Archive for the ‘History’ Category

We’re All Southerners

May 5, 2013 Leave a comment


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.

Categories: Books, History, Politics

Nothing New Under the Sun

April 30, 2013 Leave a comment
Dixon Hall Lewis

Dixon Hall Lewis

Or so I’ve heard, though the guy who said it probably wasn’t thinking about Higgs bosons. Still, he may be right.

I came across additional evidence yesterday in the book I’m currently reading, Harvey Jackson’s Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State. About a fourth of the way in, Jackson introduces Dixon Hall Lewis, who represented Alabama in the US Senate in the 1840s. Two decades earlier, he was a state legislator, then ran for Congress. In that race,

the issue he chose to exploit was federally funded internal improvements, which he opposed because (he claimed) they would open the door to tyranny by making people dependent on Washington instead of on themselves and their states.

Jackson contrasts Lewis with William Rufus King, long-time Alabama senator and briefly vice president under Franklin Pierce, until his death.

Together King and Lewis represent the bipolar nature of Alabama politics along with the tension that existed, and still exists, among Alabamians and their leaders. This was the issue: Should the state divorce itself, as much as possible, from the central government and go its own way even though such philosophical purity demanded that it give up advantages that come from collective action within the Union? Or should the state accept federal aid, with accompanying regulations and restrictions so that its people could have the same advantage enjoyed by other states? It was a dilemma, and efforts to solve it have made up much of Alabama’s history.

So while Dixon Hall Lewis denounced federal intrusions and suggested that states had the constitutional authority and moral responsibility to oppose laws that infringed on their sovereignty, William Rufus King offered a more moderate course. And Alabamians rallied to both. Understand that, and you are at the heart of the matter.

A hundred and eighty years later, Lewis’s descendants continue to turn down federal aid, from New Jersey Governor Christie’s rejection of funding for a new train tunnel under the Hudson to New York to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s (and others’) rejection of federal Medicaid funding under Obamacare. And NRA chief Wayne LaPierre fights gun control in an echo of Lewis’s warnings, reminding “senators that the founders didn’t want Americans to ‘live under tyranny.'”

Nothing new under the sun indeed.

Categories: History, Politics

Rehabilitating War Criminals

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Location:Dallas TX

We sure love our war criminal presidents, don’t we? Or at least we love rehabilitating them after they spend a few years in purgatory.

Let’s talk a bit about Nixon. The 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi were criminal enough, but have a look at this article by Bob Parry last month (hat tip, Charles Pierce), in which we learn of Nixon’s successful efforts to derail Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that could have ended the war. Moreover, Parry suggests, Nixon’s desire to hide the evidence of this lay behind the Watergate break-in of 1972.

Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.

We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.

Treason indeed. As Charles Pierce comments:

There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions.

By the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, the rehabilitation was complete. We learn in the NYT obit that at the opening of his presidential library in 1990, he was “hailed as a statesman and a peacemaker.”

And now it’s time for the opening of yet another presidential library, which served as the occasion of more rehabilitation. Last week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above) opened in Dallas on the campus of SMU. Here’s a sight to stir your heart:

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

The jacket worn by President George W. Bush to serve a turkey dinner during his secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad in 2003.

[From the presidential library website]

Bush did more than prolong a war. He lied us into one, helped along by a host of government officials and an accommodating press. No point reviewing the familiar details. Oh, and he introduced torture as government policy, this being confirmed (if it needed confirmation) by a report two weeks ago.

A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.

The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”


The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.

Yet, the opening of the Bush library offered an occasion to reassess Bush and place him in a positive light, which his fellow presidents were only too happy to do.

On this day, they collectively wrapped their arms around a fellow member of the club.

“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Mr. Obama, whose first presidential campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq war, praised Mr. Bush for his bullhorn-in-the-rubble fortitude after Sept. 11 and said his predecessor fought for what he thought was best for his country. He linked his own effort to overhaul the immigration system to Mr. Bush’s.

“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Clinton, who has become close to the Bush family, offered warm words and recounted how he and Mr. Bush used to talk politics while his successor was in office. Referring to the library behind him, he joked, “Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting onstage with the other presidents and first ladies, laughed robustly.

Mr. Carter, one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq war, talked about how Mr. Bush ended war in Sudan and helped Africa. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” he told Mr. Bush.

Really? Spare me. I know it’s a complicated world and not everything is black and white. But here’s some black and white: President Bush was a war criminal and a liar.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics, War

Inside Alabama

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment


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.

Categories: Books, History

Redneck Riviera

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment


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.

Categories: Books, History

A World on Fire

March 30, 2013 Leave a comment


I read James Cobb’s Georgia Odyssey—a short history of the state—earlier in the month in preparation for our upcoming visit. Then I read Ron Rapoport’s The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, hoping it would give me some background both on life in Georgia and on the history of the Masters golf tournament. Not so much, but it was informative, at least regarding Jones’ highs and lows at the major tournaments of the 1920s and 1930. I also looked around for books that would have more to say about post-Civil-War economic life in the South, one of Cobb’s principal themes.

Among the books I considered was A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, the book for which Steven Hahn received both the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2004. Not only that, Steve’s an old friend from long ago, a classmate in junior high and high school. I’ll get to it some day.

Eventually I settled on a book that has long been on my list, Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War. (It was published originally in the UK in 2010 with the alternative subtitle “An Epic History of Two Nations Divided.”) It got rave reviews on its US appearance, ultimately making the NYT’s 10 best books list of 2011 with the blurb: “Which side would Great Britain support during the Civil War? Foreman gives us an enormous cast of characters and a wealth of vivid description in her lavish examination of a second battle between North and South, the trans-Atlantic one waged for British hearts and minds.”

In his long review in the New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg 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.

This pretty much says it all: both why I’ve been tempted to read it and why I’ve shied away. How could I resist a work of narrative art? Yet, did I really want to tackle a thousand-page book on the Civil War?

One thing for sure, I didn’t want to read another straightforward Civil War history. I’ve read plenty, including James McPherson’s own immense and sprawling Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. But Foreman’s book comes at the war from a different angle, and there was that promise of its being a page turner.

In his WSJ review, Michael Burlingame echoed Hertzberg, calling Foreman “such an engaging writer that readers may find this 958-page volume too short” and going on to explain that “she supplements the traditional scholarly approach to British-American relations with an array of testimony from dozens of British witnesses to and participants in the Civil War. Their diaries, letters, reminiscences and newspaper reports provide insights into the war that differ from similar accounts by Americans, who perforce could not achieve the detached perspective of foreigners.”

I took the plunge. I’m 200 pages in. Not racing through exactly—it’s been too busy a week for that—but I’m finding it absorbing.

We’re in December 1861 now, with the focus on diplomatic relations between the US and Britain following the illegal seizure by US Captain Charles Wilkes of two Confederate diplomats on their way to London, James Mason and John Slidell, from the British mail packet Trent. Will Britain declare war? The time lag in communication between the two countries makes the situation especially problematic. The leading characters to this point have been William Seward (the US Secretary of State), Charles Francis Adams (the US ambassador to Britain), and their British counterparts, John Russell and Richard Lyons.

There’s been one battle scene—the first battle of Bull Run, or Manassas—brilliantly told from the vantage of William Howard Russell, famed war correspondent for The Times (of London), and Frank Vizetelly, war artist and correspondent for Illustrated London News. (A special pleasure of the book is the inclusion of many of Vizetelly’s illustrations.) Although the great battles of the war aren’t the book’s focus, I’m looking forward to Foreman’s treatment of the ones to come. And to much more, though it may take a while.

Categories: Books, History

Mathematics in Ancient Iraq

March 30, 2013 Leave a comment


I started Eleanor Robson’s 2008 Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History two days ago. Not my usual reading. I needed to find out what she had to say on certain issues, but the book was checked out of the library, so I decided, what the heck, I’ll just buy it and give it a try. Through the wonders of Amazon, I had a copy 48 hours later, and I’m glad.

From the book jacket:

This monumental book traces the origins and development of mathematics in the ancient Middle East, from its earliest beginnings in the fourth millennium BCE to the end of indigenous intellectual culture in the second century BCE when cuneiform writing was gradually abandoned. Eleanor Robson offers a history like no other, examining ancient mathematics within its broader social, political, economic, and religious contexts, and showing that mathematics was not just an abstract discipline for elites but a key component in ordering society and understanding the world.

The region of modern-day Iraq is uniquely rich in evidence for ancient mathematics because its prehistoric inhabitants wrote on clay tablets, many hundreds of thousands of which have been archaeologically excavated, deciphered, and translated. Drawing from these and a wealth of other textual and archaeological evidence, Robson gives an extraordinarily detailed picture of how mathematical ideas and practices were conceived, used, and taught during this period. She challenges the prevailing view that they were merely the simplistic precursors of classical Greek mathematics, and explains how the prevailing view came to be. Robson reveals the true sophistication and beauty of ancient Middle Eastern mathematics as it evolved over three thousand years, from the earliest beginnings of recorded accounting to complex mathematical astronomy.

The study of Babylonian mathematics is generally associated with Otto Neugebauer, an Austrian who began studying mathematics in the early 1920s in Göttingen, then one of the great centers of mathematics in the world. Soon his interests changed to history, and he wrote his doctoral thesis on Egyptian mathematics. The work on Babylonian mathematics that occupied him next led to the truly monumental three-volume work Mathematische Keilschrift-Texte (or Mathematical Cuneiform Texts), in which he analyzed cuneiform tablets from museums throughout the world, translating and interpreting their texts. Neugebauer’s work (partly in collaboration with Abraham Sachs; see their book Mathematical Cuneiform Texts) would have enormous influence on subsequent studies in the history of ancient mathematics and science. He eventually came to the US, where he worked at Brown University and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, dying in 1990. (I must add to my ever growing list of missed opportunities that I succeeded in spending a year at the IAS, near the end of his life, without doing anything to take advantage of his presence.)

In recent years, some of Neugebauer’s analyses and conclusions have been re-examined, with new interpretations given for individual tablets and, more broadly, the purpose of the entire enterprise. This is what I have been learning about in the last week, most notably through the writings of Jens Høyrup and Eleanor Robson.

Unfortunately—missed opportunities again—I’m way too late to go back to New York and see an exhibition that was put on a little over two years ago at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, called Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics. Here’s the website description of the show:

Since the nineteenth century, thousands of cuneiform tablets dating to the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1900-1700 BCE) have come to light at various sites in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). A significant number record mathematical tables, problems, and calculations. In the 1920s these tablets began to be systematically studied by Otto Neugebauer, who spent two decades transcribing and interpreting tablets housed in European and American museums. His labors, and those of his associates, rivals, and successors, have revealed a rich culture of mathematical practice and education that flourished more than a thousand years before the Greek sages Thales and Pythagoras with whom histories of mathematics used to begin.

This exhibition is the first to explore the world of Old Babylonian mathematics through cuneiform tablets covering the full spectrum of mathematical activity, from arithmetical tables copied out by young scribes-in-training to sophisticated work on topics that would now be classified as number theory and algebra. The pioneering research of Neugebauer and his contemporaries concentrated on the mathematical content of the advanced texts; a selection of archival manuscripts and correspondence offers a glimpse of Neugebauer’s research methods and his central role in this “heroic age.”

Edward Rothstein reviewed it in the NYT, writing that the institute

has gathered together a remarkable selection of Old Babylonian tablets from the collections of three universities — Columbia, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania — that cover a wide mathematical range. Made between 1900 and 1700 B.C., they include student exercises, word problems and calculation tables, as well as more abstract demonstrations. Under the curatorship of Alexander Jones, a professor at N.Y.U., and Christine Proust, a historian of mathematics, the tablets are used to give a quick survey of Babylonian mathematical enterprise, while also paying tribute to Neugebauer, the Austrian-born scholar who spent the last half of his career teaching at Brown University and almost single-handedly created a new discipline of study through his analysis of these neglected sources.

Only about 950 mathematically oriented tablets survived two millenniums of Babylonian history, and since their discovery, debate has raged over what they show us about that lost world. Every major history of Western mathematics written during the last 70 years has at least started to take Babylonians into account.

Rothstein even mentions Robson’s book:

In a fascinating 2008 book, “Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History” (Princeton), Eleanor Robson even suggests that many tablets like these of the second millennium B.C. “were essentially ephemera, created to aid and demonstrate recall, destined almost immediately for the recycling bin.”

But as Ms. Robson also points out, these tablets’ word problems about digging and construction, their use in teaching record keeping and calculation, and their implicit affirmation of the importance of scribes and teachers, also reveal a highly organized, bureaucratic society, an “ordered urban state, with god, king and scribe at its center.”

Among the tablets on view was Plimpton 322, the most famous of all the mathematical tablets. Here it is, as photographed by co-curator Christine Proust:


Why is it of such interest? From the website again:

Plimpton 322 reveals that the Babylonians discovered a method of finding Pythagorean triples, that is, sets of three whole numbers such that the square of one of them is the sum of the squares of the other two. By Pythagoras’ Theorem, a triangle whose three sides are proportional to a Pythagorean triple is a right-angled triangle. Right-angled triangles with sides proportional to the simplest Pythagorean triples turn up frequently in Babylonian problem texts; but if this tablet had not come to light, we would have had no reason to suspect that a general method capable of generating an unlimited number of distinct Pythagorean triples was known a millennium and a half before Euclid.

Plimpton 322 has excited much debate centering on two questions. First, what was the method by which the numbers in the table were calculated? And secondly, what were the purpose and the intellectual context of the tablet?

I sure wish I took an interest in this subject three years ago. I could have read Robson’s book, then arranged for us to be in New York during the exhibition.

Anyway, I’m reading the book now, and Robson concludes (I don’t usually jump to the end, but I did this time) with a compelling argument for taking an interest in the subject:

Compared to the difficulties of grappling with fragmentary and meagre nth-generation sources from other ancient cultures the cuneiform evidence is concrete, immediate, and richly contextualised. We can often name and date individuals precisely; we have their autograph manuscripts, their libraries and household objects. This opens a unique window onto the material, social, and intellectual world of the mathematics of ancient Iraq that historians of other ancient cultures can only dream of.

Categories: Books, History, Math

Georgia Odyssey, 2: Jobs and Environment

March 19, 2013 1 comment


Two days ago, I wrote about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s brief history of Georgia. After quoting from Cobb’s treatment of Georgia’s lynching history, I wrote, “It was a different world. At least I’d like to think so. But when I read Cobb’s account on the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks—as well as the Georgia Democratic Party’s move in 1900 to a primary system for selecting candidates, with the added feature of outright exclusion of blacks from participation—I couldn’t help but recognize that today’s Republican Party is in the same business.”

Later in the book, Cobb discusses Georgia’s efforts to attract industry and jobs:

In their efforts to entice industry to Georgia, state and local officials had offered cheap labor and also free and essentially untrammeled access to the state’s natural resources. Not surprisingly, this approach led to some serious examples of exploitation and abuse. When the Union Camp Corporation came to Depression-weary Savannah in 1935, local leaders not only promised nominal rents and protection from competition but pledged as well “to secure the necessary action and, if possible, legislation on the part of the governmental bodies concerned, to protect and save you harmless from any claims, demands, or suits for the pollution of air or water caused by the operation of the plant.” Furthermore, Savannah’s officials agreed that “in case litigation arises or suits are brought against you on account of odors and/or flow age from the proposed plant that the Industrial Committee of Savannah will pay all expenses of defending such suits up to a total amount of $5,000.” …

In 1967, after a fairly strong air-pollution-control measure died in committee, a replacement bill, actually proposed by a Union Camp representative, sailed through the legislature with only a few changes. The new law authorized only such pollution control as was “consistent with providing for maximum employment and the full industrial development of the state” … .

Once again, this sounds familiar, as states continue to deregulate and offer tax advantages in an effort to attract business, other costs (forgone revenue, declining support for schools, eventual need to clean up environmental disasters) be darned.

For instance? Well (and a hat tip to Charles Pierce for bringing this to my attention), let’s have a look at developments in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee’s Business Journal two weeks ago, Jeff Engel wrote:

A bill to streamline Wisconsin’s mining permitting process appears destined for passage after the state Senate approved a bill and sent it to the Republican-controlled Assembly this week, despite Democratic criticisms that it rolls back environmental protections and is a giveaway to mining businesses.


The legislative efforts this session follow a failed attempt to pass a similar bill last year, which would have lured Florida-based Gogebic Taconite to begin a $1.5 billion mining project in northern Wisconsin.

[Governor Scott] Walker emphasized that the bill doesn’t approve the proposed mine, it only is meant to streamline the permitting process. …

Walker said that for any other industry, if a company said they would create thousands of jobs, Wisconsin leaders would be “doing cartwheels.”

“Heck, we do cartwheels for a fraction of that, for hundreds of employees, let alone thousands of employees,” Walker told me. “So it just kind of seems out of perspective.”

Walker’s reassurances notwithstanding, here’s additional background from Jessica Vanegeren in The Capital Times, emphasis mine:

With numerous groups already vowing to challenge the bill in court, Sen. Tom Tiffany also acknowledged that changes were made to the legislation to put the state on stronger legal ground to withstand such a challenge.

“The bill reflects the reality of mining. There are going to be some impacts to the environment above the iron ore body,” said Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted.

Tiffany made the admission after being asked Thursday in an interview with the Cap Times how Republicans could continue to claim the mining bill doesn’t risk environmental harm when:

  • It specifically changes the wording of existing state permitting law from “significant adverse affects (to wetlands) are presumed to be unnecessary” to “significant adverse affects are presumed to be necessary.”
  • Bill Williams, present of Gogebic Taconite, which is proposing a massive iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties, said in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the 3,300 acres it is leasing could be covered by waste piles if it builds a $1.2 billion open-pit iron ore mine.
  • The land above the rich vein of iron ore contains hundreds of acres of wetlands, numerous pristine trout streams and several small tributaries that feed into the Bad River. The Bad River wends its way to Lake Superior through the Bad River Indian Reservation, which includes culturally and economically significant rice beds.

“We are simply being honest,” Tiffany says. “There will be some impacts but they will be limited. Changing the word ‘unnecessary’ to ‘necessary’ lets the judge know it was the Legislature’s intent that there will be some adverse impacts.

In a legal context, the wording change proves lawmakers knowingly passed a bill that they accepted would cause some harm to the environment, Tiffany adds, making it more difficult for a lawsuit to be successful on the grounds that a mining permit caused harm to the environment.

This is contemporary Wisconsin, mind you, not Depression-era Georgia. And a Republican Party determined to turn back the clock. There may be stalemate in DC, but at the state level, radical change is underway.

Good book, by the way—Georgia Odyssey. I finished it this morning.

Georgia Odyssey

March 17, 2013 Leave a comment


We’ll be heading to New York in a few weeks for a short stay. Where to go after New York has been a puzzle for months–there being several natural options–but the puzzle is now resolved. We’re going down to Georgia, to the alliterative trio of Atlanta, Athens, and Augusta. No surprise, then, that I’m now reading a history of the state, James Cobb’s Georgia Odyssey. I’m fifty pages in. From the book’s website:

Georgia Odyssey is a lively survey of the state’s history, from its beginnings as a European colony to its current standing as an international business mecca, from the self-imposed isolation of its Jim Crow era to its role as host of the centennial Olympic Games and beyond, from its long reign as the linchpin state of the Democratic Solid South to its current dominance by the Republican Party. This new edition incorporates current trends that have placed Georgia among the country’s most dynamic and attractive states, fueled the growth of its Hispanic and Asian American populations, and otherwise dramatically altered its demographic, economic, social, and cultural appearance and persona.

“The constantly shifting cultural landscape of contemporary Georgia,” writes James C. Cobb, “presents a jumbled panorama of anachronism, contradiction, contrast, and peculiarity.” A Georgia native, Cobb delights in debunking familiar myths about his state as he brings its past to life and makes it relevant to today.

Cobb is a historian of the American south at the University of Georgia, which we’re excited to be visiting. I’m excited anyway. I’m not sure about Gail. Other than the math department, my top priorities are to see the Georgia Museum of Art and Sanford Stadium (seats 92,746!). One museum exhibition I’m looking forward to is William H. Johnson: An American Modern.

William Henry Johnson (1901–1970) is a pivotal figure in modern American art. A virtuoso skilled in various media and techniques, he produced thousands of works over a career that spanned decades, continents and genres. Now, on view in its entirety for the first time, a seminal collection covering key stages in Johnson’s career will be presented in “William H. Johnson: An American Modern.” Developed by Baltimore’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, this Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition represents a unique opportunity to share the artist’s oeuvre with a broader audience. This exhibition of 20 expressionist and vernacular landscapes, still-life paintings and portraits investigates the intricate layers of Johnson’s diverse cultural perspective as an artist and self-described “primitive and cultured painter.”

William H. Johnson, Sowing (detail), ca. 1940, gouache and pencil, Collection of Morgan State University

William H. Johnson, Sowing (detail), ca. 1940, gouache and pencil, Collection of Morgan State University

Cobb’s book is brief, a mere overview, but I’m learning a lot. Many of the economic and political issues surrounding antebellum Georgia—the war, reconstruction, lynching, and Jim Crow laws are a few featured so far—are worthy of entire books on their own. (And yes, I know, those books have been written.) These are not issues specific to Georgia, but Cobb does argue that Georgia, sadly, takes pride of place for some of them, a bitter irony given that it was late to move to a slave- and cotton-based economy.

Cobb’s whirlwind pace through Georgia’s history notwithstanding, there’s room for enough stories to make one gasp repeatedly in wonder at attitudes on race and the actions these attitudes engendered. Earlier today, I read Cobb’s short sketch of pioneering feminist Rebecca Lattimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate (though just for a day, to complete Thomas Watson‘s term upon his death; and Watson is a fascinating figure in his own right, a one-time Progressive who was William Jennings Bryan’s vice-presidential running mate in 1896).

No prominent figure better personified the contradictions that abounded in turn-of-the-century Georgia than Felton, the state’s foremost feminist and leading reform advocate. … Some of her statements seemed to anticipate the most aggressive of today’s feminist rhetoric: “The marriage business is a lottery. You can draw a prize, but you are most apt to draw a blank.” … When some Georgia women prominent in the United Daughters of the Confederacy spoke outing defense of “the manhood of the South,” she retorted that “if they prefer to hug their chains, I have no sort of objection.”

Yet, as Cobb goes on to explain, in other ways

she was clearly a product of the established order in Georgia. This was most obvious in her advocacy of lynching. … When it came to conjuring up lurid visions of lustful black males assaulting virginal white maidens, Felton could easily equal any of the South’s most virulently racist demagogues: “If it requires lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from raving, drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week if necessary.” … In 1902 when Andrew Sledd, a young professor at Emory College, wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly calling for an end to lynching and a calmer approach to discussing race relations, Felton led a campaign of harassment and intimidation that encouraged the young professor to resign from Emory and leave the state.

As for progressive, vice-presidential candidate, and senator Watson, here’s what he had to say about lynching: “In the South, we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.” Also: “Lynch law is a good sign: it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people.”

It was a different world. At least I’d like to think so. But when I read Cobb’s account on the introduction of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks—as well as the Georgia Democratic Party’s move in 1900 to a primary system for selecting candidates, with the added feature of outright exclusion of blacks from participation—I couldn’t help but recognize that today’s Republican Party is in the same business. Last July, Attorney General Holder was explicit on this:

During a speech to the national NAACP Convention, Holder denounced the fact that a number of states are beginning to require voters to present particular forms of photo identification or be turned away from the polls. “Under proposed voter ID laws, many would struggle to pay for IDs needed to vote. We call this a poll tax,” Holder declared to loud applause.

Some states with voter ID laws don’t charge for the IDs themselves, but many citizens have to pay for the documentation required to get a voter ID. For instance, an 84-year-old Wisconsin woman named Ruthelle Frank, who has voted in every election since Truman defeated Dewey, faced a $200 fee to get a copy of her birth certificate, which she needed to get a voter ID under her state’s new law. Facing such a steep price, 2012 may be the first year Frank can’t vote.

Then there’s the case of Shelby County [Alabama] v. Holder, now before the Supreme Court, in which a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act may be overturned. (See, for instance, Linda Greenhouse in the NYT ten days ago.)

Well, anyway, we’ll be off to Georgia next month. Thanks to Cobb, I’ll be more knowledgable about its history when we get there.

Categories: Books, History

Red Plenty

March 7, 2013 Leave a comment


On finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History Saturday, I struggled to decide what book to read next. Among my options were the books I’d just received for my non-birthday, plus Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (which I’d just read about the day before), Charlie LeDuff’s new book Detroit: An American Autopsy (which has been widely reviewed in the past month; and I’ve gone almost four months without reading a Detroit book), and Mischa Hiller’s thriller Shake Off (Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite book of 2012, for what that’s worth).

I paged through my birthday books. I downloaded the free opening portions of the other three and started them. Uncertain what to do, I turned back NYT reviewer Dwight Garner’s listing of ten favorite books of 2012, scrolling down until Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty caught my eye. Garner writes, “This delicious book—not quite history, not quite fiction—is about the era when Russians really thought their version of Communism would make them the happiest and most unfettered people in the world. It’s an angular yet intimate thing, this book, as if Clive James had written it with Milan Kundera.”

Clicking through to Garner’s full review from a year ago, I learned more:

“Red Plenty” is not a book to which one brings great expectations. It’s about Soviet Russia in the 1950s and ’60s, a gray topic, prechewed by many others. Mr. Spufford tries to shoo away readers, too, in his introduction. That’s where he explains that his book is not quite history and not quite fiction but something in between, a mongrel narrative in which an “idea is the hero.” Those four words can make you scan for the exit signs.

The idea that underpins “Red Plenty” is an economic one. This book is about the old sunny Soviet fairy tale, the notion that a planned economy would become, in Mr. Spufford’s memorable phrase, “its own self-victualling tablecloth.” His book is about the era when Russians really thought their version of Communism would make them the richest and happiest and most unfettered people in the world.

“Humanity’s ancient condition of scarcity was going to end, imminently,” Mr. Spufford writes. “Everyone was going to climb the cabbage stalk, scramble through the hole in the sky, and arrive in the land where millstones revolved all by themselves.”

The prose in “Red Plenty” is nearly always this vivid, which will surprise no one who has kept up with Mr. Spufford’s oeuvre. …

It explores the lives of more than a dozen characters, a few of them famous (we meet Khrushchev, before and after his forced retirement), most of them not. Many are actual people; some are pure invention. Mr. Spufford explains his methods in an extended, David Foster Wallace-like series of endnotes that nearly constitute a novel in themselves.

The book came out in the UK in 2010. Reviewing it at the time in the Telegraph, Charlotte Hobson wrote:

There may be those among the readership of this paper who doubt, instinctively, whether a novel about the reform of the planned economy in the Soviet Union will while away their leisure hours in an entertaining fashion.

Let me set their minds at rest immediately. Francis Spufford’s new book is a virtuoso piece of storytelling, a series of vividly imagined episodes – by turns funny, poignant, spine-chilling and warm – that conjure up a richly detailed world.

Red Plenty is peopled by both real and fictional characters: brilliant young scientists and economists, low-level Party members and factory managers. Each one, even the most corrupt, is drawn with such a generous understanding that I found myself stalling at the end of every chapter, regretting already that I would soon be leaving their company.

Its mood is far from the usual depressing USSR of novels and memoirs, with their landscape of cynical Party members and heroic dissidents. Those elements are here, yet they are woven into the broader context of the Thaw, the years of relative prosperity and optimism after Stalin’s death.

“This is not a novel… it is a fairy tale,” Spufford claims in his prologue and there really is something magical, almost uncanny, in his ability to create such a marvellously satisfying, technicolour world. Particularly as, he tells us, he does not speak Russian and has only visited Russia briefly.

Above all, however, this is a novel of ideas – or one, overwhelming idea, relevant to us in post-credit crunch times. Was it possible that the Soviet Union could have delivered prosperity and an advanced technological society to its citizens as well as the West?

And here’s fellow English writer Nick Hornsby:

Francis Spufford’s forthcoming novel, “Red Plenty,” is about Nikita Khrushchev’s planned economy, and it contains the phrase (admittedly in the extensive footnotes at the back) “the multipliers on which Kantorovich’s solution to optimisation problems depended,” and it’s terrific. Yes, reading it involves a certain amount of self-congratulation — “Look at me! I’m reading a book about shortages in the early ’60s Soviet rubber industry, and I’m loving it!” But actually, such sentiments are entirely misplaced, and completely unfair to Spufford, who has succeeded in turning possibly the least promising fictional material of all time into an incredibly smart, surprisingly involving, and deeply eccentric book, a hammer-and-sickle version of Altman’s “Nashville,” with central committees replacing country music. (“Red Plenty” would probably make a marvelous film, but I’ll let someone else pitch the idea to the Hollywood studio that would have to pay for it.) Spufford provides a terrific cast, a mixture of the real and the fictional, and hundreds of vignettes that illustrate how Khrushchev’s honorable drive to bring enough of whatever was needed to his hungry and oppressed countrymen, impacted on the lives of economists, farmers, politicians, black-marketeers, and even hack writers. (There was, of course, no other type, seeing as you wrote what you were told to write.)

Well, you get the idea. And perhaps you see why I decided to download the free opening portion and begin.

The first chapter transported me to 1938 Leningrad, joining young mathematician Leonid Kantorovitch on a tram as he rides to a consulting he is obliged to perform.

No, he didn’t mind. Besides, there was a duty involved. If he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it would make the world a fraction better. The world was lifting itself up out of darkness and beginning to shine, and mathematics was how he could help. It was his contribution. It was what he could give, according to his abilities. He was lucky enough to live in the only country on the planet where human beings had seized the power to shape events according to reason, instead of letting things happen as they happened to happen, or allowing the old forces of superstition and greed to push people around. Here, and nowhere else, reason was in charge.

As he heads to Plywood Trust, he comes up with a key mathematical insight in optimization theory.

If he was right—and he was sure he was, in essentials—then anyone applying the new method to any production situation … should be able to count on a measurable percentage improvement in the quantity of product they got from a given amount of raw material. …

He didn’t know yet what sort of percentage he was talking about, but just suppose it was 3%. It might not sound like much… . But it was predictable. You could count on the extra 3% year after year. Ahove all it was free. It would come merely by organising a little differently the tasks people were already doing. It was 3% of extra order snatched out of the grasp of entropy.


Suppose that the Soviet economy could be made to grow by an extra 3% a year—an extra 3% year after year, compounded. It would mount up fast. After only a decade, the country would be half as rich again as it would have been otherwise. … And he could hasten the hour, he thought, intoxicated. he gazed up the tram and saw everything and everybody in it touched by the transformation to come, rippling into new and more generous forms, the number 34 rattle box to Krestovsky Island becoming a sleek silent ellipse filled with golden light, … .

It’s a beautiful passage, which—due to my many omissions—I’ve barely captured.

On reaching the end of the free Kindle fragment, I downloaded the rest of the book and continued. Each chapter is a marvel, focusing on characters large and small. I’m about two-fifths of the way through now, having just read a chapter on the writer Sasha Galich in Moscow, 1961. He has begun to have doubts.

Drip by drip, these last years, he had understood more of what had been happening in his own time, just around the corner, behind the scenes, just out of his sight, as if he had been a child in a fairytale wood who sees only green leaves and songbirds ahead, because all the monsters are standing behind him. Quiet conversations with a returned choreographer, almost toothless, who’d survived his ten-year stretch on dancer’s strength. Confidences from an uncle’s friend, a secret policeman blurred by a bottle … about the famous year of 1937, when the vanloads came in so fast for the bullet that the drain in the floor of the basement corridor sometimes blocked … A drip of knowledge from here and a drip from there, till he saw that his lucky world was founded on horror. Like Peter the Great’s city beside the Neva, his city was built upon a layer of crushed human beings, hundreds of thousands of them, or perhaps even millions. And you were not supposed to mind too much. It was enough to be assured that such things no longer happened, that mistakes had been made but were now corrected. It served no purpose to look back. It did no good to toss in bed in your elegant apartment and remember the ways in which you’d helped to give horror its showbiz smile, its interludes of song and dance.

Oh, and there’s more. Spufford has a website (with the title Comrades, Let’s Optimise!) containing links to pages on Kantorovich, Galich, Soviet Jokes, Fairytales, Logic, The Good Life.

So much to explore. Perhaps I’ll have more to say when I’m done.

Categories: Books, History