Great Blunders, Great Wars

High school history provides us with the basics of World War I and does so by making it appear that something akin to an earthquake happened.  Archduke Ferdinand, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated in Sarajevo and a month later Germany invaded France, triggering a catastrophic series of treaty-obligated interventions by Russia, England, and so forth.  Simple.

Except, what?  Why would Germany do that because the heir to a throne not theirs is shot by a lone assassin in a city in a country allied with Austria?

The connective tissue was always missing.  Something (mumble mutter) to do with Serbia and Austria blaming them for the murder (by an independent terrorist!) and Russia insisting Austria leave Serbia alone, Germany insisting Russia leave Austria alone, France insisting Germany leave Russia alone, and England insisting everyone leave Belgium alone (Belgium? How did Belgium get into this…?), and suddenly you have the international equivalent of a schoolyard pile-on.

Many books have been written attempting to explain the complicated set of relations between the so-called Great Powers and how they all triggered each others’ worst responses in what amounted to a game of chicken.  But that high school myth persists, that WWI happened almost out of the blue.

Sean McMeekin has produced a worthy examination of the month between the fateful assassination and the opening of hostilities on August 4th, 1914.  In July 1914:  Countdown To War he takes pains to show how all this transpired.  It happened quickly, to be sure, as international interactions go, but it was not either unexpected or inevitable.  The major element, besides considerable attention to a chronology which he lays out with admirable clarity, included is what so often is left out of history courses—personality.

McMeekin’s portraits of the players—Kaiser Wilhelm II, his chancellor, Bethmann, the Austria foreign minister Berchtold, army chief of staff Conrad, Russia’s Sazanov, Tsar Nicholas II, Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey of Britain, and all the rest—open the curtains on how the fatal mix of personalities led to the catastrophe that reshaped Europe so much that in many ways we are still sorting through the rubble.

Starting with the ongoing hatred among the hawks in Austria toward Serbia.  Begin with that and the long history behind it and we begin to see that nothing was really a surprise other than the fact that it actually happened.  The first blunder was the connivance of the Austrians to obtain German backing for a punitive action against Serbia for sponsoring the assassination of the archduke—an archduke, by the way, who was unpopular in his own family and whose loss as a successor to the throne was something of a relief to the Emperor.  Begin with that and the next series of events—diplomatic wrangling, lying, obfuscation, and, above all, haste—makes sense.  Insane sense, but sense nevertheless.

And because McMeekin is dealing handily with the personalities of all these people, questions of reason, caution, experience, and the deliberative conservatism one might expect from old established states become moot as we watch them all jockeying for position to prove points, gain support, establish—or in the case of Austria, re-establish—reputations.

Reading this, one is put in mind of the rush to war in Iraq in 2003, under conditions wherein insufficient information, curtailment of debate, and a drive to do overrode all other considerations.  Hindsight is frustrating.

McMeekin’s concluding chapter, wherein he discusses responsibility and offers a variety of arguments over inevitabilities, is more than just a summation.  Rather it is a sobering analysis of the fragility of circumstance and the importance of character, which so many of us would like to pretend doesn’t matter.

A Country Of Distant Voices

In the opening scene of his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed,  Khaled Hosseini shows an Afghan father telling his children a story. The story is about life’s fragility in the face of an unpredictable and unnegotiable universe, the loss of children, and the tenacity of memory. In the story, the father is offered a choice—having a lost child returned to him to live a life he knows will never be more than difficult, often harsh, or leaving the child in the relative paradise to which it had been spirited while the father is granted the gift of forgetfulness, so he might return home with no memory of loss. The father chooses the latter.

But all around him, when he returns, memory remains, part of the landscape, continually troubling his life with fleeting moments of doubt about something he cannot name.

He has left his memories far away, in the mountains.  But the mountains are always there.

So, it turns out, are the memories, recognized or not. The real mountains in the novel are the tectonic accumulations of intersecting lives, which in some ways seem to have no real point to their connections, but over time—generations, really—build into massively instantiating forms, repositories of meaning.  Some of these characters climb over them, others live at their roots, still others move away from them, trying to lessen their dominance. But every word they speak echoes back laden with the textures of their beginnings.

The novel begins with the story of Abdullah and Pari, brother and sister who share a deep bond. Pari collects bird feather in a tin box, feathers Abdullah helps gather for her, and their playground is the village of Shadbagh. Life is crushingly hard for their parents. The father is a laborer. His first wife, Abdullah’s and Pari’s mother, died giving birth to Pari. His second wife has given him another son, Iqballah. Her brother, Nabi, lives in Kabul, the personal servant to a man of wealth who is married to  a woman more at home in Parisian society than in her native Afghanistan. The necessities and desires of these people bring them into association with each other in the most unexpected way, resulting in the separation of Abdullah and Pari.

Thus the series of separations which are the echoes of the novel.

Pari is taken into her new home, much too young for the memories of her time spent with Abdullah to be retained in other than a lifelong sense of hollowness.  The woman who becomes her mother is a poet, herself severed from the connections to home and family that might supply a sense of welcome in the world through which she moves.  Talented, beautiful, she is nevertheless a refugee even in her own country.  When her husband suffers a stroke, she takes the opportunity to flee, back to Paris.  With Pari, who over time forgets almost everything and is left with a persistent feeling of separation she cannot quite explain or ignore.

The trajectories all these people follow seem at a glance to have little to do with each other, even though certain events lie at the start of their paths.  Their lives settle into orbits that are tethered by those events, and no matter how far they go or where they settle in, a constellation forms of which each of them represents the rough boundary of a country that, while it seems to have no place on any map, claims them as native.  The echoes from that initiating event form the borders.

Which makes And the Mountains Echoed an exploration of that country, through the eyes of its unwitting inhabitants, all of whom, regardless of their point of origin, are native to a specific topography, bound by common experiences—of loss, abandonment, and escape.  He takes us on an expedition of a place of which the only maps are in the psyches of its residents.  Along the way he works a variation on the old aphorism “You can never go home” by showing that, in profound ways, we never leave it.

On another level, there is a very real country at the center of these explorations. Hosseini is writing, as always, about Afghanistan—its wonders, its tragedies, its costs, and its possibilities.  It is, he seems to tell us, a land of incredible potential, but to date the only possibility to realize it is for those with the talents and will to leave it, go where their particular gifts—themselves—can manifest, beyond the overwhelming gravity of a past that too often has no history of a future, no memory of what could be different that is not bound up in forgetting.

Like the story Abdullah’s and Pari’s father tells at the start.

At least one of his characters recognizes the innate conflict:

It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mama’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her feat of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned.  And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?

Hosseini writes with an unflinching clarity of what Afghanistan is, tempered by hope for what it could be.  It is not that this potential Afghanistan does not exist—it does, he shows us, just not there.  It exists in the imaginations of those who have left and are nevertheless citizens of the country of their heart. That country is nascent in the echoes that will some day return from their journey.

Primary Influences

Reading and writing are inextricably linked, but it’s a lopsided relationship.  One can be a voracious reader without ever feeling the need to write, but being a writer by necessity demands voracious reading.  There are some who seem to believe they can write without having to read extensively (or at all!) but I imagine this is a self-correcting delusion.  It may be a more obvious problem in this age of self-publishing ease, when one’s shortcomings can make unfortunate and sometimes wide spread public displays, but the simple absence of any kind of artistic æsthetic on which to base the work is fatal to the endeavor.

Besides, what would be the point other than a profound narcissism.  Part of the fantasy of “being a writer” is to join a fraternity whose past membership has provided the delight you hope to offer, a delight you have presumably found in reading.

I imagine that for some writers, the desire grows gradually, a cumulative response emerging after many books.  Specific texts are less important than the experience itself.  For others, there’s a turning point, a moment when the reading experience in a given work sparks the “I want to do this!” response that grows, if nurtured, into a lifelong obsession.

I can pinpoint my own turning point.

foundation covers

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire was the book that decided me.  I bought it at the corner drug store in 1968.  Mr. Leukens had a spinner rack from which I’d been obtaining paperbacks for almost a year by then.  I can say quite honestly and without embarrassment that it was the cover that caught my attention.  That Don Punchatz rendering radiated “significance” in a way other covers failed to achieve.

I’d been reading science fiction in one form or another for as long as I could remember.  Comic books, mostly, but once I’d obtained my library card, the occasional SF novel came home with me.  A lot of them seemed…well, stodgy compared to the movies.  I admit to being disappointed with science fiction that was set in more or less the present day.  I was a kid, after all, I was after the gosh wow! more than the cerebral pleasures that are the chief attribute of the form, at least in those days.  I wanted Forbidden Planet and John Carter not stuff stuck on Earth.

Asimov I knew from another novel, Pebble In The Sky, which I had read earlier in the year.  I still wasn’t connecting authors with preferred experiences, at least not as a guide to find more of the same.  Partly this was because I had no reliable way of getting more by a given author.  Leukens Pharmacy was my primary source and the fact is he had no control over what ended up in that spinner rack.  It was hit or miss.

That month, the only one of the trilogy available was the second volume.  (I didn’t even know what “trilogies” were yet.)

Gradually, I came to regard Avon as the imprint that provided me with the kind of material I most wanted.  Along with the Foundation books, I got a lot of Robert Silverberg, B.N. Ball, James Blish, and later they published the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections.  Their books had a particular “feel” and quality that seemed lacking (or at least different) from other imprints.  (So in a peculiar way I was initially more aware of publishers and editors than authors.)

Asimov sold the first Foundation story to John W. Campbell in 1941 and went on to write all the stories that comprised these three books by the early 1950s.  I read them out of order.  The middle book first, then the first one, finally, after months of searching, the last one.  The covers above are from a slightly later edition, but basically the same ones I eagerly sought and devoured.

They were everything, at the time, that I wanted from science fiction.

But what was that?

I was 13, almost 14.  My reading had been chaotic though wide and I had a smattering of history (not nearly enough to form any cogent opinions of events) and I had the sense that a lot of fiction, especially in the movies, was disconnected from all that went before whenever the events of the story took place.  Right off the bat, Asimov offered a simple, elegant way to imply a concrete history by the epigrams of his fictional Encyclopedia Galactica (an obvious but nevertheless effective play on Encyclopedia Britanica and American).  That “scholarship” existed on which the chronicler of these wholly fictional and fantastic events could draw provided a basis of  “authenticity” that completely sucked this reader in.

What followed was a self-consciously analytical treatment on the way history might work.  The premise is Cartesian—if one knows enough about enough, then one can make reliable predictions.  The sheer control offered by Seldon was profoundly seductive.

And then, of course, there was the Empire, spanning the entire galaxy, thousands of worlds, a massive civilization bound together by hyperdrive and the Imperial center on Trantor.  Trantor itself was such a startling idea, an entire planet completely covered by a single city.

Gaal Dornick’s arrival on Trantor, on later reflection, was the arrival of any young man from a more rural part of America to New York via Grand Central Station, and the awe of such a massive construct.  (Samuel R. Delany rather elegantly recapitulated this in the opening scenes of his Atlantis: Three Tales with the actual New York.)  In a way, Dornick’s reaction is very like the reaction of a new reader who suddenly “gets” it.

Considerations of cost and the unlikelihood of achieving any fraction of the kind of homogeneity, political or otherwise, never entered into it.  Asimov had loosely based his Galactic Empire on the Roman Empire and that itself was a highly improbable collection of provinces under a single banner.  If you could accept the one (which had actually existed) you could accept the other, especially since as the story opens the Empire is beginning to crumble.  By this device, Asimov acknowledged the latent impossibility of a “galactic empire” by letting us watch its demise from sheer social and political entropy.

New things are born from the ruins of the old, and the rest of the series is about these new things.  What I found so appealing was the inherent historicity of the Foundation stories.

Of course, the idea of mathematically predicting future events with the kind of precision suggested in these stories is fantastic at best.  The notion behind it is not fanciful, there is something to the dynamics of large groups in motion that lends itself to patterning.  Asimov simply worked a variation on actuarial math and raised to dizzying heights.  It is a criticism of which he was well aware, one I already agreed with since I’d begun with the middle volume—the one in which The Mule appears to completely overturn everything Seldon had constructed.  The fey element, the unpredictable, the unaccountable.  Asimov subverted his own premise.

But that opened the narrative up to a more sinister thread, one which has also been geared into history: the secret society, the hidden group which from time to time people believe to be the real rulers.  In this, Asimov was still playing with the plausibilities of accepted historical narrative.

It was easy then to accept that Asimov was writing about the collapse of the Roman Empire—and the perfectly agreeable desire to shorten the inevitable “dark age” following the fall of such a huge and apparently monolithic construct.  But as one grows older and continues the kind of necessarily broad and voracious reading essential to being a writer of any worth, such simple comparisons erode.  The falls of empires probably always follow certain patterns, but in the details they differ.  I now suspect Asimov, if he was being intentional in his subtexts at all, was writing about the vanity of empire rather than of any particular one, and the costs of such things to those who become dependent.  Asimov was a refugee, born in Russia.  Perhaps too young to remember anything of his early childhood there, no doubt he heard the stories, and of course there was World War One, the first death blow of a European Order that went back a millennia at least.  By the time Hitler was trying to establish a new Roman Empire (at least in terms of territory if not intent), it was obvious that the old regimes were done for, and the future was about to be in the hands of the bureaucrats, apparatchits, and opportunists in a way never before seen.  In such a world, the idea of preservation itself might be seen as the only worthwhile enterprise—the preservation of knowledge, which would make Seldon’s Encyclopedists the first moral actors in a post Imperial age.

I think Asimov was writing about the world he lived in rather than either the Roman Empire (or Republic) or the Galactic Empire.  Naturally, insofar as science fiction is always really about the present, viewed through the distorting lens of a future tense.  But more than that, because he was establishing priorities.  Empires rise and fall—the Foundation itself becomes an empire (much as America did after WWII, if not in fact at least in influence) and all empires become pieces on a larger chess board in a game played by those behind the scenes—but what matters is the continuity of knowledge and access to it for all those people who must survive the changes in political fashion.

I couldn’t possibly have recognized all this when I first read these books.  Some of my peers, and certainly many of the adults around me then, dismissed them as they did all SF as “mere” entertainment, idle speculation, and, at worst, a waste of time.  But for me, what may or may not have been latent in the text was sufficiently present to inspire.  The seriousness with which Asimov approached his subject was very different in tone and effect from, say, Doc Smith.  Insofar as I have ever been scholarly, the Foundation series spoke to me on that level, and triggered the response that led me to start writing my own stories.

It’s telling that in Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Still Green, he claims that he had no idea what he intended to do after writing and selling that first Foundation story.  But he had put a hook at the end of it which demanded a second story, thinking himself clever that he had in some way trapped Campbell into having to buy the sequel in order to answer the question, without quite realizing that he then had to deliver.  He goes on to claim that he never could work from an outline, not then and not later.  Maybe not on paper, but there was an outline in his head somewhere that provided a reliable template.

Of all the SF I read back then, I find few I can reread with any pleasure.  This is one of them.  It still enthralls me.  I can still see the vast deeps between the stars and the terrible force of history unfolding and enfolding across time the matrices in which we nevertheless decide for ourselves what we want and struggle to accomplish.

That, at least, is my story.

Culture’s End (The Ends of Culture)

Once in a while, work comes along that, while not doing anything apparently new, turns a settled form inside out and frees possibilities.   In writing, this generally means that, in the wake of such work, the things it is possible to say and the ways in which they are said broaden.  Branchings occur, reactions, new growth, inspiration ripples along.

Iain M. Banks triggered—at least for me—a renewal of an old science fiction mainstay, the Space Opera.  Practically from the beginning of the modern form in the 1920s, interstellar adventures have been woven into the DNA of the genre, replete with strange planets, exotic aliens, and occasional examinations of political systems, albeit not on a very sophisticated level.  Everything from the Roman Empire to a kind of United Nations model has been used, sometimes to unintentionally silly effect.  Given the suppositions on hand, it is not a small task to plausibly imagine such a universe.  Some of the best works have ignored the details, lest unwanted hilarity result, suspension of disbelief sabotaged by, of all things, the wallpaper.

Space Opera lost some of its cachet in the Seventies in the wake of Star Trek, which combined much of the long history of the form in a single popular television show, and made it difficult to write anything that didn’t look like Star Trek.  In written SF, Space Opera receded in prominence.  Then in the early Eighties, with Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyberpunk muscled its way into prominence and one of those moments of expansion occurred.  For the next two decades, it seemed,  reaction to Cyberpunk dominated the field.

But in 1987 a novel was published in England (a year later in America) that signaled the coming resurgence of good ol’ fashioned Space Opera.

Consider Phlebas was a thick, densely-detailed, elegantly-penned adventure that seemed to have come from the mind of a literary writer who had no real idea there had ever been such a thing as Space Opera.  But that was impossible, since it handled the conventions of the form with such grace and sympathy as to suggest a lifelong devoteé.  Iain Banks simply didn’t write from a traditional æsthetic, even when it seemed he did.

One of the most interesting choices he made in the novel was putting his major invention—the Culture—in both a background position and as an antagonist.  One might be forgiven if, from reading just this book, one thought the Culture was a throw-away idea, never to appear again.  Because the other civilizations depicted, several of which are at war, are so vividly and thoroughly imagined that any one or five of them might have served as the solid foundation for a series of breathtaking novels.

To be clear, what the Culture subsequently became, in novel after novel (and a handful of short stories) was not a hero’s preserve.  The Culture seems often like the Good Guy, but just as often they are a meddlesome, arrogant, dangerous collection of diplomatic bullies.  What Banks constructed with the Culture is a kind of Swiss Army Knife of an interstellar empire.  It is what it needs to be in any given circumstance.  And like any real government, expedience is its chief operating mode.

But.  And this is a large exception.  Because the Culture actually has no material needs—it is what we’ve come to term a “post scarcity civilization”—its political motivations are a bit more abstract.  The Culture has a moral compass, one which it seems to ignore as often as it follows, and has, in complete contradiction to the famous and also often ignored Prime Directive of Star Trek, no compunction about interfering with another civilization at all.  In this way, Banks created the perfect sociopolitical tool to examine what might be termed Moral Expedience.

Rather than confirm the essential uselessness of Space Opera, Banks made it relevant by making cases for right action within a vast and complicated set of interlocking political, social, and ethical systems.  Philosophy 101, in many cases, but deftly handled and often pointedly specific in its potential relevancies.

By further expanding the players to include wholly autonomous machine intelligences—ships that owned themselves and acted according to their own interests, AI advisers, habitats both awake and involved—he opened the dialogue on the question of rights as a, if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction, concrete abstraction.

If one of the primary attractions of science fiction is the examination of the question “How, then, shall we live?” then one could do much worse than Iain M. Banks as a complete buffet of fascinating riffs, postulates, improvisations, and dialogues on exactly that question—which, at its heart, is the primary concern of what shall be done with virtually unlimited power?

All this would imply a dry, discursive study, plodding expositions, info-dumps that slow the action (what there may be) to a near halt.  That would be a mistake.  Banks’ skill has been to lay all this depth and contemplative meat, bone, and gristle into exceptional adventures with high stakes and finely-drawn characters.  Everything in a Banks novel is profoundly personal.

Space Opera has enjoyed a come-back since that first Culture novel came out.  Banks is now one of many well-respected practioners of the form.  It may be that the field was ready to revisit it anyway.  But without Banks, it may be wondered how satisfying such a visit might have been.

As we shall be wondering when there are no more Culture novels.

Iain M. Banks has announced his last novel (not a Culture novel) because he has terminal cancer.  The 59-year-old writer of eleven Culture books and sixteen other novels says he has perhaps a year to live and his new novel, as yet unreleased, will be his last.

An appreciation of Banks’ Culture stories is only the half of it.  He has enjoyed the enviable ability to write so-called “mainstream” works under “Iain Banks” all along.  His first novel, The Wasp Factory was an experimental work that bordered on SF, reminiscent of both J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.  He has written thrillers, literary novels, satires.  Since 1984 his work has made a significant impression in the U.K. and has gained a large following in the United States.

He is only 59.  If there is any justice, he will be long remembered as a pivotal voice in Western Letters.  Treat yourself.  Go read one of his novels.  Then read another.  Repeat.


Hagiography is destructive to truth.  The worshipful retelling of past lives by advocates who wish to see their subjects purely in terms of what they mean to the writer personally, eliding that which is problematic, troublesome, or simply unpleasant, while occasionally producing fun books for the uncritical, puts up barriers to the most essential element of honest biography, namely the recognition of what is human in all of us.

While that may seem a bit over-the-top to some, consider what happens to certain authors who dare to write candidly about “heroes” with many followers.  Often, they themselves become the focus of intense controversy, much of it negative.  How dare they, detractors claim, paint a portrait of Exemplary Figure that goes into the foibles, obsessions, character flaws, bad judgments, prejudices, and petty attributes when the significance of Exemplary Figure ought to exempt him (and sometimes her) from any criticism other than the most theoretical or abstract?

(This cuts both ways—many people seem unwilling to learn that Hitler was inordinately fond of little children and loved dogs.  Anything that humanizes him in any way, it seems, just gets in the way of how most of us wish to see him—as a monster, pure and simple.)

However one may feel about “disrespecting” historical figures, the fact is that being less than honest about anyone’s humanity makes for bad history and boring prose.  The fascinating aspects of certain lives are not what they accomplished but that such altogether human beings accomplished what they did.  (An excellent example is George Washington, who in so many ways was a dull, unimaginative man whose main distinction was having the fortune to be in the midst of enormous events that wrought significant change.  His reputation, which he cared about almost as much as the issue of independence, has come down to us in such a way as to suggest—inaccurately—that between him and Thomas Jefferson, everything important got done, while in truth his principle genius was in knowing how and when to refuse power.  He seemed to understand ramifications almost instinctively.  All the rest is ordinary, but becomes extra-ordinary in the light of what he did accomplish.)

Recently there has been a surge in histories and biographies about the Civil War and its players.  The Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is up for several Academy Awards.  We’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of  Gettysburg, which is arguably where everything turned around and the changes which started with Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln’s election  began to look permanent.

The book on which Spielberg based his film is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I have not read.  What I have read recently, is a book of the same name as the film, Lincoln, by Gore Vidal.

Vidal is exactly the kind of writer to boil the blood of ideologues who want their national heroes as pure as Achilles and reject any hint of more Odyssean qualities.

In a series of novels with the overall title Narratives of Empire, Vidal tore down the idols from their clay pedestals and showed many for the complex, often venal, thoroughly human people they were.  While some may quibble at his interpretations (for instance, in Burr, where he portrays Thomas Jefferson in less than exalted terms and even suggests that he might, in the affair of Aaron Burr, gone briefly mad), it is difficult to fault either his scholarship or his grasp of basic human nature.  When viewed through the lens of our commonalities rather than the distortions of iconic preconceptions, historical figures become both ordinary and accessible, the former of which is sometimes unwelcome, the latter disquieting.

In Lincoln Vidal begins with the newly-elected 16th president’s arrival in Washington, which was an ignominious event in the early morning hours, alone and unannounced in the company of body guards.  We speak today of the incivility of our political discourse, to which Vidal’s portrayal is tonic.  The murder plots set in motion to kill Lincoln even before his inauguration are a matter of record, the venom of pro-Southern sympathizers was lethal in its toxicity.  Reason had little to do with it.  Lincoln, for his part, was stoic, accepting events as they came as simply things to be dealt with.

It’s tempting to see in this picture a fatalist.  It’s possible Lincoln possessed such a streak, but it was offset by a fanatic belief in what he saw himself representing.  The Union.

We find this conversation odd today—or maybe not, what with all the declarations of intent to secede in the wake of Obama’s re-election, though for most of us such claims likely seem silly, but certainly unlikely to gain traction.  But prior to the Civil War, as Shelby Foote has noted, we had a theory of a nation rather than a nation itself.  It is perhaps bizarre for us today to hear Robert E. Lee declare that he could not accept command of the Union army because his first loyalty was to his country, meaning Virginia.  This was not theoretical.  It was so not theoretical that it did serious damage to the Confederacy before the war was over.  Supplies held in one state were not shared with others.  States Rights overwhelmed any consideration of unity, and in a way this made perfect sense.  Were they not after all arguing for the right to be apart?

After the war, theory became established fact.  This is what Lincoln held as his guiding principle.  He refused for almost all of the war to acknowledge “The Confederacy,” preferring to characterize the rebellion as the action of “certain elements within the southern states.”

Vidal did a superb job of making these distinctions not only clear but informing them with the vitality of Cause.  This was not an evening’s conversation over brandy with cigars but life and death.

The drama of Lincoln is almost entirely within Washington, in fact inside the White House.  It is the continuous wrestling Lincoln engaged with his cabinet—most of whom thought they could do a better job than him, some of whom thought he had somehow usurped their rightful position, a couple of them feeling it their duty to operate as de facto prime ministers because, in their opinion, Lincoln was a mediocrity—and the remarkable balancing act Lincoln managed to keep not only the cabinet together but ultimately the country.  An act which most of those around him misunderstood and undervalued constantly.  Yet the steel-spined, dedicated leader emerges on the page when least expected to assert a control that, in retrospect, he never lost.

My appreciation for Lincoln and the Civil War took a long time to coalesce.  Growing up, I was taught and accepted that it was about slavery.  Ultimately this is both true and inaccurate.  Freeing the slaves was a secondary, even tertiary matter for Lincoln.  This is difficult sometimes to separate out from the idea that he was dedicated to ending slavery, which is not quite the same thing.  He saw the institution as unsupportable in a country pledged to the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  He admitted that if he could have found a way to preserve the Union and maintain slavery, he would have done so.  But a careful survey of his writings reveals Lincoln to believe such a thing impossible.  The revisionists who attempt to cast the South in a better light point to the notion of States Rights, that they were fighting to preserve what they saw as their autonomy, and that slavery was not the issue.  Again, a survey of the decrees of secession issued by the states rejects this—slavery is in almost every instance the first grievance, that the North sought to abolish it and the South refused to give it up.  It is incumbent upon the honest historian to realize that both issues were inextricably bound up together—that the Southern States saw their own identities as dependent upon slavery and certainly the economics bear this out.

Vidal managed the neat trick of not taking sides even while he showed the Southern Cause as hopelessly flawed and the inexorable correctness of Lincoln’s position relentlessly preferable, even as it struggled against more doctrinaire and self-proclaimed moral bases in the North.

Through it all, though, the importance of the novel is in its refusal to see any of these people as other than deeply human—insecure, unsure, vain, stubborn, optimistic, sometimes corrupt, often blind—and in that it makes for a kind of vaccine against the odious process of deification that infests so much of our public regard of famous people in history.

Robert E. Lee has been known as The Marble Man, because his legend overwhelm and almost silenced his reality.  Something close to that happens to all those we identify as foundational personalities.  It should be resisted.  Not only because it renders them inaccessible to us but it also gives the false impression that we today can never hope to match their achievements.