McPherson's NYRB omnibus review

James McPherson has long been the ACW go-to guy for his genre in the New York Review of Books. Currently, he has a long omnibus review of titles in that paper.

Rather than do a long essay on McPherson's review, I want to show you how I read McPherson and why he is so objectionable to me. You get no continuity here, just a series of McP's statements in the order they occur and my comments.

McPherson: Born in England, raised in Los Angeles, and residing in London and New York, Foreman is well qualified to write about “Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War.”

Comment: This is a non-sequiter. Born and raised are not scholarship qualifiers.

McPherson: ... her main title (“A World on Fire”) might strike some as an exercise in hyperbole.

Comment: It is Seward's hyperbole, not hers. She has made a play on his famous public "world wrapped in fire" threat against British intervention. Any Civil War reader would know that.

McPherson: ... the British government and armed forces did not intervene in the Civil War.

Comment: What audience needs to be reassured of this?

McPherson: But the Lincoln administration had already in effect recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status by proclaiming a blockade of Southern ports...

Comment: No, not at all and this is to miss the whole point of the international law controversy behind the blockade.

McPherson: Meanwhile a “cotton famine” caused by the war and the blockade had reduced the amount of cotton coming to British and French mills to a pittance and thrown hundreds of thousands of workers and their families onto the dole.

Comment: There was no "dole" then. And the famine was temporary; new cotton sources were developed during the war which permanently margianlized future US cotton production.

McPherson: As Southern armies invaded Maryland and Kentucky in September, the British and French governments planned to offer mediation ...

Comment: There is no linkage between these events and the mediation statement is false. The British government kept intending to discuss mediation among its ministers but could never muster the political confidence to have that discussion. The impetus for the discussion was a provisional, contingent request by Napoleon III who never had any intention to mediate or intervene on his own. This whole matter was a potential brainstorming session that never took off.

McPherson: If the Lincoln government refused such an offer [mediation] (as surely it would have), the British and French intended to recognize the Confederacy.

Comment: This is nonsense. Neither France nor Britain ever reached a point in internal discussions where diplomatic contingencies could be agreed upon. This is projection, a discussion point that was to be raised in discussions that never happened.

McPherson: The contribution of A World on Fire lies in its richness of description, vivid writing, and focus on individual personalities...

Comment: After decades of serious diplomatic ACW histories, in what sense is this a contribution? Isn't this an insult to the hard work pillaged to construct a pop history? Wouldn't the next real contribution be a deep analysis of the neglected French diplomatic sources?

Rather than go on nitpicking, let me draw your attention to two general points.

First, notice that in his review, McPherson recapitulates Civil War history rather than analyze books. In each review he eventually comes around to some "value judgement," but these are superficial and always, always outside of the context of Civil War historiography.

Second, the headers on this piece promise us that McPherson is going to review four books. He reviews exactly two, if you call recapitulation of content a "review."

I understand that McPherson is old and that he may not have all his faculties at full strength. But these faults have been with us from the beginning. And my time to stop disagreeing with him is when he withdraws from publishing.

p.s. If you read the review, you'll notice he picks an absurd quarrel with Gary "Stop-the-Madness" Gallagher. Regular readers of this blog will remember that Gallagher, an editor at UNC Press, promised to let McPherson write a history of Civil War navies. That promise was broken, the book being written by Craig Symonds. Bad feelings?


Bull Run battle looks like a rout

The organizers of the Bull Run re-enactment have not been paying attention to heritage tourism trends; instead, they appear to have been buying into the endless hype. Not only are tickets about a third of what they need to be, only 44% of the re-enactors needed have signed on.


Publishing's race to the bottom

Ted Savas commented on a story about the bestest selling digital author of all time, Michael Connelly.

I have a different take on this than the mainstream press.

Mr. Connelly's output is what we called in college "mindrot." Nothing wrong with that; I mention it because one can write formulaic genre fiction at a fast clip, thus making one quite a productive writer.

Connelly's sale of a million is an aggregate total spread across 10 e-books. He sells his books at 99 cents each, an aggressive pricing model that nets him a 35 cent royalty per.

This author, then, has garnered $35,000 from the sale of one million editions. If the minimum length for a book of genre fiction is 50,000 words, how long would it take you to write 10 books? Connelly has a day job, so consider that, too.

Bottom line: is $3,500 per book worth (say) 60 days per book?

Or is this a race to the bottom?

Consider what you did with your last 99 cent bargain book purchase. It's probably sitting on your shelf, unread.

I bet Kindlers are accumulating unread books and 99 cent books - priced like an MP3 download - may give misleading indications about an author's popularity.

There's another aspect to this that is unknown to people at large.

Amazon and other venues, through their "marketplace" functions, deal in a great many black and gray market books. If you troll through the discussion boards on self-publishing POD websites, you will find threads where the digital copy of an edition was used by a downloader to make a pirate POD hardcopy run which was then sold at a discount on Amazon (or wherever) to compete with the legal and authorized edition.

The nature of these threads is to complain to the POD about the piracy, not to boast about pirating. In my own limited experiments with e-books, I have been taken twice by pirates.

Moreover, the digital reader machines have steadily been moving from propritary text markup schemes, which inhibit POD pirating due to the display of garbage code when not on their native platforms, to open source mark-up, like Adobe Acrobat, which any POD shop can run books from.

This week, I am buying a certain Kindle book (for a class) which does not need to be read on Kindle. It will display on my computer, even without a Kindle emulator. This is a book any fool can pirate, print, and sell on ebay, B&N, Amazon, etc.

Connelly has this much wisdom in his busines model: pirates cannot compete with 99 cent pricing. However, piracy will drive this kind of pricing and the publisher will feel the pressure from pirates as much as antipirates.

If you are a publisher with a good-selling hardcopy title, it would behove you to occasionally buy a copy from online marketplaces to see what's happening out there. An unpleasant surprise may await.


Faust ponders

Drew Gilpin faust ponders the Centennial, the sesquicentennial, re-enactment, and the meaning of the Civil War.


Crikey indeed

Australian tourists encounter Gettysburg and make a striking point:
And yet what I found myself reflecting on repeatedly was notions of ‘authenticity’ and a living present in Gettysburg. As countless individuals are drawn to this beautiful historic town to feel the pulse of its part in America’s Civil War, where is its heart beat today, and why do all the visitors not really seem to care? ... Visiting places purely to understand their past all too often seems to elide, and perhaps inhibit, their present, and indeed their participation in the project of modernity. While we all travel to learn and experience the history of places, it seems important to really take note of their contemporary everyday cultures as well.

The Leech-Vidal connection

Who knew?


Lincoln and Lee letters at Southeby's

AL flames the wife of a prisoner:
You protest, nonetheless, that you and he are loyal, and you may really think so, but this is a view of loyalty which is difficult to conceive that any sane person could take, and one which the government can not tolerate and hope to live.

Prince Polecat

The last surviving CSA MG was a French prince. I had no idea.


Lead balloons

I had written a few days ago that I would have enjoyed re-enacting with the balloon corps on the mall.

Spoke too soon. Didn't really think this through. Phony baloney event? Check. Run by public historians? Check. Staged in a geographic vortex of political psychosis? Check. All these factors came into play "big time" in re-enacting Thaddeus Lowe's 1861 balloon flight for President Lincoln. Or failing to.

While flipping the radio dial yesterday, I encountered a report that said DHS prohibited any balloon flights, so the attendees got to see not a tethered balloon, but a prostrate (cross-bound) bag (see photo). Think Gulliver in Lilliput. USA Today named a different villain, one we know very well indeed:
At the Mall celebration, the recreated 1861 balloon will stay on the ground to comply with U.S. Park Service regulations designed to keep the airspace safe over the capital.
Except that it's not a recreated 1861 balloon.

I read this account in which an additional layer of security was injected. The strapped down, partially inflated "recreated 1861" balloon was being "inflated" with cold air via a cold air blower. The same story mentions the balloon in question dates from 1941. It's a 20th Century government service balloon. To ensure you don't confuse it with anything dated 1861, it's also a silvery color.

The editor who wrote the NBC headline could not be troubled to read the story itself and the headline says, "Gas-Filled Balloon To Loom Over Mall." Figuratively speaking, perhaps.

So there it lies, staked down like Gulliver, a fan blowing cold air into its silvery aperture, tourists ambling by wondering "What the..." As they walked by, the radio news reporter caught a few of their comments. The adult: "Interesting." The kid: "I hope they fly it!"

No chance, junior, whatever "it" may be.

Those who ventured too close to the display were accosted by an impersonator shouting, "I am Thaddeus Lowe." In other words, "I am a liar or insane." I think little kids would better appreciate, "I am dressed up like Thaddeus Lowe" or "I am pretending to be Thaddeus Lowe." That might be truthful, sensible, and in a kid way, fun.

But you know, if even a single child is led to appreciate history through these lies, stunts and tricks, it will have been worth it.

After awhile, another actor walked up telling people, "I am Abraham Lincoln." This would be Dishonest Abe from Bizarro World. Dishonest Abe then struck up a phony, I would even say imbecilic, conversation with Pretend Lowe. The reporter caught some of it. It sounded like a bad sixth grade play, so maybe the younger tourists could relate.

The newspaper accounts in the run up to this make no mention of the caveats I've just run through.

WaPo got it half right: "On Saturday, the museum will inflate a balloon similar to Lowe’s Enterprise [eh?] and host re-enactors portraying Lowe and Lincoln, with presentations on Civil War ballooning. The National Park Service won’t allow the balloon to fly, though."

This is like the 12-oz "pound" of coffee. I think public history is on a trend in which less and less history content is delivered at these events.



Halloween, 2012: Children dress as Lincoln for trick or treat - masks, blood spattered clothing, axes. I dunno, maybe crossbows too.

"America Aflame"

A problematic book gets a problematic review.

Lowe on the Mall

This is a re-enactment I would enjoy doing.


June 22, 2012

Mark the date. The movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter will premier 6/22/12. Says the screenwriter,
It's hacking people's heads off and killing vampires left and right. The main character [Abraham Lincoln] has an axe, with which he kills countless amounts of vampires. It's a dark, cool, edgy, twisted movie. I don't know what the rating will be, but I suspect that the rating would be an R. I suspect it will be an R just because there's a lot of murder and decapitation.
Prediction: If you can get the rating below R, public historians will bus countless school children to the film because, if just one child comes away with an increased interest in history, it will have been worth it.

You laugh, but the ALPLM's big show right now is a display of plastic movie props.


The backlash against Ken Burns begins

No, not here: I'm always backlashing against Burns.


James Lundberg: "Because of you, my Civil War lecture is always packed—with students raised on your sentimental, romantic, deeply misleading portrait of the conflict."

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "I think the biggest failing of the movie, is that, as Cynic once said, it never comes across a cute quote that it doesn't like."

Actually, both seem annoyed at Burns' use of Shelby Foote. But what was Foote? A novelist and ranconteur! What is Burns? a documentary maker.

Meanwhile, the Burns machine rolls on and on and on.

When you become a brand, dear reader, drop me a postcard.


Lincoln, the movie (cont.)

Started posting on this topic in 2008. Looks like we will finish in 2012. Egads.

Question: would you trust a jackass like this with an historical script on the complexity of Lincoln? (Brush past the intrusive ad.)

Tommy Lee Jones - as Thaddeus Stevens? Stevens was a big part of the Lincoln presidency, don't you know?

Daniel Day Lewis is apparently set to play Lincoln against Sally Field, who is maybe 50 years older than he. Director Spielberg cited Fields' ability to convey "fragility and complexity."

This has the makings of a made-for-TV movie. I don't mean that in a good way.


We're getting somewhere, we're happy, really

Optimism deserves its day and given the gloom and doom on this blog, I should take a moment to put things in perspective.

In 1997, when I started the website Civil War Book News, we faced a river of sewage with each new publishing season producing at most one or two noteworthy titles. Publishers were in the backwash of a post-Ken Burns and Killer Angels influx of ignorant, transient bookbuyers who were looking to relive the narrative highlights of whatever audiovisual garbage they had recently ingested.

For the deep reader, bracketed on one side by the Centennial hacks and their tired insights and on the other side by completely naive and ignorant readers revving the market for light entertainment, it was a miserable time indeed.

Today, a good proportion of each season's titles is interesting and worth notice, so much so, that I cannot keep up. My useful function in this blog may be to point out the nonsense that still gets published, which task is a bit more doable.

Furthermore, my contempt for the foibles of Civil War authors has been tempered in the last few years by some broader considerations. On Monday, I read about 200 pages of peer-reviewed, well-regarded social science papers for a course I am taking. I have read many such but never 200 pages in one sitting.

It seems to me, from my readings, that social science generally is in much worse condition than Civil War history in particular. Put another way, we suffer a condition in this country where people self-select for careers in which they are not in any way suited. We are told you can be anything and that your ticket to "anything" is hard work and "education." This is a recipe for lifelong dilettantism; on some level we know this for we are forever searching for that doctor / lawyer / contractor / plumber / mechanic who transcends his/her credentials.

Blind striving for jobs in fields of ill choice can combine with our rabid credentialism to feed a more general culture of authority-seeking. This is a terrible affliction: witness the cult around James McPherson. It's also a broad cultural tendency that transcends Civil War history everywhere and at all times. I notice it more and more.

The leading newspapers have but one purpose: to deliver authority to authority seekers. This is a sensible market transaction but its repercussions are awful. The deep reader in and out of Civil War history wants to see for himself, but the authority-seeker wants guidance. This is why we have bestseller lists, top 10 lists, restaurant guides, and highly credentialed talking heads laying down what's hot and what's not. Again, I refer you to the greatest literary hoax of all time. It failed to embarass the New York Times (its target) or the authority-seeking readers of said paper. Inevitably!

The new executive editrix of the New York Times today painted the perfect picture of a New York Times reader in describing her own family: "In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion ... If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”

The Times et al may be losing circulation but they are absolutely faithful to their readers in delivering exactly what those readers seek - certitude, authority, expertise.

By the way, today marked another kind of milestone for the paper. In column one, page one of the print edition, it ran the following headline: "Data on jobs may hold key to President's." It didn't say president's what, just "president's." A gaffe on this scale does not make the Times any less of a religion, nor does it make the Times less right. The Times, like all that bad Civil War history, is market driven. And it delivers.

There is and always will be a segment of the Civil War readership that craves authority, finality, certitude. These folks lay down their Times top 10 lists and turn to their Battle Cry of Freedom (or whatever). The call of the wild archive is not for their ears. Debate is troubling. Analysis without a master narrative to frame it represents a nightmare of confusion. Answers must be simple. Personalities must be black and white. Issues must be simple.

These poor devils we will have with us always and the day will come again when their wishes dominate the publishing industry to crowd out good books. Let us make merry while we have this blessed interval of good books in between bad times.