The number of meticulously researched and sourced histories of the U.S. post-Civil War era commonly called "Reconstruction" continues to add titles. This is the latest one of which I'm aware. I've seen reviews of it in other places, but this week it's covered by one of my favorite writers about book, Jonathan Yardly, in this weekend's Washington Post Book World section, THE BLOODY SHIRT: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky. Here follows a pull, the first 2 paragraphs of JY's essay:
[ The decade-long period known as Reconstruction, which began shortly after the Civil War and ended with the presidential election of 1876, probably has been subjected to more misinterpretation, misunderstanding and outright factual distortion than any other time in American history. For a variety of reasons, including white Southern mythologizing and national indifference to the desperate situation of the former slaves, beginning in the late 19th century fictions about Reconstruction gained not merely wide popular acceptance but also the endorsement of many prominent historians, who gave them legitimacy and staying power.
These fictions presented the white South not as instigator, perpetuator and defender of black slavery, but as the victim of politically motivated mistreatment by "carpetbaggers" and other outsiders dispatched by Radical Republicans in Washington to wreak vengeance on the South. By contrast with the rapacious industrial North, the South was portrayed as -- in the words of one historian -- "a garden for the cultivation of all that was grand in oratory, true in science, sublime and beautiful in poetry and sentiment, and enlightened and profound in law and statesmanship." Slavery metamorphosed from a "peculiar" institution into a benevolent one, and it was argued that only the South could hope to help the former slaves because "the Southern white man is the only man on earth who understands the Negro character." If only the North had left the South to settle its own problem, the fictions contended, everything would have been fine. If Reconstruction failed, the fault lay solely with the North. ]
In other words, the phony mythology that made Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and brought back the Ku Klux Klan, the foundation of decades of the movie industry's propaganda machine re the "Western," which was from the beginning of the cinema age in the U.S. the financial and popular mainstay of studios, and remained so until comfortably post the WWII era. I continue to marvel at the success of the historical revision of the Reconstruction era -- as well as of the Civil War. The principal reason for the success of this revisionism is the development of the penny press Western, followed so soon by the movies. From the beginning the pioneers of this format saw it as an unparalleled means of propaganda, and so it was, and continues to be. The principals of Western movies, even the occasional few made now, were enlisted in the Confederacy.
This is particularly ironic when examined by the light shed by the founding father of the Western as a genre (as he also founded the genre of sea stories and that of the Revolutionary romance), James Fenimore Cooper, in "The Leatherstocking Tales."
Then, to go with my reading of the Keay The Honorable Company: A History of the English East India Company, pub date 1993 -- and which, despite a plethora of fascinating personalities and lots of really great adventure tales, I'm finding very hard going, and, in fact, rather dull -- and the reading of of a history of New Amsterdam, The Island at the Center of the World, comes this, reviewed by another terrific WaPo writer about books, Michael Dirda, Vermeers's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook.
[ . . . There doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why such a formidable Sinologist should be bringing out a book with a 17th-century Dutch painting on the cover and the title Vermeer's Hat.
But the explanation turns out to be quite simple: This book isn't about Vermeer's brushstrokes or the use of light in his paintings. Instead, it really does focus on the fur hats -- and the old maps and the dishes of fruit and the silver coins -- pictured in those paintings. As his subtitle suggests, Brook hopes to use these pictorial elements to describe "the dawn of the global world," in particular the economic entanglements between the Netherlands and China. . . .
. . . . For instance, in the chapter titled "School for Smoking," he notices that 17th-century Dutch porcelain, representing Chinese scenes, often shows people smoking. Where did the painter get the idea that the Chinese smoked? This leads to an overview of tobacco commerce and consumption in Asia, building on accounts of the shipping routes, the trade laws and the movement of silver, as well as tobacco, to the East. But Brook also takes time to discuss the social impact of chi yan or "eating smoke."
Such interlacing of the economic with the social and ideological Brook labels "transculturation," a term first coined by the Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz to describe "the process by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved." Sometimes this results in the destruction of what is already there, and usually "the outcomes of these globalizing processes cannot be controlled." ....
. . .Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook keeps his economic history striking and anecdotal. "If there is one overwhelming condition that shaped the history of the seventeenth century more than any other, it is global cooling." Between 1550 and 1700, according to the book, temperatures fell all over the world. Grain prices rose; cold and plague decimated Venice and Amsterdam. But Dutch fleets enjoyed a herring boom, giving them money to invest in shipping. Why did Champlain push into unexplored Canada? For beaver pelts. And why did Europeans want those pelts? For expensive, durable hats. Profits from those hats would pay for something important: the search for the supposed water route across North America to China. ...
. . . . Commercially, the 17th century was an age of silver, tobacco and slaves, and Brook shows how the three interconnect to form an intricate economic network. This new international economy is revealed in every aspect of life, not only in the account books of the VOC and the histories of the Jesuit missionaries in China and Latin America, but also in the items depicted in paintings by a Delft artist who died young. All our experience is global. ]
Thus this book appears filled with answers to questions I never asked, such as the Chinese tobacco one, despite life-long acquaintance with quaint illos of sedate Chinese bearded sages with pipes in hand, if not in mouth -- even as described in the pages of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins, in a scene at the Boston wharfs, in a warehouse that is part of her wealthy, merchant ship owning family's fortunes.