September 1, 2013

1. American Wars

I finished a book called The History of American Wars, by T. Harry Williams, whom I mentioned in a recent issue. One might describe Williams as a military historian, though some of his books (such as his biography of Huey Long) deal with non-military subjects. He’s interested in the nuances of the military, such as the command structure, military education, etc. He thinks deeply and writes clearly; I enjoyed the book. Unfortunately, Williams died before finishing it; he brings his history through World War I, but doesn’t mention World War II or the Korean War or the Vietnam War.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, I was well aware that American opinion was divided about the wisdom of fighting in Vietnam. But this division of opinion seemed to be an anomaly: it seemed that during a “normal” war, such as World War II, the nation was united, and it seemed that the Vietnam War was uniquely controversial. But Williams describes how there were deep divisions over many American wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, etc. The Federalists in New England were so opposed to the War of 1812 that they considered seceding from the Union; the Massachusetts militia was used, not to help the federal government, but to threaten it.1 As for the Mexican War, it was so unpopular, especially in the Northeast, that “some opponents went so far as to admit they desired an American defeat.”2 During the Civil War, the Lincoln administration was so unpopular in the Midwest that government officials sent to enroll men for the draft, and arrest deserters, were routinely assaulted, and 38 were killed. If deserters were arrested, large bands of armed men would gather and demand their release. “Armed groups gathered regularly to drill” — an anti-government army.NYT The anti-war protests of the 1960s seem tame by comparison.

Williams says that the Mexican War led to the Civil War by bringing vast territories under U.S. control, and raising the question, Should these new territories allow slavery? And Williams says that the Spanish-American War led to the Philippine War by leaving the U.S. in control of the Philippines, which Spain had controlled previously. Pro-independence Filipinos, who had previously fought the Spanish, now began fighting the Americans. It was an undeclared war, a guerrilla war, a terrorist war — a “savage war of peace” like France’s war in Algeria, or the American war in Vietnam, or the recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Kipling coined the phrase “savage war of peace” when writing about the American war in the Philippines.

Before I read this book, I knew little about the Philippine war — indeed, I knew little about several American wars. So this book taught me American history. And as you learn history, you learn geography, since history takes place in the setting of geography. For example, when I read about Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec, I learned that the Kennebec and Chaudière rivers form a kind of highway between southern Maine and Quebec. And when I read about Civil War battles in Virginia, I learned about the Chesapeake Bay area, the rivers leading into it, etc.

In an earlier issue, I argued that the Civil War, and indeed all American wars, was unnecessary and could have been avoided. Williams discusses this view, and makes a strong argument against it:

One of the running debates in Civil War literature has been over the question of the inevitability of the conflict. Some scholars have disagreed that it was an “irrepressible” conflict and have affirmed that it could have been avoided if men had shown reason and restraint and compromised their differences. Their view is appealing to those who want to believe that every war can be averted, but it is not convincing. Resting on an exaggerated concept of human rationality, it assumes that we possess the capacity to solve any problem. The truth is that Americans of the 1850s had worked themselves into a controversy that could not be solved by normal and rational methods. The majority was determined that slavery must be ended and demanded that a plan be devised for its riddance. The minority was determined to retain slavery and refused even to consider a plan for abolition. In this impasse something had to give. Either the North had to cease agitating the slavery question or the South had to accept a procedure for eliminating the institution it regarded as basic to its way of life. Since neither side would yield the only remaining solution was a resort sooner or later to violence. The solution was tragic, but a tragic resolution was the only one possible.3

Williams makes the striking observation that the British had no reason to fight the Revolutionary War, since even if they had won, any taxes they collected in the colonies would have been offset by the cost of stationing troops in the colonies.

2. Alistair Horne and Peter Ackroyd

I recently re-discovered a historian named Alistair Horne. I first heard his name many years ago, when I was reading Elie Kedourie, and Kedourie praised Horne’s study of the French-Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962.

Horne was born in England, served in World War II, attended Cambridge, and then began working as a foreign correspondent for an English newspaper. Horne specializes in French history; he has written books about Paris, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Paris Commune, etc. His Seven Ages of Paris is a history of the city.

Horne wrote a book about one year in Kissinger’s life (1973). He’s sometimes called an authorized biographer of Kissinger, though Niall Ferguson may have a better claim to that title. At any rate, Kissinger seems to be a friend of Horne’s, and Kissinger recommended Horne’s Savage War of Peace to George W. Bush, in the belief that it would help Bush to understand the American situation in Iraq. Horne’s Savage War made him a kind of celebrity when the U.S. became involved in Iraq; he was invited to the White House, and Savage War was re-published. Click here to see Horne discussing Algeria and Iraq.

If you’d like to read a history of London, consider Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography and his Illustrated London. Ackroyd is a prolific writer of biography, history, and historical fiction. His biography of Thomas More won the James Tait Black Prize in 1998, and his biography of T. S. Eliot won the Whitbread Award in 1984. (In earlier issues, I criticized Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare, and mentioned his biography of Dickens.)

Consider also London Fabric, by James Pope-Hennessy; London Fabric won the Hawthornden Prize in 1939. According to Wikipedia, Pope-Hennessy was “one of the leading biographers of his time”; among the people he wrote about was Trollope. Pope-Hennessy also wrote several travel books.

3. Alan Seeger

I discovered an American poet named Alan Seeger. He was the uncle of folk singer Pete Seeger, and the Harvard classmate of T. S. Eliot. After graduating from Harvard, he led a bohemian life, first in Greenwich Village, then in Paris’ Latin Quarter. When World War I started, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He died at age 28, in the Battle of the Somme. Like many people who die young, he seemed to anticipate an early death, and he wrote a poem called “I have a rendezvous with Death”:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath —
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

This poem was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorites, and he often asked his wife to recite it. Click here for a recording of it.

4. What A Writer Offers A Woman

What can I hold you with?
I offer you whatever insight my books may hold,
    whatever manliness or humor my life.
I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow — the central heart
    that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams, and is
    untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.
I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at sunset, years before you were born.
I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about
    yourself, authentic and surprising news of yourself.
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
    hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you
    with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.
                   --Borges, “Two English Poems”

Ovid said, “While I can’t give you gifts, I will give words” (Cum dare non possem munera, verba dabam).

5. Jorge Carrera Andrade

I discovered a poet from Ecuador, Jorge Carrera Andrade. Andrade is considered one of the leading Latin American poets of the 20th century, along with Pablo Neruda (Chile), Cesar Vallejo (Peru), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), etc. Like many Latin intellectuals, Andrade served in his country’s government and foreign service. Andrade died in 1978, at the age of 76. The leading Andrade scholar, J. Enrique Ojeda, also Ecuadoran, lives here in the Providence area, and introduced me to Andrade.

In an essay on Andrade, Ojeda says that Andrade moved away from modernism and pessimism, and embraced the simple and positive. Ojeda speaks of

a new era — affirmative and hopeful — which was that of Carrera Andrade and his literary companions. A happy intuition revealed to them that modernismo had wasted away in the fire of its own stylistic excesses and that all efforts to prolong it would be fruitless.4

Andrade and his cohorts agreed with the French poet Apollinaire, who said,

It is necessary to react against the pessimism that has plagued writers from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is necessary to exalt man and not diminish and demoralize him. In this sense, I am anti-Baudelaire.

Andrade also admired the young André Gide, author of The Fruits of the Earth (Les nourritures terrestres); Ojeda speaks of Gide’s “new, vital ardor.” Finally, the young Andrade admired a third French writer, Francis Jammes.

Eschewing symbols and allegories, Jammes insisted that objects be treated as having a life of their own. In Jammes’s view, all things, even the most humble and ordinary, could be described and sung.

Andrade said, “My world revolved around an axis: the love of things for themselves, not for the reflections or echoes that they awake in our intellect.” I’m reminded of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was a contemporary of Andrade’s. As I said in an earlier issue, Milosz’s “reading of East Asian poetry confirmed Milosz in his preference for poems that ‘honored the object, not the subject’.... He extolled ‘the holy word: Is.’ All that he required for a justification of existence was a description of existence.”

Like Milosz, Andrade was drawn to Eastern culture. Andrade spent two years as a diplomat in Japan. During this time, he published a book of miniature poems, Microgramas, which was probably influenced by Japanese haiku.

Andrade was a tireless traveler. In his autobiography The volcano and the hummingbird, Andrade said, “I travelled first to educate myself. Later, travelling became the very reason of my existence.” Andrade’s first book of essays, Latitudes, deals with his travels as well as literary and political subjects. As he moved about the world (as a diplomat as well as tourist), Andrade generated interest in his work in various countries. For example, his stay in the U.S. in the early 1940s generated interest in his work among American writers. Thomas Merton translated some of Andrade’s poems in a book called Emblems of the Season of Fury, and Muna Lee also translated Andrade (Secret Country). Andrade’s poetry was praised by Carl Sandburg, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, etc. “The images are so extraordinarily clear,” Williams wrote, “so close to the primitive.”

Andrade had a special link to French culture. “Between 1948 and 1949, six books of French translations of his poetry appeared, as well as several important critical essays.” Andrade made an anthology of contemporary French poetry; he translated 52 French and Belgian poets into Spanish.

6. Commas

Punctuation is an important part of style, so I’d like to share the following e-mail exchange about commas.

MeThanks very much for your kind invitation, but I think I should stay home tonight, and try to catch up on the little jobs that I’ve been neglecting.
A friendI don’t think you needed a comma between “tonight” and “and.” I am probably wrong...
MeNo, you’re not wrong. I’m not wrong either. I use lots of commas to create breathing places, and to make my sentences clearer. The comma you mentioned creates a breathing place, a resting place; without it, there would be a lot to read in one breath. You wouldn’t want my readers to get out of breath, would you? Commas are often a matter of taste, not a matter of right and wrong. I use them more liberally than most modern writers; I have a taste for them. And besides, they’re free!
A friendI thought it was a grammatical rule, no commas before an “and.”
MeThere are lots of grammatical rules: every English teacher has a set of rules, every textbook has a set of rules. You can choose which ones you like, or make up your own! I’m not aware of any “hard and fast” rules in the literary world; in this field, we’re free!5

7. Catherine Drinker Bowen

Many years ago, I enjoyed a biography of Francis Bacon by Catherine Drinker Bowen. Bacon was a lawyer as well as philosopher. Bowen wrote a biography of another Elizabethan lawyer, Edward Coke (The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke). Her Coke biography won the National Book Award in 1958. Bowen’s work is a nice blend of scholarly and popular; one might say that she writes for the educated layman.

Bowen was born into a prominent Quaker family in Pennsylvania (her last book was Family Portrait). Perhaps her most popular book was Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention. When she died in 1973, Bowen left behind an unfinished biography of Benjamin Franklin; it was later published as The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin. Bowen also wrote John Adams and the American Revolution. Trained as a musician, Bowen began her writing career with two books about musicians: a study of Tchaikovsky, and a study of the Rubinstein brothers (Anton and Nikolai). Bowen wrote two books about the art of biography: Adventures of a Biographer, and Biography: The Craft and the Calling.

Research on one subject often sparks interest in a related subject. Bowen’s research on Tchaikovsky led to her work on Tchaikovsky’s teacher, Anton Rubinstein. Her research on the Constitutional Convention led to her works on Adams and Franklin. Her research on Coke led to her work on Bacon. Both of these studies of Elizabethan lawyers may have been inspired by her earlier research on the American lawyer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Bowen’s first book outside the field of music was Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family).

8. Miscellaneous

A. I discovered a writer named Werner Jaeger, who specialized in Greek culture and early Christianity. Born and raised in Germany, Jaeger spent most of his adult life in the U.S.; for many years, he was on the Harvard faculty. In 1923, at the age of 35, Jaeger published a well-regarded study of Aristotle called Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development. Perhaps Jaeger’s best-known book is a three-volume study of Greek education and culture called Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. (Paideia was translated by Gilbert Highet, who taught classics at Columbia for about thirty years.) Jaeger died in 1961.

B. I discovered a historian named John Rigby Hale, who specialized in the Italian Renaissance. Among Hale’s books are

  • Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy
  • Renaissance Europe, 1480-1520
  • Italian Renaissance Painting from Masaccio to Titian

Hale’s wife, Sheila Hale, wrote a biography of Titian, a guide to Venice, and a guide to Verona.

C. Here’s a dilemma that you hope you’ll never have to face yourself, a dilemma that might provide material for a novelist or filmmaker:
Your daughter is raped. The perpetrators are experienced, street-wise, and they know that their odds of being caught are reduced if the victim doesn’t press charges, doesn’t testify. So they try to intimidate the victim into keeping silent, they tell her that if she speaks out, they’ll make her pay, they’ll get revenge. Your daughter is traumatized and also intimidated, she doesn’t want to press charges. You know, however, that if she keeps silent, the odds that another girl will be raped increase. Someone has to speak out. Should you urge your daughter to speak out?

9. Maine

I recently made a short visit to Augusta, Maine. Augusta is Maine’s capital, but it isn’t a large city; perhaps it was chosen as the capital because of its central location. Augusta is a river town; it’s on the Kennebec River, one of Maine’s largest rivers. Augusta is about 30 miles from the coast, at the “head of tide” — that is, the furthest point that the tide reaches on the Kennebec. Augusta is also at the “head of navigation” — that is, the furthest point at which the Kennebec is navigable by large ships.

If you look at a map of Maine, you notice three major cities: from west to east, Lewiston, Augusta, and Bangor. These cities are on three major rivers: from west to east, the Androscoggin, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot. These cities are all about 30 miles from the coast, presumably because they’re all at the head of navigation. But Maine’s largest city, Portland, is on the coast; perhaps it became the largest city because its harbor was less prone to become ice-covered than the rivers, and easier for large ships to navigate.

Many Maine towns offer guided tours of historic sites. Ten Maine towns offer self-guided tours, using a system of signs and brochures called The Museum in the Streets. I often use a website called WalkTheTown, but it has a tour of only one Maine city (Augusta). Maine, a Guide “Down East” was written during The Depression by the Federal Writers’ Project; it offers tours of seven Maine towns (Amazon sells a Kindle version of this book for $2). Of all Maine towns, Portland probably has the most tours (both guided and self-guided), and the largest number of historic buildings.

I was surprised to find that even Maine’s small river towns, and small coastal towns, have a long history and interesting architecture. One of Maine’s chief attractions is Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island. Acadia has carriage roads that are popular with cyclists. Mount Desert Island also has popular vacation towns like Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor. For info about cycling in Maine, click here or here.

On your way to Acadia, you may want to visit Fort Knox, which was built in the mid-1800s, and the nearby Penobscot Narrows Bridge, whose observation tower is open to the public. (Maine’s Fort Knox should not be confused with the larger, better-known Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of the country’s gold reserves are kept. Both the Maine Fort Knox and the Kentucky Fort Knox are named after Henry Knox, artillery leader in the American Revolution, and the first U.S. Secretary of War.)

© L. James Hammond 2013
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Footnotes
1. Ch. 5, p. 105. As I write these lines, I’m visiting Augusta, Maine, and I came across a sign saying that, in 1812, President Madison was hung in effigy on an Augusta wharf. back
2. Ch. 7, p. 160 back
3. Ch. 9, p. 206. Coming back to the subject of guerrilla war: Americans used guerrilla tactics in the Civil War. See Daniel Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. back
4. Ojeda’s 20-page essay is in a massive reference book called Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos Solé and Klaus Muller-Bergh. Ojeda helped establish a collection of Andrade materials at Stony Brook University. back
5. I also discussed commas in an earlier issue. back