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|Posted on April 28, 2014 at 6:54 AM||comments (96)|
|Posted on November 19, 2013 at 3:27 PM||comments (0)|
Both on the way to and from Greenwood today, I heard readings of the Gettysburg Address. The first was delivered by NPR journalists. The second was delivered by a variety of persons from different fields; all 5 living presidents participated.
This put me in mind of Mrs. Harrell's 4th Grade class. She was a great one for making us memorize and recite in class. I suppose there will always be differences of opinion about this. Some progressive educators pooh-pooh requiring students to commit speeches or poetry to memory, arguing that this doesn't build the higher-order learning they think is important.
I suppose there's some truth in such views. However, I feel fortunate that I was one of those unlucky ones who had to do routine recitations in class. As I recall, Lincoln developed the characteristic cadences of his speech from his voracious reading. I further recall that the Bible, Shakespeare's plays, and Robert Burns's poetry all had major influences on the way he spoke in public. Not that I will ever have Lincoln's ability to say a lot in a few words; but I can dream, can't I?
When one has a head full of trivia, the random connections one sometimes makes can be interesting. The 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address came exactly three days before JFK's assassination. Because the national attention was diverted to the horrifying news from Dallas, the anniversary went almost unnoticed. On a visit to Gettysburg some years ago, I was strolling through the National Cemetery and noticed a military headstone for a man who died June 6, 1944. That in turn triggered a recollection of one of JFK's comments: "The cost of freedom is high, but Americans have always paid it." It's one of the sad ironies of history that his death, coming at the time it did, underscored that remark with particular force.
A hundred years from now, what will our descendants say about our stance toward the freedoms which Lincoln so eloquently celebrated 150 years ago?
|Posted on November 8, 2013 at 11:16 AM||comments (2007)|
This is a fruitful time of year for those interested in European history in the 20th century. What triggered that thought is that I heard a birthday announcement for Billy Graham the other day; he's reached 95. My mind went looking for connections and settled on the fact that he was born exactly one year after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, thus ushering in the rule of Lenin and Trotsky.
Just a brief stroll down memory lane reveals more temporal connections. Tomorrow (November 9) is the 90th anniversary of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch and (if I recall correctly) the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht in Germany. The latter incident plays a major role in my novel-in-progress Soldiers of Night and Fog.
A great deal of attention is now being focused on November 22 of this year. It's a bit scary to think that I can recall so clearly what happened on a day when I was all of 14 years old. It's even stranger to look at how vigorous the JFK assassination conspiracy complex still is. The major impacts of that bloody day have already been assimilated into our nation's historical consciousness. But the allure of a good crime story lingers even after all the major facts are no longer in dispute. I have a planned novel with the working title The Burma Shave Man, where the protagonist's random encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald gives rise to a lifelong obsession with theories about the assassination.
As a sixtysomething teaching (mostly) twentysomethings, I warn my students not to scoff at what history will do to them if they're unaware of its flow around them. I think they may think I'm obsessed with trivia; they're probably right, since I still hope to make in onto "Jeopardy." So I'll close this post with factoid presented Jeopardy-style:
A: Brian Boru's defeat of the Vikings at Clontarf, Easter 1014.
Q: What significant historical 1000-year anniversary will be celebrated early next year?
Someday others may speak of our times with the same disdain for (or ignorance of) events and their significance. One consolation for being obscure is that when future generations of historians write the history of our times, none of us is likely to be singled out for particular opporobium. Take whatever comfort you can from that thought.
|Posted on August 14, 2013 at 3:32 PM||comments (101)|
A young Prussian officer faces a mortal confrontation with an unforgiving father, whose brutish behavior is fed by the acquiescence of his younger sons.
Thus begins my novel-in-progress The Vials of Wrath. This will be ready for electronic publication late next year or in 2015. It's one of a series of novels about the extraordinary upheavals of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of ordinary people. It's a reminder to all of us that we, as free men and women, bear the responsibility for our own words and actions. Too much of the history of the last hundred years has been warped by the actions of those for whom human freedom and dignity are mere words, to be disposed of when inconvenient. The series of which it is a part is my testimony in favor of the human race and the greatness of which we are capable when we remember who we are.
|Posted on May 16, 2013 at 4:18 PM||comments (233)|
On this day in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, thus belatedly undoing the nefarious role of Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, in her condemnation. "Justice delayed is justice denied," one anonymous commentator has noted. It was certainly delayed in her case; she was burned in 1431. In fact, the church had already semi-officially recognized her position of particular honor in France, when it approved the placement of her statue (along with St. Louis) over the entrance to the Sacré Coeur. In fact, France had been the object of some disapproving glances from the Vatican ever since the Revolution. It doesn't stretch credulity too far to note that Joan's canonization may have been an effort to anchor the position of the church in the hearts of Frenchmen. Certainly the ordeal of France from 1914 to 1918 was arguably the most trying time since the Hundred Years' War.
Still, Joan may be an inconvenient heroine for the French. She emerged from provincial obscurity just at the moment when France was nearly prostrate from war and internecine strife, with the rightful king (in her eyes) declared a bastard by his own father. Fourteen years before she famously picked Charles VII out of a mob of courtiers, France's nobility had led its armies to disaster at Agincourt. It should have inspired humility in the hearts of its great families that a peasant girl could revive the spirits of a nation. Any such sentiments were short-lived.
The fact that France had prevailed in the Great War and was unquestionably victorious may have inspired the church's belated homage to the Maid of Orléans. Austria-Hungary, the church's favored child in the recently-ended war, had broken apart. Italy was still in bad odor with the church because of its forcible seizure of Rome in 1870. Perhaps the church believed that the "eldest daughter of the Church" could still be won back to its traditional allegiances by honoring France's favorite daughter as a saint.
I can recall seeing Joan's gilded statue in the heart of Paris adorned with wreaths and bouquets on the anniversary of her death in 1974. The floral offerings had special messages, most of which beseeched Joan's assistance for France in its troubles. That was something even Frenchmen of skeptical disposition could appreciate. Perhaps it's only in times of great trial that most of us can appreciate the contributions of the humble, even of the non-heroic. If they in their times could do it, why can't we?
|Posted on April 29, 2013 at 3:56 PM||comments (157)|
On this day in 1945, U.S. troops liberated the oldest of the Nazi concentration camps - Dachau, located just outside Munich. My father-in-law was one of those GIs. Here, the historic past joins hands with the personal past. In 1962, when he was again stationed in Munich, my mother-in-law and my wife got the chance to take a tour of Dachau, albeit in a much cleaned-up form. Maj. Lea refused to go with him, saying something to the effect that he'd already seen it.
My father, who was a POW in Germany for twenty-one months, always lists this day as his personal liberation day. On April 29, 1945, the U.S. 14th Armored Division freed him and twenty thousand or so other POWs at the Moosburg camp north of Munich. However, for most of his POW days, he resided (if that's the right word) at Stalag Luft IIIC, in Sagan, Germany (now part of Poland). In WW2, the further east you went, at least in Europe, the worse it got. While Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen were horrific, they didn't hold a candle to what the Red Army troops who liberated Treblinka, Maidanek, or Auschwitz saw. Those were the real death camps, the ones that had only a single purpose: to either exterminate the untermenschen outright or to work them to death. The POWs at Stalag Luft IIIC were unaware of those horrors as well, although many of them knew that Hitler had ordered the killing of all Allied POWs. By early 1945, there were enough Germans who knew the war was lost to make disobeying Der Fuehrer thinkable.
Yale historian Timothy Schneider's book Bloodlands makes a compelling case that the extermination camps were just one of the ways that the rulers of Eastern Europe adopted to rid themselves of their political opponents and others deemed worthy of death. The full truth about all of the places where humanity was violated during the years 1918-1945 will probably never be known. What we know, however, is enough. If, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people still believed in progress, we who live in these latter days owe it to the dead to remember the devils that sometimes lurk beneath the surface of ordinary life. The world can no longer claim innocence of humanity's demonic potential.
|Posted on March 26, 2013 at 3:08 PM||comments (82)|
On this date thirteen years ago, something unprecedented happened: Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation. In the bleak annals of power in that part of the world, a peaceful act of succession was a milestone. Nowadays, though, we're not sure where the road leads.
Yeltsin, despite his Communist past, was a man hard to dislike: big-framed, rather like the fabled Russian bear. His struggles with the bottle only made him seem human. When he stood up against the anti-Gorbachev coup of August, 1991, he became a hero to many who had never given much thought to what was happening as the Soviet Union crumbled. Two years later, his reputation took some smudges when he used the army to attack his opponents in the Duma. That seemed like a reversion to the age-old pattern of Russian autocracy. It wasn't: the subsequent looting of Russia's natural resources by the oligarchs was a sign that the age of buccaneer capitalism, its own Gilded Age, was at hand.
My wife and I visited Russia two years ago. She had been there in 1993, chaperoning a group of Methodist youth. She had vivid memories of the all-too-visible decrepitude of many of the apartment blocks. Some of these are still visible, although as often as not there are glittering high-rises within a few hundred yards of these Stalinist relics. There, too, it seems that Russia is retracing some of the steps the U.S. took in its political evolution, with a jarring mix of wealth and poverty side by side. As we cruised the waterways from Moscow to St. Petersburg, dachas that were little more than fishing shacks stood near residences that would fit right in on Hilton Head or Pawley's Island.
There's the rub: it looks as though too much of Russia's wealth is either on display in the form of posh dwellings, or is offshore in Cyprus and other such places. Putin's apparent determination to hang on to power is another worrisome sign. One of the reasons why Russia's history has so much sadness is that progress seems always to be in conflict with the determination of the wealthy and powerful not to use their wealth to build a modern nation. Old patterns of power die hard in Mother Russia. Will things be different twenty years from now?
|Posted on March 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM||comments (6)|
On this day in 1687, the Sieur de La Salle, noted as "the first European to navigate the length of the Mississippi River" was murdered by his own men when exploring near the cost of what is today Texas. It was an ironic end for a man who had already defied death by exploring a river noted for its many treacherous bends, shallows, and bayous.
One of my former bosses was fond of noting that, in any endeavor, one can tell who the pioneers are by the fact that they are often found lying face down, with arrows in the back. At least La Salle's name is recorded. The real "unsung hero" in this instance is the first man or woman who decided that the Mississippi valley would be the cradle of its own unique civilization and acted on that belief. Certainly Louis XIV and his ministers had no appreciation of what La Salle had done a few years earlier. The Sun King would shortly thereafter launch the War of the League of Augsburg, which would leave France much poorer, with little in the way of territorial gains as compensation. With a fraction of the effort expended to grab territory contiguous to France, the French might have built settlements that could have given them a firm hold on one of the great waterways of the world.
My professors at the University of Florida and at Yale reminded their students that speculation about "what might have been" is useless for serious scholars. As a writer, though, I'm sometimes tempted to craft my own alternative versions of the past. Harry Turtledove and others have made profitable careers out of this pursuit. I suppose it's an homage to my teachers that my efforts at writing historical fiction have focused on the actions of the unsung heroes whose actions could have provided the fulcrum for great historical movements. My work-in-progress Soldiers of Night and Fog takes this approach. I don't know if I'll be able to pull this off. It's well worth the effort, at least in my mind.
|Posted on February 14, 2013 at 8:19 AM||comments (4)|
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." These familiar words, coming at the moment the priest makes the cross on one's forehead in the ashes of last year's palms, should cause us to spend a few moments in reflection. Alas, in our all-too-hurried lives, that seldom happens.
There is a backhanded comfort at having reached my early sixties. I'm getting comfortable with the idea that the end of my race is in sight. Do I try to finish with a sprint or simply hobble gamely up to the finish line? While health of body and mind is a major factor (I've been lucky on both counts), it helps to remember one's antecedents.
I'm not talking about my physical ancestors. In one of my classes today, I was discussing the eminent historian Carl Becker with my students in the context of the Enlightenment. Becker was a student of the equally-eminent Frederick Jackson Turner and the dissertation director for R.R. Palmer, who was MY dissertation director. All those gentlemen continued to be intellectually productive into advanced old age. Those are good motivational examples.
It's been said that old age and treachery win out over youth and idealism almost every time. I'm grateful for whatever advantages treachery (sometimes called experience) can give me. In some ways, I wish I had sustained my high school love of creative writing. Like many others, I let the demands of career prevail. One advantage I may have over younger writers is that I've had adequate time to see many fads come and go. In a market where E.L. James is a red-hot seller, I'm probably laboring against hopeless odds. But then, there was a time when Jacqueline Susann was also red-hot. All things must pass. Before my life turns to ashes, I'm going to give a sprint to the finish line my best effort.
|Posted on February 8, 2013 at 3:26 PM||comments (195)|
No doubt you've already heard that British forensic scientists have positively identified the bones of Richard III, whose unquiet rest in a church crypt was disrupted by the march of progress (or construction of a parking lot; whatever). By coincidence, TCM is showing Anne of the Thousand Days this week. I hadn't seen it in a long time and found it to be a refreshing contrast to the less-than-fastidious treatment of history by the cinema.
Richard Burton's portrayal of Henry VIII was (to my mind) far superior than Robert Shaw's in A Man for All Seasons. Henry, as Burton plays him, is constantly fretful about the possibility that a failure of male succession in England could bring about another War of the Roses. He also shows a noteworthy lack of filial piety, remarking that Henry VII had introduced some evils into England which hadn't been there previously.
Some scholars with whom I am acquainted believe that Shakespeare ransacked the writings (acknowledged or anonymous) of Sir Thomas More to paint Richard III as a blackguard. There are those who aren't convinced that Richard arranged the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London, asserting that Henry VII caused the lads' demise to vindicate his own claim to the throne. It may be that the unearthing of Richard's bones will cause another reappraisal of the troubled half-century that followed Bosworth Field.
We shouldn't be surprised. For almost fifty years, there have been furious debates over the number of shots fired in Dallas and whether they came from the Texas School Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll, or some other place. Debates are good for the advancement of historical knowledge. Let the polemics begin!