Archive | October, 2017

Review of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt

31 Oct

Harper Lee, author of the internationally-celebrated novel To Kill a Mockingbird, lived most of her life as a reclusive legend in her own time. Famously eschewing further publishing for over five decades following the appearance of Mockingbird, Lee suddenly found her fame reaching new heights in her last days as rumors of an unpublished prequel to her landmark book surfaced. Rather than appear front and center submitting to interviews and retrospectives in the media frenzy, however, Lee seemed only to retreat further from the public eye. Ultimately, questions of her mental state were bandied about, and scuttle that she was not competent to give consent to the publication of the manuscript she penned so long ago were openly discussed. The whole affair was unseemly. The reading public clamored to know more about Lee, and craved to hear her in her own words. With the publication of Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, they finally get to—sort of.

Flynt Mockingbird Songs

Appearing less than two years after Lee’s death in 2015, Flynt’s book has the appearance of providing the glimpse of the legendary author in her reality that was conspicuously absent from the hubbub surrounding her last days. The book is essentially the unedited correspondence between Flynt (a close friend who delivered the eulogy at Lee’s funeral) and Lee in the form of letters which were written sporadically over the last two decades of her life as a friendship between the two developed. Flynt is one of the most accomplished and respected historians of the South today, having recently retired from an accomplished teaching career at Auburn University which featured a prolific amount of celebrated writing about the twentieth-century South. He has become something of a commentator on Southern culture and the tragic legacy of its notorious inequalities of late, combining his scholarly training, teaching experience, and his background as a Baptist minister into a rare position as an authority on the modern South. His empathetic insight into the heritage and contemporary reality of his home region is much in demand. It is important that readers know this man is so highly esteemed by so many, because I fear the book could easily be misinterpreted as self-serving by those unfamiliar with his career.

It must be acknowledged that at first blush Mockingbird Songs might be seen to present neither author nor publisher in the best light. There are as many of Flynt’s words as Lee’s in the book, and in general the correspondence has less to do with weighty reflection than a strengthening bond of friendship and arrangements for visits. The letters are rather infrequent, occurring in spurts over the period of many years. Further, the fact that the letters, on the whole, have relatively little substance and that they are reprinted verbatim—addresses, phone numbers and all—will certainly raise the eyebrows of some who might view the entire effort as little more than a crass attempt to cash in on Lee’s fame. I do not think any of this to be the case. Indeed, the book could only have been published with the blessing of Lee and, no doubt, her family.

But for a historian with so much experience, and one so driven to use history as commentary on the present, there is something less than satisfying with the publication. We do get a glimpse of Lee as a person, but this is certainly no full biographical portrait. We gain a grasp of her wit and worldview, but this is no thorough investigation into her motivations and character. We are treated to a few definitive refutations of the longstanding rumors that Truman Capote assisted in the writing of her famous novel, but this is no thorough evaluation of her literary legacy. Instead, the book is at once an attempt to do all of the above and none at all. In final review it is an interesting window into the life and times of one of Alabama’s most famous and self-consciously elusive natives. For many people throughout the nation, that no doubt will be enough to make it worth their time to read.


Review of The War That Made America, by Fred Anderson

17 Oct

In The War That Made America, acclaimed historian Fred Anderson provides an overview chronicle of the French and Indian War, one of America’s least understood and appreciated contests. Professor of History at the University of Colorado and widely regarded as one of world’s foremost authorities on the war, Anderson is also author of Crucible of War, one of most praised scholarly accounts of the contest to appear in print in the past several decades. The War That Made America draws heavily on that volume but is decidedly more geared toward the general public as it was produced as a companion to the PBS series on the war broadcast back in 2006.
It is in this focus on readers unacquainted with the war’s causes, course, or consequences that the true value of The War That Made America lies. A complex affair by any standards, this clash of empires seems more remote to us today than ever owing to its international nature and its occurrence decades before the concept of America as a cohesive political entity began to take root (1754-1763). Indeed, some have dubbed the French and Indian War the “Prerevolutionary War,” as its results actually laid the foundation for the amalgamation of thirteen British colonies into “united states” seeking independence from Great Britain.

As readers will learn in Anderson’s concise and lucid treatment, the story of the war centers around the three-sided contest for control of the Ohio River Valley and Canada and involves the French, the English, and the Iroquois. In a number of pitched engagements inextricably linked to the raging contest for hegemony in Europe, the war resulted in the banishment of the French from North America as a colonial power. Thus the long-standing three-cornered rivalry among European powers in North America among the British, the French, and the ever-weakening Spanish was finally and unequivocally decided in favor of the British. Henceforward, all North American colonies save for the languishing Spanish holdings in the Gulf South would deal exclusively with Great Britain. In one of the more direct connections between the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, taxes imposed on the colonies following the fighting by British leaders, to pay for their defense, would help spark a national movement resulting in American independence just two decades later. As Anderson ably demonstrates, the war would also effectively eliminate Native Americans as a serious rival to British expansion in the region.

The War That Made America is a well-written and informative book that cuts through layers of tangled backstories to relate one of the most consequential events in American history in intelligible fashion. If you are interested in learning just how interconnected our nation’s history is with the colonial struggles which preceded its establishment, I highly recommend this volume.

Review of The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson

10 Oct

Perhaps owing in part to the sheer depth and breadth the man’s life, the essential importance of Winston Churchill to world history seems to sometimes be lost on us. The man lived a full nine decades, seemingly packing in more life into every one of his 90 years than one would think possible. He served in a host of leadership positions within the British government, any one of which might have made a memorable legacy; party leader, Minister of Defense, Lord of the Admiralty, and twice as Prime Minister. But he was also an acclaimed orator, an accomplished journalist, a prolific and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, an artist, painter, pilot, and soldier who famously was fired upon on four continents—even as Prime Minister the King had to practically beg him from personally directing the British assault during the invasion of Normandy—and a capable military strategist and tactician. He was a man of outsized appetites, devouring libraries of research the way most read a newspaper and eating (and drinking) his contemporaries into a stupor. Even the most celebrated biographies of the man are oversized; Martin Gilbert’s 1,100-page tome, Churchill: A Life, and William Manchester’s massive three-volume set, The Last Lion, for example, are standards in Churchillian historiography. Granted, most of us Americans have only a casual exposure to him, recognizing the famed British leader less from our high school history courses than from those iconic World War II images of him sitting alongside Roosevelt and Stalin, presiding over the defeat of Nazi Germany. We know he is famous, but we are generally at a loss to say precisely why he should be remembered in world history. What exactly did he do?


Perhaps the most succinct and comprehensive answer may come in the form of British politician and former mayor of London Boris Johnson’s thoughtful recent biography of the man, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. The title says it all. In an eloquent and persuasive narrative, the author argues that Churchill literally changed the course of world history through his gritty determination to make his vision of the future a reality. It is a bold claim, but it is one I believe is accurate and cogently presented by Johnson. The author’s brilliance lies in his communication of Churchill’s transcendent influence, for his centrality to world events in his lifetime and ours is greater than the sum of the offices he held. Through a combination of inspirational leadership and dogged determination, he persuaded others—ranging from London factory laborers to the President of the United States—to on some level buy into his vision of world order. Churchill’s accomplishments on this score are noteworthy. Included among them are helping usher in the framework for the social welfare programs of the modern liberal state we Americans have come to think of as part and parcel of “developed” countries like ours. He also gracefully administered what in effect was the breakup of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known without abdicating the colonial powers’ role as a world leader. But his role in world history is defined by his intrepid stance against the tyranny of despotism during the early days of World War II.

Johnson reminds readers that it is worth pondering what the course of the war might have been, and how differently world events would have proceeded, had it not been for the venerable Churchill. He stood virtually alone, even among his own countrymen, in early recognizing and persistently determining to resist, the rise of Hitler’s Germany. He recognized that nothing less than the course of western civilization stood imperiled by the Nazis and never wavered from his commitment to defeat their advance. It all sounds so obvious and simple in hindsight, but the German war machine was truly a fearsome force devouring all of Europe at the time and appeasement seemed the common sense solution to a continent so recently ravaged by the horrors of the first World War. Besides, resistance seemed futile as the Wehrmacht steamrolled westward toward the British Channel. To our enduring shame, even the United States was unwilling to become involved in another European war though painfully aware of the atrocities Hitler’s perverted sense of racist nationalism was wreaking among his own countrymen. It was Churchill that brought about a Herculean resistance effort against the Germans at a time when Great Britain truly stood alone—outgunned, outmanned, and nearly surrounded. (For more information on that heroic resistance and how Churchill inspired his countrymen to it, see our blog on the Battle of Britain.) It was Churchill who worked tirelessly to bring the U.S. into the war effort, though doing so he knew would bring about a diminishment of Great Britain’s influence in the world. Johnson presents this profound story of courage in a simple but striking metaphor:

“Let us think of Hitler’s story as one of those huge and unstoppable double decker
expresses that he had commissioned, howling through the night with its cargo of
German settlers. Think of that locomotive, whizzing toward final victory. Then think
of some kid climbing the parapet of the railway bridge and dropping the crowbar that
jams the points and sends the whole enterprise for a gigantic burton — a mangled,
hissing heap of metal. Winston Churchill was the crowbar of destiny.”


When one reviews world history, it is easy to think of individuals who have influenced their times through evil and wreaked disaster for millions (Stalin and Hitler from Churchill’s own time come to mind). But how many individuals have changed the course of world history for the better? Churchill advanced the cause of democratic government at a time in which it stood gravely imperiled. And he did it through his own sheer force of will.

A strength of Johnson’s book is that it reveals Churchill as he really existed, warts and all. It makes no claim that he was always a saint. It often surprises Americans to learn that this great force in world history was not universally beloved at all times by his countrymen and in fact they voted him out of office after winning World War II. But his boldness, his stubbornness, and his determination made for a volatile political life. Johnson candidly discusses Churchill’s many political failures, and probes deeply into his personal life to reveal a flawed, ambitious, but principled man. The portrait makes him both more human and more admirable. He was a man with an astounding capacity to work nearly around the clock. He was witty, a master of language and the quick retort to such a level that multiple books of his quotes have been, and continue to be, published. He was a fierce defender of the British empire, at times sounding haughty and almost jingoistic, and even sometimes what we might call today a bit racist or at least nativist. But he was consistently compassionate and whatever notions he held about social hierarchy were couched in an abiding sense of justice, freedom of opportunity, and the sanctity of life.


The Churchill Factor is a powerful book with an ambitious mission to frame Churchill’s role in not just British or European, but world, history for a new generation. There no doubt will be plenty in it to find fault with for serious scholars of British history, but Johnson communicates his most salient point beautifully and convincingly. Winston Churchill changed the course of world history.


Some Thoughts on Patriotic Symbols

3 Oct

Our national anthem is back in the spotlight again due to the actions of many NFL players who are using the playing of the song before football games as a place to make a political statement. I do not want to add my voice to the thousands who are commenting on these actions, either pro or con. I simply want to”repost” two previous blogs that touch upon symbols and places and their relevance today.  If anything, current events illustrate the need for better civic and history education in our society today.

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

“Patriotic Heritage”

American flag