The Month in Books - March 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in March:

  1. Battle Cry of Freedom - James McPherson (review)
  2. Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin (review)
  3. Andrew Carnegie - David Nasaw (review)
  4. The Weather Makers - Tim Flannery (review)
  5. Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry (review)
  6. Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Adichie (review)
  7. All the Names - Jose Saramago (review)

Pages Read: 4,126
Year-to-Date: 12,140

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

mcmurtry_lonesome.jpgLarry McMurtry has developed a rather mixed literary reputation over the years. On the one hand, he has written a number of critically acclaimed novels, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. The latter was even awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. These books were also commercially successful, and each was adapted for film or television. McMurtry also shared an Oscar for co-writing the Brokeback Mountain screenplay adapted from Annie Proulx's short story.

Yet on the other hand, both times that I have picked up a McMurtry novel I have received raised eyebrows and skeptical queries from those accustomed to my "high brow" literary tastes. Perhaps this is because McMurtry is so prolific he defies the model of a serious author (and among his many books, there are plenty of reputed duds). Perhaps it is because his best novels were successful commercially. Maybe it is a result of his penchant for writing lesser sequels of his best novels (three sequels to Lonesome Dove, three to The Last Picture Show, one to Terms of Endearment). And it might be because his most famous book is a western, a genre which receives (and perhaps deserves) little respect.

While Lonesome Dove is undoubtedly a western, it surely stands at the pinnacle of the genre. A mammoth book, weighing it at over 800 pages, it tells the story of old cowboys Augustus "Gus" McRae and Woodrow Call. The book opens with the former Texas Rangers running a stable and occasional cattle-selling business on the Texas-Mexico border, in a small town called Lonesome Dove. They make quite the odd couple, with Gus a loquacious rambler content to pass his days on the porch with some conversation and whiskey, and Captain Call (as he is universally dubbed) the quiet workaholic who pauses reluctantly for meals and sleep:

The funny thing about Woodrow Call was how hard he was to keep in scale. He wasn't a big man--in fact, was barely middle-sized--but when you walked up and looked him in the eye it didn't seem that way. Augustus was four inches taller than his partner, and Pea Eye three inches taller yet, but there was no way you could have convinced Pea Eye that Captain Call was the short man. Call had him buffaloed, and in that respect Pea had plenty of company. If a man meant to hold his own with Call it was necessary to keep in mind that Call wasn't as big as he seemed. Augustus was the one man in south Texas who could usually keep him in scale, and he built on his advantage whenever he could. He started many a day by pitching Call a hot biscuit and remarking point-blank, "You know, Call, you ain't really no giant."

The relative calm of Lonesome Dove is interrupted by the arrival of Jake Spoon, a cowboy that rangered with Gus and Call back in the day but has since parted company. A known ladies' man, Spoon recently departed Arkansas under a cloud after the accidental shooting of a sheriff's brother. Spoon's arrival marks two significant developments: he quickly co-opts Lorena, the town prostitute, who gives up her trade for his attentions; and an off-hand comment about the potential profits of a cattle drive to frontier Montana quickly burrows into Call's mind. Call decides to lead the drive from Texas to Montana, and his word is practically law amongst his crew:

It was that they had roved too long, August concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.

Indeed, it seemed to August that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.

August had not expected that Call would be satisifed just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.

The long journey to the North occupies the bulk of the novel. Some might criticize McMurtry for co-opting many of the cliches of the western (both literary and cinematic), but this misses the point. For McMurtry takes these cliches, the stoic cowboy, the redeemed prostitute, the bandit Indian, and elevates them to another level; he perfects them. Particularly notable are the roles he carves for the novel's women, who normally serve as little more than decoration in the average western. Lorena suffers some of the worst the world has to offer, but survives with a strength most of the novel's male characters could not muster. The object of Gus' unrequited ambitions, Clara, proves to be more than a match for him when the novel finally reaches her Nebraska doorstep, and it is quickly apparent why Gus could not let go of his feelings even after more than a decade has past.

This is not difficult reading. The prose is simple, the plot straightforward if not always predictable. It is not a romantic novel; McMurtry does not gloss over or glorify the roughness of life in that time and place. All of the characters suffer, many of them die, and death often comes in the most sudden and arbitrary of fashions. By the novel's end, I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I was even tempted to read the three sequels/prequels that McMurtry wrote a decade later, just to postpone the farewell.

Strawberry (Banana) Bread

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My wife and I stopped by the Whole Foods on Saturday to pick up a few things and saw that strawberries were on sale. I think she wanted to eat them fresh, but I was sneaky and used them for one of my favorite quick bread recipes, which comes via AllRecipes:

2 cups fresh strawberries
3 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
4 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 cups chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9x5" loaf pans. If you have time, toast the pecans on a cookie sheet for 10 minutes. Slice strawberries into a bowl, sprinkle them with a bit of sugar, and set aside.

Mix flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking soda in large bowl. Stir oil, vanilla, and eggs into strawberries. We had a couple of bananas getting rather ripe on the counter, so I mashed and mixed them in with the strawberries as well. Stir strawberry mixture into flour mixture until just combined. Stir in pecans and pour half of the batter into each pan.

Bake 45-50 minutes, cool in pan for 10 minutes, then cool completely on wire rack.

For my purposes, an excellent feature of this recipe is that it makes two loaves. One for my office, and one for my wife's office. This bread was very popular in both.

Brown Sugar Cookies

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Three and a half months in the desert had me craving some time in the kitchen, and I've made good use of all our new appliances this week. This recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated, via Nosh With Me:

7/8 cup butter
1/4 cup white sugar
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups plus 2 tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp. vanilla extract

The secret to these delicious cookies is to brown the butter. Heat 5/8 cup (10 tbsp.) of butter in a pan over medium-high heat until melted, then cook until dark golden, 1-3 minutes. Pour the browned butter into a bowl, stir in the remaining 1/4 cup of butter until melted, and then let cool for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F. In a small bowl, mix white sugar and 1/4 cup of brown sugar.

Mix flour, baking soda and baking powder in a large bowl. Add remaining 1 3/4 cups of brown sugar and salt to butter and mix until smooth. Add egg, yolk, and vanilla to butter and mix. Stir wet ingredients into flour until just combined.

Using a cookie scoop to ensure the cookies have a uniform size (which ensures uniform baking), scoop the dough into balls and roll them in the sugar mixture. Then place the dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spaced 2 inches apart. Bake 12-14 minutes, then cool on wire racks.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

flannery_weather.jpgEfforts to understand the climate change debate are often sidetracked by an inability to grasp the scientific principles at play and by partisan substitution of ideology for evidence. Al Gore did tremendous work in An Inconvenient Truth, using visual imagery to establish for the masses the basic idea that our world is changing, that change is occurring with unnatural speed, and that much of this change can be tied to human causes.

But Al Gore is, for some, a divisive figure. A substantial portion of the population thinks he won the presidential election in 2000. An even larger portion probably wishes he had. And for all his erudition, he is not a scientist. So with due credit to his efforts, there is still room for others to play a pivotal role in educating us about climate change and what we can do about it.

Tim Flannery stepped into that role with his 2005 book, The Weather Makers. Flannery, an Australian scientist and environmental activist, previously published previous on the ecological history of Australia, and the ecological history of the United States. In The Weather Makers, he turned his focus to the topic of climate change, and in numerous short chapters, endeavors to tackle everything from the basics of climatology, the dangerous warning signs we've seen in past decades, the methods of prediction and what those models predict, the recent history of climate politics, and potential solutions for solving the crisis:

One thing that I hear again and again as I discuss climate change with friends, family, and colleagues is that it is something that may affect humanity in decades to come but is no immediate threat to us. I'm far from certain that that is true, and I'm not sure it is even relevant. If serious change or the effects of serious change are decades away, that is just a long tomorrow. Whenever my family gathers for a special event, the true scale of climate change is never far from my mind. My mother, who was born during the Great Depression--when motor vehicles and electric light were still novelties--positively glows in the company of her grandchildren, some of whom are not yet ten. To see them together is to see a chain of the deepest love that spans 150 years, for those grandchildren will not reach my mother's present age until late this century. To me, to her, and to their parents, their welfare is every bit as important as our own. On a broader scale, 70 percent of all people alive today will still be alive in 2050, so climate change affects almost every family on this planet.

Flannery treats every aspect of his sobering text with an even-hand. He does not villanize those whose scientific or political opinions clash with his own. He notes areas of scientific disagreement, he gives space to the proposals made by those who deny or diminish the dangers of climate change. He acknowledges the possible need for nuclear power and suggests that the continued use of fossil fuel for airline travel is not only necessary, but maybe even beneficial (due to possible cooling effects from the contrails made by airplane exhaust). Throughout the text, Flannery does not shy away from the shocking, but he never descends into sensationalism or spite.

One unique aspect of the book is that Flannery devotes at least as much attention to the policy failures in his native land as those in the United States. This is a perspective lacking in the U.S. debate, which per the recently-departed Bush administration's general outlook on the world, tended to devolve into an "us vs. them" mindset. If the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol is rightly infamous, it is possibly trumped by the Australians' behavior: after bullying the small Pacific island countries most threatened by climate change, and wrestling concessions allowing it to expand its own CO2 production, Australia still refused to sign the treaty. An indication that Americans are not alone in our dangerous backwardness, though as leaders in innovation and initiative we should still be ashamed not to be at the tip of the spear.

Unfortunately the several years since Flannery published The Weather Makers have failed to yield much visible progress in the war on climate change. Though the presidential campaign last year involved a great deal of renewable energy rhetoric, the legislating progress is a different game entirely. Just last week, eight Democratic senators signed a letter stating their opposition to using the budget process to sidestep anticipated Republican filibusters on climate change legislation. At the same time in Copenhagen, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was releasing a disturbing report:

The world is facing an increasing risk of "irreversible" climate shifts because worst-case scenarios warned of two years ago are being realized, an international panel of scientists has warned.

Temperatures, sea levels, acid levels in oceans and ice sheets were already moving "beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived," scientists said in a report released Thursday.

This is particularly upsetting in light of the rather conservative nature of the IPCC. As Flannery describes it, because the panel operates by consensus and includes members from the petrostates and heel-draggers like the U.S., China and Australia, IPCC reports are "lowest-common-denominator science." But that also means that "If the IPCC says something, you had better believe it--and then allow for the likelihood that things are far worse than its says they are." It is hard to imagine how that could be.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw

nasaw_carnegie.jpgAndrew Carnegie was a man of many paradoxes. He was a giant in business, yet stood but 5 feet tall at the most. Audacious and ruthlessly oblivious of other perspectives in his professional life, he waited until his mother was dead to get married so as not to make her feel abandoned. Though he reached the pinnacle of industrial capitalism, he was more interested in being known as a man of letters and ideas than a man of wealth. He relentlessly pursued profits at the expense of his employees' salaries, jobs, and health and his competition's survival, and then spent his long retirement giving the money away.

In his 2006 biography of the philanthropic steelmaker, Andrew Carnegie, David Nasaw attempts to capture and consider these dueling aspects of Carnegie's personality, which reflect the transitional nature of his times:

Andrew Carnegie was a critical agent in the triumph of industrial capitalism surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. That much is undeniable. But the source materials I have uncovered do not support the telling of a heroic narrative of an industrialist who brought sanity and rationality to an immature capitalism plagued by runaway competition, ruthless speculation, and insider corruption. Nor do they support the recitation of another muckraking expose of Gilded Age criminality. The history of industrial consolidation and incorporation is too complex to be encapsulated in Whiggish narratives of progress or post-Edenic tales of declension, decline, and fall.

Carnegie himself credited his success not to any innate skill or divine selection, but to more or less being in the right place and the right time. He was born in the fall of 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland, a town known then, as now, for its textile industry. His father was a skilled linen weaver who lacked either the ingenuity or the initiative to be successful at his trade, leaving Carnegie's mother to devise small business opportunities to support the family. They departed Scotland in 1848, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, with family members who had preceded them. With the family impoverished, young "Andra" entered the work force at age 13. In short order, he was the main breadwinner:

There was something about the lad that inspired older Scottish men to entrust him with responsibilities he was not quite ready for. The Carnegies had relocated to an American manufacturing city filled with enterprising, upward-rising Scotsmen, ready and able to help out young landsmen. Andra's stint as a bobbin boy for Mr. Blackstock had barely begun when another Scottish expatriate manufacturer, John Hay, offered him a position for two dollars a week, almost double his wages.

Less than a year later Carnegie would move to a telegraph company where he worked as a messenger, then operator, before making the fateful move over to local office of the Pennsylvania Railroad, an association he would maintain for the duration of his career. Starting as a telegraph operator, secretary, and chief assistant to the superintendent, within a few years he was superintendent himself. The 1850s and 1860s were a great time to be in the railroad business, particularly when a railroad executive could invest in the very companies that were building or using the expanding railroad network:

In 1862 Carnegie invited Jacob Linville, the Pennsylvania's chief bridge engineer, and John Piper and Aaron Shiffler, also engineers, to join him, Scott, and Thomson in organizing a new company to build iron railroad bridges in Pittsburgh. The new company, Piper & Shiffler, was a fine example of nineteenth-century crony capitalism. Carnegie would oversee operations and finances from Pittsburgh. Scott and Thomson, who remained silent partners in the enterprise, would make sure the new company received lucrative contracts for iron bridges from the Pennsylvania and its affiliated companies. As he had become the modus operandi of their investment partnership, Carnegie held Scott's stock in his own name. Thomson's shares were put in his wife's name. Linville's participation in the company was also kept secret as, with Scott and Thomson, he remained an employee of the railroad.

The money Carnegie earns in such endeavors is immediately reinvested into new projects, a habit that Carnegie would carry with him into the steel business when he made the move in the early 1870s to put "all my eggs in one basket." Foreseeing the demand for steel railroad lines, Carnegie used his connections and insight in the railroad industry and his continual investment in better technology to claim for himself an enormous share of the booming steel business. He brought vertical integration to the business as well, buying the coke sources needed for steel production and building his own railroads to lower transportation costs. By the time he sold his various enterprises to the newly-created U.S. Steel behemoth, he was by some estimates the second-richest man who had ever lived.

Nasaw does not gloss over the costs the Carnegie empire imposed on its work force and competition. Ever obsessed with reducing costs and boosting profits, Carnegie successfully drove unions out of his steel and iron works, most spectacularly at Homestead in 1892. Nor does he glorify Carnegie the man. Carnegie was remarkably ego-centric, as surely most billionaires are (that's surely part of how one becomes a billionaire), yet needed affection from all quarters:

For all he had accomplished, Carnegie remained, at heart, the undersized outsider with the funny accent who had been uprooted from his home at age thirteen... In his adopted land, he was the intimate of a president in Washington, an ex-president in Princeton, mayors, governors, senators, and cabinet members, as well as Samuel Clemens, America's most famous writer... In Britain, his circle of acquaintances was, if anything, larger, grander, and more regal still. He had conquered every personal, corporate, political, and ancestral foe... It was not enough. His insecurities about class and status were legion. Now approaching seventy, and if not the richest, then surely one of the richest men in the world, he still sought out and gloried in the approval and recognition of his contemporaries.

Carnegie was also an unabashed name-dropper, "wanted to be known and honored not simply for what he had accomplished, but for the company he kept," and yet greatly overestimated the value others placed on his opinion. This was true in business, as demonstrated by his disastrous falling out with Henry Clay Frick, but even more so once Carnegie turned his attention to the cause of world peace. He hounded politicians on both sides of the Atlantic relentlessly in his quixotic, if noble, effort to bind the world's great powers to treaties of arbitration. It is somewhat sad to see him humored by these politicians merely because they desire his campaign contributions. It is even more tragic to see his lengthy quest for peace and his everlasting optimism rewarded by the outbreak of perhaps the most senseless and bloody war to date:

On November 25, 1914, he celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday as always by inviting reporters to his library for an extended conversation. He repeated as he had the year before that "the longer I live on this earth the more of a heaven it becomes to me," but he also "admitted that the war had shaken his proverbial optimism about the goodness of the world."

The main flaw of Nasaw's book is that it is simply too long. Or more to that point, it is bloated with details of vacations and other aspects of Carnegie's personal life that fail to shed light on the man or hold any inherent interest. Particularly painful are the many pages detailing the epistolary courtship between Carnegie and his eventual wife, Louise. I don't mean to seem unduly harsh, as surely most love letters are of little interest for those uninvolved. But the text really bogs down during the seven years it takes for Carnegie to make the leap into marriage. Part of the problem is that Carnegie, for all his fame and all his money, spent the majority of his long life in semi-retirement. He traveled, he read, he wrote, he entertained. Not the makings of a great narrative.

Some of the 800 pages would have been better spent exploring in more detail the various philanthropic endeavors that Carnegie's money has funded. Nasaw does a decent job mentioning the origins of organizations including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Corporation, the Carnegie Institute, the New York public libraries, and Carnegie Mellon University. But he gives the barest hints of the achievements made by these groups in the nine decades since his death. Surely an epilogue, at the very least, could have provided such details. If the donation of his tremendous wealth was the "most important goal [Carnegie] had set himself," the paths his money traveled are certainly worth exploring.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

goodwin_team.jpgAs early as May of last year, there was widespread discussion of then-Senator Barack Obama's admiration of President Abraham Lincoln and his choice to assemble a cabinet containing his main rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. Obama made public reference to a "wonderful book" by Doris Kearns Goodwin titled Team of Rivals, which covered just that topic.

In comparing President Obama's cabinet choices to the story Goodwin tells in Team of Rivals, commentators tended to focus on the initial selection of major rivals to key posts. In 1860, the nomination was widely expected to go to a senator from New York, only to have the throne usurped by a dark horse insurgent from Illinois, who then won the presidency and appointed his New York rival as Secretary of State. Sounds familiar, right?

But this is not really the thesis of Goodwin's text. Lincoln is not to be admired simply because he surrounded himself with powerful adversaries, though this distinguished him from his less secure predecessors (and successors). Instead, Lincoln's "political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture." The marvel of this accomplishment is that in the years leading up to Lincoln's nomination (and for some time after), each of the men who would serve such vital roles in his administration could point to a more illustrious career than their counterpart from Illinois:

[T]he three other contenders for the nomination were household names in Republican circles. William Henry Seward had been a celebrated senator from New York for more than a decade and governor of his state for two terms before he went to Washington. Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, too, had been both senator and governor, and had played a central role in the formation of the national Republican Party. Edward Bates was a widely respected elder statesman, a delegate to the convention that had framed the Missouri Constitution, and a former congressman whose opinion on national matters were still widely sought.

And yet Lincoln won the nomination. In part this was because he was the common denominator who did not alienate any faction. But even this positioning was attributable to a more important factor: Lincoln was simply the most skilled politician of the group, a trait that would be made manifest in the coming months. First, Lincoln had to unify the nascent Republican Party, which was an amalgamation of anti-slavery Democrats, Whigs, and Know-Nothings. And his reward for succeeding and obtaining the presidency? The imminent dissolution of the Union:

For Lincoln, who would not take office until March 4, it was a time of mounting anxiety and frustration. He strongly believed, he told John Nicolay, that the government possessed "both the authority and the power to maintain its own integrity," but there was little he could do until he held the reins of power. While he was "indefatigable in his efforts to arrive at the fullest comprehension of the present situation of public affair," relying not simply on the newspapers he devoured but on "faithful researches for precedents, analogies, authorities, etc." it was hard to stand by while his country was disintegrating. He declared at one point that he would be willing to reduce his own life span by "a period of years" equal to the anxious months separating his election and the inauguration.

As James McPherson made clear in Battle Cry of Freedom, keeping the border states from seceding was of the utmost importance to the success of the Union war effort. Threading this needle was a task tailor-made for Lincoln. He was uniquely able to balance the radicals in his own party with the conservatives and the northern Democrats, and to assuage the healthy egos of his many generals. Only after suffering the insolence of McLellan (who is just as loathsome in Goodwin's portrayal as in McPherson's) and the incompetence of Burnside and Hooker would Lincoln find, in Ulysses Grant, the general he deserved:

When a visitor asked one day about the prospects of the army under Grant, Lincoln's face lit up "with that peculiar smile which he always puts on when about to tell a good story." The question, he said, "reminds me of a little anecdote about the automaton chessplayer, which many years ago astonished the world by its skill in that game. After a while the automaton was challenged by a celebrated player, who, to hise great chagrin, was beaten twice by the machine. At the end of the second game, the player, significantly pointing his finger at the automaton, exclaimed in a very decided tone. 'There's a man in it!'" That, he explained, referring to Grant, was "the secret" to the army's fortunes.

As if Lincoln did not have enough trouble from those outside his cabinet, he continuously strove to maintain the balance within it. He was given particularly trouble by Chase, who never gave up his obsessive quest for the presidency (including attempts to stoke a grassroots bid for the nomination in 1864), and Montgomery Blair, who, with his family, came into constant conflict with Chase and his allies. In the end, Lincoln would solve the problem by easing both men out of his cabinet. Magnanimous to the last, Lincoln would eventually appoint Chase to the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court.

The book suffers from a bit of a split identity. At first blush, it endeavors to tell the stories of all four of the rivals. The early chapters detail each man's rise to fame, and the back cover even calls it a "multiple biography." One unfortunate similarity amongst the men, reflecting the realities of 19th-century health, is that each suffered tragic family losses: Lincoln lost two children, Chase had survived three daughters and three wives by the age of 44, the eight Bates children who survived to adulthood were outnumbered by the nine who did not, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's grief after losing his wife and daughter "verged on insanity." Beyond the tragedies, Goodwin also covers in substantial detail (too much, perhaps) the social lives and rivalries of the cabinet members and their wives and daughters.

Yet Goodwin's main focus is on Lincoln, and the cabinet is relevant only as part of her effort to demonstrate Lincoln's management prowess. At this she certainly succeeds, but it comes at the cost of giving pretty short shrift to the work done by Lincoln's subordinates. We really only see their efforts insofar as they come into conflict with Lincoln or each other, and do not get a satisfactory sense of each man's performance in the key roles they fulfilled. Nevertheless, Goodwin has added to our sense of Lincoln the political virtuoso, who not only inspired the soldiers and the citizens, but transformed rivalries among the great men of his time into loyal dedication to their leader.

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

mcpherson_battle.jpgNo historical event can rival the American Civil War for volume of inspired literature except, perhaps, the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Every year, every month even, sees the publication of further works on the causes, the consequences, the battles, the generals, and so on. For the Civil War-obsessed, and there are certainly plenty among us, this is delightful. But for those of us whose interest is at present more restrained, it is daunting.

Those seeking a single volume are often directed to James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom as the place to start (and perhaps finish) an exploration of America's bloodiest conflict. McPherson's effort, which is subtitled "The Civil War Era," opens with an overview of mid-19th century America, covering the social, religious and political realms of the antebellum era. It then turns to the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California, and does not reach the fateful shots at Fort Sumter for nearly 300 pages. McPherson considers these events, and the resulting westward expansion of U.S. territory and settlement, as pivotal in forcing the issue of slavery back to the forefront after nearly three decades of cease-fire following the Missouri Compromise:

This triumph of Manifest Destiny may have reminded some Americans of Ralph Waldo Emerson's prophecy that "the United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us." He was right. The poison was slavery. Jefferson's Empire for Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, just admitted in 1846, had increased the ranks of free states. Many northerners feared a similar future for this new southwestern empire. They condemned the war as part of a "slave power conspiracy" to expand the peculiar institution.

This fear provoked even non-abolitionists, like young Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who did not believe the federal government could interfere with slavery in the southern States but were adamant that it be kept out of the federal territories. It was, as they saw it, the Founding Fathers' intention to restrict slavery to its then-existing limits where it would die a gradual, natural death. This new effort at westward expansion threatened to extend the life of the peculiar institution. It wasn't the only effort, either, as some in the South saw the annexation of Cuba as a natural expansion that would further strengthen the slaveholders' position:

Their champion was a handsome, charismatic Cuban soldier of fortune named Narciso Lopez who had fled to New York in 1848 after Spanish officials foiled his attempt to foment an uprising of Cuban planters. Lopez recruited an army of several hundred adventurers, Mexican War veterans, and Cuban exiles for an invasion of the island. He asked Jefferson Davis to lead the expedition. The senator demurred and recommend his friend Robert E. Lee, who considered it but politely declined. Lopez thereupon took command himself, but the Taylor administration got wind of the enterprise and sent a naval force to seize Lopez's ships and block his departure in September 1849.

McPherson covers the expanding violence in Kansas, the fall of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans, and the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry in Illinois. The election of Lincoln is itself enough to provoke secession by the most rebellious states in the Deep South, and the subsequent violence at Fort Sumter and mobilization of Northern troops sees Virginia leading the mid-South out of the Union as well. One of McPherson's best chapters is titled "Facing Both Ways: The Upper South's Dilemma" in which he discusses Virginia's secession and then looks at each of the four border states in turn:

In the four border states the proportion of slaves and slaveowners was less than half what it was in the eleven states that seceded. But the triumph of unionism in these states was not easy and the outcome (except in Delaware) by no means certain. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri contained large and resolute secessionist minorities. A slight twist in the chain of events might have enabled this faction to prevail in any of these states. Much was at stake in this contest. The three states would have added 45 percent to the white population and military manpower of the Confederacy, 80 percent to its manufacturing capacity, and nearly 40 percent to its supply of horses and mules. Fort almost five hundred miles the Ohio river flows along the northern border of Kentucky, providing a defensive barrier or an avenue of invasion, depending on which side could control and fortify it. Two of the Ohio's navigable tributaries, the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, penetrate through Kentucky into the heart of Tennessee and northern Alabama. Little wonder that Lincoln was reported to have said that while he hoped to have God on his side, he must have Kentucky.

Indeed, the North's early triumphs would all take place in the western theater, while the execrable George McClellan wasted a year and thousands of lives in his timid Virginia campaign. In his narrative of the war, McPherson touches on all the major military campaigns and battles, but never neglects to return his focus to the seats of power in Washington and Richmond. Of particular interest were the passages focus on Jefferson Davis' administration, such as the difficulties faced by the Confederacy in mobilizing a coherent, unified war effort after founding itself on a doctrine of state's rights:

Conscription dramatized a fundamental paradox in the Confederate war effort: the need for Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Pure Jeffersonians could not accept this. The most outspoken of them, Joseph Brown of Georgia, denounced the draft as a "dangerous usurpation by Congress of the reserved rights of the States... at war with all the principles for which Georgia entered into the revolution."

McPherson repeatedly demonstrates how the political sphere was often driven by failure or success in the field (e.g. the capture of Atlanta undermined the 1864 Democratic peace platform in the North), and yet on other occasions the efforts in the field were driven by political considerations (such as difficulty in removing a well-connected general). He also covers the evolution of Northern opinion on slavery, emancipation, and arming free blacks (unthinkable in 1861 but widely accepted by war's end) and the ongoing Southern efforts to gain recognition by Britain and France:

[I]ssues of ideology and sentiment played a secondary role in determining Britain's foreign policy. A veteran of a half-century in British politics, Palmerston was an exponent of Realpolitik. When pro-southern members of Parliament launched a drive in the summer of 1862 for British recognition of the Confederacy, Palmerston profess not to see the point. The South, he wrote, would not be "a bit more independent for our saying so unless we followed up our Declaration by taking Part with them in the war." Few in Britain were ready for that.

The book ends at the war's conclusion, prior to Reconstruction, the passage of the 14th Amendment, the readmission of the slave states, and so on. This was a conscious choice by McPherson and/or his editor, as Battle Cry of Freedom is but one entry in the gradually emerging Oxford History of the United States. McPherson explicitly leaves several issues for the subsequent volume in the series, which at this moment, twenty years later, is still neither published nor even announced.

As advertised, this is surely the essential one-volume history of the war and its causes, covering in sufficient detail both the political and military aspects of the conflict. But it is just one volume, and the 600 pages devoted to the war itself pale in comparison to, say, the 3000 or so in Shelby Foote's three-volume epic. The analysis of the causes of the war, while efficient, is relatively cursory when compared to a full volume like David Potter's The Impending Crisis. Those seeking a detailed operational history of the battles will have to look elsewhere, as even the epic battle at Gettysburg is allotted fewer than a dozen pages. Better yet, read this book first to get a fresh sense of the whole scope of the war, then seek out Foote or Stephen Sears for a closer look at military operations.

Eisenhower by Carlo D'Este

deste_eisenhower.jpgDwight Eisenhower's elevation to the peak of the Allied forces in World War II was absurdly rapid. The only contemporary rise that even compares is Harry Truman's 3-month ascent from Missouri's junior senate seat to the Oval Office. Eisenhower spent sixteen long years as a major in the inter-war Army before gaining promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1936. Then, in less than four years between 1941 and 1944, he rose from lieutenant colonel to five-star general.

Strange though it may seem, Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower, subtitled "A Soldier's Life," is actually more interesting in the 300 pages before the U.S. entry into World War II. Though the book ends with the close of the war in Europe in 1945, excluding his tenure as chief of staff, NATO commander, and his two-term presidency, the narrative begins with Eisenhower's first ancestor in America, Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer, "who emigrated from Germany's Rhineland to Pennsylvania in 1741." Raised in rather impoverished circumstances with his vivacious mother, emotionally detached father, and five brothers, Eisenhower managed to live a picturesque childhood:

Whenever he was not in school or working, young Eisenhower could be found sipping a sundae at Case's Department Store, riding precariously on the handlebars of a friend's bicycle, wading or fishing in nearby Mud Creek, shooting rabbits, general horseplay, engaging in fisticuffs, or competing in all manner of sports. There was little his boyhood in Abilene had to offer that Dwight Eisenhower did not take part in during an untroubled youth. The Eisenhowers could not afford toys, but with David's encouragement his sons became adept at manufacturing their own from whatever materials were handy. Camping and boating were all part of a life filled with activities, as were acrobatics and balancing acts in the family barn--often futile attempts to defy the laws of gravity that usually cost little more than numerous bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes.

Desirous of a college education (and an opportunity to continue playing football and baseball) but cognizant of his family's financial limitations, Eisenhower sought and received an appointment to West Point. A member of the class of 1915, Eisenhower would graduate into a world at war and an American army in disrepair. Despite a professed desire to lead troops in combat (like George Patton and Harry Truman), Eisenhower would spend World War I in staff and training positions, with a particular emphasis on the newly-established tank units:

Eisenhower's hopes were dashed when he was informed that instead of leading the 301st [Tank Battalion] to France, he was being reassigned to command a temporary military garrison adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield: Camp Colt. Eisenhower's organizational abilities had convinced his superiors that he was more valuable training troops. The curse of being a successful troop trainer had struck again, and "My mood was black," he said. His new assignment was a perfect example of the military axiom "For the good of the service."

In the inter-war years, the Army would severely contract, cut salaries, and promote at a glacial pace (hence Eisenhower's sixteen years as a major). Yet Eisenhower endured. He would later be criticized by many as a bureaucrat who rose to power on his ability to play politics and gain the patronage of powerful men. Whatever the merits of this judgment, it is certainly true that Eisenhower's assignments brought him into close contact with a veritable who's who of Army heavyweights. After World War I he worked for General John Pershing on the American Battle Monuments Commission. Later, Eisenhower would spend most of the 1930s working for General Douglas MacArthur, as an aide to the Chief of Staff and then in the Philippines. Finally, and most importantly, he had been marked down for future success by General George C. Marshall; when the darkening clouds in Europe convinced the Army Chief of Staff he needed an officer with some specific skills, Eisenhower was his man:

In 1942 hardly anyone in the U.S. Army had in intimate knowledge, much less an understanding, of industrial mobilization. One of the few exceptions was Eisenhower, thanks to his extensive investigation of the subject during his service in the War Department a decade earlier. This experience would not only be of immense importance in the coming months but would greatly enhance his role as one of the most important figures on Marshall's staff.

The 400-odd pages that follow cover Eisenhower's role in the European war, from command of the operations in North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, to D-Day and the continental war. This is a decent operational history of the war, and I guess that's what passes for a biography of the Supreme Allied Commander. He was strikingly distant from any tactical decisions, let alone combat itself. Most of his days seem to have been filled by balancing the egos of the various commanders and politicians. Not to understate the skill and patience this required, when one considers the egos he was dealing with (Churchill, de Gaulle, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley, to name the most famous). But it does not make for great reading. Every so often a major strategic decision will be made, followed by a dozen iterations of ego-soothing while the troops are actually fighting; rinse and repeat:

In early August [1944], Eisenhower's unending "war" with Winston Churchill over the Riviera landings reached a crescendo. Although the date for the landings was barely more than a week off, Eisenhower still had a major fight on his hands with Churchill, who arrived at Shellburst for discussions on August 7. All was calm at lunch as the prime minister delighted in feeding milk to Eisenhower's resident pet, a black kitten named Shaef. But the discussion under the canvas tent turned serious when Churchill employed American battle tactics in an attempt to wear Eisenhower down. The arguments raged for some six hours. The more Churchill cajoled and pleaded, the more strongly Eisenhower resisted. Noted Butcher, "Ike said no, continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command... he was practically limp when the PM departed," with the last words on the subject yet to be heard. Exhausted but unbowed Eisenhower felt secure in the knowledge that he had the full backing of Marshall, King, and Arnold, and--most important of all--Roosevelt.

Perhaps Eisenhower's greatest accomplishment was maintaining the allied relationship with Britain, a proud empire in very rapid decline, while recognizing that by 1944 the former colonies had become undeniably supreme. Numerous military giants feature significantly in the narrative, particularly Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley. While D'Este is entitled to make known his opinions about which generals have been underrated (Montgomery) or overrated (Bradley), in so doing he is taking issue with the unstated judgments of past historians. For those not well-versed in the war's historiography, these passages may seem rather tangential or at least unnecessarily argumentative.

D'Este is not blind to Eisenhower's missteps. He fault the supreme commander for an inability to relieve commanders far after their incompetence or disloyalty has been made manifest. He does not dissuade one from the notion that Eisenhower's stature and survival had as much to do with being the common denominator acceptable to both the British and the U.S. rather than any brilliance in his own right (in fact, it may be the lack of individual military genius that made him more palatable than the eccentrics like Patton and Montgomery). And amongst other specific episodes of weakness, he highlights Eisenhower's decision to approve the execution of Eddie Slovik for desertion, the first such penalty since the Civil War:

When Eisenhower was interviewed in 1963 by historian Bruce Catton, his recollection of the event bore the hallmarks of a faulty memory. Claiming he had sent his judge advocate general to offer Slovik an olive branch if he would express remorse and return to his unit, Eisenhower described Slovik as "one of these guardhouse lawyers who refused to believe he'd ever be executed."

Slovik had actually written Eisenhower a hearfelt personal plea to spare his life, and would willingly have complied with an offer to return to duty. It has not been established if Eisenhower ever saw Slovik's letter, but what is clear is that no one from SHAEF was ever sent to the 28th Division before Slovik's execution on January 31, 1945, in the courtyard of a villa in the town of Ste-Marie-aux-Mines, deep in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.

D'Este relies on a broad array of sources, and provides 100 pages worth of extensive endnotes. I was troubled, however, by an in-text citation to "controversial historian David Irving." By "controversial," one can only assume D'Este is referring to Irving's many years as the academic face of Holocaust denial. That Irving has so publicly and perversely derailed from historical reality does not necessarily invalidate the early work that D'Este cites, which suggested that "Allied brass were more interested in preserving their reputation than in defeating the Germans," but surely D'Este could find sources for this claim who have not been so widely discredited as historians.

Also troubling was D'Este's handling of the perpetual rumors surrounding Eisenhower's wartime relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. Truth be told, I don't much care what the relationship was, and would not have missed the issue if D'Este had chosen to ignore it. But what he did instead was worse; he attempts to exonerate Ike, staying that the rumors were "unproved" and that an affair "could not possibly have been hidden." That is all well and good, but D'Este returns to these rumors at least a half-dozen times during the remainder of the book, noting the effect it had on Mamie, stating that Eisenhower was "oblivious to any all adverse reaction to her presence, however inappropriate it was at times," and admitting that "it was common knowledge among war correspondents that something was going on between them." By brushing aside the rumors, only to repeat them ad nauseam, D'Este does no favors to his subject or his text.

More annoying yet is D'Este's obsession with Eisenhower's cigarette smoking, which he mentions at least 8 or 9 times. D'Este suggests that this contributed to health problems later in life, which I have no reason to doubt. But it is a strange aspect to linger on considering that D'Este's text ends in 1945, almost a quarter-century before Eisenhower's death. It is perhaps a symptom of D'Este's inability or unwillingness to offer insights into Eisenhower's inner world that he harps so repeatedly on the man's visible habits.