Mar 012019

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Mar 182018

This history of the Antebellum period is complex and breathtaking. The country changed so much in these years that Polk’s administration feels like a different world than Buchanan’s. There are lots of ways to track that change. One of the best I’ve read is actually a novel: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.

This history couldn’t be more different from that book. Whereas the novel watched the world from ground level and from a marginal space imagined within central events of the period, this history leaps into the political center without shying away from the details of committee conferences, vote counts, and the back-and-forth of parliamentary procedures. This is a story of power struggles played out in halls of government and across the western territories. Yet, the whole is handled with such a sure hand that the details enliven rather than obscure the developing events.

This book fits nicely across the joint connecting What Hath God Wrought? and Battle Cry of Freedom. Perhaps more unsettling is the way it seems to offer insight into the resentments and risks the States are muddling through today.

Aug 052015

Battle Cry of FreedomIt’s hard to comment on the explicit content of an 800 page history of the Civil War. What I’ll say instead is that I read it as a follow-up to What Hath God Wrought, that it was a page-turner and that I was fascinated.

Why did I not have a better knowledge of the Civil War from school? I was a talented student, industrious and eager to know everything, and yet, here I am reading this book and realizing I knew next to nothing.

On a separate note, reading this book, I had an odd thought: epic fantasy it seems to me is oftentimes something like mythologized, military history for people who want to imagine a world rather than know the past. That sounds like a judgment, but I don’t mean it to be. I’m just noting that formally, the narrative of Battle Cry and the narrative of something like the first Shannara book have a lot in common, even if the latter is much less complex.

Apr 242015

The Good Lord BirdA novel about the life of the lone surviver of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid as told by the survivor, Onion, a young slave boy freed by Brown in Kansas and who lives disguised as a girl with his gang. I read the novel as I was working through the antebellum volumes of the Oxford History of the United States series. It seemed to me that McBride had soaked his fictional narrative into the cracks of the history and then presented the composite from a perfectly beautiful (and perfectly humane) angle.

When I described this mix of humour, history and politics to the Beav, he said it reminded him of Latin American fiction, which is interesting; there is an echo there even if it’s far off.

Threading through everything are ruminations and speeches about masculinity, “being a man” and race. These feel like the point where the novel hitches itself to our contemporary discourse both as a question and as a challenge.

Dec 012013

What Hath God Wrought?The years between Madison’s presidency and the outbreak of the Civil War are dark country for me. I know bits and pieces of information but lack the general context to feel confident about what any of the bits mean. So when I found this book, I picked it up thinking that I’d fill in some blanks.

So what did I learn? A lot. This is an interesting time in U.S. history and one that felt very similar to the present moment. Changes were happing quickly, but Daniel Walker Howe writes about them clearly, weaving the political, economic and social strands into one coherent story. It’s an impressive feat, and one I’ve probably shortchanged by reading so slowly across so long a time. I took notes, but wow, there’s a lot going on.

My take away, globally, is that Andrew Jackson was a dick.

Oct 202012

Changes in the LandA history of the Massachusetts colony’s early years that focuses on the way English colonization altered Native Americans’ and the colonists’ sense of what land is and is for. Very good.

What follows after the break is my very long clippings file, copied from my Kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and thus with location numbers rather than page numbers.

Continue reading »