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Review of Hunt the Bismarck: The Pursuit of Germany’s Most Famous Battleship, by Angus Konstam

17 May

I first discovered the music of Johnny Horton (along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and other famed performers from the 60s and 70s) during the exploration of my mother’s old vinyl record collection as a child. I guess that at least some degree of credit for the historical stories that first interested me is due to him, and every time I read about a subject he composed a tune for, I can’t help but have his music in my head. His iconic songs about important events in American history (“Johnny Reb,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska,” etc…) all intrigued me as a musical interpretation of things I had heard about in school. In hindsight, they helped me understand the stories they told better by presenting them with a unique human emotion. Perhaps no single song of Horton’s has stuck with me over the decades as much as “Sink the Bismarck.” The song describes the incredible story of the hunt for the legendary battleship in the waters of the North Atlantic in May of 1941 in a way that helped me visualize the ship, its pursuit, the emotion of the sailors, and the two climactic naval battles for which it is remembered in a compelling way. I think it is the best of Horton’s odes to historic events, in truth, because it finds a way to connect the actual facts without some of the humor or exaggeration of tunes like “The Battle of New Orleans”; there is no “powdering of alligators behinds” to use them as artillery in the ballad about the Bismarck! The lines of the song about the clash with the HMS Hood (The Battle of Denmark Strait) that struck me as particularly descriptive and powerful nearly forty years ago still fascinate me now:

“The Hood found the Bismarck and on that fatal day,

The Bismarck started firing 15 miles away!

We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound,

But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down.”

Recently I got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Angus Konstam’s acclaimed book about the pursuit and sinking of the most famous German warship in history, Hunt the Bismarck. Needless to say, Horton’s song has been on a loop in my head for a little while as I listened to Konstam’s version of the epic story of the short life of the battleship. Konstam is author of over a hundred books, and may be best known to many readers as a frequent contributor to Osprey Publishing’s military history series. I found his effort here to be an intriguing and approachable story that manages to make the pursuit and battles on the high seas a human drama rather than one that gets bogged down in tedious details about the complicated navigation involved in British efforts to find and sink the elusive ship. The poignant story of the battle with the Hood and the final showdown which sent to Bismarck to the bottom are among the finest narrations of naval warfare I have read.

The Bismarck was launched in early May of 1941, and immediately sent to prey on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. It was discovered and confronted within days by the venerable HMS Hood, flagship of Royal Navy for two decades at the time. The less-well armored and older British ship sustained hits early in the action that detonated ammunition stores in its hold. In a fight lasting mere minutes, 1,500 men died and the pride of the British Navy sunk beneath the surface. It was a devastating and shocking blow to British morale, and one that Winston Churchill vowed to avenge in an all-out effort to hunt down the Bismarck. The resulting days-long chase, in which the German ship’s captain tried to elude pursuers and endured multiple daring combined-forces attacks by aircraft and underwater torpedoes, Konstam relates as a riveting tale of adventure. At last sustaining rudder damage that prevented the mighty battleship from reaching the protection of German-held French ports, the British Navy pounced. With multiple ships it staged an incredible bombardment that at length put the Bismarck out of action. With orders to sink it, though, the Royal Navy continued to pound the ship long after it could not return fire or even navigate. It disappeared beneath the waves, apparently scuttled by its German crew, a little after 10:30 AM on May 27, 1941. Only 114 of its 2,200 man-crew survived.

Hunt the Bismarck is one of several attempts to chronicle this enduring story of naval warfare. I have not had the pleasure of reading much about the subject, I will admit. I can nevertheless say that after reading Konstam’s account, it should be on your radar if you ever have an interest in reading about the saga that inspired Johnny Horton to write one of his catchiest tunes and became one of the most celebrated naval clashes of the second World War.

JMB

Review of The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, by Malcolm Gladwell

3 May

Admittedly owing in large part to the Alabama connection to the story contained in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, I chose to listen to the audiobook a few weeks ago. I did it with some hesitation on two counts. One, Gladwell is not a historian by trade, and I was aware that there has been some minor criticism of his book by experts in World War II military history. Two, the production was not the audio version of a book, but rather an original audio recording arranged as an audiobook by an author who is as famous for his podcasts as writing. Still, I found The Bomber Mafia to be one of the most unique and entertaining listens I have run across.

The book seeks to highlight the early advocates of the type of aerial warfare that has today become so commonplace we sometimes forget how revolutionary it was when first suggested. Relying on high level, precision, daylight bombing rather than large bodies of troops as a way to avoid casualties and collateral damage, this type of bombing was nothing but a fantasy prior to the second World War owing to technological limitations. Yet, as Gladwell shows, the idea was formulated even before the technology of the day caught up with the proposition by a small group of army officers in the 1930s at what is now Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery. Shocked by the useless carnage exhibited in World War I and convinced aviation had untapped potential, these men sought a way to better utilize emerging technologies in that sector to meet military goals previously only ground forces could achieve. So radical was the proposal, though, and so preposterous did the concept of precision bombing seem at the time, that the advocates of the idea, including key players in the book Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell, that they were at first sidelined and deemed crazy. Their argument quite literally threatened their careers. The “Bomber Mafia,” as they became known in some circles, was anything but a compliment, in other words.

Author Malcom Gladwell is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including The Tipping Point and Outliers. He weaves a good story in The Bomber Mafia, in synopsis highlighting the irony of the fact that after finally embracing the concept that high-level precision bombing the technique actually facilitated the very type of destruction it alleged to avoid.  Gladwell points to the firebombing of Japanese cities in the closing days of World War II as the most glaring case in point. His is a philosophical approach, seeming to argue as much for the uncontrollable violence inherent in war and the hubris involved in assuming it can be minimized than crafting a solid military history. Hence some military historians have taken him to task.

Regardless  of the details about some of the historical decisions it sheds light on—and about which I have no expertise—I must nonetheless admit The Bomber Mafia is thoroughly entertaining. It sounds more like the audio track to a documentary than a traditional audiobook, mixing in dramatic background music, the sounds of aircraft engines and explosions, and numerous short segments of decades-old interviews with many of the very people on whom the book focuses. Gladwell speaks in a conversational tone throughout, less narrating than exploring and developing his subject. Perhaps, as I have noted some scholars have suggested, Gladwell overlooks how the course of the larger war influenced the developments in the Pacific Theater he draws so much attention to in the book. And he probably does rely on more secondary sources than a more academic analysis might, but this is a little hard to discern in an audiobook format.

What I can say without hesitation is that this is one of the few audiobooks I have listened to that was engrossing from beginning to end, and seemed to end all too soon. It made me think about a subject I had not before pondered and I felt like I gained new insight as a result.

JMB

Review of Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864, by Albert Castel

19 Apr

“Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” This memorable dispatch written by Union General William T. Sherman succinctly summarized his army’s efforts over five months in 1864 which culminated in the capture of one of the Confederacy’s most vital cities.  Writer Albert Castel provides a superb narrative of this epic military operation in his monumental Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Besides describing the results of the campaign concerning the fortunes of war in the western theater, Castel’s title also alludes to his thesis that claims Sherman’s achievement directly affected the outcome of the presidential election, and thus, the ultimate outcome of the war.

Organizing his chapters by the months of 1864 in which the campaign took place, Castel writes a clear and comprehensive narrative of the events of the campaign. His style is somewhat unique, relating his narrative in the present tense as events unfolded and presenting information the leaders of the respective armies had at their disposal at the time. This unusual technique has the effect of only heightening the drama as events unfolded, and is evidence of a masterful command of an incredible amount of information about this months-long, complex operation and its place in the war as a whole.

Union overall commander Ulysses S. Grant’s master plan was to put the utmost pressure on Confederate forces throughout the country. This required Sherman to drive southward from Chattanooga with Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army and the key railroad city of Atlanta as his objective. From Tunnel Hill in far north Georgia to the banks of the Chattahoochee River close to Atlanta, Sherman’s and Johnston’s forces played a high stakes game of maneuver as Johnston tried to place his force in front of Sherman who constantly resorted to turning the Confederate flank. Castel covers it all: Resaca, Cassville, Pickett’s Mill, New Hope Church, Marietta, and others. By mid-July, seeing that Johnston had not halted Sherman’s approach and offered no concrete plan for success, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sacked the commander in favor of aggressive John Bell Hood. Hood took the offensive immediately and launched relatively well-planned but poorly executed attacks at Sherman that failed to reverse the momentum of the campaign. After a final clash at Jonesboro, south of the city, Sherman had cut off all railroad access to Atlanta, tightening his grip which forced Hood to give it up by early September and leading to Sherman’s now famous message.

Besides providing a complete military picture, Castel interposes the importance of the 1864 election as he states clearly how the course of the war determined the course of politics. As Grant’s overland campaign and siege of Petersburg failed to produce a definitive result against Robert E. Lee, Castel points to the importance of Sherman’s drive against Atlanta. Many politicians, newspaper editors, and even Abraham Lincoln himself felt that the Democratic Party would win the election and alter the prosecution of the war, and perhaps take their victory as a mandate for a cessation of hostilities. Sherman intently felt the pressure himself to bring about a much-needed victory which he achieved by capturing Atlanta. Castel firmly states Atlanta’s fall clinched the election of Lincoln and the eventual downfall of the Confederacy.

Throughout the narrative, Castel offers well-crafted analysis of commanders. For instance, Union General James McPherson is scolded repeatedly for his cautiousness and failure to take advantage of opportunities, most notably at Snake Creek Gap and Resaca. He discusses Johnston’s failure to offer any real plan to stop Sherman, and Hood’s reckless attacks which decimated the Army of Tennessee. Castel exclaims Hood simply tried to do too much at times. And although not intended, Castel is tough on Sherman himself although his actions proved victorious, Sherman failed to capitalize on opportunities to deliver a killing stroke to the Army of Tennessee. Castel seems to prove that Sherman preferred raiding over fighting and that Atlanta was always his main objective and never the destruction of Johnston/Hood’s army. Castel firmly believes that Hood’s army should have been destroyed/captured, thereby preventing the horrendous Nashville campaign from ever taking place.  

Decision in the West is now thirty years old, but it remains the single best volume on this critical campaign of the war. The book contains over 500 pages of text and features an enormous amount of information, but it never feels like too much. He describes battles and marches in detail without getting tedious and provides both sides equal treatment.  Other books about Atlanta have of course been written since 1992, but none so far have completed the job so thoroughly. We will continue to wait.

CPW/JMB

Review of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long, by Richard D. White, Jr.

5 Apr

A consummate dictator, Huey P. Long ruled over Depression-era Louisiana while serving as governor and senator and left one of the more unique legacies in American political history. His imprint on his home state is remarkable even to this day, and appears as all the more so when one realizes how brief was but stunningly complete was his reign. In a mere seven years in office (1928-1935), he managed to take over Louisiana politics and become a nationally-known figure with presidential ambitions. I recently had a chance to listen to an audiobook version of Richard D. White, Jr.’s acclaimed biography of this legendary figure, Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long.  I found it to be worthy of the praise it has received as perhaps the best account of the life of this giant in Southern political history.

White recently retired from his position as the dean of the Ourso College of Business at LSU, having served as professor of public administration prior. Previous to the publication of Kingfish, he authored Roosevelt the Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commissioner 1889—1895.  White paints a detailed portrait of his subject in his biography of Long, tracking him from his humble north Louisiana roots all the way to the height of his power, when an assassin’s bullet cut him down in halls of the skyscraper capitol he caused to be built in Baton Rouge. By any measure it is an incredible story of ambition and accomplishment, but also one of greed, corruption, and an unusual—one might say perverse—hunger for power. By the time Carl Weiss steps out from the shadows in the corridors of the capitol on September 10, 1935 with his .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun, looking to settle a personal grudge, readers are almost rooting for someone to cut Long down to size.

It is undeniable that Long did a lot for Louisiana. The roads and bridges he built modernized its antiquated transportation infrastructure, for example, and his investment in Louisiana State University transformed it from a struggling local school to an institution of national standing. His commitment to give Louisiana schoolchildren free textbooks at a time in which they were expected to pay for them (and not all families could afford such an expense) was a vital plank on his gubernatorial platform. But Long always had an angle for self-aggrandizement in anything he did, and he would pursue and punish anyone whom he believed to not be loyal to him in his pursuit of power. By that I mean not just political foes, but their families, friends, and businesses. No vendetta was too small for him to devote time to ensuring personal ruin, as he was a petty, vindictive, and self-righteous man. Long ran Louisiana with a mafia-boss style that struck fear into anyone who dared oppose him at the height of his power in an administration that comes as close as any in American history to a totalitarian regime.

Long had an unusual self-confidence and persuasiveness, which he combined with an unmatched work ethic and energy that overwhelmed his opponents and enabled his rise. He was able to in short order take over Louisiana politics owing to these qualities and the fact that he campaigned to everyday citizens in words they could understand with a populist-style message about the need to reform a system that he alleged kept them in poverty. He railed against the wealthy and powerful corporations, proposing what can only be described as communist schemes to cap individual incomes and spread collective wealth. A bitter enemy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had designs on the presidency. The relatively short period of his reign, a whirlwind of despotism and boundless ambition rendered palatable to his subjects by numerous and substantial tangible positive improvements in Louisiana, are unlike anything before or after in local American politics. Kingfish tells a remarkable, entertaining, and enlightening tale. It is well worth a read if you have an interest in learning why the name Huey P. Long still looms so large in Southern history.

JMB

Review of The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army, by Colin Calloway

15 Mar

When asked, most people would state the Battle of Little Big Horn as the worst defeat suffered by U.S. forces against Native Americans. They would be wrong. Ironically enough, the worst defeat ever does not even have a proper name, only going by St. Clair’s Defeat or sometimes the Battle of the Wabash. Renown historian Colin Calloway provides detail on this encounter and explains reasons why it is so little known in The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army.

Calloway, author of a number of books including The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America, The Indian World of George Washington, and Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History, presents a fast-paced narrative of the crucial events surrounding American expansion into Ohio country in the early 1790s, resulting in one of the largest military defeats ever suffered by the United States.Conflicting claims of land ownership south of the Great Lakes between the U.S. and Natives led to increasing hostilities.Many Native American tribes, under the leadership of Chiefs Blue Jacket and Little Turtle, managed to put aside their own differences to unite and put a force strong enough in the field to halt a U.S army aimed at destroying Indian villages in the area.

The U.S. force led by Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory and an aged veteran of the Revolution, led a poorly equipped and trained force of 1,400 men who thought they could easily push aside any “savage” contingent placed before them. In the battle on November 4, 1791, the Indians routed St. Clair’s men, inflicting nearly 1,000 casualties in killed, wounded and missing. Investigations began immediately that placed most of the blame on War Department officials for failing to adequately equip and supply the expedition. Shortly afterward, new militia acts were passed by Congress that greatly strengthened the army and in 1794, a larger, stronger and better trained army won the decisive Battle at Fallen Timbers that decimated Native American power in the northwest.

The original Native American victory soon disappeared from history. This nation’s narrative of manifest destiny had no space in its story for a defeat by Native Americans. The fact that it never gained a clear name is indicative of the racism towards the Natives as the title of “St. Clair’s defeat” emphasized the American commander and gave no credit to Native Americans. In this book, Calloway sought to change this narrative and spotlight this Native American achievement. Unlike many previous works, Calloway made extra effort to include as much Native American perspective as the sources allowed.

The Victory with No Name provides an excellent account of this Native American victory that unfortunately for the indigenous, only temporarily halted the onslaught of U.S. westward expansion. The audio version of the book, lasting seven hours, provided an entertaining narrative that highlighted U.S. overconfidence, a huge, but fleeting Native American victory, and reasons why the event has been lost to history. Kudos to the author for showing that westward expansion was not a foregone conclusion and that Natives at times successfully resisted.

CPW

Review of The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, by John Oller

8 Feb

Francis Marion, forever known in legend as the “Swamp Fox” for his uncanny ability to maneuver in the wilds of the South Carolina swamps during the Revolutionary War, is one of the most celebrated military figures from the war in the Southern backcountry. Despite several biographies, and no little hagiography, much about the man and the details of the battles in which he participated remain more obscure than one might assume given the fame of his name, however. In John Oller’s recent new study of Marion’s life, The Swamp Fox, we at last have the thorough and balanced analysis of the partisan hero we have long needed. I recently had an opportunity to listen to a recorded version of the book.

Oller, a New York City lawyer and journalist, is author of other several other acclaimed, books, including biographies of actress Jean Arthur and nineteenth century celebrity Kate Chase Sprague. Here he seeks to present an unbiased and definitive account of the life of one of the American Revolution’s most celebrated figures. After all that has been written about Marion, it might seem that little remains to be said. As Oller demonstrates in his narrative, though, the truth behind the legend is still elusive.

One of America’s original practitioners of what we today call guerilla warfare, Marion operated in the chaotic Southern backcountry, where as a patriot leader he skirmished with both regular British forces and loyalist militia in a disorienting series of small-scale fights raging across his South Carolina home in the last years of the war. Oller paints a detailed picture of Marion’s accomplishments and role in sustaining the patriot cause in the South in his book during some of the darkest days of the war in the Palmetto State. This ranges from the crushing British victory at Camden and the capture of Charleston in the early phases of the British Army’s “Southern Strategy” to the series of skirmishes later in which the numerically superior British forces led by Banastre Tarelton, among others, tried but failed to crush the resilient patriot militia.

Through it all a short, middle-aged, and until then undistinguished, former Continental Army officer led the local resistance to what appeared to be overwhelming British might. Marion operated out of multiple bases, always choosing to attack when the odds best favored him, and always keeping his army protected from an unequal open-field contest with the well-equipped and professionally-trained redcoats. Oller sheds light on Marion’s unconventional tactics and the diverse force he led, as well as the disadvantages he faced. Following the end of the Revolution and the winning of American independence, Oller follows Marion for the remaining dozen or so years of his life, in which he had careers as a farmer and politician and enjoyed his status as a hero to his state. The Swamp Fox is thorough, entertaining, and highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about its legendary subject.

JMB

Review of The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, by David Smithweck

1 Feb

The sinking of the USS Tecumseh just off of Fort Morgan as it steamed into Mobile Bay on the morning of August 5, 1864 remains one of the most dramatic and somber moments in all of American naval history. Crippled by a floating mine which blew a hole in its hull as it led the fleet into the bay, the boat sank beneath the choppy waters, its destruction causing a logjam among Admiral David Farragut’s fleet which threatened to bring a swift and ignominious end to months of carefully laid plans for closing one of the last blockade-running ports supplying the Confederacy. Of course Farragut, defiantly pressing on with orders to “damn the torpedoes” (or something similar) ran into the bay despite the disaster, ultimately winning the largest naval battle of the Civil War in the process. But the image of the forlorn Tecumseh, dipping bow-first into the depths as its still-turning propeller became briefly visible to awestruck Yankee sailors and Rebel artillerists, forever casts a pall on the memory of that critical Union victory. The boat lies where it sunk yet today, its location marked by a buoy just offshore of Mobile Point. It is a permanent reminder of sacrifice and loss in naval conflict, for within its wreckage lie entombed the remains of some 93 sailors who went down with the vessel.  

In The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, Mobile historian and author David Smithweck seeks to provide a comprehensive study of this ill-fated vessel. Including information on its construction, crew, service, and final moments, the book also includes much information on the attempts to raise the ship and the numerous dives on the wreck site which have never before been published. Smithweck is a veteran of numerous naval salvage and exploration efforts in the Mobile Bay area over the course of some fifty years of research into area history, and is author of several brief books on regional historical topics.   

Smithweck’s book can best be understood as a reference source on its subject. It is not a traditional narrative history, mixing as it does bits of traditional history with the reproduced text of numerous original documents ranging from the ship’s period of operations to the attempts to raise the vessel in the twentieth century so that it might be exhibited in a museum. It is worth noting that the subtitle of the book might as well have made reference to those salvage efforts and what we learned about the Tecumseh from them, for nearly half of the book is devoted to telling that story. This point understood, The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay is a book that anyone interested in Civil War naval history or the history of the Mobile Bay region will want to know about.

JMB

Review of The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward

25 Jan

Legendary historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) is most well-known for his profound contributions to the historiography of race relations in the American South during a remarkably long and prolific career. With books such as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913, and The Burden of Southern History, he became for the span of over two generations one of the most recognized and influential authorities on some of the seminal events in the region’s rich history. Woodward taught at Johns Hopkins and Yale, winning numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, and mentoring dozens of historians in beginning their careers. One of Woodward’s bestselling books is actually his first. Though it has nothing at all to do with the field of research to which he would devote most of his working life, nearly three quarters of a century after its initial publication it still stands as the essential volume on its subject and is a testimony to his brilliance. I recently got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of this book, The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which Woodward first published in 1947 after working with the Navy during World War II.

Involving over 350 ships and 200,000 sailors and pilots, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered the largest naval battle of World War II and among the largest ever fought. The battle raged near the Philippine Islands October 23-26, 1944 between American and Japanese forces. American victory in the contest solidified its control of the South Pacific and further restricted the oil resources available to Japan, set the stage for the invasion of the Philippines, and virtually destroyed the power of the Japanese Imperial Fleet as a force capable of significant offensive operations. The battle featured staggering casualties for the Japanese in terms of both loss of life and loss of equipment; over 12,500 men killed or wounded, twenty-eight ships, and 300 aircraft. While Americans lost almost as many planes and suffered 3,000 casualties themselves, they lost a mere six ships in the relatively one-sided contest that in essence was a near-suicidal gamble by the Japanese to turn the tide of the war. 

Woodward’s account of the action is concise, comprehensive, and clear. So thorough is it, in fact, that scores of reviewers over the decades have praised it as the definitive history of the battle and continue to do so today, over seventy years after its first printing. Having read much of Woodward’s other work, I might add that it is probably not his most compelling writing, for it lacks the irony, humor, and narrative flair he later demonstrated in a field of study about which he spent decades of research. This does not lessen the value of the book, however. Leyte Gulf is a straightforward, to the point, telling of what happened when and why in the battle which contains insight into the strategies and goals of the contending forces. It also manages to help readers understand a bit of what the respective commanders knew and when they knew it, making the way the battle unfolded even easier to understand. If you are ever interested in reading about this pivotal naval clash, I highly recommend this volume as your starting point.

JMB

Review of Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, by Tom Clavin

18 Jan

Tom Clavin’s riveting account of one of the most famous towns in the American west and its two most celebrated residents, Dodge City, is a compelling and entertaining chronicle of a legendary epic in our nation’s history. Sifting through layers of accumulated myth to paint a portrait of the place and the people as they really existed, the book is informative and colorful. Even if its shoots down some of the more fanciful legends that have grown up around both its subjects, it reveals that the wild west was in actuality a place and time richly deserving of the attention it has garnered in American lore.

Author Clavin, a former journalist who has written more than fifteen books, several of which have appeared on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, is well-known for his interest in iconic moments and stories from the American past. From tales from the Revolutionary War (Valley Forge) and World War II (Halsey’s Typhoon) to biographies of sports heroes (Being Ted Williams) and legendary gunfighters (Wild Bill), his growing list of books are a unique take on some of our nation’s most enduring legends. In Dodge City, which I listened to in audiobook form recently, he vividly chronicles the birth and early life of a town that in many ways stands as the epitome of our picture of a western frontier community during the days of the cowboy and tracks the lawmen who attempted to keep some semblance of order within it and beyond.

The main characters in the book are, as indicated in the subtitle of the book, Wyatt Earp and his trusted friend Bat Masterson, perhaps the most well-known law enforcement officials of the era. Clavin tracks them from their early lives and arrival in Dodge City to the later fame they acquired in such events as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona. It is a well-rounded biography at that, shedding light on both their personal and professional lives in equal measure. The book ends up being as much biography, then, as story of a community, and explains in detail some of the most pivotal events of the period in which these larger-than-life figures played key roles. As is so commonly the case with figures of this era, actual motivations and actions in some cases may never be known in their entirety. Clavin is therefore admittedly forced to paint a picture that, while relying on documented information, is nevertheless shaped by his attempt to sift through an accumulation of accounts that have appeared over the years which differ in significant respects. Not being familiar enough with the scholarship on the West to say with confidence how well some of this is done, I can only offer praise for his forthrightness in explaining the process. I can further say that Clavin spins a highly entertaining tale in the book. Dodge City brings to life some of the most familiar names in western lore and the dusty cowtowns in which they made their names.

JMB

Review of We Want Bama: A Season of Hope and the Making of Nick Saban’s Ultimate Team, by Joseph Goodman

11 Jan

Alabama’s national championship-winning 2020 football team set numerous records and won every game on its schedule. It is not the first time the school has fielded an undefeated championship team, but the circumstances of this season, happening as it did during a global pandemic which threatened to cancel the entire season and did result in the cancellation or postponement of several games, made it completely different than any other. Players and coaches, including head coach Nick Saban himself, missed some games along the course of a brutal all-conference game schedule played in almost empty stadiums. Journalist Joseph Goodman sees that magical season as uniquely important for more than what was accomplished strictly on the field of play, though. Making a connection between nationwide racial unrest and the quest to for a more equitable society and the special team unity that propelled the Crimson Tide to a title, he attempts a chronicle of the 2020 team and its times in We Want Bama: A Season of Hope.

This is not your typical football book. While it contains plenty of information on Alabama’s players, coaches, and the special sense of togetherness and commitment they shared in their quest for a title, the book is best understood as a statement on Alabama’s football culture set against the backdrop of a troubled past. One is reminded early and often of the racism which once characterized Alabama’s politics and society in the pages of the book. Nearly half of it, in fact, seems to be a polemic on the outrageous racial inequities which defined so much of Alabama’s early and mid-twentieth century history. There is an equal amount of space in the book devoted to examining the exuberant, almost irrational enthusiasm of the large and loyal Alabama football fan base. The result is a book that is part history lacking contextualization, intriguing biographical investigation, humorous examination of outrageous fandom, partisan political diatribe, and chronicle of a memorable football season.

Each component of Goodman’s narrative has its merits, and parts of each are genuinely entertaining. But none are developed fully, and forced together they make for a discordant mess of a read. At times the speed at which the author changes gears and focus is disorienting and his over-the-top writing style—at moments humorous but in large doses grating—loses punch the deeper one goes into the book. The slapstick-style description of boisterous bars on gamedays in Tuscaloosa that comes off as light-hearted writing which one might read in a periodical article seems poorly suited for a book-length narrative, especially when dealing with weighty issues. The stream-of-consciousness, hyperbole-filled, rapid-fire style becomes wearisome pretty early, in truth. But it is Goodman’s attempt to make a symbolic rally by the football team in support of social justice the central event to his story where the book’s shortcomings are most noticeable. The pre-season march to Foster Auditorium—the site where George Wallace once made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door”—was an important statement of unity and progressiveness in a year of many similar events. But to insinuate that Alabama’s racial climate was so similar to that of the early 1960s that such an occurrence could be remembered as a turning point in the state’s history is a bit naïve and terribly uninformed historically. Goodman has many worthwhile points to make in a narrative, but the attempt to make that summertime march the central event in a football season which will be remembered for any number of other on-the-field events—including the winning of a Heisman Trophy and the hoisting of a national championship trophy—seems more than a bit of a stretch. In candor the event is even lost in the shuffle of the book’s spasmodic narrative. If you have an interest in any of the multiple points of focus addressed in this book, you are likely best served by looking elsewhere for them. Goodman is original and at times incredibly entertaining, but this book seems to somehow be a bit less than the sum of its parts.

JMB