Book Review: The Mighty Revolution, by Charles Lewis Wagandt

My purpose in reading this book was to learn more about the revolution of popular opinion against slavery that took place before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery by the adoption of a new state constitution in Maryland would count as a critical example of this shifting in opinion, presumably an inspiring one.

The Mighty Revolution certainly provides many of the facts attendant to this shift, but the presentation of them falls somewhat short of inspiring. Wagandt’s focus is the political realm of electoral hustings, factions, and patronage. The idealism is largely left out. There is more information here about schemes to capture the comptroller’s office than there are meditations on the meaning of freedom. Of course, idealism often depends upon pragmatism for its advancement, and The Mighty Revolution offers a detailed illustration of how ideas become reality in this country. We Americans should probably be grateful that we are able to alter our destiny by means of backroom deals and ambiguously-worded ballot initiatives, without recourse to the guillotine.

The narrative of The Mighty Revolution hinges upon three turning points. The latter two are elections: the November 4, 1863 election for state legislature and other offices that was marred by army interference; and the October 12-13, 1864 vote on the new constitution, abolishing slavery, that carried only after soldiers’ absentee votes were counted. Again, it’s not a very rousing story. The fact that the emancipationist effort succeeded in the 1863 election in part because of the lack of a secret ballot (the emancipationist party ballots were yellow, permitting the army to discard others) does not exactly inspire one to plan an additional Thanksgiving dinner — although it does say a lot about the commitment of the boys in blue.

The earlier and perhaps most important turning point is the April 20, 1863 mass meeting of the Union League at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, which does indeed herald the popular shift against slavery. “Never before in the war,” Wagandt writes, “had emancipation sentiments been advanced at a public meeting.” (p. 99) The Union League was “a civilian organization of obscure origins” that swelled as the war progressed. By 1863,

the Union Leagues extended their spheres of operations into the political arena….Preservation of the nation involved the fierce debate over slavery, a debate which found no sympathy in the conservative leadership of the Union Party [Maryland’s version of the Republican Party]. This created a need for some organized expression of aims among those who wished to move with, rather than against, the revolutionary times….Then there were politicians within the organization who tried to capitalize upon the League to further their ambitions.” (pp. 97-98)

The balance of Wagandt’s narrative describes the machinations of these ambitious politicians. As they “capitalized” upon the emancipationist sentiment of the League, they crystalized it and made it a reality. Such is the ugly beauty of our system.

Both in Maryland’s Civil War history and in Wagandt’s recounting of it, the focus on pragmatism over idealism affords only scattered suggestions that the white Marylander’s hatred of slavery translated into affection or even sympathy for the slave. In the early 1864 debate in the Maryland General Assembly that led to the constitutional convention, Henry S. Stockbridge, citing a letter from a former slave-owner’s son, asserted that abolition should be pursued because “it is right. Right between man and man – right before God.” (p. 194) A subsequent newspaper editorial called slavery “a great moral wrong, injurious to both master and slave.” (p. 203) A delegate to the constitutional convention named Frederick Schley voted in favor of the abolition article for reasons of “patriotism, justice, and humanity,” as well as for Maryland “honor” and popular “welfare.” (p. 225) Often it seems that Wagandt may be glossing over Marylanders’ anti-slavery arguments, perhaps in the belief that they are obvious and well-known, and perhaps because he’s more interested in the political maneuverings anyway.

For the most part, as emerges in these pages, the rationale behind Marylanders’ overthrow of slavery is couched in terms of class warfare and political jealousy. At their April 20, 1863 meeting, Union League members denounced slavery as “an instrument in the hands of traitors to build an oligarchy…on the ruins of republican liberty;” and they resolved “That the safety and interest of…Maryland, and especially of her white laboring people, require that Slavery should cease to be recognized by the law of Maryland.” (p. 99)

This refrain, that abolition was advanced as something that was good for certain white people, rings constantly throughout the book. No egalitarian sentiments are shown here to have been expressed, except in one ironic case:  Radical candidates from Allegany County in the vote on the constitutional convention on April 6, 1864 were said to have been “the real friends of the colored people” – by their opponents, and they subsequently spent much energy to deny the slander. (p. 217)

Still, for all the denial of common humanity that seems to have been necessary for its success, the overthrow of slavery was a success, and thus The Mighty Revolution should be counted as a valuable case study of the working reality of freedom.

Book Review: Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, by Yang Mu

Memories of Mount Qilai is a prose poem based on youthful reminiscences of Hualien and other places in eastern Taiwan. It (via this translation) is very beautiful and hypnotic, so much so that it will often make you think of other things, until you are turning the pages without absorbing or even reading the words. Yang Mu is an excellent poet, and some of his conventional, individual works are included here, including (from p. 159):

Carrying an oil paper umbrella
alone, I make my way down a
long, long and lonely lane in the rain,
pacing back and forth, hoping to encounter a
young woman knotted with sadness and hate
like a bud of lilac

However, if the cited shorter poems are emotionally compressed, with a high ratio of meaning to word, the prose poetry of the overall book is the opposite: meandering and unfocused, rather obscure. A chapter toward the end concerning a friend who committed suicide never seems to come to any point of power or intensity.

Still, though, some passages will differentiate themselves from the meandering flow and make an impression on you, such as (on p. 201)

The sound I heard, beyond being entangled in my own questioning, was the sound of bicycles braking high on the slope above the north end of the bridge, the sound of bicycle chains.

I knew it was the sound of school being let out. They must have lowered the flag, listened to the speech of exhortation, dispersed, and set off for home. Nine hundred male students were surging out, swinging identical book bags in the same color and with the same weight, their hats on their heads, in their hands, or, like mine, thrust into their book bags. I didn’t attend the flag-lowering ceremony today. Starting around noon, I couldn’t sit still, as a strange, unformed melody floated through my mind, as if from the other side of a high, dark, ancient wall someone abandoned himself to chanting for me a fragmented but still special and recognizable song of prudence, pronouncing words that were difficult to understand but occasionally stressing a certain expression, seemingly also what I frequently heard between sleep and wakefulness. I looked around me: the distant sky, sea, prostrate mountains, the aged banyan tree, hibiscus, canna lilies, and the beehive under the eaves, steadily growing larger by the day. ‘How am I to let go, be free, release myself, and be different from others?’ I repeatedly asked myself such silly questions and then when totally exhausted, ‘How can I prove that I am different from others?’ The blackboard was covered with proper nouns: ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ ‘feudal lord,’ ‘serf,’ ‘guild,’ ‘Galileo,’ ‘isolationism,’ and ‘indulgence.’

Of course, poetry is the best proof that one is different from others. In a passion of ‘unsociable eccentricity’ (on p. 142), Yang asserts, ‘My form of expression is my own….This is the best. No one else has come up with it before; it belongs entirely to me, appropriate, exact, and effective.’

Yang’s book is subtitled ‘The Education of a Young Poet.’

Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson

This book reveals what it’s like to be married to a mad genius. The author, “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson was Walter Anderson’s long-suffering wife. The text is her own reconstruction of diaries she’d previously burned, a fact which may convey a bit of the ambivalence she must have felt about sharing the fraught experience of her marriage. Evidently, she decided in the end on complete candor, and the result is very powerful.

Anderson remains my favorite artist, despite what I learned from reading this book. I suppose my prior understanding of him was that of a tourist (I am a frequent visitor to his namesake art museum in his adopted hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and I would often describe him to friends as a little “touched.” I learn from Sissy’s account, however, that he was neglectful and violent, far beyond what one would expect from an amiable eccentric. Perhaps this book will lead some readers to obsess on whether it’s permissible to enjoy his art, considering what a terrible husband (and father) he was; but I don’t believe the human experience is so neat, and the paradox is fitting that a man whose art has made me feel euphoric was also the creator of great pain and trouble for his own family.

Accordingly, one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, after the death of Walter (known as Bob), when Sissy, on exploring the house where he lived alone, discovers the “little room” (preserved and on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art), which he’d consecrated as a temple to the sun, replete with murals showing all God’s creation in its fluttering, creeping, and crawling sublimity. “The room is full of the presence of the Creator,” Sissy writes, “not the artist, although he is surely there, but God.”

Bob had kept the room padlocked. (p. 175)

Elsewhere: “I know now that the alienated must seek forever the means of reentry into the world of man. Bob was seeking, for some reason, through the simpler world of animals. ‘Dogs, cats, birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass,’ he said.” (p. 84)

Related image

(Brief) Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is as thought-provoking as the original and has already sent me to the Internet to test a few theories.

I think Philip K. Dick would have loved 2049, because it explores one of his signature concepts: the fake fake.

Of course, as good as 2049 is, it can’t, ah, replicate the feeling of being back in 1982, getting dazzled and mindfucked as only a sixteen year old can. I wonder what younger folks will make of it, whether it will become the film of their generation, as the original was to mine. I doubt that it will. The whole concept of a sequel is fake, and although 2049 is trying to be a fake fake, I suspect it will only succeed by a half, both for the Nexus 80s like me and for the Nexus Millennials.

Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’

and:

‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.

Reflections on Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (2009)

A recent ‘History versus Hollywood’ event was a double feature of Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I had decided on this pairing, believing that the similarity of subject matter – accidental nuclear war – would accentuate the differences in how the subject was treated. I had grown up on Strangelove and was looking forward, with much presumption, to ‘turning on a new generation.’ Fail-Safe I had never seen before and assumed to be inferior in fame and in quality to Kubrick’s masterpiece. I actually showed Fail-Safe first, intending it as a sort of warm-up act.

Fail-Safe, of course, turned out to be extremely intense and disturbing. The horrifying ending left the audience aghast and silent. The last thing I wanted to hear in the heavy aftermath was the sound of my own voice saying something like, ‘And now for something completely different,’ as I introduced Strangelove – the funny film about nuclear war – but of course I had no choice; and naturally, Strangelove’s humor fell flat. (I could almost hear Lenny Bruce saying, ‘Go ahead, follow that on,’ in his skit about a comedian whose routine is sabotaged by the previous performer’s impromptu tribute to ‘the loved ones we lost in the war.’) After Fail-Safe, Strangelove just bombed. Since ninth grade, I’d regarded it as the best and the funniest film ever made, but now, I just didn’t like it any more.

During my mental post mortem on the evening, I realized that there was more to Strangelove’s bombing than my poor decision to show it after Fail-Safe. In fact, the films represent two conflicting cultures, separated by a great geographical (and perhaps a generational) rift. The most important difference between them, in my view, is one of characterization. In Fail-Safe, the characters, both political and military, are basically honorable people, and even the callous Walter Matthau role is rational and well-meaning in his own way. In Strangelove, everyone in the film is sexually perverted and bat-shit crazy, with the implication that the political and military professions are uniquely well-suited for such people. While Stanley Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern were no doubt inventing grotesques to make their satire effective, the Northern sophisticate, who relies on art to help him appreciate reality, sometimes conflates the two; and up North, in the 1980s, we took it as a given that our leaders were sickos straight from the Strangelove set. In that milieu, then, Strangelove essentially preaches to the choir. The Southerner, of course, forms very strong opinions about politicians and military people, but he is not simply amused by them, as the over-educated Northerner is. The blasé detachment afforded by Yankee schooling is the chief prerequisite for enjoying a film like Strangelove. Without it, both because Fail-Safe stripped it away and because of the Mobile, Alabama venue, our Friday double feature didn’t work.

Movie Review: Just a Sigh

During a recent visit to my public library, I was intrigued by a DVD that did not have a picture of an exploding helicopter on the case, and since films without exploding helicopters are generally my favorites, I decided to take it home. Just a Sigh (France, 2013) was written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell and cast with Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne as the leads.

The absence of exploding helicopters always promises a decent drama, and for the most part, I was not disappointed, although the drama of Just a Sigh is a little blasé in a European way. The protagonist, Alix (Devos), is a struggling stage actress who might be described as a late bloomer but who is beginning to suspect that her career, and her life, may never really bloom at all. She gets along poorly with her sister Diane (Aurélia Petit), in part because the latter is more conventionally successful and happy. In fact, Alix has a maladjusted, Holden Caulfield air about her, although, at 43, she’s got a few years on Holden.

While on a Paris-bound train from a show in Calais, Alix spots walking-wounded Doug (Byrne); their eyes meet, and an exchange of pain takes place. They bump into each other again in the city, which, in any culture, is a sign that they are fated to meet. They strike up a conversation, which steadily increases in intimacy. The tactics of their seduction are comically complicated when a clueless academic horns in, but Alix and Doug give him the slip, make their separate ways to Doug’s hotel room, and hop in the sack.

I don’t remember much of what happens after that. It comes out that Doug, an academic of the jaded variety, is in Paris for the funeral of a past love; and the film ends, as one might expect, with uncertainty as to whether or not Alix and Doug will make their tryst more permanent. However, I lost my concentration during the sex scene, owing to technical distractions. My DVD player, so ancient that it is also a VCR, tends to show images with a reduced brightness, and thus the hotel room setting appeared so dimly that I could barely make out the lovers’ making out. Furthermore, as I fiddled with the TV remote to boost the brightness to eleven, I noticed that the color was distorted: Whatever flesh was not in darkness was tinted a throbbing purple. I grew desperate at the controls, but I could not restore Ms. Devos and Mr. Byrne to their natural hue. Neither actor is a spring chicken, frankly, and the dark magic of my DVD player made each resemble a decomposing corpse. Mr. Byrne’s cheeks and biceps glowed as though from gangrene, and Ms. Devos’s sagging breasts, which she must have been contractually obligated to reveal, called to mind two dead blowfish in an oil slick. I felt like I was watching a necrophiliac orgy in a morgue or the suicide of two people making love in the core of a nuclear reactor.  My own face began to turn blue from laughing. I coughed out my popcorn and, as I said, ceased following the film’s subtleties.

My friends think the problem might have something to do with the cable box being on top of the DVD player.