Saturday, May 16, 2015

The South since the War

The South Since the War: As Shown by Fourteen Weeks of Travel and Observation in Georgia and the Carolinas
© 1866 Sidney Andrews
400 pages

In the autumn of 1865, as the dust and ashes were still settling over the graves of the Union and southern dead,  an Illinois journalist decided to spend the season exploring the land of prodigal brothers and late enemies.   His The South Since the War combines a travel diary with obsessive political journalism, recording the proceedings of three state conventions (the Carolinas and Georgia) as well as a conference of freedmen.  He is, upon completion, not a fan -- disappointed  in shabby hotels, defunct railroads, and the fact that the war has not given the southerners a thirst to transform themselves into New Englanders.  They remain a people apart -- ruined, owing to having been beaten in the fields, but still defiant.

There is immediate interest in Andrews' timing; so close does he follow on the heels of the war that some held in slavery have not yet heard that the institution was abolished.  Andrew Johnson is President, and for the moment charity prevails: pardons are being granted liberally, and the old aristocracy ready to resume their seats in Congress. After witnessing the three conventions,  Andrews closes with a warning that to forgive the south too easily would be to throw away the best chance the North has at remolding the old confederacy in its own image. Indeed,  in the year following  Congress will rebuke President Johnson for his grace, and they will institute some of the measures Andrews suggests, like granting suffrage en masse to male freedmen to undermine the old elite. But the hour of Reconstruction is not yet, and here readers are granted a look into that fleeting moment when the old South's destiny was in its hands.

Andrews is primarily interested in politics,  and endeavors to take the temper of the polis by not only attending back-to-back conventions, but in engaging southerners in conversation --  at least, planters, freedmen, and some merchants. He is more revolted than interested in poor whites, who don't take baths,  don't have manners,  show none of that Puritan work ethic, and don't  have an excuse. The freedman may be ignorant moral wretches, Andrew muses, but their growth was smothered by the old planters, who used it as a justification to keep them in bondage.  The conversations reveal a South defeated in arms, but not in spirit:  at best,  people acknowledge losing the war and are resolved  to make the best out of the peace. At worse, they echo the lyrics of a popular song at the time:

I can't pick up my musket
And fight 'um down no more
But I ain't gonna love 'um
Now that is certain sure
And I don't want no pardon
For what I was and am
I won't be reconstructed
And I do not give a damn

("I'm A Good Old Rebel", Maj. James Randolph)

The south was beaten -- thousands upon thousands of young men dead, leaving a generation of spinsters and orphans and   its finest cities were smoking ruins --  but the southerners remained obstinate. Andrews is baffled, appalled, and greatly annoyed. Their heroes are dead, in prison, and surrendered, but the conventions  act as though the first  Federal boot never crushed southern soil. They abolish slavery and repudiate the secession ordinances only grudgingly and debate whether or not they should petition the North to release Davis as a  token of good faith.  Do they not realize they lost?  The crusade was triumphant, but still the "heresy of States' rights" persists.   Although there are a few who own to being true-blue Unionists, who regret the late unpleasantness and the secession that led to it, by the large southerners are still unrepentant. A great many of them may scorn the fools who led them into the war, and the fools who bumbled it (Davis is either praised or scorned here, with no one offering a moderate opinion of him), but their devotion remains to the states which bore them. The question put to every delegate is this: did he, in the conflict, go with the State, or with the Union?    No one quotes Stephen Decatur -- "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." -- but the Marylander's spirit is theirs.

Andrews' attitude is certainly skewed by the fact that he is writing for an audience back home, one thrilled with his reports of southern savagery like the account of Andersonville. Could he as a private individual have really expected southerners to act like chastened schoolchildren, repenting of naughtiness?  Eventually southerners would embrace the Union, grow to love again the striped banner that the good ol' rebel 'fit all he could', but an embrace of the old was never lost.  Could Andrews seriously expected southerners to want to become northerners, to rebuild Charleston in the shape of Boston?  He certainly believes they should: can they not see how scornful their rulers are of them? They are without education, with no exposure to grace and beauty: their lives are bereft of civilization itself.   His own horror at prolonged exposure to belching, burping, cussing farmers is matched by pity for them.  Although his constant sniffing at railroads and poor food can be annoying, his attempts at brotherly love are noble considering that at one point he is literally run out of town by a mob for interfering in a fight between a freedman and a cantankerous soldier.

Andrews' scornful Yankee-ness will no doubt be grating to a southern reader, but he raises a few interesting points, like the need for education and and the curbing of economic centralization. One man, an intellectual descendant of the brothers Gracchi, says:

Give a man a piece of land, let him have a cabin upon his own lot, and then you make him free. Civil rights are good for nothing, the ballot is good for nothing, till you make some men of every class landholders. Give the negroes and poor whites a chance to live -- what [do they] want of a vote?  (p. 371)
Andrews doesn't dwell on this, viewing a man with a ballot as king, but a vision of the south peopled by an abundance of citizen-farmers, secure on their homesteads and dependent on nothing but open lanes for trade, is obviously superior to an empire of massive plantations run on slavery with the poor white remainder existing on the fringe. A republic of homesteads is a positively Jeffersonian vision -- one the south would have shared in. Of course, that's not the way reconstruction actually developed; modernity has made resourceless proletarians of us all.   There is no doubting the importance of Andrews' work, though, given how many Reconstruction measures would be drawn up to address the other issues he raises: the need for moral and and technical education among the freedman, for instance, the matter of power still being in the hands of the elite.   As a proponent of local autonomy myself, I despite the specter of outside meddling...but this is, sadly, a case where we had it coming.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hanging Curve

Hanging Curve
© 1999 Troy Soos
272 pages

St. Louis, 1922. Babe Ruth reigns as the king of baseball. Mickey Rawlings is no king, not even a prince, but he is at least in the peerage: a utility infielder for the St. Louis Browns.  This season, though, there’s more than  baseball on his mind. A man has been murdered, and his death may plunge the city into bedlam.  The story started when Rawlings,  desperate for a chance to play baseball instead of sitting in the dugout, accepted an intriguing offer to play one game between two local clubs  -- one of them being part of the Negro Leagues.   Professional white  ball players are forbidden from taking the field with black players by MLB management, and Mickey  was eager to test his skills against such obvious talent.  Crawford pitched magnificently, humbling the opposition, and then – days later – he was found lynched, hanging from the stadium’s walls.  There had been a fistfight at the game, and members of the Klan hovered about, but – would anyone murder for a baseball game?   With little else to do on the bench, Rawlings digs for answers.  His search casts a light on the simmering racial tensions in  Missouri, the widespread influence of the Midwest Ku Ku Klux, and a prenatal Civil Rights movement.

The golden age of baseball was not a golden age for its black fans.  Segregation flourished in early 20th century America, especially as southern blacks streamed northward in search of jobs. Rising racial tension led to a burgeoning Klan, and not only in its old home of the South:  the 1920s Klan was strongest in the midwest, practically taking over Indiana.  Racial unrest is the backdrop of Hanging Curve;   five years before its start, labor riots turned into a race war, leaving areas of East St. Louis utterly ruined. The death and mayhem of those hours haunts the memory of those who remain, but matters are rapidly deteriorating once again, apparently instigated by a baseball team. After Rawlings plays his match against members of the Negro League,  matters go awry. He played  unsuspectingly, with a team sponsored by an auto dealership, and many on it held an association with the Ku Klux Klan.  First a black player is hung, then beatings and arsons follow in reprisals and counterstrikes.  Those who survived the riots on both sides know where this is going, and it isn't a road  anyone wants to go down.  Blood feuds can take on a life of their own, though, and Rawlings has to work overtime to find a way to nip this one in the bud. He works closely not only with one of the dealership's Klan members, but with a NAACP lawyer to investigate who killed Crawford...and why. These budding relationships introduce Rawlings to two worlds which he had been otherwise blind to: the widespread popularity and influence of the Klan, and the segregated existence of America's black citizenry. Although the courts maintained segregation as separate but equal, not until Rawlings struck up a friendship with a black lawyer did he realize how factually bankrupt those claims were. In St. Louis, for instance,  the streetcars maintained two seperate lines,  but alloted so few cars and conductors to the black line that passengers were forced to wait far longer than their white counterparts. The Klan, too, was a surprise:  Rawlings thought it just a gang for roughneck racists, not suspecting the organization had a more sinister attraction on the respectable, masquerading as a civic organization.  The pieces of the puzzle indicate to Rawlings that the true motive for that first murder are just as hidden in deception as the Klan members who hovered around the game.

Hanging Curve is one of the most interesting  mysteries I've ever read, with a setting that invokes both warm, sentimental nostalgia for the lovely game of baseball and the sad reality of racial tension in America. Consider: the St. Louis Browns, who played in a city a stone's throw from Ferguson, are these days better known as the Baltimore Orioles. But as Rawlings discovers in Hanging Curve,  there is more to social dramas both in our day and in his than mere racism.  Rawlings was able to tease out the truth,  but will we?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ender's Game

Ender's Game 
© 1985 Orson Scott Card
384 pages

            Andrew Wiggin is only a young boy, but in the eyes of his world’s leaders, he may be humanity’s only hope.  Decades ago, Earth was ravaged by invasions of swarming insect-like creatures and fought them off only by the skin of its teeth. What made the difference was superior command ability – a man who performed a miracle, a virtual inheritor of Alexander the Great.  Although the skies have been silent since, all Earth knows that somewhere in the depths must be another insectoid fleet, a third invasion, and  against an  empire stands one frail planet…and one not-so-frail boy. Ender's Game is the story of a young boy chosen to be groomed to be Earth's next saviour, The cost of Earth's salvation is his own childhood, as he is forced to leave  his sister on Earth behind for many years: enrolling at six, his first leave is scheduled for his sixteenth birthday. (He doesn't too much mind leaving his brother behind, since Peter is an abusive jerk with dreams of world conquest.)  Ender's Game is the story of Ender's upbringing on stations in space, living and training with other gifted children every day in highly elaborate zero-gravity games  Ender is the best of the best,  and forced to be so by the adults who condition him psychologically to be the ideal general -- not only strategically smart, but forcefully decisions, a man capable of taking the lives of thousands and the future welfare of millions into his own hands. Although the sci-fi setting is inescapably important, the book is  driven by character drama -- the book alternates between Ender's story and that of his sister Valentina's, who with Peter makes the Wiggin children a trio of dangerous intelligence.  Although Ender engages in combat virtually every day,  this comes in the form of in-person zero-g laser tag games or computer simulations.  Ship to ship combat is rendered only distantly, but that makes it exciting is experiencing Ender's thoughts as he takens in the chaos of the battlefield, sees patterns emerging, and then creates a plan on the fly to check the adversary. Ultimately things deeper than just a boy growing up to find greatness during a war; Card gets a little philosophical toward the end, a trend which I understand continues more in books like Speaker for the Dead.  Though I read this primarily for a reading challenge, I could see continuing in the series. 

Starship Troopers, Robert HeinleinHumans vs bugs, but more SF war and political philosophy, less childhood stress.

The Fall of Saxon England

The Fall of Saxon England
© 1975 Richard Humble
242 pages

History never rests. In the middle of the first millennium, the great tide of the Roman Empire began at last to recede. Its legions stationed in distant reaches of the realm, like those in Britain, were removed to better protect the heart of Rome from its many enemies.  The Britons were left to their own devices,  and into the vacuum left by Rome swept a multitude of European immigrants: Angles, Saxons, Picts, and Jutes.   Latin was an unknown tongue to them, but they came, they saw, and they conquered. Establishing their own kingdoms the tribes reigned supreme for a few centuries -- but then came the Vikings.  Beginning in the late 8th century, the Saxon lands became the object of attention of the Danes, and for two centuries invaders, raiders, and aggressive settlers would pummel the island. Isolated raids gave way to massive armies that broke several of the Saxon kingdoms, while the rest fell under the lead of one man -- Alfred the Great -- creating a patchy but unified English resistance. His brilliant successes would be undermined by less able successors, however, pitted against wilier foes.  The Fall of Saxon England is a blow-by-blow account of the Viking siege of England, ending with the invasion of William the Bastard.   Hailing from Normandy, itself a Viking-taken area of France, 1066 put an end to Saxon self-rule.  This storied military and political history of an England between Rome and Normandy has a sad end, but many of the actors are brilliant. Of special interest is a section on King Arthur, who the author speculates might have been inspired by Ambrosius Aurelianus.  Highly readable,  Humble delivers an education into how the great Saxon kingdoms, later earldoms, emerged and evolved until the Norman conquest.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Copperhead

The Copperhead
© 1893 Harold Frederic
108 pages

War can destroy a city without the first shell falling on it. Such was nearly the fate of Four Corners, New York, a small farming community in its upper reaches. Far removed from the battlefields of the Civil War, the village nonetheless suffered its injuries.  So far as Abner Beech was concerned, the world consisted of the Four Corners; the South was a distant land, its problems those of its own people. Before the crisis erupted, he was not alone in his sentiment:  most of his neighbors were kindred spirits, one Methodist lunatic excepting. That was Jee Hagadorn, from a long and illustrious line of puritanical scolds. He is, among other things, an Abolitionist, and once the war begins he ascends from the fellow everyone avoids to spearheading the town's support of the war effort. Abner Beech is astonished at how quickly his neighbors become enthusiastic about the prospect of great hordes of young men lining up to kill one another, and scandalized by the impending doom that lays in store for the Constitution in the wake of Abe Lincoln's assumption of war powers, and widespread support of it.   Beginning the book as a pillar of the community, Abner quickly falls from grace to become a pariah, spurned at church and forced by his own contrariness to keep to himself on his own farm.  Matters worsen as his own child marches off to war, wooed by the lunatic warmonger's daughter, and eventually he is subjected to  a torchbearing mob outside his home.  Although the original novel's Beech is not nearly as sympathetic as his dramatized counterpart  in Copperhead (the viewing of which prompted me to read this),  he is nonetheless heroic in both holding on to his principles, and his in being easy to forgive. The story ends on a happy note, indeed far happier than the movie's.  Modern readers will find Beech prickly, but the enduring lesson has not changed regardless. War is a sinister thing, able to turn friends into bitter enemies simply for holding the wrong opinion.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Faith and Treason

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
© 1997 Antonia Frasier
384 pages

       Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot….or, as contemporaries called it, the Powder Plot.   Its scale, for the 16th century, was ambitious, especially so for its novelty.  No one-shot assassination, in this scheme at least thirteen conspirators worked together over a course of several months on a plan that would simultaneously involve kidnapping a royal princess and blowing up Parliament – killing, in one fell swoop,  King James, his son the prince,  the royal ministers, and the assembled lords of England. The plan was undone by a mysterious letter, but even its collapse was exciting, featuring explosions and a shootout before legal trials wiped up the last of those involved.  What possessed these men on such a murderous undertaking?  Faith and Treason is an excellent history of the affair, prudent and compassionate. While no one would fault Antonia Frasier for heaping abuse on men who knowingly plotted the death of innocents, who intended to create widespread confusing by massacring the entire government of England and then conspiring with foreign powers to impose order,  she does not. She simply tells the story of what happened with an eye for understanding why, and much of it seems to be misplaced youthful bravado, matched with the Crown’s longstanding persecution of religious minorities and the crushed hope of James' about-face from earlier tolerance. The tale is a tragedy, not only for the misguided aims of these men who were foolish enough to think anything good could come of obliterating a nation's entire corpus of leadership, but because it backfired. Despite the urging of the Pope for English Catholics to live in peaceful hope, despite  the general lack of restiveness among their populace, and despite the fact that the closest potential European allies (Isabella and Albert) had little interest in meddling in English affairs, the conspiracy persisted. In its wake, Catholicism bore the taint of treason, and would suffer it for two centuries more.   Fraser's history is remarkable for its lack of vitriol, and thorough depiction of how the plan came together piece by piece, man by man, and then abruptly fell apart.


I dedicated the month of April to England in part to clear space for reading a little Dickens and a little Austen, and here the month is past and I haven't read one of either. The month was still a success, though, with lots of history and historical fiction, and more to come. Read of England will carry on until I have read Dickens and Austen, and yesterday I launched into Great Expectations.  This is no self-punishment, because I'm not out of my mood yet and have two more English histories I'd like  to take on before moving on to another big theme.

So far, and note that a couple of these haven't gotten comments yet but will:

English Classics
...maybe Come Rack! Come Rope!, but does it count if no one has ever heard of it?

English History
Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge
Faith and Treason, Antonia Frasier
The Fall of  Saxon England, Richard Humble

 Fiction, Set in England
Armada, John Stack (Historical)
In a Dark Wood, Michael Cadnum (Historical)
The Other Queen, Phillipa Gregory (Historical)
Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove (Alt-History)
The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse

Books by English Authors
Medieval Essays, Christopher Dawson.
More will follow. After this reading will be fairly mixed until mid-June, when I'm planning for a bounty of books relating to colonial America and the patriotic rebellion of 1776.   More on that later.

Also, the 2015 Reading Challenge continues apace,  and I am twenty books into it. Those taken:

A book with more than 500 pages (Politics on a Human Scale, Jeff Taylor)
A book published this year  (The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell)
A book with a number in the title (Selma 1965, Chuck Fager)
A book written by someone under 30 (I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai)
A funny book (Bachelors Anonymous, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book by a female author (Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge)
A mystery or thriller (The Iron Web, Larken Rose)
A book of short stories (The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse)
A book set in a different country (Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin)
A nonfiction book (Winter World, Bernd Heinrich)
A book based on a true story (The Marriage Game, Alison Weir)
A book based entirely on its cover (The Internet Police, Nate Anderson)
A book that came out the year you were born (Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card)
A book with a love triangle (The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory)
A book set in high school (The Chosen, Chaim Potok)
A book with color in title (Green is the New Red, Will Potter)
A book that made you cry (The Pigman, Paul Zinde
A book set in your hometown (Casualties, David Rothstein)
A play ("The Importance of Being Earnest", Oscar Wilde)
A book you started but never finished (The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris)