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Reading progress update: I've read 416 out of 560 pages.

Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography - Thomas A. Schwartz

And now I can cross the nonexistent "read a biography of Henry Kissinger" off of my reading bucket list.


That being said, as biographies go Schwartz's is a pretty good one. Though I didn't think I'd like the was he reduces Kissinger's career prior to becoming Nixon's national security adviser to a single chapter, in retrospect it seemed just the right size for it.

The changing meaning of the American Revolution

A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination - Michael Kammen

When the musical Hamilton premiered in 2015, it was hailed as a bold reimagining of the events surrounding the founding of the United States. What most audience members probably didn’t appreciate, though, was that it was only the latest in a long line of reimagined interpretations of the events of American independence. Those who did likely benefited from reading Michael Kammen’s book on the subject. In the first of a trilogy of studies he wrote on various aspects of the American historical imagination, Kammen recounts the evolving ways in which Americans remembered their revolution and what these changes reveal regarding the nation’s attitudes about its legacy for them.


Kammen begins by considering what he terms “the problem of tradition,” that problem being the absence of one throughout much of America’s existence. To outside observers living within the well-worn grooves of generations of traditions, Americans seemed to lack one. Though this would change, that change was gradual, and initially it was focused on the first defining event in the new country’s history. Though a natural choice it was not a conscious one, as Americans grappled with their revolutionary origins only as they began to slip away from them.


Kammen divides this process into stages. The first of these began with the Revolution itself, as its participants argued over the meaning of what they were doing. George Washington’s death in 1799 foreshadowed the passing of the “founding fathers,” and with them any firsthand verification of their intentions and goals. Though the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t pass for another third of a century, Americans began to reflect more on their achievements and their legacy. The celebration of the Fourth of July was an integral part of this, but it evolved in the 1790s into a partisan tradition which persisted until the demise of the Federalist Party after 1815 ended their conflict over what the Revolution achieved.


By the 1830s, there was a general reverence for the Revolutionary generation and a common desire to maintain what their sacrifices had earned. Exactly what it was that they had earned, however, remained a subject of dispute. The burgeoning sectional crisis increasingly infected this debate, as again warring sides played up different aspects of the Revolution to suit their vision for the country. By the mid-1870s, the ebbing of this conflict led people to find within the Revolution a common point of unity, with considerations of its political meaning dropped in favor of celebrations of a hazy nationalism. This ebbed and flowed over the course of the twentieth century, with the scholarly consideration of the Revolution’s place in American tradition increasingly distant from popular (and apolitical) consideration of the Fourth July as little more than a national birthday.


Kammen recounts the developing place of the American Revolution in a series of chapters considering its presence in art, poetry, and fiction. These are presented separately by subject, making the book less of a sustained narrative than an interconnected collection of essays that can be read separately. On nearly every page he offers an intriguing detail or a perceptive analysis that reflects both his immersion in this legacy and his thoughtful consideration of it. Though some of his conclusions may seen dated with the passage of time, his book still rewards reading for its account of the development of American nationalism and how this was reflected in the nation’s culture over the first two centuries of its existence.

My reading plans for the rest of July

Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography - Thomas A. Schwartz

The past couple of days have been extraordinarily productive for me reading-wise, with three books removed from my TBR stack and a fourth reviewed for a site. It's nice to have pared down the stack after a stagnant month of progress on it until now.


As is so often the case, though, progress was only possible because of compromises elsewhere. I need to get back to Arendt this weekend, and I have to prep for an interview about a new biography of Henry Kissinger. But once the interview is out of the way I plan on getting back to work on the TBR stack. Three additional books is probably a little ambitious (the three I read were low-hanging fruit reading-wise), but finishing two more would mean having pared down the stack by a quarter in a week and a half — putting me well on the way towards finishing it off for good.

When artists were kings

The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society - Caroline Dakers

In the second half of the 19th century, an informal group of artists coalesced in the northwestern London neighborhood of Kensington. Known as the Holland Park Circle, they often had different styles and subject matter but were united by geography and benefited collectively from a growing status of artists in the Victorian era. Thanks to their prosperity they built a series of houses in the neighborhood that both reflected their status and gave them opportunities to mingle with the wealthy and well-connected members of Victorian society, many of whom served as patrons and subjects.


Caroline Dakers’s book about the group functions on a number of different levels. In part it serves as a group biography, tracing the lives of such members as George Frederick Watts, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, and others, all of whom were esteemed in their day for their work. In tracing their lives and associations, though, it also serves as a biography of the neighborhood in which they lived. Carved out of the grounds surrounding Holland House, the rapidly developing community served as a crossroads of high Victorian society, where the artists socialized with both titled lords and the newly emergent class of wealthy manufacturers and upper-class professionals. Yet throughout this Dakers never loses sight of the art itself, as she uses the lives and the setting as context for her description of the artists’ works and their reception by their audience. It’s a masterful work that highlights effectively the intersection between art, commerce, and society in the Victorian world, and is rewarding reading for anyone interested in the era.

Reading progress update: I've read 139 out of 312 pages.

The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society - Caroline Dakers

Caroline Dakers's book is full of interesting details about the rich and well-connected that gravitated towards Holland Park, including this all-too familiar tale:

In 1872, [financial speculator Baron] Grant acquired seven and a half acres of land on the south side of Kensington High Street. . . Kensington House [the house he built on the site] was the largest private residence in London, built at a cost of £50,000, with 100 rooms and a picture gallery 106 feet long. The grounds contained an ice-skating rink and a man-made lake.

Kensington House was completed in 1876, but rumours were already circulating concerning the true state of Grant's finances. . . Grant was exposed before he could move in; his collection of paintings . . . was sold at Christie's in 1877. Rather than kill himself, Grant retired to Bognor Regis. No buyer could be found for the house. Everything inside that could be removed, even the staircase, was sold at auction, and the house itself was disposed of for just over £10,000. Within a decade, the largest private house in London had been built, decorated, furnished and finally, in 1882, demolished.

Le plus ca change . . .

Reading progress update: I've read 106 out of 312 pages.

The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society - Caroline Dakers

The book reminds me a little of many of my grad school reading experiences. It's a good work and I'm getting something out of it, but I'm really not that into it right now. I'd set it aside for another time, but I don't know if I'd ever get back to it (it was on my TBR stack for a reason) so at this point I'm just focusing on finishing it so I can move on to books more interesting to me right now.

The flying machines of the First World War

Aircraft of World War I 1914-1918 - Jack Herris

The title of the series is a little misleading; this is not so much an identification guide as it is a well-illustrated overview of aircraft employed in the First World War. In a series of short chapters, Jack Herris and Bob Pearson talk about the types of planes employed on the various fronts during given periods, with box summaries of their performance details and anecdotal stories about their use.


The value of the book is threefold. The first is the numerous illustrations of the planes. These are the book’s most obvious attraction, and they provide colorful depictions of the planes themselves. The second is the book’s comprehensiveness: while the air war on the Western Front understandably receives the most coverage, there are chapters addressing as well the other fronts of the war and the use of aircraft in naval warfare and strategic bombing. Finally, there is the text itself. Though short, the narrative is nicely descriptive, while the aeronautical details are presented in a way that helps the reader understand the science behind the planes’ designs and why or why not they worked.


These factors make the book an excellent introduction to the planes that fought in the first air war. Though readers seeking a detailed examination of air warfare or dramatic tales of the pilots dueling in the skies will want to look elsewhere, anyone seeking to learn about the planes themselves and their employment throughout the conflict would be hard pressed to find a better place to begin.

A collection of rants about the Vietnam War

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War - Phillip Jennings

The “Politically Incorrect Guides” were a thing in the early 2000s – a right-wing variation on the “For Dummies” media brand of instructional guides that was designed to provide an ideologically correct spin on their subjects. A little under two dozen of them were produced on various historical and hot-button topics, most of them bravely railing against various straw men in an effort to show why the right’s interpretation of events was always the correct one.


Philip Jennings’s contribution on the Vietnam War is a representative example of the series. The bullet points on the cover make a series of daring claims, such as that 1) contrary to what you may have heard, the U.S. actually won the Vietnam War, only for that victory to be undermined by liberal congressmen, 2) contrary to the popular view that body counts were gross exaggerations, the U.S. killed more of the enemy than they gave themselves credit for, 3) Ho Chi Minh was not a nationalist but a “hard core Communist,” and so on. Take that, conventional wisdom!


Such bold assertions call for extensive documentation to support them, and if one were to go by his bibliography Jennings has indeed read widely on the conflict. Most of his chapters, though, are grounded in a very narrow selection of works from that bibliography, favoring heavily the ones that support his antagonistic viewpoints and ignoring any pesky details that run counter to them. This happens from the start, when he stresses the benevolent aspects of French colonial rule and ignores the brutal methods they employed over the decades to maintain their control. In Jennings’s view, the Vietnamese never had it so good as they did when the French were in charge.


But if that were true, then why did the Vietnamese rebel? Enter the sinister figure of Ho Chi Minh, the bète noire of Jennings’s tale. Jennings never misses an opportunity to denigrate Ho, taking particular delight in mocking his early job as a pastry chef, even claiming that he was trained by the famous chef Auguste Escoffier. That there is no evidence that Ho ever trained under Escoffier highlights another problem with Jennings’s book, which is that he never allows the absence of evidence to get in the way of a snide point. Nor does he provide much in the way of detail; the anti-colonial war against the French becomes something that just happens, though Jennings is sure that the Communists are to blame somehow.


Jennings is particularly determined to play up Ho’s Communist bona fides as a way of justifying America’s intervention in Vietnam. This meant supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of the newly-created South Vietnam and the hero of Jennings’s version of Vietnamese history. Whereas Jennings’s accepts any derogatory detail about Ho no matter how spurious his portrait of Diem goes to great lengths to defend him by excusing his authoritarian government (Diem’s pro-Catholic bias goes unmentioned, his rigging of his own election is presented as a necessary show of strength, and his persecution of Buddhists is treated as a clash against a militant fringe) and arguing that his regime was far more successful than it was credited. Nevertheless, Diem’s removal in a coup, in Jennings’s estimation, removed the one true national leader in South Vietnam, thus necessitating American intervention.


What follows is a highly selective narrative of American involvement in the war, one focused mainly on the various air campaigns launched against the North Vietnamese. Absent from his book are the daily patrols that made up such a large part of military activity for American soldiers, along with the difficulties they encountered. Instead Jennings spends pages excoriating the various opponents of the war, as everyone from liberal Democrats to the media serve as targets for his ire. For the most part it’s less pointed criticism than it is irate venting that can’t cover up the hollowness of many of his arguments. As for the evidence that the U.S. won the war, Jennings refers to that discredited metric of the body count, arguing that all the U.S. needed to do after Nixon withdrew American forces (because the U.S. had killed so many Communists, right?) was to keep supplying air and naval support and South Vietnam would be with us today.


All of this makes for a book that is less a primer on the war than a collection of assorted rants about it. Even at its modest size it feels padded with superfluous material, from potted reviews of books and movies about the war to an "interview" with two characters from a novel Jennings wrote that may well be the most insular exchange ever printed. It all makes for a lousy work that fails in its goal by its very cheapness – if there is an argument to be made for the Vietnam War as a secret success, Jennings fails to make it in his tendentious and partisan text.

Whittling down Mount TBR

Yesterday I took another trip to my office in order to find shelf space for some of my recent acquisitions. The only problem is that my shelves there are as crammed with books as my ones at home, which is creating some real problems for me.


In the end, I decided that my only recourse was to take down some books and add them to the TBR stack that I've been working on. this isn't the first time that I've done this since I created it at the start of the pandemic, which is why a stack that started out as this:


Now looks like this:



Clearly I haven't put in the time needed to whittle it down as quickly as I've been adding to it, so I'm spending today working on some of the volumes awaiting reviews. After that I'm going to devote more reading time to some of the larger volumes, lest the stack tip over and crush me under its weight.

John Lewis, R.I.P.

March: Book Three - John   Lewis, Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin
I had planned last night to start reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism for my buddy read with T-A and BT, but news of John Lewis's death pushed me instead to finish reading his great March trilogy. I was broadly familiar with its outlines, but reading and re-reading the volumes gave me an opportunity to reflect on what his life meant.

John Robert Lewis was born in Alabama in 1940. His parents owned a farm, yet still struggled to make ends meet. Young Lewis grew up in a South still fully governed by Jim Crow laws; the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education did nothing to change the impoverished and segregated school he attended. Much, much more needed to be done.


And this is what Lewis did. While attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary he participated in the Nashville Student Movement, taking part in their sit-ins at local businesses to pressure them to desegregate their facilities. In 1961, Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders, and he and the others were attacked repeatedly for engaging in perfectly lawful activity. He was also arrested numerous times, and was even imprisoned at Parchman Farm for a month. Yet his sacrifice and the sacrifice of his fellow protestors had an effect. People everywhere were paying attention.


In 1963, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was one of the “Big Six” who organized the famous March on Washington. He spoke that day, though he toned down his speech under pressure from the others. The following year, he organized as well the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and in 1965 participated in the march at Selma, where he and hundreds of other protestors were attacked by state troopers. He carried the scars he received on his head from their beatings for the rest of his life.


When I consider everything he went through, I cannot helped but be moved by the enormous moral strength and personal courage that he demonstrated. It was a fight that he never gave up on waging personally, even after he won a seat in Congress. Just this year he shared his lessons with the BLM protestors, who have experienced much the same treatment he did six decades ago. Instead of despairing about the slow pace of change, he expressed his optimism for how others were exercising their moral power, saying to one interviewer, “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, ‘I can do something. I can say something’. And they said something by marching and by speaking up and speaking out.” His words reminded me of the lesson contained in Dr. King’s famous quote about the the long arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. Fighting for change is a lifelong struggle and we may not enjoy its fruits, but we will leave our world a better place than it was when we were born into it. That is certainly what John Lewis showed us.

Podcast #190 is up!

Lord High Executioner: The Legendary Mafia Boss Albert Anastasia - Michael Benson, Frank DiMatteo

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Frank DiMatteo about his biography of the mob boss Antonio Anastasia. Enjoy!

A general's rise, sans analysis

George C. Marshall: Education of a General: 1880-1939 - Forrest C. Pogue

Ask most people to name the greatest American general of the Second World War and you’re likely to hear such famous names as Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, or Douglas MacArthur. Only occasionally might someone propose the name George Catlett Marshall, despite his outsized role in the conflict. From September 1939 until November 1945, Marshall served as the military head of the United States Army, in which role he built up and directed a massive ground and air force that waged war across the globe. Yet Marshall’s role has long been overshadowed by those of the commanders on the battlefield, whose achievements were only possible because of Marshall’s organizational abilities and strategic guidance.


How Marshall came to occupy such an important position at such a crucial time in history is the focus of the first volume of Forrest Pogue’s tetralogy about the general and statesman. A former member of the U.S. Army’s historical division and the author of the volume in their famous “green book” series on the supreme command in Europe during the war, Pogue was invited to write Marshall’s official biography and was granted unrestricted access to both the general and his papers. These he combined with additional archival research to provide a comprehensive look at his subject’s life and career.


Pogue begins with Marshall’s upbringing in western Pennsylvania. The son of a businessman, Marshall enjoyed a comfortable childhood until a poor investment on his father’s part left his family in straitened financial circumstances. While drawn to soldiering, the challenges of gaining an appointment to West Point led young Marshall instead to enroll at the Virginia Military Institute. Upon graduation, Marshall was commissioned into an army recently engorged by the Spanish American War with new officers, making for an extremely competitive contest for promotion.


Nevertheless, Marshall rose gradually through the ranks. As Pogue makes clear, this was due to Marshall’s hard work and diligent application to his tasks. The young lieutenant soon demonstrated capabilities far beyond his rank, impressing both his peers and his superiors. After service in the Philippines Marshall returned to the United States, where he distinguished himself as both a student and an instructor in the Army’s emerging professional educational system. For Marshall, however, this proved a double-edged sword for his career prospects, as his gifts as a staff officer denied him the opportunities to serve in the line that were invaluable for an officer’s promotion prospects. As a result, Marshall found himself still a captain after the First World War, while many of his peers sported eagles or even stars on their shoulders.


Yet Marshall benefited enormously from the support of his former commander, General John Pershing. Chosen as Pershing’s aide during the general’s postwar service as chief of staff, Marshall enjoyed Pershing’s patronage and connections as he rose steadily in rank through a shrunken military establishment. During the 1930s Marshall’s service both as a regional commander within the Civilian Conservation Corps and as Deputy Chief of Staff commended him in the eyes of President Franklin Roosevelt, resulting in his appointment as chief of staff on the eve of the momentous outbreak of war in Europe.


Thanks to his access to both Marshall and his documentary legacy, Pogue provides his readers with a thorough account of his pre-Second World War military career. Though rich in detail, the text never drags thanks to Pogue’s deft writing and his ability to supply the exact right amount of explanatory context. Yet while Pogue provides an invaluable of Marshall’s activities, he falls short in terms of analysis, as he refrains from analyzing Marshall’s ideas about tactics or doctrine or strategic thinking. While this reflects in part a paucity of writing on Marshall’s part, his failure to supplement this with his interviews with Marshall represents a missed opportunity, one that Pogue himself never compensates for by offering his own suppositions based on the historical record. It’s an unfortunate omission in what will likely be the most detailed study of Marshall’s development, and limits the achievement of what is otherwise a valuable study of an underappreciated American military leader.

Reading progress update: I've read 91 out of 261 pages.

Sleeping Beauty - Ross Macdonald

My reading has been more biography-heavy than usual, and after finishing the first volume of Bullock's life of Ernest Bevin I wanted something different. Fortunately I had a Ross Macdonald novel handy and it's proving the perfect alternative. It's one of his later ones, so all of the rhythms are there; though he's taking longer to move past the preliminaries, the first body (there's always a couple) has turned up and I'm sure the next one will be showing up in another hundred pages or so.

The ceaseless labors of a trade union leader

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

When he died in 1951 Ernest Bevin was eulogized by many for his decade-long service as a cabinet minister. As Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, he presided over the mobilization of the British workforce for the war effort, while as Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government he worked for the reconstruction of Europe and shaped the West’s response to the challenge posed by the newly-dominant Soviet Union. Yet this remarkable period came after a long career as a labor organizer, during which he played a pivotal role in the growth of British unions during the first half of the 20th century.


It is this period of Bevin’s life that is the focus of the first book in Alan Bullock’s three-volume account of his life and achievements. An academic best known for writing the first complete biography of Adolf Hitler, Bullock was invited by Arthur Deakin, Bevin’s successor as the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGUW), to chronicle Bevin’s multifarious achievements. Bullock rose to this challenge by authoring one of the great works of modern political biography, one that details Bevin’s lifelong efforts on behalf of the workers and the nation he held so dear.


As Bullock details, Bevin’s life of labor began at an early age. Growing up in rural Somerset, Bevin was forced at a young age to quit school and seek work as an agricultural laborer. After moving to Bristol, Bevin was employed in a number of different jobs before finding his calling as a labor organizer for the Dockers’ Union. Bullock shows how Bevin’s work as a labor leader was not just a career but a passion, one in which he invested an enormous amount of his time and energy, often to the point of exhaustion.


Such commitment was necessary given the challenges facing the labor movement in Britain at that time. One of the many strengths of Bullock’s book is in how he sets Bevin’s life in the context of an era, one in which unions struggled against numerous challenges to their existence. He credits Bevin with much of their success during their period, thanks to such achievements as his contributions to the postwar Shaw Inquiry and his key role in the formation in 1922 of the TGWU, his position in which cemented Bevin’s place at the forefront of Britain’s labor leadership.


While Bullock spends the bulk of the book describing Bevin’s many activities, he also draws from them a deeper understanding of his views and motivations. Though Bevin was a committed socialist from an early age, Bullock notes his longstanding ambivalence towards the Labour Party and particularly towards the intellectuals who shaped much of its ideology. In his view, their ideas all too often lacked a grounding in the realities facing the British working class. These Bevin was all too familiar with, as his duties as general secretary often took him across the length and breadth of the country and brought him into direct contact with the circumstances workers faced. Informed by such experiences, Bevin often found the political party claiming to be working on their behalf to be far too detached from problems they sought to address.


Nevertheless, Bevin became more invested in political solutions to these problems over the course of his career. As Bullock shows, this was a consequence of the setbacks facing the labor movement in the interwar era. With Britain’s global economic dominance eroding, workers often experienced the effects of this in the form of reduced wages and high unemployment. Despite his success in organizing workers, Bevin emerged from the famous General Strike of 1926 with a painfully-earned lesson in the limits of direct action. In its aftermath, he increased his involvement in politics, participating in Labour’s victory in the 1929 general election and helping to rebuild the party after their setbacks two years later. Though Bevin was periodically offered opportunities to stand for Parliament during the interwar era, he preferred to work from outside as a union leader, and it was only the demands of war in 1940 that compelled him to abandon his longstanding reluctance to serve in government and accept Winston Churchill’s offer to become Minister of Labour.


By the end of the book, Bullock has left his readers with a thorough grasp of Bevin’s accomplishments as a labor leader. Had he retired as general secretary in 1941 as he intended Bevin still would have lived a life deserving to be written about. As a prelude to his even more noteworthy achievements, though, it is even more worthy of study. Though clearly an admirer of Bevin’s, Bullock is critical enough to draw out key insights that provide a better appreciation of his subject’s views and motivations. His immersion in it results in a text that is often dense with details, but no less readable for it. It’s a book that is absolutely indispensable for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of one of the greatest figures in modern British history, and it stands as a monument to his lifetime of ceaseless effort.

Where to find the space and the time?

Yesterday my latest indulgence arrived in the mail:



Even now that I have them I still have somewhat mixed feelings about having purchased them. They're mine now, though, so once I do the catalog updating with them that I want to do I'll find a place for them on my already-groaning shelves.

Reading progress update: I've read 504 out of 672 pages.

The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

I'm so glad that I took the time to reread this. I could very easily have taken it "as read" (even if it was ages ago) and moved on to volume 2. Had I done that, though, I would have missed Bullock's careful tracking of the development of Bevin's views over his long career as a labor leader. It's more than worth the slog through the descriptions of the various labor disputes and union politics.


That being said, I'm probably going to take a break before moving on to the next volume.