Archive | April, 2016

Review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris

26 Apr

Originally published in 1979, Edmund Morris’s landmark first volume of his trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, remains indisputably the foremost work on the president’s pre-White House life. I recently had the pleasure to listen to an audio recording of this acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which many have asserted is among the iconic biographies of the modern era. I came away unable to argue the assertion.


Morris’ lengthy volume weighs in at 741 printed pages, which more than hints at the detail contained within. But merely to credit Morris with a comprehensive biography would not be giving him the credit he deserves, for his knowledge of his subject is truly incredible. He also clearly loves and admires Roosevelt. This veneration, though, is balanced by an objective presentation of the facts, leaving readers plenty of opportunity to draw their own conclusions.

That there are so many events and experiences recounted from which to arrive at those opinions is in fact the hallmark of Roosevelt’s remarkable life, for he was a man of astounding, almost surreal energy. He sometimes read multiple books in their entirety in a single night, traveled incredible distances on horseback in the wilds of the American west, indeed traveled perhaps more miles than any president before the age of aviation, and managed to produce a stunning thirty-plus books in his lifetime—all between stints as a rising political star whose service included terms as the governor of New York and as the Secretary of the United States Navy. Oh, and this father and husband tried his hand at ranching and famously led a group of “Rough Riders” to glory at the Battle of San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) during the Spanish-American War. Just to read about Roosevelt is exhausting. Morris’ book will no doubt be exhausting to some as well, both in terms of its sheer length and in terms of style. It is a well-written book, but not necessarily an easy one with flowing prose. The sentences and paragraphs are dense—fittingly packing in as much content as the life of the man they chronicle. Even so, if you have interest in Roosevelt and the era in which he lived, this book should be on your reading list.


The Illusion of History

19 Apr

For a society that seems to value history so little, we sure seem to appreciate the mystique of heritage. As we have written about previously, we love to surround ourselves with nostalgic reminders of supposedly simpler times in the form of reassuring artifacts and images that stir no controversy and have little if any contextualization. But our effort to use history as a straightforwardly positive tool extends beyond restaurants and cafes.

Just notice the next time you drive down a busy four-lane highway, flanked with shopping malls and subdivisions bearing innumerable, contrived names aimed at connoting an authentic sense of place. We love to give new places old names to create the illusion of establishment and the appearance of a sense of heritage, for example. How many “Hunter’s Walk” or “Mill Creek” subdivisions have we seen incongruously surrounded by busy multi-lane highways? How many strip malls, built in suburban neighborhoods on what had been pasture land a decade previous have we seen named “Old Town Centre” and the like? We have a real fondness for bucolic and historic names, even if their current condition is as far removed from either as one can possibly imagine. I would like to think it demonstrates a fondness for the land and its history, but I am a little cynical.

Recently on a business trip I found myself in a relatively new commercial development and noticed a gleaming monument of marble spotlighted against the glow of fast food restaurants and coffee shops. Could this frantic series of cafes, yogurt shops, and boutique clothing stores actually have some venerable history of which I was unaware? Or perhaps it could have been chosen as a central spot to commemorate something of importance by locals who cared about regional heritage? I was both amused and saddened to find it was actually a monument to, well, nothing at all. I think it was placed there simply to look historic, mimicking the proverbial town square statuary found throughout the state, clumsily giving the place the ambiance of being a much older community. As I walked around its blank walls, I also wondered if I was not the first curious person to have ever ventured close enough to inspect it.

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To some degree I applaud the effort to distinguish the mindless series of shopping malls and housing developments popping up in our inexorably growing communities with affectations drawing on historical locations and events. But I sense something more sinister than an innocent appreciation of the past here. We seem to love a reconstructed past devoid of context, where the only history that can be presented are those inoffensive symbols that are stripped of any controversial facts. Now, it appears we want monuments that contain no reference to any history at all; we just like the way monuments make a place look older than it is! As recent debates over monuments from football coaches and American presidents to Civil War leaders have shown, we seem to like a commercial version of our past in public spaces where we do not have to wrestle with the realities of incongruity, contradiction, and the frustrating but persistent occurrence of good people in every generation doing bad things.

I am somewhat of an optimist despite all this, so I have to say that I do think there is a silver lining in this ominous dark cloud of willful ignorance. I would hope that we as public historians can build on this apparently underlying, if shallow, appreciation for the past. Clearly history resonates as necessary in forming the roots of a community, and when those roots are extremely shallow or nonexistent we seem willing to go to great lengths to artificially create them. Let’s hope we can tap into that sentiment to bring real needed attention to our authentic historic sites so that instead of erecting monuments to nothing we actually preserve and interpret the actual vestiges of our past all across the nation that stand in desperate need of preservation.
















Review of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson

12 Apr

Over 300 years since his birth, Benjamin Franklin still looms as one of our most familiar and beloved founding fathers. Despite his place in our pantheon of national heroes, Franklin uniquely seems to be remembered as an approachable man—the one who more than any other could strike up conversation with someone today and even find himself at home with modern society. Perhaps this is because Franklin was perpetually curious and disarmingly candid, never hiding from himself or his posterity his passions or his indiscretions. He was well-liked, outgoing, famously flirtatious even in his old age, yet among the most intellectual men of his age and seemingly able to succeed in whatever endeavor into which he entered.


Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is one of the more consequential of the dozens of biographies of the man to appear in the last few decades. I picked it up due to author Walter Isaacson’s track record of producing acclaimed biographies of noteworthy individuals (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Steve Jobs, Kissinger: A Biography). I found it to be a crisply written, thorough, and sympathetic treatment of Franklin’s life which particularly sheds light on his youth, a subject about which much less has been written than the events of his later years. The book chronicles Franklin’s rise from obscurity to become a successful editor and businessman who retired in his early forties and spent the remaining four decades of his unusually long (for the age) life as a highly influential politician, diplomat, and scientist.

Admittedly, those with much familiarity with Franklin will not necessarily find Isaacson’s account to have as much new information as insight. The author evidences a remarkable knowledge of his subject, reminding readers throughout that this man we remember for small witticisms and useful inventions was at the same time truly a man of real consequence in American history, if not the very touchstone of the Revolutionary generation. Despite all of his detail, however, Isaacson, like so many before him, can’t quite crack the hard shell of mixed ego and resolve that animated Franklin and offer a coherent reason why a man who gave so much of himself to so many gave so little to his own family. Virtually estranged from his own wife for much of his life, he seemingly ignored her pleas for him to visit even in her last years when she was in poor health. More famously, there is the rift he had with his own son, New Jersey Governor William Franklin, who opposed him on the issue of American independence. Despite William’s sincere attempts to bury the hatchet after the war, Benjamin apparently never forgave him that trespass. In truth much of Franklin’s personal life remains a conundrum, his propensity to have innumerable acquaintances but few deep friendships summed up eloquently by Isaacson in a single sentence: ”He frequented many antechambers, but few inner chambers” (487).”

The true value of Isaascson’s writing, from a historiographical viewpoint, is to be found in his extended conclusion. In it he puts Franklin in the context of the way he was viewed in his time and in successive American generations. Evaluating Franklin as a hero, a symbol, a sage, and even a punchline from his own time to the current day, Isaacson allows us to appreciate Franklin as a complex man of continual relevance. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is a well-rounded effort and a solid contribution to a subject that stands as among the most studied but perhaps least truly understood in American history.


Review of A Paradise of Blood: The Creek War of 1813-14, by Howard T. Weir, III

5 Apr

Anyone who has read this blog knows that we are avid readers of scholarship concerned with the Creek War of 1813-14 and the War of 1812 in the Gulf South. Having written a book on the topic ourselves, we consider ourselves knowledgeable on the subject and stay on the lookout for new works in the field. So when we saw Howard T. Weir’s new book A Paradise of Blood, The Creek War of 1813-14, we bought it and delved into this latest chronicle of this incredible chapter in American history. We believe Weir has written the definitive account of the conflict and become the true expert in the field.


Having written 466 pages of narrative, Weir has surely composed the most detailed account of the struggle if nothing else. Readers will quickly notice his level of detail in the first 100 pages of the book, where he simply sets the stage with a thorough background on earlier treaties between the United States and the Creek nation and early personalities who exerted influence in the region like William Augustus Bowles and Alexander McGillivray. Weir actually devotes eight pages to DeSoto’s entrada through the region nearly three centuries prior. (Weir did misspell the famous encounter of Mabila as Maliba on several occasions in that passage.) We do feel that he did get perhaps too detailed in providing some of this background to what is already a robust book.

With that being said, his well-written prose has provided the reader with the best overall account of the war to appear in print. He describes in detail the iconic events of the war including the famed Creek conference at Tuckaubatchee at which Tecumseh spoke, the Creek Civil War, and the vicious fighting at places like the Holy Ground, Autossee, Talladega, and finally at Horseshoe Bend—where more Native Americans died than at any other battle in American history. We do not remember ever reading more detailed accounts of these engagements. Readers feel a part of history as they read the tragic accounts of Fort Mims, the epic struggle of the Canoe Fight, and Andrew Jackson’s narrow escape at Enitichopco Creek. Perhaps the best example of his comprehensiveness lies in his account of the epic Canoe Fight when Sam Dale and his two colleagues defeated nine Red Stick warriors in the Alabama River. His blow-by-blow account even discusses the dimensions of the large canoes that they fought in. We do wonder if Weir should have informed readers a bit more about the sources he used in his accounts so that they could better appreciate the limits of the certainty with which we can know about some events in the war. Many of them were written years later and are often conflicting at best and of dubious authenticity at worst, yet Weir seems to present them all as pure fact. This is not to say Weir has the story wrong necessarily, but some discussion of the reliability of sources is in order.

The book does seem to end abruptly with Jackson heading south to Mobile at the conclusion of the Treaty of Fort Jackson and screams out for a continued discussion of subsequent War of 1812 events along the Gulf Coast. Also, his final few paragraphs allude to a changed landscape marred by cotton production that seems almost out of place and needs further explanation. But these are perhaps minor quibbles. We are anxious to see what other scholars think of this account and do wonder about the level of detail Weir has presented as verified fact, but we do highly recommend this book to anyone wanting a complete account of this war. We have not read a more gripping account of this defining event in American history. Weir’s study is among the few full length studies of this war that have done justice to this most deserving subject. It would be impossible for readers not to feel that the events described are of an epic nature seemingly straight out of a Hollywood movie, at times even stretching the bounds of believability, and yet they actually occurred. We express our kudos to Weir for bringing these events to life as never before.