About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amazon Review of an Honourable Englishman

An Honourable Englishman
Adam Sisman
2012, pp. 672

Adam Sisman’s biography of English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper harkens us back to a time when the writing and teaching of history mattered.  From the 1930s through the 1980s the world was highly ideological, and the interpretation of even the distant past was hotly contested as being intimately relevant to contemporary events surrounding the rise of first fascism and then communism.  As the gladiators in this particular coliseum, certain historians became celebrities in a manner not seen before or since.  Appearing on television and the radio, and writing in newspapers and journals both academic and popular, they were much in demand to provide perspective on events such as trials of Nazi war criminals, the JFK assassination and the Warren Commission. 

Country homes, fancy cars, and exotic foreign travels play as large a role in the Trevor-Roper story as journal articles, conferences and books.  The reader is invited into the arcane world of Oxbridge and the vicious politics that consumed its scholars.  Flamboyant, brilliant, garrulous and out spoken, Trevor-Roper is a particularly engaging protagonist.  One author likened him to a “pop star” in terms of his standing with the public.  Although his academic work focused mostly on the 16th and 17th centuries, Trevor-Roper’s framework for understanding “his” period was in competition with those offered by Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm.  Which interpretation prevailed was not seen as irrelevant at a time when a Marxist superpower was claiming that “the West” was irrevocably doomed because of natural historical forces.
Trevor-Roper with his wife:
a passionate yet stormy

Sisman does a particularly fine job covering the historical issues about which Trevor-Roper and his colleagues discussed and debated, sometimes in vituperative terms.  At the same time, he avoids turning the book into historiography.  The reader will understand just enough about the historical controversies to understand Trevor-Roper, and the controversies in which he engaged with relish, without getting too bogged down.

A typical "young man in a hurry" Trevor-Roper
would come to be frustrated later in life with his inability
to create a masterwork on the 17th century.  His inability
to navigate between complexity and narrative still eludes
many in academia.
Sisman’s generally sympathetic portrayal does not lead him astray when recognizing his subject’s shortcomings.  For example, his summation of Trevor-Roper’s involvement in the controversy surrounding the Warren Commission’s report is particularly harsh (“rashness,” “poor judgment,” “ obstinacy,” “arrogance”).  Trevor-Roper habitually separated the personal from the professional in a manner many others could not and consequently was frequently caught off guard at how personally colleagues took what he intended to be purely professional criticisms.  Sisman’s reliance on Trevor-Roper’s voluminous correspondence reminds us of the daunting challenge that will be met by anyone attempting to chronicle the life of the historians of today.

One final note: the American title of the book is a curiosity (it was not used in England where readers would recognize Trevor-Roper’s name more readily).  Trevor-Roper was not particularly honorable (except that he was incapable of keeping his honest opinions to himself, a sort of academic integrity perhaps) and he might wince at being identified as being more “English” than any other historian of the period, as he was very critical of those who failed to look beyond England’s borders when chronicling events.  Still anyone looking for a biography of Trevor-Roper in particular or for exposure to the world of Oxford dons and historians during their golden age will enjoy Sisman’s book tremendously.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amazon Review of The Union War

The Union War
Gary Gallagher
2011, 256 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

An often neglected topic of Civil War literature is the role preserving the Union played in motivating the North. Even when the importance of preservation of the Union is acknowledged, it's often relegated to second tier status in favor of emancipation.

 University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher's latest work replaces preservation of the Union as the primary goal for which the North fought, helping 21st century Americans understand why it was so beloved by those willing to die for it. He differentiates this Northern GOAL from the war's CAUSE, which was "beyond dispute...controversies related to slavery." The Union War provides insight into subjective Union views on topics related to the war's aims, although it does not offer an objective assessment of their accuracy (e.g., whether the Union really afford its citizens, particularly those in urban slums and factories the economic opportunities often claimed). At the same time, it disputes the thesis that emancipation emerged as a goal equal to or greater than Union by the war's conclusion. To the vast majority of the North, emancipation remained a necessary tool to prosecute the war, and restoring the status quo ante was unthinkable given how slavery had nearly destroyed their beloved Union.
Gallagher explains the link between the Union and
 liberty and why northerners, particularly immigrants
cherished it for the opportunities it afforded

In a day when we debate concepts such as "American exceptionalism" there was little doubt that it was exceptional in 1861 in terms of popular government, or self-rule by the common (white) man. As flawed as American republicanism was in the middle of the 19th century, it still stood out as the most progressive form of government (if practiced imperfectly), especially when compared to the aristocratic and even more repressive forms of government found in Europe, which had fought, successfully, against republican inspired uprisings only a few years earlier. Fighting for the Union meant, in their view, fighting for the survival of self government and the rule of law in the world (recall Lincoln's "last best hope" rhetoric). To Union soldiers it also meant preserving the legacy of the founding generation, and protecting the inheritance of future generations of Americans.

Most likely he fought to
preserve the Union rather
than end slavery
 Gallagher reviews recent scholarship on the Civil War that denigrates the concept of Union as a worthy war aim, explaining why the Union was so important to Northerners. Another interesting theme is Union soldiers' hatred of slaveholders and oligarchs who threatened "liberty," but primarily the Union soldiers' own through their non-free labor economy. He discusses the link that Northerners placed between the Union and economic liberty, something Lincoln and others continually stressed, although, again, he does not evaluate its accuracy (he does, interestingly, cite Karl Marx for the view that Union victory would preserve the most progressive form of government heretofore existent and provide many oppressed Europeans with the potential for a small degree of economic autonomy in the form of western lands).

 Overall, Gallagher's work is a "most read" for students of American history. It stands as a reminder that ideas have consequences, and provides us with exactly what good history does: a window into a time period as seen through the eyes of those who lived it, rather than through the distorting lens of time that has led some to condescending, ahistorical conclusions about those who fought and died to preserve the Union.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Amazon Review of Fenway 1912

Amazon Review of Fenway 1912

Fenway 1912
Glenn Stout
2011, 416 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

Note: Fenway 1912 was recently awarded the Society of American Baseball Research's Seymour Medal (best book on baseball history) and Larry Ritter Award (best book on the deadball era). 

Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, A Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year is the latest in a string of books celebrating the storied ballpark's centennial next year. Three other books about Fenway have already been released this year and another six are on the horizon. In Fenway 1912, Glen Stout, the author of numerous team histories and other sports related books, covers "all the bases," surrounding the park's construction and the 1912 Boston Red Sox championship season.

The 1912 World Series between the Red Sox and Giants was
so monumental it earned the title "The First Fall Classic"
To read Fenway 1912 is to travel back to New England at the dawn of the 20th century. Readers will meet not only the players, but Fenway architect James McLaughlin and head groundskeeper Jerome Kelly while learning something about the early, pre-1920 game both on the field and from a business perspective. Another major character is Boston itself, and Stout spends some time discussing the spate of buildings that had gone up near Fenway Park that still stand, enjoying iconic status in their own right. The Irish pols that took over the reins of city government before the turn of the century and were comfortably ensconced by the time the book opens also play an important role that Stout does not neglect. Street cars weren't just used for travel downtown, but in between towns as well. "Nuf Ced" McGreevy and the Royal Rooters make their appearances as well throughout.
Michael "Nuf Said" McGreevy
The Sox's  most ardent supporter

Fenway is, of course, iconic - its odd shape instantly recognizable to even the most casual baseball fan. Stout opines, however, that Fenway has actually changed so much in its 100 year history that today's Fenway regular, transported back in time to the days of Howard Taft and Smokey Joe Wood would not recognize the ball park he was sitting in. This constant change, not its unchanging image, is the real reason that Fenway has survived while other stadiums from the same era such as Ebbets Field, Shibe (Connie Mack) and Tiger Stadium have fallen victim to the wrecking ball, he writes. Besides dispelling the myth of a timeless, never changing Fenway, Stout demolishes some other myths. For instance, Fenway's shape was dictated by the shape of the land parcel purchased by the owners. There was still undeveloped area around the stadium. Given how far the ball flew in 1912, however, Fenway's dimensions were considered more than adequate and few home runs were anticipated. Of course, the city grew up around Fenway, closing it in and making expansion difficult once the game changed in 1920 with the livelier ball and free swinging, homer seeking batsmen.

Stout demolishes the myth that Fenway's odd shape was
attributable to the scarcity of available land
The Red Sox themselves come alive in Stout's description of the 1912 season and World Series, and the epilogue fills in the rest of their story after 1912. Still, the book's largest character is the park itself. Fortunately, an enlightened ownership and fan base has made the concessions and changes necessary to preserve Fenway, so its story is still being written. While Red Sox fans and Frequent Fenway goers will enjoy 1912 the most, any fan of the game and its history will want to give Fenway 1912 five stars.

To this day, the 1912 team is the winningist in Red Sox history. While fans will be celebrating Fenway's 100 year anniversary with the gorgeous coffee table books spewing forth, they'll also want this excellent history of the stadium's birth and the team that inaugurated it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I Don't Follow College Football (any longer)

Until the late 1950s collge football was much bigger than pro football

Dating my lack of interest in college football is difficult.  Growing up in Michigan, a state with not one but two NCAA Division One FBS football programs, I loved following the Big 10 (historical side note: there really were only 10 teams in the Big 10 once upon a time).  With its passionate student fan bases, marching bands, fight songs and a more exciting style of play than the National Football League, it was always much more fun to watch the Wolverines and Spartans than the Detroit Lions (ok, just about anything was).  Despite the debacle that was his brief presidency of the Detroit Tigers, longtime Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler remains one of my heroes (as does, for some reason not fully understood by me, Alabama coach Bear Bryant).  Yet today I rarely do anything more than check the scores every now and again.  When I do read something about college football in depth it’s usually because of some scandal with deeper societal impact, such as Penn State’s implosion.

Bo Schembechler: he turned down a truckload of
 money to stay at Michigan and became an even bigger legend:
 where are today's Schembehlers?

I think there are a number of culprits, originally having to do with the overregulation of the game and the way it deals with violations.  For the sin of “excessive celebration” for a late go-ahead touchdown, the opposing team will likely get the ball with good enough field position to kick a long game winning field goal, nullifying the heroic long run or 80 yard “bomb.”  A late night out with the teammates that leads to some cheap tattoos?  Goodbye national championship.  With a mindset that would have made perfect sense to Joseph Stalin and at which George Orwell would have salivated to parody, the NCAA has taken to declaring players retroactively ineligible and any games played with them forfeit no matter what the score on the field was or how long ago the final whistle blew.  In short, there’s no guarantee that the outcome of the game you just spent three hours watching won’t be altered by lawyers years later and the $75 Rose Bowl sweatshirt you bought your son to commemorate your alma mater’s gridiron glory rendered an embarrassing reminder best left at the bottom of the drawer.

When there were still ties in college football:
 the 1966 10-10 game between MSU and Notre Dame
 (both undefeated) is one of the true classics
The recent story regarding how Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville walked out of a recruiting dinner and, having just accepted his new position at the University of Cincinnati, simply never returned started me down a new, separate line of reasoning why I’m just no longer interested in college football.  Too many of the game’s most important personas simply lack commitment to their schools.  This wasn’t even the first time Tommy Tuberville let down the program he coached.  Nor is he the first coach to leave his program in the lurch, swearing lifelong fealty to whichever school just hired him only to have already compiled a short list of what constitutes the next rung on their career ladder.  This is certainly not behavior restricted to college football.  Perhaps we have even come to expect this from the head coaches of the college football world, a small band more closely aligned with Machiavelli’s Condottiere than their more immediate predecessors by such behavior.  But that behavior can only exist in the long run because it is countenanced by the college administrators who hire them despite their track records.  In short, there’s simply no longer any “adults in the room” when it comes to college football. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the world we knew when we were young was a better one, but I’m convinced that the college football one that I knew from the 1970s and 1980s was such a world.  The sport I follow most closely, baseball, certainly had its share of troubles with steroids and imbalance of play, causing me and many others to lose interest in the 1990s.  Somehow, though, baseball came back and by virtually every metric is in great shape.  With all of the recent health issues surfacing about former NFL players and the epidemic of violence becoming associated with pro football both on and off the field, baseball has even arguably reclaimed its place atop the US sports world.

College football has faced an existential crisis in its history that was even more serious than what it faces today.  In the early 20th century the game had become so rough that there were several fatalities each year and a movement to put an end to it.  It was able to clean up its act only after a Presidential intervention by Theodore Roosevelt, whose son played for the Harvard varsity squad.  The NCAA, whose governing status was one of the Roosevelt era reform, seems to have lost its way. 

Perhaps it is time for another outside intervention?

Teddy Roosevelt helped fix college football before: Is there another TR out there?



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Amazon Review of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction
Gil Troy
2009, 168 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

In THE REAGAN REVOLUTION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION professor Gil Troy asserts that Ronald Reagan is our most significant President since FDR.  Trying to explain seeming contradiction of a so-called right wing conservative President pursuing a “revolution” leads Troy to reinterpret Reagan and what his administration was about, analyze the extent to which Reagan succeeded, and evaluate how much of his legacy remains with us today.  Troy is mostly persuasive in his judgments but can occasionally make grandiose claims both for and against Reagan without always convincing his readers, many of whom will likely be disposed toward their own strong views on the subject.
"The PATCO showdown... a
turning point in America’s
economic, psychic, and
patriotic revival."
Troy does a nice job of setting the stage by explaining Reagan’s upbringing and personality (a task so daunting to official biographer Edmund Morris that Morris felt the need to invent a fictional character who could interact with Reagan as a character in a work of supposed non-fiction).  Reagan was a “loner who knew how to charm a crowd,” concludes Troy, the result of an upbringing in a lower middle class household that was constantly on the move.  His father’s alcoholism and the other turmoil in his youth led him, out of necessity, to create the sunny optimism that sometimes only he could see, but also could blind himself to others’ struggles.  Troy also provides a succinct history of the trajectory of American government in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how Reagan came to view those events, that led America to the sorry state in which it found itself in 1980.  Such history is important, in Troy’s view, because Reagan was not so much trying to revolutionize America so much as “recover” a period in our history before he thinks we took a wrong turn.
While Troy seems to like Reagan personally and freely credits his political savvy (strongly rejecting the “amiable dunce” caricature popular during Reagan’s presidency), he also seems sympathetic to the views of Reagan’s opponents on many issues.  For instance, Troy credits the New Deal with helping to lift the working class into enough economic comfort that it would eventually become the base for Reagan’s triumph, the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”  Both Reagan critics and admirers will find much to like and dislike in Troy’s account, which does a very nice job covering every significant aspect of the Reagan years in the very limited space allotted by the “Very Short Introduction” format.
Reagan remained an ardent fan of
FDR -"The press is trying to paint me
 as trying to undo the New Deal.… I'm
trying to undo the Great Society"
 - Ronald Reagan.
Troy can contradict himself however, particularly when it comes to Reagan’s true goals.  Sometimes he is sensitive to Reagan’s continued support for New Deal fundamentals, but other times he notes that Reagan was unable to undo the New Deal.    Troy also asserts at length Reagan’s policies and values “personified” a “consumer-driven, celebrity-oriented, and selfish society” but then he points out that such trends both pre and post dated Reagan, undercutting such criticism.  He also seems surprised that Reagan and crew did nothing to roll back the civil rights gains of the 1960s when the only assertion that they would try came from Reagan’s opponents.  There proof may be there for some of Troy’s conclusions but he does not always “show his work.”  He does a better job explaining the seeming contradictions in Reagan’s foreign policy and in explaining how in both domestic and foreign policy, Reagan would surprise both his supporters and critics, proving himself more flexible and pragmatic than the rigid caricature that both sides saw him as.
"Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan remains
 the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt."