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The Summer of Beer and Whiskey

June 9, 2013 Leave a comment

beerandwhiskey

Three weeks ago, at the New Yorker blog, Jon Michaud wrote about a book I might otherwise have missed, Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game. As Michaud explains,

the dramatic 1883 pennant chase in the American Association forms the core of Edward Achorn’s newly published history, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” but it is far from the only reason to read his book. The eighteen-eighties were a pivotal time for the national pastime. Baseball (or “base ball,” as it was known then) was losing fans, many of whom were disenchanted by high ticket prices, cheating scandals, and the malevolent influence of gamblers on the sport. In 1881, a newspaper editor referred to baseball as “a dead crow.” Achorn argues that the American Association did much to revive interest in the sport and propel baseball toward its place at the heart of American culture. Combining the narrative skills of a sportswriter with a historian’s depth of knowledge and stockpile of detail, Achorn has produced a book that is both entertaining and informative.

I downloaded the book’s free opening portion from Amazon and had a look, anticipating that I might turn to it on finishing Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers. But instead I turned to Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

After that, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Achorn’s book. I have a long list of books that struck me as potentially more interesting. They’re not short, though, whereas The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is just 260 pages. Two nights ago I started it. I’m now about 145 pages in.

Like any good writer of history, Achorn excels at making time vanish, so that the events of the 1883 baseball season seem as real as today’s Mariner 2-1 loss to the Yankees (another wasted pitching gem by Felix Hernandez).

I had long imagined that late nineteeth-century baseball wasn’t the real thing. It was certainly different. In his blog post, Michaud touches on this:

Among the many rewards of reading Achorn’s book is learning about the ways that baseball in the nineteenth century differed from the sport we now know. Games were officiated by a single umpire. Players did not wear numbers on their uniforms, nor did they use gloves. Before they took the field, they often served as ticket-takers at the ballpark gates. The first team to bat was determined by a coin flip. But the most startling difference can be found in pitching. The pitching leaderboard for the American Association’s ninety-eight-game 1883 season would be unfathomable to the modern fan used to five-man rotations and squadrons of bullpen specialists. The Reds’ Will White led the league with forty-three wins. He pitched five hundred and seventy-seven innings, including sixty-four complete games. His earned-run average was 2.09. On the Fourth of July, 1883, Tim Keefe of the Metropolitans gave a one-man display of pitching fireworks, hurling both ends of a doubleheader, winning the first game with a one-hitter and the second with a two-hitter.

Yet, in Achorn’s hands, the differences melt away. Team owners want to control player rights. (We learn about the origin of the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team forever.) Players abuse substances to their detriment. (Alcohol.) Teams in the thick of a pennant race attract big crowds. And an upstart league competes against an established one, until the older league merges with and absorbs the more successful teams of the new league. (Think 1950 and the absorption of the All-America Football Conference with the NFL, or 1976 and the NBA-ABA merger.)

That thing about players not using gloves, though–that’s different. So too the absence of a rule that when a pitcher hits a batter with a ball, the batter goes to first base. From what I’ve read so far, these differences led to high injury rates. And no batting helmets either. This was a dangerous sport.

Again, though, it’s the similarities that come through. However dangerous professional baseball was, it sure beat working in factories or mines at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of protection or insurance for workers. The player salaries, in relative terms, were nothing like those of today. Yet, they were viewed as privileged, as this passage attests:

The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette … found it astonishing that any professional player would squander his extraordinary good luck by becoming a drunkard. After all, many men toiled six days a week, ten hours a day, doing brutal, dangerous physical labor for a pittance. The paper noted that:

a ballplayer’s path in summer time is on beds of flowery ease. He gets a big salary, travels all over the country, stops at good hotels, and has the best of everything. He is paid by the public to furnish one hour and a half of amusement each afternoon [games weren’t dragged out by television ads between innings or players stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust their clothes], and he certainly should be able to keep clear of whiskey during the season, especially as he had all winter to get even. The great trouble with some men on the Allegheny club is that they look on base ball merely as a pretext to open their pores and enable them to sweat out the whiskey drank the night before. They regularly fill up and regularly sweat it out at the expense of the reputation of the management and the regret and sorrow of all lovers of base ball hereabouts.

Too bad Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the heroes of the 1986 Mets, didn’t read this warning before squandering their own careers.

Another difference is worth mentioning. Not a baseball difference, but a difference in the distribution of US population between then and now. Much of the book focuses on teams in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. In the 1880 census, the largest eight cities, in order, were New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [not consolidated with New York until 1898], Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. In the 2010 census, Philadelphia had dropped from 2nd to 5th, St. Louis from 6th to 58th, and Cincinnati from 8th to 65th. (This is a bit deceptive, since suburbs weren’t as significant in 1880 as now, so one should compare metropolitan area populations. Doing so makes the decline of St. Louis and Cincinnati less dramatic.) It’s a very different US that the book describes.

Jumping ahead three decades to 1900, a review of the census clarifies why it is that the cities with teams in both the National and American Leagues were New York [including Brooklyn], Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. They were, in that order, the five largest US cities. Which reminds me, I should explain that the 1880s St. Louis Browns team of the American Association featured in the book was not the ancestor of the later American League St. Louis Browns (still later to move to Baltimore and become the Orioles). Rather, it was the ancestor of today’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Categories: Baseball, Books, History

A World on Fire, 3

May 21, 2013 Leave a comment

worldonfire

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.

Categories: Books, History

Gettysburg Revisited

May 5, 2013 Leave a comment

worldonfire

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.

View from Little Round Top to Devil's Den, Gettysburg Battlefield

View from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den, Gettysburg Battlefield

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.

fribble

Categories: Books, History, Travel

We’re All Southerners

May 5, 2013 Leave a comment

insidealabama

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.”

[snip]

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

insidealabama

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