I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but siI'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.
ANYway, Hughes's prose is crisp and readable, and he has a fantastic story to tell. The Fatal Shore is not a novel, but it consistently evokes times, places and situations that make me want to read (or even write!) fiction set in early colonial Australia. He has a fine eye for detail, and uses primary sources to great advantage. I find that biography and history sometimes struggle with the constant transition between covering broad trends and including enough specific detail to keep things interesting, but Hughes has the technique down. Witness his description of the arrival in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) of the mediocre early Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey:
"The two men hated one another on sight. Davey thought Macquerie a Scottish prig; and Macquerie considered his new lieutenant-governor a wastrel and a drunk, who manifested 'an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners.' "So he did. Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat. He then took off his coat, remarking that the place was as hot as Hades, and marched uphill to Government House in his shirtsleeves. Nicknamed 'Mad Tom' by the settlers, he would later make it his custom to broach a keg of rum outside Government House on royal birthdays and ladle it out to the passerby."
As well as enjoying the hilarious image of port being emptied over Davey's wife's hat, I love how this short passage communicates vividly and succinctly so much about the dueling characters of the two colonial administrators. Also, "low buffoonery"? Definitely going in my arsenal of excellent old-timey put-downs.
Hughes's talent for choosing just the right detail to resonate and amaze is spot-on. Describing the widespread myth among early Irish convicts in Australia that there existed an overland route to China, and the tragic escape attempts that resulted, he notes that "Since none of them had a compass (and few possessed any idea of how to use it even if they had had one), they went out armed with a magical facsimile consisting of a circle crudely sketched on paper or bark with the cardinal points but no needle." What could more forcibly communicate the pathetic desperation of these people, uprooted from everything familiar and dumped into a foreign and hostile environment?
Likewise, when Hughes is describing what passed for "education" at the boys' jail at Point Puer in Van Diemen's Land, where children were put through perfunctory scholastic and religious paces after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day of hard labor, he relates that "a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that 'the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.'" The image of the exhausted, damp and caterwauling boys, often transported for trifles like "stealing two pairs of stockings," is both chilling and touching. Also chilling is this passage about the children of soldiers and free settlers, who
"played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendents would play bushrangers. 'I have observed children playing,' wrote one colonial observer in 1850, 'at the Botany Bay game of Courts and Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly passed on those who were doomed to be 'damned,' and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of: - the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought."
Although I'm not one to idealize the innocence of children, this paragraph certainly gives a clear view of the dark side of culture-formation.
And there is plenty of dark stuff in The Fatal Shore, from sadistic prison wardens to snobbish would-be-aristocrats, to prisoners whose flesh was crawling with maggots while they were still alive. Yes, there's even a vivid first-person account of cannibalism. The most difficult chapters for me to read, though, were those dealing with the plight of women and Aborigines, and with the role of homosexuality in the colony.
This book comes right on the heels, for me, of James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, and there were some depressing similarities between the two histories, despite an entire hemisphere's separation. The insane sense of entitlement felt and exercised by the European colonists; the gradual (or not-so-gradual) descent into a cycle of violence; the issuance of self-righteous tracts setting down legal boundaries, which the native people are unable to read as they are available solely in English: it all rings unpleasantly familiar in the ears of a United States citizen.
Perhaps the most confusing and circular part of European/Native relations in both America and Australia, is Europeans' fixation on a settled, capitalist existence as the only kind of life they were willing to acknowledge as legitimate. On both continents, the colonists assumed that nomadic peoples were "wasting" the land, that their movable lifestyle obliterated any claim they may have had to it - a tragedy of epic proportions, considering that connection to the land was usually much more integral to the native peoples' sense of self than it ever was to Europeans. Equally galling to the European interlopers was the lack of a fiat money system among native peoples, which the Europeans, tellingly, took as a sign of godlessness and dissipation. This is especially ironic in Australia, which was being settled in the first place because England had come to so fetishize Property that people were sentenced to death for offenses like "poaching a rabbit," "stealing a length of ribbon," or "cutting down an ornamental shrub." As a newborn infant could have predicted, this led to SO MANY death sentences that most of them had to be commuted, hence the waves of convicts and their attendant administrators, eager to convert the natives to their own property-loving way of life. In Tasmania, as in the American south-east, native people were herded into what were essentially concentration camps, where "they were shown how to buy and sell things, so that they might acquire a reverence for property." Awesome idea, guys! And those were the progressive settlers; most just wanted to kill as many natives as possible.
The chapters on treatment of women was also horrifying. Much of it, such as the passage describing how the new female convicts were sold at the country store, were grotesque parodies of still-familiar attitudes:
"The same woman might be sold several times during her Norfolk Island sentence, with Potter 'in most cases reselling them for a gallon or two of rum until they were in such a Condition as to be of little or no further use.' The sales would be held in an old store where the women had to strip naked and 'race around the room' while Potter kept up a running commentary on their 'respective values.'"
Female convicts were essentially the slaves of slaves, but the most infuriating part from an intellectual perspective is that they were looked down on as "prostitutes" as a result. Even female convicts who were never sold and re-sold on Norfolk Island, even those who had long-term, loving relationships, were viewed as whores by the self-styled "respectable" colonists:
As the historian Michael Sturma points out, the idea that the convicts shared the same ideas about sexual behavior as their superiors is very dubious: 'Working-class mores [in England] differed markedly from those of upper and middle classes...[A]mong the British working-class, cohabitation was prevalent. It is highly unlikely that working-class men, and in particular male convicts, considered the women convicts to be in some way sexually immoral...The stereotype of women convicts as prostitutes emerged from...an ignorance of working-class habits.'"
Huh, how eerily familiar. It's disturbing how difficult it is to perceive, let alone acknowledge, value systems that differ from our own. It's also interesting - and problematic - to me, how few modern people know about the widespread acceptance of cohabitation among the Victorian working classes. The Victorian era is so often seen as the epitome of prudishness and ramrod respectability, wherein premarital sex is the Ultimate Evil that can befall a virtuous young woman, and while there was certainly truth to the stereotype, it's also important to remember that there were other realities as well.
If the way that misogyny played out in early Australia was tiresomely predictable, the role of homosexuality was much more complex, and tricky for a modern young lefty like myself to digest. [More on my blog.]...more
Good grief, this book was fantastic. Why hadn't I read it before? Highly recommended to anyone who can afford to stay up until three in the morning whGood grief, this book was fantastic. Why hadn't I read it before? Highly recommended to anyone who can afford to stay up until three in the morning when they have to be at work by seven. ...more
A good biography of a fascinating person. Albertson does a good job of giving a rounded picture of Bessie Smith, although most of the interest and vitA good biography of a fascinating person. Albertson does a good job of giving a rounded picture of Bessie Smith, although most of the interest and vitality comes from the verbatim memories of Ruby Walker, Smith's niece by marriage, who toured extensively with her in the 1920's and 30's. Albertson readily admits that without Ruby there wouldn't be a book, and her words definitely communicate much about Bessie that would otherwise be lost: her rollicking sense of humor, her mood throughout different eras, and what it was like to just hang out with her. Her famous temper probably would have come through, but maybe not how quick she often was to forgive and forget. Albertson's prose seems slightly dated (originally published in 1971, it seems to belong somewhat to an older, less engaging school of nonfiction writing). But it gives good structure and some commentary to the anecdotes related by Ruby and his other sources, some of which are amazing: the account of Smith cussing out Ku Klux Klan members who were trying to sabotage her performance tent, and creating such a formidable spectacle that the men slunk off into the night, was what turned me on to Albertson's book to begin with. There's lots more where that came from, but Smith is never painted as infallible or flawless. All in all, an enjoyable and educational read!...more
This book was clear, well-written, and utterly horrifying. I think it's information all Americans should have, and are unlikely to be taught in publicThis book was clear, well-written, and utterly horrifying. I think it's information all Americans should have, and are unlikely to be taught in public school. Made me realize a number of things, including how uneven "traditional" education is, even about distributing MISinformation about the story of American Indians. I never knew, for example, what a galvanizing and controversial time the New Deal in the 1930's was for many tribes, nor had I heard about the fish-ins in the 1960's, which took place right in my back yard.
I didn't consider myself a wide-eyed innocent about the relationship between white folks and Native Americans, but this book was truly shocking to me, and also fascinating and seemingly well-balanced. I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it will leave you flabbergasted that we still encourage gradeschool children to dress up like Pilgrims....more
*The Civilizing Process* is dense, discursive, Germanic, and in some ways pre-professional in its sociology (Elias has to argue at length, for example*The Civilizing Process* is dense, discursive, Germanic, and in some ways pre-professional in its sociology (Elias has to argue at length, for example, for a discipline of historical psychology that is now well-established), but also fascinating and, in places, hilarious.
The first third of the book details the historical development of manners in the West (primarily France, Germany and England) through a survey of etiquette instructions from the early middle ages to the nineteenth century. This is the hilarious part, as behaviors a modern adult would not even consider (such as pissing on the tapestries in a home, or picking up a turd and offering it to another person to smell) turn out to be learned aversions from which our ancestors had to be deterred. I loved the specificity of this portion of the book; the section on attitudes toward meat-eating was especially fascinating, and I adore the coinage "threshold of repugnance," which Elias uses throughout. Reading it transformed my view of my own reactions and behavior in many everyday situations, and made me think about how things I usually consider "natural," such as feeling disgusted upon walking by a pool of vomit next to a dumpster, actually result from a complex web of socio- and psycho-historical factors.
The last two-thirds of the book were more of a slog for me, but I'm glad I read them. They address the larger historical causes and effects that lead to the outward signs of "civilization" outlined in the first section. His view of history is sometimes uncomfortably teleological (all cultures are on some point of the same continuum, and the Western countries are the farthest advanced along it), but his observations are still quite interesting, and considering the publication date (1939) he takes a very balanced view toward Freud's psychoanalytical revolution - for Elias, it's important but in need of much further refinement. He makes many points which I found myself chewing over long after having read them, and applying to other histories and works of art.
Overall, I highly recommend it, although I might skip over the majority of Part IV, which is largely a reiteration of the points that have gone before, and go straight to the last, concluding section....more
This book was an eerily good fit for a personal study of biographies I'm doing, so I was thrilled to get a copy through the Early Reviewers program. IThis book was an eerily good fit for a personal study of biographies I'm doing, so I was thrilled to get a copy through the Early Reviewers program. I found it to be an engaging, well-written study that strikes a good balance between specific detail about its subject, and contextual detail about the social and national milieu in which she moved. I also found the subject, Emily Post, to be a surprisingly sympathetic character - not that I expected to dislike her, but I was impressed at the degree to which I related to her. Her appreciation for the small details of daily life is something I share in spades, and her concern with using etiquette to ease the way for other people, rather than to shame them, is admirable.
Especially fascinating to me is Claridge's examination of the revisions to *Etiquette* over the span of almost forty years, and how the revision process changed Emily Post herself. Born to extreme privilege in New York City, a debutante during the Gilded Age, Post wrote the original 1922 edition of *Etiquette* with people like herself in mind. After its publication and success, she was inundated with letters from a wide cross-section of the American population, including recent immigrants, working- and middle-class readers, all wanting to know her advice on issues she had originally not thought to include: how to throw a dinner party if one hasn't any servants, for example, or how courtship conduct is changed for women who have joined the workforce. With successive revisions, Post adapted *Etiquette* to suit her changing understanding of her audience, as well as the changing mores of the times. Claridge knows that she's up against a popular idea of Emily Post as a petty, hard-nosed bluestocking, dispensing Thou Shalt Not's from on high, and she presents a strong case that this is a huge misconception. From the beginning, Post prioritized manners as a tool for kindness, ease and compassion, rather than an end in itself. She always insisted that telling people which fork to use held no interest whatsoever for her. But what is most striking to me is the way in which her book, which became the go-to reference on conduct for so many people, actually widened her own experience so drastically by bringing her into contact with a diversity of Americans outside her normal social sphere. The mutual process of change and adaptation is intriguing, and Claridge does a good job of tracing the differences in successive incarnations of *Etiquette*, as well as the changes in Emily Post herself.
Also surprising is Emily Post’s determined sympathy with the freer manners and customs that emerged in the early twentieth century. Claridge writes at length about the long-term affects on Post of her ill-advised marriage and scandalous divorce, and goes on to examine how those experiences affected her attitudes toward courtship and marriage in general. Her own marriage deteriorated because she and her husband were not allowed to *know* each other in any significant way prior to their wedding, to build sympathy or trust. Understandably, then, she became embittered against overly strict conventions around courtship and “protecting the innocence” of young ladies – an innocence which would come crashing around their ears immediately upon marriage. She was thrilled when social customs began to loosen, in the 1910’s and 20’s, and implored modern parents to let their children spend time together unchaperoned, even if doing so seemed improper or scandalous by the rules of their own upbringing. Much to Emily Post’s own satisfaction, her chapters on chaperonage in *Etiquette* began with detailing the necessity of a chaperone, and progressed to treating this as a “vanished custom.” Not one to cling to the old ways for their own sake, Post is portrayed as a flexible, engaged member of her own culture, who created a chronicle of changing social expectations over half a century. Claridge’s portrait is fascinating and readable, and introduced me to a formidable figure of the early twentieth century, whose importance I had never before stopped to consider....more
I had an odd relationship with this novel. I didn't like any of the characters very much, yet the plot was constructed in such a clever and intriguingI had an odd relationship with this novel. I didn't like any of the characters very much, yet the plot was constructed in such a clever and intriguing way that I was pulled onward. I am a sucker for the lure of a long-forgotten family secret.
People seem to find this book funny ("Hilarious!" claimed the quips & quotes on the back), but I thought it was incredibly sad, countries and families repeating cycles of dysfunction with alarming regularity. I suppose the final pages offered a shred of hope, but by that point I'd pretty much written all the characters off as bad jobs. ...more
I went back and forth on this book. It was a gift from my very dear friend Leah, and follows on many very interesting conversations we've had about loI went back and forth on this book. It was a gift from my very dear friend Leah, and follows on many very interesting conversations we've had about love and partnership. As a person in a committed, long-term relationship who nonetheless has severe misgivings about the institution of marriage, I seem like a natural fit for this book, and to some extent that's true. I thought a few of the essays were brilliant, quite a few intriguing or insightful. Reading too many of them in a row, though, made me a little bit frustrated at the collective self-indulgence of a particular branch of third-wave feminism, a branch that seems to spend more time analyzing the feminism or lack thereof in individual decisions, rather than placing those decisions within the frame of a larger context. And the short-essay form, repeated over and over, dictated a slightly sitcom-esque cycle of problem and resolution. I would have liked a few more of these essays to end without resolution, or with some story arc other than "I used to have Problem/Trait/Opinion X; then I had experience Y and now I've come to realize Z." Or, at the very least, one or two longer essays would have enabled authors to delve into a greater level of social or relational complexity. Nonetheless, it was thought-provoking and readable. If you have to choose between this book and a nice chat with my friend Leah, though, I would definitely recommend the latter....more
I included this book in my Biography Project (reading lots of biographies in 2008) because I was wondering what it would be like to write a biographyI included this book in my Biography Project (reading lots of biographies in 2008) because I was wondering what it would be like to write a biography of a person who a)lived so long ago, and b)has come be so freighted in many peoples' minds. The answer, as it turns out, is that you can't really say anything for sure, and there has to be pages and pages of disclaimers for even the smallest assertion of fact. Which got a little tiresome, I must admit.
The book was pretty fascinating, though, for the social context of first-century Palestine, and the textual contrasts among the different canonical and non-canonical Gospels. Especially for a non-Christian like me, a useful background book....more
George Eliot! What a hot tamale. I thought this biography was slightly superficial at times, but at others very insightful. And what fascinating materGeorge Eliot! What a hot tamale. I thought this biography was slightly superficial at times, but at others very insightful. And what fascinating material! Overall I quite liked it....more