Read: Battle Cry of Freedom

 

Book review by Tim Roessler

I wanted to learn about the Civil War. I wanted perspective on our current insanity, and I hoped to gather more knowledge about the conflict without mournful fiddles and honey smooth voice overs.

Something solid, but approachable. I found the perfect book.

Battlecry of Freedom puts the whole period into nearly 900 pages of graceful, fast moving prose. James McPherson manages to pack libraries of research into each paragraph so deftly that you come away informed and even entertained rather than overwhelmed. 

One of the strengths of the book is McPherson’s portrayal of the forces that lead to the war.  It truly seemed inevitable. And yes, it was about slavery. When you hear Confederate defenders grumble about “states rights”, the “right” in question was that of owning other human beings. It wasn’t even the preservation of slavery that drove the war, but rather the South’s demands to expand it beyond the borders of what would become the Confederacy. 

That even lead to foolish expeditions to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Thank God we put that kind of nonsense aside.

Some parts surprised me. I didn’t realize the depth of disunion within both the North and the Confederacy. More than a few of the yeomen in Dixie figured out that the conflict was a war primarily to benefit the planters class. Up North, it wasn’t all virtuous abolitionists, either. An eye-opener was the massive race riot in New York City which killed dozens of African Americans — the worst race riot in U.S. history. Not to mention the so-called Copperheads.

The inevitable corruption and messy squabbles shouldn’t have shocked me, but the depths of chicanery and striving did.

He covers the military history, as you’d expect. But he also gives good background on the economics, the social issues and the messy politics of the period. 

The other great lesson was just how contingent the outcome was. We like to think of it as an inevitable march to greater freedom and justice. Even with the overwhelming superiority in men and material, it was anything but a guaranteed victory.

And, sure, there’s plenty of valor and honor in those pages. Lots of horrors, too. McPherson is pretty light on the gruesome and the blood. But the numbers and the diary entries tell all you need to know.

This was a fine read, and McPherson completely earned the Pulitzer he won for it.

Review: Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie

book photo by timothy roessler tim roessler

The details seem mythical. A preternaturally gifted boy writes lyrical poetry better than the literary stars of his age. Then he rebels, writes new work that transcends anything ever written and remakes poetry forever. As he touches the face of God and plunges into hells, Rimbaud also struggles with a tempestuous affair with the other leading poet of his time, Verlaine. 

All by the time he was 20. Disillusioned with poetry and his failure to transform the world, he gives up literature. He wanders, then turns to trading guns and goods on the shores of the Red Sea. Rimbaud died at 37 a victim of cancer.

(Man, what was up with those 19th century geniuses? Poe, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Doestoyevsky, Keats, Byron, the list of great monsters and great sufferers is long.)

Professor Starkie tells the story well. She writes clearly with a fine eye for illuminating details. More than a biography, the book includes detailed readings of Rimbaud’s work. The analysis of the poems is grounded, free of ideology and well based in the works themselves. 

That said, some of her interpretations seem reductive, even if they’re well argued. Her research into Rimbaud’s alchemical studies provides us with some useful insights. But to say a poem like “Voyelles” is a descriptions of on the transformation sequences of the soul as taught by a magickal theorist drains a lot of the true magic out of the poem. 

Three issues: If you don’t speak French, you’ll need a translation of the poems handy. She also quotes significant passages of Rimbaud’s prose in French without an English version. Starkie also seems naive about hashish and homosexuality. 

Overall, this is a fine work of scholarship and of intellectual integrity as well as a beautiful tribute to one of greatest poets to have graced the planet.

Reading Turgenev

Ilya-Repin-The-Soldiers-Tale

Three Novellas: Punin and Baburin, The Inn, and The Watch, by Ivan Turgenev and translated by Marion Mainwaring.

For a project I’m working on, I’ve been reading the works of Ivan Turgenev. 

Wedged as he is in between the two monstrous geniuses of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Turgenev doesn’t receive the nearly same attention as Tolstoyevsky. And that’s a damn shame.

Lyrical, penetrating, subtly crafted, Turgenev’s stories work on every end of the spectrum from humor to suspense to melancholy. He draws you into his world, one of serfs, petty nobles, and birches, sure, but also one filled with passionate characters who often stumble through a hard-won wisdom. That new knowledge is often bitter. Yet, the key shifts from comic to tragic and even to the uncanny with seamless ease.

In this collection, the first novella follows an odd couple from the view point of a boy who keeps meeting them as he passes on. Punin is sort of a holy fool, Baburin a committed radical (for the time). The second novella describes an act of fathomless betrayal that ultimately leads to wisdom, ruin, and a surface prosperity for the traitor. The final story traces how a watch, given initially as a present, unwinds a family.

Turgenev’s stories are less about plots than they are about overgrown gardens, the pale skin and dark eyes of a half-peasant, or, simply, longing as much as a simple narrative. Sometimes comic and always profound, always mysterious and beautiful, Turgenev’s work puts him there in the pantheon along with the gargantuans of his generation.

These were all fine novellas. I’d recommend them to anyone who cares about love, literature, or life. If you’re new to Turgenev, though, I’d start with A Sportsman’s Sketchbook, Fathers and Sons, or my favorite, First Love.

 

(painting: A Soldier’s Tale, Illya Repin)