May 11, 2018 § 3 Comments
Reading and Watching
The Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s not widely known that the author, who became America’s first and most prominent landscape architect and designer of masterpieces such as Central Park in New York and Biltmore Estate, was for years a correspondent for the New York Times. In the 1850’s he undertook a solo tour through the backwoods of the southern states to report on slavery, life in the south, and the plantation economy. This book compiles his reportage, and presents a contemporary panorama of the small landowners, slaves, plantation owners, and their ways of life.
Worse than Slavery by David Oshinsky. From slavery, through reconstruction, through white resurgency, through Jim Crow, through convict labor-for-hire, through the law used as oppression. Oshinsky traces the history of Parchman Farm from its roots in slavery to its founding and evolution through phases of Mississippi history. The author does a masterful job of depicting Mississippi’s brutal racial history.
Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden. Turning points in history are most often identified by historians long after the fact. Some turning points, however, are apparent immediately. Such was the case when the Tet Offensive exploded across Viet Nam in 1968. Before then the Johnson Administration had been manipulating the media, with a few notable exceptions, to promote a rosy picture of military progress in that ill-starred land. Tet proved it all to be lies, and began a u-turn in American public opinion on the nation’s involvement in Viet Nam’s civil war. Bowden’s riveting book tells the story of the invasion and month-long occupation of Hue, South Viet Nam’s cultural capital, by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the Herculean effort that it took to oust them, the cost in human life and destruction, and the aftermath both in Viet Nam and in the U.S.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. An easy-to-digest, thoughtful explication of geopolitics. Marshall shows how geography has dictated history, how it influences current events, and how it will shape the world’s future, region by region.
The Greater Journey by David McCullough. Between 1830 and 1900, waves of Americans took up residence in Paris to study art, medicine, and life. They took what they absorbed back to their young nation and enriched it immeasurably. Through their stories two-time Pulitzer Prize and two-time National Book Award-winner McCullough weaves the history of Paris itself. What results is the mesmerizing sagas of Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Cassat, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Harriet Beecher, Samuel F.B. Morse, and others, all set against war, art movements of the eras, epidemics, and the Haussmannization of the City of Light.
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. America’s gradual slide into immersion in Viet Nam’s civil war, from Eisenhower, through Kennedy, and to Johnson, with an afterword about Nixon. Halberstam makes a microscopic examination, linking the loss of China to Communism during the Truman years to Kennedy’s obsession with refusing to let the same thing happen in Indochina, to Johnson’s deferral to Kennedy’s “best and brightest” brain trust that he inherited following Kennedy’s assassination. This is a fascinating analysis, done as a character study of all the major — and some minor — players.
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The story of Biltmore Estate and its creator, George Washington Vanderbilt. What do you do when you have inherited more wealth than you can possibly use in twenty lifetimes? Well, if you live in America’s Gilded Age, you build the largest home in the nation, on more than 30,000 acres, for which you employ only the leading architects, craftsmen, foresters, and landscapers. This book traces the development of Biltmore manor and its estate. It’s also the story of his wife Edith’s devotion to the community and her employees, the Vanderbilts’ at-times tenuous financial situations, and the symbiotic relationship of Biltmore, the Vanderbilts, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian Aristocrat is brought before a revolutionary tribunal on charges of being an enemy of the people. He expects to face a firing squad or be imprisoned. Instead, because he is credited with once having authored a famous poem, he is ordered to be incarcerated in the Metropol Hotel for life, on pain of death if he ever sets foot outside it. His story, and that of all the interesting characters, events, and settings in the hotel with which he interacts, make for entertaining reading that one would not expect of a novel limited in scope to one square block of Moscow. Towles is a talented writer whose prose you will enjoy.
Movie Stars by Jack Pendarvis. You need to read more Pendarvis. Do it for yourself.
As for watching, I recommend Filmstruck for those of you who are cinephiles. There you will find a rotating selection of the Criterion Collection and TCM’s vault.
To All: If you have not already, do yourself a favor and read everything written by David McCullough. Everything. Books, essays, speeches, etc. In my opinion, there is no better contemporary history writer nor anyone who is a more fluid employer of the language. -SBH
Great list – thanks!
I can recommend The Half Has Never Been Told as an eye-opening book, not just about the reality of slavery, but how the politics of slavery ran through a lot of the early history of the US in ways our textbooks left out. I also want to read Empire of Cotton, but it’s in a large stack.
I re-read the Cotton Kingdom every couple of years, it is essential for an understanding of the antebellum South. Believers in the moonlight and magnolias edition of Southern history will be perturbed at Olmsted’s depiction of the “appalling ignorance” displayed by the people he encountered, from the wealthy to the dirt farmer. Further, Olmsted argued that owning slaves had induced a persistent laziness in the slave owning whites, to the extent that they would rather wait an hour for a slave to appear than do something as simple as removing a saddle from a horse by themselves.
Olmsted traveled alone, on horseback, and spent each night lodging in a stranger’s house, or cabin, as his luck permitted. He was invariably charged a dollar per night, by rich and poor alike. He frequently complained about the poor fare given his horse, and commented regularly about the food eaten by the people. Bacon and corn was the inevitable fare, with vegetables rarely seen.
Here is a representative sample from his book:
“A planter, at whose house I called after sunset, said it was not convenient for him to accommodate me, and I was obliged to ride until it was quite dark. The next house at which I arrived was one of the commonest sort of cabins. I had passed twenty like it during the day, and I thought I would take the opportunity to get an interior knowledge of them. The fact that a horse and waggon were kept, and that a considerable area of land in the rear of the cabin was planted with cotton, showed that the family were by no means of the lowest class, yet, as they were not able even to hire a slave, they may be considered to represent very favourably, I believe, the condition of the poor whites of the plantation districts. The whites of the county, I observe, by the census, are three to one of the slaves; in the nearest adjoining county, the proportion is reversed; and within a few miles the soil was richer, and large plantations occurred. It was raining, and nearly nine o’clock. The door of the cabin was open, and I rode up and conversed with the occupant as he stood within. He said that he was not in the habit of taking in travellers, and his wife was about sick, but if I was a mind to put up with common fare, he didn’t care.
Page 106 106 COTTON AND SLAVERY. Grateful, I dismounted and took the seat he had vacated by the fire, while he led away my horse to an open shed in the rear-his own horse ranging at large, when not in use, during the summer. The house was all comprised in a single room, twenty-eight by twenty-five feet in area, and open to the roof above. There was a large fireplace at one end and a door on each side-no windows at all. Two bedsteads, a spinning-wheel, a packing-case, which served as a bureau, a cupboard, made of rough hewn slabs, two or three deer-skin seated chairs, a Connecticut clock, and a large poster of Jayne’s patent medicines, constituted all the visible furniture, either useful or ornamental in purpose. A little girl, immediately, without having had any directions to do so, got a frying-pan and a chunk of bacon from the cupboard, and cutting slices from the latter, set it frying for my supper. The woman of the house sat sulkily in a chair tilted back and leaning against the logs, spitting occasionally at the fire, but took no notice of me, barely nodding when I saluted her. A baby lay crying on the floor. I quieted it and amused it with my watch till the little girl, having made ” coffee” and put a piece of corn-bread on the table with the bacon, took charge of it. I hoped the woman was not very ill. ” Got the headache right bad,” she answered. “Have the headache a heap, I do. Knew I should have it to-night. Been cuttin’ brush in the cotton this arternoon. Knew’t would bring on my headache. Told him so when I begun.” As soon as I had finished my supper and fed Jude, the little girl put the fragments and the dishes in the cupboard, shoved the table into a corner, and dragged a quantity of quilts from one of the bedsteads, which she spread upon the floor, and presently crawled among them out of sight for the night. The woman picked up the child-which, though still
Page 107 THE INTERIOR COTTON DISTRICTS. 107 a suckling, she said was twenty-two months old-and nursed it, retaking her old position. The man sat with me by the fire, his back towards her. The baby having fallen asleep was laid away somewhere, and the woman dragged off another lot of quilts from the beds, spreading them upon the floor. Then taking a deep tin pan, she filled it with alternate layers of corn-cobs and hot embers from the fire. This she placed upon a large block, which was evidently used habitually for the purpose, in the centre of the cabin. A furious smoke arose from it, and we soon began to cough. “Most too much smoke,” observed the man. “Hope’twill drive out all the gnats, then,” replied the woman. (There is a very minute flying insect here, the bite of which is excessively sharp.) The woman suddenly dropped off her outer garment and stepped from the midst of its folds, in her petticoat; then, taking the baby from the place where she had deposited it, lay down and covered herself with the quilts upon the floor. The man told me that I could take the bed which remained on one of the bedsteads, and kicking off his shoes only, rolled himself into a blanket by the side of his wife. I ventured to take off my cravat and stockings, as well as my boots, but almost immediately put my stockings on again, drawing their tops over my pantaloons. The advantage of this arrangement was that, although my face, eyes, ears, neck, and hands, were immediately attacked, the vermin did not reach my legs for two or three hours. Just after the clock struck two, I distinctly heard the man and the woman, and the girl and the dog scratching, and the horse out in the shed stamping and gnawing himself. Soon afterward the man exclaimed, “Good God Almighty-mighty! mighty! mighty!” and jumping up pulled off one of his stockings, shook it, scratched his foot vehemently, put on the stocking, and lay down again with a groan. The two doors were open, and through
Page 108 108 COTTON AND SLAVERY. the logs and the openings in the roof, I saw the clouds divide and the moon and stars reveal themselves. The woman, after having been nearly smothered by the smoke from the pan which she had originally placed close to her own pillow, rose and placed it on the sill of the windward door, where it burned feebly and smoked lustily, like an altar to the Lares, all night. Fortunately the cabin was so open that it gave us little annoyance, while it seemed to answer the purpose of keeping all flying insects at a distance. When, on rising in the morning, I said that I would like to wash my face, water was given me for the purpose in an earthen pie-dish. Just as breakfast, which was of exactly the same materials as my supper, was ready, rain began to fall, presently in such a smart shower as to put the fire out and compel us to move the table under the least leaky part of the roof. At breakfast occurred the following conversation:” Are there many niggers in New York?” ” ery few.” ” How do you get your work done?” ” There are many Irish and German people constantly coming there who are glad to get work to do.” ” Oh, and you have them for slaves?” “They want money and are willing to work for it. A great many American-born work for wages, too.” “What do you have to pay?” ” Ten or twelve dollars a month.” ” There was a heap of Irishmen to work on the railroad; they was paid a dollar a day; there was a good many Americans, too, but mostly they had little carts and mules, and hauled dirt and sich like. They was paid twenty-five or thirty dollars a month and found.”