Thursday, December 17, 2009

Prologue—the best history magazine you've never heard of. . .

Well, of course I don't mean that you haven't heard of it. If you need guidance accessing the treasure trove of materials archived at our nation's National Archives, or if you need to tap into another fresh and fascinating website for reasons of procrastination, there's always good readingand invaluable research primersat the online venue for Prologue, an outstanding history magazine produced under the aegis of the NARA. The statue on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building, entitled "The Future," provides the inspiration for the magazine title: "What is Past is Prologue." That really really says it all.

The Fall 2009 issue features the previously unpublished photo above. The caption reads, "William P. Powell, Jr., was one of the first African American physicians to receive a contract as a surgeon with the Union Army. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15). Read the article, "Face to Face with History," here.

There's an old article from the summer of 1995, still invaluable and still online, by Mike Musick, Subject Area Expert for Civil War Materials at the Archives, about whom Robert K. Krick wrote in an acknowledgement to one of his Civil War studies, "It is literally impossible to do adequate research for a serious Civil War book without Mike's collaboration." The article is entitled, "Civil War Records: An Introduction and Invitation." Read that here.

More good Civil War-related stuff at the Prologue site:

"Researching Confederate Marines"
By Trevor K. Planteobscure as can be, yet the subject of enough organized records to provide more than a couple revelations.

"Civil War Draft Records"
By Michael T. MeierJohn D. Rockefeller paid $300 for a substitute. No surprise, but you can see the actual record if you like.

"The Shady Side of the Family Tree: Civil War Union Court—Martial Case Files"
By Trevor K. Planteendlessly fascinating, and largely un-mined, until Dr. Thomas Lowry started digging and produced some interesting volumes.

Monday, December 07, 2009

These are a few of my favorite graves. . .

(an occasional installment)

Most students of the American Civil War have read at least cursory accounts of the celebrated exploits of the Union spy, Pauline Cushman-Fryer, who got into good graces with Confederate authorities by proposing a toast to Jefferson Davis from the stage of a Louisville theater.
After some success on behalf of the Union war effort, her cover was eventually compromised. Braxton Bragg ordered her tried as a spy, for which she was convicted and sentenced to death.

Fortuitously for her, the advance of Union forces
under William Starke Rosecrans in June of 1863 compelled Confederates to fall back from Shelbyville, Tennessee, leaving their prisoner behind—fully three days shy of her execution date.

She enjoyed much acclaim in the North boasting the brevet rank of major and later maintained a post-war career as a entertainer throughout the West. She died in San Francisco in 1893 at the age of 60, and lies in the Officers' Section of the San Francisco National Cemetery, a short distance from the resting place of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, and Medal of Honor recipient (and Little Big Horn survivor) Charles Varnum. See a more provocative photo of her here.

(cemetery photo by Will Elder)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The American Thanksgiving holiday

was formally established during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, and was first observed the week following Lincoln's dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery, where he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Here is the text of Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation from October 3, 1863:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Corroboration is everything. . .

When 8-year old George Patten's friends did not believe he had met Abraham Lincoln, he was ablethrough his teacherto obtain a hand-written letter from the president confirming the meeting. Lincoln wrote, "Whom it may concern, I did see and talk with master George Evans Patten, last May, at Springfield, Illinois. Respectfully, A Lincoln." What sweet, delicious validation for young Patten.

"Boy, if life were only like this." Who can forget the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is stuck in a movie line in front of a pontificating professor who eventually invokes Marshall McLuhan. Allen tells the professor he knows nothing of McLuhan, and to lend weight to his argument, brings forth McLuhan himself.

Check, and mate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

World War I -- known at the time as “The Great War” -- officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in thePalace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In the photo above: "Soldiers of the 353rd Infantry near a church at Stenay, Meuse in France, wait for the end of hostilities. This photo was taken at 10:58 a.m., on November 11, 1918, two minutes before the armistice ending World War I went into effect" (Photo and text taken from this page at the Department of Veterans Affairs).

Friday, November 06, 2009

As if you needed a reason to buy a book on Saturday

More than 140 independent bookstores around the country have signed up to participate in National Bookstore Day, a Publisher's Weekly-sponsored initiative to get customers into bookstores tomorrow. Booksellers are planning promotions, discounts, author signings, raffles and contests to celebrate the day. For a complete list of participating stores, click here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dave the Slave

a Q&A with author Leonard Todd

At left. Leonard Todd with some of Dave’s pottery. Photo by Brook Facey.

Faithful readers with better than average recall and few distractions in their lives will remember a blog entry from a month ago when I first became enthralled with Leonard Todd’s book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave.
Since that time, I took time to read it cover-to-cover, and corresponded with the gracious Mr. Todd about his uniquely American story.

I sent him six questions, and received six answers, presented here unedited.

OBAB: Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to some questions about your book. First let me say that I enjoyed reading it very much. It's a powerful and poignant journey of discovery, and fascinating in the way your effort to piece together the life of this illusive historic figure is simultaneously a fleshing out of your own family history and roots. Could you begin by relating a little bit about the experience of first learning about Dave's pottery in The New York Times, and of the dawning realization that you had familial ties to the potter?

Leonard Todd: I can remember the exact date on which I first learned of Dave. I was in New York City, where I had lived for almost thirty years. I opened The New York Times on January 30, 2000, to find an article announcing an exhibition of his work. I read that, while in bondage, Dave had created pots of great size, utility, and beautymany bearing original poems that he had inscribed on them while their clay was damp. The article indicated that he had lived in South Carolina, which increased my interest because I had been born and raised therein Greenvillebefore moving north.

Information at the end of the piece, however, took my breath away: Dave had been owned for much of his life by pottery manufacturers named John Landrum and Lewis Miles. Their names matched those of ancestors of mine, who had lived in a small, central South Carolina town called Edgefield, not far from the Georgia border. I saw that Dave also had lived in Edgefield. With sudden understanding, I realized that my family had owned Dave!

That moment of discovery was like finding a door flung wide to the past: Through it, I could glimpse a complex world of clay and kilns and pottery workers
that I had known nothing of. I was pleased to find that I was linked to Dave, one of the south's great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white southerners of my generation, I had grown up with a vague sense that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It seemed so long ago, however, that I regarded it as almost unreal. Now, I couldn't do that anymore.

OBAB: On the surface, this is an account of a skilled slave
exceptional in that he could read and writewhose utilitarian workmanship has transcended to the realm of valuable museum pieces. But the story is so much more than that with your personal connection to the artist. Like the author Edward Ball in Slaves in the Family, you were compelled to face potentially uncomfortable truths about family history. Quite frankly, it would have been easy to concentrate on the pottery and present this as the story of a well cared for servant of kindly masters, and left it at that (an apologist alternative still commonplace today). I thought you treated "the elephant in the room" honestly, and without flinching. Did you struggle with that at all, or do you feel far enough removed to be dispassionate in recounting simple history? Was there any resistance on the part of present-day family members along the lines of letting sleeping dogs lie?

Leonard Todd: My ancestors were Dave's owners throughout most of his life. When I began writing Carolina Clay, I was so uncomfortable with this fact that I bent over backwards to judge them harshly. Over the course of several drafts, however, I began to understand that my role was not to judge but simply to tell what happened. This would leave the reader free to come to his or her own conclusions.

By telling the story in a straightforward way, I hoped to reach a deeper understanding of both sides caught up in the slavery system. Only by seeing the slave owner and the slave in all their complexity
their strengths and their weaknessescould I begin to penetrate the world that produced Dave.

My relatives were uniformly supportive of my project. Their only qualm was that I would not be able to find enough material about Dave in the historical record. And, indeed, mentions of him are sparse. As anyone who has tried to research the life of an individual slave can tell you, the institution of slavery so complicated the lives of those in bondage and at the same time so completely erased the record of what it had done that it is often impossible to discover what happened to them. I was able to put together clues about Dave and his fellow workers in the potteries of Edgefield by learning all I could about the men who owned those factories. In an odd way, I first had to know the slave owner before I could know the slave.

OBAB: I learned a lot about the history of pottery in this country from your book, all very interestingin particular, the workings of groundhog kilns, the development of different glazes, and the mysterious adoption of some ancient Chinese techniques in antebellum America. You mentioned a new program at the Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield that planned to construct a groundhog kiln of the type Dave used. Your book's been out for a year or morehow's that kiln coming along? What a cool idea. At the very least they should get you to lead a class out to Pottersville (I know the location of the Stony Bluff kiln remains a secretdamn relic hunters!).

Leonard Todd: The ground was broken for the construction of the school's outdoor kiln on July 12, 2009. This date fell on the 200th anniversary of Dr. Abner Landrum's discovery of a bountiful supply of fine clay in Edgefield District, a discovery that led to a century of successful pottery making here. I was invited to be among the speakers at the ceremony. I took that opportunity to present a very special guest to the audience. She was Mrs. Thomasina Holmes Bouknight, who was the only person I had found who knew of a link to Dave in her life: He had made a large jar with an inscription on it for her mother, whose parents had been slaves in the area where Dave lived. She had recounted the fascinating history of the jar to me when I was writing my book (see page 205 of Carolina Clay). After I introduced her to the crowd, she rose and took a bow in response to the protracted applause. A few weeks later, she died. With her passing, the last known connection to Dave disappeared.

Though construction on the kiln is temporarily on hold, it will, when completed, be one of the major attractions of Edgefield. Its site is only a few steps from Main Street. Crowds will be able to gather for firings, as they did when Dave made his pots in the district.

If tenderly cared for, do the surviving jugs and containers have a shelf life before they begin to crumble or disintegrate? Or will they effectively last forever, like stone?

Leonard Todd: I asked an expert to answer this one. He is master potter Gary Clontz, Coordinator of the Professional Pottery Program at Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield. He says, “Pots treated in a normal manner will last virtually forever. They will break, of course, if they are dropped, and they will crack if liquid is left in them to freeze. But there are pots in museums that are thousands of years old and still have their integrity.”

Dave touched on this question in one of his inscriptions. In June of 1854, his owner, Lewis Miles, apparently told him that the handle on the jug he had just made was not sturdy enough. To let posterity be the judge, Dave wrote, “Lm says this handle will crack” down the side of the jug at issue. More than 150 years later, the handle is still intact!

Dave spent his entire adult life producing pottery. It's exciting to think that there are still extant pieces, like bits of treasure, scattered across the regional landscape. You write of a number of examples, such as an inscribed "Dave" pot sitting in an old barn, or the one in the yard of Thomasina Holmes Bouknight that she remembers playing around as a little girl. I'm dying to know if you've learned of any new pieces coming to light since the publication of your book ("Hmm, that old pot says 'Dave' on it"). Are there any pieces on permanent display (in Charleston or elsewhere)? Do you personally own any of Dave's pottery?

Leonard Todd: Word of several newly discovered Dave pots has come to me through my web site ( Because the world of pottery collecting enjoys its secrets, I am usually sworn to silence when the news arrives. I think I can safely say, however, that there will be some interesting auctions in the months to come!

I do not own any Dave pieces, but I take great pleasure in visiting the excellent examples on public display. The art museum in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, has recently purchased a magnificent jar inscribed with a poem that speaks of stars and bears (pronounced “bars” by Dave.) The Charleston Museum owns the two largest jars he ever made, turned on the same day in 1859. Two museums in Columbia, (the South Carolina State Museum and the McKissick Museum) own Dave pots, as do two museums in Atlanta (the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta History Center.) Other repositories of Dave's work are the Augusta Museum of History, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, Georgia, the Mint Museums in Charlotte, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Washington Historical Museum in Washington, Georgia, and the Smithsonian Institution.

OBAB: I'm intrigued by the fact thatin the course of this explorationyou actually relocated with your wife from Manhattan to live in Edgefield, the center of the story. Has living thereamongst your own distant relatives, and certainly some descendants of Dave as well -- helped you gain a better understanding of Dave's life experience, or some other insight into the day and age in which he and your ancestors lived? Have you uncovered any more information on Dave from local sources since the publication of Carolina Clay (you mention the emergence of an African American historical society, and a surge in the writing of local histories, with the tantalizing prospect of new connections)?

Leonard Todd: Edgefield is one of those rare spots that the poet W. S. Merwin calls “an unguarded part of the past.” Once a powerful placeten governors have come from here -- it virtually echoes with historical incident. By walking on the very sites where Dave and my ancestors lived and worked, I often begin to get a sense of what their lives were like. Some of the buildings and homes and landscape are unchanged since Dave's day.

Though I have located descendants of many of the players in Dave's story, I have not yet found members of his own family. I have traced what I believe is one branch of that family up through the 1930 census (see page 226 of Carolina Clay.) The 1940 census will be released to the public in a very few years. I have great hope that it will bring Dave's descendants closer to us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Senator Broderick would have given anything for a mulligan. . .

Congratulations to the American team for a great victory in last week's President's Cup. I've never been one to watch a lot of golf on television, but I tuned in a few times for this one, since it was held at Harding Park in San Francisco, where once upon a time a played a few rounds myself.

What's the Civil War connection? Oh, I'm so glad you asked. This area
what is now Harding Park and Lake Merrittwas also the scene, 150 years ago, of one of the country's great, antebellum showdowns pitting pro- and anti-slavery forces against one another in murderous rage, fully a month before John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry. Every lie was in the rough back then.

In a more famous scene of Southern honor avenged, Senator Charles Sumner eventually recovered from the brutal attack against him in the Senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina. But California Senator David C. Broderick would not survive his showdown with former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, the pro-slavery David S. Terry, along the shoreline of Lake Merritt.
Indeed, Broderick became the first sitting senator to die in a duel.

Broderick, and the other California senator at that time, William Gwin, were both Democrats, but represented the two sides of the Democratic coin that would so severely split the party on the 1860 ballot (even more so, the California Democrats had a faction that was decidedly anti-slavery, with Broderick its chief representative). Terry, a close political ally of Gwin's, denounced Broderick as a wayward Democrat who pledged allegiance to the "wrong Douglas" (Frederick Douglass, the black Republican, rather than Stephen Douglas, the Little Giant of the Lincoln–Douglas debates). Broderick weighed in with some choice comments in return, effectively calling Terry a crooked judge, and a "miserable wretch." Read all about it in this brief entry by the Senate Historian.

Fighting words, you say? Indeed. Terry insisted upon a public retraction. When that was not forthcoming, he demanded satisfaction at ten paces, and Broderick accepted the gentlemanly resolution. The San Francisco Bulletin wrote on that day, "We cannot refrain from indulging, once more, in some expressions of sorrow and disgust at the barbarous practice of dueling which still seems to be tolerated among us."

Witnesses described Terry as calm and measured, and Broderick as stiff and uneasy. At the fateful moment, due to nerves or a hair trigger, Broderick's gun fired prematurely into the dirt. Terry then fired into Broderick's breast in an area he said at the time would not be mortal. He was mistaken about that. Eyewitness James O'Meara wrote:

At nearly 7 o'clock that fated Tuesday morning, every other procedure of the awful scene having been adequately performed according to the articles, Mr. David Colton, the second of Mr. Broderick, upon whom the painful duty had been imposed, put the dread question, preliminary to the "word," "Gentlemen, are you ready?" Instantly the response came from Judge Terry, "Ready," in firm, natural tone of voice, and without play of feature or movement of muscle. Mr. Broderick did not respond at once, but again occupied a few moments in adjusting his pistol. This done, evidently to his satisfaction, he spoke the word "Ready," accompanied by a gesture and a nod, as of assent to Mr. Colton. Then came the "word," "Fire-one-two." The pause between the words was as that between the striking of the hours of "the cathedral clock," as a critical observer described it. Almost at the "one," Mr. Broderick fired. The ball from his pistol entered the ground just nine feet from where he stood, in a true line with his antagonist. Judge Terry fired before "two" had been uttered. A slight show of dust upon the right lapel of Mr. Broderick's buttoned coat gave token where the ball had struck.
Reportedly, Broderick's death made him a martyr in the nascent anti-slavery movement in California, and further polarized the growing Northern and Southern factions in the state. Terry was arrested and tried, but eventually acquitted, freeing him up to put his money where his mouth was, and take up arms for the South.

Justice Terry, the younger brother of Benjamin Franklin Terry of Terry's (Texas) Rangers fame, would go on to serve in Confederate forces, was wounded at Chickamauga, then spent the balance of the war in the backwaters of Texas
. He survived the war, but his sense of honor led to his untimely demise nonetheless. Thirty years after he killed Broderick, Terry accosted an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in Lathrop, California, and was fatally shot by the judge's body guard.

Left: Senator David Broderick

For some good photos of the BroderickTerry duel site, go here.

San Francisco's Anchor Steam brewery has an excellent account of the duel, including a full length version of O'Meara's report here. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle remembered the event.

This blog on San Francisco's western-most neighborhoods commemorates the duel on a page entitled "Guns and Golf."

Right: Judge David Terry

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Sharlene Perez de-cluttered her closet and ended up depositing $130,000.

Read all about it in the L.A. Times. I wonder how much I can get for my mint condition Evansville Triplets rain poncho? You can't get those anymore—the independent Otters supplanted the Triple-A Detroit Tigers farm club long ago. I am now taking bids.

Sharlene pulled down a box of guns from the closet, nearly forgotten there after the death of her husband, who had received them as a gift. They were Navy Colts with ivory handles, presented to Colonel William C. Brown, elected to command the 35th New York Infantry in the Civil War.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"it is easier to turn a historian into a map drawer than an artist into a historian."

Been reading entries at the welcome new blog, The Trans-Mississippian, and was interested to see an interview with Donald S. Frazier, who's done such good work on the T-M and the war in the Southwest. Like Drew Wagenhoffer at Civil War Books and Authors, I very much admired Frazier's, Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest See Drew's review of Frazier's latest, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861–January 1863 herethe first of a four book series (The Louisiana Quadrille).

What especially caught my eye in the Frazier interview was the fact that he draws his own maps (highly praised in the aforementioned review by Drew). Like Frazier, I learned Adobe Illustrator initially to draft maps for Civil War Regiments journal
it's a great way to go, but mastering the software was not a cakewalk. Indeed, if you're like me, you'll learn just enough to be proficient and to handle specific needs, leaving the vast power and capabilities of the program largely untapped. I wrote about my early map-making adventures back in a 2007 blog entry here.

Frazier has some terrific advice for authors considering doing their own maps (excerpted from The Trans-Mississippian):

[The Trans-Mississippian]:
Your book features a number of your own maps. What advice do you have for aspiring mapmakers?

[Dr. Frazier]:
Learn Adobe Illustrator. It’s not a real mystery on how to make maps, you just have to be prepared for a bit of a learning curve. I have drawn more than 2,000 maps for various clients world-wide. I discovered it is easier to turn a historian into a map drawer than an artist into a historian.
Geography and landforms are the canvas upon which history is painted. You understand how humans interact with terrain, and you will have an instinct for what is important to show on a map. Also, if the place appears in your index, try to make sure at least one map in your book has it located.

Monday, September 21, 2009

An artist, and slave

Dave, a slave, was born in 1801 and as a teenager was put to work in a pottery near Edgefield, South Carolina, making stoneware vessels such as jugs and pitchers. Learning to read and write along the way, Dave signed his work, and inscribed it with bits of verse. For over seventy years he created beautiful pieces that are now sought by and exhibited by museums.

Now, a descendant of one of Dave's owners, has written what looks to be an intriguing and moving chronicle attempting to piece together the story of Dave's life. I can't get enough of these kinds of explorations and personal discovery, and have ordered a copy of Carolina Clay this evening. I'll report back once I've delved in.

Author Leonard Todd is connected to Dave by way of his mother's father's mother's father, a principal owner of Dave at one time. There is a nicely-constructed website promoting the book and the story here, chock full of information on Dave, his pottery, his poems, and the author's personal discovery of a family history comprised of "a long and complex intertwining in which members of my family purchased blacks, whipped them, slept with them, sold them away from one another, tried to prevent them from voting, and perhaps sometimes loved them deeply. Certain of these blacks supported my forebears with their labor, bore their children, murdered them in anger, killed themselves in protest against them, and perhaps sometimes loved them deeply."

That passage alone suggests the author wrote an unflinching account of what he learned, enough reassurance for me to order the book sight-unseen, without fear of enduring an apologist rendering of family legend.

According to the Washington Post's "A House Divided" blog, the author and Smithsonian curator Bonnie Littenfeld will show images of Dave's pottery and discuss his work at a lecture Oct. 14 at 6:45 p.m. (part of the Smithsonian Resident Associate's Prograg). Code 1L0-006. Call 202-633-9467 for reservations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Oxford American, the Southern Magazine of Good Writing surveyed 134 Southern writers to ask them to name the best Southern novels.

I'm not sure what parameters were used to define Southern writers, or Southern novels, but there's no call for nit-picking.

Here are the top ten titles mentioned.

1: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)
2: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
3: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)

4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)

5: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

6: The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy (1961)

7: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner (1930)

8: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

9: Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor (1952)

10: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
It's interesting that the newest novel on the list is nearly 50 years oldI suspect there would be a similar result for the best American novels at-large. That is to say, it will be 50 years before some of the best novels of today are recognized as having multi-generational staying power. Or maybe not. Other than the Twain novel, all of these were written in a 31-year span. Was it a golden era that won't cycle around again for another century or more?

Five of the ten were written before the Second World War, when Civil War veterans still roamed the Earth.
Several of these were fairly predictable, though I was surprised to see Wise Blood ranked so high. Long fiction was not considered O'Connor's strong suit, and I always thought of Wise Blood as an interesting (difficult) but not monumental work. I love O'Connor, and feel moved to revisit that work. As I prepare to close out my forties, it's pretty clear to me that everything I read in my teens and twenties could be re-read now as if for the first time.

I see Drew's favorite Walker Percy novel comes in at number six. I have this on my bookshelf, and have started it twice. Will have to give it another go. I confess I knew nothing about number ten, and had to look it up after reading this list. Apparently Oprah even produced a TV movie adaptation, starring Halle Berry. I never heard of that either.

How many of these have you read?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I'm back with my brood from 9 days of camping atop the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano

—the largest and probably least known volcano in all of the Cascade range (least known because shield volcanoes do not conform to the classic volcano shape, like Mt. Shasta seen beyond Medicine Lake in the photo above). It is breathtakingly rugged and desolate country, even today, but history tells us that no place in America was too remote or god-forsaken to preclude a prolonged and expensive Indian war.

My fascination with the Modocs and the Lava Beds continues to grow, and I've come back wondering why so little has been written about E. R. S. Canby. Maybe a little more reading on my part will answer that question. Maybe there is more out there than I realize, beyond the 1959 biography, and pieces in various periodic literature.

Far West tribes, too, are given short shrift in the literature. Two Lakota chiefs, a Hunkpapa and an Oglala, will be forever remembered for their part in the death of a vainglorious lieutenant colonel in Montana, but the Modoc who killed the only general to die in the Indian wars, and who did so reluctantly, falls short of the threshold of most general histories of westward expansion. East Coast media bias.

More on that later.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Melancholy, Scot and Robin, The Who, President's Wall, Brave Ulysses

This is the painting that hangs over my computer (my poor digital photograph does not do it justice). I enjoy staring at in it from time to time as I withdraw from the keyboard, sit back, and take a breath. There's something mesmerizing about Grant's countenance. Images of him are weighty, with a wisp of melancholy that is always felt, if not intended.


This is a rare, one-of-a kind portrait. It was painted by a street artist in South Koreacommissioned by my good friend Scot Halpin and his wife Robin. Scot handed the man a small photograph of Grant, and returned a couple days later to pick up this stunning painting. Scot, who passed away about a year and a half ago, was an important person in my life, and his untimely death makes the Grant painting all the more cherished. Scot was not a Civil War buff, but he knew about my interest and surprised me with this gift. I have other reminders of Scotincluding a few of his own paintingsbut the Grant portrait speaks to me every day. Usually, it's very polite, but sometimes it's sarcastic.

I will dedicate another bit of writing to Scot, as this may not be the best venue, but suffice it to say hemore than anyone in my life other than Jerry, my eternal Berkeley Writers Club compatriotand Robininspired me to never give up the dream that artist's dream from a young age, and which the world and life conspire to squelch every day in every way. He, more than anyone I have known before or since, lived the life, and walked the walkmaking his way in this world as an artist, a musician, a free thinker. He, more than anyone, served to remind that creating art will always matter more than the reasons we all come up with to put it off, or let it go. What I've been putting off, among other things, is writing. But I've not let go, and am excited more about it now than ever.

Robin has begun an ambitious and fantastically beautiful project to post one of Scot's paintings, and a piece of his musical legacy, more or less every day for a year. See her tribute site here.

Robin's blog was highlighted at The Who's official web site, where the band expressed their condolences, and recounted the night in 1973 when then 19-year-old Scot Halpin was recruited from the crowd at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to finish the set for a passed-out Keith Moon. Scot was Rolling Stone's "Pick-Up Player of the Year." You can see video of Scot's great Who adventure on YouTube. TimesOnline published this obit. Scot's 15 minutes of fame.

I'm not a collector of presidential portraits
or at least, I didn't set out to bethe Kennedy photo (left of Grant) was something I glommed onto when my parents died, and is inscribed to my father. The Lincoln photo (right of Grant) is a print of that beautiful glass negative fragment. The Production Director gave that to me after it was used on the cover of a Stanford University Press catalog. We had these images scattered around the house, and it was my wife's idea to collect them together on one wall. Now I love to scrutinize them in quiet moments (with my kids, that means the middle of the night)they are inspirational figures all.


I'm no Grant groupie, and it would never occur to me to take an ad out in the Civil War News to attack Grant detractors, but I'll say unabashedly that he is the Civil War-era figure that I have always gravitated toward in my reading, and that I never tire of studying. Some of my long-time Civil War correspondents will see this as validation of a certain bias, and it's true I believe he was the preeminent general in a war well-stocked with intriguing and successful officers.

He was a small, unassuming man (hmmm, just like me). A failed farmer, an officer who had given up on a military career. By 1854, having risen to the rank of captain, he resigned from the army
a dead end roadand went to work as a clerk in his father's leather shop. In other words, he was pretty ordinary.

When the war started, he struggled to get a commission, finally getting command of a regiment as colonel of the 21st Illinois in 1861. In relatively short order, he was commanding armies. By the end of 1863 he was promoted to Lieutenant General, the first to hold that rank since George Washington, and placed in charge of all United States forces. By 1868 he had completed the transition from anonymous small town store clerk to President of the United States (but he was not the shortest president
in your face, Madison!)

I'm inspired by Grant's calm demeanor, which sometimes showed cracks, to the point of weeping (hmm, just like me!), and his seemingly unambitious rise to the top. He was an enigma to many, a man who gave few hints of potential greatness, then achieved spectacular things. I love that he wore "the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general," rather than the full regalia to which he was entitled. To me, that captures a quintessential American spirit, one that disdains ostentatiousness, even in a regimented military culture. He was a brilliant warrior, and a kind and gracious victor. And he left us the best memoirs of any officer on either side of the Civil War.

I've looked at a lot of Grant photographs, and am confident that this is the one from which the South Korean artist created such a beautiful painting. It's nearly the only Grant image I can find where he seems to be looking directly at the camera. The buttons, the ear, the tufts of hair sticking out, the precise pattern of the white underneath the chin and on the collar, the just visible star on the top of the shoulder strapall seem to be spot on.

Thanks anonymous South Korean painter.
Thanks Ulysses. And thank you, Scot.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A final comment about LSU Press's bacon being pulled out of the fire, at least momentarily. . .

I should have mentioned, given my own experience, that the "good news" about university press's surviving rounds of severe cost cutting is pretty bad news to the people who lost their jobs. LSU reportedly cut about ten positions from their staff. News stories of staff cuts at companies across the board are so commonplace now it hardly warrants mention (University of Missiouri Press? Half its staff. University of New Mexico Press? Employee revolt!).

On the bright side, visit Drew Wagenhoffer's Civil War Books and Authors blog to see mention of some of the intriguing new (Civil War-related) university press releases, and previews of other interesting titles coming down the pike. Our cherished scholarly press's are still doing what they do best, with the staff remaining.

The book I'm most excited about seeing is another in the University of Tennessee Press's incomparable "Voices of the Civil War Series," entitled In the Shadow of the Enemy: the Civil War Diary of Ida Powell Dulany, co-edited by my good friend Steve Meserve. I felt gratified to be able to contribute two maps to the project. All of the books in that series (series editor Pete Carmichael) are works of art in every way: editing, design, composition, manufacturing.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

good news update to yesterday's post. . .LSU Press lives to publish

Apparently I got in on this story right at the tail end of the two-month period of uncertainty over the Press's fate. Prompted by bibliophile Drew Wagenhoffer, I collected some timely updates to the LSU Press saga. News items from last week, and this week report that the Press has survived, less $100,000 from the mother ship.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the story here. Press Director Mary Katherine Callaway says they need to retool, but is optimistic. The Press will now be able to celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. Just to be safe, BYOB.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"I dust a bit," Ignatius told the policeman."

"In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." — John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces)

It's no secret that the world of publishing is undergoing a transformation in the digital age, and no market sector is unaffected. Times are especially tough for university presses, who often rely on subsidies from cash-strapped universities to continue their noble work. I learned about these pressures firsthand, five years ago, when my position was eliminated at Stanford University Press after a nine-year run. Years earlier, the press itself barely survived the chopping block. In the late 90s, when then-Provost Condoleeza Rice backed a plan to let SUP be absorbed by Oxford Press, only the staunch resistance of certain faculty saved the day.

Some presses faded away during that period, and quite a few more are unlikely to weather the current storm. I'm saddened to see that LSU Press, one of the most prolific publishers of Civil War titles, has reached a budgetary crisis that could conceivably spell the end of the company. In its storied history, LSU Press has won more Pulitzers than any other academic publisher (four), and remains the only university press to win Pulitzer Prizes in the categories of fiction and poetry. The publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, a brilliant and deeply American novel, is one of the great success stories in all of publishing (here's a shout out to brother Woody, who gave me a copy of this book right after I got out of college and landed in San Francisco).

To the staff at a typical university press, it seems irreconcilable that an institution spending large fortunes on athletics can't find the relatively minuscule funding needed to keep a small press operating. But things are never quite so simple. Big-time athletic programs ordinarily generate revenue for the school, but academic presses rarely do.

Ted Genoways, editor of the the Virginia Quarterly Review, wondered whether LSU wants "to be known as someplace that supports the history and culture of your region or some place that has fantastic outside linebackers?" But LSU's chancellor, Michael Martin, offers the compelling rejoinder that "in some respects, the press has been saved by the outside linebackers --
up to this point."

I am a big fan of university presses. I love the notion of disseminating knowledge just for the sake of it. I love the fact that history manuscripts are, usually, carefully vetted. I appreciated that some university presses continued to produce books meant to last, as if they were sacred objects, resisting some of the production short-cuts (e.g., cardboard for cloth) that would enhance the bottom line. I love the idealistic perspective that, sometimes, the importance of a particular book might carry more weight than it's projected profitability, when deciding whether to publish.

Of course, that's no way to run a business -- even university presses need customers. When once, one good-selling title could float the boat for a handful of obscure monographs, the pressures of a weak market have made that an unaffordable luxury. As for the production values that created "sacred objects" -- they have necessarily been going out the window, or are being compromised through belt-tightening. Print-on-demand technology is an irresistible solution to small presses looking to keep a long list of slow selling books in print. The only thing certain is that the old models of production and distribution no longer work, and the very mission of the university press
needs to be re-thought.

I would hope the prestige alone of a press like that at LSU would spare it from oblivion, but in an era when everything from General Motors to California is bankrupt, any money-losing concern is a candidate for closure. Here's hoping LSU emerges from the crisis, and maybe leads the way for others following close behind. Read more about the bleak future of university presses in this Philadelphia Inquirer
article (speaking of industries with bleak futures).

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
-- Jonathan Swift

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, R.I.P.

another giant in the field passes

Celebrated Historian Altered Understanding of Slavery

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, 96, a historian who helped transform the

study of slavery in the United States by exposing plantation owners as practical businessmen, not romantics defending a noble heritage, died of heart ailments July 10 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. He had vascular dementia.

His death was confirmed by the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught from 1946 until retiring in 1983.

The full WaPo obit can be read here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

introducing Woodbury Historical Tours

Lee's Retreat, and the Surrender at Appomattox
August 7 and 8,
with Ron Wilson and Patrick Schroeder

2 days of tours, includes lunch, and Saturday dinner with speaker
$250 : 20 seat limit : HQ: Farmville, VA
See more info and itinerary

Unseen Appomattox

August 22, with Patrick Schroeder

includes lunch $125 : 20 seat limit :
HQ Appomattox, VA

See more info and itinerary

[photo above: former and current Appomattox National Historic Park chief historians Ron Wilson, left, and Patrick Schroeder]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Hoodistas go off the deep end

I noticed in the last issue of Civil War News that a group of John Bell Hood worshipers, the John Bell Hood Historical Society, actually took an ad out to denounce historian and author Wiley Sword. Why? The reason given in the attack ad is because Sword called Hood's memoirs inaccurate and unreliable.

Hmmm. As the kids say, "duh!" Where have these people been? One of the first things any earnest student of the war discovers is that Hood's autobiography is a self-serving, wildly distorted rewriting of history meant to exonerate himself at the expense of others, mainly at the expense of General Joe Johnston. It is one of those primary sources so compromised by inaccuracy, misrepresentation, and tortured rationalizations, that competent historians would never consider citing it to substantiate any assertion that wasn't already thoroughly corroborated elsewhere.

To the members of the John Bell Hood Historical Society, those aren't just fighting words, they are part of an "unholy Jihad." To wit, quoting from the web site devoted to attacking Mr. Sword, "As Sword did in his acclaimed 1991 book, Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, in his latest effort he engages in an unholy Jihad against Gen. Hood, filtering from historical records any and all documented evidence that does not support his biased, agenda-based premise."

I'm no expert on radical Islam, but wouldn't an "unholy jihad" translate to an "unholy holy war"? Is it fair for me to refer to the members of a "historical society" as "worshippers"? Yes, when they respond to perceived criticism of their hero with words like "desecration" and "unholy."

But there are any number of things the Hoodites object to in at the two Sword titles mentioned above. They don't like Sword's comment that Hood was ambitious. Aren't all officers ambitious, they ask disingenuously, seemingly oblivious to Hood's shameless power grab before Atlanta, seeking to discredit Johnston and to get Hardee passed over for promotion.

Likewise, they take Sword to task for such egregious assertions as, “. . .young Hood struggled with the academic curriculum [at West Point], winding up forty-fourth in his class of fifty-two upon graduation in 1853.” Now what, you may ask, is the objection? The Hoodites think it unfair of Sword not to have mentioned that Hood's class originally had 93 cadets, and that 41 of them dropped out. Some representative of the historical society writes, "It would be more fair and accurate to view Hood as ranked 44th out of 93 original cadets in his class." Nevermind that the 41 drop-outs are not part of Hood's graduating class. They don't rank non-graduating cadets. What would be the point of that? How ridiculous that the Hoodites feel they must add 41 to the rolls in order to mitigate Hood's pedestrian academic record.

The "Sword Exposed" website is a long exercise in nit-picking, rationalization, and selective highlighting of comments from contemporaries that compliment Hood. For example, the site challenges Sword's assertion that Hood's "decision to sacrifice the lives of so many in an unlikely military gambit was condemned as ‘murder’ by some of his men.” To counter that, the site admits that some men did feel that way, and then quotes Sam Watkins from Co Aytch: ". . .We all loved Hood, he was such a clever fellow, and a good man. . . Poor fellow, I loved him, not as a general, but as a good man. . ." So where's the contradiction? If anything, Watkins is validating the notion that the men did not consider Hood a great general.

It's one thing to take issue with a historian's work. By all means, put up a web page and point out your problems with it. There's nothing wrong with hard-hitting book reviews, as long as they are honest, substantiated critiques, but acting as apologist destroys credibility. For a self-described historical society to take out an ad in response to "desecration"disagreements with an authoris just embarrassing. Sort of in the same way that Hood's book, Advance and Retreat, is an embarrassing entry in the realm of Civil War memoirs. At least Hood's book generated proceeds which helped care for his 11 orphans, and that is a positive good. Conversely, what's the value of a historical society that engages in character assassination against Civil War historians?