Archive | November, 2017

Review of Alabama: A History, by Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton

28 Nov

I recently, and admittedly very belatedly, got a chance to read through the entirety of Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton’s brief but poignant history of Alabama, entitled simply Alabama: A History. Hamilton, who recently passed away at the age of 95 after a long and productive career, is somewhat of a legendary and respected figure in Alabama history circles. She worked as a journalist before joining the faculty at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where she taught history and ran the library on her way to serving as the Chair of the History Department and authoring several books. Alabama: A History is one of her more celebrated publications. Though published decades ago as part of the national bicentennial celebration, the book is surprisingly relevant for readers of the state’s history today. It is a lucid and insightful overview discussion of Alabama’s past written with candor, sarcasm, and a flair that makes it one of the more memorable books on the state’s past that I have come across.


The book is not a typical summary narrative, but rather a much more unique study of Alabama which tells stories topically rather than strictly chronologically. In Hamilton’s four short chapters, she addresses in turns what she sees as some of the overarching themes which have long defined Alabama’s cultural landscape, such as its somewhat misunderstood but critical formational era as laying the foundation for its development; the long heritage of repression of African Americans within the state and the far-reaching tragic consequences of those efforts; the reasons why the Civil War and its memory looms so large in any understanding of state history; the conflict and cooperation between various cultures in the state and the society which resulted. Hamilton does not attempt to cover every detail of every development in state history, choosing instead to relate Alabama’s story as a series of reflective essays that highlight representative individuals and events to illuminate broader trends. She wrestles bluntly with some of the more unsavory aspects of Alabama’s past, convinced that only through examining them can we understand how the state arrived at its current situation. But this is not an expose on the state’s many shortcomings; it is an honest assessment of a place and a people she clearly loves.

Hamilton’s skill as a journalist shines through in the book and results in its being one of the more compelling and insightful state history narratives I have had the pleasure to read. The book is full of unique turns of phrase that communicate points with a special sort of abbreviated eloquence. She attempts to define the nature of the culture and society of Mobile as for a long time much different from that prevailing in the rest of the state, for example, with this introduction: “To compare Mobile with her sister cities in Alabama is to liken a full-blown, worldy Creole courtesan to a group of prim, Anglo-Saxon girls.” The book comes in at only 172 pages, making it an easy read, but due to its broad sweep it feels more like a thorough cultural study than an introduction to the state’s history. The book even includes a listing of a few particularly significant historic sites around the state which should be visited by those who desire to explore the Alabama’s history, and suggestions for further reading. Though published some four decades ago, Alabama: A History remains a truly unique take on a state history book, and an enlightening read for anyone wanting to know the essence of the people, places, and events that collectively have formed Alabama’s special sense of place.


Thanksgiving and America’s Founding Legend

21 Nov

I have written in this blog on several occasions on various aspects of the origins and history of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday and a unique national observance combining aspects of faith, heritage, and celebration of family. As I was recently asked to speak to a local chapter of the Mayflower Society about the Pilgrims and the events leading up to what we collectively remember as the “first Thanksgiving” in Plymouth Colony, I have had a chance to do some further reading on the events surrounding the origins of the holiday and its place in American life. This brief review of the history of the celebration reminded me again that our understanding of Thanksgiving seems to have much less in common with its reality than an enduring founding legend which has shaped our concept of America’s beginnings and purpose. Even if it oversimplifies things, I believe it is a legend worth continuing to share.

Pilgrim first Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were part of what was far from the only or the even the earliest colonial venture in America, but we remember their story as a founding tale in large part because the colony they founded endured so much longer than the others. The story of how they survived their first brutal winter in the new world—in truth a large percentage of those that ventured there aboard the Mayflower did not, dying as victims of illness, exposure, and starvation within months of landing—is a tale of trial and suffering that has become engrained in American legend. We have long remembered it as a sort of triumphant founding saga, capped off with a joyous celebration in which the Pilgrims and their Native American friends broke bread in peace and harmony and ushered in a time of prosperity and ascendance.

It goes without saying that there is a whole lot more to the real story, but that inconvenient truth has been beside the point for the better part of four centuries. We have chosen to overlook the gritty details of the mutual suspicion which characterized the Pilgrim-Native American relationship, preferred a simplified and idealistic understanding of the religious freedom sought by America’s seventeenth century colonists, and chosen to venerate the 1620 Thanksgiving gathering as the inauguration of America’s rise quite literally in the face of easily available facts which demonstrate a much messier, less linear type of progress in coastal New England and several other areas where European colonization occurred. Understood another way, the Thanksgiving story could be seen as one of the less contentious times during a continuum of strained relations in colonial history that soon resulted in wars with native groups and the systematic dispossession of their land. The first Thanksgiving has become associated less with any actual historical events good or bad, though, than as a symbol of the initiative, perseverance, collaboration, hope, and perhaps most crucially, divine sanction and guidance of our nation’s founders.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that the omissions from the totality of the Thanksgiving story we remember each November are not only relatively harmless but perhaps beneficial to our understanding of who we are as a people. It contains more than a grain of truth, after all, and even if it omits certain contextual details it stresses the bigger picture narrative which I believe best characterizes America’s development. Our nation was born of rugged individuals driven by the hope of a brighter future. Despite our many obvious failings then and now in a host of crucial areas regarding how we incorporated, or failed to incorporate, all of our people into that vision, most of us still believe that America occupies a special place in the community of nations and its shortcomings pale in comparison to its virtues. With all the reminders of our faults increasingly on display by the disgruntled and the misinformed, I am just fine with a celebration of our more noble qualities and a spirit of thankfulness for our many blessings as a nation.


A Unique Veteran’s Day Tribute

14 Nov

Several times previously in this blog, we have taken an opportunity to note a few compelling college football uniform combinations that are associated with America’s colorful past. We particularly liked the Naval Academy’s “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Damn the Torpedoes” uniforms from last year, for example, and the University of Maryland’s “Star-Spangled Banner”-inspired equipment and the University of Hawaii’s tribute to the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Last Saturday (Nov. 11th) the University of South Alabama, located in Mobile, put in a new uniform wrinkle of their own, wearing these unique uniforms inspired by the Battleship USS Alabama (BB 60) in honor of Veteran’s Day. The “Lucky A” won nine battle stars during its service in the Pacific Theater of WWII, and since 1965 has been docked in Mobile as a museum ship.



The USS Alabama


It was a unique and appropriate recognition of this landmark on a day that should be special to all Americans.


Review of Napoleon: A Concise Biography, by David Bell

7 Nov

Without trying to be humorous, is there a bigger figure in history than Napoleon? His impact on 19th century Europe (and the world) cannot be underestimated, accounting for the sheer volume of works published on his life since his death in 1821. There are so many lengthy tomes that exist that would intimidate anyone wanting to choose a book to start understanding this complex man. David Bell has perhaps solved this problem with his latest work, Napoleon: A Concise Biography.

Bell NapoleonConcise
In only 114 pages of narrative, Bell rapidly traces the life and impact of Napoleon. This is no easy task. Napoleon’s rich and fascinating story from his birth and early years on Corsica, initial military exploits, his rise to power via spectacular victories on the battlefield, impacts on government and society, to his eventual fall from power is an enormous amount to cover in such a short space. Bell’s overarching thesis is that the French Revolution and emerging style of “total” warfare allowed Napoleon to make his mark on the world.

Bell did an admirable job in covering such epic ground in these few pages. However, in this instance, one wonders how “concise” should one be when chronicling such an epic history? Writing a brief biography forces the omission of many important details. For example, readers searching for a detailed narrative on military campaigns will be disappointed as battles are sometimes summarized in one sentence. Anyone wanting to examine these earth-shattering events in any detail would be better served reading Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon: A Life, which I reviewed in an earlier blog.

Perhaps the best part of the book is Bell’s last chapter when he discusses Napoleon’s legacy. How should he be considered today? The most common interpretations of him seem to be either a ruthless despot or a funny image of a short man with a paunch with the iconic hand inside his shirt. France in particular seems to not know how to remember him. For example, Bell states how France marked the anniversary of the French Revolution with massive celebrations, but in contrast, the French president himself did not even attend the bicentennial event of the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s and perhaps even France’s, greatest military victory. I admit that I tend to look upon Napoleon more favorably, admiring a man who took advantage of the circumstances of the French Revolution to rise to unfathomable heights. His military campaigns produced many stunning victories and influenced generals and armies for generations. One must also not forget that products of his civic administration still exist today. At minimum, it is safe to say that France has never again achieved the heights it once held during the Emperor’s reign.