Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Notes: This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War

There is a whole industry devoted the production and distribution of books about the American Civil War; indeed many bookshops in the USA contain a whole section devoted only to those four bloody years a century and a half ago. Too many of these books add little to our understanding of that dreadful conflict. Some simply relate the chronology of the war, or over-emphasise the role of certain glamorous generals, while others limit the scope of their enquiry to disputing the minutiae of the progress of certain battles.
Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" is a unique, surprising, scholarly, and rather moving contribution to Civil War studies, which marks it out as something special in a densely crowded market. It is perhaps surprising that there has been so little researched and so much assumed about death in this period - given the appalling casualty rates, and percentage of the American population who died in that war. Yet death (including battlefield death) in the 1860s was understood in a particular way, experienced in specific ways, ritualised, expressed, grieved and remembered in sometimes new ways. It is these human responses to the killing of 1861-5 that Gilpin Faust turns her attention in this book. Drawing on letters, government papers, recorded anecdotes, literature, and a whole battery of contemporary sources, she unearths a complex, and heart-rending culture of dying; about which she is able to write with great elegance and pathos.
The book is not chronological, but thematic in its structure, and it draws equally on the experiences of both the Union and Confederate dying and grieving. 'Victorians' had a particular culture of death, part of which idealised the concept of a 'good death'. Typically, the 'good' 19thC death would take place at home, amongst friends and family and feature some departing words of faith with which to reassure the living. Amongst an extraordinary array of letters sent home from the front, Gilpin-Faust discovered the remarkable extent to which the soldiers sought to present and report on 'good deaths'.
In her chapter on 'killing' Gilpin-Faust explores what it meant for soldiers to become killers. For many of them in that profoundly Christian era, "the first challenge for Civil War soldiers to surmount was the Sixth Commandment". She details the way in which churches on both sides were harnessed by the state to promote 'just war' theories to overcome the soldiers' religious reluctance to kill. Some never came to terms with what they were called upon to do, they held onto their humanity, but were broken by the horror of their experiences. More worrying are the accounts of those for whom killing became a pleasure, to read their words is a profoundly chilling experience.
The initial enthusiasm of many of the troops in 1862 wore off as it soon became apparent that the war would be long and bloody. The technology of slaughter had advanced beyond the tactical understanding of the Generals, leading to scenes of previously unheard of fatality rates - two observations that would be repeated again on The Western Front fifty years later. Never before had advancing victorious armies, or retreating defeated ones been faced with such a huge number of corpses to bury. The chapter on burying describes the ways in which (sometimes in appalling circumstances) soldiers sought to honour fallen comrades with the rituals of burial. This was a desperate clinging to humanity, virtue and dignity in the context of mud, blood, decomposition, stench and disease.

Many of these bodies, in rough trenches, mass graves, or under rough crosses were not formally marked. High explosive shells, used for the first time in battle could render a body unrecognisable, unidentifiable even. The chapter on 'naming' describes the way in which both during and after the war, the desire to name and bury the dead in marked burial plots in their home towns consumed the nation. The unquenchable thirst for dignifying the memory of the lost led to extraordinary efforts in this regard.

When James Palmer was killed at the second battle of Bull Run, his sister Sarah wrote, "I can't realise that I am never to see that dear boy again, is too hard to realise" (p145). The chapter on grief, mourning and bereavement is called 'realising'. One of the melancholy things that Gilpin Faust discovered was the extent to which the bereaved sought material proof of their loved one's demise. The chaos of modern warfare being conducted by armies with pre-modern systems of command, control, planning and communication meant that official records were often extremely poor. The families of the fallen were prevented from grieving by the presence of a cruel spark of hope, until material evidence was sent to allow them to 'realise'. Gilpin Faust both draws wide conclusions about these patterns, and brings her text painfully alive with stories of individual grief, like that of the young widow searching through the corpses of Antietam in a frantic search for confirmation of her worst fears before she "sank beneath the stern reality of this crushing sorrow."

The detailed chapter on believing and doubting is equally illuminating. While for many of the combatants as well as their families, faith was a place of retreat, for others belief in a benign deity was shaken in the hail of MiniƩ balls piercing the bodies of their colleagues. Letters, poems, songs and poems are woven together in this chapter, which is a fascinating story of the interaction of faith, doubt and suffering. One song of the era begins, "Oh great God! What means this carnage/ What this fratricidal strife,/ Brethren made in your own image / Seeking for each other's life?"

The chapters entitled 'accounting' and 'numbering' hardly lighten the mood, but are equally deeply researched and wonderfully written. Accounting refers to the obligations the living felt towards the dead, which meant everything from repatriation of bodies, to the establishment of official war graves. The Union dead were catered for by the victorious Federal government, while voluntary societies performed this task for the shattered Confederacy. 'Numbering' is a chapter about the post-war efforts to try and quantify the suffering. Human knowledge and control so often begins with classification of subjects, and so it seems that inordinate efforts were made to seek some human control over the disaster of civil war, in order to tame it and bring it under the purview of human analysis. Gilpin Faust writes: But as the numbers solved some problems of understanding, so they presented others. William Fox worried that the sheer magnitude of the war's death toll rendered it incomprehensible. "As the numbers become great," he wrote, "they convey no different idea, whether they be doubled or trebled". Yet the painstaking counting continued for many years.

Gilpin Faust's final chapter is entitled 'surviving'. She writes (referring to many of the characters she has introduced us to in her remarkable book): John Palmer carried the bullet that killed his son with him to the grave; Henry Bowditch habitually wore a watch fob fashioned from his fallen son's uniform button; Mary Todd Lincoln dressed in mourning till she died; Walt Whitman felt that the war had represented the "very centre, circumference, umbilicus" of his life; Ambrose Bierce felt haunted by visions of the dead and dying; Jane Mitchell continued to hope for years after Appomattox that her missing son would finally come home; J.M. Taylor was still searching for details of his son's death three decades after the end of the war; Henry Struble annually laid flowers on the grave that mistakenly bore his name. (p266)

This Republic of Suffering is a tremendous work of historical research, poignant prose and astute observation. It manages to be both informative and profoundly moving, in that that the facts and voices of the time are allowed to speak, without sentimental commentary at the expense of profound analysis. The tragedy of the war is not hidden behind technical details so beloved of the military historian, but yet such details are present. The lives and deaths of the ordinary private are not hidden behind the glamorous stories of military heroes, and the scale of the suffering not lost behind individual biographies - though again, all these feature. This is quite brilliant writing, the kind of history that informs the mind, arrests the imagination, and could only leave the hardest heart unmoved, if not somewhat shaken.

At the Angel's Window: Grand Canyon (North)



The wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt: Grand Canyon

"Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American... should see."

A Live Tree! : Bryce Canyon

Not every tree on here is dead..

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another Dead Tree: Bryce Canyon

There's something rather splendid about these dead trees...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hoodoo Sunrise: Bryce Point, Bryce Canyon

Our holiday across the South West of the USA this summer was the trip of a lifetime. Many people have asked me what the most memorable thing I saw was. There is no doubt, that the most breathtaking moment on our entire holiday was catching the sunrise from Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon. For ten spellbinding moment, the rising sun made it's way up above the distant cliffs before hiding again behind cloud. As the edge of the yellow sun moved across the ground and the shadows retreated from the orange hoodoos, they appeared first to glow - and then to be moving. People stood in stunned, silent awe at what they were experiencing, and children reluctantly dragged from their beds before 6am, suddenly realised why! The only sound that could be heard were the intakes of breath as each spectator got their first glimpse, and the click and whirr of camera shutters. Simply wonderful.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hoodoos on a summer afternoon: Bryce Canyon

Farewell, Arches National Park

Book Notes: Lightnin' Hopkins, His Life and Blues by Alan Govenar

Alan Govenar's biography of Lightnin' Hopkins (Sam Hopkins, 1912-1982) is set apart from others in its genre, not so much by brilliant research and writing - but by the overwhelmingly idiosyncratic nature of the subject! There is no doubt that Hopkins is ranked highly amongst the aristocracy of twentieth century American blues musicians, indeed he is a legendary figure whose playing has influenced many succeeding guitarists. He has proved though, to be a difficult person to quantify, assess, or even to research, as so much of his life is hidden behind myths, contradictions, ambiguities and uncertainties. Given the problems involved in this project, it is not surprising that so little has been written about Po' Lightnin in the past, but yet despite that Govenar manages to piece together a pretty good book.

The first obstacle that Govenar attempts to overcome, is the sheer lack of coherent information about Hopkins' early years. Sources close to the man are tight lipped, while official records are poor. He makes several concrete discoveries, unearths a legion of myths - but still is left with significant gaps in his narrative. One of the issues faced is that Hopkins' was a raconteur who invented a mythology for himself as part of the package he sold - a less sinister parallel of Robert Johnson's remarkable method of self-promotion. This means that deciphering which (if any!) of Hopkins' stories about himself were true, partly true, completely false - or totally muddled versions of all three, is next to impossible!

The broad outlines of his career though are clear, a rural Texas bluesman who learned his trade from the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, he grew up in the segregated South, determined to escape the cotton-plantations of his childhood. Leaving home at a staggeringly early age, he became an itinerant bluesman, and served at least one term in the penal system. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the mid-Twentieth century however, Hopkins did not join the great migration to the Northern Cities such as Chicago; despite many performances in the North he never felt at home there, but retreated whenever possible to his own corner of Urban Texas. Another departure from standard blues mythology is that Hopkins never stopped gigging, only to be "re-discovered" by archivists and 1960s Blues-revivalists. Hopkins rather, played consistently throughout the 40s and 50s, in the South - before being idolised by a new white audience, mostly of folkies (whose stereotypical misreadings of only 'authentic' rural Southern blues, he was only too happy to pander to!).

Govenar supplies a lot information about sessions, backing musicians and Hopkins' particular contribution to Blues. He makes much of Hopkins' famous deviation from straight 12 bar blues into random changes which were impossible to predict and hard to follow (this point is re-iterated to the point of tedeum, however!). Govenar's interest is in the minutiae of the recording process, dates, times, producers, songs, fees and contracts - whereas my interest is far more consumed with locating the man and the music within the social, political and historical dynamics of his times. As such we learn that Hopkins named and shamed a notorious white share-cropping owner/farmer Tom Moore in his vaguely disguised "Tim Moore Blues". However we are left without adequate exploration of the nature or consequences of this social protest. Likewise with the advent of Civil Rights, the most significant era for African Americans in Dixie since Reconstruction - Hopkins views and choices as to how to respond to this burgeoning movement are almost ignored. Govenar's book could have been improved by reference to a wider canvass.

What is not ignored is Lightnin' Hopkins extraordinary, and rather extreme character. I admired the way in which the author was open to both the man's flaws as to his triumphs. It is so often the case that biographers are drawn to their heroes critical assessment is lost and hagiography triumphs. Hopkins emerges from the pages of this book as a complex man, who despite his alcoholism, unusual domestic arrangements, and massive insecurities, carved out a fabulous niche for himself as a master purveyor of a particularly Texan form of blues. Everything that sprang followed on from here, from Albert Collins, to Billy Gibbons to Stevie Ray Vaughan owes a debt to Lightnin' Hopkins.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Balance Rock

Balance Rock. Arches National Park

Night & Day at the Colorado River

Monstrous Steaks, served overlooking the Colorado River, as it winds its ways across the desert - the sun setting behind the red desert cliffs. Magic!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Wilson Arch

Enormous, stunning, breathtaking.... we didn't even know the Wilson Arch was on our route, we couldn't believe what we were seeing. Clambering up into the window itself was just fabulous, although it was incredibly hot!

Signs: La Plata County, CO

US Postal Service

Click on the photo to see it properly!

Guard: Durango & Silverton Railway

The guard is here responding to a request from the driver (through a series of coded blasts on the whistle). He is waving to inform the driver that the last coach of the long train has cleared a bridge on which there is a strict speed restriction. The tightly curved track means that he has to lean a long way out to be seen by the driver - who then whistles again to indicate that he has seen the guards' signal. Imagine the Health and Safety Executive allowing this in the UK!?!

Clinging to the ledges: Durango & Silverton Railroad

In places the railway seems to cling to the rockface , progressing upwards on viaducts, cuttings and tunnels.
The danger of the absolutely massive drop to the right - is brought ever nearer by the rocking motion of the little train on its wonky track!

Along the Animus River: Durango & Silverton Railraod