Though the talk on the book tour is tantalizing, the author's interviews are basically summaries of Hot...moreEdward P. Kohn has a strange little book here.
Though the talk on the book tour is tantalizing, the author's interviews are basically summaries of Hot Time. If you heard Mr. Kohn on Fresh Air, like I did, you've essentially already experienced everything the reader will find within Hot Time's 250 or so pages. Reading the book is little more than formal consummation of an (admittedly) good interview.
But that doesn't speak to what is strange about Hot Time in the Old Town. The subtitle reads: "The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." Neither the heat wave nor its impact on Roosevelt are the focus of the book. Not quite. Instead, Hot Time is an oscillating sweep of three subjects, which I'll enumerate briefly.
1. Hot Time in the Old Town is, at it's best, a reminder of how closely the 19th century American lived with death. Politically, the heat wave of 1896 is a reminder - in the form of a vignette - of why the Progressive era was critical to the country's 20th century narrative. The 1,300 deaths attributed to the week long heat wave may be blamed in greater degree to the squalid conditions of tenement housing, structured to prey on poor immigrant and laboring families than to the heat itself (which, to an Alabamian induces little awe).
2. After a grisly account of hellish tenements and horse carcasses, Hot Time freezes the moment when William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential bid lost momentum. After creating an audacious zeitgeist of hope (that would be familiar in the era of Obama) following the "Cross of Gold" speech, candidate Bryan chased gaffe with a dead on arrival, much-hyped speech at Madison Square Garden - where spectators initially crushed one another for seating, only to leave en masse when Bryan came across like Nixon in the televised 1960 debate.
3. Finally, there's the part about (then New York City police commissioner) Theodore Roosevelt's role in both the emergency response to the heat wave and the national presidential election. While it is interesting that the scion Roosevelt had a part in both stories, the two stories are not necessarily related. Circumstantial coincidences suggest a link that is actually more literary than historical/sociological.
None of this is meant to say any of the three subjects are in any way unworthy of scholarship. In fact, each are immensely worthy. Point one is worth including in a book about either the Progressive era or the evolution of American cities between 1820 and 1919. Point two is clearly an important chapter in any ambitious biography of William Jennings Bryan. The same goes with point three, with regard to Theodore Roosevelt. The 1896 election is itself worthy of study; the events in Hot Time would necessarily form a key pivot in any such study.
The problem is that Mr. Kohn's book lacks any of the ambition needed to contextualize any of its three subjects. While Hot Time is promoted as - and probably intended to be - a beach/airport read, it lacks the cadence of the mass market non-fiction epitomized by Simon Winchester or Jon Krakauer. At 250 pages and rife with sensational detail, Hot Time should go down smoothly and easily. Instead, reading the book is a bit of a chore.
All this considered, I still might be inclined to rate Hot Time in the Old Town at a solid - if average - three stars, if the bizarre postscript were not tacked on at the very end of the book (after two successive chapters titled "Conclusion" and "Epilogue"). Kohn's final words suggest his improbable thesis was actually to inspire readers to think more about quality of life issues and emergency planning in a world that is still following a trend of urbanization. If so, that is not what I got from it.
Kohn may also be implying that climate change is the new tenement housing in the continuum of pestilence the urban poor are forced to contend with. Fine. But the sum of all of these parts is not a tidy narrative that details a "heat wave" and "the making of Theodore Roosevelt." And that is the principal problem with Hot Time.
There was a short circuit somewhere in the chain connecting author and publisher. The manuscript should have been sent back. If Hot Time was a plate of food, it never would have left a respectable kitchen.
I'm left with these closing thoughts upon completion of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
1. The book's title is suggestive of places the author didn't really go. A more descriptive title might be Latitude, Food, and Non-Food Specialists: A Hyperbole Free Explanation of Why the Modern Era Looks the Way It Does. Of course, that lacks the oomph of "Guns! Steel!" and would probably stay on bookshelves.
It isn't that Diamond doesn't include guns and steel into his monograph. It's just that, of all the variables he details, guns and steel define the narrowest band of history and then only make nominal modifications to the status quo (well, maybe not to the people displaced by change - but certainly in the long view).
A vanquishing wave of 16th century Spaniards ultimately changed the human condition of the Andes less than agriculture and the political state did before it. The differential between the Inca and the original hunter-gatherers is greater than between the Inca and the Spanish.
Since the interview at Cajamarca is Diamond's centerpiece and all other dynamic clashes (except perhaps the Maori v. Moriori collision) receive only glancing treatment, the reader must note how much more of the book is dedicated to the profound changes brought about by less dramatic developments. I concluded (and I think Diamond believes) ecological and geographic features are ultimately more important than the details of sudden societal interaction.
2. Professor Diamond has developed a deep affinity for New Guinea, through his various biological studies prior to writing Pulitizer Prize winning anthropology. It is safe to say he has "gone bamboo" over New Guinea, the way Gauguin swooned for Tahiti or Brando fell for Fiji. However, the things the average westerner knows about New Guinea may not fill an index card.
New Guinea serves as Guns, Germs, and Steel's hub. Diamond is able to launch most of his theses from New Guinea (i.e. how do languages diffuse in general using New Guinea as an example?, how do geological features insulate some conservative cultures using New Guinea as an example?, etc.). Certainly, I see its utility as an island - especially a big one with a convenient amount of ecological variety. But New Guinea quickly became either a motif or a character of sorts. There were times when I wondered if the elaborate thesis of the book wasn't an excuse for Diamond to write about New Guinea. Or if it wasn't all a trick to get people to read about New Guinea.
Neither of the above are true, of course. But I nevertheless found Diamond's obsession with a place as obscure to his audience as New Guinea occasionally annoying. Not because I don't like New Guinea. I mean, it's cool. I just don't... you know, really care about New Guinea as much as Diamond does. I would have engaged with the material more if he had used more familiar territory as his home base.
By "more familiar territory," I mean pretty much anywhere else. I think westerners have working knowledge about every continent except Australia and its surrounding quadrant (for whatever reason). While subsaharan Africa would be an "exotic" starting locale, western readers ultimately know something about it going in.
3. One of the issues Diamond barely acknowledges is nationalism. This falls outside Guns, Germs, and Steel's scope, but I experienced a puzzling, possible conflict of interest with the way I responded to certain chapters.
Being an American of Western European descent, one would expect me to respond more to descriptions of how Western Europe developed into the ultimate technological society. But I found that I was more interested in the way North American civilization progressed.
It could be that the story of North American civilization is still underserved in our education system. Many American adults still do not know as much about Native American civilization as they could. By contrast, most Americans (including non-whites) are taught some form of European history. Thus, being less familiar with the subject of North America (and feeling bored with the subject of Europe) could have produced the disparate interest. However, I am ultimately somewhat unfamiliar with the histories of Africa and China too. I was interested in these subjects because of that unfamiliarity, but not at the level I was engaged with the North American components.
I've concluded the reason for this disparate interest must be "liberal guilt," empathy for a group who (despite small numbers) still lives in proximity to me, or (most tantalizing) that geography superseded genetics and created a new cultural identity. In other words, because I live in North America - and not England or Switzerland - my identity has been tricked into believing my genetic link is to here, not there. If this is actually the case, it is very interesting.(less)
Masters of Deceit is a period piece, from the right's most histrionic moment. With admir...moreJ. Edgar Hoover. Very complicated man.
Did not like communism.
Masters of Deceit is a period piece, from the right's most histrionic moment. With admiration for the (already disgraced) Senator Joseph McCarthy and just one year ahead of former President Truman's denunciation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hoover's credibility is suspect. Fifty years later, it is downright surreal.
I presume Hoover anticipated a bumpy ride on the promotion circuit. He comes out of the gate swinging, as if antagonizing the reader to form a hard, crusty defense-bias. Those who make it past the introduction may actually wonder if their bias wasn't misplaced. Despite being heavily edited affairs, Hoover's brief biographies of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin are at least as competent as a Conservapedia(.com) article. His assessment of the Soviet Union may have come right out of Darkness at Noon or Nineteen Eighty-Four (and thus not the product of original scholarship), but they are not overly hyperbolic.
In fact, the first half of Masters of Deceit is so dull, it probably loses a great number of readers to fatigue. This was the plan.
For those who stick it out to the 2/3 mark, the gloves come off! Hoover loses his mind in a delusional word salad. His arguments careen off each other, alternately making zero sense and cancelling each other out. He fails to make the red "menace" at all menacing. Cautionary examples are more vague anecdote than anything (there was this... uh... lady... and she was... uh... communist! And her family was... uh... sad... and had to eat cold sandwiches for dinner!).
His centerpiece - the one incident in which the author moves from the vague into the specific - tells the bonechilling tale of a local party cell's six year campaign to infiltrate a small labor union. After six years, the operatives held offices in the union. Then infighting caused their cabal to implode. From what I can tell, they didn't actually do anything devious. Unless, that is, one counts the unintelligent, bumbling oaf public enemy number one. It seems bringing America to its knees consists entirely of publishing newsletters with circulation numbers in the triple digits.
Since one must rule out the existence of any actual threat to describe, the reader immediately wonders what Hoover's mission was in publishing Masters of Deceit. It is as most already suspect: Hoover was a bigot and the most miserly species of right-wing hawk.
"The Party has operated hundreds of major fronts in practically every field of Party agitation: 'peace,' civil rights, protection of the foreign-born, support for (political) 'victims,' abolition of H-bomb tests, exploitation of nationality and minority groups." (213)
And labor unions. And charity. And... Well, you get the idea.
Translation: Hoover is opposed to "peace," civil rights, constitutional rights, labor/consumer protection, and charity. A group who distributed food assistance to flood victims (in a time when the federal government did not automatically fill the role) was dangerous. The Scottsboro Boys weren't the victims of Jim Crow, they deserved worse than what they got. Hoover is, in short, in contempt of all things contemporary Americans consider decent.
Why? What was significant in 1957 to stimulate publication of Masters of Deceit? As previously stated, Senator McCarthy was already in disgrace. A Republican (Eisenhower) was in the White House; the Senate was nearly perfectly balanced (Democrats had a one seat majority); Duane Eddy had a hit with his instrumental "Rebel Rouser" and The Olympics's baby liked "western movies." Everything seemed pretty groovy. Even if Hoover's fear was of a Democratic takeover, he had already served two Democratic presidents and a host of Democratic-controlled congresses (and would again). Nothing in his manuscript is critical of Roosevelt, Truman. He never mentions New Dealers like Averell Harriman or Rex Tugwell. The highest ranking government official Hoover mentions is former Vice President Wallace - for whom he's sympathetically forgiving for past "pink" transgressions.
My guess is that Hoover didn't criticize the Democratic party out of self-preservation and an acknowledgment that he, himself, is associated with some of its most celebrated years. Nevertheless, Masters of Deceit is an energetic, red-blooded, Republican panic attack for the most stalwart cold warrior. It's manic. It's crazy. It's hilarious at times. What, if anything, do modern readers stand to gain by undertaking it?
Well, Masters of Deceit is instructive into the way fearmongering works as a strategy. It also can be instrumental in evaluating the merit of fearmongering, when it is encountered in situ.
To determine if Hoover's theory of a communist threat is warranted, one may run a diagnostic of sorts: Hoover gives us the blueprint for communist takeover. Go through the steps in your mind and ask yourself if it could work - even in a vacuum. If it cannot (it cannot), the thesis must be false. Thus, the warning is almost certainly propaganda.
In practice, apply the same concept to any manner of conspiracy theory, from the sophomoric perception of President Bush's "oil wars" to Glenn Beck's own red scare. If the blueprint they provide could not work in practice, they are full of shit. Like J. Edgar Hoover.
I have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate am...moreI have no idea how David Aaronovitch would describe the "role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history." The author spends such an inordinate amount of time commenting on how stupid various conspiracies actually are that he never quite gets around to his thesis.*
Of course, Aaronovitch isn't wrong. Conspiracy theories - from CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination, British royal family orchestration of Diana's death, President Bush's war mongering desire to stage 9/11, to the "birther" movement that (continues to) insist President Obama isn't a US citizen - are usually pretty stupid. They've become so ubiquitous through film and screen, the political media, and sheer persistence that we sometimes fail to note exactly why they are so stupid, even when they are constant nuisance. I expected the author to eventually comment on something like that.
I also wondered what the first conspiracy theory might be, and if the line between it to the present is continuous. But, nope. No commentary about that either.
Having modified my expectations when I realized that Mr. Aaronovitch had abandoned his thesis, I started to wonder if the author had at least written a good dismissal of his cherry-picked examples. For a while, it was sort of hard to tell. Being that half of his examples are British conspiracies with little play in the American press, I couldn't tell if the many tangents explored contributed to or detracted from the analysis. When he made it to recent American conspiracies (the 9/11 "Truth movement" and the "birther" crusade), it became clear the tangents are signs of disorganization or ineptitude. At the very least, Aaronovitch has a preference for anachronism, constantly beginning with something recent and fresh and ending with something moldering and obscure. One can (and should) demonstrate the constancy of agents provocateur embellishing White Water and the Clinton impeachment hearings through the "I'm just asking" Iagoism of the "birthers." The logical order is to handle Clinton first, then proceed to Obama. Aaronovitch writes history from the perspective of Merlin.
The reader who wants a good laugh at the stupidity of others will enjoy the multifarious rants. The reader interested in understanding why conspiracy theories flourish and what effect they have on culture has a lot of raw data to contend with here. Voodoo Histories is a good compendium of crazy shit. Unfortunately, its discipline is not significantly elevated above its source to capture the moral authority needed to back up its vulgar, if commonsensical conclusions.
*To be fair, Aaronovitch does eventually get the question of "why," dedicating about three pages (or 0.8% of the total manuscript) to the understanding (what he compiles from other scholars is fascinating). He never quite explores the conspiracy theory's "role" in shaping history, though.(less)
Joe Bageant's conversational screed is full of common sense - scads of it. But it is brutally patronizing. His inspired chapters (on theocracy, gun co...moreJoe Bageant's conversational screed is full of common sense - scads of it. But it is brutally patronizing. His inspired chapters (on theocracy, gun control, and the mid-2000s real estate bubble) are mired in the pedagogue's certainty that he is better than his coarse and mean subjects in every respect.
The author rhapsodizes on the tragedy befallen "his people," meaning the working poor of the American South. Because Mr. Bageant is Southern spawn and can embed into the social fabric with little personal wardrobe alteration, he believes he is an accurate meter of reigning social currents.
The first problem is that the South isn't homogeneous. And even if it were, it would not function as a proxy for the entire American hinterland. The book's thesis is to explain why an increasing number of economically distressed Americans routinely vote against their own interests, almost as though there is a default setting in that frequency. If Mr. Bageant answered this question, he did so only for a small microcosm.
The second problem is that Mr. Bageant is from Northern Virginia and professes to speak for the South. To an Alabamian like myself, Virginia is so far north its lanes should be lined with candy canes and populated with toy making elves. I feel he has no right to equate "his people" to "my people," even though the author clearly considers them one and the same. Even though I, an Alabama Democrat, am as frustrated by "my people" as a Virginia Democrat is about his, I share something even more urgent: The clannish tendency of Southerners to stick up for their own.
Like a family whose black sheep is constantly bringing shame to the family with his carousing and debauchery, woe be to the outsider who throws the first stone of criticism. Cousin Bobby might have wrecked his truck and blown his bond and is now out running around on his old lady all over the county. But we'll be damned if some carpetbagger is gonna walk into town and start tut-tutting about it. Truth is, we don't take care of own very effectively - least of all where politics are concerned - but we will shut out the first yankee who thinks for a minute we're going to listen to his two cents.
I almost wonder if that isn't the heart of the problem. If so, all of Mr. Bageant's homespun paeans to the Redneck Gothic paradigm are in vain. For the whole technicolor redneck diaspora ranging across the hinterland (South included) to sort out its political problems, powerful eurekas are needed from the congregation. As noble as Mr. Bageant's goal is, a charitable liberal Moses is not going to lead the conservative peons from their Republican Egypt. It's going to take one of their own. Since Bageant isn't the One, his work as an embedded reporter should have been impartial observation and analysis. Instead, we got an (enjoyable) narrative of hayseed gonzo and white trash tales from Lake Wobegon. Enjoyable at times, full of common sense, but delivered with a perfectly wrong tone.(less)
There's very elusive serendipity in a creative work that constantly verges on jumping the shark, but always stops just short.
I expected to hate Abraha...moreThere's very elusive serendipity in a creative work that constantly verges on jumping the shark, but always stops just short.
I expected to hate Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter because (A) I don't really care about vampires and (B) I care very much about Abraham Lincoln. I care so much about the latter, in fact, that I regularly come to his defense at bars and over the water cooler at work - any time some smart aleck thinks he's an expert because of some trash gleaned from Howard Zinn (may he rest in peace).
Seth Grahame-Smith has taken something absurd and made it work, in a reasonable facsimile of the historians' tradition. It isn't without failure: The author attempts to reproduce the industry standard as set by David McCullough (a promise included in the dust jacket copy) - he didn't. Grahame-Smith needs an editor - he misspells Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles's name in the first mention, to correct it in the second (and last) mention. The author researched Lincoln's and some peripheral figures' lives, but not a thorough study of 19th century America - an anonymous character advises a fleeing John Wilkes Booth that the government will burn every Southern city "from Baltimore to Birmingham" in pursuit - Birmingham wasn't founded until the end of 1870s, nearly 15 years after the manhunt for Booth.
But I'd be a very irrational person if I considered any of the above a deal breaker. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn't expected to be plausible beyond a reasonable effort - and I found the effort (imperfections notwithstanding) actually went above and beyond the mission. Beginning the book is a contract to suspend disbelief, which discredits most of the obvious complaints. Grahame-Smith recreated a believable execution of period speech, speechifying, correspondence, and journalism. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter reads like a strange mix of Mark Twain and Ken Burns. It also reads like a piece of cinema; the manuscript is nearly in readymade condition for screenplay adaptation.
The summer of 2010 is one of deferred beach reads. As oil coats the Gulf coast, the sorts of books we'd read on a beach or in an airport have to be read on our couches, as an imposed staycation by necessity. This is as good a book for this purpose as any other I have come across this year.
I am new to the concept of historical fiction. Not knowing the conventions of the genre may have prevented me from judging Mr. Lincoln's Wars fairly....moreI am new to the concept of historical fiction. Not knowing the conventions of the genre may have prevented me from judging Mr. Lincoln's Wars fairly. Perhaps I should be writing two reviews and giving two scores for Mr. Braver's idea. It is, after all, two things.
As fiction, Mr. Lincoln's Wars employs beautiful prose. Lincoln is an enticing subject, perhaps as perfect a tragedy as one can find among real human beings. Braver's narrative captures both the personal and national sadness. His principle success is in the fact he does so without crutches. There are no clichés, even vernacular devices work subtly. The zoetrope-like shape/motion of the anthology gives the impression of a moving picture, when the reader is actually viewing a series of static images through slits in a revolving drum. This is one of the wisest, most creative ways to depict the period between 1862-65 I have ever come across.
Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln was a real person. Not only that, but he is one of the best-known American personalities of the 19th century. He is so well known, in fact, that a reader like myself is aware that the president swore only in jest - and then, sparingly. And President Lincoln laughed. A lot. Moreover, he tried whenever possible to uplift others. Braver's president holds court more like a dour, overcast JFK. The language would have been authentic for Kennedy's Oval Office, but not for the house of Lincoln. Also suspect is the author's treatment of the 19th century American female character. For starters, 19th century society women did not swear, especially not in public or to unfamiliar men. Secondly, if they were the least bit candid about their sex lives the details were shrouded in dense euphemism. Again, Braver's women might not be out of place in the 1960s, but do not correspond to 1860s reality.
So, the author is off by a hundred years where his subjects (both specific and in general) are concerned. Is it a problem? Well, since his specific subject is Abraham fucking Lincoln* and his general one is a generation preserved in obsessive detail through period novelists, playwrights, and correspondents, I'd say yes. It's a big problem, actually.
Four stars for prose. Two stars for historical plausibility. Average: Three stars.
*Apologies, but if you can't read my swear words, you won't be pleased with the author's either.(less)
The War Lovers is not written for history students or professionals. This alone isn't a problem; understanding American history is not the property of...moreThe War Lovers is not written for history students or professionals. This alone isn't a problem; understanding American history is not the property of any exclusive club. Both young adults and people who haven't been in a classroom in decades deserve access to history too. The question is whether The War Lovers succeeds among popular audiences, because as a technical achievement it fails.
Evan Thomas's thesis was to compare/contrast the careers of five American public figures, three hawks and two doves, during the so-called "rush to empire" of the late 1890s. The author loses track of two of these central figures (the doves) almost immediately, and in so doing misses his most valuable narrative opportunity: Contrasting the yellow press and the Anti-Imperialist League. Instead, a good 90% of the narrative revolves around the exploits of the hawks, and of that a disproportionate share of the attention goes to Theodore Roosevelt alone. The remaining 10% focuses more on fluff than philosophy.
Then there is the style. The introduction contains a paragraph that basically set my hairs on end. In one paragraph, Thomas writes the words "bitch goddess," "sturm und drang," and "puking" (though the last, to be fair, was a quote by one of the book's highlighted subjects). Such purple prose peppers the narrative, rendering The War Lovers more opinion than objective study. The fact that the type is set in near-giant print and every fourth page or so is covered by an illustration taking up 2/3 of the page means The War Lovers is really a 200 page book stretched into 400 pages with the sophomoric guile of a college freshman padding his four page research paper by increasing the sizes of the margins and spacing.
There is, at the heart of The War Lovers a well timed, play-by-play account of the action on Santiago de Cuba's camino real and the San Juan Heights. It is part Ken Burns, but more firmly modern History Channel style. Solid, if unoriginal. And Thomas's social commentary is mostly on point (if he lacks the empathy to actually undertstand Roosevelt's poorer moments). So all is not quite forfeit. But the value to be found is of a standard issue variety, tuned to general audiences not serious history students.(less)
Nicholas Fox Weber personally spent a lot of time with the Alberses (Josef and Anni), acted as executor of Anni Albers's estate, observed the couple's...moreNicholas Fox Weber personally spent a lot of time with the Alberses (Josef and Anni), acted as executor of Anni Albers's estate, observed the couple's eccentric experience with American consumer culture, and mitigated their sometimes petulant attitude toward other people. There probably isn't a better American suited to compile a few short biographies of some of the core Bauhauslers, because few Americans probably understand the nuance and inconsistency within the Bauhaus itself.
Mr. Weber's approach is very intuitive. He employs different styles, depending on his subject. His description of Walther Gropius is gossipy and political - because Gropius revolved in a fast orbit of high drama and was the cementing force behind the Bauhaus. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe receives similar treatment - the style is as apt for studying titans of finance or industry as titans of architecture. By contrast, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky are treated like dalai lamas or suffering saints. Anni Albers's portrait is complex and personal and Josef Albers's brain is explained more than the man. Explaining how an ordinary, working class origin complemented visionary attitudes about color and proportion is the best way to summarize the Bauhaus itself.
Had Weber arranged his anthology in this order, it would flow with a sensible rhythm. Instead, he grows increasingly anachronistic as the book progresses, almost like he's trying to channel the progression of the artist's disease. Anni Albers' narrative is a blink comparitor toggling between Nazi Germany and the gluttonous art society of 1980s New York. Somehow, in the process, readers manage to get a comprehensive sense of the Bauhaus. So, I suppose cheers are in order.
The question is whether such an eccentric approach isn't a sort of irony. Weber took the single most inefficient route toward informing his readers, literally the polar opposite of the way Klee or the Alberses would bring their viewers to enlightenment.
The Bauhaus Group is tedious at times; it is indecisive about whether it wants to talk about the artists' ideas, social impact, or history. In nearly 500 pages of narrative, there is room to cover all of that if an author truly wanted to. The somewhat intangible objection of the Nazi party to the Bauhaus is a fascinating question, and the reader has to find his own conclusion - because the conclusion is not to be found in the book.
I'm out of step with the world of art history. It was neither my major nor minor in college, and I had only a few upper level classes (mostly concerning contemporary art, after 1945). The Bauhaus Group may be de rigueur among the art history genre. I recall my art history professors' rather murky understanding of actual, non-art history. Maybe the culture of the discipline is one that can't be bothered with the petty business of understanding how a thing fits in a larger matrix. If so, perhaps the peculiar editorial processes Mr. Weber has chosen do not constitute failure. However, a casual reader will find inherent challenges with The Bauhaus Group; it doesn't conform to the style of other history and nonfiction monographs. I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad I'm done reading it.
I suppose the greatest challenge for an author writing about the Civil War is that four out of five readers are already fairly versed on the subject....moreI suppose the greatest challenge for an author writing about the Civil War is that four out of five readers are already fairly versed on the subject. Of those, perhaps a great many even feel they are more knowledgeable about the subject than the author. A Civil War history, in many cases, is essentially a test for authors, to gauge to what extent their opinions conform with the predjudices of the readers.
By preferring Lee to Grant and Davis to Lincoln, as the author has done, he undoubtedly courts the underdog bloc of Southern fetishists and latter-day redeemers. Unfortunately, he runs afoul of this reader in the process.
However, that's sort of the knee-jerk reaction. Upon reflection, I wonder instead if Jay Winik hasn't made the unspoken observation that books extolling Lincoln and Grant abound and a closer look at Lee and Davis are simply needed to fill a gap in the popular history. There is evidence to support this idea, since Winik seems to think quite highly of General Sherman and poorly of Forrest. No true Southern apologist would dare express either opinion. Yet, surely an exploration of the "real" Robert E. Lee isn't necessary - he is the subject of as many (if not more) books as Grant.
After much reflection, I conclude that Winik has researched and written several books on the Civil War and then cut them into confetti. Then he's shaken it all up, like a snow globe, and let the pieces fall where they will. There is no other explanation for a book whose thesis is the thrillingly focused beam of a single month to immediately plunge backwards into a star-struck eulogy for Thomas Jefferson and devolve into a Pop Up Video trivia fest about 20th century captains of industry. (less)