Classic Movie Review: The General (1927)


Title: The General
Release Date: February 5, 1927
Director: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions | Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Summary/Review:

I knew I’d need to watch a Buster Keaton film for my classic movie project, but was disappointed that his most famous work is not only a Civil War film, but one sympathetic to the Confederate cause.  So I watched this movie rooting against Keaton much of the time.

The movie was a big-budget spectacular for its era and stars Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer dedicated to maintaining the engine The General.  When the war begins, he attempts to enlist, but is denied because his skills with the trains are needed.  Nevertheless, his fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) believes him to be a coward, and refuses to speak to him.

A year later, Union spies steal The General (with Annabelle Lee aboard the train) and head north from Georgia to Tennessee with a plan to destroy the rails, bridges, and telegraph wires behind them.  Johnnie pursues The General through various means, eventually working on his own as he leaves the Confederate soldiers behind. There are are a number of spectacular gags as Keaton walks along the train performing various stunts and fights with the spies.  Scenes from the next day show him returning with The General  and Annabelle Lee, leading another chase and culminating in a battle (which was the most expensive shot in film history to that point due to hundreds of extras and the collapse of a bridge with a train on it).

Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this film and think the stunts and slapstick hold up well, even if the politics do not.

Rating: ***

Book Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole


Author: Alyssa Cole
Title
: An Extraordinary Union
Publication Info: New York, NY : Kensington Books, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Set in the early days of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, this historical romance tells the story of two spies for the Union working undercover behind enemy lines. Ellen Burns is a freed woman with a photographic memory who disguises herself as a mute slave and is hired out to the estate of a Confederate Senator. Malcolm McCall, a Scottish immigrant, works as a detective for the Pinkertons and poses as a Confederate soldier.  Together they uncover a Confederate plot to build an ironclad ship that could break the blockade of Southern ports.

Upon meeting and discovering that they’re working on the same side, the pair find a mutual attraction.  Malcolm is more overt in trying to act on that attraction, getting quite rude and handsy, which makes this book uncomfortable.  I appreciate that the author clearly will not let Malcolm coast as a “noble abolitionist” but calls out the power and privilege he has as a white man and how that is a threat to Ellen even when he has good intentions.  Both characters are well developed and interesting people.  Even a major antagonist, a loathsome Southern Belle named Susie McCaffrey, turns out to be more complex than she initially appears.

Of course, Ellen and Malcolm have lots and lots of sex, which I find awkwardly worded, but that may be just me.  Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel touching upon mystery, adventure, history, and social change.

Favorite Passages:

“Malcolm’s mind got muddled with anger thinking of how, in these lands, institutionalized sin was seen as a way of life that needed defending.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
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Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
TitleMidnight Rising
NarratorDan Oreskes
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2011)
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry.  Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.”  It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected.  Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice?  Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning.  What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial.  Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination.  Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.

Recommended booksCloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills


My annual Lincoln Day book for 2009 is Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) by cultural historian Garry Wills (previously, I’ve read Wills’ works on Catholicism Why I’m A Catholic and Papal Sin).  In this book Wills sets out to analize the 272 words spoken by Lincoln when he consecrated the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.  In a prologue, Wills sums up the events of Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg.  Here he debunks some common myths.  Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of the envelope en route to Gettysburg.  In fact, Lincoln loathed extemporaneous speech and spent much time preparing his words including this speech which he probably drafted prior to leaving Washington.  The other myth is that the crowds were shocked by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks especially in comparison to the lengthy oration by Edward Everett.  According to the programs and contemporary accounts, Everett was the primary speaker of the day with Lincoln only expected to make a few ancillary remarks to officially dedicate the cemetery.

It’s what Lincoln made of those few remarks that Wills dedicates the rest of the book to explicating.  Wills sees Lincoln’s funeral oratory in the tradition of Greek Revival then in vogue.  Lincoln’s address is compared favorably to the tradition of the ancients such as Pericles in that it contrasts things  as the mortal and immortal, the exceptionalism of Americans, word and deed, and life and death. The culture of death in 19th-century American – and especially during the Civil War (see This Republic of Suffering for more detail) – also informs the Gettysburg Address.  Cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn in Cambridge served a moral and instructive role and Gettysburg National Cemetery would fit into that continiuum.

For Lincoln, of course, that lesson is “the new birth of freedom” passed down to us from the Declaration of Indpendence.  Lincoln saw the Declaration as the nation’s true founding document,as opposed to the Constitution, as it holds the promise of equality for all in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  He also sees that through the revolution and joint declaration of independence the states are bound as a union, not as a simple agreement among autonomous states.  This informs the way in which Lincoln pursues the war treating the Southern states as insurrectionists within the union as opposed to a foreign power and only resorting to emancipation where it is a military necessity since he believes it cannot be done by unilateral decree.  The Gettysburg Address has resulted in many if not most Americans viewing the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Union the way that Lincoln did:

“…the professors, the textbooks, the politicians, the press have overwhelmingly accepted Lincoln’s vision.  The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.  For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.  It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless.  The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind.  By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.” – p. 146-47

The final chapter analyzes Lincoln’s oratorial style, its brevity, rhythmns, and lack of flowery language and tropes common to speech writing of the time (see Everett’s speech in the appendices for a contrasting example).  Writes Wills, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn.  It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address,” (p. 148).  In fact Wills contends that Lincoln prefigured “soundbite politics” by more than a century by crafting his words to meet the needs of the new technology of the telegraph.  Perhaps the satirical Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation is more on the mark than its creators intended.

This shorts but incisive book concludes with appendices that include research on the actual text that Lincol delivered that day.  There are multiple drafts and the newspaper accounts of the day are not all in agreement.  The Library of Congress has a good online exhibit of the many drafts of the address, as well as the only picture of Lincoln of that day.  There are also the full text of Everett’s oration and two ancient Greek forebearers (I confess I skipped these).  Finally, there’s a little detective work on where Lincoln actually stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  All and all, a fascinating a rewarding read for Lincoln Day ’09!

Title Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Re-Made America
Author Garry Wills
Publication Simon & Schuster (1992), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 1992
ISBN 0671769561 / 9780671769567

Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust


About 625,000 people, probably more, died as a direct result of the American Civil war from 1861-65.  Death is such an overpowering element of the Civil War that one could write a whole book just about it. This Republic of Suffering (2008) is that book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and now President of Harvard University.

Chapter by chapter explores an aspect of death, beginning with dying.  Religious and moral ideals of the time thought of The Good Death, but death in the war from disease and battle was rarely good.  It was even harder for many soldiers to kill based on the same religious and moral beliefs although the concepts of revenge and mission led to a greater willingness to kill as the war raged on.  Disposing of the dead became a real problem as it was difficult to properly inter the bodies of those killed among battle and troop movements.  Mass burials though loathsome became common, although there also was an uptick in the mortuary arts for preserving bodies and shipping them to surviving family members.

The survivors mourned in many ways both public and private. Many turned to faith for solace or turned away from belief in horror.  The great number of dead lead to new government practices accounting for the dead, locating and identifying bodies, and creating national cemeteries.  The numbering of the dead continued after the war growing into a large bureaucracy.  The accumulated records — the “literal weight of history” as Faust describes it — led to a collapse of two floors in Ford’s Theatre in 1893 killing 22 employees (p. 256).

This is a chilling, yet beautiful historical account of the Civil War from a unique perspective, and very thorough.  It’s definitely a recommend read for anyone interested in the American Civil War, especially those who still believe in the glory of war.

Favorite Passages

Focusing on dying rather than killing enabled soldiers to mitigate their terrible responsibility for the slaughter of others.  As men saw themselves mirrored in the faces of those expiring around them, they struggled to come to terms with the possibility and the significance of their own annihilation.  Dying assumed clear preeminence over killing in the soldier’s construction of his emotional and moral universe.  – p.6

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised.  It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses.  The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.  The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both it existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored. – p. 249

Faust, Drew Gilpin.
This republic of suffering : death and the American Civil War / Drew Gilpin Faust.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
346 p. : ill. ; 25 cm

Book Review: The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky


One of R.E.M.’s early albums is entitled Fables of the Reconstruction. That could easily be the title of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (2008) by Stephen Budiansky. The accepted history has it that the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War failed due to a vindictive Republican government saddling the helpless South with corrupt politicians, swindling businessmen, and allowing incompetent blacks to take government positions. Author James Loewen even points out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me how children’s textbooks use insults like “carpetbagger” and “scalawag” to describe people without any context of how these terms were used or mention of the many well-intentioned Northerners who came to the South during Reconstruction.

Budiansky pops the bubble of this revisionist history showing instead a South defeated in battle but continuing to fight to prevent enfranchisement and political viability of the freedmen among them. Budiansky pulls no punches and calls the organized violent tactics terrorism. Furthermore, it was a successful terrorism that basically forced the federal government to give up laying the groundwork for another century of segregation and inequality.

The Bloody Shirt relies heavily on primary documents that allow the reader to hear the voices of those who tried to reconstruct the South and those who often very openly admitted the crimes they’d commit to prevent it. Five men are central to the narrative:

  • Prince Rivers, a slave who escaped, fought for the Union, and became a South Carolina legislator. By the time Reconstruction ends he’s been removed from office by the Democratic government and forced to work as a coachman, the same work he did a slave.
  • Adelbert Ames, the military governor of Mississippi who fought a losing battle to rebuild the state under the new amendments to the Constitution.
  • Albert Morgan, a Northerner who moved to the South to become a farmer, married a black woman and found himself increasingly threatened by his white neighbors (albeit popular with his black neighbors) and ended up running for his life.
  • Lewis Merrill who fought bloody battles against the Ku Klux and white rifle groups in South Carolina that were as organized and calculated as the Confederate army during the War.
  • James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee’s ablest and most popular generals during the War. His public statements that the Confederacy’s loss means the South must support the Republican government lead not only to his ostracism but a false revision of his war record.

As well as I know the lowly depths that humans can sink, I couldn’t help but be shocked by this book. It was a sobering and instructive read. The issues raised in the book still reverberate to our time and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War, racism, and American politics.

While reading this book I learned of Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (interview) which could be a good follow-up book.

Memorable Passages

“To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. … The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities. The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.” – p. 5

Note: This behavior sounds eerily like a lot of the political discourse of the past decade or so.

[General Longstreet] He hoped that he might be forgiven the “bluntness of a soldier” to remind his fellow Southerners what had been decided at Appomattox. “The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865,” he wrote, “involved: 1. The surrender of the claim to right of secession. 2. The surrender of the former political relations to the negro. 3. The surrender of the Southern Confederacy. There they should have been buried. The soldier prefers to have the sod that receives him when he falls covers his remains. The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.

One of the gravest errors, Longstreet went on, was the opinion that “we cannot do wrong, and that Northerners cannot do right.” There were good and bad in both sections. But one must now bend to the other. The war had decided which. – p. 153

Another United States senatorial committee convened to record the words of the victims after it was too late to help them. The Democrats now held the House; the mood of the country was now more one of fatigue with the travails of the South than anything like the righteous indignation of times past. The lingering Republican majority in the Senate had an air of resigned impotence, of going through the forms with no expectation of results. – p. 208.

New York : Viking, 2008.