Sunday, October 30, 2016

American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work..

The fields and homes of 1850s Concord, Massachusetts proved to be some of the most fertile ground for US writers and thinkers. A literary group which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, developed there. Transcendentalism was the romantic, nature-oriented philosophy, that moved all of them (Hawthorne negatively). They lived and wrote in close proximity and communication with each other. Their relationships ranged from romance, to infatuation, to deep friendship to intense repugnance. It always affected their writing.

Some fascinating, but perhaps mythical, theory cited by the author, suggests that “genius clusters” of special individuals form when “circumstances, political conditions, landscape, and community forces sometimes come together to create an unusual concentration of talent.” (Cheever, p.5). While this is an entrancing notion, the circumstances that created this collection of talent are far more mundane, as the author later illustrates: Emerson paid for it. He had a fortune obtained from his first wife and an eye for talent. All of the above mentioned writers were, at one time or another broke. Emerson sought interesting, inspiring company, in his distant home and paid for housing. Regardless of how this community arose, what is important is that it did. The happy result was that a number of talented people had the opportunity to live near and influence each other.

The book is divided into four parts; though what distinguishes the breaks between parts is hard to tell. However, within these parts are short, 4 to 7 page “chapters” that are primarily episodes in the lives of the people discussed, presented from their perspective. This allows Cheever to weave a narrative that includes all the points of view of the different players; a method that she crafts masterfully. She will even present the same scene from a different individual’s viewpoint, without it feeling redundant given that she is presenting different emotions and thoughts through different eyes. This is especially helpful in a book that focuses upon relationships, both romantic and platonic, since the emotions and interpretations of relationships and their effects are always personal.

Susan Cheever is particularly well-suited to this internal, relationship-based form of history writing. As the daughter of author John Cheever, she is well acquainted with memoirs of famous writers, and is not shy about depicting personal details. Her best-selling Home Before Dark talks about her father’s bisexuality; her personal memoir Note Found in a Bottle recounts the influence of alcoholism in her life. She has exhibited bold honesty and self-revelation in these memoirs. One could expect no less in her discussion of iconic writers who are not family. Cheever capably describes the jealousy between Emerson and Hawthorn over Margaret Fuller (as well as the reactions of their respective wives); Hawthorne’s anti-social leanings; A. Bronson Alcott’s unwillingness come down from the philosophical clouds and provide for his impoverished family, the non-violent Transcendentalists being “seduced by the false authority of John Brown” (Cheever, p.6); and numerous other scandalous or questionable occurrences in the Concord community. While she is enchanted by this group of writers, she is realistic about them as people and is used to tossing-up dirt.
There are few flaws in Cheever’s otherwise personable and artful style. She inserts some unnecessary, distracting personal paragraphs concerning her own trips to Concord. She has a tendency towards hyperbole. Her chapter introducing Margaret Fuller is entitled “The Sexy Muse;” which is fun, but demeans and sensationalizes that writer. She calls Walden “the first American memoir” (Cheever, p.125). But there are numerous precursors (importantly Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir of his time as a Revolutionary soldier, which preceded Thoreau by 30 years and is cited by historians today ). She claims “in April of 1847, Fanny Longfellow had been the first woman to deliver a child with the aid of ether” (Cheever, p. 148). But “on January 19, 1847…James Young Simpson, a Scottish obstetrician, administered diethyl ether to facilitate delivery of a child to a woman” ( ). But these are minor hiccups in an otherwise well-written history.

It is not hyperbole to say that the Transcendentalists were one of the most important literary and philosophical movements in US history. They challenged the puritanical morality and rigidity of their time with innovative, liberating styles and ideas. This book on their personal lives and connections provides a reader with insight on the creative processes and unique interactions which permitted that innovation. Susan Cheever is not an academically-trained historian. But her slim book permits a picture of this ground-breaking community that surpasses the efforts of many academics in its’ ability to vividly portray the Concord community. Sometimes the personal iconoclasm of an author allows her to show aspects of historical, iconoclastic personalities that are missed by more traditional historians.

Cheever, Susan. American Bloomsbury. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Thirty Years War. Europe's Tragedy. By Peter H. Wilson

The Thirty Years War was a tragic, devastating series of conflicts between 1618 and 1648. Its death toll was between 5,000,000 and 8,000,000 lives in an area of central Europe (the Holy Roman Empire), which contained a population of 26,000,000. Many of the casualties were not among natives to the Empire. All major European countries became involved for their own gain, and contributed soldiers to the war. The outpouring of violence and greed was only compounded by hypocrisy among the combative parties: Protestants and Catholics both claimed to have been advancing their interpretation of a myth about a non-violent Jesus. The effects of human suffering, opportunistic religious hypocrisy and material destruction, created catastrophic harm which stunted progress in Western Civilization on several fronts.

This period and subject present the problem of an unwieldy mass of information. One must consider the motivations and actions of political, cultural, religious and military entities across Europe. In addition, the personalities and goals of key monarchs, aristocrats and generals, must be taken into account. Finally, all of these factors are not just contained within a daunting 30 year period, involving three generations of continent-wide players. They also involve influences that began with the Reformation of the 14th Century, and contain ramifications for centuries following the conflict. As a result of this scope, it is possible to have as many interpretations as there are historians, each selecting a focus that contributes to, (or confuses), a vast puzzle.

Peter H. Wilson is a diligent, intelligent historian who has funneled a vast swath of information into a 900 page book. He divided his book into three parts. The first part explains the war’s origins, and conditions affecting the Holy Roman Empire, from the 15th Century up until 1618. Part Two is a chronological study of the war period (1618 – 1648). The third part “examines the war’s political, economic, social and cultural impact and longer-term significance.” (Wilson, p. xxii).

This historian presents a traditional focus, in that he studies the political leaders: monarchs, generals, political ministers and territorial princes. Given the breadth and depth of this conflict, it is important to narrow one’s view, unless one is planning to make a life’s work of this topic, producing a couple dozen volumes. In contrast with Wilson’s perspective on leadership, a historian of Howard Zinn’s persuasion would examine the history of the Empire’s common citizens. A historian of Barbara Tuchman’s persuasion would include more cultural elements, some iconoclastic individuals and sub-cultures of obscure variety. The difference between Wilson, versus Tuchman or Zinn, is that the latter two were always careful to point-out that their view did not encompass the entirety of the subject. Wilson is not so careful.

For example, a major contention of this author’s is that the Thirty Years War “was not primarily a religious war.” (Wilson, p. 9).  Repeatedly, Wilson illustrates that leaders, used the conflict to gain power, land, wealth, titles and advantage over others. Often a Catholic or Protestant leader would use a religious rationalization as propaganda for their aggression. But the historian presents cogent reasons concerning why these declarations of faith were a smokescreen for the leader’s greed. It is a fine catalog of individuals’ motivations that have nothing to do with their branch of Christianity. And so Wilson comes to the universal conclusion that the war was not primarily religious. Of course, a mature reader understands that the power players of any period care mainly about power. Even today, we see that Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist generals who are now leading ISIS care little about Jihad, but will use fundamentalist justifications for their actions. However, while the desires of political leaders were a major factor in the conflict, they were not the only factor. A historian whose project centered on the influences of clergy and sects of each branch of Christianity might reach a different conclusion about the role religion played. A researcher studying local populations of one or another faith, who observed civilians massacring communities of an opposing confession, prosecuting “witches,” talking about the war as a divine punishment, might also conclude that religion was more important. A scholar whose examination began with the Reformation might see the Thirty Years War as a logical conclusion to that event, thereby making religion central. A conflict this prolonged, this complex and this multi-cultural, defies universal statements created from the examination of one element.

The last chapter, “Experiencing War,” is a complete departure from the rest of the book. Up until that point, the focus was on the leaders. The last section is a grab bag of issues not covered in the narrative of the first two sections. It includes personal testimonies of commoners, the impact of print media, military-civil relations, and a number of other matters having less to do with leadership. Its presence is incongruous. It appears as if the author was conscious of omissions made necessary to maintain focus upon the chronology of leaders’ motives and actions. A more appropriate final chapter would have articulated patterns, or narrower conclusions, about the individuals in power.

The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy is a useful, highly informative illustration of motives and actions by those in power during the conflict. If it is a reader’s goal to examine this puzzle piece of the war, Wilson’s book is a fine choice. Of course this leaves a lot of research on the shoulders of a bookworm who aspires to a more whole or general understanding of this period. But we are, after all, non-fiction readers. It is one of our pleasures, compulsions and goals, to accumulate knowledge. This is just another opportunity.

Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War. Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Havelock Ellis. A Biography. By Phyllis Grosskurth

Havelock Ellis was a late Nineteenth Century physician whose writings had a humanizing, freeing influence on the sexually-repressed societies of Europe and North America. Regarding a couple’s private sexuality, he encouraged play and sexual fulfillment for women. Publicly, Ellis counseled reform of divorce laws, acceptance of masturbation and dissemination of birth control information. Also, Ellis saw lesbians and gays as a natural part of humanity, during a time when they were condemned by society as (at best) mentally ill, or (at worst) evil. These open, permissive values not only reduced suffering for people willing to read his works, but also pointed the way towards our contemporary acceptance of human sexuality.

Phyllis Grosskurth writes a typical birth-to-earth biography. There is nothing innovative about the organization of her book. However, it is prodigiously researched, employing the most important primary sources concerning Ellis’s life. Grosskurth estimates that she has examined “well over twenty thousand” unpublished letters while preparing this volume (Grosskurth, p. xi). The list of libraries, private collections and personal papers she perused is equally impressive.

Despite the author’s dedication to her project, she has few illusions about her subject. Ellis was a peculiar man. He became famous during his lifetime, with numerous friends, admirers and lovers; but this British scholar was shy, passive and required a great deal of time alone. Sexually, he preferred urolagnia (Grosskurth, pp. 227-8), and was frequently incapable of sustaining an erection (Grosskurth, p. 94). Mercifully, the descriptions of his carnal life are opaque. While his books on human sexuality were instructively explicit, his letters (wherein information regarding his proclivities resides) are more typical of the age than his books, and merely allude to erotic activity. But there are advantages to Ellis’s peculiarity: If the norm, in late Victorian England, was suffocating repression concerning physical relations, then it may be that an atypical individual outside of that norm was better suited to present alternatives that were liberated and liberating. Also, a person whose own sexual practices were condemned by society would be less likely to condemn the practices of others. Ellis rarely expressed urolagnia as anything but an abnormality. Conversely, he put his less than stellar potency to good use. He proposed couples have open communication about likes and dislikes, offering suggestions, beyond coitus, that contribute to close erotic relationships.

By the early Twentieth Century, Freud had eclipsed Ellis as the chief authority on human sexuality. The Viennese doctor had many critics who disagreed with his conclusions. But most people were willing to recognize Freud’s genius and the superiority of the psychoanalytic method over anything that had come before. Though Ellis receives little recognition for the freedoms we have, his contribution was not insignificant. Throughout the bio, Grosskurth vividly depicts Havelock Ellis’s flaws. But she also shows him as a loving person, who saw how self-abnegating conventions around sex were inflicting harm on individuals and societies. He also saw a way out: In Ellis’s own words to his wife, “I am not a God, but only a very human creature, full of defects & always failing, & with limitations & peculiarities & shyness & reserves—a creature that has always been liable to be wounded at a touch. I cannot alter my nature & I do not think anything is gained by hiding things & pretending, but that it is best in love to be open” (Grosskurth, p. 338). This is what Ellis brought to the exploration of sexuality: openness, self-reflection, vulnerability and honest communication. By emphasizing these humble qualities in his life and writing, he helped to break-down the walls of fear, repugnance and silence that those of his generation had built around the human body.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis. A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980.