At the superficial level, this is a very enjoyable story of "Two Society Girls in the West" —specifically, two restless twenty-something women bored wAt the superficial level, this is a very enjoyable story of "Two Society Girls in the West" — specifically, two restless twenty-something women bored with the idea of the future that is expected of them, and drifting through mild adventures (and flirting with dreaded spinsterhood) until this quite astonishing opportunity arises: be schoolteachers (sans any training) at the frontier deep in the Rocky Mountains.
It isn't really the frontier — this was more than twenty years after 1893, when the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier had been closed ➚. But this was a community far enough off the beaten path that few services were available, and so it feels pretty close to the era Laura Ingalls, even though the nearest train depot, and it's connections to the rest of the world, are less than a day away.
The author is the Executive Editor of the New Yorker, and writes wonderfully. True, she writes in the labyrinthian style of the New Yorker's long-form journalism, with its seemingly endless recursive digressions. If you really want a linear narrative, with a constant view of the destination always in sight, then this book (and the New Yorker) probably isn't for you. If you think side trips into subsidiary topics are fine, as long as they are entertaining and at least tangentially relevant to the story, then you'll enjoy the ride.
Since our heroines are thrown into the job of teaching, folks in that profession will get an extra kick out of this, sympathizing and identifying with their crises and thrills.
But that isn't all there is to this. I'm a little embarrassed for Dorothy Wickenden, since she doesn't appear to realize that she's written a book that reinforces a mythos of America that is untrue as well as ideologically problematic.
I was forcefully reminded of this when I happened to read the New Yorker essay (yes, the New Yorker again), Out of Bethlehem: The radicalization of Joan Didion. The second half of that essay relates how Joan Didion became increasingly aware of they mythology of the American Self.
This is the legend of the pioneers in covered wagons who trekked across the Rockies and settled the state, the men and women who made the desert bloom—Didion’s ancestors. It’s a story about independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to the group. Growing up, Didion had been taught that for the generations that followed the challenge was to keep those virtues alive.
The fly in that balm is that California’s settlement had been heavily subsidized by the U.S. Government, which in this respect is the agent of commerce. Does that sound cynical? Are you aware that Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was published the same year as the Declaration of Independence, and that the United States republic suckled the ethos of capitalism from the same teat it acquired an obsession with liberty?
The story in this book is more intimate than the grand scale of California, but it is similar. The Arcadian locale of the western slope of the Colorado mountains was inaccessible to development until the U.S. government granted the wishes of those who would become the railroad barons. Yes, it was beneficial to the country, but some had power, and received outsized benefits.
From the New Yorker essay:
Everyone else was a pawn in the game, living in a fantasy of hardy individualism and cheering on economic growth that benefitted only a few. Social stability was a mirage. It lasted only as long as the going was good for business.
This is the way the story ends in Elkhead, Colorado, too. Once the coal turned out to be inadequate to sustain the interest of the capitalists, the place returned to the wilderness it had originally been. The intrepid homesteaders weren’t adequate to keep the community alive without that lifeline.
There is a second, lesser meta-narrative as well. The two women represent a class that no longer exists. When I was growing up, there existed a group of people that later became known as the Rockefeller Republicans. Wikipedia defines the term a bit differently than I remember it, so I’ll switch to “benevolent plutocrats”. This was the paternalistic class that saw it as part of their duty — a duty that came with privilege — to try to make the world a better place for those with less. They were often insufferably arrogant, and easily strayed into social Darwinism, but it was that sense of responsibility that those two young women felt when they set off to be schoolteachers. Read the tale, and it is clear they weren’t condescending elitists, but warm and caring people who worked to achieve the idealism that was rooted in a kind of noblesse oblige.
Those people appear to be gone. Why? What changed in American culture that gave the wealthy permission to cease caring in this singular way?
Nothing Daunted serves as a reminder at how seductive the mythologies of the United States are. The idea of that a person with stalwart discipline can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become a “self-made man” is embedded deeply in the fantasy that prevents the United States from facing up to the complex creature that it has become. And along with that, it is also an enjoyable tale of youthful adventure....more
I'm mostly interested into what extent are these ideologies are replicated in today's political spectrum, all in my quest to understand those strangeI'm mostly interested into what extent are these ideologies are replicated in today's political spectrum, all in my quest to understand those strange people on the other side of the political divide and the even stranger things that they think. I heard about this book via the JuntoCast podcast: The JuntoCast, Episode 12 (iTunes)....more
Wall Street Journal bureau chief Blackmon gives a groundbreaking and disturbing account of a sordid chapter in American history-the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to "commercial interests" between the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Usually, the criminal offense was loosely defined vagrancy or even "changing employers without permission." The initial sentence was brutal enough; the actual penalty, "reserved almost exclusively for black men," was a form of slavery in one of "hundreds of forced labor camps" operated "by state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers." Into this history, Blackmon weaves the story of Green Cottenham, who was "charged with riding a freight train without a ticket," in 1908 and was sentenced to "three months of hard labor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad," a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Cottenham's sentence was extended an additional three months and six days because he was unable to pay fines then leveraged on criminals. Blackmon's book reveals in devastating detail the legal and commercial forces that created this neoslavery along with deeply moving and totally appalling personal testimonies of survivors. "Every incident in this book is true," he writes; one wishes it were not so.
How do you feel about history books that subvert your prior beliefs? Because there are a few very good ones out there. 1493, by Charles Mann, is oneHow do you feel about history books that subvert your prior beliefs? Because there are a few very good ones out there. 1493, by Charles Mann, is one of them. His earlier best-selling 1491 probably is as well, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.
Briefly, 1493 examines how the world changed due to, and very soon after, the initial contact between the Americas and the rest of the world in 1492. The term “Columbian Exchange” reminds us that the change was bidirectional. We are all familiar with the devastation the Old World’s diseases caused in the Americas, but there is so, so much more. Mann starts in his New England garden, pointing out that nothing in it originated within 1000 miles. Near the end, he points out that the same is true of the gardens in the Philippines, despite their cherished evocations of homely tradition.
The role China plays in the book will probably startle many. Even more dramatic is how far the interaction and mixing of the “Red” and “Black” got, long before “White” Europeans arrived in sufficient numbers to become culturally dominant. Long before the Pilgrims even got to New England, there were entire cities composed of those resisting European subjugation. The scope of the Columbian Exchange is staggering. It affected the collapse of Chinese empires and the timing of the Protestant Reformation, neither of which are explored, as far as I remember, in college history classes, much less in grade school.
Most of the United States was settled later, and by different cultural forces, and so I wonder if those south of the Rio Grande (or perhaps in the eastern subtropical portion of the United States) would find this even more revelatory.
P.S. A complimentary book I would recommend is Colin Woodard’s American Nations, which dissects the United States into largely discrete and somewhat divergent regions, based on their culture of their “effective” founders. Woodard’s book has more flaws than Mann’s — the author’s personal allegiance to New England gets in the way of an unbiased analysis — but is in many ways a more important book, at least to North Americans, with a significant bearing on the caustic partisan contemporary environment in the United States. Mann’s book highlights a few of the biases implicit in Woodard’s telling, but the real goal of the pair is to force the reader to reexamine old beliefs about the history of the Americas....more
Does anyone out there have access to the Indiana Magazine of History?
Apparently there was a review of Woodard's book in Vol. 108, No. 4 (December 20Does anyone out there have access to the Indiana Magazine of History?
Apparently there was a review of Woodard's book in Vol. 108, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 424-426, by James Rubenstein. I've been trying to find reviews by historians to see if there are any substantial complaints of the history that he portrays here, but haven't found much yet.
Buying the book and formulating review. But: get a copy of this. It will explain so much of what is perplexing in U.S. politics and culture, as well as illuminate some of the contrary-to-received-history of the founding of the country — such as: the word "United" in "United States" was more wishful thinking than realistic. Fascinating. Very highly recommended.
The NY Times did a study of where it is tough to live, and the conservative south has it much worse than the conservative midwest. The why behind that is probably connected to the chapters in the book dealing with the ideology of the south. Sad, and scary. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/26/ups...
This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I can highly recommend it.
Much to the delight of info gluttons, Winchester as always ranges widely from the nominal focus of the book. Any reader looking for an in-depth history of the whys and wherefores of the earthquake and fire will be more than satisfied, as well anyone wondering about the broader surrounding topics.
Of course, if you want your author to go straight to the heart of the matter, this isn't your book and, furthermore, you really should forego any of Winchester's books.
By the way, this book was more personal to me than to most of you out there: I've lived in San Francisco for almost my entire adult life, and I'm a third-generation Californian (and almost a third-generation San Franciscan). I've backpacked for many years in the Sierras, thrown up millions of years ago by the mechanisms he describes in the book, and I felt connected to every scene he describes in the city.
Still, my reaction to this book isn't unalloyed praise. I think there were several false notes. The more obvious one was the connection to Pentecostalism. I agree it was an important phenomena of the time — actually, I wouldn't be here if my mother's parents hadn't found each other while attending a Pentecostal church during the depression. But the movement almost certainly would have taken off with or without San Francisco's earthquake; that kind of exuberant religiosity seems to be a fundamental part of U.S. culture. Despite the specific anecdotes that tie the two stories together, I felt it was really a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of connection, and detrimental to the book's focus.
The other significant annoyance was that several times the author referred to San Francisco and other places in close proximity to the fault as "very dangerous". Now, maybe when the Big One hits I'll change my tune, but substantially fewer than 1000 Californians have died in earthquakes in the past century. As I'm writing this at the end of April 2013, and the New York Times just reminded me that three years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which killed 63 in the region), Los Angeles lived through the Rodney King riots, which killed 54. And, of course, at least 15 (and possibly many more) have just died in the explosion of a fertilizer company in Texas. Frankly, life is dangerous; everyone dies in the end.
Living in an earthquake zone does slightly raise the likelihood of dying prematurely (or being seriously injured), but there are many, many other factors that affect mortality rates even more. Coastal California — right along the San Andeas Fault — has a famously benign climate, for example. I suspect the overall health of the locals is higher because of it, and probably lengthens their life expectancy more than the earthquake risk shortens it. Winchester even makes fun of the residents of Portola Valley, a town that lies directly upon the fault line — amused at how they argue endlessly about whether and where to move this building or that, only to go back to sipping their sauvignon blanc. He agrees that their "way of life [is] quite unrivaled in its quality anywhere in the world", yet still thinks that there can be "no greater monument to hubris" that the choose to live there.
I suppose he really thinks they'd be better off somewhere else, but I think there's a lot of hubris in his assertion that he is right and several million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are being irrational. Perhaps he should have asked the scientists at the Menlo Park's USGS — the same folks he thanks for helping in his studies. After all, their office is on alluvial soil about eight miles from Portola Valley, and they undoubtedly live in the area. It apparently did not occur to Winchester to ask them what they feel about that risk.
I'll take the certitude of a quake and its consequent increase in my mortality over living elsewhere, thank you.
This is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times andThis is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and changes.
If you love San Francisco — or you're interested in rock 'n' roll, gay history, traumatic 70s racial politics, or even the 49ers football team, you'll probably find this book riveting.
If you're a San Franciscan, the public library has 52 copies to share out, although as of Christmas 2012, there are 206 requests outstanding, so you still might have to wait a while. Update, 27 April 2013: the public library has declared this a "On the Same Page" book, which means they want as many people reading it as possible at the same time to foster discussion. So there are now 120 holds on the first copy returned of 472 copies....more
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth andThe Black Count is an incredible history book.
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth and depth.
The précis can be grasped from the blurb, so I won’t bore you with that.
This staggeringly interesting yet hitherto under-appreciated man is obviously the nominal focus of the story, but that focus drifts quite widely. The racial politics of the era and of revolutionary France is a central theme, but the major villain, Napoleon, really only shows up in the second half of the story and quite often takes center stage. When appropriate, interesting lessons on international political economy are handed out — do you have any idea how important sugar was at the time?
The author also uses juicy digressions to spice things up. At one point Napoleon is under examination, and we get the background on his reasons for his Egyptian campaign, which then ties to a short story about an Indian sultan, which then gets a footnote about how that sultan aggressively used primitive rockets against the British, who then stole his techniques in time to use them in the War of 1812 with the young U.S.A., where they used them and left us with the line about “rockets red glare” in our Star-Spangled Banner. A few pages later, we get a fun little digression on the Maltese Falcon. Other footnotes deal with the history of the enema and the Mameluke sword.
If you don’t like this sort of thing, the author shows good discipline: once the digression isn’t related significantly to the story, it is relegated to a footnote. Personally, as long as the factoids are interesting, I love this kinda stuff. But they are certainly signs of how deeply the author dove into the subject matter, and how much passion he has for what he learned.
Update, May 25th, 2015: The New Yorker did some long-form journalism on the state of Saudi Arabia as control passes to a new leader. It's interesting:Update, May 25th, 2015: The New Yorker did some long-form journalism on the state of Saudi Arabia as control passes to a new leader. It's interesting: Saudi Shakeup.
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a complex one that provokes dissonance in most thinking Americans. And, yeah, we all know there’s some sort of a crisis brewing in Saudi Arabia, but most of keep our gaze averted — as long as there’s no overt trouble, it’s much more comfortable to pretty much just ignore everything. Read the New York Times review of House’s book, Closed Kingdom — even if you don’t ever intend to read this book — just as a tiny primer.
The Times reviewer mentions that Saudi Arabia is similar to North Korea in its absurd conservatism and rule-bound society. The more germane comparison (made later in the review) is to the Soviet Union:
The country’s calcified government, its sullen populace, its youth bulge, its outdated religious requirements and prohibitions, the collapse of the information bubble and the dying off of the current line of geriatric rulers are all bound to coalesce into a perfect storm sooner or later.
House doesn’t make any prediction; just warnings. She leaves a sliver of hope that something will permit reform instead of collapse, but given the litany of difficulties she amply illustrates, I can’t imagine many people thinking there is much hope of that. And if the country falls, it will probably fall a long ways and trigger many interrelated calamities. The region is, frankly, a pretty messed up place.
This book is actually very easy to read. The colorful stories House tells to make her case are interesting enough to almost call riveting, and the book is neither long nor complex enough to call difficult. One book on the middle-east won’t make you an expert, but this one will provide an easy and important lesson. ...more
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from deHave to eventually read this, of course.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.
The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […] The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea. — [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]
What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage.
Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.
First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.
Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.
In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.
Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country....more
Everyone in San Francisco, native or visitor, knows the Ferry Building and the Transamerica Pyramid and the city's other iconic structures. In Cityscapes: San Francisco and its Buildings, a collection of his columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, John King explores other, less well known but decidedly noteworthy buildings.
Cityscapes is a guide book of sorts. It discusses buildings that you don't find in regular guides and it shows how, in San Francisco, the past integrates with the present and allows for the changes of the future. It opens our eyes and make us appreciate the vibrant, architectural kaleidoscope that is San Francisco.