The Maps of Gettysburg

Bradley Gottfried's Maps of Gettysburg is a very special undertaking that lays out the entire campaign in text and schematic, a first.

The work is beautifully done and intra-day map iterations add extra layers of information representing an immense amount of work and care.

My problem with military atlas makers generally is about sourcing and validating. But Gottfried here offers (humbly) his own extensive walking experience in combination with his bibliography of sources. He admits to fallibility and simply pledges his best effort. Transparency forecast: good.

No one who owns this work can fail to spend several imaginative hours in an easy chair, right and left brain at play in a major work of ACW history.

Another Harvard plagiarism scandal

Some 125 young Harvard strivers appeared to have overdone it in the quest for 4.0 averages.

The University notes that if any of the plagiarists can prove he or she is a Civil War historian, immunity will be granted immediately.

(That last part hasn't been reported yet. Alternative history, if you like.)


Holiday weekend reading: Who is Rooster Cogburn?

Can't say enough good words about the American novelist Charles Portis. Your general Portis novel is a series of Tristram Shandy-like digressions in monologue aimed at the literate reader. I think Laurence Sterne called them "progressive digressions." Very funny stuff and magical in a wordsmithy way.

Portis's most famous novel True Grit, however, combines very tight (pulp fiction type) plotting with all the stylistic Shandyesque humor you can stand. It's a book you can finish in one sitting with a "wow" setting that passes from front to back.

The idea of making Tristram Shandy or True Grit into movies has always made me confused and unhappy. Sort of like "I'm going to make this TV show out of this radio show," etc. The magic is in the source medium.

Nevertheless, two movies have been made of True Grit and good luck to the Portis estate in this. I thought you might like to know about the fictional character of Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn:

- Rode with Quantrill and Bill Anderson
- Participated in the Centralia massacre
- Knew the James brothers, though not Jesse
- Welshed on his loyalty oath
- Robbed a Union payroll after taking the loyalty oath
- Obtained federal marshal appointment through a friend who knew Jo Shelby

Maybe this was exposed in the movie sequel that I haven't seen yet.

Even the better literature holds some Civil War content.


Painting by the numbers

Note: The overwhelming majority of Red River campaign overviews give multiple reasons for the campaign.

The continuing concern about French actions in Mexico caused the Lincoln administration to recommend a greater military presence in Texas, which could be achieved by continuing the movement up the Red River into that state.
- James M. McPherson, War Upon the Waters, 2012

Lincoln wanted to establish a Union presence in Texas to counter Maximilian's French-supported regime in Mexico. Thus, Nathaniel P. Banks was placed in command of an expedition to move up Louisiana's Red River to capture Shreveport...
- Terry L. Jones, Historical Dictionary of the Civil War, Volume 1, 2011

The President favored a demonstration by Banks up the Red River to Shreveport in order to show the American flag to Napoleon III's interlopers in Mexico...
- Maurice Matloff, American Military History, 1996

The President favored a demonstration by Banks up the Red River to Shreveport in order to show the American flag to Napoleon III's interlopers in Mexico.
- Richard Winship Stewart, ed., American Military History Volume 1, 2005

Because of the French threat (Maximilian) in Mexico, Lincoln wanted military operations undertaken early in 1864 to raise the Federal flag over some part of Tex[as].
- Web site, Overview Of The RED RIVER CAMPAIGN OF 1864 (10 Mar.-22 May '64).

Because of the French threat (Maximilian) in Mexico, Lincoln wanted military operations undertaken early in 1864 to raise the Federal flag over some part of Texas.
- Web site, Brown Water Navy

The President favored a demonstration by Banks up the Red River to Shreveport to show the American flag to the French occupying Mexico.
- The Civil War 1864-1865 (textbook)

Lincoln also wanted to make some gesture in the Southwest in response to the French machinations in Mexico...
- Bob Lancaster, The Jungles of Arkansas: A Personal History of the Wonder State, 1989


Punditry in motion

The commotion around a new book by Great Historian Slotkin caused me to notice something. Perhaps you noticed it too.

Every so often a writer comes up with a single insight that might possibly pan out into one 600-word newspaper column. Rather than test the insight, he writes an entire non-fiction book bending the light of truth so as to surround his sliver of punditry with an extended and colored account of events.

Pop culture outlets, feasting on punditry as they do, pounce on such a book and deliver to the author air time, interviews and other expressions of interest because in their world, a single insight is about all their simplified presentations can deliver.

After a time, the tiny insight loses its sparkle. If we are unlucky, it becomes a general meme ("team of rivals"). If we are lucky, the insight and its Major Author fade away.

That, today, seems to be the working of our marketplace of ideas.


Pop history professors: a modest proposal

What is an historian? Harry Smeltzer and Eric Wittenberg tried to settle the issue some time ago, but I have a different approach.

I would like to suggest that universities immediately purge all faculty members whose entire published work consists of pop history. If you write pop history, you are not advancing knowledge in your field. You are entertaining Those Who Haven't a Clue. We all know that.

There was a time when I didn't have a clue, but the people who clued me in were not given tenure or prizes.

Anyway, this would be the first purge. We would not be done purging. The second purge would be launched when professors least expected it, because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, and that should be our model.

The second purge would be of professors who had some scholarly publications but who were generally known for their pop culture writing or for their celebrity appearances on NPR, PBS or other middlebrow venues.

One would like these dismissals to include hurtful and insulting language, but we can't control that. That is up to the purgers and no purge is perfect.

There would be a third purge and ideally the purgees would be thunderstruck, so sudden and unexpected would this purge be. These would be the students of the purged professors, specifically those students who showed a marked affinity with pop history and storytelling.

Some scholarly students will get caught up in this purge through no fault of their own, just because they were mandated to take a course given by a pop history professor. Such tragic loss is well worth the greater good.

To launch these purges, we will need political backing greater than the purgees can muster. I suggest the following:

- The combined tenured salaries will be divided among pop historians who stay out of history faculties.

- Scholarships will be given to young scholars to study history rather than tell stories.

- Students enamored of pop history will be given scholarships to teach creative writing.

- The government shall sponsor lavish annual "What Went Wrong?" conferences for out-of-work pop history professors. These conferences will match GSA events for pure decadence. Pop history knows decadence.

This seems a humane yet stern solution to our pop history problem. Join me in this initiative, won't you?


McPherson is for novices

Good to keep in mind. Reduces disappointments.

Now, I don't want to put historians who blog on the spot but rather I want to ask readers, has any such ever reviewed a McPherson book?

And why do you think that is? Could it be that McPherson is for novices?

UK is stepping up

Now Canada, get busy.


Fiasco, baby! Let me tell you!

The U.S. Navy “suffered embarrassment over the fiasco of the Casco class of shallow-draft monitors.” - James McPherson, War on the Waters, 2012

The light draft monitors fiasco...” - Angus Konstam, Union Monitor 1861-65, 2002

“...20 light draft monitors of the Casco Class. Total cost in public funds for this fiasco...Battle Cry, newsletter of the Sacramento CWRT, 2006

Casco Class: This class of light-draft monitors... proved disastrous and the entire class was an expensive fiasco for the Union.” - Union Coastal Ironclads page of the Ironclads and Blockade Runners of the American Civil War website (seems to date from the late 1990s)

US Civil war, Shallow draft monitor fiasco” - Topic, Naval Weapons Discussion Board, 2006

What a fiasco with the entire Casco class...” Discussant on ageod game forum, 2007

To some, a good cliche is like a fine, vintage wine.

A really good cliche will also rhyme for the added value of mnemonics.

The mind of a great historian

Civil War history continues to attract the very best minds.

George McClellan - Wannabee Dictator

From NPR review of Richard Slotkin author of "The Long Road To Antietam: How The Civil War Became A Revolution.":

Slotkin : (On the situation in late 1861) So it's a poisonous situation, and there is actually a serious proposal to make McClellan a dictator, and what they mean by that is that they would - not that there would be a military coup but that they would pass a law vesting the power to run the war effort in McClellan and formally take - in a sense taking it away from Lincoln.
Remember that draft law? When all those Democrats controlled Congress in 1861? Scary stuff, kids!
NPR: And he wrote a lot of letters to his wife, many of which have endured for historians like yourself. What do they tell us about his (McClellan's) musings about taking control of the republic?

Slotkin: Well, they show a few things. He was really unrestrained, and it really is a window into the mind of a man who is a narcissist of world-class status. He really does see himself as the indispensable man, and he - his resentments of Lincoln are phenomenal. He (McClellan) refers to him (Lincoln) as the original gorilla, a traitor or the tool of traitors.He believed that he should be in charge of the government, that Lincoln should defer to him, and he was outraged by Lincoln's refusal.
Those were awesome letters. I hope someday they find them. Meanwhile, his amusement at being treated as indispensable shall be treated as him thinking he was indispensable. His quoting Stanton's term for Lincoln, "original gorilla," shall be attributed to McClellan. His expressions of wry humor at being regarded a power in the land shall be translated into assertions that he was the power in the land and his resentments at Lincoln's slights, Lincoln's conniving, Lincoln's bypassing the chain of command, these shall be presented as paranoid thought crime. What normal man would resent Lincoln's usual treatment? (Whoops: see all cabinet diaries.) The "letter" about Lincoln being a traitor or the tool of traitors or GBM being in charge of the government has yet to be discovered on proactively reconstructed.
Slotkin on McClellan's Harrison Landing Letter:

And he really - McClellan in effect makes three important demands of Lincoln. First, that the administration reject any move against slavery, and the letter says in a kind of threatening way that if anything radical is done about slavery, the army itself will dissolve - that is, the soldiers will refuse to fight.

And the second thing he says, and this is kind of a legalistic point, but it's an important one, he says that a war of subjugation would be against the Constitution - that is, it's not - Lincoln can't treat the Southerners as rebels, that as the Southern territory is liberated from the Confederates, Southerners have to be restored to their political rights, so that no sooner are they liberated than ex-Confederates can start voting for Democrats.

And the third thing he says is that Lincoln should appoint a commander-in-chief - that is, a soldier commander-in-chief - and give him power to act essentially without interference from the political - from the civilian government. And it's stunning. Basically a defeated general is asking the president to give up his political power and surrender his own party's interest and platform to the platform and interests of the opposition.
Interesting characterization of that letter, for sure, but have a look at this. To those NPR listeners who think, oh this does not apply to their other programming, these are not the standards that generally apply! Let me say, you have a much larger problem and you should thank Major Historian Slotkin for double underlining it with day-glo highlighters.

UPDATE 8/25: Harry has a postscript.


Cast your outdated naval histories on the waters

Oh look: James McPherson has written a fresh and exciting new book: War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. He's always doing something new and innovative.

I think we can just donate some old tomes to Goodwill now that we have a naval history that is as authoritative as it is innovative! Think I’ll go to the attic and box them up.

Lincoln and His Admirals, Symonds (co-winner of the 2009 Lincoln Prize) - "We know a great deal about Lincoln and his generals, but until now very little about Lincoln and his admirals. With a compelling portrait of personalities and a sharp analysis of strategy, Craig Symonds offers a gripping narrative that finally gives the Union navy--and its commander-in-chief--the credit they deserve for the important part they played in winning the Civil War." --James M. McPherson

The Civil War at Sea, Symonds - "Craig Symonds combines his talents as a fine historian of the U.S. Navy and of the Civil War to produce this outstanding study of the Union and Confederate navies. Focusing on the ways in which Southern technological innovations and Northern industrial productivity shaped the strategy and tactics of the naval war, he offers important insights on the course and outcome of the conflict." --James M. McPherson

Oh, and look at this old stuff gathering dust:

The Navy in the Civil War by Mahan. Who is this Mahan, anyway?

Commanding Lincoln's Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War by Taaffe. Did he clear this book with Symonds?

Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 by Silverstone. If he got the dates of the Civil War wrong, what else did he get wrong?

Lincoln's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 by Canney. I don’t think a naval historian published by the Naval Institute Press is going to have the ability to engage a broad public.

Rebels and Yankees: Naval Battles of the Civil War by Hearn. Chester Hearn. Name sounds familiar.

Blue & Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat by Tucker. VMI professors should not try to compete with Princeton professors.

I think this new McPherson book serves an important, immediate need. Maybe it can “stop the madness” of an endless stream of general ACW naval histories.

At least until the next one comes out.


McPherson's "War on the Waters"

And so we begin.

"He [Porter] was ambitious, able, and energetic but also cocky, self-seeking, and careless with the truth." James McPherson, War on the Waters, p.56

"Porter was talented and energetic but he was also self-promoting, boastful, casual with the truth..." Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 19


The Rebel high command at Seven Pines

There is a new, multi-volume Lee biography coming out which I will consider in a separate post. One of the sample chapters deals with the period leading up to Lee replacing Smith on the battlefield. Before getting into the author's account of this period I want to revisit the history at a higher level.

It seems helpful to me to imagine any part of the Civil War as a massive board mounting electrical circuits running through hundreds of rocker switches. The setting of each switch represents an author's (not history's) resolution of a particular issue, problem, or controversy.

When authors set their switches in a certain direction, they can be said to belong to a school of thought. My issue with Centennialists is that scores of them have set all the switches in the same direction, an awful display of like-mindedness rather than historical-mindedness.

Given the density of historical problems, there is the potential for every new Civil War book to surprise and even shock.

Alas and alack.

Thinking about the period up to Seven Pines, the period after the Lee/Pemberton team broke up, I thought I would make a short list of the most obvious historical problems that would need to be resolved in any account of that time.

Here, in no particular order and evincing no special finesse, is my list. You'll have items of your own.

(1) Define what Davis expected from military advisor Lee. Do not use Davis psychology, or inferences: go to the written record, focus on Davis-originated requests and directives.

(2) Define what Lee wanted from the role. Go to the written record and find self-taskings and requests made of Davis.

(3) Compare 1 with 2, being especially mindful of expectation gaps. If none, so state.

(4) Describe the various Virginia commands as a single system of command, tracing lines of authority, seniority in rank, department boundaries. Comment on the strengths and weakness of this system of command and consider how a presidential advisor might help or hinder here. Identify leaders on bad terms with Lee from the period of his Virginia command in 1861.

(5) Enter into the sharp manpower controversy between Davis and Johnston surrounding strength figures for the Confederate Army of the Potomac after winter quarters. Consider whether Johnston's army was "right-sized" for its Peninsula mission.

(6) Examine the Warwick line defense works from a military engineering point of view. Magruder vouched for them, Lee backed him, Johnston and Smith disparaged them strongly on design, placement, and construction. Two brothers who traced the line in recent years wrote a book sympathetic to Johnston's detailed critique of the works. Explore the consequences of defending an inadequate line in a forward position not near a railhead: what are the risks and rewards?

(7) Consider in the abstract Johnston's argument that any line on the Peninsula would be turned by waterborne forces. What scenarios would validate or invalidate this argument? Did the West Point landings support or hurt Johnston's argument?

(8) Build a chronology of Johnston's requests to concentrate all Virginia, NC and SC troops in front of Richmond under his command. Trace the grounds of Davis's denials. Compare to Lee's request for the same. How did Lee manage his requests? Why was Lee's concentration granted and Johnston's denied? Did Lee fight a Napoleonic battle of concentration on the lines Johnston envisioned and at the location Johnston envisioned?

(9) Johnston's plan for a Napoleonic concentration at the Richmond railheads was denied; ordered to man what he thought a faulty forward position at the end of a wagon supply line, with what he thought were inadequate forces that could easily be turned by water, Johnston was repeatedly asked "What is your plan?" He did not answer. Was he forced onto Davis's plan? In terms of a plan, what did his position represent? What was its potential?

(10) Did Johnston ever envision a siege of Richmond?

(11) Did the Confederate high command take McDowell's positional potential seriously? If so, what steps were taken? Why not try to defeat McDowell in detail rather than McClellan's larger army?

(12) Why did Lee direct Johnston's subordinates in a Valley campaign without at any point notifying Johnston?

(13) Describe the origin of Smith's plan of attack at Seven Pines; describe its execution and result. Enter into the controversy that "Smith had no plan." Describe Lee's plan upon taking over from Smith. Did Lee have a plan?

(14) Describe the role of the Virginia militia, its mobilization, strength and deployment, during this period.

(15) Review Confederate intelligence about Union strength and intentions throughout this period. Did the quality of intelligence matter?

(16) Examine the system of command in Virginia after Lee's accession; what are the new strengths and weaknesses?

(17) Take Lee's items of major advice as counselor to the president and evaluate. Were they viable? Was advice taken? What were the results?

That's probably enough stream of consciousness ... for now.

GBM's "letters to his wife" in a diagram (cont.)

Have traded notes with Stephen Sears who pointed out to me that May McClellan's extracts of the unseen Civil War letters are in the McClellan Papers (LoC and microfilm) and therefore retrievable. He says he used these plus GBM's notes in the notebook to reconstruct the material in his book, The Civil War Correspondence... He disavows any reliance on W.C. Prime's combined version of May's material and the notebook.

This would mandate a redrawing of this chart as follows: a line should extend from the box "May McClellan's Extracts" down to Stephen Sears. Sears said he did not rely on Prime for anything, so the line from Prime to Sears should be removed.

We discussed my accusation that he had struck a line about Kentuck from his renderings of the material. I went back to my notes and saw that what he had struck was merely a footnote from Prime explaining the reference to Kentuck. I apologized for the error.

Sears has worked hard with source materials to try to provide an authoritative work. I told him that the result is not a primary source. He told me that he thinks most ACW authors would agree with him that these are letters. Undoubtedly, they would.

I would like to change that someday. That does not require that he or his work on this project be disparaged, which I shall keep in mind.

War on the Waters

Someone at UNC Press thought it a good idea to send me an advance copy of McPherson's naval history War on the Waters. Perhaps they don't read the blog. Or perhaps this is a dare.


More from the Centennial's children

Can't get enough of this. This stuff is always interesting:
"The Enduring Villainy of Little Napoleon"

Flirting with treason...

McClellan's mix of incompetence and insecurity rank high...

The irony, of course, is that it was McClellan's ineptitude which ultimately guaranteed emancipation.
I'm getting the idea that I might make a little coin slamming GBM in a book of my own. Let's see, possible book titles: "Greatest Chicken" or "Enduring Villain."

Better check with some scholars, see what will sell best. I'm all about the history!


Shaara is back

He must be low on funds.
The screams were close and manic, rebel troops lunging straight into the blue line, while to one side, another battle line rose up from the ravine there, a surge of bayonets pouring hard into Allen's left flank. The orders came in hot shouts, but to the men in blue who had tried to stand tall, to hold their ground, the orders meant nothing at all. The weight that came over them crushed and dissolved the blue line ….
Think I'll read a Tarzan novel instead.

Keegan and McPherson in WaPo

McPherson rips Keegan apart in this extended review and the Washington Post extracts one sentence as its summary:
James M. McPherson called him "our generation's foremost military historian."
Well, that's not all he said. McPherson scorched Keegan's imbecility.

The well of newspaper malfeasance is bottomless.


Bad history and the endless cycle of public discourse

Lincoln's novel trick of facilitating the votes of soldiers away from home is under attack by the Democrats - again.

Today, on the radio, I heard what (by radio-time standards) was an in-depth recitation of the various ways in which Union soldier votes were harvested in 1864. The fellow with the goods, informationally, was innocent of any other ACW history.

I had never seen these techniques in my ACW reading because for our nonfiction authors, Republican soldiers voting away from home was and remains a non-issue.

And so the ACW lives on today as the current Administration, under a Lincoln admirer, brings lawsuits to stop Ohio's manner of collecting soldier votes.

If history can be said to serve a purpose, it must be to alert us to historical problems and their enduring rational basis. It must facilitate ongoing discussion of historical issues. But this is not something our primitive Civil War historians can enable.

We, the public, struggle daily with controversies deemed to be easy choices for the talespinners on Mason Dixon Avenue.

Civil War controversies need to be raised to to the level of public discourse or society pays the price year after year when we have to revisit ACW-era issues without the background and preparation of respectable scholarship.

The ACW historians' cult of good general/bad general takes other evil forms: good policy/bad policy, good decision/bad decision, good politician/bad politician, ad nauseum.

And here we sit, in 2012, beset by a Civil War controversy that no one told us was a controversy.


GBM's "letters to his wife" in a diagram

I was thinking about those old rock band genealogy charts in the 1960s and it struck me that as I am not getting through to certain Civil War authors, let me draft a chart showing the crazy genealogy behind this Top 40 phenomenon that plays under the name George B. McClellan's letters to his wife.Click to enlarge)
I was in a club in Albany one night when the Bay City Rollers made a surprise visit to play a couple of sets. There was one old guy and four or five young pups. Turns out the oldster was the "original" content. Likewise, in the late seventies a colleague saw the Box Tops and I asked her how it was. "They're not together anymore but the corporation owns the name and hires these bands to play under their name." The difference with "McClellan's letters" is we don't even know who or what was in the original band. How sad when writers bet the analytic farm on tertiary sources.

UPDATE 8/20/12 See this entry for diagram correction and more.


Never give a monkey a typewriter

You have a fiction writer trying his hand at history - always a bad idea. Then you have a mass market reviewer trying to understand the fiction writer's nonfiction and coming up with excess upon excess:
The Civil War’s Most Chicken General

"Though McClellan often seemed to be afraid of his own shadow, he could also be wildly self-assured, and The Road to Antietam captures him in all of his megalomaniacal glory."

"It’s self-regard so grandiose it verges on treason."

"“McClellan was living in a military and political fantasy world,” Slotkin writes..."

"Why on earth would Lincoln suffer such insubordination?"

"McClellan had finally gone to battle, and won, but the victory proved to be his undoing, not the coronation he’d imagined in his letters to his wife."
Better idea: if you're going to write history, write about historical persons, not literary characters.

Also, never, ever refer to "McClellan's letters to his wife" if you want to be taken seriously as something other than a novelist.


Gore Vidal, historical novelist

We were driving from Georgia to Panama in one of those new-fangled Chrysler Jeeps. Stopped for the night at an old Brownsville hotel. It must have been 1975.

The hotel TV had one channel, Mexican. We opened our beers and watched a discussion panel argue lit crit. The three Mexicans spoke in Spanish; Gore Vidal listened in Spanish and answered in English, so we could follow a quarter of the conversation.

This was not the witty, quick, entertaining Gore Vidal you saw on US TV or in essays; this was an intense, agitated, but dull man making pedantic points flatly in a subject he was unfit to discuss. We were watching Gore Vidal, writer of bad historical novels, purveyor of awful fictional techniques and wooden dialog, a kind of alter ego to the public persona that will not be remembered in the obituaries coming out now.

Just as his contemporary, Shelby Foote, converted himself from a great novelist to an indifferent nonfiction writer, Gore Vidal transformed himself from a great essayist into a miserable author of history novels. Foote's switch brought in money and an adoring public. Vidal's switch must have lost him money and public. But he kept at it.

Shortly after Lincoln came out, I visited the Strand bookstore downtown in New York and there was one of those new book displays: a mountain of Lincolns. They were autographed hardbacks marked down to $5 each. (I bought two.)

The reader of this blog is most likely to have read Lincoln (among Vidal's works), so let me refresh a few memories here.

There was a lineal plot which, since it conformed to past timelines, sucked the anticipation out of the ordeal of reading. Reading was an ordeal because the prose was dry and earnest and it moved in straight lines. Characters were not integral to the plot but were inventory items on an historical checklist; they had to be present, kept busy somehow. They had to be there in the fiction because they had been there in history.

For Gore Vidal, the historical novel was a meander that touched on past events in the correct order leaving most in, regardless of story value. If you were a buff, I suppose the appeal might be to make a list of all the people and events included. Maybe that was the challenge for him - how much history he could pile into a fictional format.

When Anthony Powell, Olivia Manning, and Evelyn Waugh chose to write fiction about WWII, there was very little outright war in their books and no Great Men. Had their contemporary Vidal chosen to do a novel about that experience late in his career, it would have had scenes with Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and all the major military personalities. It would have conformed to the events of what we now call public history.

And the technique would be awful.

Those who know Vidal's essays know how old fashioned his writing style was. But within the essay form, he was adept, and the essay itself is a forgiving vehicle for conservative prose.

In the world of historical novels, Vidal's vintage nonfiction style slumped into a childish primitivism that never even reached the level of pulp fiction, say an Edgar Rice Burroughs or a Sax Rohmer. In Lincoln, for example, there is a scene with John Wool. Wool is of no interest in the novel and serves no plot purpose. Vidal uses Wool's imagined words to convey essential historical information - background - that is not necessary for fiction. We interrupt this novel to bring you this important public service announcement.

Further, what the Wool character says and the way he says it has no Wool in it at all, if you know your Wool, and could as easily be read aloud on the nightly news or mouthed by a gypsy fortuneteller.

This is one example of bad practice; there are many more and they are painful.

If we had enough critics in this society and in publishing especially, the first question in a Gore Vidal interview in the last decades would always have been, "What do you think you are doing?" followed by, "And whom are you doing that for?"

Of course, if we had enough such critics this blog would not be needed.


Update (8/7/12)

The general run of obits have been insincere and comically inept but check out these two:

Andrew Ferguson - AF is a favorite essayist of mine but Vidal was better at essays. On the other hand, AF did better Lincoln stuff.

Taki - Taki has a message for conservatives: don't go right-wing on Vidal!! Think of Taki as someone constantly striving to be as offensive as Vidal was (in his own way).

Vidal belonged to a time when our world could take insult and offense in stride and even laugh at its own politics. Those were the days, let me tell you.

(Have I been kicked off the Internet yet?)


John Keegan, aggregator

I never understood John Keegan's audience or appeal. Like McPherson, he wrote a book that was endlessly assigned as college reading (Face of Battle) which gave him high name recognition in the general population. In my youth, under arms, I found Face obnoxious, banal, and pretentious.

In uniform, in these times of auld, I encountered military fans of Keegan. They struck me as naive, non-history readers who had been swept up in a sort of literary appreciation which they confused with "history."

Keegan began his career as an aspiring historian of literary bent and he finished his life as a blogger, I think. The later favorable reviews focused on his analysis, the bon mots, the pungent opinions, and not on the research, accuracy, depth, or details. His virtues, as celebrated, were blogging virtues, not historian's virtues.

In this country, Gallagher and McPherson pounced on Keegan's Civil War errors with a savagery they displayed towards no other historical writers. Gallagher is simply derivative of McPherson who is simply derivative of the Centennial generation of pop historians. Let us therefore focus on McPherson.

Before falling into the outright plagiarism of his recent titles (as documented in this blog), McPherson made it his calling to devise what he thought to be the best, most cogent syntheses of other people's insights. Keegan's offense must have been that he tried to take Civil War meta-analysis to a higher level of synthesis than either McPherson or Gallagher were capable. This was Tower of Babel stuff and it was a higher level than Keegan could sustain and thus well worth some public mockery. In that sense, the harsh beatings McPherson and Gallagher administered to Sir John served a good end.

But what they failed to realize was that Keegan's spinning-out-of-control syntheses were mirror images of their own ziggurats, distinguished only by Keegan's extravagant tone and higher tolerance for risk. Keegan also has much more cachet in and out of academic circles than McPherson or Gallagher, who are relatively unknown by comparison. Perhaps this irked.

In sum, Keegan represented the worst, most flamboyant excesses of the wrong kind of history. McPherson and Gallagher are core members of the noxious Keegan school, whether they like it or not. Our job is, as deep readers and appreciators of the best history, to bury their writings with Keegan's remains.

Thanks to the friend who sent these links:





Civil War book blurbs we'd like to see

Fits better with Mad magazine, but here goes:

"There are a lot of books out there and this is one of them."

"I never realized how much I knew until I read this book."

"This is an author with some spine."

"Just when you think you've heard it all, here's a book to confirm that."

"The errors are minor, the interpretations unsteady, but the storytelling is magnificent."

"Never have I awaited the end of a story with more anticipation."

(Inspired by Peter Cook introducing the Stranglers on national TV.)