". . . 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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Heading Up To Boston - CUNY Grad Center - Media: - Audio Books - American Slave Coast

We have appearances in Boston on Monday, February 29th.

1:30 PM : WHDH 7NBC-Television,  "Higher Ground," for a 1/2 hour, with producer-host, Carmen Fields.

UPDATE: This is a pre-taping, not a live broadcast.  This is a monthly program. This is a monthly, black issues program, which is now all the more important in the light of what NBC national has done with Melissa Harris Perry's program -- one of the very few television programs that has consistently dealt with new stories and issues that are of daily matter to our African American communities, and which should be of daily matter to us all.

Porter Square Shopping Center: 25 White St, Cambridge, MA 02140
7:30 PM Porter Square Books, 7:30 PM

There's supposed to be a radio interview too, but we're having trouble with the tight scheduling, so that may not take place.

CUNY Grad Center, 5th Ave, NYC

On March 8th, International Women's Day, there is a splendid event  sponsored by the CUNY Grad Center.  Here is the Facebook page the GC put up for this American Slave Coast event. As with most Grad Center events, this one is free and open to the public. This being security conscious NYC, however, valid I.D. is necessary to access the building's theater.

With the participants including Professors

Julie Skurski as moderator, and as discussants with Ned and Constance Sublette, early American historian,

David Waldstreicher

and Kellie Carter Jackson, attendance for anyone interested in our nation's colonial and imperial history and its connections with white supremacy and slavery, will be more than worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 8 at 4:30 PM - 6:30 PM in EST
The Committee on Globalization and Social Change
365 5th Ave, Rm 5109, New York, New York 10016
A book launch for The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette, featuring David Waldstreicher (The Graduate Center, CUNY) and Kellie Carter Jackson (Hunter College, CUNY), moderated by Julie Skurski (The Graduate Center, CUNY).
Reception to follow.
One of the best history books ever written about the United States.—Counterpunch, Dec. 31, 2015

The American Slave Coast got mentions again this week in the media:

Fort Donelson Battlefield! Abraham Lincoln! Our book is sourced.

More reviews too: CHOICE: The Academic Library Journal
and the San Diego Book Review.

As well, this week TASC received an audio book company's offer for both cd and download.

So, Slave Coast is still workin' its stuff.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

PBS Civil War Drama Series Mercy Street -- Concluded; NO SPOILERS

Presumably this season is only the first of the PBS's Civil War era, original,scripted drama. Mercy Street's six episodes began airing on PBS last month and concluded last night, February 21st, 2016.  Ridley Scott (The Good Wife, Man in the High Castle, etc.) executive produced this first PBS historical drama in 20 years.

The time is 1862, the central location a Union confiscated hotel, converted into a hospital owned by the very wealthy Green family (existed, historically) of Alexandria, Virginia -- a rebel state. Alexandria is right across a short bridge from Washington D.C., thus the immediate Union occupation.  Additionally the Green family mansion has Union military officers billeted in it.

Mrs. James Green of Mercy Street, played by Donna Murphy
Mrs. Jane  Green (Donna Murphy), her husband, James Green, Sr., son James, and two daughters, Emma the eldest, and Alice her younger sister, continue to live in their mansion nevertheless, served by their slave staff.
For Historical BackgroundAlexandria is where the slave dealers and markets moved, when, as part of the deal finally struck in 1850 to allow California into the Union as a free state, the slave trade itself -- not slavery -- was abolished in the city limits of D.C. This open buying and selling of slaves in the capital of the United States, land of the free, was a national disgrace that everyone who visited from anywhere in the world commented on -- a slave market right in front of the White House!  In exchange the slave power got the Fugitive Slave Act.
According the extra features included on the second Mercy Street dvd*, the Mercy Street season was five years in production, writing and shooting. One of the team interviewed for that segment said that they had been researching the entire five years and the researching and fact checking continued all the way through the shooting.  If there is another season lined up, which would only make sense for a project that already has been five years in the making, the researching continues. As the co-author of The American Slave Coast, that it would take that much time before one could feel confident enough to begin shooting a Civil War history drama is more than believable.  It took us five years to write and publish Slave Coast, and between the two of us, before we began we already knew -- in one way and another -- a whole lot of what we wrote about. Like slavery itself, the years of the War of Southern Rebellion is easily a life-time project.

The following are from jottings made while watching "The Diabolical Plot," the final episode, which conveniently features -- John Wilkes Booth.  See episode title . . . .

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All things conveniently tied up in the sixth, and final episode.  Emphasis on convenient . Necessary, likely, since one hasn't seen any announcement as to a second season of Mercy Street yet.

The drama of the struggle to manage a Civil War hospital, perform good nursing and good medicine, deal with the eager predators who regard  plundering government funded institutions as their right as northern government haters,  and duty as southerners works.  It like this very much.

Samuel Diggs, a free man of color from Philadelphia where before the war he assisted a white doctor.
What also, thankfully works, is dramatizing without sentimentality, what it is like to be black -- free, contracband or enslaved in D.C. and Union occupied Alexandria.

Historically, the Knights of the Golden Circle existed.  It was a secret society, much like Skull and Bones, or the Free Masons, formed in the secession years in Richmond. John Wilkes Booth did become a member, of which he was very proud. It was never effective in anything it proposed however, In early 1862, Booth was arrested and taken before a provost marshal in St. Louis for making anti-government remarks. Though he was wildly plotting -- all of them failed conspiracies, there's no documentary source for blowing up a hospital. Beyond that any viewer knew this plot would be aborted for the very reason it was aborted by the fellow who was executing the Booth's orders.

Union Hospital, once the Green family's Mansion House Hotel

I'm not liking those storylines as much as I might -- at least the way they are presented. One of the reasons is it felt as though the writers felt self-congratulatory that they'd gotten themselves a 2-fer with it, The episode achieved suspense by the threat, not only to President Lincoln, but to most of the cast, not to mention all those innocent, faceless patients (as this old-school tv, the primary characters won't go, we know, and we know also that Lincoln's not going either, not then). Second, it was a convenient way to remove the Bullen obstacle -- no more for fear of spoilage -- to proper management of the Mansion House Hotel, now officially renamed the Union Hospital.

The writing of Nurse Hastings and Dr. Hale got worse with each episode --  no subtlety, no roundness, no backstory. Their story lines and characters are written with sledge hammers not pen and ink nib, and scream they are present because -- must have antagonists!  and then, further flattened because the writers thought making these characters also double as comic relief was a good idea. Comic villains aren't impossible in a Civil War drama, but it takes very good writing. But this is particularly hard to swallow as its such a travesty of  the historical nurse, Anne Reading, who was trained by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.

As well, the tying up was too neat, and o so standard -- mustn't let PBS viewers' comfort zones get scratchy -- we've already done that with the surgery scenes (they are indeed bloody and horrid in a way that surely does evoke the real thing).

Aurelia and Samuel
Still that at the very last moment Samuel Diggs returns -- from North Carolina? in that amount of time? Without any explanation of how he could get from D.C. to North Carolina in those few days, find this family, get them out and return. There isn't enough back story for these characters.  Though -- both Aurelia the escaped slave, and Samuel the black man born free, have a story arc that  I really liked. By and large this series has done much better with the black characters than most of the white ones, which is not how it usually works.

Generally speaking, it felt as though the series improved to a degree over the six episodes as the characters found their way more deeply into themselves.  All the black characters are interesting.  After them it is Mrs. Green I enjoyed watching most. Donna Murphy is such a good actress that the viewer can see into her heart and must admire Jane Green even though this viewer at least is passionate about how wrong she is about the war and slavery.

The Geen Sisters: Alice the younger, Emma the elder
Her daughters are dull southern belle cliches. One feels this is the fault of the actors. Alice, the youngest, is a pita, and that is the actress, who did delcare in the dvd extra how much she just worships Gone With the Wind, so this is a dream come true part for her. The actress clearly doesn't know about GWTW and slavery and the Glorious Lost Causers and the rest -- or -- believes all that guff herself. Feh.  The others are generally OK, and probably will improve if there's another season..

Aurelia and Belinda
I appreciated the historical accuracy that James Green was imprisoned in the Alexandria slave dealer prison of Price, Birch & Co. This repurposing of the slave prison to hold confederates happened. I really liked how Belinda their enslaved housekeeper / cook, while bringing food to Green in this former slave prison has flashback memories to the place as a slave prison, where the 'stock' was held before being shipped further south for re-sale.
For Historical BackgroundBack in the 1820 and 1830's and into the 40's the site had belonged to the largest slave dealers in the history of the U.S., (Isaac) Franklin and Armfield. (There's a great deal about this slave prison, its history, Franklin and Armfield and Franklin particularly, in The American Slaves Coast.) 
Franklin left two monuments to himself that aptly illustrate the meaning of slavery in the U.S.: his Gallatin, Tennessee showplace of Fairfield plantation** where thoroughbreds, not cotton, was raised, and the notorious Angola in Louisiana, still, deliberately, a cotton plantation prison in which the cotton is still picked by hand.
This sort of thing, all of which is in The American Slave Coast, is one of the many reasons this viewer was interested enough to watch all the episodes of Mercy Street, despite the fairly poor-to-stock standard story telling and characterization.  Also, with the public broadcasting determination to 'play fair and offend NOBODY' constrictions the southerners' expressions are way too noble and the northerners are rather too mean -- to the rebels, whose objectives were to burn northern labor out and replace their free labor with slave labor.  The North knew that because the South said so.

The Ballroom at Green House: Emma Green, Nurse Anne,  Head Nurse Mary -- who, of course, is a widowed baroness, from Boston, just like, you know, Louisa May Alcott -- Alice Green.

In the dvd extra features mentioned at the top, in the one entitled, "Historical Reconstruction," the talking head stated that PBS watchers weren't like any other audience: they care about careful writing, good storytelling, and accurate historical facts. Judging again by the statements in the dvd extra features, as with so many on-screen 'historicals' -- most of that focus on accuracy goes on the details of decoration, clothes, dance steps,  As far as set dressing and costumes go, it is spectacular.

In other ways, however, PBS has a ways to go with historical accuracy, judging by Mercy Street and many of its other productions, dramatic or non-fiction, not at much on how people thought, talked and behaved -- which is far more difficult to reconstruct accurately.  For -- how can anyone know for sure?


*  Why Mercy Street was available on dvd from netflix before the series concluded airing on PBS is not a question I am able to answer.

**  There are illustrations of the Franklin, Franklin and Armfield slave prison in Alexandria, and photographs, which we took ourselves, of Franklin's showplace of Fairfield and his slave breeding prison plantation of Angola in The American Slave Coast.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Interviewed: Elena Ferrante, the Author Who Does Not Exist

Th Italian author published her first novel, Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell'abbandono) in 1992.  What has brought her fame is the serial novel published in four parts that have come to be known as her The Neapolitan Novels.

Translated into English for Europa Books by Ann Goldstein the four books are:

My Brilliant Friend (2012); The Story of a New Name (2013); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).

There are no photos of the author, and supposedly only two or three people know the true identity of this internationally successful Italian novelist. However, in the Italian press and literary circles articles have been published in the decided voices of masculine authority that declare the woman behind Elena Ferrante is the wife of a well-known Italian novelist. These speculations have gone on further, to cry, "No fair! This is a woman with an inside track and then she pretends she's nobody!"

Even worse than her insider track to publication, she has become very successful, within and without Italy. In other words, the author is A Very Bad WOMAN!

There have been U.S. writer-haters who have sneered the Ferrante novels are same same "women's fiction" of two women fighting over the same man (though so of these writers are members of the class who feel Romance Fiction, for instance, is unfairly dismissed as merely a woman's genre -- go figger).

However, this series of four novel series explores the significance of class, crime, sociocultural history, the international feminist outlook on the lives of poor girls who have it all stacked against them at birth. After the end of World War II, two girl children are born into a poverty-ridden, criminal community of Naples in the second half of the 20th century. Both of them are brilliant. In the course of the four novels, their diverging and re-merging lives are presented by the one of them who has become a writer -- which suggests too, that the entire narrative might be suspect, since the reader receives all of this through the character who is a novelist.

"Climbing the economic ladder has been very hard for me, and I still feel a great deal of guilt towards those I left behind. I also had to discover very quickly that class origins cannot be erased, regardless of whether we climb up or down the sociocultural ladder. Even when our circumstances improve, it’s like the colour that inevitably rises to one’s cheeks after a strong emotion... I believe there is no story, however small, that can ignore that colouring".

These novels have resonated with women readers, as well as critics and reviewers, all over the world outside of Italy. Many readers and critics are particularly delighted that in this age of relentless pressure for authors to exist in social media and everywhere else here is an author whose identity no one knows.
D: Has that changed since the 1950s, when the Neapolitan story cycle starts, or do you think it’s become more entrenched – the idea that only obvious exceptionality among the “lower classes” should be rewarded?
E: This is how it’s going to be as long as class disadvantage and privilege exist. I have met truly exceptional people in whom the stubborn urge to climb the social ladder is absent. And so the most serious problem is that in deceptively egalitarian societies such as ours, much intelligence – women’s especially – is squandered.
Like everyone else is the author's successful anonymity in this world where everyone -- especially the digital data mining megafauna  -- knows everything about everyone. Part of me enjoys specifically all the speculation as to the gender of the writer. It's assumed the gender is female, but quite a few others have insisted that anything this good, this successful could only have been written by man.

That latter speculation has been scorned by the author:
The elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante has said that women writers tend to be shut “in a literary gynaeceum” by the books industry, even though “we know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men”.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted by email with Vanity Fair as she publishes the fourth and final novel in her acclaimed Neapolitan series in English, Ferrante, whose true identity is known to only a handful of people, addressed speculation that she could be a man, or even a group of men.
“Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency,” she wrote to Vanity Fair.
“The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum. There are good women writers, not-so-good ones, and some great ones, but they all exist within the area reserved for the female sex, they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.” 
The books by Elena Ferrante, whomever she may be, get the last word(s).

Friday, February 19, 2016

Portrait of a Novelist

Because this is the internets all of which r belong 2 catz, from the NY Times Magazine feature piece on the novelist Dana Spiotta, this spot brings this delectation:

Novelist Dana Spiotta in her home, photographed by Erik Madigan Heck for the New York Times.

Life has been so crowded with music, weather, parties, Slave Coast events and preparations for them, and additional chaos, there's been little time for reading, watching, or thinking coherently. As far as thinking expressively of experiences experienced, all of what thinking that has been managed is deeply personal.

This is not easy, extracting the lessons that it is not about me and my feelings from the experiences of being questioned about race in this nation.

It is clear, however, that being in a position where one is questioned does demand continued, personal interrogration of historic givens, contemporary events and particularly, then, of self,

All these inquiries demand returning to the foundation construct of our nation, the fantasy of white supremacy, deliberately fabricated out of original warp and woof of our national triumphalist economic history, the artificial division between black and white, made to create a permanent slave society. Today it seems that this evil itself, with the consequences to the only members of our body politic whose ancestors were brought here by force, has been transmitted permanently into our national culture and politics.  How can that ever be changed?

When asked, "What do you, a white person, think about reparations?"  Does one respond, "Yes" -- meaning, that some sort of reparations are the only way to even begin redeeming our national sin -- and stop there?

Or does one ask how such reparations could begin.  Would this mean defining which U.S. citizens are or are not of African American descent? Who gets to decide?  Would there have to be registries as is done with the Native American tribes of today?  And what will that mean, how will that play out, having a national, racial registry in a nation so vehemently white supremacist?  Back in the 19th century there were even trials that went on for months, attempting to determine whether an individual was or was not African American. As invasive as at a slave sale, every physical attribute of the person in question was discussed and questioned, by the legal representatives of both sides: the side that agreed the person was white and the side that insisted s/he was black.

So many ways of looking at others' experiences, which are not one's own, as it isn't about me, who is not African American.  This in itself may be the crown of white privilege -- that I can say, "It isn't about me."

Which inevitably leads to the extraordinarily dreary white supremacist political theater we experience in sense around, as bad as anything that went on leading up to secession.  This in turn will lead to rants, and as one is ranting to the choir, pointless.

So it's been better these dismal winter weeks of Black History Month to have stayed away from the internet for a while, other than the most private  and small Elsewhere, conversing about home improvement, the weather, health, gardening, birds, and birthday parties.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reading Wednesday -- George Washington's Journey: The President Forges A New Nation

George Washington's Journey: The President Forges A New Nation (2016) by T.H. Breen.

It's a commonly expressed belief that histories are at least as much about the time in which they are written as about the past period being written about.

This slim book is a good example of what that means.  Breen's argument in George Washington's Journey is that the new president of the new nation deliberately marshalled his many theatrical / political talents during the tours of the states he made in his first administration to present an image of himself as the worthy example of the benefits of the strong, central federal government in which he believed. Without a central overarching authority, there was no way for the states' rights states to either hang together as a fully functioning independent nation, or to protect the democracy's declared intention of religious tolerance (i.e. the diversity / minority rights of the day) and other less majority groups.

One sees Breen's argument, which he makes at least once on every page, directed deliberately at those elements of our national political life who have been expressing for years contempt and hatred for central government of the U.S.A.

It's heartening to see this argument so sincerely presented by a member of the insider U.S. History scholars.  His book is endorsed by both Gordon Wood and Douglas Bradburn, a librarian at Mount Vernon.

When looking at the fate of the CSA, it's impossible not to conclude that those who despise government can neither govern nor create a functioning government.  That's the lesson we need to get out there, quite a few of us believe.

Tonight, for Black History Month, Slave Coast on "What's the 411?"

At 6 PM tonight we'll be on the oldest black radio station, out of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, with Sharon Kay, host of "What's the 411."

The American Slave Coast has received the honor of being one of  the features for  "What's the 411?"'s observances of Black History Month.

This is the second time for The American Slave Coast on "What's the 411?". The first time was last fall, days after Slave Coast was published.

Tune in here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Baby! Mardi Gras Is Here!

Tune into WWOZ. to hear.

To see, go to the Times-Pic's video site here.

Eat some King Cake.  Dance and shake that thang!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Tonight - Tune In Context of Whte Supremacy C.O.W.S. /Black Talk Radio Network

The C.O.W.S. w/ Ned and Constance Sublette : The American Slave Coast

Monday, February 8th 8:00PM Eastern/ 5:00PM Pacific

Chris Jackson and Beyoncé

Chris Jackson, is the co-owner with his now ex-wife Sarah McNally, of Jackson McNally, the first successful NYC indie bookstore to open after amazilla killed all the stores.  He's featured in the New York Times Sunday magazine here.

Chris Jackson and Ta-Nehisi Coates, National Book Awards
At one point in this article, Chris Jackson says this, which is fully sensible:
‘‘The great tradition of black art, generally,’’ he started again, ‘‘is the ability — unlike American art in general — to tell the truth. Because it was formed around the great American poison, the thing that poisoned American consciousness and behavior: racism. And black culture, such as it is, was formed around a necessary resistance to this fundamental lie. That’s the obligation. And this is the power that black art has.’’
This amplifies what he stated above:
This power — the power of the unvarnished truth — is what is at stake when we talk about the problem of exclusion in the world of books. What believable version of American reality can be the product of an industry that, according to a recent survey, counts black people as just 4 percent of its employees? We can admit that race is not our only national reality without denying that it clarifies the workings of — and relations among — the others. A kind of American Rosetta Stone. 
This is the unique claim on the truth that black art can make: It draws its energy from its embrace of hybridity, from a rejection of the illusion of American purity. The joy of expression and the sorrow of experience, properly commingled, might result in something new — and true.
How can that be argued with?  As we all understand that this poison can never be drained from our national expression and attitude until the truth is told, told as matter-of-fact, and starting at the earliest years in our education system, among many other institutionally racist venues.

In many ways, Beyoncé's video for her single, "Formation," dropped for the Super Bowl is saying the same thing.

It can be viewed here on the Rolling Stone site.  Guarantee -- watching it only once won't do.

Beyond that, however, are the reactions particularly of African American women from different entry points, but are saying the same things, but in different ways.

The writing about "Formation" by African American women is filled with brilliant imagery.  Looking at just three different responses to "Formation" illustrates what A.O. Scott is describing when he asked, "What is criticism, what is reviewing?"

Here are three different African American women actively thinking about their experience of "Formation"

In fact, it's bloggers like these who have most impressed me, beyond the video itself.

Three different approaches, three different 'languages', all of them deeply expressive in their different manners of thinking hard, thinking actively, i.e. critically in response to an experience that was aesthetic, entertaining or political, depending on the approach.  And I'm responding to their language and imagery in response to her imagery (seeming more than to the lyrics, but hey, music video!)  in a very positive way.  I.e. they are persuasive.


For some of we white people who have been crowing that the lyrics' referencing of "slayer" and "slaying" is inspired by Buffy -- no, it's not.  This terminology comes from of the early days of hiphop and rap: slaying the competition, rivals, obstacles, whatever, was constant usage long before the Buff was a glimmer in Whedon's eye, and it still is.

Beyoncé proves once again she and Jay-Z are not only the most successful figures  globally in entertainment today, but  likely the smartest business people too.
Beyoncé slayed -- she even slayed football.  She's the winner of the Super Bowl. There's a whole more talking about "Formation" than there is about the game. She certainly substituted white space with space that is fully black matters.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Criticism and Reviewing

A.O. Scott, one of the NY Times's film critics, has published a book about what it is to be a critic, to look at aesthetic or entertainment experiences in a thinking manner: Better Living Through Criticism.  This book about criticism is itself reviewed and critiqued in the NY Times today, by Michae Wood.

Michael Wood, center, announcing 2015 Man Booker Prize Short List for fiction written in English (Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings won the prize.)
Wood, an author and literary academic, writes criticism for many respected publications including The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

Wood explains Scott's interrogation of the role of criticism, defining what criticism is, doesn't so much focus on judging, which inevitably means more negative commentary than positive, but the active experience of thinking about something.

I like this -- particularly the final sentence:
What haunts Mr. Scott’s book, and makes it so satisfyingly inconclusive, is the deceptively simple notion of thinking. Here is where the professional and the amateur meet. “A critic will be no different from anyone else who stops to think about the experience” — whether of watching a movie or reading a novel or looking at a painting or listening to music. When his interlocutor expresses surprise that Mr. Scott has “written a book in defense of thinking,” adding that “Nobody is really against thinking,” the critic says: “Are you serious? Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion."
That sentence feels particularly apropos as the reviewer of Better Living Through Criticism introduces his thinking about the critic's book with Henry James, favorite devil of the anti-intellectual national religion.

I like what follows from this as well:
Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and A. O. Scott, a chief film critic at The New York Times, says something similar toward the end of “Better Living Through Criticism,” his lively and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” The difference between the two formulations is important. James’s critic is talking to himself and is not necessarily being paid for his reaching. Mr. Scott’s critic — like Mr. Scott himself — has a job to do and readers to persuade or annoy. 
But the notion of interest brings the two remarks together, and almost casually excludes most of what we often think criticism is. What happened to judging, finding fault, even interpretation? 
Seeking for reasons of interest might involve some of these activities, but it wouldn’t have to, and the shift of emphasis is illuminating. Mr. Scott doesn’t exclude judgment from his inquiry. He says it’s “the bedrock of criticism.” And he reminds us that the job is “not nice. To criticize is to find fault.” (He also thinks that critics are always getting things wrong and devotes a brilliant chapter to how they so consistently manage this.) But bedrock is not soil, and still less is it the plants and creatures that grow on the earth. It may at times be essential to find fault; it is scarcely ever enough.
Another way of putting it is that liking / not liking, popular / not popular, good / bad is not sufficient for reliable or even interesting judgment.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Reading Wednesday -- Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance

Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance (2015) is by Daisy Hay, a Brit academic in Literature. This background explains the narrative clumsiness accorded accorded by narrative's lack of focused through-line of "romance". Speaking from relative experience here, one is allowed to speculate that this subtitle was strongly suggested (never imposed!) by the editor of the book.

As the author frequently informs us, this was no romantic marriage, but one of mutual convenience.  Disraeli -- Dizzy -- was fabulously in debt, desperate to be returned to parliament in order to be immune from arrest by his multitude of creditors.  He was as professionally frustrated as both author and politician as he was in Society as a Jewish outlier, despite his conversion to the Church of England. It had long been the case that a successful political career was nearly impossible for dissenters and non-conformists. Without belonging to the CoE, many other professions were also closed -- until 1907, one couldn't even get a degree from Oxford without allegiance to the Anglican Church.

The woman Disraeli married in 1839 was 12 years older than he, burdened with a semi-scandalous reputation that was founded in fact as well as gossip. His own reputation included not so sotto voce observations regarding his relationships with other men, including fellow author and member of parliament, Bulwer Lytton.

Mary Ann Viney-Evans, 1st Viscountess Beaconsfield (1792-1872)  was a petite, vivacious, good-natured and very pretty young woman.

In her maturity Mary Ann was a beautiful woman, and remained so for many years.
Disraeli encountered Mary Ann first in political drawing rooms, as wife of Member of Parliament, Wyndam Lewis. Disraeli and Mary Ann liked each other in these situations, and encouraged each other's biting observations. He saw much more of her, and more intimately, when he stood as companion candidate from Wycomb, with her husband.  Mary Ann was an enthusiastic, tireless and very effective campaigner. Not long after their election, Wyndam suddenly fell dead in his study. His friends urged Disraeli to seize this opportunity, which many other suitors already had set out to gain for themselves as soon as Wyndam was in the ground. Mary Ann was for ambitious, thwarted young men, a beautiful, wealthy widow, that essential conveyance to financial security found so commonly in history and fiction. As for Mary Ann, a husband would allow her freedom of action and behavior that weren't possible for a single woman in Society. As well, young and filled with energy, she found him very attractive.  Wyndam had been years older than she.

Less romantic than that is difficult to claim.  But -- they enjoyed each other's company. Initially.

What followed marriage was not smooth, particularly as Disraeli constantly lied to her about the extent of his debts. She constantly had to retrench her finances, sell off her possessions, negotiate and borrow, to pull him from the fires of bankruptcy and arrest in the periods that he wasn't in parliament. On her side the big bumps were her excessive public expression, dressing excessively and as time went on, in a manner not appropriate to a woman of her age,  and. most of all, her objections to 'sharing' him with friends, colleagues and his family.

We are interested in the lives of these two people and their relationship with each other, because they are significant political figures, and, as well, signature figures in their development of their era's social and literary conditions -- and how things changed from when they were young, to full-blown Victorian middle-class ideals. Benjamin Disraeli was one of the foremost politicians of the Victorian era. He was prime minister twice -- indeed, Queen Victoria's favorite minister, a condition founded upon his devotion to his wife, and hers to him. Queen Victoria even elevated Mary Ann in her own right to the peerage.
"On November 24, 1868, Mary Ann ceased to be Mrs. Disraeli and became instead Viscountess Beaconsfield."
Which elevation turned out to be extremely popular with the public, to everyone's surprise.

Most English majors and most historians who deal at all with the 19th century have a sense of whom Benjamin Disraeli was, which includes his colorful early life as a dandy and aspiring literary man in the vogue of the Romantics such as Byron and Shelley. Even now, lit majors, specializing in the history of the novel, and historians specializing in the politics of the Victorian era, still read his fiction for insights into politics, religion and cultural matters of the age.

However, knowledge of his wife among both English professors and historians is less common. That Mary Ann was extraordinary -- or at least socially singular and eccentric -- is beautifully described by Hays. The author successfully makes her case, that without Mary Ann, who is judged as inferior in intellect, breeding, education and importance, Disraeli would never have risen to the pinnacles of social and political success that he did.

Most English majors and most historians who deal at all with the 19th century have a sense of whom Benjamin Disraeli was, including his colorful early life as a dandy and aspiring literary man in the vogue of the Romantics such as Byron and Shelley. Even now, lit majors, specializing in the history of the novel, and historians specializing in the politics of the Victorian era, still read his fiction for insights into politics, religions and cultural matters of the age.

However, knowledge of his wife among both English professors and historians is less common.  That Mary Ann was extraordinary -- or at least socially singular and eccentric -- is beautifully described by Hays. The author successfully makes her case, that without Mary Ann, who is judged as inferior in intellect, breeding, education and importance, Disraeli would never have risen to the pinnacles of social and political success that he did.

Disraeli in his dandy period.
This is where and when romance enters. This had been a marriage of convenience for them both. They didn't have much in common, other than Mary Ann's undeviating devotion to his career even when he was nobody.  When he became successful, he was no longer dependent on her as previously and their lives diverged. In the earlier years of their marriage they had mutually manufactured a poetic fantasy of their grand romance, which faded under the pressures of debt and lies (his) jealousy and insecurity (hers of his relationships with his sister, other men and political cronies and work), lack of children, her volatility.  But as time went on, he became authentically devoted to her, both from gratitude and from recognition of her particular gifts for making friends and inspiring affection -- including with the notoriously difficult Queen Victoria herself. That in itself makes the book a valuable portal into the Victorian era.

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC, was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and politician (1803 - 1873). Best-selling Victorian novelist, including works such as The Last Days of Pompeii; also a Member of Parliament.  He and his close friends, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, were infamous in their circles for the Parisian sexcations they took together a couple of times a year.
It's also enlightening to read the descriptions of another Victorian famous name at the intersection of literature and politics -- Bulwer Lytton, who, with his wife Rosina, whom he treated so abominably, was a close friend to both the Wyndams and Disraeli. After reading the descriptions of Lytton and his family coolly ridding themselves of the 'nuisance' of Rosina by committing her to an insane asylum, one cannot but believe that this is what provoked another close friend of Lytton and Dickens, Wilkie Collins, into writing The Woman in White (1859).

As in The Woman in White, Rosina was released from that asylum by the actions of her loyal, loving female friends. In Collins's novel it is the devotion of the half-sister, who rides to the rescue, behaving as a man. (Unwomanly behavior is one of  Rosina's great sins, as far as Bulwer and his friends were concerned -- meaning she was vocal about objecting to his infidelities and other bad treatment, rather than meekly accepting everything.) The Woman in White is remarkably woman-centric and woman positive for the day, centering women's actions for rescuing themselves from the legal and social constraints of the time.

Mary Ann was often laughed at for not being demure enough, for flouting the conventions of behavior, speech and dress for the increasingly rigidly ordered drawing rooms and parlors of the Victorian era.  Hay frequently employs examples such as Rosina Lytton out of the circles of Mary Ann's friends and relatives to illustrate how fortunate Mary Ann's own circumstances turned out.

Mary Ann's intelligence understood how differently, financially and socially, her life was from so many of the women she knew.  She understood that luck, not virtue, played a huge role in who survived prosperously, and who did not. She was generous to many of the women she knew for whom poverty and struggle were their daily condition.

Beyond this however, for anyone who is interested in Victorian England and how it became Victorian, the lives of these people, spent together, traverse that trajectory, from the Regency era, when married people were allowed, with proper decorum, wives as much as husbands, to have lovers -- to the purely domestic ideal of the angel in the house.

Politics, history and manners among this privileged set of people at the top of their society, are extremely well detailed.  Wherever possible Hay has provided substantial extracts from the Disraeli's personal letters, journals and from newspaper accounts, which are valuable time-traveling devices in themselves.

Personally, considering what a role in politics they both played, I would loved to have seen some mention of their attitudes about slavery and the U.S. Civil War, but alas, there is none.

Still, as far as romance goes, Benjamin Disraeli did marry again, someone significantly younger, also wealthy.