Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two Books

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)

If you've read a first rate Civil war history & a bio of Lincoln, this is a very entertaining book that fills in a lot of blank spaces. Though at 800 pages it's a bit unwieldy for bedtime fare in the hardcover edition.

The topic is Lincoln & his cabinet, which included three opponents for the 1860 nomination, a wealthy Democratic lawyer who'd dissed Lincoln a few years earlier & had served in Buchanan's cabinet, an influential Connecticut newspaperman, & an ambitious son of a powerful political patriarch. Seward, Chase, Bates, Stanton, Welles, Blair. They all come out looking pretty good, except Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.

I want to like Chase. He overcame a difficult childhood, had few advantages other than education, was the most committed abolitionist in the cabinet. He buried three wives, at which point he gave up on marriage. He also was an excellent Treasury Secretary. But the man was incapable of seeing an even halfway true reflection of himself, let his ambitions cloud his judgment, could not admit mistakes, believed he was telling the truth when he lied, had no sense of humor, & was the only one of the "rivals" whose character was not changed for the better through close proximity to Abraham Lincoln. Chase believed America should have made him president just because he was Chase. Yet, because his devoted, pretty, & superbly educated daughter was the belle hostess of Washington society, Chase's dinner table & social events were the most sought after invitations in town. ( She made a bad marriage with a rich, alcoholic, abusive Rhode Island industrialist & politician, divorced, & died in poverty .) Chase never understood why Lincoln & Sec. of State William Seward became pals (they were actually birds of a feather), or why seeming opposites Lincoln & War Secretary Edwin Stanton bonded (they were of one mind on preserving the Union, Stanton gave Lincoln competence & loyalty, & Lincoln in turn gave him a long leash to run his important dept as he saw fit, & they shared a tendency to morbid sentiment.)

Goodwin is a popular writer. She wisely put all her notes at the end where they can be conveniently ignored. & she leaves you wanting to learn more about all her characters, because they are characters such as rarely rise to similar positions of power now.
Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (2008)

The premise is legit: Our view of the so-called Dark Ages (A.D. 400-800) was determined by historians looking at the period from the perspective of Rome, especially Edward Gibbon. The Glory of Rome overrun by hordes of migrating, ignorant, smelly barbarians. Wells proposes that it wasn't so bleak, or dark; the Empire fell apart so slowly as to not even be noticed by people living then; life went on & in fact improved for many as the Roman military withdrew; there's little evidence of mass migrations & sudden dislocation throughout most of western Europe & Scandinavia. There's plenty of evidence for stable, prosperous trading & manufacturing centers & farm villages, & the emergence of a Charlemagne had been building for a long time.

This is all quite educational, but Wells, a professor of anthropology, doesn't make the Dark Ages particularly interesting. You get facts, research, museum displays, & probabilities, but little sense of how people lived, their dailyness. He shines a light on the stage, but it's mostly tableau. No one is moving around on it. 200 pages.


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"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

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