Tuesday, March 28, 2017

La Florida

La Florida: Five Hundred Years of Hispanic Presence
©  2016 Viviana Díaz Balsera & Rachel A. May
312 pages

Florida, like many places in the United States, bears the name given to it by another culture.  The Spanish, setting first foot on the peninsula in the 'flowery season of Easter',  Florida Paschal,  named it after the flowers of the season. While the Spanish flag has long been removed from the heights of St. Augustine and Pensacola,  Spain's legacy lives on in a new form, its language having made a dramatic return to the land through Cuban and Puerto Rican immigration.  La Florida collects historical articles written on the Spanish heritage and continuing presence in Florida, spanning from Jared Milanich's attempt to fix the actual landing sight of Ponce de Leon, to from Susan Eckstein'ss  analysis of changing Cuban political sympathies. (Few outside of Tampa itself probably appreciate the long history that Cuban immigration has played in that city -- concentrating there long before the Castro coup.)   In between readers are treated to the turbulent history old Spanish Florida,  articles on distinctive aspects of Florida in the South (its role as a haven for escaping slaves, for instance), and Florida's re-flowering in the 20th century.  This then is not a straightforward history, but a collection of very different pieces rooted in Florida's Spanish heritage -- a heritage abandoned, spurned, and then revived.    Midway, for instance, we find an article on the Spanish craze in the United States which manifests itself in Mission Revival architecture across the southwest and old Spanish gulf.   For a student interested in colonial Spain, here are bits of history not only forgotten by standard texts (the 1812 invasion of Florida by Georgia volunteers), but those forgotten by everyone, like the  time Amelia Island was taken over by a pirate and declared a republic.

Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Other War of 1812

The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War
© 2007 James Cusick
398 pages

If the War of 1812 rings any bells for most Americans, they may associate it with the creation of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem whose lyrics no one seems to know.  Those with a taste for history who look into it may regard it as the United States' unfortunate ensnarement in the Napoleonic Wars,   responding to the attacks on its trade from  both English and French quarters. The invasion of Canada hints that the Americans were not quite perfect innocents, and still more persuasive is the case of the other invasion.  Far to the south, another war with ties to the War of 1812 had already been brewing, and would continue to work out bloody chaos for several years thereafter. I refer, of course, to the Georgian invasion of Florida.

Prior to its final annexation into the American union in 1821, Florida exchanged hands several times between the Spanish and English.  It was, in 1811, a strange sort of colony. Its residents were Spanish subjects, but most of the occupants and even leadership were not Spanish themselves.  Some called themselves Anglo-Spainards, for they hailed from varying parts of the British isles and yet gave Spain their allegiance while they lived in Florida.  Many were free blacks -- some having escaped from Georgia, some manumitted under Spanish law for various reasons.  There were even Minorcans, previously brought in by the English to help rebuild Florida after so many Spanish residents left following the Seven Years War.    Spain, in 1811-1812, was in a bad way:   its king was lost to Napoleonic schemes, its legitimate regent besieged by the French at Cadiz.  Any moment all of Spain would be lost to Napoleon, and then where would little Florida be?

Georgians were asking the same question, but they knew the answer. Little Florida would cling to Great Britain's skirts; they would allow British warships to steam from Floridian ports, there to play hell on American shipping. As war loomed with the English, the thought of the English navy safe at harbor so close to the American coastline was enough to raise anyone's hackles. Spanish Florida was an enormous pain even in good years -- not only did it continue importing new slaves from Africa, but it maintained itself as a safe haven for escaped slaves from Georgia. Worse yet,  these escapees were armed after joining the Florida militia.  And then there were the Indians, who were constantly used as a threat by Spain against the Georgians whenever border disputes loomed.  Getting the Spanish out of Florida would be useful all around.

In today's America, Florida would have never stood a chance. In these early years of the Republic, however ,expansionism was still being reigned in by circumspection and the Constitution; as much as Madison might want to take Florida,   how could he declare war against Spain -- the colonies' first ally! -- and shake them down? It was neither right nor lawful, and no one would let him get away with it.  Instead, Madison encouraged a certain revolutionary war colonel named Mathews to investigate the state of things in Florida,  and find people who wanted a little regime change. If they happened to raise the flag of revolution, kick the dons out of St. Augustine, and raise the American flag, well...then, by golly, who was Madison to stand in their way?

Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. The Other War of 1812, heavy with details of diplomacy and brush combat, tells the story of how the revolution  died before it began, but was artificially resuscitated by a few hundred Georgians pretending to be Floridians with a hankering for Independence.  Because the ranking US Army officer in Georgia maintained that he could not invade Florida, only come to its defense after the local 'authorities' declared independence and requested aide,  the Patriots leading their war against the Spain had to make do on short rations. Their war was grim, 'war even unto the knife'. Part of this was desperation, part of it the misery of battle conditions. (July is not fighting weather in the sunny South.)   The Georgians also had a serious grudge with St. Augustine and Fernandina, those cities who stole their trade and bid their slaves run, and they were especially vicious when fighting the Creeks, Seminoles, and free blacks of whom they lived in fear.    Eventually, the war petered out, but  the author points to the amount of destruction a few Patriots raised as one of Spain's reasons for realizing Florida was a losing proposition.  The Americans were too close and too hungry to be held at bay long.

The Other War of 1812 is a good bit of history -- substantial reading, yet accessible.   The war itself is not a riveting affair, just swamp raids, plantation burnings, and a prolonged siege of St. Augustine. There are a couple of stirring episodes  -- a scouting party cut off for four weeks in hostile terrain, somehow holding its own despite being vastly outnumbered, for instance --  but the real star here is diplomacy. I don't mean commissioners arguing with each other, but rather the light this sheds on how complicated relations were between the Americans, Spanish, English, and native crimes.  The author provides some books for further readings, as he links this Patriot war in with several of the Creek and Seminole uprisings that would erupt in the 18-teens.  I'm now itching curiously, but there's so much ahead of Creek wars in my interest queue.

Further Reading:

  • War of 1812, John K. Mahone. According to Cusick, this text  is singular in integrating the Patriot War, the War of 1812, and the Creek Wars together. 
  • Britain and the American Frontier, James Wright
  • Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands, Frank Owsley
  • The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option
© 2017 Rob Dreher
269 pages

  Christendom has fallen; long live Christendom.   In The Benedict Option, Rob Dreher argues that the Christian church in the United States is at a crisis point and must now think seriously and act deliberately if it is to avoid the fate of European Christianity. The vestiges of America’s Christian past have evaporated away,  and what has replaced them?  A vague feel-good sentiment that is applied like lipstick on the pig that is self-worship.  One of Dreher’s earlier books, Crunchy Conservatives, introduced readers to the idea of a conservative ‘counterculture’ to resist the worst aspects of American consumerism.  With the Benedict Option, Dreher maintain that such a counterculture is no longer an option: it is a necessity if Christianity in America is to survive a culture now defined by corrosive materialism, violent and pornographic entertainment, and the disintegration of the family.

 Dreher begins with a visit to the cradle of western monasticism, the abbey of Nursia where St. Benedict began.  Benedict, too, lived in an age of decline – in the dusk of the western Roman empire, an age of corruption and decay. Born into privilege , he could have had a reasonably comfortable life, yet devoted himself instead to creating a monastery for the purposes of work and prayer.  Dreher uses the Benedictine rule – its  requirements for  being rooted in a place, living communally,  studying, praying, and physically laboring – to explore ways that people today are creating an authentic Christian counterculture; one which is vibrant  and self-contained, existing within but separately from the  mass culture. (Judaism is the stellar example, having sustained itself for thousands of years despite chronic marginalization and outright persecution –  and possibly because of that persecution, if Natan Sharansky’s case is typical:  his embrace of Judaism increased every time he was targeted because of it.)

 Up until the present day,  Christians in America have been able to combine their loyalties;  America was a place formed by Christian ideals,   from the Puritan townships of New England to the Catholic parishes of Louisiana. For most of its history it has been populated almost wholly by Christians, resulting in a culture where even non-Christians tended to conform to Christian norms of behavior by default.  The American devotion to individualism was thus moderated by some sense of religions conviction  The zeitgeist  has changed, however, and the prevailing religious attitude of most Americans (including its Christians) is what Dreher and others call “moralistic therapeutic deism”. Its  tenets are all mild and comfortable: God exists  and wants you to be happy, you should be nice, and if you  die without having murdered someone, you’ll probably go to heaven because God is nice, too.  It is the kind of religiosity that lends itself well to a consumer culture:  the idea of God is there when you need it, a quick prayer during distress, but doesn't intrude on one's life otherwise.   But this sort of vague belief is the useless security blanket that the anti-religious hold all religions to be. It  does not form the character, or steel it for real crises;  it does not compel people to work to create things good and beautiful, let alone prompt them to sacrifice themselves for someone else’s good.   The American polity is likewise bereft of virtue: the national government is marked by routine assassination, excessive surveillance, and casual coercion of the powerless.   If serious Christians wish to  preserve their faith, they  must realize that they are Christians first and foremost..   “Our citizenship is in heaven,” wrote Paul, and centuries later St. Augustine would repeat that in his City of God.  To be born into America is an accident of geography; to preserve oneself as a Christian in a materialistic,  selfish, and scorning society will require grace,  sheer will, and the support of other Christians.

To live inspired by the Benedictines, to preserve a culture amid collective chaos,  suggests a degree of asceticism.  A certain level of withdrawal is required from outside society. By no means does Dreher advocate Christians withdrawing into survival cells in the mountains,  but he does urge readers to reflect on the degree to which their characters and minds are being fragmented and disordered by popular television,  too-frequent use of wireless devices, etc.  It also means rethinking engagement with State politics, for beyond a few critical areas there is not much that can be done. Protecting basic liberties is possible within the cultural mainstream, sure, but to be most effective,  Christians should focus on local politics. A Benedictine works the soil he is given; he does not attempt to be a one-man agricultural lobby.

Education is crucial for renewing Christian civilization, for state schools are where children’s souls go to die.   A child raised in a morally-inclined home will, at school, be exposed to children who were raised in sewers – children who believe that violence and verbal abuse are normal, and that watching naked ladies on their cellphones is harmless fun.  Dreher encourages Christians to consider  the growing movement of classical Christian education, which grounds the cultivation of children in a tradition with deep roots.  Homeschooling is another option,  though it requires immense patience and more sacrifice on the part of the parents.

What we must realize, says Dreher, is that the Christian way must become part of every aspect of life:  the home and Christian school should be ordered like a monastery, towards God.    At home, Dreher recommends regular family prayer regimens, and suggests that single people living alone might do well to look for fellow Christians to live with --  relying on them not just as roommates but as spiritual brothers-in-arms who provide sources of accountability and advice for one another, as well as  opportunities for helping one another in charity.   Fellowship is crucial:  the essential horror of the modern post-west is that people are so atomized and separated from one another.  The iPhone, promising connectivity to others but in reality allowing people to live more and more inside their heads, is a fitting icon of the age.    Not only does  Christian fellowship help people grow in their faith and flourish emotionally, but if the State becomes overtly hostile towards its new minority, Christians will need to rely on networks to find employment and resources. The time to build those networks is now.  Benedictine Christians can create a counter polis,  creating anew civic structures that will attract the materially and spiritually destitute.

While the Benedict Option addresses itself to the Christian future, I do not believe the advice is merely applicable towards surviving and thriving in the future. Even learning a little of the classical tradition is edifying and eye-opening, whether one is reading the moral philosophy of the Stoics or contemplating the beauteous order in medieval architecture.  There is no shortage of books written today about the effects of television and constant computer usage on the brain -- I personally haven't watched television since 2009,  after I realized it was addictive, distracting, and idiotic.    Much of the problem with American politics today is that the polis is gone:  we feel its absence, we desire its order and meaning, but the national State is too large, too distant, too complicated to be the polis. This is why Dreher advocated localist politics, but if we created in his words a counter polis,  a membership within society,  we would be aiding contemporary life immeasurably.   Not only materially, of course, but socially.  Membership is one of the most fundamental cravings of the human soul.   Christianity has always been a social religion, an other-oriented religion: it exists, G.K. Chesterton maintained, for the purpose of people who are not its members.  To create a vibrant, stable, and humane society within the absurd chaos of modernity would establish sanctuaries for those outside Christendom, who feel the alienation and look for answers.   Thus, the Benedict option is not simply one of self-survival, but one which serves as a witness and a stronghold of charity.


  • Out of the Ashes, Anthony Esolen.  Similar, but not focused on spirituality to the degree of Dreher. 
  • Blue Like Jazz/Through Painted DesertsIn one of these books, the author lives in a Christian commune for a while. They may have been linked with The New Monasticism, which was an Emergent Christianity movement I read into a little back in 2009 when I was reading about simple living in the Buddhist, Gandhian, and Christian traditions.  Dreher writes about New Monasticism and its possible connection to the Benedict option here
  • Dreher's corpus of work at The American Conservative, where he's been discussing the "BenOp" with readers for at least two years now. 
  • Crunchy Cons, Rob Dreher.  One of the first 'conservative' books I ever read, back when the only conservatives I knew of were Republican warhawks.  Imagine my delight to find in Dreher a man who writes about new urbanism, public transit,  locavorism, a non-imperial foreign policy, etc!  It's fun to read this review in part because I've changed over the years, and now share Dreher's "sinister" contempt for the state  and media. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Unvanquished

The Unvanquished
© 1938 William Faulkner
254 pages

Years ago in a ninth-grade literature class,  I chose to read a book by William Faulkner for a class project on the basis that he was a southern writer. My teacher cautioned me against trying The Sound and the Fury, warning me that it was difficult -- a challenge out of  scale for a minor paper. Well, dear readers, I persisted -- for about a chapter. Then, faced with Faulkner's bewildering narrative style --,a torrent of words with few  marks of punctuation, flowing ceaslessly like the Mississippi --  I returned to my teacher with tail between my legs and asked for something else, and thus read The Old Man and the Sea for the first time. Ever since then, the memory of Faulkner has haunted me.  I associate his writing with both brain-melting difficulty and with embarrassment, and yet...still I've wanted to read him. The prevailing reason is the same:   William Faulkner is a southern writer. He is not just a southern writer, though,  he's one of The Southern Writers, always mentioned with Flannery O'Connor as though the two were manufactured as a set, like a pair of pants.

The Unvanquished is the story of a young boy (Bayard Sartoris) who comes of age amid the Civil War and reconstruction, along with his close friend Marengo ("Ringo").  Ringo begins the novel as a slave, but the narrator mentions early on that he and Bayard were so close in age that they suckled at the same breast, and both lived in  dread awe of The Colonel and Granny.  While The Colonel (John Sartoris) is off at war, fighting to keep the damyanks out of Vicksburg,  Granny is the boss.  Actually, I almost suspect she remains the boss when The Colonel is home, for this is a woman who trucks into the middle of a warzone to demand the Yankees return her stolen mules, her slaves, and her chest of silver.  Fearless, she uses fabricated requisition papers to steal and sell livestock to the invading army -- not growing rich, but using the proceeds to support her community of Jefferson, burnt-out by the war.   Shady business brings forth shadier persons, though, and soon death visits the Sartoris family. In the collection's conclusion, young Bayard -- who is now a twenty-something law student -- must confront the man who robbed him of his father  upholding the family's honor but heedful of the consequences should he make the wrong choice.

If you have never read Faulkner, The Unvanquished is a promising work  to test the waters,  It's one of his shorter pieces, and the stories' length allow an unfamiliar reader to dive into Faulkner without chance of drowning.  That style of writing, the torrent of consciousness ("stream" won't do for Faulkner), is present here, but not nearly as overwhelming as I remembered from Sound and Fury.   Although these stories are filled with death, as the State's armies lay waste to the South,  Granny's confrontations with the Yank officers always have humor about them, as the officers regard her with astonished admiration. One of them thanks God that Jefferson David never thought to draft an army of grannies and orphans, for a regiment of Sartorises would be the Union's undoing.

(Bayard and Ringo, Spanish cover)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
© 1939 Raymond Chandler
277 pages

A dying old man who lives in a greenhouse, sustained only by its heat and the fear of his children shaming the family,  has summoned Philip Marlowe for a job. The family is being blackmailed, and old man Sternwood wants Marlowe to find out who's doing it, what they've got on him, and to handle the actual paying-off if need be.  Turns out the blackmailer is a local cretin mixed up with other lowlifes who want him dead, and what seems like a simple job will have Marlowe stumbling into a river of blood. The phrase 'big sleep' explicitly  refers to death, the equalizer of punks and patricians alike,  What is not dead is Chandler's writing; only PG Wodehouse rivals him for sheer prosaic fun.  Having watched the movie months before didn't too much spoil the outcome here, as the stories develop somewhat differently.  (One plus: Bogart did all of the narration while I read.)     This is enormous fun as a noir thriller, in part because the narrator doesn't take anyone's games seriously. He has a job to do and  his own sense of honor to abide by  -- and no amount of coy women or thugs with guns is going to get him off the case.

Some early lines:
"I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it."

"I'm thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there's any demand for it. There isn't much in my trade."

"I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings."

"Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead."

"Tsk, tsk," I said, not moving at all. "Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You're the second guy I've met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy
© 1955 C.S. Lewis
252 pages

"When I first read Chesterton, I did not know what I was in for. God is, if I may say it,  quite unscrupulous."

Mention the name C.S. Lewis and the image of a prolific author comes to mind, secure in reputation as a scholar of medieval literature and author of Christian apologetics.  Surprised by Joy reveals a Lewis far removed from the pedestal of memory. A brief autobiography, it tells the story of how he came of age, losing and refinding faith as the world destroyed itself around him. Here is a Lewis outside the university, unguarded by coats of tweed; he is a man, struggling with  fear and doubts, spurred on by hope and far more entertaining than I would have ever expected.

The Lewis of expectations is here; an introverted, bookish, and supremely thoughtful boy with a rich imagination fed by a love for classic and mythic literature.  Lewis’ gift for storytelling is not limited to fiction, evidenced by the side-splitting account in which he recounts his father  -- an orator who could be intoxicated by verbosity once he’d gotten started --  subjecting five year old boys to momentous speeches full of pomp and storied prose, all for ordinary  errors like getting one’s shoes wet in the grass. Beyond the story of an early-20th century English childhood, however, this is the coming of age of a profound   man, who sees his life as driven on by a search for "Joy", which he experienced in brief stabs of ecstasy at various points in his young life. Such joy was not to be found in his childhood religion, which as as badly taught as everything else. He experienced shades of ecstasy when stumbling upon the Nordic myths, and despite his later materialism had a strong interest in the occult.  Later, he would come to see these experiences as momentary glimpses of something greater, and the book ends with his return to theism.  He doesn't make arguments to the reader, only outlines of the philosophical questions and themes he grappled with in his youth.  This can tend toward the heady, as Lewis' tipping point is the moment when he begins to understand the universe as some sort of cosmic mind, an Absolute, and another author (Chesterton) forces him to call a spade a spade. When Lewis is being philosophical about the writing can get heady -- 'thinking about thinking' always does, and Lewis' attempt to understand consciousness appears to have been a major factor in his rejection of a purely material universe. Here the difficulty is further complicated by frequent mentions of intellectual movements that Lewis was arguing with and flirting with that have since faded not only from the intellectual scene, but from memory altogether.

I've read this book several times in the last two years, partially out of affection for the author and partially to understand his experience.  The latter still eludes me in part, but epiphanies aren't a mental commodity that can be packaged up and transferred from brain to brain. However much some of his experience may elude me, there's still so much about him to appreciate: his contempt for authority, his imaginative passion and curiosity, his dogged efforts to wrest understanding from old books and new friend,  and his utter delight in simple things like country walks and stolen mornings spent with a pipe in the library.  He's one of those authors who I spot on a bookstore display  and have  a sudden burst of affection for, as though I'd spotted a friend out of the window. (Wendell Berry  has a similar effect, but Lewis has that old-fashioned  Oxford don aura about him.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Science Fiction, Liberty, and Dystopia

"One of the great things of it, Tom, and this is where Orwell was such a genius --  in looking how language was being used as a form of manipulation. Orwell is always interested in propaganda and makes the point that propaganda is a habit.  It's a long-run game. Propaganda isn't a matter of convincing the current generation that the propaganda is right, but repeating things so often that you're limiting the way they think at all."

On Monday, Tom Woods sat down with historian Brad Birzer (American Cicero)  to talk about early science fiction and to discuss the political themes explored by Thomas More, George Orwell, and C.S. Lewis. In general,  Woods and Birzers appraise SF as anti-authoritarian and subversive.  Birzer opened by mentioning that Catholic and Jewish authors played a large part in early science fiction in part because they were discouraged or prevented from participating in 'mainstream' culture; publishing outside the New England/WASP stronghold also allowed them to be critical voices.    The discussion doesn't go past Orwell,  which is too bad because Bob Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an obvious example of libertarian themes in SF.

A quote from CS Lewis' piece, "On Science Fiction":

That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of 'escape'. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, 'What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?' and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

China: An Introduction

China: An Introduction
© 1984 Lucian W. Pye
400 pages

Lucien Pye was born in China and later returned there to advise the US government. China: An Introduction is written in that spirit, being a review of the making of Communist China and its attempts to find policies to modernize China from the inside out.

The volume opens with a hundred pages covering Chinese history,  with an emphasis on the  philosophical schools which contended for preeminence in the old Empire: Taoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. That drama is applicable to the more extensive coverage of the evolving Communist party in China, for  Confucianism so under-girded China that it continued to influence the expression of communism in China even after every aspect of the old civilization was set ablaze.  For instance, Chinese communism did not view itself as supremely scientific and inevitable; instead,  Mao and others believed that a cyclical model would continue, and China would ever be tugged between communism and capitalism.  The Confucian emphasis on perfectibility and self-sacrifice in pursuit of social virtue also lent themselves to early propaganda, in which people were expected to labor in hardship and poverty not for themselves, but for the good of the communist experiment in China.

 Pye devotes the bulk of the book to covering the rise of the Communist party, and its internal politics through to the end of the 1970s.  The book indicates to me that Mao was a singular figure, not simply for his role in the revolution but for his conceits in office: intriguingly, Pye writes that Mao scorned cities,  viewing them as hotbeds of capitalism. I also didn't realize how quickly the Chinese learned from Russian mistakes: as early as 1959, they reintroduced privatization in agriculture,  creating private plots that remained unmolested even amid the nightmare of the cultural revolution.

While I am not particularly interested in Communist party politics, I found the discussion of China's early philosophical debates fascinating -- especially because while Confucianism was not a religion, it permeated every level of society and shaped China in the manner that a religion would.  Pye has engendered in me an excitement for reading about Confucianism proper a little later on.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

China Road

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power
© 2007 Rob Gifford
352 pages

National Road 312 spans the breadth of China, connecting its sparsely settled and scarcely developed rural interior with the port city of Shanghai,  the largest in the world and the proud symbol of Chinese modernity.   Before ending his decades-long period studying and working in China, Rob Gifford decided to take a farewell trip across the country following this Asian ‘Route 66’,   absorbing the stories of China’s tumultuous 20th century through the personal lives of men and women he interviews along the way.  Some interviews were planned in advance, others spontaneous and candid – but all are unique, and indicate to Gifford that now more than ever,  individuals are going to drive the story of China, not Confucian tradition or Communist orthodoxy.  While a travel book, China Road is also a collective memoir of the rough road that Chinese civilization has traveled as it continues trying to find its way.

China endured hell in the 20th century; beginning it in civil war and at the mercy of both Western colonialists and Japanese imperialists, some measure of peace was not to be had until 1949.  The triumphant Communists, however,  were not done waging war, and in the Cultural Revolution they let loose the furies to kill and burn everything not modern and Maoist.  At long last another generation came to power and begin creating some measure of stability, and even liberalization and subsequent economic growth.   China’s constant struggle to find itself is not told through one author’s narrative, but rather through the lives of an array of Chinese citizens:  truck drivers, businessmen, rural villagers,  young urban Party members in search of their next set of high heels; political dissidents in hiding, teenagers on the cusp of going to college,  weary elders who have seen China destroyed several times in their lives;  Tibetans,  Muslim Uighurs, and still more.    Through their lives Gifford reflects on various aspects of China in mid-transformation:     the withdrawal of the Communist party from everything but political power,  the  government’s awe-inspiring attempts to build not just a country, but an entire continent;  the on-going problem with corruption that he attributes to a lack of checks and balances that was present in the Confucian-imperial state as well;  the economic growth that is allowing the majority of Chinese citizens to live better lives, and so on.

Gifford introduces early on a concept he returns to several times: as much as they are controlled politically,  at a deeper level,  China’s people now drift loose. The old moral order was destroyed wholesale by the Communists, who attempted to recreate a new socialist civil culture.  Virtually all of that has been quietly retired, however, aside from admonishments on billboards to keep the poor in mind. So long as people don’t interfere with the party’s political supremacy, they are in turn left alone.  They are left to wrestle with questions of purpose and identity: what does it mean to be Chinese,  when  so much was earlier condemned to the fires, but what replaced it has retreated?  In one of the first chapters set in Shanghai, Gifford encounters two young Party members out shopping,  and both of them confirm that there’s little guidance to them as to what sort of life they should be looking forward to. One exults in the material freedom, but the other seems struck by some malaise of modernity,    directionless and unsatisfied. Later on, a young woman engaged in a self-destructive career struggles to articulate what exactly she's desiring, and can only conclude -- "It's..difficult being human, isn't it?"

Although China Road is ten years dated, its human stories  make it engaging reading, and provide  easy exposure to China's history and future.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Robert E Lee

Robert E. Lee: A Life
© 2003 Roy Blount Jr
272 pages

They say that God in heav'n 

is everybody's god
I'll admit that God in heav'n
Is everybody's god

But I tell ya John, with pride,
God leans a little on the side
("The Lees of Old Virginia", 1776)

Recently a patron returned this biography of Robert E. Lee to the library, complaining that as much as he enjoyed it, Lee remained...distant, unknowable, aloft. "Like Washington?" I suggested, and his eyes lit up in recognition, for both men share the same unimpeachable aura in the South.  It's an aura of old words -- honor, humility, grace, dignity -- that has long departed politics, and was rapidly dissipating even then.  I decided to give the biography a try myself,  partially out of deference to its subject (of whom I've read nothing except for military histories) and partially because the author's name rung a bell.  I found this Penguin books biography to be short, surprisingly fair-minded, and..a little weird.

Lee's life in brief:  born to a dashing Revolutionary War hero who died in disgrace,  Lee joined the military to support himself and continued serving even after he married into another elite family, this one with money and a close connection to George Washington.  He served with distinction in the Mexican War as a scout and aide to General Scott,   and traveled throughout the southern and western parts of the country shoring up fortifications and fighting Indians. Lee's sympathies were not with the Confederacy, and he shared the attitude that the Virginia legislature displayed when it voted against secession. However, after Lincoln inaugurated civil war by calling for troops to invade the South, Virginia turned about completely -- seceding and organizing its own defense.  After turning  down an opportunity to lead the northern army against the South, Lee resigned his commission and went to Virginia's aid.  Within a year's time he would be given command of the Army of Northern Virginia,  and there wrestle down a series of generals until Grant and material exhaustion defeated the cause.   In the postwar years, he served a the president of a college and then passed away before reconstruction ended.  

Roy Blount Jr's name is not one I have heard associated with Civil War history, military history, southern history,  law, politics, or anything that would suggest connection to writing about a Civil War personality.  He is a humorist, a fellow I've only heard on NPR.    His literary nature comes out strongly here, with numerous digressions in which Blount chats about grammar or Lee's connection with men of letters .  Stranger are the Freudian digressions in which Blount speculates Lee charged the high ground at Gettysburg to psychologically overcome his father's beating at the hands of an anti-British mob in 1812.  Media personalities are allowed a bit of eccentricity in their writing, I suppose.    What I did appreciate is that Blount admires Lee's character without lionizing him, and admits his faults without condemning him.  Specifically, Blount writes that Lee had been born into a morally compromised position:  as much as he might detest slavery, he never forthrightly condemned it.   Blount attributes this to authentic paternalism of Virginia's old blood, in which they earnestly believed that people held in American slavery were better off than living in a state of nature in Africa.  A letter written by Lee in 1856 expressed his hope that Providence was guiding America to be able to free itself of the burden of slavery, though he objected to the abolitionist's desire to do it immediately by force.  This was not an effort by Lee to protect his 'property', for he began working to free his father-in-law's slaves as soon as he inherited them.  It was rather Lee's attempt to keep himself conciliated with his home, for who wants to regard their own culture and country as vicious?  Hope allowed him to serve Virginia's defense.   While the ruling planter class initiated secession to protect slavery from Republican abolitionists,  the war itself was fought by men like Lee and the common soldiery for more universal motives: duty to home and brothers-in-arms; sheer cussedness, and because they had to. (Drafts were forcefully used by both the ruling classes in both states, union and confederate.)

Blount's cover of Lee is thus a very general biography, one that should suffice if a reader knows nothing about Lee at all. Most of this I had absorbed through various Civil War histories, but enjoyed the narrative even with its Freudian quirks.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Florida Under Five Flags

Florida Under Five Flags
© 1945 Rembert Patrick
160 pages

Note: I read from the 1st edition. This cover is from the 5th edition,  which has been updated and presumably revised.

The State of Florida entered the Union in 1845; in 1945, presumably as a centennial celebration, Florida Under Five Flags was published to provide an outline history of the state, from its beginnings as a Spanish frontier post through to the 'present day'. It is a history which can be enjoyed in a single evening, and is amply illustrated with historical art depicting cities like St. Augustine and Jacksonville; photographs of street scenes and prominent personalities are also included.

Florida titular historical accomplishment is having been an object of contention between virtually every European power with an eye toward American colonization. (Fernandina Beach cheekily claims to be the city of eight flags.)  The Spanish arrived first, though Ponce de Leon perished amid his explorations. The French were the first to plant a settlement, though the Spanish bloodily drove them out and began establishing a fuller colony, one with several towns and a network of missions. While Florida was expensive for the Spanish to maintain, its forts were crucial in protecting access to Mexico and the rest of "New Spain". The English quickly took an interest in Florida, but despite capturing the city of St. Augustine, were unable to triumph over its fortress, the Castille de San Marcos. What eluded them in combat was won in treaties, however, and Spanish Florida became British-controlled West and East Florida -- governed from Pensacola and St. Augustine, respectively. Florida flourished under British rule, but would be ceded back to Spain following the American Revolution. Amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic years, Louisiana and Florida were both juggled by France and Spain, and the aggressive interest of the nearby United States made selling the land more feasible than defending it into the poorhouse.

Florida, having been depopulated virtually every time it switched hands, began attracting settlement from the Southern coast; the multitude of planters from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas who took a part in creating a new American state meant that despite Florida's radically different climate, in culture it was part of the South, and would follow where the southern states led. That meant secession only twenty years after becoming formal members of the Union. Florida's ports were immediately targeted by the Union navy, falling before the war was even a year old, but Florida itself was spared most of the devestation of the conflict. Only a few minor skirmishes occured within the state, mostly over the control of salt-works. Florida was still subjected to Reconstruction, but plagued by corruption that set back genuine progress for decades. Florida soon recovered, and as railroads unified the state and linked it more firmly to the rest of the county, its cities began growing all the more. A once economically-sleepy peninsula home only to rude huts and subsistence agriculture had been transformed into a prosperous State, one which played an important role in the Spanish American war and which was poised to participate even more fully in American life.

I read this principally interested in colonial Florida. While it is only an outline history, the narrative is perfectly enjoyable as a story. I suspect parts of it would be rendered differently were it published in the modern era, particularly the author's mere mild condemnation of slavery. I didn't realize how long Florida took to become fully "settled"; the author writes that Florida's frontier wasn't closed until 1920. A book published so long ago is arguably irrelevant for understanding modern Florida, considering how radically it has changed in demographics, culture, and in its standing with the rest of the Union -- but as a survey of Florida's early history, it is perfectly enjoyable and helpful.

Original cover:

A scene from colonial St. Augustine.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Classics Club Spin Challenge

On Friday, the administrators of the Classics Club challenge are going to post a random number from one to twenty. Those of us enrolled in the Classics Club Challenge( reading fifty classics of our choosing within five years) have been asked to list twenty of the books left on our to-read list.  We are then challenged to read that number on our list which matches the random number posted on Friday.

Here below are my twenty possibilities!

  1. The Aeneid, Virgil
  2. The Histories, Herodotus
  3. The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Edward Gibbon
  5. One Thousand and One Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy
  6. The Prince, Machiavelli 
  7. The Seven-Storey Mountain,  Thomas Merton
  8. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  9. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  10. The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss
  11. Canterbury Tales, Chaucer
  12. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
  13. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  14. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
  15. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  16. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  17. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  18. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  19. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  20. Love Among the Ruins, Walker Percy
I'm working on one of these presently, so perhaps I'll get wildly lucky and get it.  I am doing well on my challenge,  staying right on target: I'm hovering at the 50% mark with two and a half years left.   

Monday, March 6, 2017

Real Music

Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church
267 pages
© 2016 Anthony Esolen

In his book Out of the Ashes: Restoring American Culture,  Anthony Esolen devoted an entire chapter solely to music. Here he does one better! To sing is to pray twice, wrote St. Augustine, and Real Music demonstrates that emphatically. There is nothing quite like the musical tradition in Christian liturgy; a newcomer to an Anglican or Catholic church may first appreciate the mere sound of the organ or harp, but when time is invested in these services -- when one attends throughout the year, for several years -- the real beauty and power of its hymns, offertories, anthems, etc. reveal themselves. These hymns are not merely pretty lyrics put to pretty music, but are themselves poetic articulations of the Church's theology and scripture. The Christian music tradition can do much more than make a listener feel "nice"; hymns can fill the soul with beauty and the mind with poetry. Esolen attempts to convey this experience not over a course of years, but into one book, devoting different chapters to distinct areas of the tradition. He here covers Eucharistic hymns, hymns of glory and penitence, hymns celebrating life and challenging death. Esolen does not merely present hymns to the reader and comment on their theology; he guides the reader through how the hymns' very meter and grammar strengthen the meaning. This book is a treasure for Christians who love traditional hymnody, or who have heard it on the wind before and yearn to know more about it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

In Spite of the Gods

In Spite of the Gods: the Rise of Modern India
© 2007 Edward Luce
400 pages

In Spite of the Gods appraises India’s culture as its ancient civilization enters the 21st century as the world’s largest democracy and one of its largest economies.  Its author, Edward Luce, lived in New Delhi for years as the bureau chief for the Financial Times, and traveled throughout India for reports and interviews.   While This Brave New World  evaluated how quickly and thoroughly India was approaching the ‘standards’ of modernity (public health, political and economic participation, etc),  In Spite of the Gods  looks more broadly at how India’s deeply-rooted culture is digesting the momentous changes of the 21st century.  I say digesting because the author holds the view of many that India’s culture has the strength of the ages; it is ancient, diverse, and resilient. It does not collapse in the face of change; it incorporates aspects of change while preserving itself, rather like Buddhism was digested into Hinduism, changing it but not prevailing over it.

  This book is never far from the person and work of Jawaharlal Nehru, who jokingly referred to himself as the last Englishman to rule India.   Nehru was India’s first prime minister after independence, and because so many of the other founding generation died within a few years of achieving their goal, he played an outsized role in shaping the legacy of independence.   Nehru’s statement can be considered seriously not just because he was educated in England, but its modernity shaped his mind and character;  while Gandhi’s vision for India was framed within its own tradition, Nehru’s was more of an English intellectual, a westerner: his view of progress involved massive factories, a state-administered economy, secularism, and so on – not village anarchy and Hindu tradition.   Nehru lives in India not simply through his family, who are invariably involved in national-level politics, but because his legacy is continually tested.

 Nehru’s economic legacy is slowly but surely being discarded, for instance, plank by plank; the “license Raj” that he and his descendants established to ensure that India’s economy didn’t become another outpost of western capitalists has indeed done its work of preventing outside investment in India…but that is increasingly not something people want, and had the further effect of squelching growth within India.  Only when the Raj began being dismantled in the early 1990s did India join China as one of the “Asian Tigers”.     Nehru’s secular vision is likewise being tested by the healthy support of Hindu nationalist organizations.   The essential problem there, Luce maintains, is ethnic-religious nationalism set against India’s diversity will create nothing but partisan reaction and more trouble.  This book was published years before  the election which brought Prime Minister Modi  -- representing a nationalist party – to power.   While Luce presents the BJP as only an ethno-nationalist party, whom he likens to the fascists in their focus on  the tribe and their gods,   another author (Manuel, This Brave New World) attributed the BJP’s success to Indians’ desire for more economic freedom.

Luce covers much else;  the persistent influence of caste, for instance,  which Gandhi deplored and which the ‘untouchables’ continue attempting to escape from via politics and religion.  Likewise, he devotes a chapter to the mythic important of The Village in the Indian imagination, where it is not simply an artifact from the past but infused with the same spiritual importance the west used to place in families and the polis.  Luce notes that much of India’s economic growth has in fact been nurtured by cottage firms that don’t necessarily need metropolises and big factories, and that Nehru’s fixation on massive capital hobbled India with debt at a time when her people  didn’t have an economy to handle it. There is much else to say,  but in short – In Spite of the Gods is compelling for outside audiences who are trying to understand India’s role in the global community. It’s more personal and gossipy than Brave New World, but I would read the two books in tandem.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Selma 1965: The Photographs of Spider Martin

Selma 1965: The Photographs of Spider Martin
© 2015 University of Texas; photography Spider Martin
128 pages, 80  photographs

During the 50th anniversary of the Selma March back in 2015,  one of the more popular exhibits in the city was a public showing of Spider Martin's photography. Martin, named for his skinny, agile frame -- and perhaps his ability to clamber up a tree for particularly engaging shots -- covered  all three march attempts in 1965,   taking some unbelievably  close to the action.   Selma 1965: The Photography of Spider Martin collects Martin's best material to present a visual history of the entire campaign.   Although virtually all of the shots are available in an online gallery,  here they are presented with both a historical introduction covering the Selma movement, and with captions which explain what is happening  and who is involved. The editor emphasizes John Lewis' role, pointing him out in every picture he appears in.   For those readers who have only seen the movie Selma, Lewis was one of the young Selma leaders who reluctantly ceded the leading position of the local movement to King and his organization.    While the photographs are utterly remarkable first for having captured one of the pivotal moments in Civil Rights history, they also have artistry to them; one challenging photo has Brown Chapel mirrored in a man's sunglasses as he stares at the building. Others capture fleeting  instances. While most photos of Martin Luther King depict him in his role as a Civil Rights Leader,  full of confidence and courage,  in one shot he is caught in a more humbly human expression, one which is  curious and anxious,   Martin's gallery is utterly worth looking at, and below is a selected list of links, the title of which describe the moment for those who need a caption.

1. Lewis and others praying before starting the infamous first march which was attacked in Selmont by State Troopers and a county posse.
2.  The first march, descending to meet a line of troopers.
3. The moment in which charging troopers hit the first ranks of the marchers
4.  The marchers flee for their lives, leaving many of their number behind injured. There were no fatalities, however.
5. State troopers pursued and harried the marchers across the bridge and for several blocks back to Brown Chapel
6.  The Tuesday following, King arrived to lead another attempt. Again troopers met them  at the bridge,  reading out a Federal injunction legally forbidding King to march on the state highway until questions of legality and safety were addressed. King here listens as the injunction is read.
7.  After the first bloody march was broadcast on television, King issued a national call to link arms, asking members of the clergy nationwide to join him. The city was flooded with outsiders, much to the horror of those not interested in the movement.  Here Selmians and those who joined them clear the bridge and  start the long three-day trek to Montgomery.
8.  To ensure the marchers' safety, the Alabama National Guard was used by LBJ to stand guard. This highway is now a much wider link between the cities.
9.  The three-day journey would have been a challenge for anyone, but this man apparently did it on crutches.
10. King delivers the "How long? Not long" speech at the State Capitol building, facing Dexter avenue

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A History of Saint Augustine, Florida

A History of Saint Augustine, Florida
© 1881 William Dewhurst
196 pages

St. Augustine is the oldest European city in North America, founded by the Spanish in 1565.  Sitting at the mouth of the St. John river in northern Florida, it originally served to help defend Spanish ships from mischievous English pirates.   Its history offers students a view at the turbulent story of Florida during the colonial period; first an object of fixation to Spain, France, and Great Britain,  and later on one to Spain, Great Britain, and the United States.   Although Dewhurst's A History of Saint Augustine, Florida is an older work, a product of the 19th century, modern readers will find its author's hatred of slavery and defense of native Seminoles, Creeks a refreshing departure from that century's usual conceits.   It combines colonial history with accounts both tedious and fascinating, and is largely more about colonial affairs using the city than about civic life.

 I didn't realize until reading this how little I have ever thought of historic Florida. During the American Revolution, for instance, it was technically an English possession, a colony even; but because England had acquired Florida from Spain so recently (1763,  a hair over ten years before), and because the initial governors scared all the Spanish away, England had to repopulate the peninsula with new settlers--  and not just English-types and Scots, but Greeks. These newcomers shared no history or notion of common struggle with the northern colonies, and so when thirteen of their neighbors became states, the Floridians ignored invitations to the Continental Congress.  Less is said about St. Augustine during the Civil War, for the city was  captured by the US Navy before the war was a year old. Those who despised  the thought of living under foreign rule left the city, leaving a few loyal Unionists and a larger population who didn't  care one way or another.  The author ends the book by saying that Jacksonville's railroad connection to St. Augustine will keep it popular as a health resort,  winter haven, and site of tourism.

This little introduction to St. Augustine has only confirmed my realization (in reading The Spanish Frontier in North America) that Florida's colonial history warrants more attention!  I will be visiting St. Augustine within a few month's time, so do not be surprised to see more histories of Florida and St. Augustine in the weeks to come...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


My podcast and lecture time this week has been devoted to a series of lectures on southern literature and the like, all at least an hour long. This Wednesday being Ash Wednesday, however, and the start of Lent, I thought I would share little music. Specifically, a piece by Allegri called "Miserere", which puts Psalm 51 to music.  It's a favorite piece of mine not because I can follow the words, but because the soprano part has several moments of exquisite glory.  (One of the first of which is around 1:48- 2:05 in this video).

The Psalm is one of repentance, and is rooted in the story of David, Nathan, and Bathsheba. As it goes,  King David spied a beautiful woman bathing from the roof of his palace, while all the other men were off at war.  Enraptured, David sent for the woman and pursued her as a lover despite her being married to one of his captains. When she revealed she was pregnant, David realized his reputation would be destroyed -- and so he attempted to sully it further, by calling for Bathsheba's husband Uriah to return from the front. David then encouraged Uriah to spend some family time with his wife, but Uriah refused; how could be he comfortable in bed with his wife when his men were out on the lines?  Uriah persisted in this noble refusal even after David got him liquored up, so the king sent  Uriah to the roughest part of the lines out of desperation. There he died, David married Bathsheba, and everything stayed hush-hush.

Until....a preacher named Nathan showed up and delivered to David a sad story about a rich man who wanted to entertain some guests, who so decided to seize his poor neighbor's pet lamb and kill it for dinner, rather than departing with any of his own stock.  David, incensed, roared that the man should be put to death, at which point Nathan replied....thou art the man.  Enter the Psalm.  I've linked to the full version there, but here's a small portion:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Fill[b] me with joy and gladness;
    let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right[c] spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence,
    and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.