". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Robert O'Connell's biography of W.T. Sherman

This summer Random House published a new biography of President Grant's general (and President Lincoln's too, of course): Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O'Connell.

O'Connell, with his history Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, has spent his

professional career within the National Ground Intelligence Agency, much information about which is not easily come by, as when one clicks on the url for the NGIA, one is barred as unsafe. However, there is this: and this, and many other sites, since, it seems, the agency is huge, with so many employees there are housing / real estate offices dedicated to helping them find somewhere to live within the Charlottesville area. Monticello is also in the area, illustrating once again how much Virigina -- and Maryland -- have profited since the federal capital was moved from Philadelphia to a situation carved from what was their state land. 

These days O'Connell's a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, was formerly a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Over the course of his career he's written six books of military history, and a novel, Fast Eddy: A Novel in many Voices, a fictional biography of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. PW review here.

This favorable review of the novel opens by characterizing the author as
". . . an iconoclastic military historian . . ."
so one cannot be surprised by O'Connell's lack of material concerning Sherman the small child who loses his parents, is separated from his siblings to be raised -- kindly and responsibly -- by a step-family. The only interest O'Connell has in these matters is that Sherman's stepfather is wealthy and influential, thus an appointment to West Point, and rapid, early preferment - promotion in Sherman's career after graduation.

Divided into "Part I: The Military Strategist"; "Part II: The General and His Army"; "Part III: The Man and His Families" the narrative moves as rapidly as "Sherman's Bummers" the foragers who fed the Union army as it burned slavery to the ground during Sherman's March to the Sea.

This isn't the biography of a whole man, in the way something like David McCullough's John Adams attempts, but of a man who interests military men. So it essentially opens with West Point, and concludes with Sherman's lovers. The first chapter provides the information that Sherman was a womanizer, yet continued to have a close relationship with his loving, supportive wife -- who sounds, at least at this point, the perfect paragon of what a successful military

The Plain of West Point (1828); little if any of pre-20th century West Point remains.

officer's wife is supposed to be. Most of the emphasis of the West Point period -- gotten through briefly -- is what it meant to all these future officers of the Civil War that they shared the West Point experience, even that this was more important to all of them than their experience in the Mexican War.  It was West Point that instilled into them all what to expect from each other, no matter which side they were on.  Yet, when it was necessary, in order to win and finish the war, both Grant and Sherman behaved in unexpected ways, which shored them both up when necessary. The south's in-fighting -- every man king of his own plantation -- made this kind of  effective outside-the-box behaviors impossible.

It's an interesting slant through which to view General Sherman's mind, and the military mind in general, including that of the author. One of the elements O'Connell's book keeps to the fore throughout is the political and personal jockeying within the army itself, before, during and after the war, for the sake of favor, promotion and fame. As most historians should learn early on, whether or not military matters are their area, is that war provides great opportunity to generals with dreams of political office, officers dreaming of general's stars, and even those who are considered in peace times of little account -- as with, General Grant, who would never have become General Grant or President Grant without the War of Southern Rebellion.

There is new information in this book for me, who is neither a military historian nor a specialist in the War of Rebellion itself or the battles, but who knows well the lead-up to secession and the war, and what happened to the country -- and the African Americans -- after Appomattox. This reader was taken very early by

O'Connell's account of Sherman in the second Seminole War, which began in 1835, and lasted just long enough for the new West Point graduate to get a bit of a baptism as to battle and campaign. However, O'Connell doesn't mention -- isn't interested? -- that the Seminoles was a 'new' tribe, created out of self-emancipated slaves and survivors of Mississippian tribes who suffered genocide during the colonial South Carolina era, and finished off by Jackson as consequence of the War of 1812.

This is why we always need to read more than a single biography -- or even four or five -- of significant figures in history -- there's always something new to learn, and something the writers don't know.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


To describe the conference's focus as plainly as possible:

Currently, the revolutionary, game changer in terms of nineteenth century U.S. historical research is the recognition of, and redemption of, the abolitionists, their efforts and actions, black and white. Abolitionists were as much written out of the narrative as until recently slavery had been by the revisionists of the Glorious Lost Cause. If looked at they were considered at best cranks and sidebars.  Without their fanaticism and fire eating. it was said, the war wouldn't have happened, as we saw, for instance, Edmund Wilson going on about with many a sneer, in his Patriotic Gore (1962 -- I talked about this myself, a while back, here), published as part of the centennial war observances.

Interesting too, though nobody made a deal of it, mentioned now and again in passing, currently our government has been taken over by radical extremist aristo plutocrats, just as it was back in the years leading up to the Civil War. (Though, Foxessa observes, currently there's no competing capitalist economic system to counter the current plutocrats, as there was with the northern states' industrialization, transportation and communications explosions.  NOBODY wants to spend money on infrastructure -- which is the ultimate win-win for the Jacksonians, nullifiers and slave power sorts -- they didn't either!)

The coolest thing?  How generationally diverse the conference was. A high school kid, who asked questions in every q&a session after the panels.  In the summing up period, he inquired, "How did anybody buy this shit ever? about slavery being right, that people who wanted to stop it were bad, and that slavery was a good thing for anybody, and nobody should go to war about it?"  The way the Big Dawgs from the unis converged upon him, he's going to be offered some very nice packages at some very nice schools, straight into grad school programs of his choice.

What wasn't cool?  Only one person on the stage / podium, etc., as presenter or moderator, was a person of color, and he was a moderator, i.e. he didn't say anything, other than introductions. There was one woman of color, a great scholar, whom we do quote in The American Slave Coast, presenting.  But she was the only woman and person of color there as one of the "stars", and who talked. There were some female (white) grad students or new faculty who presented terrific material, though mostly bibilographic, especially the one who did it for the Underground Railroad.  She got maybe the biggest round of applause for someone who wasn't a Big Dawg.

The conclusion was that, yes, the War to End Slavery was inevitable. Nothing could have stopped it from taking place.  Recall, historians are not at all fond counter-factuals, as they are irrelevant to what did happen.

The Take Away: it's time for American historians to research deeply the colonization movement, as well as look more at anti-slavery and abolition actions and movements locally.  We must remove the Civil War from the discourse, because nobody knew they were living in the antebellum era and nobody knew there was going to be a war, much less that the abolitionists would win it.  Rather, right up to secession the abolitionists were so depressed by what looked like the Slave Power's ever expanding power (particularly as it had taken over the federal government entirely, which locked down any other progressive action, not even to mention abolition or emancipation), so that not only did Frederick Douglass believe he had to move to Haiti -- self-colonization -- but a movement began to have the north secede from the USA -- which wouldn't have happened, but it does show how high the levels of disappointment and pessimism had risen.

Thomas Jefferson wasn't mentioned once by anybody.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Peaky Blinders - Season 1

This is a period (crime) family drama from the BBC.

The time is 1919.  The place is Birmingham.  Location shooting in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and another city I don't know, Dudley. Among the rcognizable

actors Sam Neill has a lead role, though he's neither a Cardinal nor a magician this time around, but Inspector Major Chester Campbell, the antagonist of the

Peaky Blinders' gang leader, Thomas Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy.

It will bring Boardwalk Empire to mind, not only because of the time period, but by how stylish-glossy-classy the production values and the framing of scenes are, the ensemble cast, how hard it is out here for a gangster whose family will screw with his brilliant planning, while he and his cronies are suffering PTSD from their sacrifice in France for a King George who doesn't give a damn today.  And yes! Winston Churchill has a part too.

Moreover, it takes all the way through most of the five of the six episodes before the romantic leads, Tommy and Grace, have sex.  Nor do they do they do the rippingofclothesthrowagainstthe wallonthetable etc. They do it slowly, carefully, Their connection is about a kind of healing for them both. They have gotten to take the measure of each other. They fairly know each other in important ways already.

These are the sorts of elements that appeal to this viewer.  I particularly like the scenes of men who are making Birmingham steel, and why communist addresses about the need for solidarity and striking appeal to them, come home to even lower wages than before. The flames, sparks and heat pour from the furnaces into the streets.  Coal is heaped everywhere.

Like Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders relies nonperiod music, which I dislike , particularly since there's so much good music from the era that could have been used. To be fair, Peaky Blinders, like Boardwalk, does use period music as well, however it's mostly as solo vocalist. There was, thoug, a splendid St. James Infirmary in the first episode, which was ideal, as one can see from the history of the song. But for narrative and the title sequences, the show uses instruments and arrangements that weren't invented yet. This may not be a problem for others since it doesn't seem to be brought up, but it bothers me a great deal.  It sort of tells me that the production doesn't have faith in its own effort.

Some have said Peaky Blinders moves so slowly they lost interest (people have said the same about Boardwalk Empire. The first episode was slow, I'll agree, but I didn't mind.  It gave me the time to find out who these people are with whom I would spend six episodes.  As well it gave my ear a chance to acclimate a bit to dialect. The following episodes move much faster.

I do have a question -- there are a large number of horses, some of them magnificent, in the series.  Considering, this is 1919, would the equine population expended during WWI have been replenished to such a degree so soon?  Or, which is more than possible, I don't know what I'm talking about? OTOH, with all that coal and all those horses, the streets are remarkably pristine.

At one point Thomas Shelby rides a pure white (well, probably, technically grey) stallion through these coal-lined streets.  Though the stallion balks at the noise and the fire, his coat remains pristine -- not even a fleck of soot on his fetlocks.  I don't believe that.

There is ample blood and violence and occasions to show men being as awful to each other as they can be.  They're often not much nicer to women either.

Season 1 is available on disc and streaming from netflix.  Season 2 will be available in November.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The American Slave Coast

Eyes red, eyes croxxed.

Fact checking, fact checking, fact checking.

Revising, revising, revising.

Copy editing, copy editing, copy editing.

Proofing, proofing, proofing.

Reading, reading, reading.

TASC is leaving us, very, very, very soon.

Until it returns for the final round of copy editing and proofreading.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

One Might Think Reign Writers Channel Nostradamus

Season 2 of Reign opened October 2, with an episode titled "The Plague" -- following right where the first season's last episode left off.

Despite the pus and rot of plague, Reign still appears more a show of dresses and costumes (not historically accurate, of course, any more than anything else in the show is) paraded on a runway, that is fabricated out of a hodgepodge of Renaissance "architecture," decor and ornamentation."

The actresses -- and actors as well -- appear stand-ins for the producers' and writers' fantasies of power and romance as well as the fantasies of their intended audience -- with horses! swords! and castles! They are dressed like dolls, but like dolls they tend to look alike, while their acting is fairly non-existent, with the exception of Megan Follows and some others. However, Follows as Queen Catherine de Medici, isn't a girl like the others, and is an experienced actress of substance.



It is difficult at times to tell the girls apart, particularly when they aren't in the same scene. Mary and one of her ladies (her ladies, like her, historically, were all named Mary, which would never do in a television series -- not to mention England's Queen Mary Tudor), Lola -- really? Lola, from Scotland in the 16th century?* -- look so much alike that in the early episodes they are nearly identical. Soon the stylists had to give Lola extra-curly hair in every scene so we could distinguish her lady-in-waiting more easily from Mary Queen of Scots.  The actresses' voices have the same pitch, and they deliver their lines in the same flat manner. Their acting range goes from standing there to talking head -- but then, neither do the male actors.  Both young men and women indicate firmness of whatever by clenching their teeth, sort of.

A strange show, that is possessed of an extravagant budget that allows for Irish castles and even the veddy high class castle turned hotel, outdoor sequences, the wardrobes and all those jewels.  It also was able to create enormous additional sets that stand in for the French royal castle, with ceilings even, that few shows can afford.

As well as plundering history, the writers plunder familiar fantasy fiction, presenting recognizable story lines from other sources. After the pilot was picked up, and at some point into the CW commissioned episode, CW asked for a full season of 23 episodes, thus the need to write very fast, with a principle plot that turned on little than will she or won't she end up with her true love, or will she be killed before she decides,  it would be necessary to grab from somewhere. But this grabbing doesn't have the same non-self-conscious insouciant glee of not taking oneself seriously that gave the first seasons of Lost Girl such fun and verve.

As a tween and teen I'd have adored Reign -- horses! swords! castles! that mixes in monsters and other supernatural something-or-other.  At that age I wouldn't have noticed writing weaknesses or poor acting.

But even at that age, with my schooling in costume via the period art illustrations in my piano lesson books of adaptations of classical composers works, and The Book of Knowledge spreads of Renaissance art and portraits, I would have noticed the clothes were not really period. With the comparative knowledge of
 Jewish, Catholic and Protestant religions, and their historical milieus, already drilled into me via our church's pastor, I would have been much annoyed by how the show attempts to make pagans some sort of magic stand-in for the French protestants, the Huguenots, by calling the pagans heretics.  Then as now, that is wrong.  A heretic is:

1 : a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially : a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth. 2 : one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine : nonconformist.

Pagans cannot be heretics for they were never baptised into the Church, or left the Church. However, as far as the Roman Church and French royals were concerned, the Huguenots were heretics.

But a show doesn't want to offend anyone, and nobody would want to speak in a Catholic country (much of the first season was shot in Ireland), probably, of how, in this very era, Queen Catherine de Medici and King Francis -- Mary Queen of Scots' husband -- and that following with Louis XIV, killed, burned, tortured and looted the Protestants -- a pogrom. Named enemies of France, thousands who were able fled the country -- which created serious financial troubles for Louis XIV.

Moreover, as King Francis participated in this, and he's the romantic lead, the writers wouldn't want to mention the historical actualities. Particularly the show wouldn't want to mention how much his Queen, Mary of Scots, Reign's female romantic lead, encouraged him in the prosecution.

History, the bathtub in which everybody's entitled to potch!  Full speed ahead! Watch out for Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires who create the plague -- as well as African American slavery.


*  Lola is the diminutive for the Spanish Dolores -- "sorrows" as in Nuestra Senora de los Dolores.  Wiki helpfully informs that:

Lola may also be used as a short form of the unrelated German name Aloisia. The name Lola is also common in Africa; in Nigeria, many feminine names are shortened to Lola, such as Temilola or Damilola. Lola (Tajik for tulip) is also a feminine name in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. It is derived from the Persian لاله or lâleh.

Not The Best of Days Or Night Either

Over the weekend a very close friend and colleague collapsed.  He was diagnosed with a non-infectious form of meningitis.  He's been in a medically induced coma ever since.  This has depressed el V as much as would be expected.

Yesterday, before going to the hospital to sit with R, I sliced open my left forefinger while washing el V's tea pot. A chunk had broken out of the rim, which I hadn't noticed until the blood rushed out.

Sat with R for a while. El V played him some music that he knows R likes and R waved his foot when el V addressed him, to say what he was going to play.  The doctors had expected r would have died by now. The meningitis infection had indeed spread into his brain.  He's a tough bird, all right.

After leaving the hospital I went to get my annual flu shot -- and unlike previous flu shot this one hurt and hurt worse as the night went on and hurts like heck this AM.  I Feel draggy and tired, and my throat is scratchy.  I've never had this kind of reaction to a flu shot before.

It's a kinda dark day.  Well, honestly no, it's not at all.  It just feels that way. Weather yesterday was very nice, and warm -- though windy, which may be the real culprit responsible for the sore throat. Today is nice too, but not as warm.

I'm doing the acknowledgements in preparation for really getting The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry out of the house. I should be happy -- particularly as writing thank yous is such a pleasurable part of of making a book. Instead, I feel, depressed.

Maybe it's due to having spent these last weeks studying the slave trade in American Indians, particularly that engaged in by colonial South Carolinians.  The numbers from the Mississippian culture tribes populating what would become the antebellum Cotton Kingdom are mind-boggling. That so many survived for Andrew Jackson, later, to wage a war of extermination against them for more decades, should put down for once and for the lie justifying the land thefts by the invaders settlers because "there was nobody there and those who were weren't making use of the land anyway".  The decades' long depopulation of these lands via slave trade mirrors in every way the methods used in Africa, just as Jefferson Davis's CSA government, right down to naming the president's house in Richmond, "the White House," mirrors that of the Union.  Of course, there were significant differences too -- slavery, no draft, no interstate cooperation, invasion of other lands for conquest to spread slavery, etc.

I've been listening to interviews and talks by David McPherson this last week, promoting his new biography, 
Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief (Penguin). These have reminded me of that mirroring I'd noticed between the two capitals of the U.S. War of Rebellion (to employ General Grant's nomenclature for it).  It was so extensive that both commanders in chiefs' families lost a dear child while in their White Houses.

McPherson approaches his subject non-polemically. So much so, the study comes across as detached from the matters at hand, which, so far, has left me, at least, wondering why he bothered?  McPherson hasn't had anything new to add to the tale of Jeff Davis, the never reconstructed, never asking pardon, representative par excellence for the Glorious Lost Cause -- which Jeff Davis did so much to create as a polemic that ruled our historic thinking about the war of southern rebellion until the last three decades or so.

Studying these matters within this current political climate of, at best, irresponsible rhetoric, incompetence and corruption is enough all by itself to depress a person.  It doesn't need a flu shot reaction or even the imminent, projected death of an old friend to provoke it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peter Lovesey: Peter Diamond, The Stone Wife + The Last Detective

Surely readers who enjoy mysteries, policiers, and other fiction within thus general genre, have long known of Peter Lovesey.  I'm the outlier, who didn't until his latest installment in the Peter Diamond series was published this fall.  I

read a review of The Stone Wife,it sounded the kind of mystery I'd enjoy because the reviewer mentioned that Lovesey stuffs these novels with literary allusions,

and the location is Somerset, Avon and the city of Bath. The Stone Wife's nests of plotting are built around Chaucer, and his best-known character, the Wife of Bath.

Diamond is old-fashioned, far from the haunted, past-obsessed, old rock/jazz/classic music fan, alcoholic, poetry writer, aristo that have become the formulaic patterns of homicide investigators -- not to mention the number of Regency aristos uncovering their peers' secret evils, or the troops of troubled honorable Victorian investigators uncovering the dastardly deeds of the Empire's upper classes. Lovesey has his own Victorian investigator Sergeant Cribb, btw.

"Gum shoe," is how corpulent, rumpled Diamond thinks of himself.  I think of him as "bull dog."  Perhaps even the classic English bull dog, as he's so retro. He gets an idea in his head about who did it and he won't let go until he gets a confession that indeed that's who done it. This gets him in trouble.

There are twelve Peter Diamond titles between The Stone Wife (2014), and the first Diamond, The Last Detective (1991). It's my current work-out book, so I hear installments one day of The Last Detective, and then the next night I read the next pages of The Stone Wife.

A great deal has happened to the world, to Bath, to Diamond during the course of the intervening twelve novels.  That I don't know the details isn't detracting from my enjoyment in either novel.

The Last Detective is set in the 1980's.  Jane Austen is a huge plot device.  Bath is no longer to be referred to as the Town of Bath, but the City of Bath. Computer database access, DNA testing as part of any forensics investigation are entering policing like a tidal wave, accompanied by official policies to prevent police violence and harassment, racism and sexism. How Somerset and Avon's Detective Superintendent Diamond, views these protocols can be inferred from the title, The Last Detective. Well into the 21st century, judging by The Stone Wife, Diamond remains an unreconstructed police of the old school.

Lovesey has written other mystery series -- all together he's published more than thirty books, despite beginning his writing career later than many successful writers do. He's won several crime fiction awards.  His Victorian London plain clothes Sergeant Cribb became a television series in 1979 - 1981.


*  Though let me haste to say I have enjoyed these detectives very much, from Rebus, Dalgliesh and Lynley, not to mention Jane Tennison and Vera Stanhope.

American writers who happen to be women seem to do this differently, as with with Baltimore's Laura Lippman's Tess Moneghan, or Montreal's Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache)