Review of: Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss

Worst. Biography. Ever.

Perhaps that seems overly harsh, but Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss, is not only worst president evermore poorly constructed than its awkwardly convoluted title, but it features some of the most abysmal writing that I have come across in years.  I really hate to write bad reviews, but this is truly a very bad book, on so many levels.  Even poor James Buchanan, worst president or not, deserves better than this.

Historians have been rating former presidents for some time. The top three are fairly consistent, with Washington and Lincoln typically jockeying for first place and FDR coming in third.  The bottom three tends to vary from one list to another, but Buchanan is almost invariably ranked dead last, with sometimes strong competition from Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, and more recently, George W. Bush. Buchanan, known in the parlance of the time as a “doughface” for his Southern sympathies, was an otherwise unexceptional career politician who waited his turn for the White House but had the bad fortune to win election as the country was coming apart over slavery.  Unfortunately, he seemed to lack both the vision and the conviction to act constructively to mitigate the looming crisis, instead putting the weight of his office on the wrong side of explosive issues such as the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, as well as the effort by pro-slavery partisans to foist the illegitimate Lecompton Constitution upon Kansas territory, where a bloody prequel to the Civil War was raging.  A staunch Unionist but also a strict Constitutional constructionist, Buchanan seemed paralyzed by inaction as secession unfolded in the months between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which then occurred in March rather than January. It was Buchanan’s failure to act during that long interregnum that consigns him to last place by most historians who compile such rankings.

Strauss’ book was released during the tumultuous 2016 election season, which made it seem all the more relevant. Buchanan, not a popular subject, has not had many biographers. While I know much about his tenure from other works on the antebellum period, I had never read his biography. But I have read more than two dozen biographies of American presidents, written for both scholarly and popular audiences. Some were masterful, some ponderous, some insightful, and still others unremarkable. I have read Flexner, Ellis, Meacham, McCullough, Donald, Remini, Dallek, Reeves, Caro and many more. The best products of this genre not only chronicle the life of its subject but adroitly explore the era when he walked the earth, revealing the complexity and nuance of people and events that a careful historian brings to a studied analysis. Unfortunately, all of that is conspicuous in its absence in Worst. President. Ever.  This is especially regrettable because a quality, balanced treatment of Buchanan would be a welcome addition to the historiography.

Instead, the narrative is choppy and superficial, and offers almost no thoughtful analysis.  Rife with clichés and clumsy metaphors, the author’s voice utterly lacks authority. The entire book is delivered in an idiomatic, conversational tone, as if it was related by a random person sitting on the barstool next to you. While the style, if we can call it that, is suitable to a tavern milieu, it has absolutely no place in a serious work of history.  And the writing is bad. Really bad. More than once I found myself flipping to the back flap of the dustjacket to confirm the author’s résumé, which apparently includes reporting for the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated—and teaching a non-fiction writing class at the University of Pennsylvania!  I rarely include multiple excerpts from a book in reviews, but I am going to make an exception here, for unless you read such excerpts you may judge me harshly for my harsh judgments!  So here we go:

On the economic panic of 1857: “By midsummer no one could take a ride on the Reading, as Uncle Pennybags does in the Monopoly game, since it had shut down…” [p160]

Regarding Andrew Jackson’s accession to the presidency: “He was a general and loved being in charge. Further, he was miffed about how the previous election had come out, with Adams and Clay back-door dealing, which he presumed meant they thought of him not smart enough to be the big boss.” [p75]

On the nominating process for the election of 1852: “With Polk bowing out … Buchanan again figured he was deserving of the nomination. His scheme was the usual … say little controversial, and then proclaim: ‘Aw, shucks, well, OK…'” [p110]

Strauss frequently makes broad, simplistic statements about critical historical events that simply made me wince.  As in:

On the great issue of slavery: “Most Northerners let the issue ride. They might’ve been against slavery personally, but like a tic a neighbor might have that they shrugged their shoulders about, they tolerated slavery for the places where it already existed . . . [p115] And: “Still, much like the Southeastern Conference against the Big Ten in football today, whatever helps the ‘team’ got strong support from all concerned … So slavery became the chicken, not just the egg.” [p133]

Clichés abound, and there are many more wild and weird analogies between Buchanan’s time and ours, as well, such as:

On Buchanan’s relationship with James K. Polk: “The office of secretary of state was different then than in the twentieth century and beyond. There was no jetting off to seventy-five countries a year and meeting with statesmen every week.” [p107]

On Jesse Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont: “Like Kris Kardashian, whose fame started when she began to burnish the reputation of her Olympian husband Bruce Jenner … Jesse Benton, knowing the way of politics from her father, saw that kind of legend in her husband … She was unafraid of what might seem like a dicey past.” [p127] And on a campaign song that pays tribute to her: “It does not seem likely that calling, say, Michelle Obama or Laura Bush —or even Sarah Palin—’the flower of the land’ would’ve made it in the feminist twenty-first century, but the song does show what a celebrity Jesse Fremont had become…” [p147]

Sadly, there is much, much more of these painful passages, interspersed with occasional odd tangents about the author’s various field trips and what sparked his interest in history. Surprisingly, despite the book’s subtitle, there is precious little analysis of what actually constitutes bad ratings for presidents and why Buchanan is at the bottom, although there are hints throughout, as in a discussion of the Dred Scott case that asserts: “… James Buchanan would find his way to intercede in it—and on that intercession, get quickly as he could on the road to becoming the Worst. President. Ever.” [p149] There is finally a brief chapter that runs down the list of troubled presidencies and makes a poor attempt at appropriate evaluation, which can only be properly summarized by still another excerpt:

“Andrew Johnson was no prize as a president, but he did keep the country from buckling after the Civil War… Johnson was impeached because of his policies … and survived being shown the door by just one Senate vote.” [p167] And “…though he really blew it with Kansas-Nebraska, Pierce at least advocated that the Union was paramount … Pierce was no prize but he kept the United States intact …” Only then does Strauss pass judgment: “Buchanan, then, takes that prize. Though he had some positives, they were primarily social and short-lived. He was not an evil man personally and had a partying spirit when it came time for that, but even there, he could not bring himself to be even a mediocre administrator.” [p174]

I am sure that this review will find critics among those who appreciate Strauss’ chaotic, bantering style, but I am even more certain that few who would defend this work are serious students of American history. Was Buchanan really the worst president ever?  Do not look to this book to find out.

Review of: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart

The ancient Athenian democracy featured a unique political safety valve known as ostracism that allowed for the ten-year exile of any citizen of the polis based solely upon the votes of his fellow citizens. Senators in ancient Rome could be impeached and expelled impeachedfrom the Senate for malfeasance, another kind of safety valve that unfortunately did not apply to the Emperor. It was to Rome that framer Benjamin Franklin looked during the 1787 Constitutional Convention when he observed that without the legal alternative to impeach the President “. . . in cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious . . . [the only] … recourse was … assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.” Hotly debated, Franklin’s point of view nevertheless prevailed, although it was to be decidedly vague as articulated in Article II Section 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It has never really been clear what constitutes these “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” although in the current political climate it might be especially relevant to bone up on the concept. Gerald Ford once (1970) said that: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Most would agree with author David O. Stewart that the embarrassing 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton was little more than an example of “. . . House Republicans . . . throwing [a] . . . moralistic temper tantrum . . . [that sought to impeach] Clinton for actions totally unrelated to his official duties [p321]  But in Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, Stewart reminds us that there are times when impeachment is a legitimate recourse. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid almost certain impeachment and conviction in the Watergate scandal, making Gerald Ford (with some irony given the comment above) President of the United States.  In his 1868 Senate impeachment trial, Andrew Johnson avoided removal by only a single vote.

In this well-written narrative, Stewart looks beyond historiography and brings to bear his own experience as a constitutional lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. and later served as principal defense counsel for U.S. District Judge Walter L. Nixon, Jr. in a 1989 impeachment trial before the United States Senate, to place impeachment in context and to bring a fresh perspective to the attempt to remove Johnson. Stewart recalls that it was President Jefferson who first attempted to utilize the impeachment statute for political purposes as he sought to remove unfriendly federal judges appointed by his Federalist predecessor. His efforts met with limited success and thus he abandoned them.  The impeachment tool largely lay dormant until the Johnson era.

Tennessean Andrew Johnson was a staunch Unionist and the sole Senator from a southern state to not resign his seat during the secession crisis and the onset of the Civil War.  In the 1864 national campaign to re-elect Lincoln (who himself believed he would likely not prevail), Johnson – a Democrat – was added to the VP spot of the “National Union Party” ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances that November. Johnson, a somewhat vulgar character who was known to tip the bottle a bit too frequently, was drunk on Inauguration Day.  Forty-two days later, as the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson was President of the United States.

There was tension almost immediately with the simultaneous dawn of Reconstruction and Johnson’s accession to the Presidency. It at once became clear that Johnson was at odds with Congress on virtually every aspect of the process that would readmit the seceded states back into the union, punish or pardon former rebels, protect the millions of newly freed African-American former slaves, and the role that federal troops and the federal government would play in these sometimes-conflicting arenas. Lincoln died before his vision for Reconstruction could be fully shaped, but he was a political moderate who endorsed reconciliation and the speedy readmittance of the former Confederate states, yet certainly had concerns for the welfare of black freedmen. Congress was controlled by Radical Republicans, who largely sought to both punish the rebellious southern states and elevate African-Americans to some kind of relative equality. Johnson took a vastly different approach that was almost diametrically opposed in every case to that advocated by the Congressional majority.  Johnson, an opponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, favored the immediate readmittance of the seceded states, a policy of unilateral forgiveness for the former rebels, and a strict constitutional view of states’ rights that afforded virtually no role for the federal government in protecting African-Americans from harsh and often brutal treatment by their former masters. Johnson went so far as to remove several generals commanding occupation forces in former Confederate states for the too diligent enforcement of Reconstruction policies and the active defense of the otherwise helpless population of recently freed blacks.

Before long, antagonism between the legislative and executive branches reached unprecedented levels of hostility that spawned multiple attempts at impeachment. Two of these failed before the third took hold. The critical issues were that the actions of the Johnson Administration seemed to negate the essence of the Union victory in the Civil War, further endangered the millions of freed African-Americans struggling in a hostile climate, and jeopardized the Lincoln legacy. General Ulysses Grant, the most admired man in America in the wake of Lincoln’s death and the presumptive Republican nominee in 1868, shared these concerns. Efforts to recruit the more conservative General William Tecumseh Sherman – perhaps the second most admired man in America –  to Johnson’s cause failed because of the unshakeable loyalty between Grant and Sherman.  Most of the cabinet officials Johnson inherited from Lincoln were on board with him, with the notable exception of the highly respected yet irascible War Secretary Edwin Stanton, who blocked Johnson at every turn.  An attempt by Johnson to replace Stanton collided with the recently enacted “Tenure of Office Act” that sought legislative control over presidential appointments and led finally to an impeachment action.

Those familiar with the Civil War will recognize many of the characters who walk the stage in the detailed trial drama that unfolds, including Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a weak and dying man who is nevertheless Johnson’s most potent adversary, mediocre general but fiery political chameleon Benjamin Butler, who leads the prosecution forces in the Senate trial, and Salmon P. Chase, once Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court to avoid potential rivalry in the ’64 election, now presiding over the trial.  There are many others.

Stewart takes a decidedly revisionist approach and argues with some conviction that the position underscored in traditional historiography, which perhaps received the most prominence in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage – that Johnson’s acquittal was a welcome victory for the Executive branch in the Constitutional separation of powers – is a flawed interpretation to the actual events and their aftermath. In fact, Stewart demonstrates in his well-reasoned study that impeachment, as Benjamin Franklin imagined it, was perfectly suited to the Johnson case. The problem, as the author underscores, was not the case against Johnson but the way Congress bungled it. As it turned out, the linchpin of the case, the Tenure of Office Act, was hardly a convincing ploy against Johnson in these circumstances.  There were multiple other articles, all vague, none irrefutable.  Butler, who could be a brilliant tactician, was also often all ego and bluster, and Stevens was too frail to take the kind of lead that might have produced an entirely different outcome.  In a fascinating articulation of his deep research into the people and events of the trial, Stewart points to multiple backstories that traditional studies have overlooked.  It was clear that Grant was not only the likely nominee in November of that year but also would soon be President; what difference would a few months make? And if Johnson was removed from office, under the rules of the day the new President would be none other than Benjamin Wade, president pro tempore of the Senate, a Radical Republican who was also seen as too radical by too many. (One newspaper wrote, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”) Significantly, much patronage and graft was at stake if the President was removed and another took his place.  Most prominent here was the massive corruption surrounding the tax and siphoning off of the tax dollars on whiskey, which contributed to funding the Union effort in the Civil War.  There was also much wagering on the outcome of impeachment, and gambling bought or sold many votes.  Finally, there were bribes, pure and simple, that put a Senator’s vote in one camp or another.  Stewart concludes that his research points to the purchase of the decisive vote for acquittal by Senator Edmund G. Ross, long otherwise lionized for his courage of principle.

Whatever your opinion on the merits of impeachment, Stewart notes that the result of Johnson’s acquittal was clear.  Prominent former Confederates were seamlessly elected to Congressional seats in the newly readmitted former Confederate states, Johnson issued a blanket pardon to rebel political and military officials, and blacks were routinely repressed and terrorized throughout the south. African-Americans and the entire nation paid a century-long penalty for the failure to remove Johnson.  Stewart notes that in 1868 alone:

Estimates of the election-year carnage in the South were staggering though often imprecise. The House Committee on Elections found that in Louisiana more than 1,000 blacks and white Unionists were killed and an equal number wounded, more than 600 killed in Kentucky, and dozens more in South Carolina. From August to October, the Freedman’s Bureau reported, Georgia saw 31 killings of blacks and white Unionists, 43 nonfatal shootings, 5 stabbings, and 63 beatings. A Republican Congressman from Arkansas was assassinated for political reasons. Fifty armed men attacked a plantation owned by a Unionist in Texas, killing seven freedmen. The Ku Klux Klan claimed credit for murdering leading Republicans in Alabama, in Georgia, in Texas, and in South Carolina . . . Many freedmen were blocked from voting. Others were compelled to vote for Democrats. Much of the worst violence continued to be in Texas. A former gov­ernor reported in May 1868 that 250 “union men” had been murdered in the state in the preceding six months. For a price, gangs would kill blacks, Republicans, or federal soldiers. Efforts at self-defense by the poorly armed freedmen often brought catastrophe. Civil war broke out in Brazos County, with whites and blacks forming militias. Twenty-five freedmen died in a battle that drove most blacks and Union families from the area. [p302]

If there is a fault in this fine book it is that there is too much detail, too many characters, too much attention to the blow-by-blow of the trial outcome.  But then, the author is a lawyer, so attention to detail is, I suppose, especially requisite. I did not pick this book up planning to learn as much as I did about the impeachment process, but I closed the cover firmly convinced that Benjamin Franklin was on to something most significant when he noted that there needed to be an avenue to remove a Chief Executive who has “rendered himself obnoxious.” Perhaps this will be a road that beckons travel yet again soon.


[My Review of: Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, David O. Stewart ‘s later work, is here: ]

Review of: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry

The vision of a frightened African-American woman on the auction block clutching her child to her chest as the bidding commenced renders an iconic image that has often served the-price-for-their-pound-of-fleshas a powerful ingredient in fiction to conjure up the helplessness and hopelessness that beset chattel slaves in the antebellum south. Such as:

Adeline reluctantly stepped up on the block amid a crowd of unfamiliar onlookers. Arms crossed, head covered, she gripped her young to her chest to shield him from the spectacle of shame they were about to experience. The audience admired her dark olive skin and her evidence of fecundity. Her ten-week-old son was living proof that she was a child-bearing woman. Adeline had “a very fine forehead, pleasing countenance and mild, lustrous eyes,” while her son was a “light-colored, blue eyed curly-silked-haried [sic] child” Positioned on the Columbia, South Carolina, courthouse steps, the two awaited their fate. “Gentlemen, did you ever see such a face, and head, and form, as that?” the auctioneer inquired, taking off her hood.” She is only 18 years old, and already has a child [who] will consequently make a valuable piece of property for someone. The bidder and Adeline struggled with her hood as he praised her skill. “She is a splendid housekeeper and seamstress,” he continued. By this time, tears filled her eyes, “and at every licentious allusion she cast a look of pity and woe at the auctioneer, and at the crowd.” As the sale continued, the auctioneer took Adeline’s hood off three more times to show “her countenance” and every time, she quickly replaced it. When he was exposed, her son “cast a terrified look on the auctioneer and bidders,” each time his face was revealed. Perhaps at his young age, he sensed his mother’s terror. Within minutes, the sale was complete, and Adeline “descended the courthouse steps, looked at her new master, looked at the audience, looked fondly to her sweet child’s face, and pressed it warmly to her bosom,” while the auctioneer jeered, “that child wouldn’t trouble her purchaser long.” The threat of separation followed enslaved people to the auction block.  [p10-11]

Yet, the foregoing is not an overwrought scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a sensationalist TV movie, but rather the report of an actual slave auction from the opening chapter of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.  In a remarkably original contribution to the historiography of African-American slavery in the United States, Daina Ramey Berry, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, reminds us that Adeline and her infant were subjected to this humiliating dehumanization on those long-ago courthouse steps for a specific reason: they each held a tangible value associated with real dollar signs for the buyer and the seller.  Adeline especially was worth something because, as we learn from this account, she was an attractive young woman, she had household skills, and she was fecund. Adeline in this sense was not a human being, but property, plain and simple, and property has a value.

In a well-written, thought-provocative, and strikingly innovative addition to the existing body of scholarship on American slavery, Berry sets out to locate what that specific value was and how it was rationally determined, not only for Adeline but for all of the many millions of those once held in bondage: men, women, children, infants – even the dead.  In this slim volume, based on extensive research, she largely succeeds, but even more significantly her work profoundly alters the way historians will conceptualize the slave-person ever after. In Maps of Time, “Big History” scholar David Christian aptly dubs slaves as human batteries. That is a useful construct. Berry’s construct is equally useful, as she hangs a dollar sign around every neck and demonstrates how, in the peculiar version of African slavery that developed in the United States, some human beings, bought and sold just like batteries adapted for specific utilizations, came to be worth more than others, and how that value changed over a lifetime.

In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, it is clear that there were a whole host of values for human chattel slaves that are commonly overlooked.  For instance, there was an appraised value, which was often noted in account books and wills.  There was also a market value, which just like in an automobile or a home could pointedly differ from appraisal. Rarely acknowledged, there was also the value placed upon a slave when insured against loss by their owner, and the premium that was paid, again just like a car or a house. Some of this value was based upon what role the slave property could perform.  A strong man who could work in the fields was worth X. A competent woman who could sew or keep house was worth Y. A young woman who was fertile and could be bred like livestock was worth Z. If she was attractive, like Adeline, and could serve as an object of the flesh for her owner, all the better, and her value increased. Age was also a strong determinant in assigned values.  In an era of high infant and child mortality, babies and small children were worth very little, but each year that they survived their assessed value increased until at fourteen they achieved something like adult status. Slaves had the greatest value during their prime years, driven by capability and productivity.  Berry articulates this in a chilling passage:

Sellers prepared the enslaved for display determined the condition of their health and sometimes rated them on a five-point scale of 0 to 1 in increments of 0.25. Prime or full hands had a rating of 1 or A1 Prime, which represented a projection of the amount of work a person could perform in a given day. Prime hands, typically between the ages of fifteen and thirty, were the strongest laborers on farms and plantations . . . Other enslaved people had their rates set at three-fourth hand, one-half hand, or for those unable to work or contribute to the plantation economy, zero. This rating system resembles US Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat grades, in which beef undergoes a “composite evaluation” to determine quality. [p68]

Naturally, supply and demand and transportation costs all factored into the price. Slaves could also be rented out to others, and their labor valued in fractions, much as they were famously assessed as fractional persons for the purposes of representation in the Constitution of the United States. [p84] Value diminished as the slave aged past forty. The author dubs the elderly and past-their-prime “superannuated,” and this class saw their value drop with great significance.

Surprisingly, slaves also had a certain value after death, what Berry terms their “ghost value.”  A slave executed for a crime by the state, for instance, had an assessed value that was paid to the owner for his loss in being deprived of their labor.  [p98; 112] And the skull and skin of the infamous, such as insurrectionist Nat Turner, commanded a premium on a clandestine market for such goods. [p102-105] Much more astonishing, however, was that the corpses of dead slaves (as well as grave-robbed free blacks!) served as currency for the cadaver trade to medical schools, north and south. With an inspired sense of optimism layered over the revulsion that each of these valuations implies, Berry adds one more value that restores a certain dignity to the dehumanized humanity that she chronicles: “soul value.”  The soul value, she underscores, is the value the human slave person placed upon their own life, a value that could not be bought or sold, a value that led one ringleader of a slave revolt to jump from the gallows with a rope around his neck and die on his own terms rather than wait for the trap to drop. [p146]

This is an outstanding book that nevertheless suffers from a handful of flaws.  First of all, as Berry assigns average values for her subjects throughout the volume, it soon becomes clear that the exceptions to the rules far outnumber the rules.  In other words, values clearly are far less quantifiable than she would suggest. That hardly diminishes the quality of the theme, but nevertheless frustrates the reader as she repeatedly notes what the values should be at the head of the chapter only to detail scores of values that fail to fall into these ranges. In another arena, Berry risks damaging her historical scholarship by repeated attempts to draw bold lines between the slave experience and the contemporary African-American experience and the Black Lives Matter movement.  While there is merit to these insights and my own politics happens to coincide with hers, there is no place in a work of history (beyond the preface or epilogue, etc.) to introduce such editorials.

Finally, in a personal quibble, I must admit that I always chafe at the reducing of the greatest pejorative directed at African-Americans by plantation owners and latter day racists to the euphemistic N— or N-word.  I realize the word is offensive.  It should be!  Just as a famous  curse loses all power when rendered as the F-word, so too does a word used to denigrate human beings lose the power to shock and repulse when abbreviated and euphemized this way.  As the late George Carlin noted with striking political incorrectness, it is all about context. Rap singers and urban youth, black and brown, use the word as kinship, even as a term of endearment.  Slave auctioneers used it to dehumanize.  Spell it out.  Make us wince.  We should wince. We should feel the passion and the pain.

Just as we are repulsed by the ordinary, mundane, striking normalcy in the colorless bureaucrats who were the cogs in the wheels of the Nazi death camps, so too are we as readers struck with revulsion for the complicity of all those who participated in the institution of human chattel slavery as well as those who did not object, or objected too little, north and south. The genius in Berry’s work is that by assigning values as she has in this fine narrative we are far more moved by the plight of those otherwise anonymous millions who were valued and used as meat, rather than dignified as unique humans.  We can see and feel their soul values, even if they were largely denied these in life. We can honor them further by reading this excellent book and sharing its message.

[Note: I received this edition as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]

Review of: Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, by Holger Hoock

Some years ago, before it was shuttered to the public, my son and I took a road trip to check out the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT, an abandoned copper mine that was turned into a prison in the late eighteenth century.We had the benefit of electric lights, scars-of-independenceand modern stairways have replaced the ladders that prisoners were forced down to the pit and tunnels some seventy feet underground, but even so the sense of claustrophobic isolation was palpable. Much of the cavern is narrow and cramped, with sloped floors and low rock ceilings. It is ever a cold and dank fifty-five degrees, and as penitentiary it was also dark, largely airless and no doubt horrifying for those confined there. [p49-52] That many of those hapless occupants were Loyalists imprisoned here during the American Revolution may have been mentioned by the guide, but hardly emphasized. Loyalists are the invisible actors in the drama that saw the colonies become a nation. newgateguardhouse-e1327606361824While some estimates peg the Loyalist segment as high as twenty percent of the white population, perhaps some five hundred thousand colonists, they have largely vanished with little trace in American history.

Fortunately, a new generation of historians – most notably among these Alan Taylor – have rediscovered them, as well as the Native Americans and African-Americans long disregarded by more traditional studies.  Now Holger Hoock neatly advances this trend in the historiography with Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, slated for release in May 2017, which restores Loyalists – long relegated to inconsequential cameos – to central characters that once walked on that tumultuous stage. In this fine contribution to the latest scholarship, the author treats the American Revolution as a kind of “civil war,” not only between the colonists and the British, but more critically between Patriots and Loyalists.  These were, after all, friends and neighbors and relatives, some of whom were banished to that hell hole at Newgate, others on both sides who were brutalized far worse than that.

As the book’s subtitle – America’s Violent Birth – suggests, Hoock not only revisits the tame, lamely whitewashed version of the Revolution that we have grown up with to resurrect the Loyalists and challenge the myth of consensus among the colonists in their bid for independence, but he strives to locate and identify the violence in the conflict that has somehow been excised from most of the history texts. That violence dominates the theme in this well-written narrative, on the battlefield and especially beyond it. The author reminds us, for instance, that to be tarred and feathered – a favored device for the public humiliation of Loyalists – was hardly benign, but that hot tar often seared and permanently scarred the flesh. And that was, tragically, the least of it, as Patriots and Loyalists and British regulars and Hessian troops often visited terrible cruelties upon one another, and exponentially worse brutalities upon the Native Americans and blacks, slave and free, that found themselves in the orbit of the struggle. Hoock, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, brings a kind of fresh perspective to this subject especially because, as he notes in the “Introduction,” he is a “German born specialist in British history who did not grow up with the national myths of either Britain or America.” [p22]

There were certain accepted norms for rules of engagement and codes of conduct for eighteenth century war and the treatment of prisoners.  These were routinely violated. Dubbing the angry incident between a snowballing-tossing mob and British regulars the “Boston Massacre” made for great public relations long before actual hostilities broke out, but during the War of Independence there were indeed massacres, mostly perpetrated by British soldiers and their Hessian allies that did not view rebels employing guerrilla tactics worthy of quarter. Bayonets made grim examples of men begging for their lives. Over the course of the war, many more were taken prisoner than executed, but their fate often made Old Newgate look like a nice place to visit. Those Americans who were captured were often condemned to horrific confinement in the fetid holds of British prison ships, replete with abysmal conditions and mortality rates that frequently ranged from forty to seventy percent! [p226] British prisoners typically received far better treatment by their colonial captors, due not only to Washington’s strict codes of conduct towards enemy forces, but also because Americans were better capable of caring and feeding captives within their lines than were their counterparts. Loyalists, of course, existed in a kind of grey area, and thus were subject to arbitrary treatment in local environments. The violence was hardly one-sided, and there were examples of “. . . sadistic American-on American cruelty . . .” manifested in torture and murder on both sides. [p324-25]

Hoock also draws attention to segments of the population typically overlooked. The British dangled freedom before the eyes of enslaved Africans willing to assist the war effort, an attractive offer that sent tens of thousands of blacks into British lines.  [p310] The unintended consequence was that this acted as an incentive to rebellion for otherwise uncommitted white plantation owners, pregnant with fear of slave uprisings. [p100] Hoock notes that  “Blacks were    . . .  used as a psychological cudgel.”  A selective one. In one case a patrol whipped the overseer of a Patriot plantation in full view of the slaves.  But Loyalist slaves were protected as property, and sometimes executed by the British for attempting rebellion.  [p310-311] For their part, Patriots often inflicted terrible injustice upon African-Americans, slave and free, whom they suspected of inciting revolt or recruiting slaves to the British cause. [p98] For the most part, the British showed little loyalty to blacks when less than convenient, as when they abandoned a thousand dead or dying African-Americans on the Virginia coast following the bombardment of Norfolk. [p103] Native-Americans, drawn into the struggle primarily as allies of the British, fared little better.  Their ways of war were seen as barbaric, and this barbarism was repaid tenfold by the victorious Patriots. [p280-299]

Something like one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the thirteen colonies during the war and its aftermath.  Many settled in Canada, although some were to return in the coming years. Reconciliation, led by Alexander Hamilton and others, ultimately triumphed over bitterness and recrimination for the winning side.  [p382] Many, but not all, of the Loyalists who remained after the Revolution assimilated back into society.  This was also true for some who fled and later returned.  But the unspoken mandate for reconciliation was unconditional silence.  “The price for the losers’ reintegration into America was to keep their own scars hidden.” [p397] The disease of Loyalism was essentially expunged from the national consciousness.  It was publicly forgotten, even by most historians.  We can be grateful to Holger Hoock and Scars of Independence for helping us to remember.

[Note: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition uncorrected proof that I received through an Early Reviewer’s program]

More on Old Newgate Prison ;

More on Loyalists

Review of: The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

With the notable exception of the Civil War, Americans have largely forgotten the wars waged outside of living recollection. Other than the War of 1812, perhaps no war has been so utterly expunged from our collective memory as the Spanish-American War of 1898, true-flagalthough this conflict occurred barely at the edge of that envelope: as of this writing the oldest still thriving human being was born in 1899. Still, when prompted how many could conjure up more than a caricature of buck-toothed Teddy Roosevelt bedecked with pince-nez and cowboy hat leading the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill? But although the “splendid little war” – as it was famously dubbed by John Hay – was little more than a minor military adventure fought and won over a brief four-month period, it was nevertheless highly consequential, as it marked the dawn of a new era of American overseas intervention and imperialism. In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer does a remarkable job of resurrecting the Spanish American War from the dustbin of our national amnesia and restoring its critical historical significance, despite an abysmal concluding chapter (more on this later!) that mars an otherwise fine work.

The United States has been an aggressive, expansionist, even predatory nation since its very foundation. What came to be called “manifest destiny” meant both the disenfranchisement of the aboriginal native peoples and the eviction – by force or treaty – of the British, French and Spanish that got in the way of the path “from sea to shining sea.” But except for some daydreams by antebellum Southerners of colonizing portions of Central America in order to extend slavery, Americans restrained themselves from overseas conquest and were passive observers of the late nineteenth century European rush to imperialism, as Britain, France and Germany competed for colonial empire. One of the most notable opponents of such restraint was Theodore Roosevelt, who actively called for a more internationalist – and interventionist – approach by the United States. As The True Flag neatly outlines, Roosevelt urged a war with Spain to divest her of her Caribbean colonies, turned himself into a hero once the war unfolded, and then used these events as a springboard to the vice-presidency. The assassination of President McKinley later put the nation’s most prominent imperialist into the Oval Office.

After five centuries, all that remained for Spain of the vast territory in the New World that Columbus had stumbled upon was a tiny toehold in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Americans were both hostile to Spain and sympathetic to the Cuban rebels who sought liberation. There was a growing cry for intervention.  In addition to Roosevelt, there was an eager cast of notables – Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, William Randolph Hearst, Alfred Thayer Mahan – urging action. President McKinley was at first a reluctant, albeit easily converted, warrior. When a likely mechanical malfunction caused an explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor with hundreds of fatalities, a rush to judgment blamed the disaster on a mine and with calls of “Remember the Maine” the United States went to war. It did not last very long. Vastly inferior Spanish forces in Cuba and in its faraway Pacific colony in the Philippines fell rapidly before American military might on land and sea. It had been more than three decades since the end of the Civil War, and while a new generation cheered this adventure, some veterans of the Union and the Confederacy even entered combat on the same side, a celebrated rapprochement by old enemies that added to the feel-good notions of righteousness that saw Spain finally expelled from the Americas and those it had long oppressed set free.  Most Americans, including its great intellectual icon, Mark Twain, championed the virtue of this crusade for justice and liberation. At first.

If for most, details of the Spanish-American War are murky, few even know that its immediate aftermath ignited another conflict – the Philippine-American War – of a much longer duration with far more casualties.   For an America seeking to expand its political power and economic reach on the world stage, the Philippines was a far greater prize than Cuba and there was a great reluctance to let her go once hostilities ended. Filipino rebels led by Emilio Aguinaldo at first welcomed Americans as allies and liberators, but were later bitterly disappointed as the United States opted to simply replace Spain as a colonial overlord.  What followed was a long, ruthless, bloody war of oppression to crush Philippine resistance that turned out to be a tragic preview of American interventionism in the years to come. In what came to be a campaign of terror justified by race, national interests and necessity, combatants and civilians fell victim to American antiguerrilla efforts that included torture and murder. Water torture, a specialty of the Spanish, became a regular part of the American toolkit. As Kinzer notes: “This was the first time American soldiers had systematically brutalized a civilian population overseas.” [p194] As the result of the war, as well as attendant starvation and epidemics, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians died.

The stark evolution of Americans from liberators to oppressors spawned a wide movement at home of anti-imperialists, with Mark Twain as one of its most ardent spokesmen. Although he privately deemed it “rather poor poetry,” Roosevelt — a Social Darwinist at heart who justified a world order dominated by Eurocentric white supremacy over the “lesser races” – extolled Rudyard Kipling’s latest poem written to encourage annexation, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” which was to become a rallying cry for imperialism. It’s first stanza began [p120]:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Less famously, Twain countered this sentiment by rewriting “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to reflect the rapacious nation we had become [p184]:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword,
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death is scored,
His lust is marching on.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not apply overseas, but the war in the Philippines grew very unpopular at home. Still, Roosevelt, who became President after McKinley’s assassination, vigorously pursued victory under the guise of offering enlightened civilization to the misguided brown people who otherwise spurned it. General Arthur MacArthur (Douglas MacArthur’s father) obliged with ruthless tenacity. His homeland devastated, a kidnapped and imprisoned Aguinaldo eventually gave in to his new colonizers. (He lived to witness the birth of Philippine independence in 1945 and then on to his nineties; during World War II he supported the Japanese occupiers who ousted the Americans.) Meanwhile, something called the Platt Amendment created an emasculated independent Cuba dominated by the United States that endured for decades. America also controlled Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii (annexed in 1898).  The United States was now indeed a power to be reckoned with on the world stage, but there were unintended consequences. The unsuccessful anti-imperialist movement withered away, and so too did an appetite for further conquest abroad; a war-weary public fell into isolationism just in time for the outbreak of World War I.

Kinzer’s well-written narrative puts the Spanish-American War into its appropriate historic context, something missing in most other treatments.  This was the same timeframe that saw the United States annex Hawaii, not long after supporting its white planter elite’s overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was the same era that saw the British employ machine guns to mow down thousands of native Ndebele warriors in Rhodesia, and to create the first concentration camps for civilians in the South African Boer War.  These were the same years of the celebrated “Open Door Policy” in China, that asserted the right of the United States to prey upon Chinese markets as aggressively as their foreign counterparts, and to lend forces to put down Chinese nationals in the “Boxer Rebellion.” Like all events, this war and its aftermath did not occur in a vacuum.

Then the author nearly spoils it all with a dreadful concluding chapter that seeks to connect all subsequent American foreign engagement to the events of this period.  One could indeed argue with some conviction that the Spanish-American War represented a line that was crossed in American foreign policy that encouraged overseas interventionism and occupation justified by a vague and often unconvincing crusade of good intentions. With that and especially with the imbroglio of the Philippines in mind, one could perhaps draw a line to the quagmire of Vietnam, and especially to the late misadventure in Iraq.  Yet, Kinzer makes the mistake of painting all that followed with far too broad of a brush. Isolationism is not always the vindication of anti-imperialism, as he seems to posit, nor is interventionism always its antonym. For instance, the role the United States played, or failed to play, in the run-up to World War II had little to do with the issues of 1898.  There are many varieties of intervention, as well as isolation. History is nuance and complexity that always suffers when blurred with attempts to impose grand over-arching themes.  In his final chapter, the author tries too hard to connect all the dots as if it was one common image.  In this, he is ultimately unsuccessful. Still, the flaws of that last chapter should not deter anyone from reading The True Flag, an otherwise outstanding work that restores a long-overlooked chapter in American history to its appropriate prominence.

[NOTE: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition I received through an Early Reviewer’s program.]

Review of: Civil War Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Paul Negri

For almost exactly one full year, Civil War Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Paul Negri, lay on my night table, and occasionally I turned to it just before bed. It came to me last December as part of a “Secret Santa” exchange sponsored by LibraryThing and aptly civil-war-poetrybranded as “Santathing.” I regret that I have never really embraced poetry, and as such it is an avenue in literature I rarely traverse. On the other hand, I remain fascinated with Civil War studies, and this was a dimension of that which I had never explored. Poetry had far more resonance to a wider audience in that era than it does today. It was indeed a surprisingly literate period, as I am reminded again and again in the Civil War correspondence that I personally have digitized and transcribed. Poetry in that age would have stretched far beyond the salons and drawing rooms of the elite to weigh on the minds and move on the lips of the ordinary soldier in the field. That is something that no historian of the war should overlook.

Civil War Poetry opens with arguably the most famous poem of the era, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was set to music and came to become for the north the anthem of the war [p1]. Most Civil War historians know that as Lee’s army marched into Maryland en route to Antietam, they chanted “Maryland, My Maryland,” in the hopes that the civilian population of this border state would rise up in support. The original poem, “My Maryland,” by James Ryder Randall, appears here [p12-13]. It too was later set to music and some came to call it “the Marseillaise of the Confederate Cause.” Despite this optimism, Unionist sentiment was particularly strong in the western part of the state, as celebrated in the famous if probably apocryphal poem “Barbara Frietchie,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, which also makes an appearance here [p24-26]:

“Shoot if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said

The range of this slender volume is impressive, and includes both the notable – Emerson, Longfellow, and Lowell – as well as the more obscure, such as Francis Orray (misspelled as Orrery in this edition) Ticknor. Although I had never heard of Ticknor, his poem “Little Giffen,” about a Confederate soldier badly wounded at Murfreesboro and nursed back to health by Ticknor himself, only to fall in a later battle, was quite moving [p33-34]:

And we watched the war with bated breath, —
Skeleton Boy against skeleton Death.
Months of torture, how many such!
Weary weeks of the stick and crutch;
And still a glint of the steel-blue eye
Told of a spirit that wouldn’t die.

I found less inspiring the several poems by the far more well-known novelist Herman Melville, but then I would be the first to concede that I lack the credentials to critique the quality of poetry, but rather only to react to how it touches me. The editor notes that “The Bay Fight,” by Henry Howard Brownell, was of the most famous battle poems of the war, yet I suffered immeasurably through its more than fourteen pages of verse [p61-76]. But again, who am I to judge?

Still, to read Walt Whitman, who served as nurse as well as literary icon, cannot help but inspire. His renowned elegies to Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain,” [p95-96] and the lengthy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” [p96-103] are included, but so too are lesser known titles, such as the poignant “The Wound Dresser,” [p91-93] and especially the tragic “A Sight in Camp in Daybreak Gray and Dim” [p91]:

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just
lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d
hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face
of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Remarkably, it is in this lamentation to the dead that Whitman artfully resurrects their sacrifice and bequeaths their legacy to us more than one hundred and fifty years after they fell. So it was for me to randomly discover the power of poetry in an unexpected place! It is for surprising and perhaps long overlooked poems such as this that, in the end, makes Civil War Poetry: An Anthology so rewarding. I highly recommend this little book to all who want to round out their studies of the war, even if poetry may not be your first love.

Review of: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

I struck out my original opening line to this review, which went something like “We all take rain for granted–”  But having already read Cynthia Barnett’s brilliant and quirky take on this subject, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, I was reminded that globally that rainproposition is entirely false: in the desert you might take the lack of rain for granted, or within the path of seasonal monsoons you might take the cyclical intensity of rain for granted, or in the Indian state of Meghalaya, the wettest place on earth, you might take the omnipresence of rain for granted. But farmers in every geography, who depend upon rain to nurture their crops, can never afford to take rain for granted at all. Of course, rain – in all its manifestations, or a lack thereof – is the common denominator, and that is the central theme of this fine book that is all at once a blend of science, history, culture, philosophy, and literary conceit.

Like most people, I suppose, I have been more or less agnostic on the subject of rain. I live in New England; it comes and goes. I don’t think about it much, one way or the other.  As a young man working in New York City, I wore a trench coat over my business suit and carried an umbrella, but for the several decades since I have mostly made due with a windbreaker and a cap during random showers. In the winter, of course, it often turns to the white stuff, but here again I simply don my fleece, wear a wool cap, and pull on gloves when it gets out of control.  I literally never pay attention to the weather report unless it forecasts the apocalyptic. Who cares about a little rain?

Well, it turns out that we should care. A lot. And for the skeptics out there, let me add that I was hardly an easy convert for Barnett, despite her fine prose and engaging style.  Early on, you might even say, I was downright hostile, when I judged her guilty of gross overreach as she attempted to tie the decline of multiple ancient civilizations to shortfalls of rain. At first. As I considered her thesis, I had to concede she was on to something.  With the benefit of paleoclimatology, the current generation of archaeologists and historians recognize, in a way that their predecessors in the field failed to grasp, that climate change probably played a far more significant role in civilizational decline – in the Near East, in the Indus Valley, in Mesoamerica – than previously credited.  And what is climate really but primarily (if not exclusively) a marriage of precipitation and temperature? Unlike the modern period where carbon emissions are producing rapid and dramatic global change through unprecedented warming, in the long era prior to the industrial revolution changes in temperature were mostly slow and subtle.  Not so with rainfall, ever unpredictable yet no less essential for the survival of traditional civilizations dependent upon consistent food production. As Barnett underscores in her careful analysis, too little rain translated into drought and crop catastrophe; too much rain meant flooding and devastation. Historians generally recognize that civilizations are fragile things; consecutive years of agricultural calamities can and indeed most certainly did create unsustainable tipping points that were simply not recoverable. Rain, it turns out, is vitally significant.

Once Barnett has convinced the reader of the vital role of rain for civilization, she goes on to explore how religion, magic, myth, science, and quackery have taken turns with both forecasting and rainmaking, with consequences that were sometimes whimsical but more often tragic. Students of American history will recall how the optimistic but no less fanciful maxim “rain follows the plow” fueled western expansion, only to breed disaster. Despite their best efforts, neither shamans nor charlatans have proved reliable rainmakers over the course of history. Twentieth century scientific techniques offered promise at first, but it turns out that while such efforts may increase the volume of rain, there is little evidence to suggest that these can actually generate rain with any sort of consistency. Forecasting, as brides and picnickers well know, is equally unreliable, although twenty-first century instruments and analysis have fine-tuned the science of meteorology to some sophistication.  Apparently, this is because weather exists as classic chaos theory, subject to something akin to the famous “butterfly effect,” so that even the best prediction can be overtaken by the unpredictable. On the other hand, we have a come long way in more critical domains: forecasting and monitoring of storm systems have dramatically reduced the number of lives lost on land and especially at sea.

The beauty of Barnett’s inspired narrative is the delightful way that she weaves a mosaic of overlapping themes without losing focus of the central pattern.  Most of it is truly fascinating. The reader is treated to a survey of rain in virtually all its manifestations, from its lofty perch in poetry and prose, to the glories of real world downpours in locales both ordinary and exotic. It turns out that reports of it raining frogs or fish are not entirely imaginative; a tornado-like waterspout can suck up aquatic life from ponds which may then rain down on astonished pedestrians miles from the source [p247-51].   She is a fine writer who clearly has a love affair with her subject, although it might be said that there are moments where her enthusiasm, generally contagious, can push the boundaries a bit: the chapter entitled “The Scent of Rain” seemed to go on forever. Still, this is a truly wonderful book with something of interest for just about everyone, especially for those, like myself, who never thought much about rain before.

Review of: Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, by Mardo Williams

Towards the end of his mother’s very long life, retired journalist and octogenarian Mardo Williams began collecting her reminisces of a long bygone time in antique rural America.  The result, three years after the death of Maude Williams at 110 years old, was a biography maudeand memoir of sorts, Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, published in 1996 when Mardo himself was 91, and with encouragement from a writer’s group expanded by nearly 300 pages in the two years that followed. Mardo passed away in 2001, but a revised second edition of Maude was released in 2016, which I received through an early reviewer’s program.

In 1903, a pregnant nineteen-year-old Maude Allen wed Lee Williams and moved into a family homestead already more than a half-century old on farmland in remote rural Ohio.  There was no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing.  Their second child, Mardo, was born in 1905; altogether there would be a total of four children born in every-other-year intervals. A mix perhaps of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, Maude revisits a much simpler time in America when close-knit families worked and played together through hardship and celebration.  As a kind of primary source, the book is almost instantly fascinating as the narrative reveals in colorful detail how the Williams family went about their day to day lives – preparing food, keeping warm, washing clothes, doing farmyard chores, and the like – in a kind of primitive isolation. There is a pronounced charm to it, along with a certain heartwarming glow, especially in its survey of the more innocent America of Mardo’s childhood, replete with amusing anecdotes of Maude’s proverb-laced mothering, and Lee’s homespun practical jokes, as well as tales of long buggy rides to town or the occasional country fair, and winter sleigh rides to visit extended family and friends.

Yet, perhaps more fascinating is what is missing; that which remains unsaid. Primitive isolation: there is no doubt that sums up the farm where Maude and her family resided. But why? In 1903, Maude was living much like her grandparents would have lived. It was indeed remarkably similar to Little House on the Prairie, but yet it was early twentieth century America, on a farm in Ohio no less, hardly a desolate wilderness on the edge of the western frontier or a forgotten pocket of poverty in the deep south. And it hardly changed in the years to come. One day a telephone was installed, and the isolation was reduced, but not by much.  Maude had a cistern to collect rainwater for washing, but she did not get an indoor pitcher pump for it until the 1920s [p235]. Around that time, she finally went from a washboard to a “hand-propelled washing machine.” Lee got a car in 1920, and there are later stories of the children hanging out in the car in the evenings, listening to the radio.  Incredibly, there was no radio in the house until the late 1940s, just as the era of television dawned for the rest of the country [p12-13]. Maude thought it something of a miracle when the house was finally wired for electricity – in 1947 – when she and Lee were in their sixties! For twenty-first century Americans, there is perhaps a quaint rustic charm to the description of their privy, located a full one hundred feet from the back door, “. . . a two-holer equipped with a sack of lime . . . and a fly swatter,” and neatly accented with a Sears Roebuck catalog hanging from the wall – the pages of the catalog doubled as a “wish list” and as toilet paper [p34]. Of course, it is dubious that such charm extended to those who had to relieve themselves outdoors with no lights or plumbing day after day in every manner of weather. In 1960, three years after Lee’s death, and with the property in deep disrepair, Maude moved away. She was seventy-seven years old and had used an outhouse for the entire fifty-seven years that she lived there.

The careful anthropologist as reader cannot help but ask: why did conditions remain so primitive for Maude and Lee for some six decades?  It certainly did not start off that way. Lee’s family was apparently somewhat well-off, even sending Lee off to college. When he opted to drop out in favor of farming, Lee brought his new bride to a sprawling ten room house where his grandfather had lived, on land that included a barn, granary, windmill and more. His parents donated odd pieces of furniture to them. Three years later, Lee’s father paid to have the house repaired and renovated. This was a promising start for the young couple, and hardly abject poverty, yet by all accounts Lee and Maude lived a hardscrabble and weirdly anachronistic existence ever after. It appears that life was markedly different for others in their shared geography, who enjoyed at least some of the more modern conveniences conspicuous in their absence on the Williams farm. Long before he had his own car, Lee hiked through the mud to bum a ride to town in his neighbor’s vehicle, a town firmly anchored in the twentieth century, not trapped in the faded nineteenth where Lee and his family seemed helplessly glued. But again: why?  The narrative neither reveals the answer nor openly begs the question.  Was Lee an incompetent farmer?  There are vague hints that he may have been an alcoholic, but this is never fleshed out. Was he unlucky? Was he simply lazy? Or was the primitive state of things a kind of “hair shirt” Lee liked to wear? It is never made clear. Vast changes occurred in American life in the twentieth century, but life on the Williams farm essentially stood still.  The subtitle of the book, She Grew Up with the Country, is starkly misleading; the country grew up, but Maude was somehow left behind.

There is a telling photo on the cover of this edition of Maude.  Maude was only twenty-six, Lee twenty-seven; each look at least forty. Perhaps it was the times. Or maybe it was that hard life on that farm where every day was more like 1858 than 1908. For all of Mardo’s abundant nostalgia, it seems that in fact it was a life that none of the children really cherished, at least once they were old enough to juxtapose their world with the world outside.  The book contains vague references to their teenage years, but then the story fast forwards as all four children have married and moved away – for good.  Hard times and primitive isolation seems to have held very little appeal. It is never explained why neither Maude nor Lee attended any of their weddings.

Despite encouragement from the writer’s group, the second half of the book should never have been written.  It is less about Maude than about the extended family, including tales of murders, madness and alienation that have little to do with the themes of Americana resident in the first part of the narrative.  Until the last years of her life, her children seem to have been markedly disengaged from her. But Maude lived on and, at least at first, thrived in a whole new universe replete with such marvels as indoor plumbing, and color television, and jet travel to visit relatives on the other side of the country!  She does not seem to miss her days as a kind of cave-dweller. Still, she remained a simple soul, for better or for worse.  Maude proudly voted for fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding in 1920, the first national election after women had won the franchise.  When President Bill Clinton sent her congratulations on reaching her 110th year, she did not hesitate to tell anyone who would listen that she had voted against him. The Williams’ hosted a stubborn conservatism that opposed even that which benefited them, as when Lee, barely scraping by, complained against the “hand-outs” of FDR-era WPA programs that partially subsidized his ever-struggling ventures.  Mardo, reveling in celebratory nostalgia for a life he clearly fled from on fleet foot as soon as he was able,  echoes these sentiments with not-so-subtle underscores.

Maude’s slow, tragic physical decline in the latter stages of old age is painfully chronicled in the final chapters. Much of what is revealed would better have been withheld. Despite the challenges of physical frailty, however, it seems like the best favor anyone ever did for Maude was to whisk her away from that farm and resettle her in a warm suite of rooms with a flush toilet and a refrigerator and lamps that switched on and off. Those who are entranced with romantic notions of a traditional pre-modern America never lived it.  Camping in the wilderness is indeed inspiring and comes highly recommended, but – for most of us – hardly recommended for each and every day. Maude spent much of her long life more or less camping, with four walls around her, while the rest of the world moved on.  Perhaps it was charming.  Probably, it mostly was not, as evidenced by the flight of her children at their first opportunities to flee.  Overall, this is hardly a great book, and Mardo – while a competent writer – was not an impressive author. But there are indeed parts of Maude, especially the first half, that are worth the read. If nothing else, it is a reminder that it was not that long ago that there were people who lived very different lives than we can easily imagine today. Nor, I should add, lives that we should, in our starry-eyed musings, miss too much.

Review of: The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, by Paul Andrew Hutton

Once upon a time, there were millions of Amerindians in North America of diverse cultures speaking a wide variety of languages and belonging to hundreds of different tribes and countless more clans. European pandemics decimated these populations at contact, apache-warsand disease continued to take a toll centuries later, while the introduction of horses, firearms and alcohol irrevocably altered traditional lifeways for a continent-wide distribution of native peoples that pursued vastly different strategies in diverse environments.  They had little in common except in the eyes of the white invaders who viewed them as an impediment to expansion, colonization and domination, so that by 1800 it is estimated there were only 600,000 Native Americans left. By the 1890s this number was a mere 250,000, and none of them lived free in their traditional societies. Today, most Americans only know of these largely extinct peoples from their caricatures as noble savages or bloodthirsty villains in the almost entirely mythical universe of the classic Hollywood western. Still, these films were so effective that many of the characters they popularized – Apaches like Cochise, Geronimo, and The Apache Kid, and whites in their orbit such as Kit Carson, Tom Horn and General George Crook – even if thoroughly fictionalized for the big screen, became nevertheless indelibly etched in our cultural memory. Thus, it is especially welcome to come to Paul Andrew Hutton’s stirring historical narrative, The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, which resurrects the actual people and events, and way of life, so long buried in fanciful myth.

Population pressures had once driven a loose coalition of peoples known as Apaches into the Southwest. Like many native peoples, they operated without central authority, and despite relationships that implied far more significance to European observers than it did to them, tribes and clans occupied different geographies with diverse lifeways and were frequently hostile to one another with deeply embedded blood feuds. There were six major Apache-speaking groups: Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache, with many sub-groups and clans within these, all politically autonomous.  Some of them made their way by raiding the settled agricultural peoples on both sides of the border between Mexico and the territories belonging to the United States that later would become Arizona and New Mexico, stealing cattle, horses and even people to be sold into slavery. For the Apache, Hutton underscores, raiding was distinct from warfare; there were sometimes casualties as a by-product of raids, but killing was not the intention.

Yet, Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the executive director of Western History Association, does not romanticize his subjects. The Apache were fearsome and often brutal warriors, who frequently tortured their prisoners to death in horrific ways, such as staking them to anthills with their mouths propped open, flaying them alive, suspending them upside down with hot coals beneath their heads [p12], and tying them to burning wagons [p47]. Apaches were also sometimes known for murdering women and children, even in one report shooting down a pregnant woman with a baby in her arms and then bashing the infant’s head against a wall [p374]. But they had no monopoly on barbarism, as the deeds of a single clan or even a lone Apache were commonly taken as license by Mexicans and Americans alike to slaughter unrelated bands of men, women and children in retaliation. Scalping was initially not common among the Apache, who considered contact with the dead taboo, but Europeans turned scalps into currency for bounties, sometimes with the ears attached [p12-16]. General George Crook, who was actually a less barbarous adversary than many in the long war chronicled in this volume, leaned to the medieval by collecting entire heads and mounting them on posts for prominent display in camp.

The Apache Wars is a long, complicated yet generally fast-moving narrative of how random clashes between Apaches and American settlers in the Southwest ignited a lengthy, vicious conflict and ultimately ended up with the virtual annihilation of the Apache and the deportation of pockets of survivors. It began with the unlikely spark of the kidnapping of a red-haired one-eyed boy, Felix Ward, child of a Mexican woman and adopted son of a white settler whose ranch was preyed upon by Apache raiders (“the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History” in the subtitle). Felix, raised by Indians, grows up to be an amoral Apache scout in service of the U.S. Cavalry named Mickey Free, who as the book’s protagonist is emblematic of the phantom potential for assimilation among hostile forces that never really could be. Because all Indians were viewed through a single lens by their white adversaries, Apaches that settled into peaceful lifeways were randomly punished as severely as those who continued to raid. Likewise, to those who refused to capitulate, the “White Eyes” were reviled as one indistinguishable force, although this hatred was rightly fueled by the almost unimaginable lengths of treachery those whites were willing to stoop to in order to prevail. The legendary Cochise was invited to a parlay where he barely escaped assassination. The great chief Mangas Coloradas was taken prisoner, then taunted and executed.  He was scalped, and then his head was boiled so the skull could be taken as trophy, later gifted to a famed phrenologist [p101-02]. A famous mystic, Nock-ay-det-klinne, known as “the Dreamer,” who preached peace between the Apache and the whites, was held in great suspicion and eventually executed without cause by soldiers [p280]. Every agreement made with the Apaches was violated, and as elsewhere in the expanding United States, Native Americans humbled and forced into reservations fared no better than those who would fight to the last warrior.

There were some whites who were sympathetic to the Apache cause, including the famous scout Kit Carson, frontiersman Tom “Taglito” Jeffords and famed Civil War General O.O. Howard. There was often paternalism, but there was too an attempt at fairness and a sense of justice.  These men were a distinct minority. Some, like Indian agent John Clum, began with humanitarian ideals that sought to improve the often deplorable conditions in reservations, but ego and ambition got the better of him as he failed to recognize the inherent inhumanity of reservations as essentially concentration camps that were breeding grounds for disease and drunkenness. Nor did he account for the explosive nature of settling hostile tribes juggling long-simmering blood feuds within the same geography. His intentions hardly averted the disaster that his efforts were to spawn. Others, like Crook, took a more brutal approach but yet did not do so out of unclean motives; the Apache scouts that Mickey Free joined as a wing of the cavalry was a Crook innovation.  But most whites, soldiers and settlers alike, simply sought the extermination of the Apache and showed little reluctance in their single-minded pursuit of that goal.

What brings great beauty to the narrative of The Apache Wars is the tapestry of anecdotal tales that serve the study of history so much more admirably than the tedious concatenation of names and dates that often bog down other works.  There are two that are highly symbolic. In the first, we learn that Agent Clum had created a tribal police force at his San Carlos reservation, and that a Tonto chief named Des-a-lin, angry at a public rebuke from Clum for beating his wives, seeks revenge. Des-a-lin “. . . found Clum in his office and attempted to shoot him but was instead shot dead by his own brother – the police officer Tauelclyee. As the two men looked down at Des-a-lin’s body, Tauelclyee absentmindedly stroked his smoking rifle and said: ‘I have killed my own chief and my own brother. But he was trying to kill you, and l am a policeman. It was my duty.’ Clum warmly clasped his hand and assured the distraught man that what he had done was right, and that they would remain forever brothers and friends.” [p196] In the second, we follow the tragic attempts of Aravaipa chief Eskiminzin to cement peace with the whites, as he is twice betrayed and his people massacred. “Eskiminzin rode to a nearby ranch owned by Charles McKinney, a thirty-five-year-old Irish im­migrant . . . McKinney had long been a friend to Eskiminzin . . . The Irishman invited his old friend in to supper, and after dinner they sat together on the porch to smoke and talk of the troubling times. When the last smoke was put out, Eskiminzin rose, thanked his friend for his hospitality, pulled his revolver, and shot him dead at point-blank range. He then rode off into the mountains. “I did it to teach my people that there must be no friendship between them and the white man,” Eskiminzin sadly explained. ‘Anyone can kill an enemy, but it takes a strong man to kill a friend.’” [p140-41]

There is little tedium in Hutton’s exciting narrative, punctuated with much color and a plethora of blood and tears on both sides.  The Bedonkohe called Goyahkla that the Mexicans dubbed Geronimo deservedly has a central role in the story, and tragically all Apaches were afforded disproportionate punishment in retaliation for his depredations, both real and imagined, although he was an especially cruel and brutal fellow.  In the end too, all Apaches paid the price of being indigenous Native Americans in the way of white colonizers, first forced into reservations in often dehumanizing conditions and then deported vast distances from their homeland in order to make way for more white settlements.  Apache scouts assisting the cavalry, tribal police forces, peaceful reservation Indians – none fared any better and most fared far worse than the murderous Geronimo, who was to unpredictably ride in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and to die an old man in his bed.

No review could properly cover all of the ground in this fine history. I received an uncorrected proof of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, with blank pages reserved for maps that I much yearned to peruse.  I also would have appreciated a biographical index of key individuals, since there are so many characters that populate the narrative over the decades. There are a few things I would take issue with: it is possible but probably unlikely that all of the key female characters were in fact “beautiful” as Hutton reports.  And there may have been some exaggeration in his effort to tie a number of well-known key events to his narrative, as he does in his attempt to link hostilities here with the birth of the Pony Express, which I judge to be stretching it a bit [p58-59]. But these are no more than quibbles in what otherwise deserves large measures of praise.

As Americans of the twenty-first century try to come to grips with the mass extermination of the aboriginal peoples that were the original occupants of these lands, it is most instructive to look to the existential sentiment attributed to General Phillip Sheridan – who makes an appearance in The Apache Wars – that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” that some maintain is a corruption of “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” but which hardly alters the principle. And it was a surprisingly common one among Americans of that era, even by allegedly more enlightened thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, who despite later including Geronimo in that inaugural parade nevertheless plucked that theme with great vigor in an 1886 speech when he said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are . . . And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”  The Apache Wars is a blueprint for how this conviction effected an obliteration of an entire people in just one corner of the United States.

Review of: In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, by Christian Marek

As a rule, I never review a book that I have not read to completion; I feel an obligation to the author to turn every page and absorb every paragraph.  But some books are not designed as cover-to-cover reads, so I believe that Christian Marek will forgive me for only reading about a third of his magnificent reference work, In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A land-of-a-thousand-godsHistory of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, prior to reviewing it. Originally published in German, this first English edition (translated by Steven Rendall) was written in collaboration with the late scholar Peter Frei, who duly receives cover credit for his contributions. Marek, professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has spent a lifetime studying the ancient Mediterranean and specializing in ancient Asia Minor, and has been conducting epigraphical and archaeological fieldwork in Turkey for more than thirty years. The result is a superb work that is not only encyclopedic in scope but brilliant in depth and analysis.

In modern times, except for the European sliver that hosts Istanbul, most of the huge geography of the Republic of Turkey is located within the giant landmass of the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia.  The population today is primarily a Muslim Turkic-speaking people descended from the nomad Turks that, like the Huns and other similar ethnicities, once roamed the vast northern steppes and later moved south to conquer and dominate settled agricultural communities. But students of Classical history know that it was an entirely different universe in the ancient world.  There are traces of mysterious proto-cities from deep antiquity, and there is the impressive archaeological heritage in the celebrated Çatalhöyük Neolithic settlement that dates back to 7500 BCE. The original agriculturalists were most likely overrun and absorbed by Indo-Europeans from the Caucasus – the horse, wheel and chariot folks resurrected elsewhere by David Anthony – and native Hattians and Hurrians were to be supplanted by the Hittites, later to rise to prominence with their consequential Bronze Age empire that dominated Asia Minor but was lost to memory for millennia in the still unexplained cataclysmic collapse of that era of human history. Troy was part of that Anatolian peninsula on the strategic edge of the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) that provided access to the Black Sea, and the legendary Trojan War – if historic, as suspected (although Marek has his doubts) – either preceded or was coterminous with that collapse, which in addition to the Hittites brought down the Mycenaean Greeks, the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Kassite Babylonians. The remnants of the Hittite Empire fragmented into various powers over the centuries to come, but most significant to history is that the remains of earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean cities on the Aegean Sea were vastly supplemented by numerous Greek settlements along the coast that came to be known as “Ionia,” which later – along with the rest of Anatolia and the Near East – came to be dominated by the Persian Empire. The efforts of those Ionian Greek poleis to liberate themselves from Persian control sparked a war led by Athens and Sparta that unpredictably resulted in Persian defeat, leading to independence for the Ionian poleis and Greek dominance of the Aegean. Athens-Sparta rivalry in subsequent decades led to the Peloponnesian War that devastated the Hellenic world and so divided it that Philip of Macedon was able to crush and contain it. After his assassination, his son and heir Alexander the Great unexpectedly routed the Persian Great King and soon dominated all of his possessions, including Asia Minor, but his sudden death on the cusp of world empire meant that Greece, Egypt, the Near East and Anatolia became the trophies of his surviving generals, the Diadochoi, as well as their descendants, the Epigoni, so Hellenistic rulers ran roughshod over those lands for centuries, jockeying for power, until Rome got interested.  Much more blood of bystanders flowed but eventually it was Rome that absorbed all of that territory. As the huge Roman Empire grew unwieldy, a new eastern Roman capital was established at Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, modern Istanbul), ruling over all of Asia Minor and a good deal beyond it. When Rome and the western empire fell, this became the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantine Empire, and a large chunk of it was Anatolia, although much of that was to fall away over time.  And all of that fascinating history occurred long before the Seljuk Turks moved in circa the eleventh century to bring Islam and the Turkic language to Anatolia!

If you judge that long paragraph – which is only an abbreviated summary of Asia Minor’s ancient historical narrative – as oversize, you can only imagine what a deep exploration would amount to.  So then try to imagine the thick volume that is Christian Marek’s In the Land of a Thousand Gods, which in its printed form makes oversize seem understated: there are in fact some 552 pages of type that can only be described as footnote size subscript, not including an appendix of 75 pages as well as a thick section of endnotes. The main narrative is equivalent to a normal text of approximately 1500 pages! In short, there is a lot of material. The good news is that every single sentence is welcome and substantial, as Marek applies fine historical inquiry and analysis to every paragraph, expertly guiding the reader from the Neolithic to the end of antiquity, meticulously and exhaustively. Do I recommend this as a book to take to the beach and devour over a long weekend?  Of course not. But if you are seeking THE definitive ancient history of Asia Minor, look no further: this is clearly going to be the gold standard on the subject for a long time to come. Don’t skip it!