History off the press (June ’11 edition)

Posted in Academia, American, Books, European by Alex L. on June 13, 2011

The Greater Journey coverThere are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.

What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”

Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:

  1. Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
  2. Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.

In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration.

Glory flickers in time

The story of the race to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century makes for some exciting reading. The explorer with which most people in America are familiar is Ernst Shackleton, who didn’t actually reach the South Pole but whose ordeal of getting back to civilization without losing a single man when his expedition went awry has become an iconic symbol of perseverance. But there were other contenders whose exploits were similarly remarkable.

Edward Larson’s An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science (Yale UP: May 31, 2011) is the latest contribution to the story. The first person to actually reach the South Pole was the Norwegian Roal Amundsen. His expedition set off for Antarctica at the same time as that of a British party led by Robert Scott. Amundsen was victorious and Scott perished in the attempt. The common narrative of these events goes that Amundsen’s obsessive attention to detail and willingness to accept Eskimo methods of polar travel were what allowed him to prevail; Scott’s prejudices and lack of managerial talent were his downfall. Larson’s account is one of few that attempts, it seems, to see the positive side of Scott’s efforts. While the sole goal of Amundsen was to reach the South Pole and return with his nimble party, Scott brought with him almost five times as many men as Amundsen in order to further our scientific understanding of Antarctica – a worthy goal.

An earlier, though no less ambitious, explorer was Captain James Cook, who circumnavigated the world under the British flag in the 18th century. This was during a time when captains lashed their sailors as punishment for disobedience and European explorers clashed violently with many of the natives that they encountered during their voyages (that is, a time very distant from and unimaginable to our contemporary sensibilities). Like other explorers, Cook’s reputation currently suffers from such stains, but Frank McLynn attempts to improve it in his Captain Cook: Master of the Seas (Yale UP: June 7, 2011) by focusing on Cook’s genius for skillful seamanship in an age when hardly anybody had ever traveled by ocean around the world.

Americans on the fringe

The above two books are somewhat obscure. The following three publications, though, are ones you can easily find on a featured titles table in a Barnes & Noble store. Let’s start with the heaviest hitter.

David McCullough, perhaps the most famous contemporary writer of American history with such titles as 1776 and John Adams, has just published The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster: May 24, 2011). Over the past several months, I’ve noticed several new books being published on the topic of Americans living in Paris. I thought this was a freak coincidence, but with this latest entry by McCullough, I’m beginning to suspect something is up (a cursory Google search revealed nothing, though). In any case, The Greater Journey examines the cultural influence of living in Paris on several generations of American leaders of the 19th century. I should really stop being a slack historian and read some McCullough. One can count on a fantastic narrative (from what I can tell) and The Greater Journey seems like a good place to start.

On a similar though more sinister note, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Simon & Schuster: May 24, 2011) recounts the experience of a U.S. ambassador and his daughter witnessing “a society going mad in slow motion”, as a reviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times puts it. Larson earlier wrote an immensely popular work, titled The Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Having grown up near the city, I’m a sucker for well-written Chicago-related books. The protagonist of In the Garden of Beasts, Ambassador William E. Dodd, has a connection to the city as well (he had been a University of Chicago professor).

Renoir's painting of a Sunday afternoon in Paris, 1876

The third book, The President and the Assasin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century (Random House: June 14, 2011), has an interesting narrative structure. Miller examines the term of a lesser-known president, William McKinley, and contrasts his story with that of the man who would assassinate him, anarchist Leon Czolgosz (there’s a non-household name). I know next to nothing about McKinley, his assassin, or the social climate the led Czolgosz (let’s just call him Leon) to kill the president. But Miller has a good point: as a president who got American involved in three wars (one of which, the Philippine Insurrection, to me seems similar in some ways to the current War in Iraq) and served his term at the turn of the pivotal 20th century, McKinley, a less showy president than some, deserves to be better known.

Civil War: New perspectives

This year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Consequently, there has been a procession of new books about the already-popular subject. Many of these new books about the Civil War try to find a unique approach to this perennial subject. The history book I am currently reading, America Aflame by David Goldfield, was published earlier this year and follows the story of how evangelical Protestant religious movements in the mid-19th century contributed to the radicalization of American society that led to the Civil War. And there are more interesting reads coming out this month.

Amanda Foreman has already earned a reputation as a great writer of historical narratives, and her new book A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random House: June 28, 2011) seems very promising. All I know about this subject currently is that the Confederacy desperately sought Britain’s support and was severely hampered in its war effort when Britain refused it (England loved its cotton, but it hated slavery as much as the Union did). At 1,008 pages, more than anything I’m curious how Foreman will be able to sustain a gripping narrative about this less-explored topic.

Another interesting view of the Civil War is James Marten’s Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (U. of N. Carolina: May 18, 2011). One hardly ever reads or sees anything about what happened after the Civil War to the men who fought in it (unless they were famous like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). In contemporary America, the “Greatest Generation” of men and women who participated in World War II is still very much a part of American life. Marten writes about what the book terms as the “nineteenth century’s ‘Greatest Generation'” and describes the ways in which former American warriors were treated in the North and South.

Reexamining race relations

Another book concerned with Civil War veterans is Barbara Gannon’s The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (U. of N. Carolina: May 19, 2011). She makes the case that, in some respects, the Grand Army of the Republic (a veterans organization for Union soldiers similar to today’s American Legion) was a racially-inclusive organization. Because white soldiers had fought alongside the 100,000+ black soldiers who served in the Union Army, white veterans were able to transcend the racist prejudices of the times and see black veterans as comrades. This book is bound to be controversial especially because, as one reviewer on Amazon notes, there are plenty of examples of venomous racism associated with the Grand Army of the Republic.

I wonder if such a book heralds a trend where scholars look for stories in American history that exemplify cooperation between white and black communities in America in the past (especially since recent research shows that younger generations of black Americans see racism as much less of an institutional problem than their elders). But I really know next to nothing about this subject and will cease to wax eloquent about it.

Better yet, I should read some books on African-American studies to educate myself. Another work that seems like it would be an insightful read is James Smethurst ‘s The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (U. of N. Carolina: May 23, 2011). Smethurst in his narrative seeks to challenge the common story that African-American culture suffered a period of stagnation during the time after the Civil War and before the Roaring 1920s. Although the “separate but equal” status of African-Americans during this period was degrading and oppressive, Smethurst attempts to show that there were significant and beautiful works of art, poetry, and prose being produced by African-American communities that have not been fully appreciated by contemporary Americans.

Ideas in action

In America Aflame, David Goldfield writes how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 helped precipitate the Civil War by drawing attention to its northern audience their complicity in the institution of southern slavery. David Reynolds, in today’s release of Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton: June 13, 2011), devotes a whole book to the subject. Actually, it goes further by describing the international and lasting influence of the novel, which sold more copies than any book other than the Bible in the United States during the 19th century. The book’s description mentions that Stowe’s work even helped end serfdom in Russia (the Emancipation Manifesto was signed by the Tsar in 1861) – I’m intrigued!

Another work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian examines the effect of ideas on an earlier conflict in American history, the Revolutionary War. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (Penguin: May 12, 2011) is a collection of essays by Gordon Wood that seeks to synthesize two schools of thought about the origins of that conflict. This is a very old debate in historical circles dating back to the early 20th century. The earlier argument, exemplified in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), held that the Revolutionary War was motivated by economic reasons. This view was challenged by The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), which made the case that ideas were more important to the leaders of the Revolution than wealth. Wood, through these recently-published essays, seeks to create a unified narrative out of these two perspectives about the Revolutionary War. I like such flexible approaches; the way some of these older debates had been framed in the 20th century seem somewhat rigid today.

The last book I will mention today is Louisa Thomas’s Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I (Penguin: June 2, 2011). Like the title describes, Thomas narrates the story of a family whose sons had very different personal responses to America’s involvement in the First World War. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, World War I led to a paradigm shift in European culture where many 19th-century mores followed millions of soldiers to the grave. Reading about the complexities of the American state of mind during this crossroads moment would be worthwhile, I think. The author is also related to the oldest brother, Norman, in the narrative, which adds a cool layer of connectivity between the past and present. But what most caught my eye  when reading about this book was that one reviewer on Amazon compared it to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, my absolute favorite recent book on history.

Conscience, the reviewer writes, has “a beautiful, narrative style–a small cast of players who emerge as fully-formed characters and as intellectual figures, deeply embedded in the questions of the time–and you leave the book with a visceral sense of the ethos of a particular era.” What more can one ask from a great history publication?

Covers of new history books - May-June 2011

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  1. […] stretch our minds and offer us to look upon our world with new, unwearied eyes. As I mentioned in the first “History Off the Press” post last month, the books I will feature here were or will be published in late June or July; this list […]

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