Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Life and Death of Lenin

The Life and Death of Lenin
Robert Payne
NY: Simon & Schuster, 1964

I've never read any other comprehensive biographies of Lenin and I'm not well-versed in Russian history, so don't know how this book compares with others.  It was published in 1964 so it is quite possible studies since then have had access to archives that weren't available at the height of the Cold War.  I do know it is quite detailed, and it does follow Lenin literally from cradle to grave. 

Lenin's early life is particularly interesting, as the author describes Lenin's evolution from apolitical student to revolutionary.  His life is a nice example of labeling theory:  if you call someone a troublemaker enough times, he or she is sure to become one.  His first few run-ins with the Russian secret police are triggered by his name:  his older brother had gotten entangled with an inept group of anti-imperialists, so the whole family becomes suspect.  Guilt by association.

Unfortunately for the Russians (and perhaps the rest of the world), while Lenin's brother may have been incompetent when it came to plotting and agitating for revolution, Lenin was not.  Over the years, I've heard a fair amount of speculation about what might have happened if Lenin hadn't died when he did -- there are conspiracy theories that Stalin had him poisoned.  This book doesn't put to rest any of that speculation, but it does make it fairly clear that anyone who thinks Lenin would have been better than Stalin in the long run hasn't paid much attention to Lenin's actual life and writings.

You can have The Life and Death of Lenin for $10 plus shipping ($4 for media mail within the U.S., $9 for priority, and $15 for non-U.S. addresses).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory -- SOLD

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory is a collection of essays edited by historians James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton.  Published in 2006, the book anticipates many of the conflicts regarding the role of slavery in American history in general and the Civil War in particular that are sure to arise as the sesquicentennial of the latter draws more attention to the issue. I bought this book last year at the book store in the Natchez, Mississippi, visitors' center.  It was money well spent.
Public history is the field of history that deals with making history accessible to and understood by the general public;  museum docents, subject matter experts who plan exhibits and brochures, tour guides, interpretive rangers at state and national parks, living history actors, and so on are all working in the field of public history. One of the challenges of public history can be helping visitors to a museum or a historic site to recognize that knowing more about the past isn't always going to make you feel good, a notably difficult task when most visitors begin the experience by seeing their visit to a museum or historic site as potential entertainment or as a celebration of American progress so, unless they're visiting a site like Andersonville or Manzanar, are expecting tours to be upbeat. But, as one of the essays notes, "if you don't tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be."

When history involves the tough stuff -- slavery, civil rights, internment camps -- things can get especially messy.  Most people prefer a comforting myth over a nasty truth any day, so it's no surprise that for the general public the history of slavery in the United States comes wrapped in multiple myths, ranging from the erroneous belief slavery existed only in the Southern states to the ludicrous notion that there were thousands of black soldiers in the Confederate army.

The essays in this book examine a number of recent events for which the history of slavery either served as the initial reason for the event or became entangled in it as planning progressed, including changing the docents' scripts at the Brown house in Rhode Island, placement of a statue honoring Arthur Ashe in Richmond, Virginia, and the unexpected reaction to an exhibit on plantation life at the Library of Congress. Although a state that in the public mind is not normally associated with the history of slavery, Rhode Island, in fact, provides three of the case studies in the book:  Brown University and the issue of reparations, the Brown house and the history of the slave trade, and efforts to honor the first Continental Army regiment comprised of men of color, the First Rhode Island, which fought in the Revolutionary War. 

I'm reasonably well-read in U.S. history, so Slavery and Public History didn't contain any major surprises.  There were issues I hadn't heard about before -- the controversy over the "Behind the Big House" exhibit at the Library of Congress, for example -- but overall the essays served more to provide additional insights into topics I'd heard discussed in other venues.  I knew that there's been quite a bit of debate within the National Park Service over resource education at battlefield sites.  For many years, interpretation at sites such as Shiloh focused almost exclusively on what happened on the day of the battle (e.g., troop movements, casualty counts) while remaining essentially silent on the larger social and political context that led to that battle being fought. (This was true not only of Civil War sites, but also sites associated with the Indian wars, like Little Big Horn.)  When NPS began to change interpretive programs to do more than rhapodize about the heroic actions of our glorious dead, the gallant lads in blue or gray, howls of protest were heard, primarily from members of organizations like the Sons of the Confederacy.  Understandable, of course, because it's not much fun to be reminded that the Lost Cause your ancestors died for was a morally repugnant one.

Although I found all of the book to be interesting as well as thoroughly researched, the chapter debunking the myth of African-Americans being a sizable presence in the Confederate army was particularly interesting.  It's been common practice for a number of years for Confederate heritage organizations, e.g., United Daughters of the Confederacy, to claim that thousands and thousands of blacks willingly served in the Confederate army.  This is, as I stated above, ludicrous.  It's been debunked many times, and in his essay "In Search of a Usable Past" Bruce Levine does a nice job of debunking it again.  Levine shows how the supporters of the theory have resorted to tactics like deciding that slaves used as camp cooks or for doing other support work (collecting firewood, taking care of the horses, digging latrines) were actually serving in the Army.  The fact slaves had no choice in the matter is, from the viewpoint of neo-Confederates, irrelevant.  Documents from the time period, of course, tell the real story.  Confederate officials, from Jefferson Davis on down, made it clear they had no interest in allowing any blacks into the army, with Davis in 1861 bluntly calling the idea "stark madness."  By March 1865, as the CSA ran out of eligible white bodies to use as cannon fodder, the idea was revived, but the Confederates never managed to muster much more than the equivalent of one small platoon.

If you , too, would like to learn a little more about some of these issues, Slavery and Public History can be yours for $12.50 plus shipping ($3.50 for parcel post, $5 for priority, $12.50 for addresses outside the United States.)

Update: Hate to see it leave because it is a great book, but it found a buyer.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Age of Smoke -- SOLD

The Age of Smoke: Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880-1970
Frank Uekoetter
ISBN 10: 0-8229-4364-6
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009

Back when I was in grad school, my advisor kept reminding there's "more to history than just one damn thing after another."  Someone should have told Frank Uekoetter that.  This is a solidly researched book, it's jam-packed with facts, but there comes a point where the reader starts to suffer from information overload and just wants to know what it all means. I'm not sure Uekoetter ever quite gets to that point.

On the other hand, when it comes to tracking the evolution of air pollution and regulation in the U.S. and Germany, this book does lay out a clear time line, from worrying about coal smut back in the 1890s to passage of the Clean Air Act and other legislation in the mid-twentieth century.  If a person happened to be a grad student or an environmental historian looking for a topic for further research, Uekoetter provides plenty of tantalizing leads:  a few pages about Milwaukee, a few pages about Chicago, a quick mention of St. Louis, and so on.  

In short, this is a book packed full of facts, dryer than dust (which counts as an air pollutant, too, but doesn't get quite as much attention as chemical plumes and coal soot), that would be a good addition to the book shelf of any academic specializing in environmental issues, which is why I read it (even though I'm no longer an academic).  If I was still teaching science and technology courses, I'd hang on to it simply because it would be a good source for finding specific examples I could weave into lectures about industry, regulation, and pollution.  For the general reader, however, it may prove more soporific than enlightening. 

Still, if you think it could be useful, The Age of Smoke can be yours for $12.50 plus shipping costs ($3 for media mail, $6 for priority, and $13 for international).

Update:  Unbelievable.  Somebody actually bought this.  Yes, it's solid, scholarly work, but it's also boring as hell.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Art and Craft of Novel Writing

The Art and Craft of Novel Writing
Oakley Hall
ISBN 1-884910-02-5
Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1994.

Once upon a time I fantasized about writing fiction.  I used to have a shelf full of books with titles similar to this one.  Over time, I realized I was not going to grow up to be Margaret Atwood (or even Barbara Cartland).  My wordsmithing talents fell in another area, that of not-so-creative nonfiction (i.e., translating scientific jargon into language 7th graders can understand), and I gradually jettisoned the various "how to" manuals dealing with fiction that I had acquired.  This is the last one. 

The Art and Craft of Novel Writing was first published in 1989.  This copy is the trade paperback edition from 1994.  I've hung on to it because it's good, lots of useful advice on plotting, dialog, and the various other components of a readable novel illustrated with snippets from works by authors in a variety of genres and time periods.  If you're still cherishing the fantasy of being next year's Stephanie Meyers, this book can be yours for $4 plus shipping ($3 for media mail, $6 for priority, $12 for international).