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Currently reading

Lord Reading: Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading, Lord Chief Justice and Viceroy of India, 1860-1935
Denis Judd
Progress: 90/316 pages
Charlotte Lennox: An Independent Mind
Susan Carlile
Progress: 137/528 pages
Operation Don's Main Attack: The Soviet Southern Front's Advance on Rostov, January-February 1943
David M. Glantz
Progress: 382/952 pages

My February reading idiocy

— feeling sad
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom - David W. Blight

Last year I started to use the various holidays and commemorations as opportunities to read more about the subjects being celebrated. It began with last year's Black History Month, during which I read Jeffrey Stewart's superb biography of Alain Locke, and I followed up with similar efforts during Women's History Month and Labor Day weekend. I'm really coming to enjoy the experience, too, as it pushes me to explore areas of the past that I don't give the attention I should.


A couple of weeks ago, I decided that for Black History Month this year I would read David W. Blight's new biography of Frederick Douglass. I've wanted to read it ever since I learned he was writing it; he's a fantastic historian, and the acclaim which it has received since its release has suggested that it is every bit as good as I'm expecting it to be. I checked out a copy earlier this week, and it now sits on a table awaiting to be read.


Only I don't know if I'll be able to get to it anytime soon.


This, of course, is a problem entirely of my own making. A month ago I found myself in one of my periodic reviewing droughts in terms of podcast interviewing. I contacted a few authors, then a couple more when I didn't receive any responses to my initial requests, only to get a sudden flurry of acceptances when nearly all of them replied to accept my interview offers — just after I agreed to two proposals from the site editor to interview authors who contacted him about interviews. Because of this, I have no less than eight interviews in various stages of preparation, and I'm committed to doing five of them this month alone. It's not an unmanageable load, but when combined with my other reading commitments it doesn't leave me much time for nearly 900 pages about Douglass, no matter how badly I want to read about him.


Gaah, why do I do this to myself?

My one hundred thirty-fourth podcast is up!

The Three Axial Ages: Moral, Material, Mental - John Torpey

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview John Torpey about his elaboration of Karl Jaspers's concept of the "axial age" of historical development. Enjoy!

Podcast #133 is up!

The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain - George R. Boyer

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview economic historian George R. Boyer about his new book on the evolution of British welfare policy from the Poor Law reforms of the 1830s to the advent of the postwar welfare state. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 23 out of 348 pages.

The British End of the British Empire - Sarah Stockwell

This is a book that I scouted out for a podcast, and I'm glad I did. I'm enjoying it immensely for the way it's getting me to think differently about a subject with which I'm long familiar, in this case the British empire. What Stockwell is doing is looking at the role that certain British institutions  the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Bank of England, the Royal Mint, and the Royal Military Academy — played in the British empire during the period of decolonization. I must confess that had never even contemplated the issue, much less how they helped to perpetuate the British legacy in the post-colonial world.

A valuable history of "the world's oldest colony"

Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History - Arturo Morales Carrión

For most Americans today, Puerto Rico is an afterthought, a remnant of a strategic vision of which they are reminded only when disaster causes it to flare up momentarily onto their collective consciousness. Yet for the Puerto Ricans themselves, this is a disappointingly familiar reflection of their historical experience of the last five centuries. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Arturo Morales Carrión's masterful survey of the island's long and troubled history. Written in collaboration with four area specialists who contribute chapters on the Spanish colonial era and Puerto Rican culture, it conveys the long experience of domination by outside powers and the efforts by Puerto Ricans to exert some degree of control over their own destinies. Though nearly four decades old it still rewards reading thanks to the excellent overview it provides of Puerto Rico's development and relationship with the outside powers that controlled it, and is strongly recommended for anyone seeking to better understand this unjustly overlooked part of our nation.

The prototypical Lew Archer novel

The Moving Target - Ross Macdonald

When millionaire oilman Ralph Sampson goes missing, his worried wife hires a private detective to track him down. Lew Archer soon discovers, though that what initially seemed a matter of a man on a bender may in fact be a case of kidnapping. As he investigates further, he encounters an eclectic group of individuals connected to Sampson, all of whom are possibly involved in Sampson's disappearance. With the likelihood of finding Sampson alive diminishing with each passing second, Archer races to discover everyone's secrets, even if doing so comes at the cost of his life.


Though The Moving Target was Ross Macdonald's first novel featuring his signature detective Lew Archer, it is the sixth one in the series that I have read. Because of this, it serves as an interesting contrast with the others. Though in some ways a prototype of the future volumes in the series, many of the elements that characterize Macdonald's Archer novels such as the long-held secrets and connections with seemingly unrelated crimes decades beforehand are absent from this book. Instead what Macdonald provides is a more straightforward mystery involving a grief-ridden family and the dangerous characters orbiting around them. In this respect it's a refreshing change of pace from the regular patterns that would come to characterize the series, which can grow a little tiresome when read back-to-back. This may explain why I enjoyed the novel as much as I did, even if the book did not possess the virtuosic plotting and character development that would become a hallmark of Macdonald's writing in subsequent years. Once again, variety proves to be the spice of life, even with works of such rare quality as Macdonald's.

Reading progress update: I've read 143 out of 224 pages.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life - Marshall Frady

I'm familiar with the events of Montgomery and Birmingham. I was ignorant of Albany, Georgia and St. Augustine, though, and reading Frady's description of them (the latter of which he witnessed firsthand) had far too many uncomfortable echoes with the present.

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Though I'm reading Frady's short biography of him now, I plan on following it up at some point with a couple of the books on this list. Happy MLK Day!

Reading progress update: I've read 71 out of 224 pages.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life - Marshall Frady

I came across a copy of Marshall Frady's biography of Martin Luther King Jr. on the clearance shelf of one of our local Half Price Books earlier today, and given that it's MLK Day weekend and I haven't read much about him until now I felt inspired to purchase it. So far it's giving me the background that I've long needed, though the floridness of Frady's prose is a little annoying.

The annoying limitation of published book reviews

The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant - Ulysses S. Grant, Elizabeth D. Samet

Last month a new annotated edition of Ulysses Grant's memoirs was published by Liveright. So far it's getting positive reviews, and though I read the Library of America edition a couple of years ago the idea of reading an annotated edition explaining the elements that eluded me the last time around is appealing.


The problem is, it's not the only annotated edition that has recently been published, as Belknap Press recently came out with one edited by Grant scholar John Marszalek that was also greeted with acclaim. I plan on sitting down some time soon with them to figure out which to read, only I'm annoyed at having to do so at all. Because for all of the reviews that have bene published about the Liveright edition, not a single one so far has bothered to even mention the one from Belknap, much less compare the two. What's the point of reviewing a new edition of a book if it isn't going to be compared to its predecessors? Is that really asking too much of a reviewer?

My weekend reading opportunity

Operation Don's Main Attack: The Soviet Southern Front's Advance on Rostov, January-February 1943 - David M. Glantz

Thanks to MLK Day, this weekend will be a three-day weekend for me. In a lot of ways it affords me an opportunity similar to that of Labor Day, in tat it's a break early enough in the semester that I don't have a whole lot of accumulated assignments to grade. And while I'm recording a couple of interviews later today, those will be my last for the month. So for the most part, I have an opportunity for lots of self-directed reading in the days ahead.


While I'm thinking of taking advantage of it by reading a Ross Macdonald novel, I will likely use the time to tackle the David Glantz book that is awaiting my review. This was one of those reviewing plums that was too tempting to pass up, especially as I have been preparing to delve into Glantz's body of work in order to fill one of the most glaring gaps in my understanding of the Second World War. That being said, starting with Glantz is in a lot of ways like teaching yourself to swim by jumping into a fast-moving river, as his books are dense with detail and with very little context provided. He's far from the most reader-friendly author (especially for the novice), but I've committed to reviewing his book so I'll need to read it sometime soon.

A revisionist account of a pivotal election

The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences" - Michael F. Holt

The presidential election of 1860 was unlike any other in American history. The product of the contentious and often violent politics of the 1850s, it saw no less than four candidates contesting for the White House. With the fracturing of the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was able to win with a only a plurality of the vote, thanks to the majority he won in the electoral college through his near sweep of the populous states of the northern United States. In response to his victory, seven southern states sought to break away from the Union, an action that led to the bloodiest war in the nation's history and the eventual abolition of slavery in the country.


Given its dramatic nature and the momentous events that followed, the 1860 campaign has never wanted for attention from historians. Yet Michael F. Holt argues that a number of misconceptions have accumulated around the election which have skewed our perception of it. His book offers a revisionist account of the campaign that highlights these obscured or distorted elements in an effort to gain a better understanding of the issues that defined it for the voters who participated. Foremost among them, he argues, is the idea that the election was primarily about slavery, which he sees as the view of the southerners who would subsequently seek to break away from the union. For most voters, though, the main issue was the corruption of the Buchanan administration. Holt shows how Republicans highlighted this in the months leading up to the election, making the case that what was needed was a clean sweep of the executive branch. As he explains this also played a key role in the selection of "Honest Abe" as the nominee, as Lincoln's profile was one better suited to make the case for the Republicans than that of his main competitors, William Seward and the corrupt Simon Cameron.


While the Republicans sharpened their arguments about Democratic corruption in advance of the election, the Democratic Party was plagued with infighting between the president, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas. Holt traces the origins of this to Douglas's refusal to admit Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton constitution. As Holt points out, this coupled with Douglas's qualified acceptance of the Dred Scott decision also alienated him from the southern Democrats who increasingly dominated the party, setting the stage for the party convention in Charleston in 1860 at which the Democrats fractured into pro- and anti-Douglas factions. With a victory by the (at that point undecided) Republican candidate increasingly likely, a group of politicians organized a conservative alternative to Republicans in the form of the Constitutional Union Party, who selected the elder statesman John Bell as their presidential contender. With the nomination of Douglas and Vice President John Breckinridge by the separate Democratic factions, the stage was set for a chaotic contest.


In covering the campaign that followed, Holt pushes back against the traditionally narrow view of it as separate contests between Lincoln and Douglas in the north and Breckinridge versus Bell in the south. Though Breckinridge, and Bell both refrained from electioneering, their campaigns sent speakers and mounted rallies in the northern states as well as the southern ones, while Republicans distributed ballots in the border slave states as well. Most dramatically Douglas undertook the then-unusual step of personally campaigning by making speeches in both the northern and southern states. Holt's chapter on the campaign itself is the best in the book, as he describes the myriad activities the parties adopted to turn out the vote. In this respect the Republican effort proved the most successful, as the dramatic appeals to young voters with the "Wide Awake" clubs and criticisms of Democratic corruption delivering them the victories they needed in the key swing states. As Holt points out, slavery was a salient issue only in the south, where arguments that Republicans were seeking outright abolition were so disconnected from Republican campaign goals that Republicans failed to take seriously the threats of secession by many southerners —a delusion that would quickly be dispelled in the weeks following Lincoln's victory.


As a longtime scholar of antebellum politics, Holt brings a lifetime's worth of learning to his subject. Yet he wears this lightly, providing an accessible description of the election while making arguments that go far towards shaking up the traditional interpretation of the 1860 election. Yet Holt oversells the revisionist nature of his account. Though he performs a valuable service in highlighting aspects of the campaign that were obscured by subsequent events, as Holt himself acknowledges at the end, perceptions of Democratic corruption and "misrule" in the north were as much tied to the perception of the party's excessive deference to southerners' anxieties about slavery as it was the buying of votes or the favoring of Democrats in awarding contracts. Moreover, his account of the election itself only qualifies somewhat the view of it as separate contests, suggesting the misconception is more one of emphasis than detail. Yet in the end these are criticisms of degree rather than of substance. Overall, Holt's reexamination of the 1860 election offers a refreshing reexamination of one of the truly pivotal moments in American history, and is necessary reading for anyone seeking to understand the election and how it led to the devastating conflict that followed.

My one hundred thirty-second podcast is up!

The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs - Alexander S. Dawson

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Alexander S. Dawson about his new book about the history of peyote in the United States and Mexico. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 50 out of 272 pages.

The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences" - Michael F. Holt

As great an admirer as I am of Michael Holt's scholarship, I'm having some serious problems with this book. In the preface, Holt explains that his quest to say something new about the presidential election of 1860 has led him to identify two aspects of the conventional narrative that are "misleading": that the election was primarily about slavery (which he identifies as the view of the southern secessionists) and that it was two separate campaigns defined by geography. Until now he has been addressing the first of these, and while he makes quite a few good points I'm still not entirely convinced by it. For while the issue for northerners may have been less slavery and more about "ousting Democrats from power and restoring honesty to the federal government," there's plenty of literature demonstrating that a big factor behind these anti-Democratic views was the perception of the party's domination by southerners and the excessive catering to their anxieties about slavery. So far Holt seems unwilling to address this, though.

The incredible annoyance of the latest effort

John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court - R. Kent Newmyer

One of the consequences of the last-minute changes to my spring teaching schedule is that I have a justification for reading some more early American history. I'm identifying some possible books to read, and among the ones I'm thinking of reading is a biography of Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall. I've had a copy of Kent Newmyer's book about him for years, and the opportunity to read it seems too good to pass it up.


The only problem is, it's not the only one on my mind. The biography of the moment is Joel Richard Paul's Without Precedent, which has received a number of positive reviews. It may be shallow of me, but I find myself tempted to pick up a copy of it instead. And I hate that, as it would mean leaving Newmyer's book to collect more yet dust on my shelf until who knows when I would get to it.


It's always been something of an annoyance to me to see book after book published about the same people or subjects. While there is no gainsaying Marshall's role in American legal history, there is no shortage of first-rate biographies on him already available. Yet instead of writing on a less well-covered subject, we have one more Marshall biography for the shelves — and I have to figure out which one to read so as to make the most of my precious reading time.

Reading progress update: I've read 47 out of 384 pages.

The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain - George R. Boyer

This book is proving to be a perfect example of what I find so limiting about economic history. Boyer is examining the impact of changes in welfare law upon the poor and unemployed in Britain. It's all well and good, but he never bothers to explain why Parliament changes the law. Was it a shift in morality, or because of the increasing shift of the population from rural to urban? Evidently Boyer doesn't think this worth addressing.


This might be a minor complaint, but it also highlights another problem with the book, this one being a lack of differentiation in his statistics. He tosses around numbers about the "population" and "the poor" as they were a uniform category between 1832 and 1951. He should know very well that this isn't the case, and that a lot of what was happening involved adapting a system geared towards addressing poverty in a predominantly agrarian economy to a predominantly industrial one. Given some of the arguments he makes, not addressing this leaves it flawed and subject to substantial revision, which is a shame because he makes some interesting points in his economic analysis.