Thursday, July 05, 2007

Unintentional and undeclared, American History Week continues

My reading shifts a bit with the seasons, and with the arrival of summer I tend to find myself digging through the various histories I've accumulated during the year. Perhaps I'm driven to reading history in the summer by the memory of childhood vacations with my family when I was a kid, the five of us crammed into a compact car and wandering all over America, stopping off at historical sites along the way. So in acknowledgment of my summer tendencies, I'll continue what's turned into a history week by taking a look at a couple of strong American histories I've read recently, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (1958), by Richard N. Current, and Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007) by John Ferling. Both authors seem to fit Montaigne's description of great historians in "On Books":
The truly outstanding historians have the capacity to pick out what is worth being known, they can select of the two accounts the one that is more likely to be rue. From the character of princes and their humors they infer their intentions and attribute to them suitable words. They are right to assume the authority of regulating our belief by their own; but certainly this privilege belongs to very few.

Current's book, which I picked up after Eric Foner recommended it in the New York Times Book Review, is set up explicitly along the lines that Montaigne suggests, weighing various bits of evidence, assessing veracity and pertinacity, and making judgments. As Current explains in the foreword, even fifty years ago when he was writing, the number of books on Lincoln was already almost unmanageable, presenting almost as many different Lincolns--many of them irreconcilable. So instead of attempting to write a definitive book on Lincoln or stake out new territory, Current decided to return to Lincoln's own words, and the words of his contemporaries, and sort through them for what they reveal about several specific facets of the man, including his military leadership, his handling of the South's initial provocations, his family life, and his religion.

The brief book that results could serve as an introductory course in writing history: for each topic, Current presents the evidence for each possible position, then, by taking into account the trustworthiness and reliability of each source, their distance (in both time and relationship) from Lincoln, and, ultimately, the inherent plausibility of each possible explanation for Lincoln's behavior, he makes a judgment. The Lincoln who emerges from Current's trial is by no means clear or open--the man played his cards too close to his vest for that ever to be the case--but I do feel that I know him a bit better and am more comfortable in my impressions.

John Ferling's aim in Almost a Miracle is much bigger; he's written a full history of the military side of the American Revolution to accompany his earlier account of its political and social aspects, A Leap in the Dark. But he, too, has taken Montaigne's dictum to heart and is not afraid to render judgments when appropriate. And while the British generals--dithering and uncertain where not positively incompetent--come off the worst, General Washington's reputation also takes some hits. Whereas other Revolutionary histories I've read--Benson Bobrick's Angel in the Whirlwind, for example--give Washington enormous credit for selecting and adhering to the Fabian strategy appropriate to his outnumbered force, Ferling presents a Washington whose attitude towards his situation is far more complicated.

Forced by circumstance to embrace the proto-guerrilla tactics of Fabianism, Ferling's Washington at the same time chafed against them, looking again and again for opportunities to discard his strategy of evasion in favor of a decisive, European-style battle. That desire, argues Ferling, led Washington to make a number of strategic blunders--blunders that, had the British had the creativity and ambition to exploit them, could have been fatal to the American cause. That's not to say that he dismisses Washington. Indeed, when Ferling presents the full picture of the conditions under which Washington labored--from being forced to create and train an army on the fly to having to perpetually reassure or cajole the weak and recalcitrant colonial government--the very fact that he remained in command throughout the war, let alone won it, remains impressive.

Ferling writes extremely well of battles, and he's particularly good at explaining the infighting that plagued the military leadership of both sides. Though I'm sure it wouldn't surprise anyone who's seen military service, I'm always astonished when I read military history by the amount of self-dealing and politicking that goes on among officers. While nominally dedicated above all else to a successful prosecution of the war, generals throughout history have undercut their leaders, secretly appealed to their elected representatives, and put themselves and their ambitions above the goals of the overall force; Washington's ability to navigate those waters--which reached their most treacherous with the betrayal of Benedict Arnold--is another testament to his leadership; the one quality that seemingly all writers on Washington assign him is a razor-sharp ability to assess people.

But fascinating as all this is, and as thoughtful as Ferling's presentation, I'm not ashamed to admit that ultimately my interest in history, like my interest in fiction, comes down to people. As Montaigne says elsewhere in "On Books":
I would rather choose to be truly informed of the conversation [Brutus] had in his tent with some of his particular friends the night before a battle than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his study and his chamber than what he did in the public square and in the Senate.
Fortunately, Ferling is also extremely good at that sort of detail, as evidenced by the following brief character sketch that introduces General Charles Lee, pictured here in a caricature by Barham Rushbrooke.
Tall and wafer-thin, with a pinched and homely face, Lee was given to quirky behavior. He was habitually unkempt, slovenly even, and voluble. Opinionated and prone to ceaseless monologues, he also never learned to curb his penchant for delivering a searing riposte. Lee had never married and insisted that he preferred dogs to most people. He spoke "the language of doggism," Lee said, adding that he found canines attractive because, unlike many people, they were neither bigoted nor inclined to put their "convenience, pleasure, and dignity" ahead of his. He traveled everywhere with his pack of hounds and seldom hesitated to foist them on others. "He is a queer creature," John Adams said of him, and Lee would have been the first to agree. He once confessed to his sister that in his "cooler candid moments" he understood that "my deportment must disgust and shock."

My only real complaint about Almost a Miracle is that it's one of the worst-edited books I've ever read. There are almost no typos, but other errors abound, from dangling modifiers to misplaced words to subject/verb disagreements. It's as if the only editing the book underwent was by a particularly good spell-checking program. Sloppy editing in and of itself is grating, but far more important--and frustrating--is the unshakable worry that an editor who isn't catching grammatical mistakes is unlikely to be catching mistakes of content. A serious book deserves far better.

But I hate to end on a negative note, so back to the positive: that's two books removed from the mess of histories ranged about on our spare bed, making my task of selecting books to carry on vacation later this month that much easier. Unless, that is, I make the mistake of going to the bookstore again before I leave . . .

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