Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Morning Review of Book Reviews: March 27, 2011

This morning's NY Times Sunday Book Review has some fascinating biography book reviews:

First up is Geoffrey C. Ward's nicely written review of a new book on a man who truly deserves to have a religion started in his name: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The film on Gandhi is the greatest film epic I've ever seen, and is truly inspirational. His autobiography is one of the most insightful and self-critical I have ever read from any famous political leader. It is also exciting to learn Ward, an excellent historian, is writing a book about the partition of India and Pakistan after independence from Great Britain. I did not know he had some personal acquaintance with India.

ADDENDUM 3/28/11: Wow! Ward seems to have studiously avoided the bi-sexual angle of the book he was reviewing. See here. Ward did deal with the racist part, but recognized that Gandhi evolved away from that stance. As for the bi-sexual stance, it is sometimes difficult for us in the 21st Century to understand the way people from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries wrote and what they meant. There was often a florid style that people had that to our ears means sex, when in fact it does not mean that at all. Ward had an argument about 18 years ago about Eleanor Roosevelt's proclivities when he tore apart Blanche Lincoln's two volume bio of ER. I think Ward was more right than wrong then, but I think he should have mentioned this issue in the Gandhi review. See here and here. I vaguely recall another rejoinder Ward had with Cook where Ward said in effect, "For years, it was ER's detractors who called her a lesbian. I defended ER from that charge, and did so because I admired her. Now, because I deny a modern historian's designation of her as lesbian, I am denounced by that historian as hating ER."

Second, historian David Oshinsky favorably and also nicely reviews two biographies about legendary Brooklyn Dodgers: Branch Rickey and Roy Campanella. Oshinsky gives kudos to Jimmy Breslin's new bio of the flamboyant, inspirational and then skinflint- co-owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who people somewhat jokingly called "the Mahatma"--like Gandhi. What surprised me is that Oshinsky did not mention the magisterial biography of Rickey, which I read several months ago, by David Lowenfish. The beauty of Breslin's book appears to be its brevity and summarizing of Lowenfish's work--but my feeling about Breslin is that his viewpoint is terribly shallow about the business side of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Breslin is one of those foolish adults who continues to believe the lie told to him as a child that O'Malley schemed to leave Brooklyn, when in fact he was pushed out of Brooklyn. The powers that be in New York City, led by Robert Wagner and Robert Moses, gave O'Malley one choice: Queens or completely leave New York City. They didn't think O'Malley would leave, but Moses really wanted O'Malley to leave because he hated O'Malley's Tammany Hall political appointee father, and had his own ideas for a new baseball team to come to New York--helping along the way his buddy, William Shea, of the legendary and sometimes corrupt law firm, Shea & Gould. The Metropolitans show up a few years after O'Malley and the Dodgers (and less beloved NY Giants) leave for California, and the new stadium in Queens is called...Shea Stadium. That the Mets' current ownership is tied up with the convicted and disgraced financier Bernie Madoff is rather ironic in this light, isn't it? And it is doubly ironic to consider how the "villain" O'Malley had wanted to build a stadium in a vacant building and area of Brooklyn without one cent of taxpayer subsidies--and was refused by the city.

The biography on Campanella is intriguing, and proves why Rickey knew the first African-American baseball player in the modern era had to be an educated man who was loyal to his wife and family, and who could articulate on behalf of his "race" (I put that last term in quotes since biologists, sociologists and anthropologists tell us it is more a social construct and no better an indicator of character traits than our hair and eye color).

Third, here is writer James Gavin's excellent review of a new book on the legendary French singer, Edith Piaf. He brings her to life, manages to explain the shortcomings and positive aspects of the new biography of Piaf, and gives us a range of other sources that provides support for his opinions of the new biography. He knows his stuff, in other words, and writes about Piaf with a sensitivity that should make us males of the species proud.

Fourth, here is an astonishing review of a new book about Will Rogers, who was to me always more of a Bill Maher or even Jon Stewart of his time, with a healthy dose of the late Molly Ivins in the sense of playing a role of a small town mid-western "hick" who said profound things in a simple manner and style. I had no idea he was that connected to the back rooms of political life in the USA. John Schwartz's review is deliciously written, and I love the nugget he pulled from Rogers' vault of witty remarks: "Everything is changing. . . . People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke." How timely is that!? One amusing criticism of Schwartz is he shows his New York urban bias at the end of the review. He said Rogers' so-called "cornpone" does not travel well to our time. Try telling that to fans of Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, Mr. Schwartz. You and I may not like that sort of humor, but millions still find it hilarious. Still, I wish Molly had written the book--or even review. God, I miss her...(That's Susan Filudi doing the initially awkward interviewing...She is a delightful person, too, and so very earnest!)

There are also some intriguing reviews of new history books, including Richard Kluger's sad book about Native Americans losing the land we now call the Pacific Northwest, a fascinating sociologically-based perspective on the life of Isaac Newton and more evidence of the tragedy of Zimbabwe and the monstrous leader Mugabe, who started out as a darling of Western Bankers when he first took power three decades ago, and then embraced a totalitarian form of populism to maintain power since then.

Finally, here is a decent review by Andrew Delbanco of David Goldfield's new book questioning whether we should have as a nation fought the Civil War (1861-1865). Delbanco makes only a decent case why the Civil War was necessary, but I would go further. The Southern leadership was aching for war to defend slavery from the 1830s forward. The amazing thing is that the war did not start earlier. Henry Clay's astute and sometimes too effective diplomacy in the US Senate kept war from occurring in 1820 and especially 1850. There was also violent rhetoric and growing armed clashes in the territories and then States of Nebraska and Kansas, and the slightly earlier fight over California entering as a "free" state, which caused John C. Calhoun at the end of his life to lament that secession was either necessary or slavery was doomed. Calhoun also realized that Clay's diplomacy had staved off the inevitable war for so long that the North now had a population and wealth advantage, since slavery dominated plantations were simply not as profitable and as good for economic development as factories and finance, which characterized the North and northern Mid-West.

One also sees the inevitability of war between the Southern region of the US and the rest of the nation in the way in which the argument over slavery was underneath nearly every argument in Washington DC and other State capitols--whether involving Native American affairs, the tariff, "internal improvements," etc. The Southern States' Senators were all in favor of national power when they pushed for and passed the "Fugitive Slave Act" as part of the Compromise of 1850. The law overruled States' rights to protect runaway slaves escaping to and residing in the "free" States' borders and required State governments to cooperate and allow federal authorities to remit the slaves to their masters in the slave states. Talk about your mandate! The Southern Senators of course became more enamored with the rights of States following Lincoln's victory in November 1860...The reviewer forgets to alert the reader that the so-called moderate, Alexander Stevens of Georgia, the first Vice President of the Confederacy, made clear in his remarks at the time that slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.

The Confederate political leaders, starting with Jefferson Davis and down through Nathan Bedford Forest, should have been executed as the traitors they were for all the carnage they caused to defend a cause, slavery, that was odious and so against the ideals expressed in our nation's Declaration of Independence. At least Jefferson knew what a hypocrite he was as a slave holder, and so did Robert E. Lee, who more than any Southern leader, was able to move to stop the carnage by his brave act of surrender (see Jay Winik's "April 1865" for this remarkable insight). The failure to execute people like Forest and Davis allowed these men to rehabilitate themselves with their racist views intact and to tell their lies about having simply wanted to preserve states' rights. Plus, Forest was an enthusiastic and early supporter of the notorious Ku Klux Klan. Delbanco fails to explain to lay readers that the failure of Reconstruction following the war had to do with this leniency, and how the failure of Reconstruction led to rigid segregation laws and cultural practices. Nor does Delbanco explain how the corruption of the Republican Party from an economic standpoint made that cultural response possible. See: Rayford Logan's "The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson" for the most compact and penetrating analysis of this subject.

I'll check out David Goldfield's book, but I believe his pacifism has gotten the better of his judgment. Sometimes, there are good and solid reasons to fight a particular war. In my not so humble view, the US Civil War was the most inevitable of any American wars, foreign or otherwise.


At March 28, 2011 at 12:37:00 AM PDT, Anonymous hip703 said...

The Civil War was not fought for the purpose of ending slavery. Many of the leading abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, believed the South had a right to secede. Over 600,000 men were slaughtered so Lincoln could keep the Union intact. Such is the price of Union.

And speaking of carnage, before condemning Confederate political leaders, you ought to examine the motives and tactics of Northern military leaders. You should read up about Grant's futile assault at Cold Harbor over 12 days in May/June 1964. Over 12,000 Union men were killed, and it was due to the decisions of their commanders, not Confederate political leaders. (The battle occurred on Virginia soil). Such is the price of Union.

Then read about Sherman's March to the Sea, and tell me about carnage. Such is the price of Union.

At March 28, 2011 at 12:46:00 AM PDT, Anonymous hip703 said...

Typo - Cold Harbor was 1864. (Right year, wrong century).

If we should have executed Confederate political leaders, what about Northern political leaders? How about LBJ, for lying us into the Vietnam War, and then conscripting young men to fight and die in a jungle in Southeast Asia? And how about the Congressional leadership, which stood by and did nothing? How about George W. Bush, who lied us into the Iraq War? How about the Congressional leadership, which stood by, did nothing, and did not even declare War?

At March 28, 2011 at 3:30:00 AM PDT, Anonymous paulr said...

For a long time I have wondered about the wisdom of not allowing the succession of rebel states, and whether civil rights might not have been achieved faster if the South had been forced to live by their own insane rules (of course, preserving the union has not prevented insane rules!). On the other hand, that might have hastened the creation of a fascist state, although if they did not have an economic base like Germany ... it is confusing. At this moment, I think it was a mistake to prevent succession - it violated the democratic principle of self-governance - caused unbelievable pain & suffering - and ultimately resulted in worship of war & ridiculous civil war re-enactments.

At March 28, 2011 at 8:51:00 AM PDT, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...


You may want to argue with Ilya Solmin at Volokh Conspiracy, a dedicated libertarian, who studied the causes of the Civil War, from his libertarian perspective, and who concluded the South primarily seceded because of slavery. We are talking about the South's motives here, not Lincoln's or the North's initial view of the Civil War. We know Lincoln was not wanting to initially make the Civil War a fight over slavery. He had clung to a Henry Clay-like belief that there was another compromise available. It was only by the second year of the war that he began to realize this is really about slavery.

Second, simply because the slavery abolitionist Garrison believed the Southern States should be allowed to secede (I'll assume you are right about Garrison rather than look it up for the time being), again, does not explain the motives and actions of Southern leaders--nor whether they were of the view that they could do so without provoking an American national government to react.

By 1860, the consensus among the elite on both sides was that secession was likely not legal. That is primarily why the Southern Confederacy went to arms first at Fort Sumter. They knew there would be a fight with the national government. This was not like the Hartford Convention of 1814, which was not a ringing endorsement even at the time that a state could secede. There were no minutes kept of those proceedings, most were not ready to secede, and many believed that secession was a treason to the national government.

Let's face the awful truth here: The Southern leaders brought this on, and they got it. Sherman was doing nothing compared to what American cavalry did to Native Americans. He did not slaughter the inhabitants. He destroyed several towns and cities, however, in the sense of burning them down. And Cold Harbor was as tough a battle as Gettysburg, not appreciably more or less.

Executing the leaders would have sent a powerful message, unlike the way they were treated, which only made life for the African-Americans an awful trial and tribulation, and with terrorist acts for decades against them. The rise of segregation was done with violence against African-Americans, something not much appreciated in American political discourse. It was not simply a law passed, it was usually passed in tandem with outside the law violence, starting with lynchings.

At March 28, 2011 at 7:12:00 PM PDT, Anonymous hip703 said...

Ilya Somin is a Beltway Libertarian.

Re: Garrison, I do recall reading that he did not oppose Southern secession. I looked up the issue this evening. Apparently, he did not oppose South Carolina's secession, but later came around to support the Union cause, although he had been throughout his career condemning the Constitution as an Agreement with Hell. He had advocated that Northern states secede.

In any event, I believe in the right of self-determination. From a Constitutional perspective, the case for secession is clear. The Tenth Amendment makes plain that the Federal government enjoys only limited, defined, and enumerated powers, and the remaining powers are reserved to the respective States, or to the People. It was the States, after, that RATIFIED the Constitution. So it is ad hoc to then deny the States to withdraw from the pact, especially when there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding it.

What would have been the great tragedy had the South seceded, and Lincoln let them go their way? One thing is for certain, 600,000 men would not have perished. What is so sacrosanct about the notion that we needed to force the Southern states, against their will, to remain in the Union? Why was that worth the slaughter of over 600,000 men. Your commitment to an anti-War principles is questionable at best.

The slavery argument is a red herring. That was never the stated or actual purpose of Lincoln going to war. He was perfectly willing to allow the South to retain slavery in full force. In addition, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exempted from it the slaves in Maryland, a State which had remained in the Union (because Lincoln used the Federal Army to prevent the State Legislature from meeting to vote on secession).

Your notion that the Confederate leaders "brought on" the Total War waged by Sherman against Southern civilians is risible. All the South wanted to do was go their own way. It was their land. So that justifies the rape and pillage of their cities? Interesting how you can square that with your opposition to the Iraq War.

At March 28, 2011 at 10:19:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mitchell J. Freedman said...

nvading a foreign county, Iraq, around the world is the same as the American Civil War? Wow. Now, that is risible...:-)

The South attacked Fort Sumter. They did it for slavery. Your argument about Lincoln's initial motives of preserving the Union are letting the South off the hook for their motives.

I didn't know Ilya was a Beltway Libertarian. I'll have to watch for that...I thought he was pretty hard core and not Beltway, but I can be "learned..."

At April 1, 2011 at 10:23:00 PM PDT, Blogger Seeker said...

Lincoln didn't go to war to end slavery -- the South went to war to spread it.

Just like the US didn't go into WW2 to stop the Nazi death camps. FDR didn't fight back against the Japanese to get them out of the Phillipines.

The Southern leaders attacked -- they gave ultimatums to spread slavery, and when Llincoln refused to spread slavery -they attacked.

WHo said? The South said -- at the time. GO see the Southern Ultimatums to spread slavery, March 23 of 1861.

Go on, look em up.

The South issued FIVE Ultimatums, according to the Richmond and other newspapers. Guess how many of those five were about the SPREAD of slavery?

Five-- five out of five. SPread slavery -- or face war, is essentially what the South said.

Learn real history.

What the South shouted from the rooftops then, what they promised war for, what they said in the headlines, in their documents, in their speeches, the South will not even whisper now.

Pretend all you want -- the Southern leaders, the Southern newspapers, the Southern sermons, the Southern documents, the Southern governors, the Southern declarations -- demanded the SPREAD of slavery.

Not the protect of it, the SPREAD of it. S P R E A D. Not sorta, not kinda, not partially, but the direct demands to spread slavery or face war.

Learn real history - the history they don't teach.

The history of Lee torturing girls and screaming at them during their torture, of Lee selling white looking children, of Davis bragging that slavery was a blessing from God an the cornerstone of his new nation.

Go learn real history - not the pure BS we are taught in school.

The real history is availabe -- read SOUTHERN newspapers from the time. Read SOUTHERN speeches from the time. Read SOUTHERN books from the time. Read SOUTHERN documents from the time.

SPREAD slavery -- the five Ultimatums. Go learn it.

At April 1, 2011 at 10:27:00 PM PDT, Blogger Seeker said...

Sherman SHOULD have done total war.

He took it easy on the South.

He should have treated the South like they treated those who rebelled against it. The South had experience with rebels -- slaves who rebelled.

Do you know what the South did to slaves that rebelled?

They burned them to death slowly in front of their families. The lucky ones were hung or shor or beat to death.

When you learn what scum sucking pigs the South really was - the insane violence, the religious insanity, the demands to spread slavery, the terrorism and torture and rape --
no one dares tell the true story of the South.

I think it's time to tell the truth.
Enough politically correct crapola.

We should teach the truth about what led to the Civil War -- the torture, the rapes, the terrorism -- or we should not teach it at all.


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