Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Read of England 2015




In previous years I have done a bit of reading devoted expressly to England around St. George's Day on April 23rd. This time around, however,  I'm going whole hog -- April belongs to England!  The majority of what I read in the next four weeks will be English literature, English history, fiction set in England, books about English culture, biographies of famous English-types, books written in English -- okay, maybe not that broad, but you get the idea. I'm essentially carving out some space to read more Dickens or Austen.  There may be one or two non-English things sneaking in, but on the whole it will be a very English month.What to expect? Well,  The Armada by John Stack is sailing my way, so that's one at the very least,  and there are a couple of classics I want to poke my nose into.


And awaaaaaaaaaaaay we go! 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

 The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond
© 2014 Michael Sims
384 pages


Shortly before retreating for two years to his self-built cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire. A simple attempt at having fish for lunch reduced 300 acres of woodlands to charcoal, and very nearly ignited Concord.  The village pariah would eventually be pardoned, for the town had known him before his attempt at civic ignition;  they knew his reputation as the nice if odd boy from a respectable family of teachers and pencil merchants. Before Henry David Thoreau loomed large over American literary history,  eventually helping inspire the environmental and civil rights movements, Henry was that nice if odd boy. The Adventures of Henry Thoreau examines Henry's life outside of Walden,  giving a history of his life as he lived it -- as a boy, as an awkward, courting teenager, as a adventure-thirsty young man who explored the whole lengths of rivers with his brother.

Michael Sims puts a human face to the man who has cast such a long shadow over American history. Here, Henry is no icon, but a frequently distracted student who barely gets into Harvard and who itches to escape it. Throughout his life, his abiding passion is the outdoors. Raised a Unitarian, Henry was already predisposed to look askance at traditional religion. For him, spirituality was an individual journey, and he communed with God best in the outdoors, skipping church to take long walks in the wilderness. He idealized Nature, and revered the native Americans as having lived more closely connected to it. But his lust for the natural wasn't limited to getting "moony-eyed over mountains";  his mind also had a scientific cast, and those long hours of meticulous study resulted in one work of technical import.  These aren't solitary quests, either; young Henry is companionable. He takes long walks into the woods with  remarkable friends, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne;  spends weeks on a river with his brother, and even takes classes of children into the wild to teach them how to observe,  investigate, and come to understand the world around them. As the books wear on, however, these connections fall away; he leaves his work as a teacher, his brother dies, and his object of affection rejects him on the advice of her father that Henry's prospects are too dismal to make him a fit husband. Throughout, he escapes increasingly more into solitude, and though he dies at home, with family watching over him, he seems a lonely figure sometimes substituting philosophy for people. He sought an authentic life free of distractions, and produced extraordinary work as a thinker -- but in light of the ordinary happiness of his early years, one wonders if the later monkishness was truly necessary.

Related:
I to Myself: from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
"On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau

* "moony-eyed over mountains", as a skeptical professor of mine once described those who identify as spiritual, but not religious

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Born Fighting

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
© 2004 Jim Webb
384 pages



Born Fighting is a family story of the Scots-Irish, a clan of forgotten men. Beginning with the Celts, author Jim Webb moves swiftly through British history to the establishment of the Ulster Plantation.  Faced with continued resistance to the British crown by the feisty Irish, who were even more suspect by their frequent fraternization with Catholic powers like France and Spain,  King James hit on a novel solution: move in their equally feisty, but virulently Protestant, Scottish cousins.  As anyone remotely familiar with Irish history can guess, that didn't end well;  northern Ireland was a warzone even throughout the 20th century.  But the Scots of the Ulster Plantation didn't stay there;  they emigrated to the United States in large numbers, where they continued being...lively. Constitutionally incapable of bending a knee to a king,  they pushed into the American interior,  driving the frontier of colonization forward, provoking the natives into war and prompting a revolution.  Although  some would eventually make it to the west coast, the hills of Appalachia and the American South were settled in large number by these rebellious Presbyterians.  Settling down didn't change too much, though; when  Abraham Lincoln called for troops to suppress the secession of South Carolina, the size of the nascent Confederacy doubled as the distant descendants of Robert the Bruce closed ranks to defend their land and kinsmen from invasion. Although they were defeated in battle, they continued to shape American history, swelling the ranks of the soldiery and producing country music.

Although Born Fighting has the scope of a historical survey, it's much more personal. As mentioned, this is a family story, and it's framed by Jim Webb's journey into the Appalachian mountains to find his family's bones, and the quest that ends at an ancestral graveyard  causes him to ruminate on how his people came to be in that land, so far removed from the hills of Britain and Ireland. It's thus quite romanticized, its characters assuming airs of heroism or tragedy as the story waxes on. The rough, ornery wildness that Webb celebrates here as an antidote to tyranny is the same 'cracker culture' that Thomas Sowell condemned in Black Rednecks, White Liberals as completely-self defeating.  Webb doesn't completely overlook  his kinsmen's flaws; his defense of the South  owns up to slavery as the cause of secession, but he rightly distinguishes that from the motive for fighting. Slaves, like private jets and palatial estates today, were not owned by most southerners;  most, in fact were owned by a few dozen elite families. The country boys wearing grey weren't fighting to keep their slaves, they were fighting because fighting rule from on high is a family tradition. The Scots-Irish, Webb writes, could respect authority from men who literally led them in battle, but never from enthroned men who dictate from afar, whether they be Caesar and Pope in Rome, or the president in Washington.

Born Fighting makes for fun reading, and it's not immaterial: there are reasonable arguments here, taken from completely respectable surveys like Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples, and WJ Nash's The Mind of the South.  There's always more to the story, though, and southern whites have not always been completely opposed to authority on principle. The New Deal that Webb mentions resistance to was much beloved by the poor South, black and white alike. In fact, a song mentioned in Webb's section on country music refers  to Roosevelt "saving us all", creating programs like the TVA that put the singer's family back on its feet. Taken as a fond retelling of family drama, however, its weaknesses can be forgiven. There are other works for the serious readers. Like Cool Hand Luke, this is a celebration of a man, of a people, who can't be told what to do and won't give up going their own way, no matter how many times they're beaten.

Related:
Poor but Proud / Dixie's Forgotten People, Wayne Flynt
The Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad. Similar in intent, but much more vulgar.
A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

"The Importance of Being Earnest"
© 1895 Oscar Wilde


The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility! (Algernon, Act I.)

         Algernon and Earnest are two pals who have more in common than they realize. When Earnest visits Algernon, planning on proposing to Algie’s cousin at a family lunch,  a mystery is waiting for him. Algernon has recovered a lost cigarette case, one he knows to belong to Earnest, but which for some reason is inscribed to an Uncle Jack from his adoring niece Cecily. Who is Jack?   

            Who is Jack, indeed?  That’s a three-act question.  Jack, it turns out, is the real name of Earnest.  In real life, he’s a respectable gentleman in the country with a young ward, for whom he must be very proper and upright. When it gets too much, he likes to escape to the city to see after his libertine brother, Earnest.  Algernon isn’t in the least bothered to learn that he knows his friend under an assumed name –  Algy likes to pretend he has a sick friend in the country, Bunbury, who occasionally needs help. (The occasion invariably coincides with party invitations from Algernon’s aunt.)  When Algernon decides to visit Jack’s country estate pretending to be the scoundrel brother Eanrest, hilarity ensues. 


            Strictly speaking, hilarity was ensuing long before that.  Wilde once equipped that nothing succeeds like excess, and this play’s abundance of witty dialogue may hint at truth in the saying.  Part of the humor comes from Wilde turning social conventions on their head; his rich characters complain that the lower orders aren’t setting a good example for the uppers, characters despair of hypocrisy in a good man who pretends to be naughty,  and at least one woman proclaims that men’s proper place is in the home, and once they leave it they become altogether too feminine.  It’s a very silly play, and even a little meta: towards the end Aunt Augusta complains that contrived coincidences like this simply have no place in ‘good’ families like hers.  This is a topsy-turvy plot, wherein characters are alternatively sparring and then defending one another, traveling from  sobs to shrieks of joy at a moment’s notice. It’s magnificent fun, especially in the hands of talented actors. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Selma 1965

Selma 1965: the March that Changed the South
© 1974, 1985, 2015 Chuck Fager
257 pages (2nd edition),



Last weekend, my hometown suddenly became host to two presidents, a hundred members of Congress, and enough people to see it swell over ten times in size.The event was the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. In 1965 over half the population of my hometown couldn’t vote; its black populace. Though guaranteed suffrage by the US Constitution,  local registrars threw up impediments in the form of extensive literacy tests and limited registration times to keep the vote restricted. Although  these tests limited poor blacks and whites alike, the effects were especially manifest in the black community: less than 1% of the same were registered to vote. The greatest obstacle in the face of full citizenship, local voting-rights activists thought, was not the scheming of the elite or even the lack of concern of the city's white population: it was the utter resignation of the city's poor blacks, who seemed to have given up hope.  With the aim of inspiring the same, local voting rights leaders, working with national organizations like the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to add his energy and talent to the campaign. That invitation put Selma at the center of a national crisis on Sunday,  March 7th, when King's strategy of provoking responses drew the wrath of the Alabama State Troopers onto a peaceful mob marching towards Montgomery.   Weeks later, another far larger march crossed the bridge and trekked three days to the Capitol, and among its numbers was young Chuck Fager. His history of the Selma movement covers the road from despair to jubilation in a manner respectful of the fact that Selmians, black and white alike, had found their city as the site of the American nation's final attempt to work out its salvation from a history of racial strife.

King, following the dictium of Gandhi that the function of a civil resister is to provoke a response,  launched a series of actions designed to thwart being ignored.  The status quo would be strained, the establishment would be pushed, and either it would give way or fight back in such a way that the sin within could not help but be exposed. A series of increasingly aggressive displays, including night marches on the courthouse, followed.  City leaders fumbled for an appropriate response; they knew pushback was exactly what King wanted, but something had to be done. Nothing good would come of mobs wandering about at night.  Under such stress, rationality proved a poor opponent for human nature; thoughtful indecision gave way to the unfortunate authority invested in Sheriff Jim Clark. Clark was a swaggering lawman whose bellicosity was such that the Council was attempting to divert away his power into a new public safety manager, but in that late winter of  '64-'65, he still had his teeth -- and he knew how to respond to any challenge, with the baton.

On March 7th, the growing movement within Selma began what was to be a march to Montgomery to plead for the Governor to intercede. It didn't matter that the registrar's office and the city council were making timid attempts to appease the movement; this was a drive gaining power, and only sweeping changes would satisfy.  Across the bridge, in Selmont, were waiting a formation of Alabama State Troopers, and a roughneck posse led by the the sheriff. What followed was war, pure and simple. While King had wanted to expose the violence inherent in the system, he awoke the violence inherent in the human animal at war. When the six hundred marchers were ordered to turn back and refused, horror was released. There were no peace officers subduing unruly subjects that day, only Mongols in police uniforms,  striking into the mass with the ferocity of a warband and routing them. Not content to simply turn back the march,  the State's troopers chased the gas-stricken crowed across the bridge and into the city, block after block, hunting down and beating any man, woman, or child on the street around the movement's epicenter within the projects, Brown Chapel.

The horror of that day is remembered  as Bloody Sunday, but it is what followed afterward that makes it one of the pivotal movements in American history. The black people of Selma were beaten, but not broken, by the State's retaliation. King and other leaders upped the ante, calling for ministers and volunteers throughout the nation to join them.  And they came, by the hundreds. Fager places particular importance on the swelling numbers of white 'outside agitators' who joined Selma's black community in fighting for full voting rights:  taking their perspective, Fager writes that the black populace was astonished and moved by so much white support. Here at last was hope that racism  need not forever exist.  Eventually they marched again, though it took several weeks: an immediate attempt on March 9 ("Turnaround Tuesday") was stopped by the State troopers again, but by March 26th the Federal government had moved. It couldn't help but do so:  scenes from March 7 had been broadcast throughout the country which was now demanding action. With National Guard troops  present and the eyes of the nation upon them, King led a third march across the bridge, this time to Montgomery.

Selma 1965 succeeds wonderfully in bringing together two dramas; the struggle of the city's poorer classes to claim the franchise that was their right, under the law, and the culmination of the national Civil Rights movement, being its last and best publicized campaign. Although it began as a local movement, and King aside was being maintained by Selma's own black leaders, after Bloody Sunday it became the object of national attention. Crowds formed in other American cities to 'march with Selma', and three of the four people who lost their lives in connection with the Selma campaign were out-of-state visitors who answered King's call. Some were accidents --  While transporting protesters and supplies,Viola Liuzzo  had the luck to encounter a carload of Kluckers from Birmingham, who seized the opportunity to shoot her down. Other casualties included Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who defended a young girl from an aggressive lawman in Haynvesville, and another young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion who shielded his grandmother from the constable's bullets. Only James Reeb died in Selma those dark hours; another clergyman,  he took a wrong turn and was beaten in the streets outside a roughneck bar.  These deaths increased the tensity, and slowly control trickled out of the hands of local governance and into federal courts.

The original version of this work was a triumph, I think, an impassioned history of the Selma march which managed to be fair to its citizens, whose own failures were not extraordinary and who certainly did not ask to become the poster children for racial hatred. The city fathers were just as contemptuous of the Kluckers following King to stir up trouble their way as they were of him stirring up trouble his way.  They were raised in a tradition that was wrong; the bridge forced them to own up to the injustices. Fager notes in his original version that the progress that followed the violence was extraordinary. The additional sections added for the 50th anniversary, however, are not not nearly as strong, dedicated as they are to the noisy fight between  two lawyers and a special interest  group over the placement of a Civil War bust in a cemetery that can only be seen if you go looking for it. It's an ugly fight on the margins, one the city's people are utterly sick of seeing publicized regardless of skin color. This was certainly a worthy read for me, connecting stories I've heard since childhood into a coheisve hole, and filling my home's streets with historical actors.

Related:
A Power No Government Can Supress, The Zinn Reader; Howard Zinn

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Iron Web

The Iron Web
© 2009 Larken Rose
363 pages

 
 
 
 
All Jessica wanted to do to celebrate her 19th birthday was go camping and test out her skills navigating with a GPS. At no point during the celebration did she want to include her passenger plane getting shot down from the sky and crashing in the middle of a war zone. But that's life. Her new home, Graveston, is the site of a Waco-style standoff between the Federal government and what the news is calling an anarchist cult.  Jessica is nursed back to life by a kindly priest living in the no-man's land between the lines, but to her perplexity he doesn't seem to be too alarmed at the nearness of the terrorists. Nor, for that matter, do his amiable neighbors. When a Humvee crashes through the wall and dumps a bunch of ATF agents, guns a-blazing,  she realizes why. Her rescuers are the terrorists! She's not the only one in for a surprise, however: when one of the Federal agents left behind in the raid becomes captured by the 'cult', he too is taken aback by the lack of evil villainy.  These people don't seem to be concocting any nefarious schemes; they're not building bombs, robbing banks, or planning the assassinations attributed to them by the media. Some of them are even pacifists! Something is rotten in the state of Arizona.

The Iron Web is a  philosophical argument doubling as a thriller. At its heart is the titular iron web, which is less a terrorist organization and more a symbol of self-ownership and voluntary association.  The book is peppered with conflicts between people and the will of the state, establishing tension that leads to good arguments. Argument constitutes the meat of the book, in fact, though it's no extended lecture;  conversations occupy the intermittent quiet moments between the agents' assaults on the besieged community, of which Jessica and the ATF agent Jason find themselves unwitting members.  Although  the people they met hold to various and sometimes completing political philosophies (there are Constitutionalists, anarchists, and hippies are among their number),  all agree to the same principle: no person has ownership over another.  The 'web' is a visual representation of how people's lives are knit together through voluntary exchanges; in the story, the symbol is displayed by persons interested in dealing with one another off the books, creating an underground economy independent of the state. No bombing campaign could frighten the US government more than such subversiveness! Another viewpoint character named Betsy, an executive assistant attached to a senator about to be inaugurated as president, offers still more room for tension: the closer the senator gets to assuming political power, the more manipulative and abusive he reveals himself, and Betsy starts to question just who it is she's been following. He won on a campaign of fighting terrorism at home, but his plans for the future involve the effective abolition of free speech. Her disillusionment with the president-elect rises as the 'terrorists' are pushed to their breaking point, but this would be no thriller were the ending predictable. Just as the Iron Web is not a terrorist organization, so to are other appearances deceiving.
 
What makes The Iron Web work so well as a novel is that its  ultimate villains are, in effect, the reader. The ATF agents persecuting the Iron Web are not out to perpetuate a police state and push around the weak; they sincerely believe themselves to be the champion of law, order, and justice. Jason becomes the Web's confederate, but he could have just as easily killed them at the state's bidding had he not been injured in an earlier attempt to subdue them. What altered was his awareness, and Larken's aim is to shift the readers'.  Blame is laid, V-like, at the foot of the American people who have allowed the state to become God, who tolerate its invasion of every aspect of their lives, to allow its violence to become the norm. Not the violence of the ATF's campaign against the Iron Web, its pushing them further and further into the woods, burning their homes and shooting them down one by one. Confrontations like these are out of the ordinary. What's most insidious is the mundane tyranny of the state's agents that people encounter virtually every day -- creepy TSA agents, petty cops,  corrupt politicians, and exacting IRS officials.  The 'leader' of the Iron Web community, and Rose himself, urges those who believe in self-ownership to practice what they preach, and own up to the responsibility that comes with that ownership: resist. Few readers are likely to adopt, whole-cloth, the author's radicially individualist philosophy, but this is a book whose challenges are less preachy than fun.  I've read it twice this year, and the ending was just as astonishing the second time around.   This is absolutely reccommended.
 
 
Related:
V for Vendetta

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Runaway Slaves

Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation
© 2000 John Hope Franklin, Loren Schweninger
480 pages


Easily the most horrible aspect of American history, is the institution of slavery.  Indentured servitude had been a historical norm for centuries before, of course,  usually the mark of war, but in America it was paired with racial ideology to become utter evil.  Although it eventually perished in 1865 at the hands of the 13th amendment, those whose lives it claimed were not necessarily willing to wait for freedom to be granted;  instead, they took it. In Runaway Slaves, historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger establish how chronic absenteeism and escape were throughout the slave states, revealing the institution's gross unnaturalness and complete incompatibility with the human spirit.

Precious few people in the 21st century need to be convinced that slavery was wretched, and the few who maintain that it was a necessary evil, or that its abuses were exaggerated out of proportion, would do well to confront Runaway Slaves, presenting as it does not only one human story after another about men, women, and even children resisting tyranny over their lives, and 'voting with their feet' by  escaping into the wild, but statistical evidence that reveals how persistent a problem runaways were.  Readers might expect the abused to flee, and so they did, but here too are stories of slaves who were treated 'well' -- plantation pets, like the few Jefferson kept in his mansion and doted on.  Even when provided with an allowance, comfortable quarters,  and easy work, slaves still persisted in running off from time to time ,to the utter bewilderment of owners who concluded that some Africans were simply born mad.  The runaways were not simply driven by some principled insistence that they ought to be free;  the most common motive cited here is reunification with family.  Of course, the data is incomplete; many runaways simply disappeared into history, and their motives and stories will never be told. Most did not attempt to to transverse the entire country to make into a free state, or Canada; instead, Franklin and Schweninger report, they either lingered around the edges of plantations (to be close to family, or help them escape), or migrated to a large city like Baltimore or New Orleans, where they could lose themselves in the masses that included substantial populations of free blacks. Because the data the authors work with spans most of the 19th century, readers will also appreciate slavery evolving as an institution;   legal terms of servitude that expire give way to perpetual bondage, and captured African tribesmen still bearing the tattoos and piercings of their tribe's customs become the fathers of generations born into slavery, knowing nothing else.

Runaway Slaves is a solid piece of historical writing, providing human faces to the many thousands gone,  turning a multitude once viewed as a factor of production into lives who must be reckoned.  As soul-wearying as it can be to realize how many lives were wasted away in bondage, there is also room for hope in the fact that resistance was never absent from the scene. Regardless of beatings or bread and circuses, men are, and of a right ought to be, Free.