I finished Amanda Foreman’s long history A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War two Fridays ago. I had started it back in March, when I wrote my initial post. Then I proceeded to read in spurts, stopping to read other books, until with 300 pages to go, it finally got hold of me and I stayed with it to the end (writing this post two weeks ago).
I have already quoted Rick Hertzberg’s comment in his detailed New Yorker review, in which he described the book as
an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.
I largely agree, but somehow I had to read hundreds of pages before fully succumbing. Not that the pages didn’t fly. When reading, I had a hard time putting it aside. But once aside, the book seemed almost a burden to return to, knowing I had barely made a dent in it and had so much else I wanted to read.
In any case, three closing thoughts.
1. One of Foreman’s recurring themes in her account of US-British relations during the war is the practice of crimping—the kidnapping and illegal conscription of British subjects. I’ll quote from some of her discussions, as doing so will give a sense of how she conveys relations between the US and UK through the testimony of people large and small.
Among those crimped is
twenty-one-year-old Edward Sewell from Ipswich, who had arrived in 1862 to work as a mechanic for a New York firm. He had been kidnapped in May while riding on the train to work: “I sat by myself in the corner and believe I began to doze [wrote Sewell]. About three or four in the afternoon I woke up and found myself on board a steam-packet on its way to Hart’s Island… . I found that I was in uniform as a soldier, and had been robbed of my money, jewels, and clothes except a ring on my finger.
Foreman explains elsewhere that Richard Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington, “suspected that forced enlistments in the Federal army would continue until the War Department ceased to regard the practice as a necessary evil to make up for the shortfalls in the draft,” then quotes General Isaac Wistar, who writes General John Dix in New York to object to the practice after “watching the execution of two such victims for attempting to desert”:
Nearly all are foreigners, mostly sailors both ignorant of and indifferent to the objects of the war in which they thus suddenly find themselves involved. Two men were shot here this morning for desertion; and over thirty more are now awaiting trial or execution. These examples are essential as we all understand but, it occurred to me, General, that you would pardon me for thus calling your attention to the great crime committed in New York of kidnapping these men into positions where, to their ignorance desertion must seem like a vindication of their rights and liberty.
2. Foreman brings the war to a close with great economy, yet surprising power, as Lee decides to surrender to Grant at Appomattox. And then, suddenly, Lincoln is dead, a tale told with equal economy and power. Foreman follows with a fascinating description of Jefferson Davis’s path from Richmond, Virginia, to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he is captured a month after Lee’s surrender. Much of this is reported by British artist and war correspondent Frank Vizetelly, who appears throughout the book both as a character and through a selection of his drawings.
Vizetelly’s final sketch showed Davis in Washington, Georgia, on May 4, shaking hands with the officers of his guard. “It was here that President Davis determined to continue his flight almost alone,” wrote Vizetelly. “With tears in his eyes he begged them to seek their own safety and leave him to meet his fate.”
Davis, now realizing the extreme folly of attracting attention, made up a new identity as a Texas politician on his way home. Vizetelly’s continued presence only endangered the party, and the journalist accepted that it was time for him to leave. Just before he rode away some time on or shortly after May 5, Vizetelly pressed a £50 note into Davis’s hand, which would be enough to pay for the entire family to sail to England, third class.
The next time Vizetelly had a report of the president’s progress was from the news wires, announcing Davis’s capture on May 10.
3. In an epilogue, Foreman tells us what awaited the British characters featured throughout the book. Then, in her penultimate paragraph, Foreman explains the premise of the book.
The histories of the British participants in what is and always will be an American story bring the sharper focus that often comes with distance. Though united by language and a shared heritage, The Britons in America were nevertheless strangers who found themselves, for a variety of reasons, in the midst of great events. Their simultaneous involvement and detachment (even when their observations turned out to be misleading or mistaken) provide a special perspective on the war, one that by definition was not possible for native-born Americans. There were also many instances when the intimate access granted to British observers meant they were the only independent witnesses to record a particular event—such as William Howard Russell on President Lincoln’s first White House dinner, or Frank Vizetelly on the flight of Jefferson Davis after the fall of Richmond. For this reason their accounts remain not only fascinating but invaluable relics of the Civil War.
By this point, one can only agree.
I went to a great lecture earlier this month. Richard Tapia, a renowned mathematician at Rice University, spoke on “Math at top speed: exploring and breaking myths in the drag racing folklore.” The abstract:
In this talk the speaker will identify elementary mathematical frameworks for the study of old and new drag racing beliefs. In this manner some myths are validated, while others are destroyed. The first part of the talk will be a historical account of the development of drag racing and will include several lively videos and pictures depicting the speaker’s involvement in the early days of the sport.
It turns out that Tapia and his brother Bobby were drag racing pioneers half a century ago. Bobby would beat the great Art Arfons in a match race in 1959, set records in the 1960s, and be inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Richard would focus on math and receive honors of his own, including the 2010 National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Engineering (the first Hispanic so elected). He is a national leader in preparing women and underrepresented minorities for PhDs in science, math, and engineering. And, at heart, still a drag racer.
I didn’t grow up following drag racing, but I did follow the quest for the land speed record, which received lots of coverage in the 1960s. Arfons and Craig Breedlove were regularly in the news, with their latest efforts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I wrote a few days ago about having started Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers. I’m now just past the halfway point, and was pleasantly surprised to find that in Kushner’s tale, the narrator arrives at the salt flats to participate in some speed racing herself.
It’s the 1970s. The narrator has graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, and moved to New York, where she has met an older artist who is a member of the Italian Valera family, maker of motorcycles and tires. I don’t want to describe too much of the plot. Suffice to say that there is a marvelous scene in which she has arrived in Utah in time to watch the Valera team prepare for its latest assault on the land speed record, with famed driver Didi Bombonato at the wheel.
With that as background, I can give an example of Kushner’s fabulous prose, a single paragraph in which our narrator describes Didi:
Each morning, I watched Didi out the window of the trailer as he put on his driving gloves and stretched his fingers, open and fisted, open and fisted, as if he were communicating some kind of cryptic message in units of ten. After his hand stretches, a crew member brought him a little thimble of espresso, which he took between deerskin-gloved finger and thumb, tilted his head back, and drank. He had pocked, sunken cheeks, thin bluish lips, and eyes like raisins, which made him seem angry and also a little dimwitted. Not everyone can be a great beauty, and I’m not exactly a conventional beauty myself. But there was a special tragedy to Didi’s looks: his hair, which was lustrous and full, feathered into elaborate croissant layers. Somehow the glamorous hair brought his homeliness into relief, like those dogs with hair like a woman’s. There was that advertisement on television where you saw a man and a woman from behind, racing along in an open car. The driver and his companion, her blond hair flying on the wind, the American freedom of a big convertible on the open highway, and so forth. The camera moves up alongside. The passenger, it turns out, is not a woman. It’s one of those dogs with long feathery hair, whatever breed that is. Didi’s breed. After drinking his espresso, Didi would flip his hair forward and then resettle it with his fingers, never mind that he was about to mash it under a helmet. It would have been better to skip the vanity and primping and instead use his face as a kind of dare, or weapon: I’m ugly and famous and I drive a rocket-fueled cycle. I’m Didi Bombonato.
She can write. And the salt flats scene ends with a wonderful surprise, which I leave for you to discover when you read the novel.
It took a month and a half, with a few other books read along the way, but I finally finished Amanda Foreman’s long history A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War last Friday night. Along the way, I had decided I would next read a novel. I had several other books lined up, including another long history of a nineteenth-century subject. But I was ready for fiction.
Which novel? There’s the new one by Claire Messud that came out at the end of April. For a while I thought that might be it. There’s Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which also came out while I was reading Foreman, and was well reviewed. But there was some other April release whose reviews intrigued me. What was it?
The NYT to the rescue ten days ago with a feature article on Rachel Kushner. Ah, yes. The Flamethrowers. The article wasn’t all that enlightening, but it did link to James Wood’s New Yorker review of a month ago, described by the NYT’s Maria Russo as rapturous.
How rapturous? Let’s see what Wood has to say:
Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers”, is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading. Consider Kushner’s vivid descriptions, near the start of the book, of racing and motorcycling. The novel’s narrator, an artist in her early twenties nicknamed Reno (it’s where she’s from), is obsessed with speed, machines, and land-speed records. (Art seems to be a subsidiary concern.) When we first see her, she is riding her Moto Valera motorbike from Nevada to Utah, to take part in the land-speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In a cool, hospitable, ingenuous tone, she tells us about herself. Her mother was a switchboard operator, “and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which in a film was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father.” As she approaches the salt flats, the prose begins to glimmer:
On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree. . . . Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.
It is easy enough for a good writer (and this is very good prose—that “inner wedge of sky” perfectly capturing the living blueness of atmosphere) to do something verbally fine with the extremities of desert. What is impressive about these early pages is how easily Kushner also begins to tell stories of the desert.
And, in conclusion:
Her novel is an achievement precisely because it resists either paranoid connectedness or knowing universalism. On the contrary, it succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.
Hard to resist. I decided to begin.
I’m now a fifth of the way through. I haven’t fully succumbed yet. There’s too much else I have to do this week. And, the novel is almost too scintillatingly alive, the prose too glimmering. Small doses seems about right.
I’ll say more when I’m done.
I’m still reading Amanda Foreman‘s mammoth history, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, despite interruptions since starting in late March to fit in three other books (Andrew Delbanco’s reflections on college education and Harvey Jackson’s short histories of the Florida-Alabama Gulf Coast and of Alabama). This morning I reached the five-eighths point and, at last, the Battle of Gettysburg.
As I mentioned last week, A World on Fire has “a Stoppardian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality, with major events such as the Battle of Chancellorsville told through the eyes of minor characters, typically British observers or participants.” All the more so with the Battle of Gettysburg. I loved reading her account—can one imagine an account that is anything less than spellbinding?—but it isn’t the first place to turn for the basics. Nor does she intend it to be.
We visited Gettysburg three years ago this week, following stops in Harper’s Ferry and at Antietam. (See my entirely inadequate reports on the trip here and here.) Foreman’s overview of the battle, brief though it is, brought back the drama of those extraordinary three days a century and a half ago as well as the powerful hold our visit had on us. I wished as I read the book that I could walk and drive the battleground anew.
What we had as guide three years ago was James McPherson’s slim Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. Our first day, we visited the museum, then toured the grounds with a licensed battlefield guides. (The guide commandeers your car and drives you around for two hours, taking you through the battle day by day.) The next day, we retraced the steps on our own, reading passages from McPherson as we stopped along the way.
Prior to our battleground visits, on the evening of the day that we arrived, after we had eaten dinner in town, we stopped at the downtown Friendly’s for takeout dessert. I pulled out of the parking lot, made a turn that I thought would get us back to our bed and breakfast, and soon we were driving in darkness down an unlit country road. After five miles, I made a U-turn and we went back into town.
Only the next day did I realize that the road we were mistakenly on cuts right through the battlefield, over the site where the Confederate troops lined up for Pickett’s Charge. And later still, I realized that one can stand at a point above, looking out over the ground, and see Friendly’s just to the right. The north end of the battlefield merges with today’s downtown commercial strip.
This morning, as I read of the charge, I couldn’t stop myself from picturing the Friendly’s and wanting a strawberry Fribble. From the sacred to the profane. That’s how it is, the two intertwined in my memory.
I finished Harvey Jackson’s Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State yesterday. I wrote about it a week ago and followed up a couple of days later with a post quoting some passages about Dixon Hall Lewis, an Alabama state legislator, congressman, and senator in the 1820s-1840s.
Here, before I set the book aside, I would like to quote one more passage. We jump to the 1960s and perhaps the most famous of all Alabama politicians, George Wallace. What made Wallace so popular in Alabama anyway? And, ultimately, in the country?
Jackson devotes much of the latter part of the book to an explanation, with an illuminating passage that I quote (the essential portion of which is evidently due to Douglas Kiker). Jackson is discussing the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery—the state capitol—led by Martin Luther King. He writes:
One can even imagine Wallace, looking out at the sea of faces stretching down Dexter Avenue, and not really seeing them. One can imagine his mind drifting off to his upcoming trip to New York and appearance on the Today show. Or maybe thinking about all those letters piling up in the mail room, letters from around the nation praising his stand against the subversive forces that were surely behind the march and the movement. Or maybe he was recalling his reception in the North when he made a tentative run for the presidency the year before. And one can imagine, as journalist Douglas Kiker imagined, after the governor’s warm greeting up there, how he lay asleep and was “awakened by a white, blinding vision” that explained why so many Yankees wanted to be his friend. “They all hate black people,” the vision revealed. “All of them. They’re all afraid, all of them.” And that is when it came to Wallace. “Great God! That’s it. They’re all Southern! The whole United States is Southern!”
Realizing this, Wallace also realized, or believed, or at least hoped, that he could become president of that United States, a nation of southerners, so he took to running.
Three years later, Wallace would win 13.5% of the popular vote, 5 states, and 46 electoral votes. Perhaps greater success would have followed if not for the attempt on his life in 1972.
A little over a week ago, I wrote about my surprise at finding myself reading Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m no less surprised by my decision last night to start his 2004 book Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State, which I’m now about sixty pages into.
More about the book soon. First let me review how I found my way to Harvey Jackson’s books.
It started early last month, when we committed ourselves to visiting Athens and Augusta, Georgia. Eager to learn more about the state, I began with James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. Next I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.
I was ready next for a treatment of the South more broadly, so I decided it would be good to read Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which had been on my reading list for some time. It’s a massive book. Partway through, I set it aside for a book on an entirely different theme. On returning, I had reached the halfway point when the latest of James Cobb’s occasional blog posts appeared. After reading it, I went to his blog’s home page, where I noticed an image of Jackson’s Redneck Riviera, which Cobb had written about last June. Soon I was reading it.
I finished Redneck Riviera on Thursday. Jackson is an amiable host. There was a stretch in the middle when I wondered how much I cared about the late twentieth century battles over developing the Gulf Coast in the stretch running east from Mobile Bay in Alabama past Pensacola, Fort Walton, and Destin and on through Seaside to Panama City. But the stories got better and better, and by the latter stages, I could hardly put the book down. Storms, beach destruction and restoration, a case on whether a particular beach should be restored that went to the Supreme Court, the marketing of Spring Break, student mayhem, and Girls Gone Wild movies (more court cases), the fortunes of Destin as fishing village, the development of Seaside as a planned urban community (later the site where the movie The Truman Show was filmed), the contrast between Seaside and the author’s own adjacent community of Seaside, the arrival of a wealthier class of people, the more problematic arrival of speculators, the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, and finally, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Who knew this was such an interesting region, just a thin 135-mile stretch on the Gulf?
On its completion, I returned to Foreman’s account of the Civil War, circa spring 1863. The book has a Stoppardian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality, with major events such as the Battle of Chancellorsville told through the eyes of minor characters, typically British observers or participants. Whoever’s eyes, it’s quite a story, and Foreman’s writing is vivid. I should really read to the book’s end. But my pattern appears to be set. After another 50 pages or so of reading, I was already thinking yesterday about what to read next.
Should I wait for the Tuesday release of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs? It already has a strong review in the New York Review (behind their paywall) by Alison Lurie, and another, by Sam Sacks, in yesterday’s WSJ. I considered it, then remembered that Jackson has a short history of Alabama. Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:
This book tells Alabama’s history in a conversational style with an unapolo-getically subjective approach. Accessible to general readers and students alike, it recounts the history and politics of a state known for its colorful past, told by one of the state’s most noted historians and educators, whose family came to the territory before statehood. A native and resident Alabamian, Harvey Jackson has spent a lifetime discovering and trying to understand his state. Expressing deep love for its people and culture, he is no less critical of its shortcomings.
Inside Alabama, as the title implies, gives Jackson’s insider’s perspective on the events and conditions that shaped modern-day Alabama. With humor and candor, he explores the state’s cultural, political, and economic development from prehistoric times to the dawning of the new millennium. Mound-builders, Hernando de Soto, William Bartram, Red Sticks, Andy Jackson, Bourbon Democrats, suffragettes, New Dealers, Hugo Black, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Rosa Parks all play colorful parts in this popular history. By focusing on state politics as the most accessible and tangible expression of these shaping forces, Jackson organizes the fourteen chapters chronologically, artfully explaining why the past is so important today.
Searching brought up as well a short review by Susan Pace Hamill that convinced me to download the opening portion and begin. She writes:
[Jackson] explores how historical myths surrounding the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods made it easy for otherwise good respectable moral people to believe excuses justifying what we now acknowledge as indefensible injustice.
Jackson’s blunt and blistering evaluations of Alabama’s lowest points will be uncomfortable for many to swallow but will also be difficult to ignore. Despite his substantial professional qualifications as a distinguished professor and scholar of southern history and culture for over forty years, Jackson does not come across as an aloof and judgmental academic locked up in the ivory tower at Jacksonville State University where he currently teaches. Rather, his affectionate tone clearly expresses unconditional love for the state. A native of Grove Hill with ancestral family roots going back before statehood, that include slaveholders and Bourbon Democrats who supported the 1901 Constitution, Jackson is very much connected with Alabama’s mainstream population – the very people who tolerated the terrible injustice dominating our past and who are currently allowing it to continue. In his coverage of segregated Alabama Jackson not only recaps the historical events but also ponders regretfully why so many good moral citizens, including himself, his own family and friends as well as others in his community accepted what we now understand was clearly wrong.
Once again, Jackson is a warm host. So far, I’ve read a short overview of Native American centuries, the arrival of French, Spanish, and British settlers and traders, the Revolutionary War, the familiar horrors of the Creek War, which took place in parallel with the War of 1812 and was one of Andrew Jackson’s great successes, the writing of a state constitution and coming of statehood in 1819, the first years of state government in the 1820s.
Featuring prominently in all this is Alabama’s geography, the river systems and early settlements, trade and development of agriculture. I’ve been studying maps, tracing the routes of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers, their joining just above modern-day Montgomery to form the Alabama, its route west to Selma and then southwards to Mobile Bay, with a name change to the Tensaw when the Tombigbee flows in. And then, up north, I’ve learned about the settling of Huntsville and its location on the Tennessee River, which maybe I once knew but, if so, have learned anew. The old trading and migration routes have given me a better understanding of the state’s major features.
This morning I was inspired to go to Alabama’s tourism site, page through the online version of their vacation guide, and order a print copy. I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I sketched out a trip that would at least cover Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma, Mobile and the Redneck Riviera. For now, I’ll be content with Jackson’s book.
I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I read Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be during our trip earlier this month to New York and Georgia. I’ve been meaning to say more, as I will do now.
Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia who writes on a broad range of issues for non-academic magazines. I’ve long enjoyed his pieces on education at The New York Review of Books. (He also was a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know him.) When College, a short book, came out last year, I considered reading it. Delbanco’s Princeton counterpart (prominent humanist, prolific writer on many issues) Anthony Grafton reviewed it last May, writing:
As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience–an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers–is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.
In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In arguing for what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.
In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.
This resonated with me. But also, by the time I finished Grafton’s review, I figured I’d read enough and pursued Delbanco’s book no further.
Then, on the eve of our trip, I saw a link to a piece by Delbanco at the end of March in The New Republic on MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Reading it, I decided I should read College after all.
I should add that Delbanco’s MOOC article is worth reading in its own right. Here’s one passage near the end (and therefore out of context):
Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.
No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.
Delbanco touches here–as he does in his book and as Grafton does in the quote above–on the question of whether one attends college for job training or some richer sort of educational experience. Closely related to this is the question of where humanities and the arts fit into a college education, since they sure aren’t likely to lead to jobs to the extent that study in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) does. Delbanco writes eloquently on this.
Science, moreover, tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them. …
Meanwhile, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges. This is a great loss because they are the legatees of religion in the sense that they provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people. … One of the ironies of contemporary academic life is that even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business school, where interest is growing in the study of literature and the arts as a way to encourage self-critical reflection among future physicians, attorneys, and entrepreneurs … .
Certain books—old and not so old—speak to us in a subversive whisper that makes us wonder whether the idea of progress might be a sham. They tell us that the questions we face under the shadow of death are not new, and that no new technology will help answer them.
Delbanco discusses the history of American higher education going back to its origins with the founding of Harvard in the 1600s, looking at the role of religion in the founding of our first schools and as well at the limited social strata from which students came. Even as we’ve moved toward a more open, democratic, meritocratic system, Delbanco argues that something has been lost.
As I later understood when I came to read [Michael Young's] The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young and Baltzell were talking about … the Anglo-American version of noblesse oblige—a conception that seems much attenuated now that “merit has become progressively more measurable.” In our era of social sorting by academic prowess, which Young placed in an imaginary future but which we know firsthand, the “new upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism,” and, all too often, subscribe to “the axiom of modern thought … that people are unequal, and … that they should be accorded a station in life related to their capacities.”
It is hard not to be fortified in this view as one goes through today’s college admissions process, which effectively begins in preschool, accelerates through childhood, consumes much of adolescence, and comes to a climax on the cusp of adulthood. This series of trials and rewards is well designed to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings. … “Today,” as [Young] put it with tart irony, “the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and fortheir own undeniable achievement,” and “become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”
Mitt, I think Delbanco and Young are talking about you.
And finally, here’s a passage that includes a centuries-old quote from leading Puritan clergyman John Cotton (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, in The Puritans in America, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco):
Our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit. In that view—too harsh, perhaps, for anyone except a saint to live by—when God announced to Abraham that he had chosen him for an exalted role in history, he did so “without any respect unto any goodness in Abraham,” but rather “freely of his grace … for it is nothing God seeth in Abraham, for which he doth reveal his justification to him.” Such a God was not impressed by any demonstration of meritorious behavior in any human being. To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.
I’m a little puzzled by my decision earlier his week to put other books aside and jump into Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m sixty pages in so far and enjoying it, but how did I even come upon it? Let’s go back a month.
At the time, in anticipation of our upcoming trip to Athens and Augusta, where we would visit the University of Georgia and spend a day at the Masters, I looked around for books on the state and the tournament. This led to James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. And then, instead of a book on the Masters, I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.
I was ready at that point for a more detailed history of Georgia or the South, and contemplated reading (high school classmate) Steve Hahn’s Puliter Prize winning A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. But instead I turned to a book that had long been on my reading list, Amanda Foreman’s mammoth A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. In my post on this decision, I quoted Rick Hertzberg’s review two summers ago in the New Yorker, in which he called the book
an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.
I don’t entirely disagree. I’m halfway through now, and it is indeed filled with life, action, and vivid people. When I pick it up, I’m fully absorbed. Yet, when I put it down—to sleep, to work, whatever—I don’t find myself missing it. Indeed, while part way through, I squeezed in the reading of another book entirely during our trip: Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (post still to come). I was open to interruptions.
Which brings me back to Jim Cobb, author of Georgia Odyssey and a professor at the University of Georgia. He had enough personal asides in his book that I could tell he was a guy worth getting to know better. And guess what? That’s easy to do, thanks to his blog Cobbloviate. He averages about 2-3 posts a month. This opening from a post two months ago gives a sense of the man.
The interim between the end of football recruiting and the start of spring practice is a season of unremitting funk for the Ol’ Bloviator. One of the reasons that his funk resulutely refuses to remit is that when nobody’s playing or practicing, he is more prone to move back a step or two and take a harder look at some of the more troubling off-field aspects of this now thoroughly commercialized amateur pastime that, most of the time, despite himself, he loves way too uncritically.
For instance, we here at UGA have just seen fit to bestow a modest $400,000 pay increase on head football coach Mark Richt, who had been struggling heretofore to get by on a paltry $2.8 million. Hopefully, Mr. Richt will now feel loved and motivated enough to go out and give our lads another season’s worth of hugs and thwacks on the buttocks sufficient to inspire them to give their all for the old Red and Black. If this is not incentive enough, perhaps an additional $800K in performance bonuses will do the trick.
Apparently, we had to give Richt a little boost in pay simply to avoid the mortal embarrassment of having his salary cease to seem less than “competitive” in the Southeastern Conference, where football is not simply the tail that wags the dog but the whole big ol’ dog, who wags his tail and does whatever else he chooses whenever and wherever he by God chooses.
Four days ago, a new Cobbloviate post popped up on my RSS feed. After reading it, I explored the blog anew and noticed an image of a book cover on the home page. Embiggening the image, I found myself staring at the cover of The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera. Further searching within Cobb’s blog brought me to a post from last June in which he discusses the book. He in turn links to three reviews. And then I went to the book’s website at University of Georgia Press, which provides this description:
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera traces the development of the Florida-Alabama coast as a tourist destination from the late 1920s and early 1930s, when it was sparsely populated with “small fishing villages,” through to the tragic and devastating BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.
Harvey H. Jackson III focuses on the stretch of coast from Mobile Bay and Gulf Shores, Alabama, east to Panama City, Florida—an area known as the “Redneck Riviera.” Jackson explores the rise of this area as a vacation destination for the lower South’s middle- and working-class families following World War II, the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and the emergence of the Spring Break “season.” From the late sixties through 1979, severe hurricanes destroyed many small motels, cafes, bars, and early cottages that gave the small beach towns their essential character. A second building boom ensued in the 1980s dominated by high-rise condominiums and large resort hotels. Jackson traces the tensions surrounding the gentrification of the late 1980s and 1990s and the collapse of the housing market in 2008. While his major focus is on the social, cultural, and economic development, he also documents the environmental and financial impacts of natural disasters and the politics of beach access and dune and sea turtle protection.
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is the culmination of sixteen years of research drawn from local newspapers, interviews, documentaries, community histories, and several scholarly studies that have addressed parts of this region’s history. From his 1950s-built family vacation cottage in Seagrove Beach, Florida, and on frequent trips to the Alabama coast, Jackson witnessed the changes that have come to the area and has recorded them in a personal, in-depth look at the history and culture of the coast.
I know essentially nothing about the Gulf Coast. I was intrigued. So I downloaded the free opening portion from Amazon and began. I also started studying maps. Here’s one:
You can see the focus of the book, from Mobile in the center to Panama City on the right. Lots of inlets, waterways, islands (or one-time islands, now connected to the mainland).
Once I finished the excerpt, I returned to Amanda Foreman and the Civil War for a couple of days, but images of Pensacola kept floating into my head. So I downloaded the rest of Redneck Riviera. I’ve gone from Jackson’s rapid treatment of the 1920s and 1930s through the war years, military expansion at Naval Air Station Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Base, and into the 1950s, with World War II veterans making the coast a vacation destination. Growth and development are in the air.
It’s all news to me. Not the general arc of the story, but the details, including the geography. I’m learning a lot.
Jackson can’t compete with Foreman on life, action, and vivid people. Not to sell him short. He brings plenty of each. And he’s quite a storyteller in his own right. More than that, he’s an awfully companionable fellow. He and Cobb—they’re plain good company. But the development of a stretch of the Gulf Coast in the fifties simply can’t be as exciting as the battles of North and South for the attention of Britain, not to mention the battles of North and South against each other.
Nor need it be. Keep in mind that the two tales are linked. The development of the South a century after the Civil War is well worth reading about in parallel with the war story itself. I’m happy with my decision; I’ll keep alternating.
With work and travel, I haven’t been posting, being content instead to add to my coming attractions list (here and here). One more time, with catchup scheduled to begin tomorrow, if I can tear myself away from final-round Masters coverage.
The list so far:
1. Lunch two Fridays ago at La Grenouille, one of the great restaurants of New York.
2. Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be , which I started reading on the plane flight to New York two Thursdays ago and finished last Monday.
3. Hockey on ice. A silly little post about a pun.
4. Our flight to Atlanta last Sunday, views of New York and Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake and downtown Baltimore, and my inability to come up with a clue to the Delta flight magazine crossword puzzle clue “New York’s ____ Island” even as I looked down on the very island and pointed it out to Gail.
5. Last Monday at the University of Georgia.
6. Dinner Monday night at Athens’ great 5 & 10.
7. Last Tuesday at the Masters. A dream come true.
[Photo by Dan Nakano]
8. Wednesday visit to the University of Georgia sports museum (Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall).
9. The subsequent visit to the Georgia Museum of Art (the state museum, on campus).
10. Wednesday lunch at another great Athens restaurant (who knew they had so many?), The Grit.
12. Our flight home Thursday in a 767 set up for international travel, with a change in the weather.
Hmm. Maybe I won’t get through all of this. But doing so is the plan.
13. Oh, and one more post, on yet another long history book I need to add to my ever-growing list: William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, due out Tuesday and reviewed today in the WSJ. It came out in January in the UK, to strong reviews. And Dalrymple has an op-ed piece on Afghanistan in tomorrow’s NYT.
My time for blogging has been limited this past week, and it will remain so for a little longer. I’ve just written about our dinner at New York’s Italianissimo two nights ago. Here are two coming attractions:
1. Lunch yesterday at La Grenouille, one of the great restaurants of New York, where I last ate some time back in the 1970s.
2. A short book I downloaded Wednesday night and began reading on the plane Thursday morning, Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be from a year ago. (Yes, I’m still reading Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire and thorougly enjoying it. I’m just taking a short break, since I have a feeling I’ll be reading A World on Fire forever.) I’ve been meaning to read Delbanco’s book for some time, and now I am.
Consider these placeholders for two posts to come.