Category Archives: Book Review

Heart of the Matter

At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record.  This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history.  But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.

Maybe there's hope

Maybe there’s hope

As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revisionof the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare.  If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust.  Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was?  Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom?  Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia?  All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.”   To hell with what came before…

Unite us, David

Unite us, David

There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people.  Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond.  In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors.

 

 

 

 

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Leave Madison Alone

Joe Ellis explained the absence of serious Madison biographies… by proclaiming “he’s boring as hell” and that “only lawyers like him.”   As previously stated, Ellis’s recent comments on the Framers and Original Intent cast doubt on the rigor of his scholarship- and these nuggets of wisdom only enhance the evidence of his misguided revisionism.

Never far apart

Never far apart

The revision Ellis is peddling holds that Madison and other Framers… rejected the doctrine of Original Intent on its face.  The only empirical evidence supporting this notion is Madison’s oft quoted explanation for not publishing his notes on the Constitutional Convention.  Once established, the government continued to disappoint Madison, driving him closer to his friend Jefferson.  During his presidency, Madison undoubtedly supported Original Intent as he battled John Marshall and Congress for the soul of the Constitution.  He feared the elasticity in the Constitution was being abused by ambitious demagogues- Madison wanted the power of government restrained- his original intent.

What have your wrought, Joe?

What have your wrought, Joe?

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Book Review

Crawford, Allen Pell, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, Random House, 2009,

  • ISBN: 0812969464

“A remarkably disciplined scholar… Jefferson spent money on books the way less purposeful young men spent it on whisky or women.”   Allen Pell Crawford begins his study of Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello by reiterating long-established traits in the Sage of Monticello’s character.  Crawford spends the first 50 pages concisely detailing Jefferson’s life through the presidency.  No new ground is broken and it is clear that the author included this introduction to fit with the book’s overriding structure, chronology.

Crawford crafts a detailed and …readable account of Jefferson’s retirement following 1809.  Ample time is spent exploring the personalities in Jefferson’s extended family including his intricate relationship with his daughter Martha.  Family was vital to Jefferson’s being and all the heartbreak he experienced is recounted in painstaking detail.  Crawford misses a real opportunity to examine loss, one of the accepted but underdeveloped themes in Jefferson scholarship.  Rather, Jefferson’s much maligned finances are retold as Crawford does his best to link them to some character flaw, though he never is able to attribute it to more than carelessness.  Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s retirement will read with disillusion of the attempted murder of his beloved grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.  More examination of the crucial relationships with Madison and Adams could have brought much-needed depth to Crawford’s analysis of Jefferson’s intellectual character.  This remains the book’s weakest element, the examination of Jefferson’s mind.

Jefferson’s mind eludes Crawford… despite his best efforts to explain its inconsistencies.  “Jefferson’s view of himself as an empiricist may also suggest how little self-knowledge he possessed…”   Crawford’s error is applying traditional analysis to a mind like Jefferson’s.  Biographers long ago discovered that Jefferson possessed diametrically opposed psychological features.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of Jefferson and slavery.  Volumes have been written about Jefferson and the contradiction of his slave owning.  Crawford falls prey to the politically correct pseudo-scholarship that dominates current Jefferson discourse.  This brand of scholarship deals in absolutes forged in modern racial attitudes leaving no room for nuance or ambiguity.  “That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination.”  Crawford ignores the clear and well documented evidence to contrary to make the socially acceptable conclusion.  The urgency with which Crawford recounts the rumors regarding Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings nearly draws the narrative to the level of tabloid storytelling.  Readers familiar with the controversy can’t ignore the fact that Sally stopped having children after Jefferson started residing at Monticello fulltime.

Allen Pell Crawford never actually… decides what kind of book he is writing.  At times Twilight at Monticello is a chronological account of Jefferson’s retirement, while also trying to examine complex features of Jefferson’s psychological makeup.  The result is a confused narrative filled with interesting tidbits and politically correct platitudes.  Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s later years could find some use for Crawford’s study, but students of history won’t find much use for the book off their E-readers.

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Fighting Consensus History

Peter Charles Hoffer sees nothing worse… than “consensus” historians selling millions of books.  In his book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds – American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin,  Hoffer rails against the scholarly sins of popular historical writers Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Mistakes in citation now pass for pure plagiarism in academic circles, and Hoffer revels in tearing down the reputations of popular writers  more familiar to the American public.  He relentlessly assails Goodwin’s defense of her mistakes(she and Ambrose both claimed simple oversight due to volume of writing) – his attacks on Ambrose ring hollow considering the confrontation was posthumous(Ambrose died in 2002.)  

No room for popularity

No room for popularity

At the heart of Hoffer’s book is a struggle…  for the spirit of American history.  “Consensus history,” as it was labeled in the 1960’s, was the study of dead white men and their battles– exemplified by George Bancroft and Francis Parkman.  Through their glorification of nationalistic images, America’s true history(usually class struggle)  is lost.  Hoffer judges his forebears  falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship”  and equates it to the perceived wrongdoings of current popular history.  As a former member of the American Historical Association’s Professional division, Hoffer wants to know why these “frauds” were not punished more harshly.  Kearns-Goodwin is again a television pundit, Joe Ellis still writes bestsellers, and Ambrose, well,  he’s dead- no fair!

No frauds on television

No frauds on television

 

By the end of his book… Hoffer’s analysis borders on the absurd.  He praises the sensationalism(some outlets likened it to a scandal of Nixonian proportion) of the media for ruining the reputations of the writers in question.  The book poses the disturbing proposition- history is either going to be popular and unscholarly or erudite and inaccessible.   The works of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough, and Evan Thomas have shown just the opposite.  Hoffer’s simplistic attempt to banish popular historians from academic ranks exposes a weakening grip the New Left has on American historiography.

Unite us, David

Unite us, David

 

 

 

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Book Review

Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5

Toll

Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field.  Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography.  Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.

 

“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…”     Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet.  The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms.  America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero.    Just as America  was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy.  Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet.  On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests-  Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.

 

Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names.  Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic.  The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean.  Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot.  The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century.  And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.

USS Constitution

USS Constitution

 

 

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Torturing Literature Students

The Nantucket whaling ship, Essexwas attacked by an 85 foot bull sperm whale, November 20, 1820.  Two of the three whaleboats were off on Nantucket sleighrides (being pulled by harpooned whales.)  A damaged third boat was aboard being repaired by First-Mate Owen Chase.  Crewman made Chase aware of the enormous whale circling the ship.  The bull rammed the ship along the starboard bow and smacked the length of the vessel with its powerful tail.  Chase hesitated with his harpoon in fear of losing the rudder.  The whale circled to the bow again and accelerated like Chase had never seen:

Nantucket sleighride

I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”

Actual crew sketch of the final moments

The Essex sank quickly 3,000 miles from the coast of South America and 1,200 miles from the nearest group of islands.  Fear of cannibals forced the three small boats to build makeshift sails and make for South America.  A majority of the crewmen were at sea for 95 days.  Seven members were consumed after their deaths.  All of the survivors eventually went back to sea.  Their exploits became legend in the Nantucket whaling community- passed down through the years- eventually to part-time sailor, Herman Melville.  Literature students have regretted this day since……

Call me Owen Chase

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Book Review

Thomas Jefferson: The Author of America… by Christopher Hitchens, Harper Collins, New York, 2006. 

 

It is awfully difficult to review a scholarly… work by a wordsmith as eminent as Mr. Hitchens.  Rarely is prose this well crafted, little criticism can be levied against it from a grammatical or stylistic perception.  This thin volume on Jefferson is forthright and at times cogent.  Hitchens admires his subject, and leaves little doubt as to the book’s intent.  The criticism lies in his interpretation of Jefferson- the scholarship is questionable at key points, diluting the effectiveness of his arguments.

index

During the book tour… Hitchens proclaimed his Founding Father biography “came complete with genitals.”  The implication was that his study would not cast Jefferson in marble, but show all of his faults, even his alleged dalliance with Sally Hemings.  An odd inclusion considering the author’s intention of explaining how Jefferson “authored” America.  But even the most talented writers seem unable to resist the perverse pleasure of speculating on the romantic entanglements of a man who went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his.  Hitchens believes the two facets are inseparable, but his book never explains why.

 

Hitchens desperately wants Jefferson to be an atheist… in fact, Jefferson’s perceived antagonism to organized religion is what prompted Harper Collins’ invitation to write this volume.  Hitchens discovers what many atheists and agnostics have learned- that Jefferson did have religious beliefs-albeit, not traditional Christianity.  Not deterred, Hitchens rues, “As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment.”  

Author of America

Author of America

Beyond these critical points, Hitchens produces a… repetitively modern biography of Jefferson- complex, frustrating, flawed-yet essential.  The world lost one of its great writers in 2011 when Hitchens passed.  When the younger generation looks to discover his work, this undistinguished effort should be excused.

 

 

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