotiates high school, often under the disapproving glare of his father, an admirable man who nevertheless sets impossibly high standards for his son and is quite difficult to please. Yet, even then Schopf is ever the optimist, always grateful for that which goes his way, and treating that which does not as a valuable learning experience. Rather than being scarred from the travails of enduring a demanding parent, he seems to sit in awe of a father who sets challenges that are always another chalk-mark higher than Bill can grasp. Such circumstances for another might leave that child a substance abuser or a ne’er-do-well, but it simply inspires Bill Schopf to be the best-of-the-best, fully absent an uncontainable ego or an axe to grind.

Beyond memoir, the second focal point of the book recounts Schopf’s scientific achievements, while paying tribute to those he worked with, many of whom are little known or entirely unknown outside of the paleobiology community. Science, the author repeatedly underscores, is a team effort. While the ever-modest Schopf does not dodge the recognition he clearly deserves for his key contributions to the field, he makes certain that credit gets appropriately shared among mentors and colleagues and even assistants.

Schopf’s work has spawned controversy that sometimes spilled over into the public arena. In the first case, there was pushback on his remarkable find of those 3.5-billion-year-old microfossils. Peer-reviewed science upheld his claim, although a prominent rival paleobiologist continued to dispute it. In the second, Schopf was brought in by NASA in 1996 to evaluate the extraordinary if premature announcement that life had been identified in a Martian meteorite, which was trumpeted by scientists, politicians and the media. Schopf was skeptical, and subsequent careful research proved him correct. The author’s well-written examination of these controversies is both coherent and enlightening, although blemished a bit by the continued use of that third-person limited literary technique, which feels especially awkward as he answers his critics through the narrative.

Schopf’s greatest triumph was certainly his discovery of those ancient fossils in Australia’s Apex chert, detailed in Cradle of Life and revisited in Life in Deep Time. Modern science has established that the earth is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, but in the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin devised his theory of evolution, no one could be sure what the true age of the planet was, although most scientists knew it was far older than the six thousand years that theologians claimed. In his groundbreaking 1859 treatise, On the Origin of Species, Darwin estimated that the erosion of England’s Sussex Weald must have taken some 300 million years, but he was taken to task on this by the famed Lord Kelvin, who publicly scolded that the earth could not possibly be older than 100 million years. Whatever the actual number, Darwin was deeply troubled because the process of natural selection that he envisioned would take much, much longer in order for higher life forms to evolve.  In the century that followed Darwin, greater scientific sophistication established the true age of the earth with greater specificity, but it turned out that identifying the planet’s earliest life forms proved quite elusive. This is because traces of these unicellular organisms lacking a membrane-bound nucleus—the prokaryotes that include Archaea and Bacteria—can be maddeningly difficult to identify, and often actually appear to be inorganic remains with strikingly similar characteristics. A famous false positive in this venue set paleobiology back for many decades. As a result, even as late as 1965, Schopf’s find of 3.5-billion-year-old microfossils of prokaryotic life proved controversial, although eventually gained full acceptance by the scientific community.

The science behind all this is remarkably complex, and that is the third focus in Life in Deep Time, a welcome addition for those comfortable with textbooks on paleobiology, but often inaccessible to the general reader.  I am trained in history rather than science, so I found some challenging moments in Cradle of Life that had me re-reading a paragraph or two, but much of it was indeed comprehensible to me as a non-scientist, which is not always the case with the final section of Life in Deep Time, which casually includes sentences such as this one:

“By this time, Bill had gained sufficient knowledge of the chemistry of kerogen, the coaly carbonaceous matter of which ancient microscopic fossils are composed, that he imagined that if the dominating polycyclic aromatic ring structures of the fossil kerogen were irradiated with an appropriate wavelength of laser light, they too would fluoresce and produce the images he sought.” [p186]

Material like this is certainly not impenetrable for an educated reader, but long discourses in this vein can lose a wider audience not schooled in paleobiology. Perhaps this content, although critical to scientists reading the book, might have been better placed in the appendix so as not to lose the flow of an otherwise engaging narrative.

While portions of Life in Deep Time may be difficult to navigate for the general reader, I would nevertheless recommend it. Bill Schopf is a remarkable man, a great scientist and a fine writer. The various threads of the tale he relates here add up to a storied saga of the evidenced-based search for the earliest life on the planet, as well as that of the distinguished if often otherwise anonymous men and women who were responsible for marking one of the greatest milestones in recent scientific history. The voice of Bill Schopf is a humble yet commanding one: it deserves to be heard.


[My review of: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, referenced above, is here: ]

Review of Egypt: Lost Civilizations, by Christina Riggs


Apparently, Sigmund Freud spent the final year of his long and productive life as a refugee from the Nazi menace, in a house in London that is now a museum to his legacy. On the great exile’s preserved desk still sits a good number of statuettes from ancient Egyptcultures that he collected, including on one corner a carved stone baboon—known as the “Baboon of Thoth”—symbolic of that ancient Egyptian deity identified with both writing and wisdom. “Freud’s housekeeper recalled that he often stroked the smooth head of the stone baboon, like a favourite pet.” [p13] This anecdote serves as an introduction to Egypt, by Christina Riggs, a 2017 addition to the wonderful Lost Civilizations series that also features volumes devoted to the Etruscans, the Persians, and the Goths.

I was so taken by one of these—The Indus, by Andrew Robinson—that I put the others on a birthday list later fulfilled by my wonderful wife, so I now own the remainder of the set, each one destined to sit in queue in my ever-lengthening TBR until its time arrives.  Egypt came up first. But it turns out that Riggs’ book stands apart from the others because it is not at all a history of Egyptian civilization, but rather a studied essay on the numerous ways that ancient Egypt came to be understood by subsequent cultures, its historical record manipulated and frequently distorted to support forced interpretations that suited its various interpreters. The toolkit deployed to construct sometimes elaborate visions that reflected far more kindly upon the later civilizations that succeeded it rather than accurately representing the ancient one that inspired these included its monumental architecture, its tomb painting, its mummified dead, its hieroglyphs, even abstract and unfounded notions of race and superiority—as well as, of course, objets d’art like the “Baboon of Thoth.”

Riggs, whose background is in art and archaeology, writes well and presents a series of articulate arguments to support her examination of all the ways Egypt has echoed down through the ages. It is often overlooked that to the first century Roman tourists who scribbled graffiti on tombs in the Nile valley, the freud desk24pyramids of Giza were more ancient by half a millennium than those long-dead Romans are to us today! So, it is a very long echo indeed. Alas, for all of Rigg’s talent, I myself made a poor audience for her narrative. I opened the cover yearning to learn more about Egypt, not more about how we recall it. I might not have made the mistake had I noticed at the outset how her title—which is absent the definitive article—differed from the others in the series. There is The Indus, The Barbarians, The Etruscans.  Riggs’ edition is simply Egypt. That should have been a clue! But that is, as we say on the street, “my bad,” not the author’s.  Despite this, I did find enough to hold my interest, to finish the book, and to recommend it—but only to those with a far greater interest in art history and interpretation than I possess.


[My review of: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, by Andrew Robinson, referenced above, is here: ]

Review of: The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching


A small island called “Bermeja” in the Gulf of Mexico that was first charted in 1539 was—after an extensive search of the coordinates—found to be a “phantom” that never actually existed in that latitude, or anywhere else for that matter. It turns out that this phantom atlaskind of thing is not unusual, that countless phantom islands, some the stuff of great legend, appeared on countless charts dating back well beyond the so-called “Age of Discovery” to the very earliest maps of antiquity. What is unusual about Bermeja is that its nonexistence was only determined in 2009, after showing up on maps for almost five hundred years!

The reader first encounters Bermejo in the “Introduction” to The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, a delightful, beautifully illustrated volume that is marked by both the eclectic and the eccentric. But the island that never was also later gets its due in its own chapter, along with a wonderful, detailed map of its alleged location.  This is just one of nearly sixty such chapters that explores the mythical and the fantastical, ranging from the famous and near-famous—such as the Lost Continent of Atlantis and the Kingdom of Prester John—to the utterly obscure, like Bermeja, and the near-obscure, like the island of Wak-Wak.  While the latter, also known as Waq-Waq in some accounts, apparently existed only in the imagination of the author of one of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights, it nevertheless made it into the charts courtesy of Muhammad al-Idrisi, a respected twelfth-century Arab cartographer.

But The Phantom Atlas is not just all about islands. There are mythical lands, like El Dorado and the Lost City of the Kalahari; cartographic blunders, such as mapping California and Korea as islands; even persistent wrong-headed notions like the Flat Earth. There is also a highly entertaining chapter devoted to the outlandish beings that populate the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle Map,” featuring such Schedel'sche_Weltchronik-Dog_headwild and weird creatures as the “six-handed man,” hairy women known as “Gorgades,” the four-eyed Ethiopian “Nistyi,” and the dog-headed “Cynocephali.”  That at least some audiences once entertained the notion that such inhabitants thrived in various corners of the globe is a reminder that the exotic characters invented by Jonathan Swift for Gulliver’s Travels were not so outrageous after all.

One of the longer and most fascinating chapters, entitled “Earthly Paradise,” relates the many attempts to fix the Biblical Garden of Eden to a physical, mapped location. The author places that into the context of a wider concept that extends far beyond the People of the Book to a universal longing that he suggests is neatly conjured up with the Welsh word “Hiraeth,” which he loosely defines as “an overwhelming feeling of grief and longing for one’s people and land of the past, a kind of amplified spiritual homesickness for a place one has never been to.” [p92] It is charming prose like that which marks Brooke-Hitching as a talented writer and distinguishes this volume from so many other atlases that are often simply a collection of maps mated with text to serve as a kind of obligatory device to fill out the pages. In happy contrast, there are enchanting stories attached to these maps, and the author is a master raconteur. But the maps and other illustrations, nearly all in full color, clearly steal the show in The Phantom Atlas.

Because I obtained this book as part of an Early Reviewers program, I felt an obligation to read it cover-to-cover, but that is hardly necessary.  A better strategy is to simply pick up the book and let it open to any page at random, then feast your eyes on the maps and pause to read the narrative—if you can take your eyes off the maps! From al-Idrisi’s 1154 map of Wak-Wak, to Ortelius’s 1598 map of the Tartar Kingdom, to a 1939 map of Antarctica featuring Morrell’s Island—which of course does not really exist—you are guaranteed to never grow bored with the visual content or the chronicles.

There are, it should be noted, a couple of drawbacks in arrangement and design, but these are to be laid at the feet of the publisher, not the author. First of all, the book is organized alphabetically—from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of the Zeno—rather than grouped thematically, which would have no doubt made for a more sensible editorial alternative.  Most critically, while the volume is somewhat oversize, the pages are hardly large enough to do the maps full justice, even with the best reading glasses. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive but given the quality of the art this well-deserves treatment in a much grander coffee table size edition. Still, despite these quibbles, fans of both cartography and the mysteries of history will find themselves drawn to this fine book.


The phantom island of Bermeja, featured in an 1846 map.


MAP CREDIT: Tanner, Henry S. – A Map of the United States of Mexico, 1846, public domain,

ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: A cynocephalus. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), – Nuremberg Chronical (Schedel’sche Weltchronik), page XIIr, public domain,


Review of: The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers


PODCAST … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers

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When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Civil War was often dubbed a struggle of “brother against brother,” uttered with a smack of wonderment at how it was that a nation united by so many commonalities could have could come apart like that, only one thin light of freedomshort century prior, taking more than six hundred thousand lives in the process? Then, as the centrality of slavery came to be properly emphasized, both historiography and sentiment shifted.  Certainly, there were plenty of families divided by war—perhaps most famously Mary Lincoln’s, whose brothers fought for the Confederacy—but the real division turned out to be geographic and defined more by the South’s “peculiar institution” than habit or climate. Alexis de Tocqueville’s oft-cited anecdotal 1835 comments, in Democracy in America, that sharply characterized the vast cultural gulf that lay between free and slave states on opposite sides of the Ohio River, turned out to reflect a true demarcation that saw two different visions of America evolve within a single nation. Slavery defined the south, even if most southerners were not slaveowners, so that long before secession the south had indeed become another country.

That such conclusions can also be overdrawn was brilliantly demonstrated by historian Edward Ayers in his magnificent 2003 work, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, which surveys the “Great Valley” that stretches north of the Mason-Dixon line to encompass Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and south of it to include Augusta County, Virginia. Slavery was indeed part of the fabric of life in the lower valley in cities like Staunton, Virginia, yet on the eve of the war its citizens still had much more in common than not with denizens of the upper valley in cities like Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which was free soil. Relationships that went well beyond trade flourished in a porous border of communities that shared a largely common identity. Much of Augusta County was old Whig and staunchly Unionist; when the secession crisis was upon them most fiercely resisted calls to leave the Union.  But when Virginia joined the Confederacy, those loyalties quickly shifted. Franklin County had little sympathy for what it viewed as the treason of their southern brethren. Men from both sides eagerly—or not so eagerly, depending upon the man—grabbed muskets and rushed off to the killing fields in the name of honor and duty or simply obligation. The war truly tore the Great Valley asunder, and before it was through both sides were littered with death and destruction utterly unimaginable just a few years earlier.

In his latest work, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, Ayers picks up where he left off, taking the saga from the critical turning points of the war that characterized the summer of 1863 to Appomattox and its aftermath, and beyond that through Reconstruction and what was to be its tragic legacy for African Americans.  In chapters often bracketed by an italicized overview that puts events in the valley in context with the wider perspective of the war, Ayers narrows the lens to focus upon key individuals emblematic of the struggle on the ground. It is in these human stories that it becomes clear that the noise of cannon fire, calls to glory, and the plaintive cries of the wounded and the dying coming from the valley was actually something of a small-scale version of the greater thunder that echoed across the national landscape in a terrible, bloody conflict that claimed so very many lives before the guns fell silent.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had long been the bread basket for the Confederacy, and its citizens still proudly recalled when Stonewall Jackson made a mockery of three Union armies in its environs in his brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862.  But Jackson was dead now, a victim of friendly fire at Chancellorsville, and Federal forces threatened both the farms and the rails that delivered their precious products to grey-clad stomachs. One of the chief motives that took Lee—sans his most famed lieutenant—to Gettysburg was an attempt to divert Union forces to take the pressure off valley farmers and protect cherished crops. Despite his failure there, the valley did win a brief respite, and—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—Lee managed an orderly retreat with a wounded yet still formidable army that was to persist in the field for nearly two full years. In between, the men in Lee’s army were forsworn from the kind of destruction and plunder that they found so abhorrent in the ravages—both real and imagined—visited upon the Shenandoah by the Union, which was universally branded by southerners as uncivilized. The exception was to be the African American, formerly enslaved or just of a matching color, that the Army of Northern Virginia gleefully rounded up and sent south to become chattel. Their version of civilization remained unrattled by such acts of cruelty.

The point has been made that the “total war” of the twentieth century was presaged by the acts of Union forces upon civilians in the Civil War, but that is manifestly overdrawn.  Even at its height, as Sherman marched to the sea and Sheridan despoiled the Shenandoah, Grant’s strategic imperative designed to deny the Confederacy foodstuffs and matériel hardly resulted in the slaughter of innocents seen in 1914 and beyond. At the same time, for those who lived through it, it seemed a line had been crossed from an earlier age, even if historians might argue that same line had already been crossed by the British some four-score years prior. There was palpable pain on both sides, even if the south suffered more as the war ground on to its final conclusion. Federal forces indeed quite ruthlessly put farms and factories out of business in the Shenandoah. Earlier restraint eventually gave way, and Confederates mercilessly and without regret retaliated by burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864.

Virginia was, of course, the central battleground of the Civil War in the eastern theater, so she had more stories to tell. Many of these stories come from the valley, and some truly tear at the heartstrings:

On [one Virginia] farm, a Union officer ordered a fine mare bridled and led away. When the mare’s colt followed its mother, the farm woman begged them not to take an animal so young that it could be of no use to an army. The officer agreed the animal was useless and simply commanded one of his men to shoot the colt. The woman wept over its body. People remembered these stories for generations. [p240]

But the tear in the reader’s eye for the dead colt and the sobbing woman is quickly washed away and replaced with horror as Ayers recounts another telling episode:

[In Saltville, in 1864,] Confederates, enraged after discovering that they were fighting against black men, killed the wounded African-American soldiers left behind after the failed Union attack. [Diaries of those at the scene reported] … Confederate soldiers … “shooting every wounded negro they could find” [and] that scouts “went all over the field and … sung the death knell of many a poor negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday. Our men took no negro prisoners. Great numbers of them were killed yesterday and today…” [General John Breckinridge arrived and] “ordered that the massacre should be stopped. He rode away and—the shooting went on. The men could not be restrained.” The murder continued for six more days, culminating with guerrillas forcing their way into a makeshift hospital at Emory & Henry College and shooting men, black and white, in their beds … A Richmond newspaper printed a tally that showed telling numbers: 150 black Union soldiers had been killed and only 6 wounded, while 106 white soldiers had been killed and 80 wounded. The ratios testified that dozens of wounded African-Americans had been killed …The Richmond paper celebrated the rare Confederate victory over all the “niggers” and Federal troops. [p242-43]

In extremely well-written accounts like these that marry a passionate narrative to solid history aimed at both the scholarly and popular audience, Ayers artfully brings the heartbreaking realities of war in the valley on both sides to our modern doorstep, forbidding us to look away, and compelling us to pick up and cradle the truth of what really transpired.

Of course, as the postwar “Lost Cause” myth took hold, we know now that stories like the dead colt would not only frequently be repeated, but magnified and romanticized, while the slaughter of wounded blacks in Saltville would deliberately be erased. Since most histories of the conflict end at Appomattox or shortly thereafter, readers are denied the painful epilogue of how that came to be so. Here Ayers bucks that trend and keeps going all the way to 1902.

A potent strain in the most recent historiography argues convincingly that while the north claimed military victory, the south ultimately won the Civil War. A week after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was dead, replaced by Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who welcomed the ex-Confederates who seized political power as the states that had seceded were restored to the Union, while demonstrating little regard for the millions of formerly enslaved African Americans cast adrift in a hostile and economically devastated southern landscape. Despite the efforts of the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress to seek justice for blacks through Reconstruction, Johnson dominated events, and blacks found themselves terrorized and murdered by former Confederate elites who would not tolerate steps towards fairness and equality. With emancipation, the former “three-fifths” rule that defined representation was no more, and with millions of blacks now counted as actual persons, newly readmitted states actually gained more political power than they had possessed in the antebellum years. Institutionalized terror kept African Americans from the ballot box and transformed their status into that of second-class citizen, which was hardly challenged in the century to follow.

If the valley was a kind of microcosm of the Civil War in America, by extending his narrative Ayers superbly demonstrates that so too was its unfortunate aftermath for African Americans. The Thin Light of Freedom is an outstanding work on multiple levels, not least in its success in conjuring empathy for all of the victims on both sides, and guiding us to a greater appreciation of how and why the many unresolved elements of that long ago conflict continue to resonate, often uncomfortably, for the United States in the twenty-first century.

NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:

PODCAST#4 … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers

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Review of: Imagine John Yoko, by John & Yoko Lennon


It was late and I was on my way home, rock n’ roll blasting on the car radio. It was the one-week anniversary of our very first apartment together as a couple, so there was a kind of glow around the day. Then the music cut off abruptly and the news broke: John imagineLennon had been shot. John Lennon was dead. When the tunes resumed, it was all Beatles and Lennon solo stuff. One of the songs was, of course, Imagine. Tears streamed down my face. It was December 8, 1980.

Imagine had been recorded and released in 1971, but as the year 1980 closed out that already felt like fifty years ago. The Vietnam War and Nixon were long gone. The sense of radicalism, of tumult—as well as innovative creative expression in music and the arts—had slipped away, its wake littered with the detritus of cocaine, schlocky pop music, and a kind of national ennui.  Most men, including myself, didn’t wear their hair shoulder-length anymore. Almost exactly a month before Lennon’s murder, Ronald Reagan was elected President, leaving many of us far more shaken than stirred.

John Lennon had recently reemerged after a long hiatus from the studio and public life. He was just forty, but he looked much older than that. Double Fantasy—his first album in five years, featuring songs by John and Yoko—was released just three weeks before his death. I personally found it weak and disappointing. But I bought it just days after it hit the record stores—of course—it was music from John Lennon!  Lennon had been my favorite Beatle, as well as a kind of personal hero: a peace activist, an iconoclast, a man who found himself trapped by the money and fame and lifestyle that others salivated for, a man willing to throw it all away (well, perhaps not all the money) for the love of his life, avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, even if many of us were puzzled by his obsession with her. It turned out that the sum of its parts that was the Beatles would ever far outshine the solo work of its members, including Lennon, but perhaps his best work was the album Imagine that featured that eponymous song of hope that remains a soft-rock national anthem. John’s murder sent Double Fantasy skyrocketing on the charts, if not to critical acclaim, but Imagine is the real legacy of John Lennon.

Thirty-eight Christmases after Lennon’s assassination, the stark white cover of the beautiful outsize volume Imagine John Yoko emerged beneath festive wrapping paper, a gift from my wife. Compiled by Yoko, but with author credits to John and Yoko Lennon, this gorgeous coffee table edition boasts extensive interviews, black and white photography, liner notes, illustrations, and ephemera, crafted to tell the “definitive inside story” of the making of the Imagine album and film of the same name at their English country mansion estate, Tittenhurst Park.

The spotlight is not only upon John and Yoko, but also on a generous cast of characters, including co-producer Phil Spector, then-giants of the music scene such as George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins and Mike Pinder, as well as lesser-known figures, plus all sorts of production assistants and the often uncredited folks who each play a significant if not always acknowledged role in the final cut of a masterpiece like Imagine. Interview excerpts are not dated; some are contemporary to production, while others look back from decades ahead. Sadly, like Lennon, many have passed on, including Harrison and Hopkins; King Curtis, who sat in on saxophone, was murdered in late summer of that same year. Ironically, Phil Spector and drummer Jim Gordon—of Derek and the Dominos fame—are both in prison serving life sentences for murder. Almost all the rest who are still alive have faded into obscurity. But thumbing through this magnificent book, for a moment it is the early part of 1971 again: John Lennon is just thirty, madly and obsessively in love with the older Yoko Ono, who just as madly and obsessively reciprocates. John has left the Beatles behind, his long collaboration and once-close friendship with Paul McCartney on the rocks, but there is a palpable sense of great promise in what the future holds for John and Yoko.

The very next day after I began perusing Imagine John Yoko—and before it turned into a cover-to-cover read for me—I dug out my old vinyl copy of Imagine and gave it a spin. I had not listened to it in many years and I had forgotten what a truly great album it is. The title track tends to get all the attention, but to my mind Gimme Some Truth is the best song on the record. Other iconic tunes include Crippled Inside, Jealous Guy and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier.  Some might argue that none of it lives up to Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness is a Warm Gun, but there’s little doubt that the collection of songs on Imagine is outstanding and certainly Lennon’s best post-Beatles work. It was re-listening to the album after all this time that led me to carefully read, rather than skim, the entire book. Along the way, I also screened the Blu-ray DVD that contains the full length “rockumentary” film Imagine, replete with innovative music videos from the Imagine album as well as selections from Yoko’s Fly album, as well as a companion “making-of-Imagine” film entitled Gimme Some Truth. Icing on the cake includes cameos from Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Dick Cavett and Jack Palance. I highly recommend these audio-visual companions to the book to help to make it come to life in all its brilliance once more.

The highlight of the book and the film is John in the “White Room” at Tittenhurst recording Imagine, singing and playing on the all-white Steinway grand piano that he gave to Yoko for her birthday that year, while Yoko slowly opens a series of white shutters to let light stream in. At the end, Yoko is seated beside John at the piano, and they exchange looks that reflect such a degree of genuine mutual love and affection and admiration that that one single moment serves to validate the entire project. The combined experience of immersing myself in the book, the album and the films made me not only come to better appreciate the superlative achievement of Imagine, but also the integral role that Yoko represented as artist and inspiration throughout.  Like much of the public, back in the day I found it difficult to grasp John’s utter infatuation with Yoko, but the testimony of so many in this book underscores Yoko’s essential piece in the creation of this masterpiece. At the same time, listening to her vocals on portions of the Imagine film have yet to convince me that she has talent as a singer. Still, Yoko was clearly full partner to Imagine, not some assistant. It would never have been if not for her presence in John’s life.

One of my favorite bits in the book and in the Gimme Some Truth film feature Claudio, a Vietnam Vet suffering from PTSD, who was found to be living for some days in the woods at Tittenhurst. Claudio had become convinced that John was communicating with him through his lyrics. Disheveled and confused, he is brought before John, who tells him that “I’m just a guy who writes songs,” and patiently explains to an obviously crestfallen Claudio that the lyrics have nothing to do with him. There is a brief pause, and then John, with much empathy, asks: “Are you hungry?” John then brings him in and feeds him at his table.  Claudio was both disturbed and obsessed with John Lennon, and the recounting of this episode made me wonder how things might have turned out differently if John had managed to similarly engage someone else who was disturbed and obsessed with him—Mark David Chapman—before it was too late.

On the final pages of Imagine John Yoko, they each speak to us.  There’s an excerpt from an interview with John saying of he and Yoko that “We’d like to be remembered as the Romeo and Juliet of the 1970s.” When asked if he had a picture of “When I’m 64,” John replied:

“I hope we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that—looking at our scrapbook of madness. My ultimate goal is for Yoko and I to be happy and try and make other people happy through our happiness. I’d like everyone to remember us with a smile . . . The whole of life is a preparation for death. I’m not worried about dying. When we go, we’d like to leave behind a better place.” [p298]

Those days of turning scrapbook pages were, sadly, not to be. As a fan, as a reviewer, I would urge you to buy this book and to read it, but it is not for me but rather for Yoko to deliver the coda, of course:

“It was such an incredible loss when I think about it . . . See, most people think, ‘Well, he’s a rocker and just kind of rough, maybe,’ but no. At home he was a very gentle person and extremely concerned about me but also concerned about the world too. I still miss him, especially now because the world is not quite right and everybody seems to be suffering. And if he was here it would have been different, I think. I think that in many ways John was a simple Liverpool man right to the end. He was a chameleon, a bit of a chauvinist, but so human. In our fourteen years together he never stopped trying to improve himself from within. We were best friends. To me, he is still alive. Death alone doesn’t extinguish a flame and a spirit like John.” [p298]

Review of: Presidents of War, by Michael Beschloss

The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as presidents of warcommander in chief of the armed forces.  A history of European monarchs engaging in war by fiat informed this caution in limiting the ability of the executive branch to act without the consent of the legislative. Yet, although the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war was in 1942 (against Axis-allied Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria), the United States has waged a number of significant wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as dozens of other military interventions—like those in the Dominican Republic, Granada and Panama—with little more than vague and somewhat flimsy congressional authorizations, or no authorization at all.  By October 2018, the War in Afghanistan had gone on for seventeen years, more than four times the length of the Civil War or U.S. involvement in World War II, making it not only our longest war, but—as characterized by historian and retired-colonel Andrew Bacevich—a kind of “endless war.” In Afghanistan, as in every other instance of the use of military force since World War II, war has had its origin in the White House, and a succession of presidents has conducted it with Congress as bystander.

How we ended up here, clearly at wide variance from the intentions of the Framers, is the subject of Presidents of War, an ambitious, uneven, and deeply flawed recent book by Michael Beschloss. The premise is simple. Starting with the War of 1812 and James Madison, a couple of chapters are devoted to each major conflict and the POTUS most closely associated with it, with an eye on precedents set as well as the unintended consequences that seem to have bolstered the confidence of successive chief executives to make war by misleading, bypassing or simply ignoring Congress. I have read Beschloss before. He is a leading historian of the modern American presidency, a gifted writer who has authored or edited a number of books in this milieu, and he often appears as media commentator.  So, it is surprising that someone with his resume and talents would turn out a thick volume like this beset with a wordy and meandering narrative that falls so far short of its potential.

For one thing, there is a jarring lack of uniformity in the seventeen chapters in Presidents of War. Indeed, this is so striking that some of these chapters almost appear to have been penned by different authors. This may be because, as revealed in the “Acknowledgements,” the book was written over a ten-year span, begetting a distinct style and focus shift. The inconsistency might be less glaring if read as separate essays rather than assembled into a single work that purports to tell a cohesive story.  It is also plagued by far-too-frequent asterisked footnotes populated with further clarification or “fun facts,” in the maddening tradition of a David Foster Wallace.  The saving grace, if there is one, is that Beschloss has an engaging writing style that is appealing to a popular audience, and the narrative is heavy on anecdote, which frequently carries the reader along.

The first three chapters—centered around the War of 1812—are styled completely differently than the ones that follow. (We can only imagine that these were the first ones written, a decade prior.) More academic in orientation than the rest of the book and sometimes marred by dull passages that too often fall to quotation in the florid prose of the era—which unnecessarily interrupts the flow—this portion of the book is yet far more focused and coherent, as well as loyal to thesis and theme. The otherwise brilliant James Madison—who like his predecessor and frequent partner Thomas Jefferson proved a far more able Founder than president—along with a complicit Congress stumbled into a war against a much more powerful adversary, then bumbled its prosecution. Elected in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson—with Madison’s assistance—had vastly reduced the armed forces and begun dismantling the fiscal policies that were the legacy of Hamilton and the Federalists, so that by 1812 the United States was woefully unprepared both militarily and financially to take on the United Kingdom, itself engaged in an existential struggle against Napoleonic France. Grandiose plans to annex Canada ended with Washington D.C. in flames and Madison fleeing for his life.  The nation survived largely because once Napoleon was vanquished, the Brits were weary of combat and eager to resume trade.

Beschloss covers the war competently, then—in a pattern repeated with subsequent conflicts—dedicates a few concluding pages to analysis that seeks to pass judgment on the achievements and shortcomings of the president who conducted it. This framework reveals the challenge of abridging the story of a consequential war to a couple of chapters, as the author is forced to be highly selective with what to include and what to omit. For instance, Beschloss devotes a number of pages to the Chesapeake–Leopard affair of 1807, which saw the humiliating capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by a British warship searching for deserters from the Royal Navy, spawning a lasting bitterness that poisoned Anglo-American relations and echoed down to the run-up of the War of 1812.  Much color is added to the narrative with the backstory of the hapless captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, who is unfairly held to account for the disaster.  The multi-page tale of Barron’s disgrace adds flair, but nevertheless begs the question: how essential is it to the larger story?  And what has been excised to make room for it? Unimportant to the casual reader, these questions will repeatedly nag those more widely read in the historiography in the chapters ahead.

Perhaps the best of these chapters is given to the Mexican War, launched and prosecuted by President James K. Polk on a deliberately manufactured pretext with a secret, nefarious scheme to annex a third of the territory of our southern neighbor, which succeeds all too well. The morally bankrupt Polk was nevertheless the most consequential one term president in American history. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the question of whether the newly acquired territories should be slave or free was the match that lit the secession crisis, although little is made of that in the narrative. The Civil War chapters that follow neatly summarize the latest scholarship, but there is nothing new here. More entertaining for the general reader is coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898, sustained by much anecdote, especially with regard to another unlucky ship’s captain, this time in Havana harbor.

While Beschloss faithfully underscores how presidents looked to the wartime experiences of their predecessors in the Oval Office for both caution and guidance, what is most conspicuous in its absence is the connective tissue that binds one era to the next.  The best example of this is his treatment of Wilson and World War I. The nation’s isolationism and Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war against Germany, even after the many American lives lost to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by relatively recent history. The Spanish-American War had achieved great territorial gains for a budding American imperialism in a very popular short war with limited loss of life, but sparked a long, bloody rebellion in the Philippines that by the time it was brutally suppressed had largely turned the nation against foreign adventures. And—almost exactly a year before the Lusitania went down—Wilson had blundered into military intervention in Mexico that went sideways, forcing him to pull back and reassess. These events are mentioned in passing, but Beschloss fails to emphasize the critical impact both the Philippine Insurrection and the incursion into Mexico had upon the nation and upon Wilson in contemplation of American involvement in an increasingly catastrophic European war.

The book’s approach to Franklin Roosevelt and World War II is quite curious. FDR is generally ranked as America’s third greatest president—after Lincoln and Washington—but that heroic figure is largely absent from the text of Presidents of War. Beschloss glosses over much of Roosevelt’s achievements in shepherding the nation through economic depression and world war, but instead devotes most of his ink to the president’s faults: his failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the less-than-robust efforts to rescue European Jewry from Hitler’s executioners. While there is indeed some merit to the reproach, for this to dominate the emphasis is a distortion of the outsize role FDR played in American life. And, given that emphasis, it was no less than stunning to confront the stark incongruity of the author’s final analysis, that the “President deserves the verdict of the New York Times … that ‘men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House,’” adding that: “It is difficult to imagine any other American leader of that generation guiding, with such success, a resistant nation toward intervention and ultimate victory in this most momentous of history’s wars, as well as taking Americans into a postwar assembly that would strive to enforce the peace.” [p432]

Beschloss wraps up WWII in just a few pages following FDR’s death, although the defeat of Japan remained uncertain and it was for the new president—Harry Truman—to face the critical atomic option that brought hostilities to the end, something only treated peripherally in the narrative. The next chapters concern Korea, but remarkably there is a complete lack of analysis of how Truman’s role as commander in chief in the final months of WWII and his decision to use the bomb may have informed his leadership in the Korean War.

Then it is on to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss has studied LBJ closely, serving as editor to two volumes of Johnson’s White House Tapes (Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both of which I have read). And although he cites LBJ biographer Robert Caro (who has written four volumes on Johnson’s life to date, which I have also read), he ignores Caro’s thesis that the vast portion of Lyndon Johnson was given to political opportunism. Instead, the author seems to take every sentence privately uttered by LBJ about Vietnam at face value, even though these often smack of the height of calculation clearly designed to cultivate a specific audience.  Eventually, Beschloss even goes so far as to conclude that: “To this day it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in a conflict … he … seemed to have so little hope.” [p528] This analysis strikes the reader as the height of political naiveté. Strangely, although the war long outlasts Johnson, the next commander in chief—Richard Nixon—only gets a bit part in the narrative.

Then, except for a brief (six pages!) “Epilogue,” Presidents of War ends abruptly. Without explanation, there is no study of Bush, father or son, nor the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Maybe Beschloss was simply tired and ran out of steam. Perhaps his editor told him that at nearly six hundred pages enough was enough. Again, the informed reader cannot help but question the author’s decisions on what to include and what to discard. Can anyone really competently cover the Civil War in eighty-four pages, or World War II in seventy-five pages? In the end, there were many pages that seemed unnecessary, and yet so much that begged for further study.  In addition to the absence of a strong concluding chapter, it might have been a welcome juxtaposition to have included a section on presidents who achieved foreign policy objectives without resorting to full-scale war, such as Eisenhower, and especially JFK—who during his crisis-driven tenure managed to circumvent pressures upon him to go to war over Laos, Berlin and the missiles in Cuba. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to imagine such a grand overview confined to a single book: adding a second volume may have resulted in a work more thorough and less unwieldy.

Michael Beschloss is an outstanding historian with credentials that far exceed my own, so I must admit discomfort in judging his book so harshly. Still, I have a master’s degree in history, and I have spent a lifetime studying American history and American presidents, so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. In the final analysis, Presidents of War may be an entertaining read for a popular audience, but as solid history it largely misses the mark.


NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:

PODCAST#1 … Review of “Presidents of War,” by Michael Beschloss

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Review of: Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, by Steven Levingston

The fifty-five years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated has seen his standing rise considerably among both historians and the general public, even putting him into the kennedy & kingtop ten on some lists, which is remarkable for a man who served such a brief tenure—only 1,036 days—as President, yet is less surprising perhaps when juxtaposed with his successors, whom he certainly surpassed by most metrics. At the same time, his legacy remains tarnished by his reckless philandering, as well as his oft-cited failure to fully embrace the moral imperative of Civil Rights as the critical domestic cause of his era. Five years after his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King—the central figure in that cause—also fell victim to an assassin’s bullet.  While likewise dogged in some quarters by his own flaws as a womanizer, King could be said to have transcended Kennedy in death by achieving an iconic status. JFK’s visage appears on a fifty-cent piece nobody uses, while King can boast both a national holiday and an inextricable identification with pivotal African American achievement in the Civil Rights arena. If not completely forgotten, long overlooked is the fact that the paths of these outsize figures of 1960s America not only crossed on several occasions but overlapped with some significance. Their complicated relationship and its consequential impact upon American history has been brilliantly captured by Washington Post nonfiction editor Steven Levingston in Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.

On the face of it, Kennedy and King had virtually nothing in common. Kennedy was the Massachusetts scion of wealth and privilege, a war hero who had become President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man on the planet. King was a Baptist minister and activist from Georgia, an African American born into a permanent racial underclass—which meant a status that was harshly and often brutally defined in the American south—who assumed an increasingly central role in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement.  But there were indeed commonalities. Both were handsome, charismatic figures with natural leadership qualities strengthened by conviction but tempered by a strong sense of the achievable, and validated by remarkable personal courage: King was frequently roughed up and jailed, which he bore with great equanimity; when his PT boat was lost in the Pacific in World War II, Kennedy swam three and a half miles over a four hour stretch towing a badly injured crewman to safety with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Both men were highly educated, cultivated intellects with superlative written and rhetorical skills.  Each were centrist figures subjected to frequent attacks from their flanks. King was pressured to go slower by more conservative blacks unnerved by the hostility and violence the Civil Rights movement provoked, while also subjected to ridicule as a celebrity with few real achievements for the wider community by African Americans becoming increasingly radicalized by that very hostility and violence unleashed by white politicians and police upon helpless protesters sworn to King’s vision of nonviolent protest. Kennedy was ever beset by attacks from his political left and right, sometimes mocked for showing “more profile than courage”—in a jab at the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage—as he navigated a tumultuous crisis-driven tenure dominated by pressing foreign exigencies.

Preoccupied with Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s brinksmanship and a Cold War that grew increasingly hotter by the moment, JFK dodged Civil Rights as a domestic distraction that he could not afford to dwell upon. Unlike Eisenhower, his immediate predecessor, racism was not a part of his DNA, but neither did he view Civil Rights as the great moral crusade of his time. Sensitive to demands for black equality and frustrated by southern intransigence in this regard, he nevertheless framed the struggle in legalistic rather than ethical terms.

By all rights, Jack Kennedy should have been more sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, still marginalized by endemic racial prejudice a century after emancipation, and frequently subjected to beatings and lynching in much of the South if they dared to challenge the status quo. After all, both of Kennedy’s grandfathers were Irish Catholic immigrants in Boston in the late antebellum era at a time when the Irish were the most despised demographic in America, so much so that the nativist Know-Nothing Party swept the Massachusetts state legislature and the governor’s office with overheated rhetoric aimed at the almost apocalyptic threat posed by the “dirty Irish.” But times change; one of those grandfathers went on become a two-term mayor of Boston. And Jack’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had his revenge on those who would shun him by becoming a millionaire. The older Kennedy boys experienced some bullying based on their ethnicity growing up, but were mostly insulated by their father’s wealth and position. Hatred of the Irish faded, but their Catholicism remained a social obstacle; JFK barely edged out lingering religious bigotry to win the presidency in 1960. Interestingly, it was Robert Kennedy—brother, Attorney General, and closest advisor to the President—who saw social acceptance of African Americans over time through this lens, even with prescience suggesting that a black man could obtain the White House in decades to come. Ironically, Martin Luther King also had a white Irish grandfather . . .

Kennedy and King first crossed paths with a tangential yet pivotal telephone call of sympathy and support that then-candidate Kennedy made to King’s pregnant wife on the eve of the presidential election, while King was jailed for his part in a protest, his fate uncertain. There was inevitably some political calculation in this—JFK was a master politician—as he lobbied for black voters in the north who tended to favor his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. But there was more, as well: Kennedy was struck by the unfairness of King’s treatment, and there was indeed a greater risk of alienating the solidly segregationist Democratic South by reaching out to King’s family, which is why the call was opposed by nearly every member of his campaign. That phone call was to be historic, and in that narrow race black votes may have been crucial to the outcome.

In an outstanding narrative, Levingston charts how that call, lasting less than ninety seconds, served as foundation to an uneasy relationship that often had the two men dancing around rather than with each other on the national stage, each sensitive to the other’s position but often disappointed that one would not follow where the other sought to lead. Yet, as the author deftly demonstrates, Kennedy evolved in Civil Rights as he evolved in nearly every arena.  Some have suggested that JFK was dragged kicking and screaming to stand with a cause that was righteous and belated. While there may be some merit to that point of view, it lacks the appropriate nuance and complexity and context that is neatly enriched by Levingston’s analysis. Kennedy did, at root, care about black oppression, but he would have preferred to postpone the fight, at least until after his 1964 reelection, when he would no longer have to risk retaliation at the ballot box by white Southern Democrats. Of course, neither Dr. King nor rival African American leaders were willing to wait any further for long overdue justice. Moreover, as Levingston reports, there was a good deal of jockeying behind the scenes that JFK does not often receive credit for, much of it spearheaded by Robert Kennedy, who hardly could have acted without his brother’s blessing and encouragement.  Also noteworthy is that perhaps more blacks were welcomed to the Kennedy White House for both business and social occasions than at any time since Lincoln was President. JFK may be accused of taking baby steps, but these were giant leaps compared to those who came before him, especially Eisenhower, who did virtually nothing to advance African American equality during his eight years in office.

In the end, as detailed in a chapter entitled with a Kennedy quote—“It Often Helps Me to be Pushed”—the President did step up to the bully pulpit and champion the cause with a televised speech to the nation,  reminding the audience that America “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” And there was a new commitment to Civil Rights legislation. During the subsequent March on Washington in which King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, African American White House doorman Preston Bruce, who was with the President, recalled that “an emotional John Kennedy gripped the windowsill so firmly his knuckles blanched. ‘Oh Bruce,’ he told the doorman, ‘I wish I was out there with them.’”

There is some irony that JFK walked a similar razor’s edge with his slow embrace of Civil Rights that Lincoln did with emancipation a century before, and his legacy—like Lincoln’s—has suffered for it.  And, often unacknowledged, both men had their reasons. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War that posed an existential threat to the nation’s survival; he abhorred slavery, but would let it be if he could save the Union. For Kennedy, it was perhaps an even greater menace, that of nuclear annihilation, that forced JFK’s focus away from other competing issues. Like Lincoln, Kennedy was ever cognizant of principle while never losing sight of the possible.  There is much to suggest that had he lived to command a second term in the White House, John F. Kennedy would have earned the praise for advancing African American equality that his untimely death denied him.

I have read numerous books about John Kennedy, an exceedingly complex character who lived his public and personal life in definitive compartments. The man and the myth are often commingled, distorting both what was and what we would like to remember. While hardly as critical or iconic to our nation’s destiny as Jefferson or Lincoln, like those two giants of American history JFK was not only brilliant but both principled and malleable.  Moreover, like Jefferson he could be a mass of self-contradiction, a political acrobat poised upon opposite sides of a single issue.  And like Lincoln he was forever evolving—ever “becoming,” in the parlance of Teilhard de Chardin—a new and better version of himself, until the day came, like Lincoln before him, that a bullet forever stilled that process.

Review of: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Imagine the frustration of reading a novel of nearly seven hundred pages by one of your favorite authors to find it not only unfulfilling but just terrible? That was my experience Killing Commendatorewith Killing Commendatore, the latest work from Haruki Murakami. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead!)

To say that I am a Murakami fan is an understatement: I have read every one of his many novels and short story collections—Murakami is a prolific writer—and I have reviewed a host of them. I no longer read a good deal of fiction, but when someone comes to me for a literary recommendation, I usually rave about Murakami.  I cannot say that I have loved everything he has written, but I hold much of it in very high regard. My favorites are those where he blends magical realism with his superb writing style—akin to the literary subgenre made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—to create iconic novels of extraordinary brilliance like Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and 1Q84. And while I tend to have less interest in the more grounded, tragi-comic romantic efforts like Norwegian Wood that first won him international fame, I still credit these as fine books.  Murakami can be frustrating: many of his novels end with plot lines and characters suspended, maddeningly unresolved. But few authors leave the reader with so much to think about after the cover is closed, even if so much is left up in the air. Killing Commendatore—unfortunately—left me with little more than a bad taste in my mouth.

It doesn’t start off that way. The unnamed thirty-something male protagonist is a docile introvert right out of Murakami central casting, a passive fellow who generally lets life happen to him—until, that is, his wife abruptly ends their relationship with little explanation, with pronounced echoes of the character and plot of a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Unlike similar Murakami protagonists though, this guy doesn’t just sit around contemplating his naval, listening to classical music and reading (at least not right away!), but instead he gets angry—angry enough to give up his livelihood as a successful commercial artist specializing in portrait painting and hop in his car for a long aimless road trip. Doing something—rather than simply enduring his fate—is a fairly dramatic change of pace for a Murakami male.

Eventually, he ends up housesitting at the secluded mountaintop home of a famous artist—now elderly and suffering from Alzheimer’s, bedridden in a medical facility—who happens to be the father of an old friend grateful to have someone there to keep an eye on the place. Determined to return to his roots of doing art for art’s sake rather than the dull commercial painting he pursued for years, he welcomes the splendid isolation here, where it is so remote—we are supposed to believe—that radio, television, internet and even cell phone service are completely out of reach, leaving only a single landline to communicate with the outside world. But the house has a strange feel to it, somewhat akin to the “Dolphin Hotel” made famous in Murakami’s early novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance; the kind of vague sense of eeriness that pervades a locale conjured up by Stephen King.

Exploring, he comes upon a horned owl living in the attic alongside a painting that has been wrapped in paper and secreted there, no doubt by the renowned artist who lived here before he was institutionalized.  Unwrapped, it turns out to be a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, depicting the killing of the character “Il Commendatore,” but incongruously set in seventh-century Japan and painted in a traditional Japanese style. Hence the novel’s title: Killing Commendatore.  Then things start to get really weird: in the middle of the night, our main character begins to hear inexplicable sounds of a bell ringing beneath the ground near an old shrine out back.  Meanwhile, his life takes another strange turn as he is pressed to accept a commission to paint yet one more portrait, this time for an affluent yet enigmatic neighbor named Menshiki, who sports a shock of pure white hair and lives in a nearby mansion.  The offer is so substantial that he cannot turn it down. Menshiki seems odd, even somewhat menacing, but the two nevertheless develop a kind of friendship, which comes in handy when Menshiki puts his wealth and resources to bear to chase down the recurring subterranean knell, bringing in a crew and heavy machinery to excavate the mound behind the shrine and revealing a stone chamber with high walls and a perfectly preserved ancient bell, although absent the mysterious bell-ringer.  The tantalizing whiff of the supernatural that emanates from that episode is nothing compared to what is to follow, when sometime later our protagonist is confronted by a walking, talking two-foot tall version of the Commendatore, clad just as depicted in the painting in seventh-century garb and carrying a tiny sword! All of this, more or less—and there actually is quite a bit more—marks just the beginning of the novel, and we are on page two-hundred-thirty-eight!

Lots of tantalizing material here that … well … meanders for several hundred more pages and quite frankly goes nowhere, or at least nowhere of much interest. Plenty of tensions build and dissipate. There are moments of great suspense—some that even verge on terror—that simply fizzle. Characters appear to be not who they seem to be … but maybe they really are after all? There are pages upon pages upon pages of narrative and dialogue that smack of the clue-laden and suggestive, but ultimately turn out to be just pages and pages and pages that add even greater complexity to an already overly complicated plot that tends to act as a burden on the handful of rather superficial characters that people the novel. Sadly, after nearly seven hundred pages of twists and turns, the reader is left with little more than a profound sense of disappointment.

There are indeed some familiar echoes of Murakami themes here—the passive main character spends hours alone listening to classical music, the stone chamber behind the shrine is reminiscent of the bottom of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and there is even homage to the author’s well-known fetish for women’s ears—but it is nonetheless clear that the novelist seeks to break new ground here. This is most evident in the somewhat frank descriptions of sexual acts, conspicuously absent from earlier works. Those who have read Murakami know that sex is treated with perfunctorily when it is treated with at all. This changes with Killing Commendatore, however, from the main character’s random tryst with an anonymous stranger he encounters on the road—who violently couples with him while demanding that he slap and choke her—to various episodes with other women in the course of the novel. But while the sex described is indeed more graphic, the author fails to hit the high notes of eroticism; all of it rings of more of the documentary than the decadent. It is clear that Murakami remains awkward around sexuality, if only in his choice of terminology: no matter how much heat you add to an afternoon delight, “vagina” still sounds more anatomical than erogenous. And awkward verges on the creepy with the character of Mariye Akikawa, a precocious teenage girl who seems to channel May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and who may or may not be Menshiki’s love child. But Mariye is only thirteen years old, and the far too frequent references to her as “beautiful” coupled with discussions of her developing breasts lean sharply to the uncomfortable. The author seems to palpably leer at Mariye through the eyes of the protagonist, which because of her youth made this reader recoil.

But even in familiar territory, there are stumbles and wrong turns. In his fiction, Murakami’s brand of magical realism is often over the top—Kafka on the Shore features a forgotten village in the forest where time has stopped circa 1965, and in 1Q84 there is an alternate reality version of the Earth that has two moons in its orbit—yet it always seems to make sense within the context of the respective novel. In contrast, the little Commendatore that steps out of the painting here strikes the reader as more cartoonish than surreal. Suspending disbelief is a critical mechanism for any novel that challenges reality, and even without two-foot tall men with swords walking around it is difficult to buy into the notion that there could be a contemporary location in a modern nation like Japan that is fully stuck in a 1990 communications time-warp. The ability of his main character to simply “Google” something that he questions must have been a plot roadblock for the author that he dealt with by simply inventing a locale out of reach of the web; readers remain unconvinced.  Worst of all, the writing—always Murakami’s strongest suit—tends to the pedestrian here.  My email signatures have frequently featured quotes from Murakami fiction; in my estimation, there is virtually nothing in Killing Commendatore worth quoting. Long passages are given to stultifying dialogue. Rarely are there more than two people in the same room, and they are usually engaged in long conversations that seem not only forced but unconvincing.  And—perhaps responding to criticism that his novels leave so many loose ends—this time around Murakami ties nearly all of these up, although the various resolutions and explanations are not only unsatisfying but irritating because they strain—and largely fail—to ring true. The whole novel has the feel of a low budget B-grade horror flick with a handful of actors, ominous moments and looming terror that never quite gets off the ground.

Prior to this, my least favorite Murakami novel was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which struck me as dull and uninspiring. But this novel is much worse. Despite this, Haruki Murakami remains one of the finest novelists of the twenty-first century. My advice: skip Killing Commendatore; there are plenty of other Murakami novels that are worth the time to read and cherish—just not this one . . .



[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at: ]

[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:

Men Without Women:

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973:

After the Quake:

Sputnik Sweetheart:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman:]