Tag Archives: American history

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
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Filed under american history, criticism, culture, history, Howard Zinn, nonfiction, revolution, society, The United States

Review 97: The Civil War


The Civil War by Bruce Catton

When I was a kid, my grandparents thought they would do something that every grandparent should do – share what they love with the next generation. They bought me a subscription to the Time-Life series on The Civil War. Now for those of you too young to remember, Time-Life used to publish these monthly book series on various topics. The idea was that you would receive the books once a month, each book on a different topic in the series. My father had the Science Series, which I absolutely adored, and my grandparents thought that I would fall similarly in love with the Civil War series.

After all, they both were interested in this most unfortunate periods in U.S. history. It spanned five years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and permanently altered the face of our nation. What’s not to love?

Predictably, I found them kind of boring.

The pictures were all in black and white, static in composition and full of dead guys with beards. There were lots of dates that I couldn’t comprehend, talking about places I’d never been and full of names I’d never heard of. I got them, flipped through them and was just not interested.

Looking back, I know that I was a bad grandson and I feel bad that I can’t tell my grandparents that.

Now that I’m older, and I know some things about my country and its history, I can really appreciate the enormous change that the Civil War brought upon the United States. As horrible as it was – and it was horrible – without that war our nation would be a pale shadow of what it is today. If it were a nation at all….

We all know the facts: in 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln and years of arguing about slavery and its place in a modern nation, eleven states seceded from the United States and formed their own Confederate States of America. In response, Lincoln raised an army from the remaining states in the Union and launched it at the Rebels. After five years of relentless fighting, the war was won in favor of the Union. The rebel states were accepted back into the Union, and the nation has been putting itself back together ever since then.

That’s the big picture, and that’s basically what this book does. In less than 300 pages, Catton gives an interesting and dynamic overview of the War, from its origins in such decisions as Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise up through the assassination of Lincoln and the failures of the Reconstruction. It follows the major battles of the war, listing the strikes and feints of each army and introducing all the major players. Between these, he talks about the political and social effects of the war – how the economies of the two states fared, how the international community viewed the conflict, and what the ultimate fate of the slaves was.

The pace of the book is very good, even if the blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles get a little soft in the middle. Catton acts as a narrator for the war, telling it as one might tell a story. He works up to climactic moments, then leaves us there to consider for a while before moving on to the next event. What’s more, he’s fair. It’s very easy for people to be unfair to the South – they were rebels, after all. Traitors, some might say. But Catton wants us to understand that the South was doing what it thought was in its best interests, as with the North. What’s more, he wants us to know that the South fought harder than any army has since, sacrificing countless men and an entire culture to a war that they really could not win. He does not demonize the South, nor does he praise the North. He is simply a storyteller, who knows from the beginning the tragic tale that he has in store for us.

So yes, I think this book is an excellent read, especially if you’re just getting into the Civil War. My one real complaint about it is that the book lacks adequate maps which would otherwise help a reader visualize what kind of maneuvers the armies of the North and the South are making. There are maps at the back of the book, but I wouldn’t call them “adequate.” They’re black and white where they really should be color – having both the Union and the Confederate advances marked with black arrows isn’t really helpful. Given the intricate interactions between armies, some kind of clear visual aid might have been useful.

If you have access to the internet, of course, you can get a slightly clearer view of what happened, where and when. Mind you, even the better maps that you can find on line still take some interpretation. Still, it would have been nice to have the book more accessible to those of us who don’t carry the maps in our heads.

The reason why this is important is that even though this book is kind of an index tour of the Civil War, it still gets into a lot of detail – which general moved which army across which river is vital to understanding how the war progressed. The reason the book can go into such detail is that this is one of the most extensively studied conflicts in our history. Every battle, the movement of every army has been studied and documented over the last century and a half, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. The Civil War is fundamental to how our nation became what it is, and as such it is an obsession for the United States.

That’s what this book really tries to understand – why, of all the wars that we have fought, are we so obsessed with this one? You don’t see people doing a lot of World War 2 re-enactments or dressing up to fight mock battles of our cute little war with Spain. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any kind of Afghan War Re-enactment Society a hundred and fifty years from now.

It was a horrible war. It took more lives in a single battle than we’ve seen in our current Middle East conflict so far. It was fought by untrained, inexperienced men who had no idea what they were in for when they signed up. It was a war fought not only for territory but for ideals – for the South’s ability to maintain its agrarian slave culture and for the North’s ability to keep the Union whole. It was a war that could have gone a thousand different ways, each more horrible than the last, and the fact that it ended as well as it did is completely due to the strength of character possessed by all the men involved in sealing that bloody peace. It was a war that was, perhaps, inevitable.

That was something I took away from this book. The Civil War had to happen. In order for our country to progress, it had to do away with the things that was holding it back, slavery being one of those things. It was a test to see if the union could balance its ideals of liberty and order, and to see if it was worthy of forging ahead. It was a war that settled who we are as a nation, at least for a little while, and put paid to the question of whether we were a bunch of congenial states or a true nation, ready to take its place in the world.

The Civil War is one of those topics that people spend their lives studying, and rightly so. Its effects can be felt even today, and the echoes from the shots fired at Fort Sumpter and Gettysburg and Shiloh won’t fade as long as this nation survives. For Americans, to know the Civil War is to know how grateful we should be that we have the country we do. It is often said that soldiers die to keep us free, but I would say than no army of the United States since then has done so more literally than the army of this conflict.

For those of you who aren’t American, this might give you a little insight into our character. Most nations wouldn’t survive such a conflict, with such immense losses of life and the utter destruction of an economy. But we did, somehow. The wounds from that war aren’t entirely healed – there are still scars. But we have stayed together since then, and I reckon that nothing is going to tear us apart again.

So Grandmom, Grandpop, I’m sorry. I really should have appreciated what you tried to teach me. But now I do, and I can pass it on to others….

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“A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men’s control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society’s roots are nourished. They bring about infinite change, not because anyone especially wants it, but because all-out warfare destroys so much that things can never again be as they used to be.”
Bruce Catton, The Civil War
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Bruce Catton on Wikipedia
The Civil War on Amazon.com
The American Civil War on Wikipedia

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Review 81: A Treasury of Great American Scandals


A Treasury of Great American Scandals by Michael Farquhar

There are many good reasons to study history. There is the desire not to be doomed to repeat it, for one, which I find to be an excellent motivator. I remember watching the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and hearing the spectral voice of William Randolph Hearst screaming “Remember the Maine!” in my head. And of all the reasons to study history, that is perhaps the most important, though not necessarily the most fun.

You might also study history to just enjoy the stories. I used to hate history, especially in high school. Like so many of you out there, I had a boring high school history teacher, who did his very best to make sure that none of his youthful charges ever gave a damn about history once finals were over. If I were a more conspiratorially-minded person, I would say it was so that he could contribute to a generation of Sheeple that would do as they were told by their corporate and governmental masters, but that would be giving him too much credit. More likely it was a lack of proper continuing education for teachers combined with the inevitable erosion of the soul that must come from anyone who has to deal with high school students all day.

In any case, I came to enjoy history once I started looking at it as a series of stories. Not just names and dates and events, but actual people. And once I understood that these stiff, bearded men and those stiff, corseted women were really human beings – with lives as rich and as interesting as any other human being (moreso, in fact, since we remember their names after a century or two) – I found more reasons to care both about them and the times in which they lived.

Take, for example, Aaron Burr. Killer of Alexander Hamilton. The two of them despised each other, seeming to even resent the fact that the other man existed, and years of animosity culminated in a fateful duel in 1804. The two men met on the dueling ground, as was the manner of the day, and shot. Both men were injured, Hamilton fatally, and Burr fled, as what he had done was technically murder. But that wasn’t all for good old Aaron Burr – he moved West, and engaged in activities that appeared to be either an invasion of Mexico or an attempt to split the Union in two along the Appalachian Mountains. Or both.

Or neither- no one was really sure what Burr what up to, other than no good. But the man was slippery in a way that would make Dick Cheney go green. While everyone knew he had murdered Hamilton, and everyone knew he was trying to set himself up as possibly the Emperor of Western America, he never went to trial for the first crime and was acquitted of treason in his second. He died a free, but reviled, man. Hell of a guy.

Not all the stories are as grand in scope – some are feuds and revenge stories that burn with jealous rage. Such was the case of Senator William Sharon’s fling with Althea Hill, which led to death, betrayal, madness, and two Supreme Court decisions. Sharon and Hill began a highly suspect love affair in 1880. It was hot, it was passionate, and it ended very, very badly, Sharon dead, Hill in an insane asylum, and Hill’s second husband (her defense attorney) shot dead by the bodyguard of the Supreme Court justice who was to rule on whether or not Hill and Sharon had been legally married in the first place.

That doesn’t hold a candle, in my opinion, to the story of Rep. Daniel Sickles, his wife Teresa, and her lover (and Sickles’ friend), Philip Barton Key, which ended in vengeful murder and an intervention by the President of the United States. Key was stepping out with Teresa on a regular and not-very-subtle basis, and everyone knew it. Everyone but Daniel Sickles, of course. Lies have a way of making themselves known, however, and eventually he found out and confronted his wife. Key, however, had no idea the affair had been exposed, and showed up in Lafayette Park, his usual meeting place with Teresa, giving The Signal that he wanted a little extra-marital nookie. What he got was a furious husband and a bullet in the chest. Sickles, for his part, was acquitted on what may have been the first “temporary insanity” defense in the nation’s history.

Parts of this book are especially fun to read in an election year, as there’s an entire section devoted to underhanded, dishonest or otherwise dirty campaigning. If you thought that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were bad, or the Tea Parties were poisoning the discourse, you’re forgetting that in the Presidential campaign of 1828, John Adams’ people accused Andrew Jackson’s mother of being a prostitute, his wife of being a bigamist, and Jackson himself of being a homicidal maniac. During the campaign of 1800 (Jefferson versus Adams), the Connecticut Courant warned that, should Jefferson be elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and proclaimed. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”

Lincoln, who has become known as one of the greatest presidents this country has ever had, was called “a joke” by the New York Herald, and an “ignorant, boorish, third-rate backwoods lawyer” by the New York World. Grover Cleveland was assaulted with the chant, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa!” after it was discovered that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. This led to accusations of further debaucheries and unnamed sins against good Christian womanhood and morals the likes of which would make Bill Clinton’s head spin.

A nice coda to that story, though – Cleveland openly admitted to fathering the child (and providing support to the mother afterwards), believing that the truth was the best defense against smears. It also helped that his opponent had not only despoiled a girl in his youth, but was forced to marry her at shotgun-point – hardly one who should be criticizing a man for his youthful indiscretions. When Cleveland won re-election, his followers took up the Republicans’ taunting chant with a retort laced with schadenfreude – “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Which brings me to the third reason why it’s valuable to study history – it helps you gain perspective. The United States is going through some trying times right now, and if you pay attention to the blogs and the cable news networks, you might believe that these are indeed the worst of times. That having a sitting governor traipse down to Argentina for a little Latin loving is the nadir of morality. That having a news organization foment protest rallies and marches is the height of unethical behavior. That accusing your white opponent of having fathered a black child, or spending some private time with a White House intern, or making IM passes at teenage boys are all signs that America is on a one-way trip to hell, even if we can’t afford the handbasket.

History is the antidote to the common belief that the times in which we live must be special. Every generation thinks it – that I am here, therefore the events of my times must be the most important events to have ever happened. It’s egocentric and very, very human, but – and this is important – it’s not true. There is nothing special or different about the times in which we live, because human nature hasn’t changed. For every scandal we see today that frightens or enrages or disgusts us, you can look to history to see that it’s already been done, and done worse. History provides perspective, and it offers hope. The country has seen a lot of bad things in its time, but it has survived. It has seen abuse of civil rights that were far more egregious than anything that happened after 9/11 and it has survived. It has seen civil unrest that makes the Tea Partiers or the G20 protesters look like sulky children – and it has survived.

So turn off the TV, step away from the computer and pick up a good history book – like this one – and let your worries settle down to a much more manageable size. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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“I don’t know what to do about this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don’t know where the book is, and maybe I couldn’t read it if I found it! My God, this is a hell of a place for a man like me to be!”
– Warren G. Harding
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A Treasury of Great American Scandals on Amazon.com
Michael Farquhar at Penguin.com

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Review 80: Common Sense


Common Sense by Thomas Paine

This being an election year, there are a lot of people telling us what we should think about our country and its purpose in the world. Newspapers, magazines and books are churned out at a dizzying pace, each one designed to bend our wills to the writers’ opinions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by them, honestly, especially the hardback tomes that – more often than not – turn out to be 300 pages of poorly disguised propaganda and party talking points.

From out vantage point, with a myriad of news sources at our fingertips – print, internet, and, of course, the insatiable maw that is 24-hour TV news – it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Common Sense had when it was released as an anonymously penned pamphlet back in 1776.

No matter what your history teachers told you, the American colonists back then were not unanimously crying out for independence and liberation. Tensions were high between the Colonies and Britain, what with the various tax schemes and the conflicts in Boston, Lexington and Concord, but for everyone calling for independence, there were just as many who were looking for reconciliation between the Colonies and the Crown. They were British subjects, after all, and the thought of breaking from their God-given sovereign caused them great distress.

“We are his subjects,” the argument ran. “Who are we to disagree with his decisions? This may not be so great right now, but surely if we acquiesce, if we bow our heads, then we’ll receive all the benefits due his loyal subjects.”

Thomas Paine thought that this line of thinking was, in modern terms, bullshit, and he set out to explain precisely why.

Common Sense was written as a call for independence, aimed at convincing those hoping for reconciliation that their hopes were in vain. He believed that there could be no benefit to reconciling with the Crown, and that the only hope for Americans to have a decent future lay in the severing of bonds with Britain.

Without resorting to personal attacks, without naming names or pointing fingers, Paine systematically lays out a logical and clear rationale for independence. He begins by arguing against the legitimacy of Kings in general, and the King of England specifically, and puts forth the benefits that could only arise from representative government. He puts forth the practical economic and political reasons for independence in a calm and clear manner, and he does so in a way that makes it all sound like, well, common sense. It’s easy to imagine him standing there, saying, “Come on people! It’s friggin’ obvious!”

Political writers in the 21st century don’t really appreciate the things that they can get away with these days. If Ann Coulter wants to write a book about how Barack Obama is the vanguard of a Liberal Muslim Homosexual Revolution, she can. If Michael Moore wants to do a movie claiming that George W. Bush is the demon love child of Margaret Thatcher and Adolph Hitler, he can. The worst that’ll happen to them is a libel suit and a humbling public apology.

The worst that could have happened to Thomas Paine was a public hanging – if he was lucky.

Common Sense is such a pivotal document in American history – its influence cannot be overstated. It was so widely read, so acclaimed, that it is reasonable to say that the United States as we know it might not have come into being without it. It’s writing that I wish we could see these days. Not a call for independence per se, but rather clear, level-headed writing that treats its readers with respect. I’ve read a lot of political books in the last few years, and none of them were as straightforward and to the point as this book was.

What’s more, reading it is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that the founders of this country had for it. When they finally risked their lives and signed the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, when they fought and suffered and died in the years following, when they argued and compromised to create a Constitution, they did so in the hopes that the country they were forging would be a good one. They did so in the knowledge that they would never see the era of the United States’ true greatness, but in the hopes that it would one day come.

It is the responsibility of all Americans to live up to those hopes.

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“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense . . .”
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense
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Thomas Paine on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikisource
Common Sense on Amazon.com
Cracked.com – 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

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Review 61: Dave Barry Slept Here


Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry

Sometimes you just need a palate cleanser. Something to make you smile, that requires a minimum of thought for a maximum of entertainment. This is a dangerous thing to look for; it’s all too easy to find oneself wading through a sea of dross, looking for funny but just finding silly, childish nonsense of a mediocre caliber.

The nice thing about Dave Barry is that he is silly childish nonsense of the highest caliber.

My family has been Barry fans for a long time running. When I was a kid, the new Dave Barry book was an automatic Father’s Day present, and would migrate around the house as one or another of us picked it up for a few laughs. Fortunately for us, the laughs were more than a few – I remember laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a few minutes because just thinking “Hawley-Smoot Tariff” sent me into uncontrollable giggles.

This book is Barry’s tribute to not only American history, but to the whole concept of history books themselves. The fact that he’s covering everything from the initial human migration into North America to the Bush-Quayle administration (the book was published in 1989) in only 175 pages with fairly large font is a sign of his being a true master of history.

For example, he does what most public school textbooks do – he skips the boring parts. Teapot Dome? Who cares! The Federal Banking Crisis of 1837? Yawn…. We all remember high school, right? Pretty much nothing happened between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the Civil War seventy-six years later. Right? He also saves time and space by skipping over those parts of history which are, to use a technical term from historiography, “bummers.” World War 2, for example – nothing fun to talk about there.

What Barry also does to make history easier is he standardizes the dates for us. No more do we have to remember what month and day something occurred (a feat that always kept me off the high score list in high school history class.) Now all the prospective student of history has to remember is October 8. When did the Mayflower arrive in New England? October 8. When was Kennedy assassinated? October 8. When was the very first Fourth of July? October 8.

See how easy it is? Why didn’t they do this when I was in school?

The style of the book is like someone writing about something barely remembered, with only the most cursory amount of research done. And this was in the pre-Wikipedia days, kids, when you had to look stuff up in books. Fortunately, while Barry’s history does indeed parallel our own, it is almost completely devoid of actual facts that you may be required to remember. All you really have to do is follow him along on the ride. Of course, if you actually do know something about American history, the book is even funnier. The fact that the book ends with the election of George Herbert Walker Norris Wainright Armoire Vestibule Pomegranate Bush IV and his vice-President Dan “Potatoe” Quayle does disappoint a bit, but, linear time being what it is, there’s not a whole lot one can do about it. All history books, serious and silly, are obsolete the moment they hit bookstores. The good news is that Barry maintained a prolific career as a columnist until he retired back in 2004, so you can read his thoughts on the large amount of history that did not end in 1989.

I will always have a warm place for Dave Barry in my heart, but I do have to confess something. When I was younger and read Dave Barry, I would laugh. A lot. Those good, hearty, soul-clearing laughs, and part of the best memories I have of Dave Barry is simply remembering laughing. I didn’t laugh very much reading this again. I don’t know if it’s because I knew where all the jokes were, if my head just wasn’t in the right place, or if my sense of humor has changed over the last twenty years.

Twenty years. Good lord.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I had far fewer of those laugh-out-loud moments than I used to. It’s still funny, don’t get me wrong. I just didn’t giggle, guffaw, cackle and try to read bits to my long-suffering co-workers. Whatever it is, I kind of miss it. I think I’ll have to dip into some of his other books to see if I can find it again.

If you haven’t read Barry, I definitely recommend checking him out. This book is a fine place to start….

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“But as the old saying goes, “Time heals all wounds,” and in the more than 120 years since the Civil War ended, most of this bitterness gradually gave way to subdued loathing, which is where we stand today.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Slept Here on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s homepage
Dave Barry Slept Here on Amazon.com

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Review 60: Assassination Vacation


Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words “presidential historian” through your mind (in my mind, “presidential historian” is usually an older man of leisure who’s managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.

Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it’s the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.

Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln’s steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.

Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part – his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Sitting in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there – “Wow. This was the place.” She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln’s assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford’s Theatre and shook the nation.

Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin’s gun – Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn’t been long enough since the event, or because there’s so much controversy surrounding it already….

The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don’t. And it’s all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things – frustration, anger, despair, madness – and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don’t appreciate them all that much.

Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. “Then, as now,” she says, “optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them.”

One of Vowell’s great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.

This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they’re going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell – an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, “Well, that’s that.” History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they’d take more interest.

It’s a fun read. If you weren’t interested in history before you read this book, you’ll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she’d sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book – Charles Guiteau was a hoot – and I’d smile knowingly. Must listen to that again….

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“There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: ‘It was on this spot…'”
– Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Amazon.com
Sarah Vowell at the Barclay Agency

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, assassinations, history, James Garfield, presidential history, Sarah Vowell, travel, William McKinley