Aug 05, 12
Read from July 30 to August 05, 2012
** spoiler alert **
I do not know how much I would have liked this book if I did not read Little Women first. Brooks does justice to March as an idealist who goes off to war for his ideals and comes back a broken man. Even the ending is perfect in that he stays true to Alcott's envisioning of the man who returns from war as a ghost in the periphery of the "normal lives" of his women. My only criticism about the book is Brook's interpretation of Marmee seems to be taken out of her own ambivalence of the Iraq war and not true Alcott's Marmee who is supportive of the war effort and with the cause for the war. But at least she does it in away that it could be believable.
I like how Brooks shows how even in a just war such as the emancipation of the slaves, there are atrocities committed on even the just side. I like how Brook describes the horrors of war especially the sites and smells of it. As a man of God, he preaches that the abolitionist war is a just war and rightly surmises that morality without action is as good as dead. But, what constitute absolute righteousness? Does helping Brown formant an insurrection @ Harper's Ferry on federal property (the means) justify the end of slavery? How about the destruction Harper's Ferry civilian homes(the means), justify the ends of confederate morale? Although March feels in his heart that this is a just war, he is not certain of means via death of combatants and slaves justify emancipation. That is his participation in the war itself has clouded the absolute righteousness of the cause.
It is no surprise that some military men especially ones who are drafted find themselves fighting a war in which they do not believe in. In the book the Irish conscripts make fun of the Negros. But does the fact that the rank and file do not believe in the cause they are fighting ever justify wantonness that military brass allow in the rank and file, as the Colonel seemingly allow?
True to form March focuses on salvation of the men who are engaging in a just war much to the chagrin of the Calvanist Surgeon who wants the men to be scarred of damnation.
Mr March was a traveling salesmen during his youth and during his travels he met Mr. Clements who convinced March that slavery is "the white man's burden." He discovers that while northerners are more intellectual, southerners are more social. But after he public humiliates his mulatto daughter by stripping her and having her whipped publicly for trying to teach a young black girl to read, March sees the hypocrisy of the "white man's burden" creed. After seeing his first crush in such a situation, he dedicates himself to the abolitionist cause. He discovers that he relates to women more and is a voracious reader. I like how March question the nature of love and lust in his attraction toward Grace.
After he lucked out in business and became rich through luckily investing in industry, he decided that he really wanted to be a preacher and a teacher; thus, he served under Unitarian minister Day when he met Marmee. It turns out Marmee is as opinionated about female's education as Jo and dreams of raising a female writer and artists. She is reformed minded though she does not know how to actualize such a reform. Although March likes Marmee's sharp down-to-earth intellect, it is her voice that really captures his heart. March is attracted to Marmee's noble yet unassuming bearing and serious and lively (ie activist personality). Although he is attracted to Marmee's passion for the abolitionist movement so much so that she risks going to jail for being a part of underground railroad in the time that the Fugitive Act was law, he had reservations when she was irate and spoke so disagreeably against Emerson. Marmee has Jo and Amy's passion which translates to bedroom passion. I think it is cute that March equates pre-marital sex with marriage.
In the beginning years of their marriage, Marmee was absolutely dedicated to the abolitionist cause and the creation of her Little Women with the support of her husbands interest from his investments. From all the home improvements that March undertook, the one Marmee appreciated the most was the hiding grounds for the slaves. Marmee pushed Emerson to be more vocal in the cause for full emancipation of the slaves. In today's terms, Marmee would be a forceful activist.
Marmee who has given herself fully to her cause admired John Brown's extremism to the point of killing and insurrection for the cause they believed in. Because Brown's evangelical zeal and Marmee admiration towards Brown, March decided to pull it out from environmental toxic factory and place all his faith into a cause he believed in. His mistake of course is trusting his investment to a cause instead of looking for a return on investment based on pure profit. Even social entrepreneurs of today understand that the good that they provide is a product and if it does not bolster the bottom line then it is bad for business. John Brown was such an extremist that he used the Old Testament as a military manual on how to conduct his insurrection. Although clearly a madman, Brown made himself look as if he was a martyr especially with the help of Thoreau speaking in his defense. Brown provided the catalyst for the possibility of the Civil War for if a white man can kill another white person for the cause of abolition then war was just a matter of time.
It is interesting how Jo naturally gravitated toward books and later writing. Although March was saddened that he could not provide for his family, he stated that perhaps it was for the best because his girls learned to be industrious at an early age. Because helping with the underground railroad was a family affair, the girls got to see people who had it worse than they did thus giving them a certain amount of perspective. With the culmination of Beth protecting Flora from getting caught by the constable. From his experiences and impotence with helping Grace to the stories of Flora and Zannah's rape, these experiences shaped March's strong inclination that the Civil War was a just war. It is interesting how Brooks makes Beth seem as if she had some sort of congenital illness that made her less likely to be outgoing and interactive.
While Aunt March represented the establishment perspective, Marmee represented the activist. I loved how Marmee could not contain herself when Aunt March suggested that Meg was baggage and that she would be adopted by Aunt March. The passionate anger from Marmee led to great make up sex between the Marches and finally Marmee trying hard to control her anger. From this argument, we get the wise Marmee of Little Women.
Later on when March returned to the plantation during the war, he meets Grace again and almost had an affair with her despite his lovely wife and daughters. I think this rings true for many GI's even with family back home due to the desolation of war and one wants to feel the comfort of the moment. March praises Grace for capacity for Christian forgiveness in the face of barbaric environment.
Also, he remembered the disgust he felt when bible study was juxtaposed on the same street with a slave auction as well as the separation of family by slave owners. Although it seems far fetched, there is historical precedence for black men leaving their kids. I wonder to what extent Du Bois is correct in inscribing that to slave mentality? I like Brooks description on how hospitals back then were barbaric place in which if one was wounded deeply then the person was as good as dead. There is an interesting question on how one switches from slavery mentality to one of a wage earners. I understand that it has just been 50 years since black people have been legally on par with whites and perhaps only 30 years since the general culture has accepted black Americans as equals but how many more years will it take to throw off the yoke of slavery mentality before Black Americans will seize their place in America? This is where Obama has the upper hand b/c he is not descended from African-American slaves but from a high African bureaucrat so he does not have the slavery mentality.
I like how March comes in with righteous indignation of an abolitionist preacher and meets head on with the practical aspects of occupation free-enterprise capitalism. Just like Iraq, the abolitionist movement did not have a transition government in place to replace the old order of slavery being taken cared of the master with a new one. Predictably, the slaves were worse off because no one is caring for them and they distrust the new order of being forced to work while being ill and hungry without any pay. Since they have been living day-to-day existence, they do not understand the concept of work for a future pay. One man capitalist is certainly no match for creating the realities of a new order and all that it takes to feed, cloth, and shelter the "emancipated" Negros.
Canning being typical of mid-westerner approves of hard work for just pay but disapproves of any sort of extravagance like excessive dancing or singing and considers charity to harm the Negro learning of the capitalistic system. But considering that they have not been paid for their work yet, it was important for them to see the fruits of their labor; thus what Canning considers excessive charity was really Negro's ROI. As expected, the "charity" made them work harder. Once they were paid for their work, they sought to cement the new partnership between owner and worker by giving up the bales of cotton from which they made their beds. That night, March celebrated with the Negros including dancing with them after which March caught an infectious disease. I think it is touching how Canning considered March to be indispensable for Negro morale and thus productivity when he was sick.
At his school, March saw how hungry the Negros to be literate because reading use to be an illicit affair with them. He decided he was born to teach disadvantage class of Negros who wanted to learn. But it is clear that March admires their other native intelligence more. I wonder if circumstances force an ethnic groups gene pool toward a certain path. For example, did the fact that Black people were the south's "beast of burden" for so long allow them through time to self select to excel in sports even before integration took place sports. Or the fact, that black music from negro spirituals permeated American culture long before desegregation made it fashionable for it to be mainstream music. Jews seem to have been similarly self-selected by being outcast in medieval Europe where they could not own land and could only do things that nobles thought were beneath them such banking, finance, and professionals that relied on skills of the mind. I like how he taught history as stories and how he encourage them to think by citing Black Americans who made it such as Fredrick Douglas.
Despite being left with no military protection in enemy territory, March and Canning decided to stay on with the plantation experiment. March rightly states that courage and cowardice are two-sides to the same coin. Although he feels like a coward for not giving himself up, I think he did the right thing because Canning and Ptolemy were as good as dead anyway. The botched re-freeing of the slaves that the rebels caught, just proves why certain people should do certain things for the cause. March being a preacher proved to be useless and perhaps a hindrance in the heat of battle and thus led to the re-capture of the slaves and death of others.
I think it is interesting how Brook places a modern twist to Alcott's Marmee duty bound voice. In her portrayal of Marmee, Brook's has Marmee as someone who is dedicated to the cause of abolition but not to the point in supporting her husband enlisting to go to war. By not supporting the war effort in her heart, Marmee seems to have modern women concern for preserving her family over the duty to country. Marmee also resents the fact that March never consulted her on the 100% funding of Brown and thus causing financial strain for her family as the leader of the household. I think it is believable how in a moment of weakness, Marmee wishes for March's quick death because she wants get home to her daughters and she is scared what PTSD madness might have taken hold of her husband.
I think Brook's Marmee vs. Alcott's Marmee is instructive in how family members view war. Whereas traditional society consider it a duty for their men to go to war, modern society see war as necessary but evil burden to send their loved ones off to war. Perhaps, it is better this way so that Commander-in-Chiefs way the reasons to go to war more heavily than in years past.
True to American form, Marmee looked for the positive in things especially when she was invited to spend her nights in the surgeons house because a better environment can definitely lift one's spirits.
In the hospital, March was attended with the tenderness of a lover by Grace Clements. March and later Grace confirmed to Marmee that they had an emotional connection with each other. While initially pissed off because she perceived March lied to her through their letters, she later relented when she realized that he was just sparring her news of the horrors of war. This brings to question, is it truly bad to keep news that may hurt your partners feelings or is it just prudent if they do not directly ask you?
To allay Marmee's fears, Grace says March is in love with the idea that she represents as a freed black women not her as a person. I wonder if she actually believed that or she did it for Marmee? The reason Grace decided to tell Marmee the whole truth is so she can help him heal. As a nurse, she knows that a sick man needs to have a reason to live for him to try. Grace enlists Marmee's help to coax Mr March into living for their families sake. Marmee has to put aside her personal misgivings about March's past in order for her to help him.
Although Marmee wants March to get better so he can come home, I understand his desire for continuing to fight on despite his disability. By all objective measures, his mission to be a chaplain to the Union soldiers have failed as well as his failed attempt in turning slaves into freed responsible men. Marmee for her part tries to convince March that what matter is not the outcome of his effort but rather effort itself which constant with his beliefs that matters. But at the same time, she realizes it his idealism that drew her to him in the first place. While she pleads with him to get better and return home, he wants to continue serving the war effort.
He finally relents and goes home when Grace tells him that war is messy even for people with the best intentions and it would be better for him to go home. I enjoyed the ending of the book immensely and for made this book into a 5 star book. March has become a fallen man, a shell of his former idealistic self but still pushes forward in his life for his family's sake. I would imagine most soldiers of war have PTSD moments in failing other people as March looks on his family all he sees are people he failed to save even though the task for him is impossible and he was ill-equipped to do it.