This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
If you would like to tell the editors about a new book (even your own) that addresses the concerns of HNN -- current events and history -- or would like to write a review, please send us an email: email@example.com.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, among other books. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press next year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Before there was Facebook, before there were iPhones, there was MTV. After an unprepossessing launch in 1981, the cable network became a powerful force in American popular culture, exerting a much-noted impact not only on the music and television industries, but also on film, fashion, and even politics. Some of the attention MTV got was celebratory; some of it highly critical (from a variety of directions). About the only thing more striking than the network's dramatic impact is the degree it has receded since its first decade of cultural dominance. So the time seems right for an assessment of its trajectory.
Former Billboard editor Craig Marks and music journalist Rob Tannenbaum make a shrewd choice in rending the MTV story as an oral history, taking a page from Live from New York, the 2003 Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller history of Saturday Night Live (and before that, George Plimpton's ground-breaking 1982 biography of Edie Sedgewick, Edie). Tannenbaum and Craig conducted hundreds of interviews that that they arrange in a kaleidoscopic array of voices that include corporate executives, performers, video directors, and so-called "VJs" like Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman.
From its inception, MTV was a slick corporate product. Underwritten by the somewhat unlikely duo of Warner Cable and American Express -- which at the time hoped to sell financial services via interactive television -- the network's commercial premise rested on an audacious concept: to use one kind of advertising (musical acts promoting themselves) in order to sell another (ads that would be sandwiched between the videos). Even more audacious is that MTV got programming, at least initially, free, as it expected record labels to supply the material it broadcast, though the actual cost of the videos was typically charged to the artists in the form of an advance against royalties. There was widespread skepticism in just about every direction that this business model would actually work, but it proved to be spectacularly successful.
Like the advent of sound in motion pictures, the rise of music video rearranged the power structure of the music business. British musicians, who had long been using video clips for shows like the much-beloved Top of the Pops, were better prepared, both in terms of having content at hand and their willingness to produce more, in exploiting the opportunity, spawning a second British invasion in the early 1980s that included acts like Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, and the Human League. Similarly, established acts with photogenic and/or charismatic lead singers, such as the Police and U2, were also able to exploit the potential of the new genre. By contrast, those without such assets or an inability to fully understand it suffered; there's an amusing chapter in I Want My MTV that chronicles the way rock star Billy Squier's video "Rock Me Tonight" was directed in a gay-friendly manner that wrecked his credibility among his core audience.
In aesthetic terms, music video evolved with remarkable rapidity, its development greatly accelerated by Michael Jackson, who overcame early resistance to having his videos broadcast and took the form to a whole new level. Madonna was similarly successful in bending the channel to showcase her talents, not the least of which was creating a sexual brand. But MTV was finally a director's medium, and was important in launching a series of careers, among the most important of which was that of David Fincher, whose apprenticeship in music video became the springboard for a distinguished, and ongoing, Hollywood career.
But almost from the start, MTV had a remarkably decadent corporate culture that over time sapped its vitality. In part, it was corrupted -- insofar as the term makes any sense in the music biz -- by an unholy alliance between executives and artists, who collaborated in a regime of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that made the counterculture of the 1960s seem tame by comparison. But MTV's indulgences were not only sybaritic. The network cultivated incestuous commercial relationships with certain performers, as well as indulged in racist, sexist and other questionable practices. Above all, it was corroded by money, chiefly in the form of inflated video budgets that gave accounting precedence over art.
Marks and Tannenbaum chart these developments at the network with surprising detail and clarity, the panoply of voices showing both multiple perspectives on the same video as well as the way in which prevailing perceptions were widely shared. The authors also document the many memorable highlights and byways of MTV's history, like Madonna's notorious appearance in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Awards ceremony, for example, or Tipper Gore's notorious crusade against Twisted Sister and other bands with the Parents' Music Resource Coalition (PMRC) in the late eighties. They also chart the network's gradual move into hip-hop, which revived the vitality of pop music as well as video in the early 1990s, and the role of MTV in electing Bill Clinton president in 1992.
By this point, however, the vast center MTV had created -- for much of the eighties it was the de facto national radio station, creating and/or sustaining huge mass audiences for the likes of acts like Prince and Bruce Springsteen -- was beginning to crack. A rotation that included R.E.M., Debbie Gibson, and Public Enemy was intrinsically centrifugal, and as such less attractive to advertisers. The rise of grunge rock, particularly that of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, represented a bracing new chapter for MTV, but that's because such bands overtly challenged much of what the network stood for. At the same time, the channel found other sources of cheap programming, like The Real World, that squeezed time for music videos, which gradually but inexorably disappeared from sight. Finally, the advent of the Internet, which empowered viewer choice to an unprecedented degree, balkanized audiences to the point of no return. As Marks and Tannenbaum note, "Offering MTV to a kid in 1993 was like offering a board game to a kid in 1981."
Today, MTV is just another cable channel, albeit one that enjoys commercial success with Jersey Shore, a tawdry show that honors the network's brash roots in style, though not in content. Music video lingers, chiefly on Internet sites like You Tube, where it remains the marketing tool it always has been. It's much less important than it used to be, but something closer to what its more modest champions imagined three decades ago. Reliving the glory days of MTV in this book is entertaining but sobering: the things that once seemed to matter so much now seem so small. Sic transit gloria mundi, Facebook. As Elvis Costello put it so memorably way back "Girls Talk," his 1979 song from before the MTV era, "You may not be an old-fashioned girl but you're gonna get dated."
Murray Polner is the author of numerous books, the former editor of Past Tense, and a book review editor for the History News Network.
Reviewing Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s German, 1944-45 in the New York Times, James J. Sheehan wondered why everyday Germans, facing imminent defeat in mid-1945, “continued to obey a government that had nothing left to offer them but death and destruction.” That’s not an easy question. Why did they and their fellow Germans blindly follow murderers and thugs they had once hailed and faithfully served? Could it have been simply obedience to leaders? Or was it, Thomas A. Kohut asks, a tribal tendency to “belong and, consequently to exclude?” Kohut, professor of history at Williams College and author of Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership, has no definitive answer –nor does the vast literature about the subject. The virtue of this book is that he does try to see that blood-spattered era through the eyes of individuals, rather than politicians, generals and others justifying what they did and didn’t do.
A partial if still unsatisfying answer may nonetheless lie in Kohut’s fifteen-year quest to collect sixty-two oral histories of “ordinary” Germans, many of them composites, a method to which some may object. He explains that while the sixty-two “cannot be equated with an entire generation” they do show “significant characteristics of the generation to which they belong, at times to a pronounced degree.” Kohut tells us his father was a Viennese Jew, a fact which would have meant his death had he not fled to the U.S. in 1938, a detail which may explain his remark, “I do not particularly like the interviewees.” It’s hard to know when and if personal feelings and ideology cloud a scholar’s view. Whatever the truth, his conclusions have been corroborated by many scholars, few of whom “liked” the people they wrote about.
All sixty-two were German Protestants, all born before World War I, all members of German youth movements. They were happy that the Nazis won the January 1933 election and were overwhelmingly supportive for most of the following years as fervent Nazis. One of his interviewees hailed the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and proudly served in the military. Another spoke of the good life until it all came crashing down with the arrival of devastating bombing raids and allied armies from east and west. Once the war ended they needed to rationalize their behavior, but were blindsided when their adult children of the 1968 generation wanted to know why they had so enthusiastically favored so brutal a regime.
Kohut devotes much space to Germany from World War I to the Weimar Republic, a weak democratic government despised by putative and actual Nazis but also by run-of-the-mill Germans trapped by raging inflation, massive unemployment, and bitter and divisive political wars, all of which attracted them to promises of jobs as well as dreams of renewed German power. Actually, Germany’s fate was sealed when the German Communist Party (KPD), following Moscow’s orders, slandered the Social Democrats (SPD) as “social fascists” in the 1933 election, thus splitting the opposition and allowing the Nazis to win. This review concentrates on the Nazi epoch that followed.
The issue of anti-Semitism was raised in his interviews because it was so prominent during the Nazi era. Jews had lived in both German states and later unified Germany for centuries and contributed much to music, the arts, sciences and literature as well as political and economic life. Yet, emboldened and persuaded by incessant Nazi propaganda, many of the sixty-two accepted the anti-Jewish line. Enabled by the silence of the Catholic and Protestant churches (though church politicians felt brave enough to speak out against the Nazi’s euthanasia plan), they either “looked away”—or approved—when confronted by the sight of Jews beaten on public streets, their businesses shattered, and their disappearance from cities, towns and villages. Writes Kohut: “One way to characterize the interviewees’ knowledge of the Holocaust before the end of the war is that they knew facts that should have led them to conclude that atrocities were being committed against Jewish people. It took an act of will not to have known what was going on.”
How could they not have known, at least from stories they surely must have heard from furloughed and wounded soldiers, especially those who served in Poland, the Baltic states, and Russia, where Jews were regularly murdered by Germans and their Baltic, especially Latvian, and Ukrainian allies. Germans filled and volunteered for the Einsatzgruppen death squads, murderers of an estimated one million Jews, plus many others (only fourteen of the killers ever received death penalties in postwar war crimes trials and even then though few were executed; most had their sentences commuted and in 1958 all surviving executioners were freed). There is too the glaring example of the “ordinary men” in Christopher Browning’s searing book of the same name (0rdinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland), the story of a Hamburg police force, most of whom physically rejected by the army, but willing to kill every Jew they could find. Browning’s thesis was that they became mass murderers because of their deference to authority. Yet in Hamburg, known in pre-Hitler Germany as “Red” Hamburg for its large number of Communist sympathizers, they were not scorned by the populace when they returned from their bloody service.
“Franz Orthmann,”one of Kohut’s subjects, was a child of the middle class, and “absolutely susceptible” to the “powerful sense of revitalization” he dreamed the Nazis would create. He joined the party in 1938 after the Anschluss with Austria, ecstatic about the realization of a Greater Germany. He also enlisted in the army, became an officer and always believed he was serving a noble cause. But had he ever known of the sadism at home and on the various fronts? Only rumors, he answered. “I never gave a thought to what it all meant, and there was much about the Propaganda Ministry that one shouldn’t simply dismiss out of hand.” Besides, he added, “I believed that I was serving in a great cause.”
But what about the many civilians victimized by genocide? Orthmann says that when a soldier described several killings he had seen he called him a “pig.” After a driver for the Oranienburg concentration camp told him of gas chambers, of Jewish children “tossed up in air and spitted on bayonets” he says he finally became convinced that the rumors were true. All the same, after Richard von Weizacker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 1994, told the German parliament that all Germans knew about the concentration camps and the savagery, Orthmann became incensed, at first claiming it wasn’t so. He finally changed his mind when he personally heard an SA man boast of the mass killing of Jews.
Magdalene Beck, another composite interviewee, was eighteen when the Nazis came to power. Her husband was a soldier. An early and unswerving enthusiast for the Nazis, she claims to have nevertheless been apolitical. Though Jews in her town suddenly were nowhere to be seen in their homes and local schools, she looked away  even though stories began circulating about horrific happenings to civilians in Poland, Russia and elsewhere in conquered lands. She and many Germans have always defended their silence, arguing that individuals who objected to what their government was up to were helpless before the power of the Nazi state. Dissenters had all been crushed early on and always the penalty for opposition was often execution, the fate of the White Rose trio and the July 20 plotters, for example. In the documentary film Elusive Justice, Heinrich Gross, who ran a homicidal institute which euthanized children, justifies his role by saying, “If you were a staff member and refused to participate, you would be killed by the Nazis.”
Resist? “You are asking someone to resist who knows what will happen to him if he opposes such a dictatorial regime,” she told Kohut, echoing Gross and far too many Germans. “He’ll implicate his whole family. You try that! You try that!” There is some truth in that few individuals anywhere dare to challenge their tyrannical governments. Yet silence also meant that conforming and passive Germans had little to fear from the Nazis, except as Kohut notes in his mesmerizing book, that they ultimately paid a heavy price: six-and-a-half million non-Jewish Germans died in the war, five-and-a-half million of them soldiers.
In the final days of the war, with the Red Army approaching and stories of massacres in East Prussia circulating, Beck said she was terrified of rape, given the stories of mass rapes in Germany and Poland by Russian troops, though she said nothing about what her countrymen had done to Polish and Russian and women. And yet when Russians soldiers finally arrived, she says, they were unexpectedly kind, especially to children. But, echoing the Nazi line, she was frightened of black American soldiers and told her children to avoid taking candy from them, fearing that it might contain poison.
“I was never one of those fanatical Nazis,” Magdalene Beck told Kohut after the war, “but I believed in it with all my heart and soul, and I worked for it.”
Mel Ayton is author of The JFK Assassination—Dispelling The Myths (2002), A Racial Crime—James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr (2005) and The Forgotten Terrorist—Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F Kennedy (2007). His latest book about racist killer Joseph Paul Franklin, Dark Soul of the South, was published in May 2011. Readers can access his online HNN articles here.
Every now and then a JFK assassination book comes along that bristles with erudition and common sense, providing the reader with rational answers to anomalous pieces of evidence in the case that have been exaggerated beyond belief by bogus historians cashing in on the public’s desire for drama and intrigue.
In the 1970s, Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, a book which could be characterized as ‘Marina Oswald’s Memoirs, gave the American public an insight into the mind and character of JFK’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, an enigmatic young man who had remained a puzzle to the American people since the November 1963 assassination.
In the 1980s, Jean Davison’s Oswald’s Game gave readers a logical explanation for the assassination: Oswald, a hero-worshipper of Fidel Castro and a wannabe revolutionary, had political motives and he likely acted out of a distorted sense of political idealism.
In the 1990s, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, a well-written account of the assassination that debunked numerous conspiracy scenarios provided a refreshing antidote to Oliver Stone’s movie about the assassination, JFK. Stone’s largely fictional drama had been released in cinemas in the early 1990s. Its central character was Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who accused the CIA of Kennedy’s murder. His false history of the assassination had a corrosive effect on a new generation’s ability to understand this important event in U.S. history. Fortunately, another corrective to the movie came in 1998 with the publication of Patricia Lambert’s excellent book False Witness, which firmly exposed Garrison as a charlatan and a fraud.
Within recent years Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, a mammoth 1,600 page book, examined every theory and every conspiracy claim. The former Los Angeles lawyer, who became famous for his prosecution of hippie killer Charles Manson, took the debate about conspiracy allegations a step further by providing a devastating no-nonsense approach to the ridiculous assassination scenarios constructed by conspiracy authors, all of whom, as his book ably demonstrates, deliberately skewed the evidence in the case. His book was a masterwork that decisively marginalized JFK conspiracists.
So at the end of the first decade of the new century the matter appeared to be settled. I, amongst many JFK assassination researchers, would have thought there was nothing more to say on the subject. The above authors provided all the answers to conspiracy allegations to the satisfaction of history.
I was wrong. John McAdams has added to the sum of knowledge about this case and other famous conspiracy theories by writing a book which will help many who have fallen victim to the vast conspiracy literature on the market. His “how to” book challenges readers to look at how conspiracy writers have interpreted the evidence using seriously flawed methods.
McAdams has provided a blueprint for understanding how conspiracy theories arise and how anyone interested in conspiracies should judge the mass of contradictory evidence in the case. Having studied the JFK assassination for the past two decades he has developed a sharp intellectual ability at pointing out the illogical nature of virtually all conspiracy theories and helps the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff in Kennedy assassination literature.
The author’s intent is not to persuade the reader that there is no credible evidence to prove that JFK was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. Instead, McAdams concentrates on advising the reader how to think about conspiracy theories, especially the JFK assassination. By addressing the logical weaknesses in conspiracy books, he has been able to demonstrate how not to be duped about this important event in American history. For example, McAdams asks the reader to think logically; to stick to the evidence; to stick to common sense. He teaches you how to reach a rational, compelling conclusion based on evidence and reason, not on emotion or conjecture. His work is based not on theory, speculation, rumor, third-hand hearsay, or secondary evidence or opinion (save those of scientifically qualified experts). Instead, he advises the reader to reach a conclusion based on reflecting on the notion of “coincidence,” selectivity in the use of evidence, making an informed choice between contradictory pieces of evidence, and to search for evidence which fits a coherent theory. This advice is central to his didacticism.
Many of the assassination’s elements have become part of American folklore—the so-called “Magic Bullet” (The subject of a recent National Geographic Channel documentary The Lost Bullet), the grassy knoll shooter, the ballistics and medical evidence and the alleged mysterious deaths. McAdams immerses the reader in the fine points of each element then demonstrates to the reader how illogical the conspiracist interpretation really is.
Three of the more interesting expositions in the book address the alleged conspiracy remarks made by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the alleged involvement of the CIA in the president’s murder and the repeated and wrongful use of Jack Ruby’s statements to the press and the Warren Commission.
As McAdams demonstrates, Hoover was “clueless” in the first weeks after the assassination. The FBI director had been kept informed about the direction of the FBI’s investigation by his agents on the ground. Inevitably, investigating agents were confronted by contradictory statements made by witnesses at the scene of the assassination and the doctors who attended the president and Governor Connally. The “less than coherent” data that agents collected in the frenetic circumstances of the time was utilized by Hoover when the director passed information about the investigation to President Johnson, Bobby Kennedy and other government leaders. The FBI eventually cleared up the false data, false leads and false witness statements, and its completed report on the assassination became central to the Warren Commission’s own investigation. However, conspiracists simply ignored its contents and instead concentrated on Hoover’s wrong-headed comments as proof of a conspiracy, instead of putting Hoover’s remarks in context as the act of a confused person attempting to grasp what exactly had happened in the hours and days following the assassination.
McAdams also challenges those who believe the FBI was part of a conspiracy by asking, “So just how does somebody who is so confused on so many points direct a cover-up?” In a similar vein, McAdams debunks allegations of CIA involvement in the assassination by demonstrating how the agency mishandled their investigation into Oswald’s nefarious political activities. In telling the story of the CIA’s involvement in Jim Garrison’s 1967/1968 New Orleans investigation, McAdams allows the reader to come to the logical conclusion that bureaucratic bungling, rather than conspiratorial malfeasance, lay at the heart of their efforts.
McAdams, in his chapter “Bogus Quoting: Stripping Context, Misleading Readers,” shows how conspiracy writers have abused the evidence by taking quotes and statements out of context. He demonstrates this no better by making reference to the countless times conspiracists have used Jack Ruby’s published statements to the press and the Warren Commission which make reference to a “conspiracy.” For example, the conspiracist par excellence Mark Lane wrote, “Ruby made it plain that if the commission took him from the Dallas jail and permitted him to testify in Washington, he could tell more there; it was impossible for him to tell the whole truth so long as he was in the jail in Dallas... (Ruby said) ‘I would like to request that I go to Washington and... take all the tests that I have to take. It is very important...Gentlemen, unless you get me to Washington, you can't get a fair shake out of me.’”
However, it is clear from Ruby's Warren Commission testimony that he simply wanted to inform the commissioners of a conspiracy to murder Jews. Earl Warren, the commission's chairman said, “I went down and took Jack Ruby's testimony myself – he wouldn't talk to anybody but me. And he wanted the FBI to give him a lie detector test, and I think the FBI did, and he cleared it all right. I was satisfied myself that he didn't know Oswald, never had heard of him. But the fellow was clearly delusional when I talked to him. He took me aside and he said, ‘Hear those voices, hear those voices’? He thought they were Jewish children and Jewish women who were being put to death in the building there.” Ruby told Earl Warren, Gerald Ford and others, “I am as innocent regarding any conspiracy as any of you gentlemen in the room.” Ruby was actually begging the commission to take him back to Washington so that he could take a polygraph examination and prove that he was telling the truth when he denied any role in a conspiracy.
McAdams divides his book into further chapters dealing with how eyewitnesses and ear witnesses behave, how over-reliance on witness testimony weakens any crime investigation, the use of photographic evidence and how bureaucracies behave. He allows the reader to become a detective who tries to solve an intriguing puzzle. The solution, in each case, involves using intellectual tools and skills.
If those wishing to learn the truth about the JFK assassination (and other bogus conspiratorial hauntings of the American psyche) follow his step-by-step approach in understanding conspiracy claims there may well be a time when a new generation of Americans will be able to once more take control of their own history.
In the opinion of this reviewer John McAdams’ book is the final nail in the coffin of conspiracy theorists who have grabbed the attention of the mainstream media for far too long—mainly because the media understands all too well how the public loves a mystery. If John McAdams’ book is read in conjunction with the excellent books mentioned earlier in this review the JFK assassination will be no mystery at all.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, among other books. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press next year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
To say that the Civil War ain't what it used to be is to indulge a postmodern cliché: by this point, we all understand that what we "know" is socially constructed -- and contested. The takeaway from this anthology edited by Tom Brown at the University of South Carolina seems more prosaic but is actually a good deal more pointed: the Civil War is not what it used to be because it matters less than it once did. Which is not to say it's unimportant; the war continues to be engaged, in some cases with real intensity. But these essays collectively assert that it is now less a defining touchstone of national identity than a point of departure or iconographic warehouse for cultural productions that invert, bend, or re-imagine the conflict in ways that previous generations would hardly recognize, much less endorse.
Significantly, this cultural shift is not simply that of the avant garde. One of the more compelling pieces in the collection is Brown's own contribution, which looks at the lingering contemporary obsession with the Confederate flag. He notes that in the century following Appomattox, the flag was a rallying point for a sense of shared Southern identity, one whose resonance intensified in the mid-twentieth century as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Now, however, he argues that the Stars & Bars, along with related symbols, have become emblems of a self-conscious white minority that defends its civil right of self-expression with consumerist logic that would appall earlier guardians of Confederate identity, who regarded selling flags or souvenirs as a form of sacrilege. Insofar as the Southern experience of defeat has any compelling moral or psychological legitimacy, it's via a Vietnam analogy that is itself fading into history.
One also sees the recession of the Civil War in Robert Brinkmeyer's piece on contemporary Southern literature. Brinkmeyer notes that for African-Americans in particular the military conflict seems far less important than the antebellum decades leading up to it, and the battles are less important than various aspects of the home front. (The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall's 2001 parody of Gone with the Wind is discussed by a number of essayists.) And for many white writers such as Bobbie Ann Mason or Ron Rash, the Civil War is a tangent, even a dessicated husk.
In many of these essays, local, even private, concerns trump national ones. In his piece on the growth of Juneteeth celebrations marking the anniversary of emancipation's arrival in Texas, Mitch Katchun observes that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the joint resolution that led to the Thirteenth Amendment, would be an apt candidate for a national holiday, especially since it comes at the start of Black History Month. But it has been only one of many, and not a particularly beloved one.
Even the stock of the blue-chip Lincoln has sunk a bit. Amid his analysis of how the Left in general and Barack Obama in particular have tapped into the mythology of the Great Emancipator, C. Wyatt Evans notes that the contemporary Right has largely given up on Lincoln, feeling uncomfortable with his Big Government reputation and awkward with his Civil Rights legacy. The Tea Party invokes the Revolution, not the Civil War, as the source of its power and legitimacy.
The primary focus of Remixing the Civil War, however, are the visual arts, where collective memory of the conflict functions as a postmodern closet that gets raided for varied acts of bricolage. Essays by Elizabeth Young, Gerard Brown, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage all look at the way images, particularly photography, have been used to destabilize inherited notions of what the war was about. Sometimes contemporary artists complicate racial hierarchies or essentialized notions of blackness; other times their work involves the expansion or projection of alternative notions of sexuality or gender into nineteenth century settings. Ironically, some art carefully uses patiently recreated artifacts or settings to call attention to the artifice involved in remembrance.
Such work can be impressive in its passion, creativity, and intelligence. But it's a little depressing, too. In part that's because written history, scholarly and otherwise, seems to lack some of the same spark these artists show, as even the most avowedly transgressive or revisionist scholarly writing remains helmeted in academic convention. Conversely, the deeply fragmented quality of contemporary Civil War remembrance suggests a larger crisis of confidence in which grand unifying themes or aspirations can only be looked on with a sense of irony or suspicion. It's remarkable to consider that the versions of the Civil War that do evince such confidence, like Ken Burns's celebrated documentary or the 1989 film Glory are now (already!) a generation old. In becoming what can plausibly considered the first real 21st century rendition of its subject, this book provocatively suggests that the Civil War may really be running out of time.
Ron Briley is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The construction of the transcontinental railroads following the Civil War is often celebrated as the triumph of American business and industry, with the support of government, unifying the country and fostering the growth of national markets. In Railroaded, Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and one of the founding scholars of the New Western History, challenges this assumption; concluding that Americans were “railroaded” in the late nineteenth century by finance capitalists into supporting the construction of a transportation system which was not based upon the economic needs of the western United States. Refuting the creative destruction model of entrepreneurial capitalism employed by Joseph Schumpeter, White questions the assertion that the initial economic chaos of the transcontinentals paved the way for long term progress. In this important piece of scholarship, White doubts whether the farm and business failures, dispossession of Native populations, and the environmental destruction wrought by the transcontinentals were harbingers of progress. In a time when the achievements of corporate America are under great scrutiny, White’s history merits careful reading and consideration.
Viewing the American transcontinentals, the Canadian Pacific, and the railroads of northern Mexico as an interconnected railroad system essentially controlled by the same interests, White focuses most of his attention upon corporate records and the story of entrepreneurs who created these railroads. Government played a crucial role in providing the credit that enriched private fortunes at public expense. Describing the transcontinentals as dysfunctional corporations, White argues, “They built railroads that would have been better left unbuilt, and flooded markets with wheat, silver, cattle, and coal for which there was little or no need. They set in motion a train of catastrophes for which society paid the price” (xxvi).
White also challenges the assumption of scholars such as Alfred Chandler and Robert Wiebe that the transcontinental railroad corporations were models of order and rationality, ushering modernism into the economy. Instead, White perceives the organization of the railroads as dysfunctional and requiring government rescues to bail out corporate greed and mismanagement. But White insists that he does not want to simply resurrect the Robber Baron interpretation of late nineteenth-century capitalism. Rather than brilliant tycoons who masterfully manipulated the system to gain their personal fortunes, White views such entrepreneurs as often inept, while the corporations they created were often mismanaged and required public rescue. Nevertheless, many of these business leaders were quite successful in creating personal financial empires, even if their railroads ended up bankrupt or in receivership.
This state of affairs promoted antimonopoly movements, which White depicts not as traditionalists opposed to modernism, but rather dynamic organizations of merchants, farmers, and laborers who sought control of government to limit corruption and the powers of corporations, recognizing the inequality imposed by the new social order. While the antimonopolists were unable to wrest control of the government from railroad corporations, their story, notes White, indicates the possibilities for a different American history and future.
But it was never easy for the reformers, as is noted by the career of railroad critic Charles Francis Adams who ended up serving as President of the Union Pacific Railroad before being ousted by Jay Gould. White devotes considerable time and space to Adams’s career as a railroad executive. Adams expressed contempt for the railroad men whose credit schemes milked the public to amass private fortunes. Nevertheless, Adams was unable to change corporate culture, and he succumbed to the notion that building even more inefficient rail lines could in some fashion restore competition and reform the system. Adams found the political influence of the railroads, or what White terms “friends” in high places, thwarted his efforts at rationalizing the system.
While White expresses some sympathy for Adams, he finds little redeeming value in the careers of Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and their Associates with the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads. White argues that Stanford and Huntington understood the big truth that corporate failure could be even more lucrative than business success. White concludes, “The smooth internal function of these corporations was not necessary to their persistence. They could be internally chaotic, financially undisciplined, prone to failure, and tremendously attractive for insiders nonetheless. Attached to this big truth was a little one: if failure could be lucrative, then ignorance, incompetence, and disorganization were not incompatible with the corporate form” (232).
The financial schemes of Stanford, Huntington, Gould, Tom Scott, Henry Villard, and James J. Hill are complex, and White deserves credit for carefully researching these market manipulations and attempting to explain them to the reader. However, these details are often overwhelming for the reader, and it seems that even the perpetrators of these frauds were often in over their heads. White, who has spent decades examining corporate records and archives, however, seems able to follow the bouncing ball of stock manipulations.
While much of this massive book focuses upon the financial schemes of railroad tycoons, White does not ignore the workingmen who constructed and maintained the rail lines. Railroad monopolies, sometimes referred to as “The Octopus,” threatened a republican economy based upon the opportunity for producer citizens to rise in society. Unfortunately, to many labor leaders in the West exploitation of Chinese contract labor represented the degraded fate of all workers, and thus Chinese immigrants earned little sympathy from their white counterparts whose struggles against the railroads were often plagued by racist rhetoric and action. To combat consolidated corporate power and curtail vigilante actions against groups such as the Chinese, union leader Eugene Debs attempted to organize workers in the corporate image with a centralized and hierarchical structure. The corporations, however, were able to enlist the aid of government and crush the countervailing power of labor. White concludes by the mid 1890s, the railroads were even more wards of the government than thirty years earlier when their construction was paved by land grants and the Credit Mobilier.
Thus, White insists that the transcontinentals were “the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted” (509). As an academic who has spent many years in railroad corporate archives, White is careful when making comparisons between the Gilded Age and the contemporary financial crisis. Nevertheless, White finds the continuing linkage of corporate profit with state legislation and intervention to be a troubling legacy. White writes, “Much has changed, but states and corporations remain intertwined, and structural conditions forged during the Gilded Age have never entirely disappeared. My guys are dead and gone, but their equivalents—and the conditions that allow them to prosper—endure” (513). White, however, perceives a more positive legacy in the tradition of antimonopoly which opposes corporate corruption as endangering the democratic promise of an economic and social system based upon republican citizenship. It is the democratic promise of American life which empowers the Occupy Wall Street movement and the questioning of corporate greed and bail outs. White’s history of the late nineteenth-century transcontinental railroads deserves a wide readership as we ponder the continuing social, economic, and political costs of the corporate model of creative destruction pioneered by the railroad entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age.
Aaron Leonard is a freelance journalist based in New York. He is regular contributor to the History News Network, truthout, rabble.ca, and PhysicsWorld.com. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.
When Mao Tse-Tung was alive he was cast alternately as bandit, communist leader, ruthless dictator, elder statesman, and mass murderer. Since his death the characterization has been less ambivalent: hedonistic despot, reckless utopian, unbridled monster. The change is anchored in the twists and turns of history. The unfettering of capitalism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s manic opening to Western capitalism has no interest in seeing Mao in shades of grey. He is part of the troika of twentieth century “Evil:” Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung.
Mao’s rap sheet encompasses two convulsive periods: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The former is the evidently clinching event proving Mao’s personal culpability in the murder of tens of millions. So now we get the latest entry in the teeming “Mao is a monster” literature. Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-1962 is an examination of the Great Leap Forward period of rapid collectivization in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which coincided with a massive famine and the loss of life for many people. This book presents a revised and even more horrifying picture of what happened during the Great Leap. Dikötter’s claim to originality is that not only has he studied this extensively, he has examined regional records in the provinces of China and thereby proclaims to etch a truly accurate picture of what really happened. The following breathless declaration gives us the flavor of Dikötter’s approach:
As the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed—amounting to at least 2.5 million people. 
This declaration, if true, is damning and staggering. Yet a closer read reveals it as fallacious, as artful writing full of extrapolation and conjecture. Here we have reports that are “often meticulous,” (and what of the ones less so?) yet nonetheless we can only arrive at a “rough approximation.” To get to that dubious approximation we are given, without any explanation or elaboration, an arbitrary mathematical formula. Nowhere is there a table documenting the quantitative breakdown. There are no charts showing X number of victims in Y Province, or any other means for grounding us in exactly where these awesome numbers supposedly come from. What we have, in sum, are assertions based on tendentious guesswork. In short, this claim—like others in the book — is incredible. This rather glaring handicap ought to have led to the work being taken with a large grain of salt, if not rejected out of hand. Instead, there are only mainstream raves. This is a “masterly study” (the UK Guardian). Dikötter is “extremely careful with his evidence” (the New Republic), and this is “the best and last word on Mao’s greatest horror.” (Literary Review, Edinburgh). So what is going on?
First and foremost, this analysis is ripped out of the larger historical context. There is no mention of famine ever occurring before benighted Communist rule. An earlier work on the same subject, Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts, at least offered background—albeit through its own skewed lens—noting that pre-Communist China “suffered no fewer than 1,828 major famines.”  In other words, in the modern era China—like India and other parts of Asia—has been racked by famine whose toll of suffering is beyond human comprehension, and certainly beyond anything Mao’s opponents care to acknowledge. By not addressing previous famines Dikötter looks at China under Communist rule in a narrow vacuum, thus dispensing with the inconvenient fact that famine in this part of the world has been a recurring phenomenon, which Mao did not invent or even magnify.
This distorted lense, however, serves Dikötter’s central thesis that the Great Leap famine was the progeny of the diabolical Mao Tse Tung alone. Dikötter has to stretch to get there, but stretch he does. “Unlike Stalin, he [Mao] did not drag his rivals into a dungeon to have them executed, but he did have the power to remove them from office, terminating their careers—and the many privileges which came with a top position in the party.”  In this world, having your career unfairly terminated is a crime on the level of being unjustly executed. Actually looking at what Mao had to say — something the author is loathe to do—might have been instructive:
People may be wrongly executed. Once a head is chopped off, history shows it can’t be restored, nor can it grow again as chives do, after being cut. If you cut off a head by mistake, there is no way to rectify the mistake, even if you want to. 
Mao is repudiating Stalin’s method here—which ought to be of interest for someone wanting to understand this fraught period. For Mao execution was not a moral issue, rather it was a matter of calculating how the practice ﬁt into the overall aim of achieving his Sinified version of socialism and communism. This approach was too often instrumental and problematic—a point that lends credence to the book’s attributing to Mao a certain "ends justify the means" philosophy. But there seems to be no interest in exploring that practice in any nuanced way (such as comparing it with how his opponents behaved). Refusing to consider Mao on his own terms, if only as a device to sharpen the argument, makes such writing as Dikötter’s the very kind of propaganda it is so incensed by when glimpsed in the work of enemies.
Also tellingly absent in this analysis is any political sense of proportion regarding the geopolitical situation. For example, we learn,“ever since the United States had started to provide military support for Taiwan and after the Americans introduced tactical nuclear missiles in March 1955, Mao had been set on having the bomb.”  What Dikötter doesn’t explore is the reason why, i.e., that the United States was preparing for the option of nuclear war with China. As a headline in New York Times from the period unambiguously put it, “U.S. Called Ready to Use Atom Arms.” The article quotes James H. Douglas, then Secretary of the Air Force, who coolly lays out the strategy: “[T]he nuclear-armed missiles had a dual capability and were not limited to nuclear retaliation; they could use conventional high explosive as well.”  This was the threatening context in which China was racing to achieve modernization, self-sufﬁciency and yes, nuclear weapons. It is hardly an exaggeration to say the situation was a life-and-death struggle. It was not a good thing China ultimately obtained those weapons — or that any country did, including the United States—but to argue that Mao was “paranoid” in the abstract is disingenuous and misleading.
Under Mao’s leadership China decisively broke the grip of colonialism, defeating both Japan and the U.S.-backed Kuomintang regime. This radical upstart regime was a major obstacle to the U.S. in its quest for hegemony in post-World War II Asia — and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam cannot be understood fully without understanding the role of Communist China. Through a torturous and contentious process Mao and his adherents transformed China from the “Sick Man of Asia” into a country that, by the mid-1960s was able to feed, clothe and supply healthcare for its people, all done in conscious opposition to a market-based economy. While it is legitimate to argue as to how costly, even at times horrific, this process was, from the stand of virulent defenders of current capitalism to assert anything good about Mao is absolutely out of bounds. To do so would suggest that the miseries of capitalism that abound amid the splendor of present-day China, actually have an alternative. The desirability and content of such alternative is beyond our scope here, but the very idea of alternative is anathema in such neoliberal quarters. In order to reinforce the status quo, Mao must be cast ignominiously into the dustbin of history.
It is in this skewed context that we witness a proliferation of memoirs and biographies whose sole aim is to depict Mao as among the worst people to ever walk the earth. In this familiar enterprise there are elements that range from base to surreal. You encounter a former board member of the New Left Review, Jon Halliday who co-authored Mao: The Unknown Story, a biography so unrelentingly and sensationally harsh that a group of China scholars felt compelled to publish, “Was Mao Really A Monster?” in an effort to bring the debate somewhere back into the realm of rationality.  Here, too, you find a New York Times reviewer castigate an author for being “chillingly cavalier about the tens of millions of people who lost their lives during Mao’s years in power,”  for failing to make a point of Mao’s monstrousness. That the book under review was by Henry Kissinger—no stranger to crimes against humanity—is an irony completely lost on the critic.
Which brings us back to Dikötter. This is a large volume whose key selling point is that the author spent ages researching dusty local archives. Yet when he presents his data he repeatedly undercuts the legitimacy of these archives. For example he writes, “Even when cadres were willing to confront the harsh reality of famine, who could have kept track of an avalanche of death?”  While this may be true, what does it suggest about the punctilious accuracy he seeks? He further undercuts his claims when he writes of existing statistics, i.e., those compiled by local Party officials, investigations carried out immediately, and investigations conducted in the years after:
The result is not so much a neatly arranged set of statistics revealing some absolute truth in a few telling numbers, but rather a mass of uneven and at times messy documentation compiled in different ways, at different times, for different reasons, by different entities, with different degrees of reliability. 
We might then conclude it is speculative to settle on a final figure. Instead we get the following:
Some historians speculate that the figures stand as high as 50 or 60 million people. It is unlikely we will know the full extent of the disaster until the archives are completely opened. But these are the figures informally discussed by a number of party historians. And these are also, according to Chen Yizi, the figures cited at internal meeting of senior party members under Zhao Ziyan. Yu Xiguan, an independent researcher with a great deal of experience, puts the figures at 55 million excess deaths. 
Here Dikötter is having his cake and eating it. At the very end of his book he throws out numbers 10 million higher than his introductory estimate and validates them by invoking “figures cited at internal meeting [s],” as if that makes them authoritative. At the same time he covers himself saying we will not know the actual story until the archives open up. He does not and cannot now know, yet he is saying he does.
All this foregoing criticism is not to say bad things did not take place in China in this period, that people died as a result, and that Mao bears no responsibility. They did, and he does. That said—and this verdict will elicit a howl of outrage in certain quarters—these questions are not settled in any way. In this respect it is worth bearing in mind that common knowledge has held that “millions” were executed during the Great Purge in the Soviet Union and that “tens of millions” were executed during Stalin’s rule. Because the Soviet archives opened up in an unprecedented way in the early 1990s, historian J. Arch Getty was able to access formerly secret records and show such figures as wildly inflated—things are more in the realm of hundreds of thousands executed during the Great Purge and on the level of 2 million deaths overall due to repression.  That revised figure does not diminish the horror—but facts do matter.
The totality of what happened during the Great Leap Forward needs to be understood without blinkers. To the degree reckless policy, instrumentalist design, and utopian voluntarism played a role in causing enormous human suffering needs to be identified and morally rejected. Yet to the degree that a dynamic was set loose that went beyond the control of those sitting at the levers of power—including natural forces such as drought—those factors, too, need to be understood. With this there is a need for a respect for history. What China went through in the twentieth century—and there were hideous things long before the Great Leap—is of a piece with what much of the rest of the world had to undergo in striving for development and some degree of justice. We do not need another simple-minded screed justifying a priori verdicts and the status quo. We need to understand what happened in China because any effort to get to a different and better future requires it.
 Frank Dikötter. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Walker and Company, 2010, xi.
 Jasper Becker. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, Henry Holt, 1996, 9.
 Dikötter, xiii.
 MaoTseTung, “On the Ten Relationships.”
 Jack Raymond. ”US Called Read to Use Atom Arms.” New York Times, September 28, 1958.
 For a fuller discussion see, Tariq Ali, “On Mao’s Contradictions.” New Left Review 66, November-December 2010
Kakutani, Michiko, “An Insider Views China, Past and Future,” New York Times, May 9, 2011.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/books/on-china-by-henry-kissinger-review.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all  Dikötter 327.
 Dikötter 328.
 Dikötter 333-334.
 J Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, Yale University Press, 2002, 590-91.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is completing a book currently titled The Arc of American History: What Hollywood Actors Tell Us about Ourselves. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Is it possible to write a successful novel with unappealing characters? I don't mean a novel in which a protagonist is repellent in an avowedly provocative way, like the unnamed narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). I mean people who it appears an author really wants us to like, but who we find tiresome. This is the question I found myself asking while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel, The Marriage Plot. My answer, finally, was no: you can't really write a compelling novel this way. But as failures go, his is an interesting one.
One reason: Eugenides is a virtuoso writer with an extraordinary capacity to render an array of topics with great authority and clarity. In this regard, he's is sort of like Jonathan Franzen with a warmer heart. Eugenides showed such brio in his multi-generational saga Middlesex (2002), and he does it again here. Whether the subject at hand are are the mating habits of the intelligentsia, the pharmacology of mental illness, or the labor force of Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, Eugenides renders the details of subcultures with a sense of verisimilitude that impresses and informs. He has a wonderful sense of history, and in some subjects, his talents are dazzling. I can't think of another writer who can talk about religion with the unselfconscious ease he does, for instance. And his command of literary theory, in particular the 1980s mania for poststructuralism, is so sure that he can weave it in as a subtext for a novel that's also a metacommentary on bourgeois fiction of the 19th century. The ending of the novel in particular a delightfully clever.
The problem, again, are the people we're saddled with for this ride. They're a set of Brown students, class of 1982, whom we meet at that unlovely moment in the life cycle: the months following college graduation, when cosseted young adults are suddenly expected to make something of themselves. There's Madeline Hanna of the fictive Prettybrook, New Jersey, a Holly Golightly figure with a yen for literature who finds herself in a love triangle. She's close with her buddy, Midwesterner Mitchell Grammaticus, who pines for romantically. But she's in love with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant but volatile Oregonian who wins a prestigious science fellowship but struggles with manic depression. We meet these people on graduation day, flash back to their undergraduate years, and move forward as Hanna and Leonard try to find equilibrium in their relationship while Mitchell grapples with his unrequited love by taking a global sojourn that turns into a spiritual quest. The narration rotates between the three characters, and we hear some of the same situations described from more than one point of view.
But this device gets tedious, because these characters are tedious. Madeline is beautiful and smart and rich, and she has a passion for English authors like Jane Austen. But she seems like a highly conventional person, a product of her class in the broader sense of the term, and it's a little hard to reckon what either of the other two men see in her. Leonard's manic depression is rendered with sometimes harrowing detail, but it's hard to separate his grim persona from his illness, and while you find yourself wondering whether his unattractiveness is a function of your own hard-heartedness toward the mentally ill, that's not enough to make you like him. Mitchell, who appears most like a stand-in for the author himself, is a more broadminded figure. But his visionary potential is undercut by his callowness, most evident in his feelings for a girl that we find ourselves wondering, long before he does, whether she's worth all that.
It's a tribute to Eugenides that despite all this, you keep reading. But I doubt this will be seen as his best work. The Virgin Suicides (1993) has its partisans. But for my money, Middlesex is the place to begin. The Marriage Plot is, at best, a subplot in his ouevre.