History off the press (September ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Culture, European, Islam, Music by Alex L. on October 21, 2011

New history books, September 2011

Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.

Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.

Fighting to the last

Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”.

I have been surprised to learn that the Siege of Leningrad has also become part of the American (not just the Russian or Russian-American) imagination. Bestselling novels published in English within the past decade such as Paullina Simons’s The Bronze Horseman (which is being adapted into a movie to be released next year) and David Benioff’s City of Thieves (he is the author of 25th Hour, which too was adapted into a phenomenal film starring Ed Norton) take place in Leningrad during the siege. The Decembrists, an indie folk rock band, released a song in 2006 called “When the War Came” that itself was based on another recent novel about the siege called Hunger by Elise Blackwell.

"Leningrad" book coverI first read about the heroic exploits of the people trapped in that unfortunate city in Harrison Salisbury’s book, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. Published in 1969, this nonfiction work, written by an American journalist who witnessed parts of the siege firsthand, remains the classic English-language account of the event. But the book was published long ago and during the Cold War. A fresh perspective on the siege that takes advantage of the plethora of historical documents released to the public since the fall of the Soviet Union is overdue.

This is just what Anna Reid hopes to achieve in her newly published book, Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944. The questions Reid seeks to answer deal with both how it came to be that the circumstances in Leningrad under siege were so terrible and also why they didn’t get worse (i.e. how the city managed to prevent invasion and internal chaos).

While the novels recently published about the siege are a welcome contribution to American literature, the siege of Leningrad was one of those events in history where the true stories of people that took part in it are as extraordinary (if not more so) as any fiction. I look forward to reading Reid’s account.

By the time the siege of Leningrad ended in 1944, the pendulum of the offensive swung in the other direction as the Soviets beat back the German armies and marched westward. Like the citizens and soldiers who defended Leningrad, Germans living on native soil now found themselves  scrambling to survive amid scarcity, hunger, and violence. Although their homeland eventually succumbed to Allied armed forces strangling it from all sides, Germans also fought on longer than most people thought was humanly possible.

"The End" book coverExamining the reasons why the German people were willing to fight to near annihilation under the putrefying Nazi banner is the purpose of Ian Kershaw’s new book, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945. The key motivator seems to have been terror: both the totalitarian lashings the Nazi apparatus inflicted on its own population and also the possibility of unimaginable Soviet retributions on the German people if they surrendered.

But Kershaw also seems to make the case that Hitler’s rise to power had created such an inseparable bond between him and the German public (one is reminded of the absolute monarch Louis XIV’s dictum, “I am the state”) that any organized opposition to Hitler’s maniacal urging of defense unto suicide was unthinkable.

There are stories of genuine courage and patriotism exhibited by the civilians and soldiers of Germany and the Soviet Union during the war. But these exist alongside a painful chronicle of apocalyptic violence concocted by iron-fisted governments and carried out by complicit individuals. Sorting the human from the inhumane is part of the job of historians such as Reid and Kershaw.

Grooves with swagger

Without concerted effort, my wardrobe reverts back to the Soviet era. It has been like this ever since primary school for me. As an immigrant growing up in suburban Chicago, I rarely understood the tastes in music and fashion espoused by my fellow classmates. In other words, I was never cool.

Phenomena such as wearing baggy clothing and enjoying angst-sopped music seemed like directives from an alien planet. I had to (and did) follow them just because everybody else was doing so, though I rarely had any life experiences that fostered an emotional connection to such trends.

But I know that behind the mists of marketing and media, many elements of popular culture grew out of real experiences had by real people… somewhere. Baggy clothes, for instance, were first worn by hustlers in the inner city to conceal packets of drugs. By the time these expressions of culture trickled down to my suburban isle, they looked like improbable oddities.

"Everybody Loves Our Town" book coverOne such cultural movement was grunge music. I’ve grown to appreciate rap, but I still have a hard time understanding certain offshoots of rock ‘n’ roll like emo and heavy metal. And grunge.

The whiny tone and outlandish sarcasm of Nirvana. The slacker aesthetic. The sophisticated musical tastes of hipsters. I’m still a bit intimidated.

But grunge music has a specific context from which it emerged: Seattle in the 1980s and 90s. The snark, the choreographed laziness, the cool detachment from mainstream culture: these elements of grunge undoubtedly had a logic that made sense to those musicians of the Pacific Northwest.

The story of the early grunge musicians is the topic of Mark Yarm’s new book, Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. The book is organized as a continuous series of quotes from band members from the early Seattle scene. This makes it harder to follow than a more formal narrative. Jay-Z’s excellent book published this year, Decoded, for instance, spells out for the clueless the genius behind rap songs. With Yarm, one may have to read between the lines.

But reading books about subjects outside of one’s comfort zone is like having those life experiences (though in miniature form) that open one’s mind to new possibilities. Maybe I won’t find myself as uncomfortable around hipsters. Perhaps I’ll start liking Nirvana. The possibilities are endless.

"Tanning of America" book coverLike grunge, hip hop music culture was born and reared in a specific place before sending envoys worldwide: New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Hip hop culture developed as an alternative to gang life for many poor blacks in the city. Through offshoots such as gangsta rap and white rappers like Eminem, hip hop music spearheaded into safe little neighborhoods like mine when I was growing up.

Now many of the founding fathers of mainstream hip hop are reaching middle age. Through their books and advocacy, they are offering a fresh perspective on the meaning of the hip hop movement. In addition to Jay-Z’s Decoded, the Chicago rapper Common has published a memoir last month called One Day It’ll All Make Sense.

Another veteran of the hip hop scene is Steve Stoute, who is an advertising and record executive that produced albums by the likes of U2 and Eminem. His first book has just been published and is called The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. Although not a history book in the strict sense, it aims to do what good history should do: illuminate the present by casting light on the (in this case, recent) past.

Stoute argues that hip hop has become a disruptive trend that has continued to erode calcified mental categories of social divisions based on skin color. The old ways of thinking have increasingly less relevance today. His lofty goal in writing the book is, as he writes, “to put an end, once and for all, to the boxing of individuals based on color.”

Tanning is not so much a blending of “white” and “black” cultures in America as an entirely new paradigm. “Tan really has no age. And cool really is a state of mind.” For a bookworm like me, the idea that the brain is the key to being cool gives me hope.

Sailing to Jerusalem

Judging by the quantity of books published on the subject in the last several years, historians have yet again been interested in rewriting the story of New World colonization by the Europeans. Like planets orbiting some star, the debates gravitate around the legacy of Christopher Columbus.

In August, Charles C. Mann published a book titled 1493, a sequel to the enormously popular 1491. While the older publication examines what America was like before Columbus arrived, the new book looks at the ecological impact of European migration on the native societies and environment of America.

Another author, Daniel Richter, has ambitiously tried to describe the successive waves of colonization by the Europeans in a new thematic way. Richter’s book, published earlier this year, is called Before the Revolution. He divides the book into sections describing the types of vocations that brought Europeans to the New World: Progenitors, Conquistadors, Traders, Planters, Imperialists, and Atlanteans.

"Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem" book cover

In lieu of describing the story of all the European colonies, historian Hugh Thomas has focused on the Spanish empire. A scholar with an accomplished career, Thomas has just released a book that describes Spanish activities in the Americas several decades after Columbus’ first voyage. This work, titled The Golden Empire, is a sequel to a previous book, Rivers of Gold, about the Spanish empire during the time of Columbus.

Many of the new books don’t specifically focus on the journey of Columbus and others like him. Other scholars have made the European explorers, who have been studied extensively before, the main topic of their reexaminations. But what more can be said about Columbus?

Carol Delaney, for one, thinks there’s more to Columbus than we currently acknowledge. In her new book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, she argues that the explorer was “neither a greedy imperialist nor a quixotic adventurer, as he has lately been depicted, but a man driven by an abiding religious passion.” In seeking a route to India by sailing west, Columbus was less concerned with wealth than with helping Europeans recapture Jerusalem from Muslim warriors.

This interpretation surprised me. Seeing in paintings the red crosses on the sails of the European ships, I thought they represented the explorers’ desires to convert native Americans to Christianity. Obviously this doesn’t make sense for Columbus’ first voyage: no European even knew about the American continents. The idea that Columbus was primarily trying to open a new gate to the Holy Land for Europeans (the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans had closed a favored route for pilgrimage and crusading) is new to me.

"Holy War" book coverAlong similar lines, Nigel Cliff has written a new book, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama’s Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations, that also examines the motivations of a European explorer from the perspective of the Crusades. Vasco da Gama, sailing several years after Columbus’ first voyage, navigated around Africa to find a new route to the Middle East and India. This was never done before by a European, and opened the door for European colonization of the “East Indies” (modern-day South and Southeast Asia).

Cliff makes an even stronger claim than Delaney. He writes that both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were hoping to launch a new Crusade. The opening by Vasco da Gama of a new waterway for Europeans to Asia “drew a dividing line between the Muslim and Christian eras of history—what we in the West call the medieval and the modern ages.” I wonder how strong the evidence is for both Delaney and  Cliff’s interpretations.

So why the recent scholarly and popular interest in the earliest origins of America? Perhaps the meteoric rise of China as a global power has prompted the United States to consider yet again what its cultural influence means to the world. Maybe studying the conflict between Christians and Muslims in earlier centuries will help contextualize the West’s wars against Muslim extremists today.

Another possibility is that, in the spirit of Stoute’s book, The Tanning of America, historians today are seeking to destroy obsolete mental boundaries between cultures. I hope so. Though in all honesty, I don’t really know.

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