The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Alright back to books! I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Civil War, most of it within this comprehensive tome. I chose it because it topped a list written by Ta-Nehisi Coates on what to read to become ‘less stupid’ about the Civil War. Battle Cry is best read in full and I urge all Americans to do so. Here’s some of my favorite quotes and attendant commentary. Clearly the social causes and effects interested me more than battles and the moving of armies. 

* * *

Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery “an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity.

The Battle Cry of Freedom opens with an extensive slate of evidence demonstrating the cause of the Civil War. Slavery. This is of immense importance as the Lost Cause version of history, a fantastic revision of doomed-but-just Southern righteousness, is pernicious. To this day, the teaching of 1860-1865 is warped in American schools, mired in rhetoric on ‘States Rights’. The recent uproar over tearing down Confederate statues reveals both that many people still celebrate that Lost Cause and are only continuing the trend over many years that put those statues up in the first place.

(‘States rights’ is pure bullshit anyway as for the 10-15 years previous the war, the South controlled Congress and had absolutely zero problem enacting federal slave protections in the Free States. When States Rights is held up as a freedom denied the south and thus requiring their reluctant secession, it is merely hypocrisy and lies peddled by wealthy slave owners and lapped up by the regular whites of the South.)

 

* * *

Lincoln’s wit on display:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ’all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

Long before the rest of the western world learned that the glory of old-time war was slain by technology — trench warfare, rampant disease, high death tolls with little strategic gain — Americans experienced it firsthand. Famously bloodier than all other American wars combined, the human cost of the Civil War is difficult to grasp. It was not unheard of for entire regiments to be reduced to a dozen men.

“I never realized the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the thing called glorious war until I saw this,” wrote a Tennessee private after the battle. “Men . . . lying in every conceivable position; the dead . . . with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help. . . . I seemed . . . in a sort of daze.” Sherman described “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

 

* * *

“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

“I will if I live.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

When controlled for population, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the greatest bestseller in American history. It hasn’t aged well, but it can’t be understated how electric it was to the reading public at the time. By alluding to a black man as Jesus, Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed an arrow at shamefaced Northerners reluctant to commit to what their morals and religion supposedly demanded.  It functioned  as statecraft motivating people to abolition while accomplishing what any good fiction does: put people in the shoes of its characters, forcing thoughtful readers to consider what life under the lash would truly be like. 

Everyone read it in the South too. Check out this angry reviewer:

“I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”

 

* * *

American capitalism had not yet settled in the early-mid 18th century and plenty of people had converging ideas on what it ought to be. This prescient account makes me laugh:

“Banks have been the known enemies of our republican government from the beginning,” they proclaimed, “the engine of a new form of oppression . . . a legacy that the aristocratic tendencies of a bygone age has left, as a means to fill the place of baronial usurpation and feudal exactions.” Banks caused “the artificial inequality of wealth, much pauperism and crime, the low state of public morals, and many of the other evils of society. . . . In justice to equal rights let us have no banks.”

 

* * *

The Confederacy tried desperately to receive diplomatic recognition from Europe, and plenty of the old aristocracy, seeing much in common with wealthy plantation owners, was willing to give it to them. This never occurred, though the rebels still received plenty of help via loopholes in English and French law. Most interesting to me: The South embargoed cotton exports to Britain, presuming that the textile industry reliant on it would clamor to pressure the government to accept their terms. Instead, they received a lukewarm or defiant response from the English working class.

And in any case, a good deal of truth still clings to the old notion of democratic principle transcending economic self-interest in Lancashire. As a veteran Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton . . . it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

“Economic self-interest” is commonly held up as the prime motivator of regular people. “How could the working class vote for Trump when it’s against their economic self-interest?”, wonders the knee-jerk Liberal. It’s a load of crap. Ideology runs politics. When economics are the prime directive, it’s when clever power holders manage to manipulate their economic message into an ideological one. The Civil War encapsulates this perfectly. It was clashing ideals on bondage and freedom and Union and democracy that led to over six hundred thousand dead

Indeed, and I am unforgivably missing a quote for this one, Democracy itself was under attack. Lincoln mused gloomily that if the Union could not be maintained, then the great experiment was a failure. It would prove The People unfit to rule themselves. Northern newspapers echoed this sentiment.

Democracy survived that century and the next, at least. 

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.