Wow, reader Dan G. didn’t take to Elizabeth Pryor Brown’s book, of which I spoke positively:
First chapter berates Lincoln for a disorderly approach to the military — fair enough, I suppose — without acknowledging the more defensible reasons for this, such as a desire to establish the facts on the ground independent of the possibly self-serving officers in the chair of command. To hear her, the military should be spared any outside audit or opportunity for whistleblowing. And she doesn’t even mention his ultimate success. Her second chapter pooh-poohs his coarse humor and sometimes rustic rhetoric as though the prissy rareified manners of a Boston drawing room were innately superior and not, as they would have been in real life, a barrier to communicating with and leading the broad mass of the people.
It’s not just me:
He goes on to describe the book as:
a biography of Sam written by Diane
which is a funny idea.
From a capsule review in The New Yorker heard about this book:
What a cool way to bring Lincoln to life. Tell the story of six meetings Lincoln had that someone wrote an account of.
The six encounters:
- Lincoln’s first meeting, in the East Room of the White House, with Army officers, including Robert E. Lee
from that we examine Lincoln’s relationship with the military, and with the guy who’d end up being the leading general trying to defeat him.
- An odd event where Lincoln tried to raise an American flag on the South Lawn of the White House, but accidentally ripped it
from that we examine how Lincoln used humor and a sort of self-effacing charm
- Lincoln’s encounter with an abolitionist cavalry sergeant named Lucian Waters
which brings us to discussions of Lincoln’s views on race and slavery
- Lincoln’s meeting with Cherokee chief John Ross
from which we can examine Lincoln’s relationships with Indians, who got pretty hosed under the Lincoln presidency
- Lincoln’s meetings the powerful Anna E. Dickenson
which opens us up to Lincoln’s weird relationships with powerful women
- a bizarre encounter with this bro:
Duff Green, who wanted to talk to Lincoln about a scheme to help Southerners with their land via a federal bank or something.
from there we consider how Lincoln intended to begin the postwar process, if he hadn’t’ve gotten got a few days later.
Pryor uses these encounters to bring to life the odd, magnetic, awkward, charming, conflicted, pained, intense human man Abraham Lincoln, full of conflict and contradiction.
Here is the first sentence of the author’s introduction:
To look again with open eyes at a subject we think we know is never straightfoward.
Pryor does a fantastic job of bringing Lincoln into focus. Some highlights:
Getting the mitten:
Down to the raisins:
A very impressive, dense work of history. Stunned when I opened the book and learned the author had been tragically killed in a car crash before publication:
Seems like an amazing woman.
Her obituary in the NYT by Margalit Fox speaks also of her work on Lee:
Though Lee is often cast by history as a brilliant general, Ms. Pryor, examining the strategic errors that led to his retreat at Antietam in 1862 and sweeping defeat at Gettysburg the next year, judged him “bright but not brilliant.”
Addressing Lee’s stance on slavery, she acknowledged, with other historians, that he harbored deep misgivings on the subject. However, Ms. Pryor wrote, those misgivings stemmed not from his opposition to the institution itself, but from his resentment of the managerial burdens it could place on white slave owners.
As a slaveholder, Ms. Pryor showed, Lee was a cruel master, once forcing a runaway slave to endure 50 lashes and then have brine poured on the wounds. He routinely sundered slaves’ families if selling a slave was expedient, and by 1860 “he had broken up every family but one” on his Arlington plantation, she wrote.
The Lincoln book my friend the presidential biographer, Lincoln scholar and former rock star Ted Widmer recommends is Herdon’s Informants.
Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner, and after he died he wrote to everyone who’d ever met Lincoln pretty much and asked for what they remembered of him.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon began to collect stories of Lincoln’s life from those who knew him. Herndon aspired to write a faithful portrait of his friend and law partner, based on his own observations and on hundreds of letters and interviews he had compiled for the purpose. He was determined to present Lincoln as a man, rather than a saint, and to reveal things that the prevailing Victorian era conventions said should be left out of the biography of a great national hero.[nb 2]
In particular, Herndon said of Lincoln’s “official” biographers, John Nicolay and John Hay: “They are aiming, first, to do a superb piece of literary work; second, to make the story with the classes as against the masses.” He felt that this would represent the “real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum.”
Particularly damning was the denunciation of the book by Robert Todd Lincoln, whose grudge against Herndon stemmed largely from Herndon’s recounting of Ann Rutledge as the only romantic love of his father’s life.
Herndon didn’t care for Mary Todd, I guess:
Even though she was considered a bit of a catch for a guy like Abe.
When you think about the stuff that happened to Mary Todd, it’d be a wonder if she didn’t go insane. Three of her children died, her husband got assassinated sitting next to her. Her half-sister was married to a Confederate general who died at Chickamauga.
He was a commander of the Orphan Brigade:
At the Battle of Stones River, the brigade suffered heavy casualties in an assault on January 2, 1863, including General Hanson. Breckinridge—who vehemently disputed the order to charge with the army’s commander, General Braxton Bragg—rode among the survivors, crying out repeatedly, “My poor Orphans! My poor Orphans,”
The stuff people go through!
Went looking for the source of a story that Robert E. Lee, asked by a mom for advice on raising her boy, said “teach him to deny himself.”
From Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume 1934 R. E. Lee: A Biography. The source cited is one Joseph Packard’s Recollections of a Long Life.
Original source probably one JC:
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Luke 9:23, KJV.
Check out this letter Abigail Adams sent to her son, John Quincy Adams, when he was ELEVEN:
(Funny to read that as I sit here at what could be described as a literal Pacific station)
That is from:
which is a collection of David McCullough’s speeches.
Many of the speeches were given in the triumphant mid-late-1990s, when History was ending and it was easy to be fooled into thinking it was one long hike to the sunny meadows where we would now reside forever.
In that context this book can be almost painful to read.
Here, for example, McCullough talks about the history of the White House:
If there’s a single American out there who wants to claim the current occupant is either wise or honest, would love to have you on Great Debates.
After McCullough wrote a book about the Johnstown Flood, it was suggested he write about other disasters. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be “bad news McCullough,” he says.
We need more McCulloughism.
Unless you’re a McCullough completist I’d suggest bypassing The American Spirit and going instead to:
One of the local branches of the LA Public Library, the one on Sunset across from Wendy’s, is named after Will and Ariel Durant.
David Brooks grows wistful as he considers the Will and Ariel Durant project:
Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.
I’ve taken a look at the first volume of the series,
and was astounded, amused, and delighted by what I found there. Here’s an example.
When Will met Ariel Durant, her name was Ida, she was fourteen, and she was his student.
She was 15 at her marriage on Oct. 31, 1913, and came to the ceremony with her roller skates slung over her shoulder. Her husband was just about to turn 28. He called her Ariel, after the the imp in Shakespeare’s ”The Tempest,” and she later had her name legally changed.
(from Will’s NYT obituary). In Our Oriental Civilization, Will makes the case for himself:
It’s pretty funny that we named the library after a pair of lovers whose romance would get the man arrested today.
On the other hand, that’s the kind of paradox of historical and civilizational change that Will Durant took so much joy in teaching about.
More from the NYT:
Dr. Durant consistently took a generally optimistic view of civilization, despite a growing belief that ”the world situation is all fouled up.”
”Civilization is a stream with banks,” he said in his precise voice. ”The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues.
”The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”
Will and Ariel, from Wikipedia:
Worth remembering that the American Revolution started when the federal government sent troops to take away people’s guns and ammunition.
More men from Needham died on April 19, 1775, I believe, than from any other town except Lexington:
The detail in that footnote! What she remembers, the old blind woman: how many of the soldiers had thrown away their coats! It was under the will of this venerable lady that he first received a legacy!
History gets so much more interesting when you get into how do we know this? what is the source? who claims this? who saw it happen?
The Needham Public Library.
Amos Doolittle wasn’t there but he showed up a few weeks later:
My favorite book on this topic is:
Tourtellot is really kind of funny when he rips into his least favorite patriot, vain old John Hancock:
that illustration up top from:
a British book – is there a pro-Redcoat bias?
Just finished reading:
A strange thing to read, maybe. Here is the story of how I came to read it.
Some years ago, filming the finale of The Office on Dwight Schrute’s farm:
I looked around at the inland Malibu landscape and got to wondering if there could be a show about the pioneers: people who arrived on empty* land and built their lives there.
So as research I picked up the first book I thought of:
Didn’t finish it. Got distracted before I got off the third page, probably at first by my phone and then by my life.
A true Save The Cat
On the first page of O Pioneers!, there is a true Save The Cat situation.
We’re in the middle of a blizzard, and Little Emil’s cat has gone up a telegraph pole, and he’s afraid it’ll freeze:
Down in Australia in August, I saw the cool Penguin Classics edition:
and picked it up thinking, eh what the hell I should find out what happened to that cat.
Well, I found out, and I found out what happened to Emil and his sister Alexandra for the next forty years.
I believe an error was made in choosing this quote for the front page:
It isn’t the most interesting one from the book. I might’ve chosen this:
Or even, if we’re going re: ducks, this:
This quote made me think of the news:
Also can’t say that the epigraph is especially sexy:
Perhaps it’s better in the original Polish.
But still I pressed on, and in the end, I gotta give it up to O Pioneers!
The life of Willa Cather
Willa Cather must’ve been quite something. She was born in Gore, Virginia, but as a girl she was brought to Red Cloud, Nebraska:
where she made a real impression:
Was Willa Cather a lesbian?
Willa Cather shot out of Nebraska like a rocket.
The closest relationships in her life were with women, and she lived with one Edith Lewis:
for close to thirty years. Some biographers hesitate to call her a lesbian, though, saying she never identified herself that way.
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie
Willa died in 1947. She has a memorial prairie named after her, it’s the number 2 thing to do in Red Cloud, NE after her house:
Willa on writing
O Pioneers! still holds up. I found myself moved by it, and it’s short. Cather has a way of summing up loneliness, heartache, longing, compassion, in a few short lines.
I went ahead and got Willa’s collected essays on writing.
Here she tells how she came to write O Pioneers!, her second book:
She wrote in some opposition to the detail-filled writing of Balzac:
Interesting point here:
Red Cloud, Nebraska
Here’s a picture of downtown Red Cloud from Google Maps:
About as solid a Trump country as you will find:
As of 2000 the median income for a household in the city was $26,389, and the median income for a family was $34,038. Males had a median income of $26,364 versus $17,232 for females. The per capita income for the city was $14,772. About 8.4% of families and 13.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 20.9% of those under age 18 and 10.1% of those age 65 or over.
David McCullough has something moving to say about Red Cloud and Willa and her other famous book:
I found O Pioneers! very moving and powerful, let me share with you why:
Warning: O Pioneers! spoiler
Skip this if you intend to read the book with suspense in mind.
But I doubt you will. I found this the most moving passage, and worth all the reading. Let me set it up for you:
Emil, he of the lost cat on page 2, grows up under the guidance of his older sister, Alexandra. She’s really the focus of our story. Carl, the local boy who saves the cat, is in love with her, but he can’t really take it out on the plains, so he goes off, and leaves her behind. She’s left to care for her brothers.
Emil, youngest brother, does great. He goes on to college at the University of Nebraska, while Alexandra stays to watch over the farm. All the while Emil’s been in love with a neighbor girl, Marie. She marries another man, though.
Still, Emil and Marie are in love. Eventually Marie’s husband, Frank Shabata, finds his wife and Emil together. In a crazed rage he murders Marie and Emil both.
Alexandra, alone at age forty, is heartbroken, left adrift at the death of her brother. But still, she feels sympathy for Frank Shabata, who’s been sent to prison in Lincoln for his crime.
Alexandra, lost and in pain, decides to go visit Frank in prison. In afternoon/dusk, after arriving in Lincoln, she wanders the campus of the university, thinking of her murdered brother. Desperate for any kind of connection, she runs into a student:
Walt Whitman Reads: America
The Whitman Recording
The title of O Pioneers! comes from a poem by Walt Whitman.
Some years ago, a recording of Walt Whitman’s voice, said to have been recorded onto an Edison wax cylinder around 1889 or 1890, was rediscovered.
In these times when it seems maybe we lost our way, nationally, it made me feel good to hear this. Forty-six seconds long: