Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Who needs a boat, if skillets float?

I only drop in occasionally on the U.S.S. Monitor Center Blog, to see what’s new, and it’s usually rewarding. The August 8th entry shows Jeanne, “curator of scientific instruments and dairy products,” making breakfast topside. For the full flavor of the event, check out this 3-1/2 minute Eggsperiment at Youtube, on the deck of the hottest replica in town.

At one point in mid-June, 1862, sailors recorded temperatures as high as 165 degrees in the galley of the Monitor (and not much cooler where the sailors slept). There's no telling how hot the surface of the ironclad could get under the summer sun, but on August 8, 2007, the deck of the replica reached 165. By my calculations, that comes out to "hot as hell."
As an aside, on the video they note that on June 23 1862, according to the ship’s log, what wood there was in the galley of the iron vessel caught fire, forcing the men to cook up on the deck. The photo, top left, is dated July 9, 1862, and a cookstove is clearly discernible in the left of the image.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

One more post on my new Jesse James fixation

a long-dormant interest brought to the fore again by a recent road trip through Missouri. The fact that there is some fairly recent scholarship on the James Gang gave me a hankering to upgrade the subject to the top of the bedside book stack.

It was easy work to determine which modern biographies are being taken seriously by dedicated outlaw and guerilla aficionados: Ted P. Yeatman's, Frank and Jesse James, the Story Behind the Legend (2000), and T. J. Stiles's, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002).

By way of a clarification, let me say that this blog entry is not intended as a review of the two books in question. I haven't read either one. I'm just shopping. I purchased the Yeatman book in Liberty, and have ordered the other. My sense, based on reviews, is that both are different enough, and substantial enough, to warrant reading. I'll try to get through both of them and report back, or at the very least, report why I might have finished one and come up short on the other. However it shakes out, I feel confident that the combination of the two will serve to make me obnoxiously fluent in Jesse James trivia.

I'll begin with Yeatman's, because it's already on my kitchen table. I like the look and feel of this book, sporting as it does the fat back matter of a deeply-researched study. As I looked for information on both titles, it became immediately apparent that Stiles' book quickly eclipsed whatever fanfare Yeatman's book might have enjoyed. At first blush, I would attribute that to the fact that Yeatman's work was released by a small publisher, while Stiles' biography was published and marketed by Knopf, a major house. But maybe there's more to the picture. The website Stiles has devoted to Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War is impressively loaded with interesting content. There are numerous reviews of Last Rebel available online, and many of themincluding critiques by such notable Civil War historians as Michael Fellman, Albert Castel, and Eric Foner, are found at the Stiles site. Interestingly, one of the minor problems Castel identifies is "an over-reliance on the not-always-reliable Eric Foner's propagandistic Reconstruction, 1863-1877: America's Unfinished Revolution." Ouch.

As an aside, Drew Wagenhoffer, in his Civil War Books and Authors blog, has mentioned the Civil War St. Louis website, which is chock full of intriguing links. They have done a nice job with Jesse James material.

Laura [James-in-law] James, over at the endlessly engaging CLEWS: the Historic True Crime Blog, offers a nice, meaty blog entry on the dueling James biographies, including mention of a Yeatman/Stiles "shootout" on the History News Network. Laura establishes her James bona fides by correcting a number of details from Stiles' book. She calls it nitpicking, but every detail, and every error, counts (and for you Civil War types, the more obscure the correction, the better).

I'm a big, big fan of Booknotes transcripts from the old C-SPAN show (did that show go away in 2004?). Mr. Yeatman managed an appearance there, which is no small thing. You can read that here. Unfortunately, he doesn't really answer the question, "Now how does your book fit into all the books that have been written? What's so special about this that you couldn't get in any other book?"

Finally, my commentary on Ron Hansen's novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, will have to wait for another entry. It's just as well, as it deserves to be discussed apart from nonfiction bios.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Late on the afternoon of July 11, after two weeks revisiting some familiar and familial locales in Northern Arkansas and Southern Missiouri . . .

I was transporting my brood northward in a rented Pontiac Torrent en route to Kansas City, there to catch a flight to San Jose. We had a little time to spare, and I had already done what every red-blooded reader of this blog would have done – scanned the map for little red boxes – historical sites – within striking distance of the airport. The closest and most interesting to me was in Liberty, Missouri – the Jesse James Bank Museum. Regrettably, the James farm was a few too many miles out of reach.

It’s an odd aspect of American society that we often tend to romanticize outlaws and cold-blooded murderers. Almost as far back as I can remember, the James Gang held a particular fascination for my friends and me. We all gladly bought into the sympathetic (and wholly inaccurate) image of an American Robin Hood. Same with Bonnie & Clyde. These are not people you want your kids to emulate, but robbing banks and going out in a blaze of glory will cause the son of a C.P.A. to sit up and take notice. Certainly Hollywood plays a key role in perpetuating the sympathy – Warren Beattie’s wide, easy smile said it all. And even as an adult, fully cognizant of the murderous ways of Jesse James and the Younger brothers, a beautiful movie like "The Long Riders," with its Carradines, Keachs and Quaids, full-length dusters, slow motion ricochets, and haunting Ry Cooder soundtrack, makes one wistful about a life that ends in (famous) tragedy.

But I digress. The Bank Museum in Liberty had a nice little gift shop, and you know that if you cannot come away with some kind of reading material, you may as well not even have stopped. I picked up Ted P. Yeatman’s, Frank and Jesse James, the Story Behind the Legend, which pleases the hand with its heft and 1-1/2 inch spine bulk. I’ve since seen some complimentary reviews, and am encouraged by the nearly 100 pages of lengthy, narrative endnotes.

The Yeatman book came out in 2000 (Cumberland House, Nashville). Here is a modern, and by some accounts, definitive biography of the James Brothers, released over a century after Jesse’s death. And two years later comes another “definitive” account, T. J. Stiles,’ Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War [for those of you keeping score at home, there is your first official Civil War reference in this blog entry]. By the looks of things, despite being beat to the punch, Stiles’ book got the most attention, including a review by James McPherson in the New York Review of Books.

It’s too late to continue tonight, even on the Left Coast. So we’ll pick up tomorrow night (Thursday) with Jesse James, Part Two: more mention of the dueling biographies, high praise for a cool blog I just discovered, and commentary on perhaps the best Jesse James book of all, a piece of fiction I was surprised to learn is already a “major motion picture,” replete with pretty boy superstar in the lead role.

[photo at top: Jesse James, 1864. Library of Congress]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ghost Writers Keep it all in the Family

I don't mean ghost writer in the sense of someone hired to write a celebrity's memoirs. I mean the supernatural kind of ghost, the kind that have trouble holding a pen, or using a keyboard, and who resort to channeling, or making their presence felt in other disconcerting ways.

A comment by Jim Schmidt to my recent blog entry on Jeff Shaara got me thinking more about so-called "FamFic," or Family Fiction, when a famous author's relative endeavors to pick up the slack following the death of the writer. Bookstores today feature many examples of this, from Christopher Tolkein's work in finishing The Silmarillion, to the multiple, pre-Dune novels written by Frank Herbert's son after his death.

Chris Suellentrop at wrote an interesting summary of the phenomenon back in 2003, an essay that's still accessible here. In it, he quotes Frank Herbert's son Brian commenting on his mother "intervening from another world." But the Herberts were writing science fictionin that genre, at least, otherworldly intervention can be accounted for as something outside the bounds of our limited, terrestrial understanding of the universe.

In the same article, Suellentrop gathers some Jeff Shaara quotes as well, and one hopesif the quotes are accuratethat they're not to be taken as literally as they sound. On the other hand, if they're merely calculated for effect as part of a book tour, it's hard to say which is worse, the marketing ploy, or the sentimental superstition. Suellentrop wrote:

Jeff Shaara takes the [ghostly] conceit to new heightsor at least he did during the promotion of Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, the Killer Angels sequel he authored. Shaara frequently asserted that Michael Shaara was writing through himthat the son was merely a conduit for the completion of his father's literary effort. A sampling of quotes: "While writing Gods and Generals, I have often felt my father's presence, as though he were there helping me write and giving me his blessing"; "When my sister Lila read it, she said, 'This is being written by the ghost of Michael Shaara.' "; "Very often I would feel as though my father was in the room." He also attributed the "ghost of Michael Shaara" phrase to Ronald F. Maxwell, the director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, saying that Maxwell told him of his manuscript, "I am awe-struck. The ghost of Michael Shaara."

Now, Jeff Shaara may genuinely believe that his father was writing through him, and for all we know, it could even be true. But as a practical matter, how far does the right of a descendant to continue his ancestor's literary work extend?

I'm not sure what to make of this other than that, apparently, ghosts make lousy collaborators. Once more, the whole article ("Dead Man Writing: How to keep writing your late father's books") can be found here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"a wicked scramble that could have passed for a goal line stand or the attack on Little Round Top."

So said reporters at tonight, the online venue for the San Francisco Chronicle, describing people in the centerfield bleachers at AT&T Park scrambling for Barry Bonds' 756th home run ball. I'm pretty sure it's the first time I've seen a Little Round Top reference in local Giants coverage.

But is it the right analogy?

One man related that "he watched in horror as a woman got knocked over and her husband disappear[ed] into the scrum, leaving their four-year-old son to cower with his teddy bear. . . .he never found out who they were but. . .it did not appear to be the pinnacle of responsible parenting. . . . [editorial note: I have to believe the boy with the bear would one day have come to appreciate it if the old man had resurfaced with that million dollar ball].

The rest of section 144 was aghast at the spectacle of the ball scuffle. 'Fists were flying, elbows were flying, people were digging, swinging, pulling on stuff, nobody cared about anything,' said Chris Goelkel. 'It was madness.' Alan Azem of San Mateo, 'It got to the point where people pushed other people just to get on him.' 'They were pushing grandmothers to the floor,' said Susan Kitchens of Campbell."

Sounds more like a scene from the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Not your father's Civil War. . .

A columnist I enjoy reading in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Carroll, had a piece published on July 31st talking about culling his burgeoning library, but instead of discussing the books that were being jettisoned, he gave a little synopsis of some of those books that survived the cut. I was pleased to see a Civil War-related title among the survivors. He wrote:

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara. This is just a stunning book, a historical novel that reads like a work of history. It's about the battle of Gettysburg, not exactly unmined territory, but the deft and compassionate prose makes this a must-read anyway.

Michael Shaara's son, Jeff Shaara, tried to duplicate his father's techniques in a string of historical books. Alas, like father not like son. Stick with the original; accept no substitutes.

Sure, anyone can talk up a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and remain on safe ground, but it’s the warning at the end that will save you some grief, and possibly money. Carroll’s summary is spot on. Ironically (sadly?), Jeff Shaara’s sequels and prequels, not to mention the movie rights, made a lot more money than Killer Angels, without ever replicating the gripping narrative or approximating the literary merit of the old man’s work. I was interested to learn that Killer Angels enjoyed no commercial success during the author’s lifetime, and that he was shocked when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975.

There is a very interesting biography of Michael Shaara, penned by his son, here. Did you know he had more than 70 short stories published in the 1950s, and that two of them were produced as television dramas? Me either.

As a disclaimer, I should mention that I’ve never read a single one of Jeff Shaara’s books from start to finish. I have sat in the bookstore and read passages, and I read lots of reviews. And I queried people I knew had read them. I do not begrudge him his success. If anyone should be able to cash in on the name of an author and his work, it should be that author’s offspring. I give Jeff Shaara credit for actually writing the books, and fully acknowledge that people read his novels and enjoy them.

Am I qualifed to criticize? Well, I just recently put up posts on the baseball Giants, and the 49ers, and drew Civil War connections in both cases. That's no mean feat.

Bill Walsh, 1931-2007 : "The Genius"

“Here’s my game plan.” This is what Bill Walsh reportedly told a friend of his upon giving him a copy of Carl von Clausewitz’s, On War. According to Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News, Bill Walsh read anything that might help him win more football games. Brown continued, “Walsh read extensively about the Civil War. Though the details of the carnage depressed him, he found the military strategy fascinating. 'The goal is to attack the other side with clean, sharp blows while you're moving faster than the opposition. That was Wellington. That was von Clausewitz,' he once said. 'I don't relate football to warfare other than in those dynamics, but the military axioms of von Clausewitz about people under stress, about the individual soldier, make it the best book on football.'"

I had heard and read that Walsh was a Civil War buff, and that he incorporated anecdotes about generals from various wars in his talks (big on Patton, for example). I wrote letters to try to get him to attend a local Civil War Round Table, to no avail. I had to satisfy myself with watching his teams rack up victory after victory every Sunday. And man oh man, it was satisfying, and remains satisfying in memory.

The passing of Bill Walsh on Monday morning was an emotional blow for 49ers fans, the Stanford community, and serious fans of the NFL everywhere, to say nothing of his family, associates, and friends in the wider spectrum of his rich life. Thanks for all the memories, Mr. Walsh. I will take pleasure in them for the rest of my days.

For anyone interested, there are dozens of fascinating articles in today's (July 31) SF Chronicle and SJ Mercury News by the beat writers who covered the 49ers, and who knew and followed Walsh closely throughout his remarkable career. There are some great stories and lots of personal insights into this intriguing man.

People from all over the country left condolences on the Chronicle’s web site the last couple days. I like this one, from Philip Poulos of Dallas, and I know my misguided Cowboys friends will appreciate it too:

Now you can out-coach Landry once again. Rest in Peace.