Books

Suspiciously like a carrot on a stick

My four year old Nook has made it very clear that it’s time to get a new ereader.  I don’t want a Kindle so long as it refuses to support the .epub format, so I took to the Internet to figure out what the best e-ink ereader is, and I discovered that there’s an overwhelming consensus right now that it’s the Kobo Aura One.

And not only do all the reviewers love the Aura One, but it also works really well for me: I’ve been getting my ebooks from Kobo for a while, and also, since Kobo and Overdrive are owned by the same parent company, the Aura One comes with Overdrive integration, so you can borrow library books right from the device.

Sweet! I already know exactly what I want for Christmas.

So on 10 October I went to Kobo’s website to see how much it would cost meLisa and the kids, who are totally the ones who will be buying my Christmas present.  Out of Stock, the site told me.  Will be in stock on 14 October.

Fair enough.  Waited till 14 October, went back to the site, still got the same message.  So I waited till the next day and went back again.  Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 19 October.

Hmmm.

19 October, same message.  Can you guess what it said by 20 October?

Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 1 November.

I googled to see what the situation is, but I couldn’t find any mention of there being an Aura One shortage in the USA.  There was a shortage in Canada in September, but judging by Best Buy Canada, that’s been solidly resolved.  (Best Buy USA doesn’t stock the Aura One; in fact, it doesn’t seem that any US retailers do.  Best Buy Canada won’t ship to the US.  Chapters apparently will ship to the US, with the caveat that I’m responsible for “any duties or taxes”.  I don’t think there should be any duties, since we’re both part of NAFTA, but taxes might be a different deal.)

So, guys, I have a question.  Do we know for certain that the Aura One is in fact a thing? For realsies?  Has anyone seen one?

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The other side from the other side of the Pond

Okay, so I’m fascinated by the American Revolution.  And it’s no secret that I think that the way the American Revolution, and the Revolutionary War, are taught and thought of today are based on some broad assumptions and biases that are, basically, wrong.  Probably the major reason for this slant in perception, I’d argue, would be that historians of the American Revolution are overwhelmingly American, and almost never British.

This tends to warp the historiography in two ways.  First, there’s the simple fact that only one side of the story gets told.  I think we can all agree that that’s always going to bias the account.  The bias isn’t even really conscious; it’s just that, as no one pushes back against it for generation after generation, writers about the Revolution simply don’t notice it’s there.  It’s exactly this source of bias that Fred Anderson pushes back against in my favourite book about the Revolutionary (and pre-Revolutionary) era.  That’s a general principle that would apply to any instance of only one side ever getting told.

Second is more about the specific instance of the American Revolution: Americans have a serious emotional investment in the story of the Revolution.  At times, preserving that story, and preserving the heroism of its protagonists, can take precedence over accuracy.  That’s certainly not to say that I think the American writers about the Revolution are more interested in myth than facts; the legitimate historians among them certainly aren’t.  But much of their readership is, even if they’re not aware of it, and pushing too hard against those myths gets distinctly unpleasant for them.  As one small example of this, there’s the continued iconic status of Paul Revere, a man whose fame derives entirely from an intentionally inaccurate poem written in 1860 (which ascribes to him heroic deeds done by other men), and who faced the British in combat only once, during which he showed, in the words of Artemas Ward, “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice”.

(Trips to the history section of the bookshop would also seem to indicate that someone has discovered there’s something of a market for American history books that quite explicitly provide the “true, un-PC” version of events, by which they of course mean they defiantly reassert only the myth as actual fact, but those books aren’t written by actual historians and I don’t know that they really affect the study of actual history.  The ones aimed at children really trouble me, though.)

So for a long time, I’ve wanted more British scholarship on the Revolution and the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called in Britain, the American War of Independence).  That would balance the American biases and provide a broader perspective of both the revolution and the war.  They’d be able to examine the British government’s perspective in the conflicts and crises that led up to the outbreak of violence, to see the war as a civil war within the British Empire rather than as a war between Britain and America, to explore the global aspects of the Revolutionary War that had nothing to do with the Americans.

So I’ve been really thrilled to see a trend of British historians coming to the Revolution and the Founding Fathers in the last few years.  Over the past couple of months I’ve come across five such books:

By George Goodwin, there’s Benjamin Franklin in London, a biography of the two decades (1757–75) Ben Franklin lived in the imperial capital, for all but the final year of which he was a revered and well-liked member of the British social elite and the most enthusiastic advocate of Britain and America’s imperial partnership.

By Nick Bunker, there’s An Empire on the Edge, looking at the Boston Tea Party and the final crises that touched off the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the British government rather than the Patriot leaders.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaugnessy (who really is British, even with such a name) has two: The Men Who Lost America, biographies of ten men who directed the British war effort from London and in America, and An Empire Divided, examining Britain’s Caribbean colonies and why they stayed loyal when the colonies to their north revolted.

And by Brendan Simms (who’s actually Irish, not British), there’s Three Victories and a Defeat, in which the American Revolutionary War (the defeat, obviously) is treated in the context of being the latest in the chain of five other wars Britain had already fought against the French & Spanish alliance over the previous ninety years.  This is perhaps the perfect example of where I think Revolutionary War scholarship would benefit from more British input; it’s inevitable and entirely appropriate that for American historians, the war will be a war that was fought in America by American forces.  But after 1778, it was also fought in the West Indies, in Spain and in India, where it had no involvement from Americans at all—but if we ignore those theatres, we’re left with an incomplete understanding of the war.

I can’t get to these books right away, but I’m very much looking forward to when I do get to them.

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Hamiltome

I’ve spent the last six weeks reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired the Broadway musical Hamilton. I reviewed it at Goodreads, like I do almost every book I read, but that review got pretty long. And since the big deficiency in the book is something about American historiography that really matters to me, I figured I’d reproduce my review here.

So much of this book is a cogent, thorough biography of Alexander Hamilton and his times. At points it can get preemptively defensive, but it’s natural for biographers to have sympathy with their subjects, and besides, Chernow certainly doesn’t shy away from criticizing Hamilton, highlighting his severe lapses in judgement like the Reynolds pamphlet and the John Adams pamphlet. And this extends to other figures, too: he paints pictures of multifaceted individuals with qualities both to admire and admonish. The chapter introducing John Adams, for instance, is probably the best summation I’ve ever read of the second American president, covering both his vanity and ever-growing persecution complex, as well as his unmatched philosophical and rhetorical contribution to the causes of independence and limited government. Even Aaron Burr gets his moment of praise, when he attempts to mediate the feud between Hamilton and James Monroe over the Reynolds affair and Chernow tells us that Burr “was the one upright actor in the whole affair”.

It’s such a shame that all this good work is clouded by instances of bias and even outright disingenuity. The first of these comes with the author’s note before the book’s frontispiece, in which Chernow tells us that in his direct quotations from letters and newspapers, he has modernised eighteenth-century spelling and style for the reader’s comfort. In point of fact, there are literally only two people for whom the original spelling and capitalization are preserved: James and Maria Reynolds, the married couple with whom Hamilton formed a triangle of adultery and blackmail. Coming after four hundred pages of quotations that have been seamlessly sanitized for the modern reader, the sudden reversion to the Reynoldses’ jarring prose style (idiosyncratic and poorly educated even for the 1790s) serves only to make the Reynoldses appear seedier and more ignorant, so that Hamilton—whose actions here, let’s remember, involving cheating on his own wife and then paying his mistress’s husband hush money—can be more comfortably presented as a victim in the matter.

And then there’s Aaron Burr. Eighteenth century politics was a vicious business, full of slanderous and ridiculous personal smears hurled by leaders on both sides at their opponents. When those smears are thrown at Hamilton—that he was Washington’s illegitimate son, that he used his position as Treasury secretary to corruptly enrich himself from the public purse, that he plotted with the British minister to install a younger son of George III as King of the United States—Chernow is genuinely offended and at pains to show how false and preposterous each one is. But when the slanderers’ target is Burr, Chernow reports each one and, by refraining from offering any comment on their illegitimacy, actually insinuates they’re true.

For instance, in two consecutive paragraphs (page 662 in my edition), Chernow details the character assassinations that publisher James Cheetham launched on both men in his newspaper the American Citizen. In the first paragraph, the accusations against Burr are simply repeated verbatim: “he put into operation a most extensive, complicated, and wicked scheme of intrigue to place himself in the presidential chair.” But when Cheetham moves onto Hamilton in the second paragraph, Chernow cannot let a single statement pass without labelling it “far-fetched” or telling us that “the reality of” Alexander Hamilton “did not suit Cheetham’s needs” or that these attacks came because “Cheetham knew little and cared less about” the truth about Hamilton.

Chernow seems to accept Hamilton’s visceral hatred of Burr as proof that Burr deserved such visceral hatred. When he details the prominent New York Federalists who supported Burr in 1804, such as the eminent John Jay or Hamilton’s own brother-in-law Stephen Van Rensselaer, he doesn’t so much demonstrate how chameleonic and untrustworthy Burr was as how unreasonable and obsessive Hamilton’s opposition to him was. An entire chapter is devoted to the election of 1800, with Burr supposedly scheming to rob Jefferson of the presidency, with a single paragraph grudgingly inserted in the middle conceding that “recent scholarship has tended to exonerate Burr from charges that he did anything untoward” and that his letters show that he spent the electoral crisis far more concerned with his love life, the preparations for his only daughter’s wedding and local New York politics. He cites Burr’s involvement with the Holland Land Company’s bribes as evidence of his conniving nature, but omits any mention that it was Hamilton who secured the single biggest bribe the company paid, a quarter of a million dollars to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler’s canal construction company. (Chernow’s Hamilton is always—always—above even a hint of corruption when it comes to public finance.)

He opens his description of the exchanges leading up to the two men’s fatal duel with the sentence, “It is hard to escape the impression that in the early stages of negotiations it was the headstrong Hamilton, not Burr, who was the intransigent party.” But why would you feel inclined to escape such an impression unless you’re already expecting that Hamilton should be cast as the hero of the piece and Burr the villain—that is, unless you’ve mistaken the role of chronicler of events for that of advocate for one of the parties?

I’ll admit that a blinkered picture of Burr is the quickest way for a historian of Federal and Jeffersonian American to lose my sympathy. For two centuries, historiography of the Jefferson—Hamilton—Burr rivalry has been dominated by partisans of Jefferson, with a minority composed of Hamiltonian historians to rebut them. This has meant that, while Jefferson’s attacks on Hamilton and Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson have both had counterarguments in response, both major camps have been naturally inclined to treat Burr with distrust and give credence to the two men’s politically-motived vitriol against him. But now that Jefferson is being reevaluted as a hypocrite and a rapist, and that Hamilton (in no small part thanks to Ron Chernow) is being brought forward to displace him, I had hoped that Burr would be able to take the place formerly occupied by Hamilton and get a fairer hearing.

Burr is, after all, a fascinating figure: an early abolitionist in the Northern state that had been as pro-slavery as any in the South (Chernow repeatedly snipes at Burr’s abolitionist credentials), an advocate for such complete women’s equality that even by modern standards he qualifies as feminist in his views, and the one political figure who appealed to partisans of both parties in the incredibly vicious political climate that took hold as Americans divided into a party system for the first time. That seemed to be happening with Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, followed by the excellent popular histories of the last decade: Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, Stewart’s American Emperor and Brands’s The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. (I haven’t read the Brands book yet, so I can’t rightly include it under “excellent”, but it’s apparently the book on which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of Burr in the Hamilton musical was based.)

I want to see historians really examine why the two most powerful politicians of their day, the men around whom America’s first two political parties formed, were both so unnerved by Burr as their rival that they gave way to an unreasoning obsession with bringing about his downfall that completely jettisoned any sense of perspective or rationality. Because by casting Aaron Burr in his received role of villain, we allow Alexander Hamilton to escape responsibility for something that’s just as much a part of his legacy as the party system or as the modern finance and banking system that’s so key to American prosperity: the jealousy with which he guarded his own petty political kingdoms. His fear of losing the Federalists to John Adams, and of losing preeminence in New York to Burr, led him to attack both men with such viciousness that all three of their political careers were ruined, effectively eliminating each other so that the real rival of each man—Thomas Jefferson—was left so free that he not only emerged as the only national leader in the United States, but established his Virginia slaveowning cabal as the dominant political force in the country for a generation.

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Books, but written in English

One thing I always make sure to do on a trip to Britain is to get to at least a couple of bookshops to browse through the history sections.  Nowadays I don’t usually buy what I find, but rather make a note of the title on the assumption that anything published today in print is also going to be published in e-dition.

(Because it’s a really crap thing to go into a place of business and browse their wares with the intention not of actually paying them any money, but instead ordering whatever you find from the internet, I try to make sure to buy at least the same number of titles as I write down for later.  So, for instance, in addition to whatever my mother bought for herself, I did buy in the shop a bunch of stuff to take back as souvenirs.  For Boy, Horrid Henry’s Biggest and Best Ever Joke Book, a book of Darth Vader & Son family postcards, and a grow-your-own-crystals science kit; for Girl, a London sticker book, Disney Fairies activity set and book of Peppa Pig stories; and for Lisa a novel I actually think I’m going to end up reading myself, about a woman from a village in Somerset who has to go to the East End in search of her best friend’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped on Coronation Day, 1953.  Anyway.)

There were two books that I did in fact buy right there in the shop.  I can’t remember exactly why it was that I picked out these two ahead of the others:

book coversThey Fought Alone: The True Story of SOE’s Agents in Wartime France is a reprint of the memoir of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the Special Operations Executive’s French Section.  SOE was the British organisation that conducted espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe during the Second World War, and provided aid and supplies to local resistance movements.  Buckmaster actually played himself (and did a decent job of it) in the film Odette, about the capture and torture of SOE agents Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill by the Gestapo.

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill seems destined to be the latest addition to my Spanish Civil War kick.  It’s a history of the wartime experiences of three couples (Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar) who all passed through this Madrid hotel, which was home to so many journalists during the siege of the Spanish capital.

I won’t list all the other titles I made note of (there were about a dozen) but the ones I’m most interested in are:

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley, a biography of Christine Granville, the daughter of a Polish Catholic nobleman and Jewish heiress, who served as an SOE agent in occupied Poland and France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, only to be stabbed to death after the war by a colleague who had rejected her advances.

Titled Americans: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat is a reprint of an actual 1890 guide for American young women who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Nancy Astor by marrying a member of the British peerage and becoming a real-life Countess of Grantham.

Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America by Kathleen Burk should, I think, be pretty self-explanatory as to why I’m interested in it.

The Scandalous Lady W by Hallie Rubenhold has, I discovered when I googled it, been turned into a BBC programme starring Natalie Dormer in the title role.  This made me pretty pleased, since I’ve got a bit of a thing for Natalie Dormer, but on further googling, I couldn’t seem to find any trace of the book, even though I’d seen it right there on the shelf at the WH Smith in Borehamwood.  Turns out that’s because the book’s original title, prior to the TV adaptation, was Lady Worsley’s Whim.  Excellent, progress; at least, till it turned out that Lady Worsley’s Whim has no e-dition in the US, and the cheapest price I could find for a print copy on (US) Amazon or Barnes and Noble was $180.  Finally, I discovered that the book’s title in US publication is The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, and it is, in fact, much more affordably priced (eight bucks for Kindle or in .epub).  So!  Looking forward to the book, and also to the TV show.

Last month I was complaining about having too much to read.  I come back from six days in Britain with a reading list that’s almost doubled in length. I’m awesome at managing my expectations.  Good thing school starts tomorrow.

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Reading research

“The problem with research,” I tweeted a few days ago, “is that I’ve got a list of at least fifteen books that I don’t so much want to read as want to have already read, right now.

On reflection, I think that’s one of the two problems with research, but more on that in a moment.

It’s not to say that I don’t want to read these books; I do.  Some of them I think are going to be great reads; others will be a slog but will still be about topics I find fascinating.  (Some will be flat-out disappointing, of course.  I had one of those recently.)  But while I am also reading these books for pleasure, centrally I’m reading them to extract information or get a better understanding of something I want to write about.  Holding off on writing about it is a really frustrating feeling.

(Which makes me feel like I should pipe up and say that I don’t have any intention of finishing my research before I start writing; I’m a strong believer that that’s a horrible way to write.  For one thing, your research should never actually be “finished”.  I start writing when I feel I’m ready to start writing, and my research continues apace while I write.  But when I know there’s a lot still out there for me to get a handle on before I can write what I want to write, well, it’s frustrating.)

The other problem with research is that it’s migratory.  There are three or four different things I want to learn about, and the simple act of researching one of them can make me shift interest to one of the others instead.  Right now, I’m reading about the American Federal period.  But that could well lead to me wanting to shift back in time, as I decide to read about the backgrounds of Federal-era statesmen by reading about Colonial America instead.  Or instead maybe it’ll send me across the Atlantic, and I’ll want to research Napoleonic Europe, which had such an impact on Federalist America via things like the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812.  From Napoleon I could well end up going elsewhere in French history—I’ve been meaning to do some reading about Vichy France, for instance, for a while.

So here’s the reading list.  There are books that are higher priorities on here than others; I thought about organising it on that basis, whittling it down or boldfacing the ones I’m either really excited about or feel a really pressing need to tackle before the others.  But then I realised that those priorities change, and the book that I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll definitely want to read that one after I finish this one I’m starting now,” could, by the time I finish this new one, suddenly find itself way further down the pile.  So instead, here they are organised very roughly by chronology and geography.

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America by James Axtell

Pitt the Elder: The Great Commoner by Jeremy Black

Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787 by Orville T. Murphy

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard

America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King by Sheila L. Skemp

Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist by Sheila L. Skemp

Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes by Christopher Hibbert

John Adams by David McCullough

Mr. Jefferson’s Women by John Kukla

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano

A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America by David O. Stewart

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The True Story of a Forgotten Hero in Wellington’s Army by Mark Urban

The Exploits of Baron de Marbot by Jean-Baptiste de Marbot

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Kate Hickman

The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson

1812: War with America by Jon Latimer

Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834 by Robert Malcolmson

Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans by John Bailey

Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman

American Slavery: 1619–1877 by Peter Kolchin

Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves by Ira Berlin

The Prince and the Yankee: The Tale of a Country Girl Who Became a Princess by Robert N. White

Damn that’s about twice as many as I expected.  And I stopped before I got to the books I recently picked up about gender roles in the American Civil War, or the aforementioned books about Vichy France, because those are just too far down on my priorities list right now.

Damn.

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NO ONE EXPECTS … nope, sorry, wrong time period

I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War.  Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager.  (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.)  I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school.  I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”.  On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.

One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.”  (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)

Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself.  There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them.  Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.

No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us.  The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men.  It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“.  Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter.  The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago.  Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.

And I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left.  But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.

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He became more powerful than you could possibly imagine

I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)

This is news to me.  If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.)  When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change.  Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.

Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography.  (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)

No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.

There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.

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A hundred years ago today

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia; Friday will mark the hundredth anniversary of Serbia’s response, after which the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, became almost inevitable.  In terms of the ongoing four-year centenary of the war, then, we’re right now embarking on the very climax of the July Crisis.

The ultimatum and its response are the second-most well-known thing about the July Crisis, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand itself (which didn’t in fact happen in July, but on 28 June).  So now, a hundred years and a few hours after Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron Giesl von Gieslingen placed the ultimatum on a table in the Serbian prime minister’s office because the Serbian finance minister, Lazar Paču, refused to accept it physically from his hands, I’d like to take a moment to examine them.

The received history of the July Crisis is that Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was one of almost total acceptance—that the Serbians capitulated on every point but one, and that Austria-Hungary’s decision to nevertheless break off diplomatic relations and mobilise their army is therefore proof that responsibility for the start of the First World War therefore lies with the warmongering, Teutonic leadership of the Central Powers and not at all with the Allies.

This is entirely false.

Serbia’s response was far more nuanced and far more equivocal than that:

The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading.  This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy.  It offered the Austrians amazingly little.  Above all, it placed the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation in the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads.

In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgement of such involvement.  Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotiations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials.  The appeal to ‘international law’, though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation, since there existed no international jurisprudence for cases of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way.

Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands.  … It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.

In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points.

[All paragraph breaks in the above, except for the last one, have been added by me to make the passage readable on a computer screen.]

The myth that Serbia all-but-surrendered to Austria-Hungary’s demands is a comfortable one for us, because it allows us to construct a narrative whereby the Central Powers were set on war and we, the Allies, are aggrieved, attacked party (—a narrative we accept intuitively despite the fact that it was a terrorist attack upon Austria-Hungary that sparked the crisis in the first place).  But that’s exactly why it’s important for us to reject it, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the outbreak of the First World War as an act of morality (with, of course, our side being the moral side) rather than seeing it as what it was, an act of (amazingly ill-judged, as it turned out) statecraft.

There are wars with a legitimate good side and bad side, but there are far fewer of them than we like to pretend (because we like to pretend that all of our wars were just wars), and the Great War isn’t really one of them.

Note that I am not attempting to relieve Austria-Hungary or Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war.  It’s true that Serbia didn’t capitulate to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum in the way histories often tell us they did; but that’s because the ultimatum was deliberately designed to be impossible to accept.  The Austro-Hungarian government wanted war, and they gave Serbia an ultimatum that they felt had to be refused.  The pro-war faction among the Austro-Hungarian government had ultimately won out because of the strong backing it had received from Germany, where the dominant voices were also pro-war.

But just as Austria-Hungary had German voices in their ears urging them to take a hard line with Serbia, so were Serbia and Russia buttressed in their resolve to oppose Vienna’s demands by France, whose foreign policy had for some time been controlled by the staunchly pro-war, anti-German President Raymond Poincaré.  Indeed, French foreign policy had long ago identified a Balkan crisis as their most likely opportunity to bring Russia into a war with Germany—it was felt that if France instead provoked war over a specifically Franco-German conflict, like possession of Alsace-Lorraine or a colonial dispute in Africa, then the Russians would be unwilling to come along with them.  The Central Powers were certainly guilty of warmongering in 1914, but just as much were the Allies.

The passage I’ve quoted above, discussing the Serbian response, is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested enough in the outbreak of the First World War to already have a picture in their head of how it came about.  There are things in the book I’d need to read more about in order to accept them, like Clark’s statement that the Franco-Russian alliance was originally an anti-British, rather than anti-German, agreement, or that it was important to France and Russia to bring on a war in 1914 because the British Foreign Office was readying itself to shift Britain’s alignment away from the Entente and back to one of friendship with Germany.  And there are things that are usually taken as important factors in the buildup to the war (like the Anglo-German naval rivalry) that Clark, evidently feeling they aren’t important after all, simply doesn’t mention.  But the book is a thoroughly detailed, exceptionally well researched work of scholarship that went into a lot of details in areas I hadn’t known about before, and it left me thinking hard about a topic I thought I already had well hashed-out in my head.

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A real historian makes my argument for me

I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson.  The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766.  That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.

In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776.  As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.

Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.

This immediately put me on my guard.  I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.

But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that.  That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years.  But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s.  For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.

When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it.  We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.

To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire.  When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory.  (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.)  When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance.  When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.

Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:

Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War.  Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution.  No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period.  By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.

(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)

Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent.  “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”

This hits on something really important in history: perspective.  It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.

This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history.  Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering.  But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.

The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms.  By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.

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New Orleans and the world that made it

Yesterday I finished The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette, a history of the first hundred years of the Crescent City, from its founding in 1718 through 1818.  It was a topic I went seeking out, I freely admit, because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, which is set in New Orleans in the 1760s and has as its hero a femme de couleur libre.

worldthatmadeneworleansSublette opens his book by telling us that it’s “not about music per se, but music will be a constant presence in it, the way it is in New Orleans.”  This if anything understates the presence of music in the book, which shouldn’t be surprising for a city that has for two hundred years been known for the vibrancy, uniqueness and Africanness of its musical traditions (just like its religious and cultural traditions), through which it birthed the art form that is modern American music.  The book definitely comes across as a work written by someone who was brought to the history through a love of the music, rather than someone who was brought to the music through a love of the history; but as such, it gives you a perspective on the history of New Orleans that’s absolutely necessary and couldn’t have been achieved the other way around.  Sublette occasionally assumes that his readers will find a certain specific commonality between the musical/dancing traditions of New Orleans and Trinidad, or Cuba and Guadeloupe, as prima facie fascinating as he does, but that’s a small price to pay for that.

(The other small price to pay is Sublette’s insistence on referring to foreign monarchs by their names translated into their own national languages, even for those monarchs who are known in English only by their English-language names.  So he refers to Felipe II of Spain, not Philip of Spain, and to Carlos III, not Charles III, making it tough to follow the fact that he’s talking about individuals who already have established names and identities in English-language historiography.  Maybe he worked for NBC during the 2006 Winter Games.)

(No, I’m never going to let that go, NBC.  We speak English, so we call the city Turin.)

The book’s title is an accurate one—this is a book about the world that made New Orleans, and as much time is spent on history elsewhere as is spent on the city itself.  This could well be because, for most of its first century, New Orleans was a small, distant outpost, and there wouldn’t be much more with which to fill four hundred pages than there would be for a history of the first century of Charleston, South Carolina, or Bridgetown, Barbados.  So what we get instead are introductions to all the distant places and events that poured themselves into New Orleans and forged the city’s unique character.

There’s a chapter on French court life during the regency of the duc d’Orleans (during the childhood of Louis XV, the only French king ever to rule over New Orleans), since it was the duke who first sent French settlers to the mouth of the Mississippi and for whom their settlement was named.  There’s a chapter on life in prerevolutionary Haiti and a chapter on the revolution itself, which led so many refugees, eventually, to resettle in New Orleans—white men and the black slaves and mixed-race concubines they brought with them.  (Those chapters made me look forward to playing Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, whose hero is an escaped slave washed up on the shores of prerevolutionary St-Domingue.)  And when we get to 1803, there’s a chapter on Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, and another on the booming American slave trade of which the Big Easy suddenly found itself the fulcrum.

These last two were the chapters that blew my mind.

First, Jefferson.  Sublette spends a chapter voicing, eloquently and incisively, exactly the same reaction I have whenever the morality or virtue or greatness of Thomas Jefferson is discussed.  Yes, Jefferson was the primary author of the most famous affirmation of political self-determination ever written.  Yes, he forcefully and repeatedly articulated that the only way for Americans to practise the freedom of religion that we hold so dear is for us to maintain a government that is wholly free from religion and entirely secular.  Yes, throughout his life he wrote against slavery and wrote of it as an evil that does harm to everyone it touches.

He also owned other human beings, his entire adult life.  He lived a life of leisure and comfort, made possible only by the labour (and lives and good health and children) he stole from them every day, a life in which he generated huge debts that he knew quite well would be paid by the breakup and sale of the families he owned after his death.  He raped at least one of his slaves.  (And yes, it is rape to have sex with a human being you own, full stop, and it deserves to be called out as such.  And the fact that the woman he raped was his dear deceased wife’s half-sister only makes it creepier.)  And through the Louisiana Purchase, as Sublette points out, not only did he significantly increase the extent of American slavery’s territorial grasp, but he gave the slave industry a crucial shot in the arm that was a major factor in allowing it to boom right up until the Civil War.

Whenever the moral hypocrisy of the man is pointed out, the first half of all that always gets brought up as if it somehow alleviates him of the moral responsibility of the second half.  I’ve never understood why that would be, and apparently neither has Sublette.  Rather, the second half negates whatever praise he might have earnt from the first.  Sublette explains at length why that is, and my original idea for this post was simply to transcribe the entire Jefferson chapter verbatim, until I considered, you know, the law.  (Also all that typing.)  So I’ll content myself with just two paragraphs:

No, we don’t know absolutely for certain if Master Tom did impregnate Sally or not.  If the matter were tried in a court of law, with a presumption of innocence and an expensive law firm to defend Jefferson (which is how a number of mainstream American historians seem to have seen their role in this case), we might have to let him off the hook for lack of definitive proof.  On the other hand, if he were a poor man with substantial circumstantial evidence against him and a public defender, he’d accept a plea bargain, the way some 95 percent of criminal cases in the United States are resolved now, and get off with a guilty plea and a reduced sentence.

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime.  After all, you can do with your property as you like.

And so we come to the chapter on the American system of chattel slavery.  I’ve done a bit of research on slavery in the past few years, though (like most Americans) I still don’t know nearly as much about it as I should.  I do have it on my reading list to read a book devoted to the institution, but I haven’t got there yet; so it’s entirely possible (hell, even likely) that the points Sublette makes, which have significantly shifted how I looked at American slavery, are points that are very commonly made in the literature about it.

I did already know a few things.  I knew that both abolitionists and slavery advocates believed strongly that slavery had to continually expand in order to survive.  This means, for instance, that when Abraham Lincoln reassured the South that he did not want to abolish slavery, merely contain it within its present extent, both Lincoln and the slaveowners were well aware that that “containing” slavery was code for “condemn it to a slow, gasping death without the need for legislation”.  And I knew that, generally speaking, the American slave population expanded from the northern and eastern states of the South into the southern and western states.  And I knew that Congress forbade the slave trade—the importation of slaves from locations outside the United States—in 1808, the very earliest date allowed by the Constitution.

But I hadn’t put those three things together and carried them out to their logical extreme.  We all know—or we all should know—that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revitalised the American slave trade.  It industrialised the processing of cotton for its use in manufacturing, and so it vastly increased the demand for unprocessed cotton; and unprocessed cotton, because of the intensity of labour, miserable conditions and lack of education required to harvest it, is something that lends itself readily to slave labour.  Then, following close on the heels of the cotton gin was the Louisiana Purchase, opening up vast new lands to plantation cultivation, and therefore to the slave trade.

It’s easy, therefore, to see slavery and its hold on the South as an unfortunate accident of history—tragic, monstrous, criminal, but still also accidental.  Slavery, such an argument would go, only took such economic hold because it was needed to prop up the cotton industry, and it was to cotton that the Southern economy was dedicated.

But that ignores the facts.  Slavery very quickly became an industry in and of itself, an industry that was perpetuated just for its own sake.  Those plantations in Virginia and North Carolina and parts of Kentucky had been under cultivation for a hundred years—in the case of Virginia, two hundred.  Their soil was spent.  They could be more profitable planted with cotton than with tobacco, sure, thanks to the cotton gin; but they still wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the cotton plantations in the virgin soil of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Arkansas.

But those new plantations presented an opportunity to the planters—to turn their existing slave populations into a source of profit, by using them as seed stock from which to breed the slaves who would fill up the new lands.  (Does that sound horrible and dehumanising?  Good.)  It’s not just that slavery thrived because it supported the thriving cotton industry; the cotton industry thrived because it supported the thriving slave industry.  We can talk of cotton plantations in Virginia and Carolina and Kentucky that operated on slave labour; but we might also talk of slave plantations that happened to grow cotton.  The cotton there was grown not as an end in itself, but as something for the slaves to do during the ten or fifteen years it took to raise a baby up into a saleable field hand.

That’s why slavery “needed always to expand in order to survive”; because as plantation lands filled up with slaves, their owners needed new, virgin lands opened up in which to sell their children.  That’s why Congress outlawed the importation of foreign blacks on literally the very first day allowed by the Constitution: because, like a tariff on foreign manufactures (the existence of which the Confederacy would denounce as being the other reason they were seceding), it kept the cost of the domestic good artificially high.  And that is why slave migration followed a basic north and east to west and south pattern: because slaveowners in the more settled regions were actively breeding slave populations who were always intended to be sold on down to newer plantations.  (In countless cases, the slaveowners were of course actively fathering parts of the population that they always intended to sell.)  We know that slave trading frequently caused the separation of families and we think their owners were monstrous for allowing this (the scene between Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti in Twelve Years a Slave touches on this), but we are perhaps less cognizant of the idea that many families were created so that they could then be broken up—so that their children, when they reached an age where they’d be capable of a full day’s work, could be loaded onto flatbottom boats in Wheeling or Louisville and floated thousands of miles downriver, to be displayed in a showroom and sold on an auction block.

The World That Made New Orleans has twenty-two chapters, and those are only two of them.  The book had its weaknesses, but on the whole I’m glad I read it—and I’m really glad I read those two chapters, because they’re going to inform how I look at their topics for a long time.

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