The Month in Books - July 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 July:

  1. The Korean War - Max Hastings (review)
  2. Possession - A.S. Byatt (review)
  3. The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai (review)
  4. Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison (review)
  5. The Search for Modern China - Jonathan Spence (review)
  6. Cloudsplitter - Russell Banks (review)
  7. Khrushchev - William Taubman (review)
  8. Arthur & George - Julian Barnes (review)
  9. The Lazarus Project - Aleksandar Hemon (review)

Pages Read: 4,427
Year-to-Date: 21,671

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

banks_cloudsplitter.jpgOne of the most colorful and controversial figures in American history went by the deceptively plain name of John Brown. A strident abolitionist, Brown would make his mark in history as a leader of violent actions during the years before the Civil War. He is remembered for his role in the struggle over Bleeding Kansas, with the Pottawatomie Massacre of five pro-slavery settlers using broadswords, and even more so for the raid at Harpers Ferry, where he and his followers seized a federal armory in Virginia in the hopes of inciting a slave revolt that would sweep the South.

Opinion on John Brown was dramatically split in the mid-19th century, and it remains so today. Heralded by some as a martyr in the struggle against slavery, and by others as a bloodthirsty terrorist, there is at least broad consensus amongst historians that Brown's actions played a substantial role in fanning the flames that led to open warfare between North and South. James McPherson devoted a number of pages to Brown in his seminal Civil War history, The Battle Cry of Freedom (reviewed here), emphasizing the disparate reactions to Harpers Ferry and the disbelief each side felt upon learning of the other's attitude:

Extraordinary events took place in many northern communities on the day of Brown's execution. Church bells tolled; minute guns fired solemn salutes; ministers preached sermons of commemoration; thousands bowed in silence reverence for the martyr to liberty... Perhaps the words of Lafayette quoted at a commemoration meeting in Boston got to the crux of the matter: "I never would have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was helping to found a nation of slaves." John Brown had drawn his sword in an attempt to cut out this cancer of shame that tainted the promise of America. No mater that his method was misguided and doomed to failure... It was "the work of a madman," conceded Horace Greeley even as he praised the "grandeur and nobility" of Brown and his men.

The distinction between act and motive was lost on southern whites. They saw only that millions of Yankees seemed to approve of a murderer who had tried to set the slaves at their throats. This perception provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid. The North "has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, treason," cried De Bow's Review. Could the South afford any longer "to live under a government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero?" asked a Baltimore newspaper. No! echoed from every corner of the South.

Historical opinion of Brown has been decidedly mixed, though the 21st-century has seen a revival of academic interest with a decidedly more sympathetic tone, including David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist and Evan Carton's Patriotic Treason. The revisionist trend seeks to place the violence perpetrated by Brown and his group in the context of the injustice of slavery and the impending bloodiness of the Civil War, while emphasizing Brown's unique blend of racial egalitarianism and self-sacrifice.

Slightly ahead of the curve was novelist Russell Banks, who used Brown's life as the basis of his historical novel, Cloudsplitter. The book was published in 1998, just as Banks was gaining fame from the feature film adaptations of two of his earlier novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both of which I have previously read. It might be more apt to say that Banks uses not John Brown's life, but that of his son Owen, as the basis for the novel. For Owen is the book's narrator, finally sparked in the late years of his life by a visit from an academic research assistant into reducing to writing his memories of his family, his father, and the tremendous, terrible things they did together:

I want to tell you everything--now that I have decided to tell a little. It's s if I have opened a floodgate, and a vast inland sea of words held back for half a lifetime has commenced to pour through. I knew it would be like this. And that's yet another reason for my prolonged silence--made worse, made more emphatic and burdensome and, let me say, made confusing, by the irony that the longer I remained silent, the more I had to tell. My truth has been held in silence for so long that it has given the field over entirely to those who have lied and risks having become a lie itself, or at least it risks being heard as such. Perhaps even by you. Thus, although I have begun at last to speak, and to speak the truth, it feels oddly and at the edges as if I am lying.

Considering that John Brown and his sons are most famous for their actions in Kansas and Virginia in the latter half of the 1850s, it is worth noting that the first two-thirds of Cloudsplitter's 750 pages are devoted to the Browns' lives before they were drawn to Kansas. His time spend amongst freedmen homesteaders in the Adirondack mountains, good for a mere paragraph in Brown's Wikipedia entry, occupies the bulk of the book. It his here, with Brown's efforts at that Banks conveys a sense of the righteousness of the man, without the ambiguities of his later violence:

The first thing we needed to do was survey and validate their claims, he told me: to keep the Negroes from being cheated by the whites, who had been squatting there for several generations--ever since the terrible, year-long winter of '06 had driven most of the original settlers out--and had come to think of the whole place as theirs alone. Father's motives were moral and idealistic, the same as had always prompted his political actions, and he described this move as essentially political--for he had visited North Elba alone the previous fall and had come away newly inspired by a vision of Negro and white farmers working peacefully together. His hope now, he explained to us, was to build a true American city on a hill that would give the lie to every skeptic in the land. There were many such utopian schemes and projects afoot in those years, a hundred little cities on a hundred little hills, but Timbuctoo may have been the only one that aimed at setting an example of racial harmony. This would be our errand into the wilderness, he said.

Banks' use of the medium of historical fiction also allows him to paint a portrait of John Brown as a man, as a father and a husband, in the kind of intimate terms unavailable to historians:

On reflection, I believe, also, that there was for Father yet another deeply pleasing aspect of the North Elba project, one that he hid from us then but which I understood later. Its force was stronger than the moral point that he and Mr. Gerrit Smith wished to make and more substantive than the poetic effect of the landscape on his soul. For many years, the Old Man's life had been cruelly divided between his anti-slavery actions and his responsibilities as a husband and father, and despite his unrelenting, sometimes wild and chaotic attempts to unite them, it was often as if he was trying to live the lives of two separate men: one an abolitionist firebrand, a public figure whose most satisfying and important acts, out of necessity, were done in secret; the other a good Christian husband and father, a private man whose most satisfying and important acts were manifested in the visible security and comfort of his family. He was a man who had pledged his life to bring about the permanent and complete liberation of the Negro slaves; and he was the head of a large household with no easy sources of income.

While offering this more personal portrayal of the man who set a nation ablaze, Banks does not shy away from political and social commentary through the voice of Owen Brown. Of particular interest to me were the justifications offered for the resort to violence; while it is unknown to me whether these were the actual rationale professed by John Brown or his son, they suggest a perspective on America in the 1850s lost to the modern consensus that views the decade as an inevitable slide toward war:

I showed them at the time and afterwards that if we did not slay those five pro-slave settlers and did not do it in such a brutal fashion, the war in Kansas would have been over. Finished. In a manner of weeks, Kansas would have been admitted to the Union as a slave-state, and there would have been nothing for it then but the quick secession of all the Northern states, starting with New England, and the wholesale abandonment of three million Negro Americans to live and die in slavery, along with their children and grandchildren and however many generations it would take before slavery in the South was finally, if ever, overthrown. There would have been no raid on Harpers Ferry, certainly, and no Civil War, for the South would not have objected in the slightest to the break-up of the Union. Let them go. We will happily keep our slaves.

When we went down tot he Pottwatomie, I believed all that. And in spite of my guilty feelings, I believe it still. No, I swear, I did not go down there for the pleasure of killing my enemies, nor did Father, nor my brothers, despite what the writers, North and South, puzzling over the causes of that event, have said in the intervening years. On that dark May night in '56, I truly thought that we were shaping history, that we were affecting the course of future events, making one set of events nearly impossible and another very likely, and I believed that the second set was morally superior to the first, so it was a good and necessary thing, what we were doing. We could slay a few men now, men who were guilty, perhaps, if only by association, and save millions of innocents later. That's how terror, in the hands of the righteous, works.

How persuasive that all is, right up to the last line in which one realizes that, for better or worse, this is indeed terrorism we are talking about. Of course, terrorism is a rather loaded term, even moreso in 2009 than in 1998 when Banks published this book. Perhaps it is simply easier to romanticize or at least forgive terrorism on behalf of a cause now universally lauded, such as abolitionism, rather than those still in contention. Could not, after all, the murderer of Dr. George Tiller make a speech not unlike the one above? Would that make his actions any less reprehensible?

Clearly Banks is working with some weighty, combustible topics, and he integrates them into the narrative with great success. The book drags at certain points, and certainly for those more interested in John Brown's acts of violence, it may be well-nigh impossible to wait more than five hundred pages to get to them. But the effort is worthwhile, for Banks has provided not just a vivid imagining of the life of John Brown, but a reflection on the intersection between public and private morality, the roles and responsibilities of family, and the workings of time on both the memory and the conscience.

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence

spence_search.jpgFor the entire lifetime of my generation and the one before, China has appeared to outsiders to have been a relatively stable political entity, run by a communist regime in Beijing with a massive army, enormous homogeneous population, and great hostility toward the West. Certainly there has been internal turmoil from time to time, but nothing that would seem to betray that this is a country that for most of its history has been torn asunder by civil war or blanketed by foreign conquest, with constantly shifting borders, devastating natural disasters, and weak central governance.

The complexity of China's history, as well as its expanse, prove formidable to anyone seeking even a basic comprehension. I had to listen twice to the entire 18-hour Teaching Company lecture series on Chinese history, titled "From Yao to Mao," before I even felt like I understood the rudiments.

The last dynasty to rule China, termed the Qing Dynasty, was actually led by the Manchu people, who invaded and conquered the preceding Ming Dynasty in 1644. Like India, China spent much of its recent history under foreign rule. The Qing, which would last until overthrown by the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, oversaw a tumultuous period in Chinese history as the Manchu consolidated power, fought off the remnants of Ming loyalists, and in the 19th-century, tried to cope with with the pressures of foreign interests. The forces which led to the collapse of the dynasty ensured several decades of chaos in the aftermath, until the Communists, in the wake of Japan's defeat in World War II, were able to drive the Nationalist forces out to Taiwan in 1949 and establish the People's Republic of China which is with us to this day. In The Search for Modern China, Yale professor Jonathan Spence covers this entire period from the late Ming until the book's publication in 1990, engaging in "an ongoing search" for a China that he does not think yet exists:

I understand a "modern" nation to be one that is both integrated and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas. If it is used in this poen sense, we should have no difficulty in seeing "modern" as a concept that shifts with the times as human life unfolds, instead of simply relegating the sense of "modern" to our own contemporary world while consigning the past to the "traditional" and the future to the "postmodern." I like to think that there were modern countries--in the above sense--in A.D. 1600 or earlier, as at any moment in the centuries thereafter. Yet at no time in that span, nor at the end of the twentieth century, has China been convincingly one of them.

Spence takes a straight chronological approach to the narrative, providing a thorough look at the political and economic life of the last four hundred years of Chinese history, with occasional asides devoted to religious or cultural issues. Spence moves relatively briskly through the 17th and 18th centuries, as the Qing take power and then consolidate their gains. The pace slows as external forces introduce new pressures to the country, with ramifications that echo into contemporary times:

China's Confucian-trained scholars were aware of the moral and economic pressures on their society in the early nineteenth century. Drawing on the intellectual tradition in which they had been raised, they proposed administrative and educational reforms, warned about the rapidly rising population, and urged greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. Some also pointed to the social inequities separating men and women, and pleaded for greater sensitivity toward the status of women in daily life.

The spread of opium addiction posed a particularly complex social dilemma. Scholars, officials, and the emperor himself were torn over whether to legalize the drug or ban it absolutely. At the same time, massive British investments in the drug's manufacture and distribution, and the critical part that opium revenues played in Britain's international balance-of-payments strategy, made the opium trade a central facet of that nation's foreign policy. The Qing, believing the problem to be a domestic one, decided to ban the drug. The British responded with force of arms. Defeating the Qing, they imposed a treaty in 1842 that fundamentally altered the structure of Qing relations with foreign powers, and ended the long cycle of history in which China's rulers had imposed effective controls over all foreigners resident on their soil.

Indeed, the relationship between China and the Western powers took on a very unique shape. It was not carved up or colonized like Africa, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. And yet its sovereignty was utterly ignored in the treaties and treatment that followed the Opium Wars. The consequences for the Qing government were catastrophic, and indeed it is some wonder that the dynasty held on as long as it did. Not only did the foreign intervention cast doubt on the strength and solidity of the ruling dynasty, it raised questions about the direction of Chinese society and its ability to keep up with the social and technological advances of the outside world:

This new foreign presence in China coincided with--and doubtless contributed to--new waves of domestic turbulence. Uprisings against the Qing had been growing in frequency during the later eighteenth century. The widening social dislocations of the nineteenth century brought even greater unrest, until in mid-century four major rebellions erupted, at least two of which--the Taiping and Nian--had the potential to overthrow the dynasty... Only an extraordinary series of military campaigns led by Confucian-trained scholars who put their loyalty to traditional Chinese values above all else, and were determined to perpetuate the prevailing social, educational, and family systems, enabled the Qing dynasty to survive.

And survive it did, at least through the first decade of the 20th-century, which still only takes us a third of the way through Spence's book. Almost five hundred pages are devoted to the period between 1911 and 1990, and it is remarkable the political transformations China experienced in that time frame. The aftermath of the Qing's fall is sometimes depicted as the rise of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-Sen, but it would be more apt to describe the first decade as a chaotic reversion to warlord rule:

The national finances were in disarray, with a depleted treasury in Peking and little money coming in from the provinces. Groups of scholars and bureaucrats had expressed a wide range of dissatisfactions with the defunct regime, and this discontent now had to be addressed. The army troops occupying Peking were numerous but hard to control, of doubtful loyalty, and liable to mutiny or desertion if their pay fell too long in arrears. Natural disasters had devastated the countryside, causing ruined harvests and starvation, and creating masses of refugees just when financial shortages made it difficult for local governments to offer famine relief. Many supporters of the defeated ruling house remained loyal and could be the focus for future trouble. Foreign pressure was intense, the possibility of invasion imminent. In the macroregions of central, western, and southern China, there was a strong chance that independent separatist regimes would emerge, further weakening central authority.

What follows from there is relatively familiar to students of history. Though ostensibly an Allied Power during World War I, the Chinese were ignored and mistreated by the Big Four at Versailles, watching formerly-German holdings handed over to the Japanese rather than back to the Chinese themselves. Over the next several decades the nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists violently compete for power, sometimes uniting in opposition to foreign aggressors (mainly Japan), but largely at each other's throats until the Communists win out in 1949, driving Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers to the island of Taiwan. The subsequent decades of Communist rule demonstrated that many of the problems besetting the Qing dynasty and its predecessors were not to go away quickly, and China's relations with the world remained extraordinarily complicated in the Cold War era.

Spence keeps a critical eye on the regime, highlighting the extremes of suffering that some of Mao's ideas produced and tracking the rise and fall (and sometimes resurrection) of Mao's colleagues and proteges. His narrative never gets stuck in muddy details, yet nor does it shy away from relying on charts and statistics when needed. He also ably roots the events of the last 50 years in the preceding centuries, lending a much-needed coherence to Chinese history that shorter, narrower works cannot provide.

The Search for Modern China ends with the notorious crackdown on the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, an event that embodied all the ambiguities of China's pseudo-embrace of modernity. Amidst a wave of economic reforms pushed by Deng Xiaoping came a desire for similar progress on the political and cultural fronts. Like so many times before, the Chinese leadership first showed encouragement or at least ambivalence, only to respond with crushing force once they came to fear the direction the blossoming movement was taking. Unlike the Soviet leadership, which (eventually) accepted its own demise rather than send troops against its own people, China has shown no such hesitation. And in the two decades since the crackdown, the disparities between economic freedom and political and cultural oppression have continued apace, despite lingering hopes in the West that economic exchange will force open the doors to liberal democracy. As defined by Spence in his opening pages, the search for "modern China" continues.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

morrison_song.jpgWith last year's A Mercy (review here) a return to the form demonstrated most famously in her 1987 novel, Beloved (review here), Toni Morrison has resumed her elite standing among aficionados of literary fiction after a lengthy post-Nobel Prize slump. She even took home the coveted "Rooster" in this year's Tournament of Books. Though her first two books were certainly well-received, it was Song of Solomon which brought Morrison a truly national audience (inspiring no less than one Barack Obama).

Published in 1977 and presented with the National Book Critics Circle Award that year, Morrison's third novel takes its title from the short Old Testament book about love, also known as the "Song of Songs." The book follows the life of Macon Dead III, nicknamed "Milkman," from birth into middle-age. It also explores the lives of Milkman's family: his namesake father Macon Dead II, obsessed with money and property and cool to everything else; his mother Ruth, who feels that she has not been loved by anyone since the death of her father; and his aunt Pilate, who lives in the same Michigan town as her estranged brother, along with her daughter (Reba) and granddaughter (Hagar).

But though plentiful attention is paid to this riveting ensemble, the framework of the book is Milkman's lack of any sense of identity, as a man, as a black man, and as a member of a family with more than its share of secrets. For most of his youth and early adulthood, Milkman does his best to ignore this lack, this want, seeking to survive on ignorant hedonism alone. But little by little, the revelations of his origins and the realities of the external world catch up with him and refuse to be ignored:

Milkman lay quietly in the sunlight, his mind a blank, his lungs craving smoke. Gradually his fear of and eagerness for death returned. Above all he wanted to escape what he knew, escape the implications of what he had been told. And all he knew in the world about the world was what other people had told him. He felt like a garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people. He himself did nothing. Except for the one time he had hit his father, he had never acted independently, and that act, his only one, had brought unwanted knowledge too, as well as some responsibility for that knowledge. When his father told him about Ruth, he joined him in despising her, but he felt put upon; felt as though some burden had been given to him and that he didn't deserve it. None of that was his fault, and he didn't want to have to think or be or do something about any of it.

Milkman's method of studied ambivalence about the world around him is not matched by his childhood friend, Guitar (seen earlier in the novel getting evicted with his grandmother by their landlord, Milkman's father). Indeed, Guitar has become involved in a shadowy local organization called "The Days," which seeks to match attacks by whites against blacks with reciprocal violence. The group is comprised of seven men, each of whom is responsible for responding to any attacks that occur on a particular day of the week. Milkman fails to see how this cycle of militancy does anything to improve the lot of African-Americans:

Milkman frowned. "Am I going to live any longer because you all read the newspaper and then ambush some poor old white man?"

"It's not about you living longer. It's about how you live and why. It's about whether your children can make other children. It's about trying to make a world where one day white people will think before they lynch."

"Guitar, none of that shit is going to change how I live or how any other Negro lives. What you're doing is crazy. And something else: it's a habit. If you do it enough, you can do it to anybody. You know what I mean? A torpedo is a torpedo, I don't care what his reasons. You can off anybody you don't like. You can off me."

Amongst the family secrets that Milkman learns is that shortly after his father and aunt watched their own father murdered by white men intent on stealing his farm (an experience that forever scarred them both), Macon and Pilate hid in a cave and discovered a buried treasure of gold, which Pilate refused to let her brother take. More than half a century later, Macon convinces his son to travel back to Pennsylvania to see if the gold is still there:

Suddenly he felt ridiculous. What was he supposed to do? Put his suitcase down and ask the man: Where is the cave near the farm where my father lived fifty-eight years ago? He knew nobody, had no names except the first name of an old lady who was now dead. And rather than call any more attention to himself in this tiny farming town than his beige three-piece suit, his button-down light-blue shirt and black string tie, and his beautiful Florsheim shoes had already brought, he asked the counterman if he could check his bag there. The man gazed at the suitcase and seemed to be turning the request over in his mind.

This quest soon takes Milkman further south to Virginia, where there are the slightest hints of ancestry amongst the disconnected threads Milkman knows about his family's past. Somewhere along the way, this journey for his father's lost gold becomes a journey for his own soul, an odyssey into his family history, an inquiry into his place as a black man in a hostile world, and a reexamination of his role as a son, brother, and lover:

It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn't deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He'd told Guitar that he didn't "deserve" his family's dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn't even "deserve" to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he "deserve" Hagar's vengeance. But why shouldn't his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he'd thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone--she had a right to kill him too.

Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved--from a distance, though--and given what he wanted. And in return he would be. . . what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.

Though Milkman's story features most prominently in the novel, Morrison devotes substantial attention to his family and friends. Particularly striking are the female characters, most of whom suffers from a sense of abandonment. The most obvious examples are Ruth, who never recovers from her father's death, and Hagar, who is discarded by her lover. Both share biblical namesakes who similarly suffered from the realities of patriarchal society. And yet the story's purest character, the symbol of love and hope, is the ironically named Pilate, who somehow seems to exist outside the boundaries of the other characters and their society, yet is integral to virtually every piece of the story.

Morrison also heavily emphasizes the continuing ramifications of slavery, rendering as simple a thing as the protagonist's name a lingering example of white cruelty (Milkman's grandfather was given the name by a drunk Union soldier), while also incorporating into the plot real-life tragedies including the murder of Emmett Till and the Birmingham Church bombing. The most disparate reactions, as discussed above, are between Milkman and Guitar, one of whom prefers avoidance, the other retribution.

Song of Solomon is at once more ambitious and less successful than the two Morrison novels I mentioned at the start of this post. The novel seeks to speak to the complexities of black life, both in the family and in society, including a feminist critique of the treatment of women, a recognition of the pervasive influence of slavery and racism, and the bevy of various reactions to all of the above my individual black men and women. Perhaps due to this expanded ambition, the book lacks some of the coherence of A Mercy, and it never quite hits the emotional resonance of that book or Beloved, which retains my vote as Morrison's masterpiece.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

desai_inheritance.jpgWhen I read John Keay's India (review here), I was perhaps most struck by the immense diversity of cultures on the subcontinent, particularly in the northern regions which saw constant migrations from virtually every direction. The many thousands of years of Indian civilization saw the rise and fall of hundreds of kingdoms, tribes, dynasties, clans, and the like, led by both the indigenous and the foreign-born. Of course the West's great contribution to this recurring cycle was the British Raj, the end of which saw not the emergence of a unified independent India, but an immediate partition, followed by a second partition, and the subdivision of the remaining Indian nation into a bevy of states and territories, based largely on linguistic boundaries.

One area that has seen more than its share of multi-ethnic traffic is the Indian state of West Bengal. Just by its name one can infer that it itself is a subdivision of the Bengal region, split during the 1947 partition. In addition to the long border with Bangladesh, the state also abuts Bhutan and Nepal, and it saw an influx of Tibetan refugees after the Chinese invasion of that country. The northernmost district in West Bengal is called Darjeeling, most famous perhaps for its namesake tea. With its shared border with Nepal, there is a substantial ethnic Nepalese population in the district, including many Gorkhas, who fought a border war with the British in the early 19th-century. The ethnic tensions never fully dissipated, and in the years following Indian independence there was a movement for a Gorkhaland state to be carved out, a movement that turned extremely violent for several years in the late 1980s with the rise of the Gorkha National Liberation Front:

"This state-making," Lola continue, "biggest mistake that fool Nehru made. Under his rules any group of idiots can stand up demanding a new state and get it too. How many new ones keep appearing? From fifteen we went to sixteen, sixteen to seventeen, seventeen to twenty-two...." Lola made a line with a finger from above her ear and drew noodles in the air to demonstrate her opinion of such madness.

It is in this tumultuous time and place that Kiran Desai set her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, which was awarded both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. The opening chapter finds Sai, an orphaned teenager, waiting at her home in Kalimpong (a subdivision of the Darjeeling district) for her mathematics tutor, Gyan. The home actually belongs to her grandfather, Jemubhai Patel, who retired to the district after a career as judge in the British and then Indian civil service. Residing nearby is their cook, whose son Buji emigrated (illegally) to America:

Out of his depth, he was almost relieved when the manager of their branch received a memo instructing him to do a green card check on his employees.

"Nothing I can do," the manager said, pink from having to dole out humiliation to these men. A kind man. His name was Frank--funny for a man who managed frankfurters all day. "Just disappear quietly is my advice...."

So they disappeared.

While the main story centers on Sai, her budding relationship with Gyan, and the consequences of his enchantment with the growing Gorkha independence movement, there are also two other important plot lines. The book is interspersed with chapters that follow Buji's struggling life as an illegal immigrant in America, shuffled from job to job, living on a cot in a crowded basement with others similarly situated, and greatly conflicted between his Indian heritage and his efforts to make a life in the New World. And, periodically, the retired judge's memory is sparked and we travel discursively into his time as a student in Britain or his extremely troubled return to India:

The he remembered a worse incident. Another Indian, a boy he didn't know, but no doubt someone just like himself, just like Bose, was being kicked and beaten behind the pub at the corner. One of the boy's attackers had unzipped his pants and was pissing on him, surrounded by a crowd of jeering red-faced men. And the future judge, walking by, on his way home with a pork pie for his dinner--what had he done? He hadn't said anything. He hadn't done anything. He hadn't called for help. He'd turned and fled, run up to his rented room and sat there.

All these plot lines seem to be rooted in the alienation of the characters, each grasping at some sense of self-identity in a world in which competing forces are pulling them either towards materialistic multiculturalism or xenophobic nationalism. It was quite telling that Buji's crisis about his Indian identity in America was not all that different from Gyan's struggle about his Gurkha ancestry in Kalimpong, perhaps an acknowledgment that such issues are not unique to immigrants in the West (though to the extent the Indo-Nepalese conflict is partially a result of British colonial line-drawing, it all might be traced back to us):

Gyan, who had been gathered up accidentally in the procession, who had shouted half facetiously, half in earnest, who had half played, half lived a part, found the fervor had affected him. His sarcasm and his embarrassment were gone. Fired by alcohol, he finally submitted to the compelling pull of history and found his pulse leaping to something that felt entirely authentic...

It suddenly became clear why had no money and no real job had come his way, why he couldn't fly to college in America, why he was ashamed to let anyone see his home. He thought of how he had kept Sai away the day she had suggested visiting his family. Most of all, he realized why his father's meekness infuriated him, and why he found himself unable to speak of him, h who had so modest an idea of happiness that even the daily irritant of fifty-two screaming boys in his plantation schoolroom, even the distance of his own family, the loneliness of his work, didn't upset him. Gyan wanted to shake him, but what satisfaction could be received from shaking a sock? To accost such a person--it just came back to frustrate you twice over....

As the above excerpts suggest, this novel descends into almost relentless bleakness. Every point at which the characters have a chance at happiness, hope or redemption is inevitably crushed. Each opportunity for moral choice finds the actor lacking. In each story line, from New York to Britain to India, nearly every revelation exposes further suffering, further cruelty. The modern world can be a bitter and lonely place, but surely it is better than this, no? But maybe that is Desai's point, to shake us from that belief. The book's review in The New York Times points out that "as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are 'scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population,' which 'neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.'"

Possession by A.S. Byatt

byatt_possession.jpgOne of my favorite films is The Red Violin, a 1998 Canadian film by director Fran├žois Girard. The movie opens with the auction of an exquisite violin, before flashing back to the origins of the violin in 17th-century Italy. The remainder of the film alternates between the present-day, in which Samuel L. Jackson plays an appraiser trying to determine the violin's provenance, and various historical vignettes exploring the owners and adventures the violin has endured since its creation. Of course the highlight of the movie is its music, but I also liked the way the plot weaved back and forth, with the present-day mystery slowly revealed through the historical interludes.

I was reminded of this when reading A.S. Byatt's Possession, for which the author was awarded the Booker Prize in 1990. The novel begins with a visit to the Reading Room of the London Library by young scholar Roland Michell, who has come to look at a book once owned by (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Ash is the subject of Michell's scholarship, such as it is, and Michell's boss, Professor James Blackadder, as well as Mortimer Cropper, curator of the Stant Collection at a university in New Mexico that houses much of Ash's estate. Michell quickly realizes he is likely the first person to open this book in many years, and finds stuffed inside a number of miscellaneous papers. Of particular interest are a pair of unsent letters addressed to an unknown woman:

Roland was first profoundly shocked by these writings, and then, in his scholarly capacity, thrilled. His mind busied itself automatically with dating and placing this unachieved dialogue with an unidentified woman...He thought he knew Ash fairly well, as well as anyone might know a man whose life seemed to be all in his mind, who lived a quiet and exemplary married life for forty years, whose correspondence was voluminous indeed, but guarded, courteous and not of the most lively. Roland liked that in Randolph Henry Ash. He was excited by the ferocious vitality and darting breadth of reference of the work, and secretly, personally, he was rather pleased that ll this had been achieved out of so peaceable, so unruffled a private existence.

He read the letters again. Had a final draft been posted? Or had the impulse died or been rebuffed? Roland was seized by a strange and uncharacteristic impulse of his own. It was suddenly quite impossible to put these living words back into page 300 of Vico and return them to Safe 5. He looked about him: no one else was looking: he slipped the letters between the leaves of his own copy of the Oxford Selected Ash, which he was never without.

Michell begins tracing the clues in the letters to determine the intended recipient, which he identifies as a more obscure Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte, leading him to the doorstep of Dr. Maud Bailey, a LaMotte scholar at a university in Lincoln and apparently a distant relative of LaMotte. Together, Ash and Bailey embark on a literary quest to uncover just what connection there was between the 19th-century poets, and what that relationship might mean for the existing scholarship on their lives and works. This quest takes them to the ancestral home of LaMotte, now in the hands of Sir George Bailey and his wife (remote cousins of Maud), who don't look kindly on visitors. Maud and Roland eventually warm their way into the home, and uncover a hidden surfeit of letters between LaMotte and Ash:

The tapes fell away and the linen, many-layered, was turned back. Inside were two parcels, wrapped in oiled silk, and tied with black ribbon. Maud pulled at the ribbon too. The old silk squeaked and slipped. There they were, open letters, two bundles, neat as folded handkerchiefs. Roland did step forward. Maud picked up the top letter on each pile. Miss Christabel LaMotte, Bethany, Mount Ararat Road, Richmond. Surrey. Brown, spidery, decisive, known, the hand. And, much smaller, more violet, Randolph Henry Ash Esqre, 29, Russell Square, London. Roland said, "So he did send it."

Maud said, "It's both sides. It's everything. It was always there...."

In the meantime, Roland's relationship with live-in girlfriend Val is deteriorating, while Maud is keeping him at a cool arm's length. As they begin to uncover the truth of the Ash-LaMotte intrigue, their own relationship will slowly evolve. Despite their best efforts, the various comings and goings of the literary detectives do not go unnoticed. A colleague of Roland's who is also an ex-boyfriend of Maud's grows suspicious of the time they are spending together, and becomes the catalyst by which Blackadder and Cropper, amongst others, join the chase to uncover the riddle:

"I thought some letters were discovered."
"I should doubt that. I've never heard of any connection. Now, what do I know about Christabel LaMotte? There is something."
"Roland Michell discovered something."
Cropper stopped on the Greek Street pavement and caused two Chinese people to stop equally suddenly.
"Something?"
"I don't really know what. Yet. He thinks it's important."
"And James Blackadder?"
"He doesn't seem to know."
"You interest me, Dr Wolff."
"I hope to, Professor."
"Would you care for a cup of coffee?"

This is not a short novel, and it is easy to get bogged down in the mid-section, especially in the passages devoted to Victorian arcana or academic literary criticism. While I hate to ever advise someone to skim parts of a book, I think that is certainly a better course with this book than to simply stop reading out of frustration. The two parallel plots, the relationship between Roland and Maud and their unraveling of the Victorian mystery, are well-developed and nicely resolved, and it is not strictly necessary to struggle through the mud to appreciate the main storylines.

Quite aside from the merits of the work, it is worth contemplating the enormity of the endeavor Byatt set for herself. In addition to the several hundred pages of narrative, Byatt has populated the work with dozens of letters and diary entries written during the Victorian era, passing back and forth between that era and the present-day (like The Red Violin), as well as large sections of faux-Victorian verse ostensibly written by the two poets at the center of the book's mystery:

The Ants toil for no Master
Sufficient to their Need
The daily commerce of the Nest
The storage of their Seed
They meet--and exchange Messages--
But none to none--bows down
They--like God's thoughts--speak each to each--
Without--external--crown.

These poems are works of art in themselves. And within the novel they are integral to shaping the characters of not just the poets, but also the scholars who've dedicated their lives to studying them. Ash and LaMotte's major works are referenced throughout, stirring the reader's interest until they are intermittently revealed in the latter half of the book. The interpretation of the poems changes as the scholars uncover the nature of Ash and LaMotte's relationship. Thus while this can be a difficult novel to read, it was undoubtedly more difficult to write, and there are certainly rewards for those who finish it.

The Korean War by Max Hastings

hastings_korean.jpgThe Korean War is oft-dubbed the Forgotten War, as it has routinely been overshadowed in both academic and popular culture by the worldwide conflict that preceded it and the Vietnamese quagmire that followed. Mention the Korean War to most Americans and the only reference they'll have, if any, is probably M*A*S*H. Yet this was a brutal war between two major powers (U.S. and China) and their indigenous allies with casualties leading into the millions, the first major military engagement between the still nebulous spheres of Western and Communist hegemony, and the closest the world has come to seeing nuclear war aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his 1987 book, The Korean War, Max Hastings also argues persuasively that Korea deserves attention not just for the costs and ramifications of the war itself, but for how portentous it was of America's future mishaps in Southeast Asia:

Above all, perhaps, Korea merits close consideration as a military rehearsal for the subsequent disaster in Vietnam. So many of the ingredients of the Indochina tragedy were already visible a decade or two earlier in Korea: the political difficulty of sustaining an unpopular and autocratic regime; the problems of creating a credible local army in a corrupt society; the fateful cost of underestimating the power of an Asian Communist army. For all the undoubted benefits of air superiority and close support, Korea vividly displayed the difficulties of using air power effectively against a primitive economy, a peasant army. The war also demonstrated the problem of deploying a highly mechanized Western army in broken country against a lightly equipped foe... Yet because it proved possible finally to stabilize the battle in Korea on terms which allowed the United Nations--or more realistically, the United States--to deploy its vast firepower from fixed positions, to defeat the advance of the massed Communist armies, many of the lessons of Korea were misunderstood, or not learned at all.

And in time, the entire conflict would lapse into the recesses of history. It was easier for most Americans to simply move on than to face some rather upsetting facts: that we had been caught by surprise by the invasion; that our military had been allowed to deteriorate and was thus ill-prepared for war; that our choice to make a stand in Korea was haphazardly made and lacking in strategic war aims; that the American soldier performed poorly in the early stages of the war; and that all the might of the American war machine could not push the combined Chinese and North Korean enemy much past the 38th parallel without incurring casualties that our political will could not endure.

Thus a story that has many of the makings of great history, from the justice in repelling an aggressive invader to the dramatic see-saw nature of the front lines to Douglas MacArthur's last gasp of genius at Inchon before his inglorious fall, has been largely underexamined by those unwilling to grapple with a war that defies easy understanding or categorization. Hastings sought to "make at least a modest contribution toward remedying the omission" with his book, which opens with the dramatic tragedy of Task Force Smith, the first Americans to engage with the marauding Communist forces, who found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by the enemy:

The official figures show that Task Force Smith had suffered 155 casualties in the action at Osan. By the time they returned, they discovered that any shortcomings in their own unit's performance on July 5 had already been outstripped by far less honorable, indeed positively shameful, humilitations suffered by other elements of the American 24th Division in its first days of war, as the North Korean invaders swept all before them on their bloody procession south down the peninsula. And all this flowed, inexorably, from the sudden decision of the United States to commit itself to the least expected of wars, in the least predicted of places, under the most unfavorable possible military conditions. Had the men of Task Force Smith, on the road south of Suwon, known that they were striking the first armed flow for that new force in world order, the United Nations, it might have made their confused, unhappy, almost pathetic little battle on July 5 seem more dignified. On the other hand, it might have made it appear more incomprehensible than ever.

With the Soviet Union boycotting the U.N. so long as Chiang Kai-Shek controlled the Chinese seat, the U.S. and its allies were able to push through resolutions endorsing the use of force to repel the North Korean attack. With allied forces driven back and hanging on to a tiny corner of southeast Korea surrounding Pusan, the stage was set for the type of dramatic action that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers was made for:

For all its undisputed Korean provenance, the name of Inchon possesses a wonderfully resonant American quality. It summons a vision of military genius undulled by time, undiminished by more recent memories of Asian defeat. Inchon remains a monument to "can do," to improvisation and risk-taking on a magnificent scale, above all to the spirit of Douglas MacArthur. So much must be said elsewhere in these pages about American misfortunes in Korea, about grievous command misjudgments and soldierly shortcomings, that there is little danger here of overblowing the trumpet. The amphibious landings of September 15, 1950, were MacArthur's masterstroke. In a world in which nursery justice decided military affairs, Operation Chromite would have won the war for the United States.

And yet the operation was almost too successful. With the Communist forces in disarray, MacArthur was not the only one who got wrapped up in delusions of grandeur. It seemed inevitable to continue the counteroffensive beyond the status quo ante bellum at the 38th parallel in an effort to utterly defeat the North Korean regime and re-unify the peninsula. Yet little thought was given to how the Chinese might feel about the massive American army that was soon approaching their country's borders, particularly after the U.S. had deployed the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait. Instead, American intelligence focused on the Soviet passivity, assuming the Chinese would never act alone. They were wrong:

Westerners, and Americans in particular, sometime made the mistake of allowing their scorn for propagandist rhetoric... to blind them to the very real Chinese fear of encirclement. Throughout the Korean War, Washington persistently sought the communist ideological logic behind Chinese actions. It might have been more profitable to consider instead historic Chinese nationalist logic. Korea had provided the springboard for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria only a generation before. As the Americans drove north after smashing Kim Il Sung's armies in September 1950, Peking was appalled by the imminent prospect of an American imperialist army on the Yalu.

And thus starting in November 1950, the U.N. forces found themselves driven from the cusps of victory by hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, many of them hardened veterans of their recent civil war. By January 1951, the Chinese and North Koreans had again advanced south of the 38th parallel, recapturing Seoul along the way. Though General Matthew Ridgway would eventually lead allied forces back across the parallel, the entrance of the Chinese in such smashing fashion signaled the end of any possibility other than a negotiated settlement. That the war would last a further two years without any significant change, with thousands more dying while the diplomats postured and prevaricated, is one of the great tragedies of the war and is reminiscent of the utter wastefulness of the First World War:

From time to time the planners in Washington and Tokyo conceived grand initiatives for airborne drops or amphibious landings behind the enemy flank, designed dramatically to concentrate Peking's minds upon the negotiating table... The confidence of many American commanders in their ability to smash the Chinese line and reach the Yalu once more, if the leashes were slipped and the UN armies plunged all out for victory, remained a source of deep frustration. But the political realities ensured that their hopes were stillborn. The American public was weary of Korea. It was narrowly possible to sustain America's national will for the defense of a line across the peninsula until a compromise was reached, for avoiding the concession of defeat to the Communists. But the political consequences of any action involving many thousands of casualties--as an all-out offensive must--were intolerable.

The author's British perspective is both an asset and a handicap. He is able to provide insights to the international sense of the war that a U.S.-centric author might overlook, particularly regarding their fears of MacArthur and America's apparent nonchalance about the threatened use of nuclear weapons. The British contributions to the war effort also demonstrate how quickly that country stepped into the role of loyal U.S. ally, even as their domestic economy shuddered under the costs of rearmament. Devoting an entire chapter to the Imjin River battle, however, while of great interest to Hastings' countrymen, seems out of proportion to the single sentence mentions of Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. For all his discussions of the British Commonwealth Division, one might be surprised to learn that the U.S. had twenty-five men on the peninsula for each Commonwealth soldier. And while much of his criticisms of the average American foot soldier are surely valid, Hastings' reliance on the condescending remembrances of British veterans to substantiate these criticisms is more parochial than persuasive (and not remedied by reference to the few anecdotal American sources he collected on the subject).

Through most of the text, Hastings employs a technique similar to Stephen Ambrose's volumes on World War II, relying largely on "oral interviews with participants in the Korean War and those familiar with its diplomatic and political aspects" to construct a narrative of the war. For those who love Ambrose's style, and there are legions, this will seem an ideal way to learn about the Korean War. But as much as I enjoyed the flavor provided by the first-hand accounts in Ambrose's books, particularly Band of Brothers, I can't say I find history by anecdote a particularly helpful way to understand military conflicts of this scope, let alone the geopolitical causes and consequences. Instead, the reliance on extended quotations tends to result in a disjointed narrative rather lacking in overall coherence and substantive analysis. To his credit, Hastings admits up front that he does not purport to write a comprehensive history. So this is not a bad place to start for those, like myself, wholly lacking in prior reading on the Korean War, but not satisfactory as a sole source for rescuing this conflict from its near-universal neglect.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

chernow_hamilton.jpgThe resurgence of interest in America's revolutionary history over the past several decades has led to some adjustments in our founding fathers' historical reputations. David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams, and the recent HBO mini-series adaptation of it, have greatly increased popular appreciation of our second president. The controversies over Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemings continue to draw great attention, with Annette Gordon-Reed taking home a National Book Award just this last year for her biography of the Hemings family.

And then there is Alexander Hamilton, hatred of whom was one of the few things John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could agree on at the close of the 18th-century. Hamilton is recognizable to most Americans as either the victim of Aaron Burr's fatal shot or the face on the $10 bill. But even amongst students of American history, there has been relatively little appreciation for Hamilton's role as a leader of the founding generation. In part this was a consequence of his untimely death, leaving decades thereafter for Adams, Jefferson, and their supporters to consecrate for history the least generous interpretations of Hamilton's actions, ideas, and policies. While Hamilton's nationalist and industrialist views won out in the long term, they were unpopular in the early 19th-century dominated by Jefferson and his successors in the Virginia dynasty. But if history proved Hamilton right, it largely failed to give him credit:

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive... If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.

With the 2004 publication of Alexander Hamiltion, Ron Chernow has done his part to set the record straight. A seasoned veteran of financial biography after authoring well-received books about John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and the Warburg family, Chernow makes his first venture into the 18th-century with the one founding father who truly understand the economic promise of America and the role that public finance could play in fulfilling that promise. Hamilton was also the only leading founder who was not an American by birth. Hamilton's political enemies made sure that history remembered Hamilton's origins as an illegitimate child in the West Indies. The truth, of course, is more complicated, and Chernow has done revelatory work in piecing together the childhood that Hamilton was so reticent to speak of:

By the time Rachel met James Hamilton for sure in St. Kitts in the early 1750s, a certain symmetry had shaped their lives. They were both scarred by early setbacks, had suffered a vertiginous descent in social standing, and had grappled with the terrors of downward economic mobility. Each would have been excluded from the more rarefied society of the British West Indies and tempted to choose a mate from the limited population of working whites. Their liaison was the sort of match that could easily produce a son hypersensitive about class and status and painfully conscious that social hierarchies ruled the world.

The man who would one day be villainized as the puppet of aristocracy and money interests was born in the Caribbean backwaters, abandoned and orphaned in his youth, and earned his way to America on the sheer prodigious potential observed by those around him. While a student at King's College (now Columbia), he became involved in the political movement that gave rise to the revolution. Hamilton sought military service and so excelled as a young artillery officer that he caught the attention of America's leading soldier:

According to Hamilton's son, it was at Harlem Heights that Washington first recognized Hamilton's unique organizational gifts, as he watched him supervise the building of an earthwork. It was also at Harlem Heights that Hamilton's company first came under the direct command of Washington, who "entered into conversation with him, invited him to his tent, and received an impression of his military talent," wrote John C. Hamilton. It was yet another striking example of the instantaneous rapport that this young man seemed to develop with even the most seasoned officers.

Invited to join Washington's staff, Hamilton would quickly rise from mere aide or secretary to effectively function as Washington's chief of staff for much of the war. Though the relationship was not always smooth, particular when Hamilton started bristling for a field command, it would last for several decades and see Hamilton serve not just as one of Washington's cabinet members, but the most important. Just as he became the virtual chief of Washington's wartime staff, he would become the virtual prime minister of Washington's administration.

One reason that Hamilton gets so little popular credit for his role in creating our government is that his greatest influence was in areas least understood by Americans. Every schoolchild learns about the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; thus George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson get their due. Most high school and college students will have some exposure to a civics curriculum, exploring the three branches of government, the checks and balances, and the like. Very few who do not seek degrees in economics will have much exposure to the origins of our public finance or political economy. And yet this was perhaps Hamilton's most lasting gift to the nation, prodigiously captured in his 1789 Report on Public Credit:

Had Hamilton stuck to dry financial matters, his Report on Public Credit would never have attained such historic renown. Instead, he presented a detailed blueprint of the government's fiscal machinery, wrapped in a broad political and economic vision... Hamilton argued that the security of liberty and property were inseparable and that governments should honor their debt because contracts formed the basis of public and private morality... The proper handling of government debt would permit America to borrow at affordable interest rates and would also act as a tonic to the economy... America was a young country rich in opportunity. It lacked only liquid capital, and government debt could supply that gaping deficiency.

Hamilton was unrivaled as a founding father in his ability to contribute to both the political and economic origins of the American government. Hamilton was also virtually unique amongst that generation's leaders as a staunch abolitionist (in his late years Franklin would join the movement), and Chernow makes an interesting point regarding the second-order effects resulting from the shielding of the slavery question from public debate:

The bipartisan decision to shelve the slavery issue had profound repercussions for Hamilton's economic measures, for it spared the southern economy from criticism. In the 1790s, America's critical energies were trained exclusively on the northern economy and the financial and manufacturing system devised by Hamilton. This became immediately apparent in the heated debate over his funding system, which allowed southern slaveholders to proclaim that northern financiers were the evil ones and that slaveholders were the virtuous populists, upright men of the soil. It was testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton's system as the paramount embodiment of evil.

If that sounds like a backhanded complement to Jefferson and Madison, that's because it is. It is hard to come out of Chernow's account with particular esteem for either man. Madison seems somewhat more principled, at least never working through proxies or attacking the very administration he was purportedly serving. Between this account and McCullough's biography of John Adams, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for some years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jefferson behaved very poorly and seemed consumed by delusional, if sincere, conspiratorial ideas regarding Britain, Alexander Hamilton, and their oppression of revolutionary France.

Chernow has done a remarkable job putting Hamilton back into his proper place in the pantheon of American heroes. He does not sidestep Hamilton's many faults, from his disastrous affair that ended in extortion and public scandal, to his wrong-headed pamphlet attacking John Adams just before the 1800 election, to his obsession with reputation and honor that ultimately resulted in his own death. But Chernow does effectively defend his subject from the lazy attacks made by so many in the last two hundred years, that he was "a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar." Instead, by the end of the seven hundred-odd pages, there is no question that Hamilton "was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit," "the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government," and that "we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world."