The Touching History of the USS Monitor

During a 2004 visit to Virginia to see my grandma, I dropped in at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News and stumbled onto the USS Monitor turret in a desalinating pool in the back. I knew the turret had been raised two years earlier but didn’t know where it was.

It was very odd to behold the storied artifact that I’d seen countless times since childhood in paintings or primitive photographs. In such contexts, it was History. Now, it was a nondescript hunk of metal in an oversize kiddie pool in a junkyard. The weather was gray and misty, and there was no one around. I had the Monitor all to myself, and I tried to commune with it, to sense the History emanating from it, as it always did in books.

However, I felt nothing. With no long-dead naval officers posing around it for a long-dead photographer, enshrouded in no oil-painted smoke from its battle with the Merrimack, the Monitor turret was stripped of its ancientness. It wasn’t really History. How could it have been? It was right in front of me, part of the inglorious present tense. I could even take this cheap picture of it.

So of course, I went and did it: After looking around to make sure no one was watching, I reached into the tank and put my fingers on the rusted metal, hoping that the thrill of transgression would approximate the elusive thrill of touching the past. Maybe it did, because it sure felt icky. In fact, after only one second of contact, I became terrified that a skeleton hand would grab me by the wrist and pull me in, and I yanked my hand out of the water as fast as I could.

I shuddered. My teeth chattered. Was that the sensation I’d wanted?

I wiped my hand on my jeans and went in to the gift shop.

Book Review: Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, by William Grimes

This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.

A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.

The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)

The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

Book Review: Crossing the Horizon, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro’s Crossing the Horizon promises a tale of “three remarkable women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kan7FDWhDcc), but one of its three main subjects, Mabel Boll, doesn’t belong with the other two. Granted, Ms. Boll was one of at least three women who hoped to cross the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart did. However, she was not herself a pilot (she would have made the trip only as a passenger) and comes off in these pages as a frivolous socialite and gossip. She might have been remarkably witty, but she wears out her welcome halfway through the book and is tolerable after that only as comic relief. If there is any lesson in her story it would be that her dependence on other people to realize her dream proves fatal to her chances: Anyone with any merit runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, leaving her in the rotten company she more commonly keeps (especially the scoundrel Charles Levine), with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else and no one really helping.

Notaro’s other two protagonists, Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay, are the true heroes. Both are addicted to freedom and stop at nothing in the pursuit of it. Both run away from home, eloping with men who seem to offer fresher prospects – though neither one does, and both women return to their families. Both are enamored of fast cars and aeroplanes and quickly obtain pilot’s licenses.  Both are inspired to follow in Charles Lindbergh’s footsteps and set their sights on the Atlantic, although they plan to cross in opposite directions – the American Elder flying east and the British Mackay flying west.

In fact, there are at least as many interesting differences between the two heroes, beside their proposed directions of travel. Elder, of Anniston, Alabama, is supported by her family in her transatlantic endeavor, while suffering at least some measure of opposition from society. It is Ruth’s mother who dresses her in a necktie and trousers, and all her relations turn out for her flight. (This reviewer is also extremely pleased that Elder’s family is not depicted here as a pack of cartoonish hicks.) However, the press seems a bit too preoccupied with the question of Ruth’s husband, and one reporter says that she’d do better as a typist. Even Eleanor Roosevelt calls her ambition “very foolish.” Conversely, Mackay is the favored daughter of aristocrats who, owing to overprotection, forbid her from making the crossing. It cannot be said for sure how much society in general would have supported her plan, for she keeps it a secret; but she seems generally to get her way in the world, and her crew is quite devoted to her.

Nothing stops either woman, of course, but the edge would have to go to Ruth Elder for her pluck at making things happen. True, most doors open for her because of her winning looks. Conscious of this advantage, she employs her lipstick and her smile strategically. However, her pretty face can get her only so far. When the world stops taking her seriously (if it ever did take her seriously) and the doors slam shut, she is forced to rely on her intelligence, her voice, and her ability to prevail in argument.

The turning point of the book comes when a smart-aleck reporter discovers her husband.

“Mister,” Ruth demanded, pointing at the young reporter who thought he had just scooped everyone. “You, sir. What is your name?”

He looked shocked and surprised and pointed to himself. “Me?” he asked, and Ruth nodded. “Dan Shear. Jersey Journal.”

Ruth nodded again and put her hands behind her back.

“Mr. Shear, have you ever been to Anniston, Alabama?” she asked without a trace of malice, but not sweetly, either.

“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a snarky laugh.

“Well, I am from Anniston, Alabama, and I am the second of seven children. Eight if you count my little brother who died when I was ten,” she said.

After revealing more of where she’s from, way more than the reporter bargained for, she asks,

“Do you know that kind of living, Mr. Shear?”

“That wasn’t my question,” he stammered. “My question was–”

“Well, this is my question to you, Mr. Shear,” Ruth interrupted. “Do you know what that kind of living is like? For a seventeen-year-old girl in Anniston, Alabama?”

“No, Miss Elder, I do not,” he finally admitted.

“Now you do,” Ruth stated firmly. “So you can stop asking those questions….My name is Ruth Elder and being married makes no difference in how I fly that plane. It doesn’t make me better or worse. It doesn’t change a thing.” (pp. 199-200)

There’s a lot of waiting around for favorable weather, but Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay end up flying their planes.

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

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: 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.