Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Michigan War Studies Review and Stevenson's 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution

Need help deciding which military history book read? I highly recommend the Michigan War Studies Review . There are a vast number of quality book reviews covering topics from the ancient world to the present. I have been honored to review several books for this site. Here is my latest: David Stevenson's masterful 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution  Click Here.

2019-074 19 Aug. 2019

1917: War, Peace, and Revolution by David Stevenson.New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. xxv, 480. ISBN 978–0–19–870238–2.

Review by Gregory J. Dehler, Front Range Community College (gregdehler@centurylink.net).

In his new book, historian David Stevenson (London School of Economics) argues that, by 1917, the European belligerents of the Great War found themselves ensnared in a conflict they knew to be unsustainable. Both sides sought to break the deadlock by launching massive offensives. Their desperate gambles failed to bring victory and hundreds of thousands of combatants died in Flan- ders, France, Italy, and Russia. That yearsaw the entry of the United States into the war and the historic revolutions in Russia. Brazil, China, Greece, and Siam also joined the war in that year, making the conflict a true “world war.” Unrest in India forced a reluctant Great Britain to accede to a degree of home rule that ultimately led to independence. And, too, the Balfour Declaration changed the future of the Middle East. In short, 1917 marked a dramatic shift in world history.

Other authors have sought to better understand the First World War by concentrating on a single year of its duration.Indeed, Stevenson’s last book was an account of 1918.There is a cer- tain logic to this tactic, since elections, military operations and campaigns, and vagaries of agri- cultural and industrial production make each calendar year unique. The present volume, however, adopts a broader, global view, surveying events in the Americas, on Europe’s battle- fields, in the Middle East, and across Asia.

The fourth year of World War I witnessed greater coordination among members of both the Central Powers and the Entente. Political leaders exerted increasing influence on strategy and policy making, but could not altogether wrest control from military commanders. The complexi- ties of conducting a global industrial war while managing developments on the home front and in imperial holdings simply overwhelmed economic, military, and political leaders. Most of their policy choices were reached only after contentious debates and little consensus.

"Decisions were taken not in calm and isolation but in rapid-fire succession and as fragments of an interconnected whole. The sheer range of choices confronting the belligerents—from Flanders to Russia, India, and Palestine, to say nothing of the home fronts—seems overwhelming. Certainly statesmen must by definition be risk takers, and challenging and contested choices lie at the heart of their responsibilities. Yet in wartime the stakes grow higher and the imponderables vaster. (398)"

The first of the book’s four parts, “Atlantic Prologue,” comprises three chapters concerning major trends: (a) the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to cripple Great Britain before the United States could properly mobilize its forces; (b) President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Germany, with an eye to influencing any postwar settlements and making the world safe for democracy; and (c) Britain’s implementation of the convoy system, a move the war cabinet had to force on Adm. John Jellicoe, who would have pre- ferred to keep his destroyers at Scapa Flow to guard against the German fleet.

Part II, “Continental Impasse,” contains six chapters: two on Russia, and one each on France, Flanders, Italy, and the peace initiatives of 1917. As in 1916, both sides conducted joint planning conferences to coordinate their operations. The order of the day was more of the same, but on a grander scale, featuring new weaponry, absurdly optimistic expectations, and underestimations of enemy strength. The French Nivelle, British Third Ypres (Passchendaele), and Russian Kerensky offensives all fit this pattern. Nivelle succeeded only in triggering mutiny among his own troops, while Kerensky broke the will of the Russian army and people, opening the door for the Bolshe- viks as the only anti-war party.

The Entente held no monopoly on military efforts that backfired. The humiliating defeat the Austro-Hungarians and Germans inflicted on the Italians at Caporetto ironically caused their en- emy to rally to the flag as it had not done since 1915; moreover, increased support from its western allies left Italy in a better position than it held prior to Caporetto.

The final chapter of Part II examines the several peace initiatives of 1917. Various belligerents conducted backchannel discussions largely unbeknown to their allies and without the full support of their own governments. In fact, such negotiations tended to be ploys meant to divide enemies rather than genuine attempts to end the war. No matter how bad the situation on the front lines or at home, no governmental leaders, with the exception of the Bolsheviks, seriously considered peace in 1917.

The three chapters of Part III focus on the “Global Repercussions” of poorly considered policy choices of 1917 that resonate to this day. The European powers never understood that they had lost control of events. Believing they were making measured moves, in reality they opened a Pan- dora’s Box. Britain used India (which then included present-day Bangladesh and Pakistan) as its base for military operations in Mesopotamia, but also as a source of manufactured supplies and equipment, tax revenues, and, crucially, manpower at a time when Prime Minster David Lloyd- George was dunning British colonies for more troops. All this placed great strains on Indian socie- ty and led to demands for reforms, including home rule. But the concessions the British made in the 1919 Government of India Act did not give the Indians all they wanted. They were, depending on one’s perspective, a first step either in the right direction or down a slippery slope, as Lord Curzon of the War Cabinet argued. Each reform led to calls for more complete home rule; this ultimately undermined both British control in South Asia and European global imperialism in general.

In the Middle East, as Gen. Edmund Allenby’s force was driving towards Jerusalem, the British feared that the Zionist movement leaned too sympathetically toward Germany. Policy-makers in London felt a need to win over an increasingly important international constituency (especially after the American entry into the war) and undermine Ottoman control in the region, with a view to constructing a zone of control in postwar Palestine to protect the Suez Canal. They gave little thought to what creating a Jewish national homeland might actually mean or its potential impact on the Arab population.

"Sympathy with Zionism carried less weight, unsurprisingly, than perceptions of national and impe- rial interest. The same applied to France’s Cambon Declaration, which paved the way for the British one, although American support appears to have been derived more simply from Wilson’s idealism. The British hoped to use the Zionists, as the Zionists hoped to use the British, and both sides over- estimated what the partnership might bring. But for all the opportunism that surrounded it, after other 1917 legacies had receded the declaration’s consequences would endure. (361)"

Formerly neutral nations began to join the Entente in 1917. The experiences of Greece, Brazil, Siam, and China proved that a belligerent could participate in the conflict in various ways. Brazil, for example, made little contribution to the war effort, while Siam sent a contingent of 1,254 vol- unteers to join the fight; Greece provided over 150,000 men to the Entente campaign in the Bal- kans. China sent no armed forces, but dispatched over 100,000 laborers to the Western Front to haul supplies and dig trenches, among other tasks. The experiences of Brazil and Siam illustrate the scope of the German submarine strategy, which affected more than just the United States. In- ternal debates over the proper course of action proved divisive in the halls of neutral powers. The question of declaring war brought both Greece and China to the brink of civil war. In the end, like Wilson, both nations wagered that any hardship they endured would further their national securi- ty goals in the postwar peace. Like other high-stake calculations made in 1917, this one failed to pay off.4

The concluding Part IV, “Towards 1918,” concerns the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian gov- ernment and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took Russia out of the war and placed even more emphasis on the Western Front. In one last desperate venture to end the war, the Germans went over the top in 1918. Their spring offensives shocked the British and French and threatened Paris, but the arrival of the Americans, who put a million men on the front lines before the armistice, turned the tide. As in their rationale for resuming unrestricted submarine warfare the year before, the Germans had bet against the United States and, once again, lost badly.

1917: War, Peace, and Revolution represents a thoughtful synthesis of relevant secondary literature and published primary and archival sources. Its narrative is enriched by an invaluable bibliography, maps and photographs spread throughout the text, and helpful lists of abbreviations and principal personalities. It is a seminal work that will engage and inform students, scholars, and general readers alike.


1. More precisely, December 1916–January 1918.
2. E.g., Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (NY: Knopf, 2013); Lyn Macdonald, 1915: The Death of Inno- cence (NY: Holt, 1995); Keith Jeffery, 1916: A Global History (NY: Bloomsbury, 2015); and Gregor Dallas, 1918: War and Peace (NY: Overlook Pr, 2001).
3. Viz., With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 2011).

4. See Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (NY: Random House, 2003).MichiganWarStudiesReview 2019–074

Monday, September 2, 2019

Samuel Gompers

In honor of Labor Day, here is an entry I wrote on Samuel Gompers for the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, edited by Gary Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr. Thousand Oaks, Calf: Sage Publications, 2007.

Samuel Gompers(1850-1924). American labor leader and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), 1886 to 1895 and 1896 to 1924.

Samuel Gompers was born in London, England to a Jewish family of laborers. In 1863 after spending the first thirteen years of his life on the tough London streets, Sam immigrated to the United States with his family. They settled in the tenements of the lower east side of Manhattan and became cigar makers. In 1864 Sam joined local 144 of the United Cigar Makers Union. In 1866 Gompers married Sophia Julian, also a Jewish émigré from London. The couple had over a dozen children.

Gompers continued to roll cigars, but he increasingly devoted more time and energy in the capacity of union organizer. The cigar industry was thrown into disarray by the introduction of the cigar mold which turned the skilled cigar makers into unskilled machine operators. In 1875 Gompers became president of Local 144. The following year he called a strike in New York City against companies who utilized the cigar mold. Initially, he was successful in gaining wage increases. Part of the reason for his success rested in his use of a benefit system for striking workers financed by union dues. However, independent cigar rollers who worked out of their tenement flats also went on strike and the companies took a harder line. Unable to control the situation, the strike fizzled out in early 1878. Gompers was blacklisted and had a difficult time finding decent work. These were hard times on his growing family. Disillusioned, Gompers resigned his position in Local 144 and moved his family to Brooklyn in order to gain a fresh start. 

Two years later, he returned to the union movement and dedicated his life to the cause of improving the working and living conditions of laborers. In 1880 he was once again elected president of Local 144 and he began a battle against the unskilled tenement rollers who, he believed, were damaging the livelihood of the skilled cigar makers who worked in the factories. The wretched pay and conditions of the tenement rollers degraded the condition of all labor. His aggressive lobbying led New York State to pass a law effectively abolishing tenement cigar manufacturing. The state supreme court, however, eviscerated the law. Later the legislature passed a revised bill that met the court’s objections, but almost no municipality in the state enforced it. 

Gompers learned four key lessons during these early years of union leadership. First was the limitation of political action. Instead of obtaining laws, he focused his efforts on improving the lives of workers by gaining concrete benefits from employers through collective bargaining. As an adjunct to his belief in the near futility of political action, he believed that the labor movement needed to avoid direct political affiliation. Labor, he argued, should not mingle with politics or form a separate workingman’s party as the socialists professed. Gompers believed that political action should only occur after workers had first leveled the economic playing field. Moreover, the political crusades for causes outside of the workplace, such as the free coinage of silver, as advocated by the Knights of Labor, distracted from the central mission of improving the lives of the workers. When he did take a strong position on a political issue, such as support of Chinese exclusion, it related directly to the condition of labor. Second, his strategy required stronger unions with a benefits system to support strikers, centralized control over when a strike would be called, and a required consensus among union members approving a strike. Strikes, according to Gompers, should he planned, rational events, not a spontaneous and emotional measure. Third, he bitterly opposed dual unionism. A fractured and divided labor movement created a gap that hostile business owners could exploit. Fourthly, Gompers became convinced that trade unionism, focusing on the conditions of the skilled laborer, was the best way to lift all workers. In response to his four lessons, he proposed a federation of labor unions. The first attempt, begun in 1881, proved too weak and failed. He had better success in his second effort. In 1886 he organized the American Federation of Labor and was elected president.

His first objective as president of the AFL was the eight hour day and he called for a nationwide strike on May 1, 1886. The disaster at Haymarket square hurt the cause dearly.  The depression of 1893-1896 hit workers hard. Depression induced unemployment deprived Gompers of the dues he needed to fund his strike benefits system. Gompers received criticism for his failure to provide greater support to the Homestead and Pullman strikes and it briefly cost him the presidency of the AFL.    

After his return to the AFL presidency in 1896 he moved the union headquarters from Indianapolis, Indiana to Washington, DC to better his lobbying efforts. He became a fixture on Capitol Hill advancing the cause of labor to individual Congressman and before committees. Gompers remained president until his death in 1924. He used the force of his personality and patronage to build a reliable and effective political machine inside the AFL. To keep his fingers on the pulse of the membership, he traveled frequently, logging as much as 50,000 miles in rail travel in a year. 

After 1896 Gompers shifted attention from the eight hour day to the right of collective bargaining and increasing the membership of the AFL. He negotiated directly with business leaders and worked closely with Mark Hanna and the National Civic Federation. This course increasingly distanced him from the growing ranks of socialists and radicals. Playing on the emotions and ideals of the progressive era, Gompers presented himself to the business leaders as a sane third choice between immoral wage slavery and the radical International Workers of the World (IWW). In 1906 he supported a boycott against the Buck’s Stove Company and was charged with contempt. He refused to back down or accept a lesser charge. This act of martyrdom improved his standing among the workers and counteracted the tendency some who viewed Gompers as being too conservative. 
Despite his efforts, Gompers could not contain the growing popularity of the radical IWW or of the Socialist Party. The AFL opposed the IWW-managed strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts which lasted from 1912 to 1914.

In 1906 Gompers put fourth a Bill of Grievances. His intention was that the federal government would create something like a labor bill of rights. In 1912 Gompers welcomed the friendly overtures of Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for president. His support of Wilson paid off when the president signed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1915. Although this embodied a small part of the Bill of Grievances, he proclaimed the Clayton Act “the magna carta” of labor because it exempted unions from prosecution under the restraint of trade clause in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. 
Despite the fact that Gompers had advocated pacifism his entire life, he supported American entry into World War I in April 1917. Gompers held important positions in Wilson’s war-time government. As a member of the National Council of Defense and other committees, Gompers brokered a deal in which labor agreed to an unwritten no-strike pledge in return for an eight hour day provision, increased pay, and a minimum wage. During the war union membership skyrocketed from 2.4 million to 3.3 million workers. At the same time the radical unions who spoke out against the war became increasingly marginalized. Gompers supported prosecution of radical labor leaders under the Sedition Act. The success Gompers enjoyed and the defeat of his enemies within the labor movement seemed to vindicate his strategy and ideals. He was at the apex of his career. 

Success, however, was short lived. The end of the war also meant the end of labor’s gains. Gompers did not support the strikes of 1919 and correctly predicted that the labor movement as a whole would suffer a backlash in the court of public opinion. The election of Republican Warren G. Harding as president in 1920 marked a conservative revival and the restoration of a pro-business atmosphere in Washington. At the same time, businesses undercut unions by offering company-sponsored alternatives.  

The last four years of Gompers’s life were painful ones. The death of his wife Sophia in 1920 filled him with grief. His second marriage was an unhappy one, and, he had begun divorce proceedings before he died. He completed his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor which was published posthumously in 1925. Gompers’s one great initiative of the decade was an unsuccessful drive to create a federation of unions representing the nations of the Americas. The radicalism of the Latin American unions frustrated his attempts at moderation. He died in 1924 of Bright’s Disease while returning from a trip to Mexico.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Andrew Johnson and the Tennessee State Museum

Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States, died today, July 31st, in 1875. He was
sixty-six years old and had recently been elected to the United States Senate by the Tennessee state legislature. Johnson is generally considered among the bottom, and quite possibly worst, among the presidents of the United States. Granted he inherited a difficult situation upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln six weeks into his second term, but Johnson managed it as disastrously as one could with his racism; his opposition to the extension of civil rights during Reconstruction, a move that encouraged white resistance and the violent repression of blacks in the South; his complete lack of sympathy for the freedmen; his impeachment and escape of removal from office by a solitary vote in the U.S. Senate; and his demonstrated pattern of unfitness for office through his behavior. My view of Johnson has always been much colored by Eric McKitrick’s Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, which is, admittedly, a dated work almost sixty years old. It is not the only work that I have read on Johnson, to be sure, but McKitrick’s emphasis on his subject’s psychological shortcomings sticks with me. 

While Johnson was a terrible president, he seemed to be an ingenious vice-presidential candidate in 1864 on the National Union Party ticket, the name that the reflagged Republican Party used to appeal to war Democrats. As a pro-war Democrat from a southern state who opposed secession and was the only member of the entire southern congressional delegation that remained in his seat after his state seceded, and who served as war governor of Tennessee, Johnson offered a powerful example of national unity during civil war to the ticket. By showing up to his inauguration as vice president visibly intoxicated, Johnson got off on the wrong foot. With the exception of receiving some well wishes and support following Lincoln’s assassination, it was almost all downhill for Johnson.  

How is Johnson portrayed in the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville? I only ask because I was there earlier this month. And I must say upfront that it is a large and impressive museum that examines the Volunteer State's history from pre-history through to the current day. First, the museum celebrates him as one of the state’s famous sons and one who became president, like Andrew Jackson
and James K. Polk before him. Second, they emphasize that he was a common tradesman who worked his way from illiterate poverty to the White House. He was a tailor know for always being well dressed (unlike his gangly predecessor who often appeared slovenly). The suit to the right is an example of Johnson’s handiwork. Third, they illustrate his work as a pro-Union war governor and emphasize his role in pushing for the ratification of the 13thAmendment. Yes, he used readmission as a lever to obtain ratification and the ultimate end of slavery, but he also failed to use that same power to ensure civil rights and welcomed state constitutions containing the infamous Black Codes that so restricted the freedom of blacks that it was a form of pseudo slavery. Although the Radical Republicans and President Ulysses S. Grant did much to undermine the Black Codes, many of their features would re-emerge in the post-Reconstruction segregated, Jim Crow, South. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Academic scare of my life!

In 1907 Crane & Company of Topeka, Kansas published ex-buffalo hunter John Cook’s memoir Border and the Buffalo. Cook’s book stands out in the historiography of the buffalo literature for its singular account of General Philip Sheridan advising the Texas state legislature in 1875 to abandon an effort to protect the buffalo. Cook quotes Sheridan as praising the buffalo hunters for advancing civilization, taming the Native Americans, and making the Great Plains habitable for white settlers, their farms, and livestock. Moreover, in Cook’s telling Sheridan advises that the legislators supply the buffalo hunters with ammunition to aid them in their service to manifest destiny. Cook’s story with his juicy Sheridan “quote”, implying that the US Army supported the buffalo slaughter as a total war measure to destroy the Native American resistance was repeated all through the secondary literature on the buffalo all throughout the twentieth century. And, I will confess that I too cited this “quote” in my master’s thesis. 

In American Serengeti— a most enjoyable history of the charismatic megafauna of the Great Plains — environmental historian Dan Flores discredits Cook’s account. Granted, he is not the first historian to do so. At the least Cook’s story is an uncorroborated tale that cannot be verified in any other source, and at worst is a total fabrication. Flores sees the use of the Cook quote as an example of how untrained popular historians trusted a source too uncritically and kept repeating the error decade after decade. 

This is the context in which I got the scare of my academic life. As I was listening to the audiobook of American Serengtion my noon walk I got hit like a bolt out of the clear blue with the biggest shock of my academic life. Here are the words: “It has appeared in books as recent as a 2012 biography of William T. Hornaday himself (p. 122).” The “It” is in reference to Cook’s fabricated story. This scared the living hell out me because all I could think of is that this might be a reference to my biography of Hornaday, Most Defiant Devil(MDD). Now, I have to say that MDDwas published in 2013, but I did not catch the year in my initial hearing. Did I somehow quote Cook’s Sheridan, even though I knew it was suspicious? Was I so bogged down in all the other details that I somehow missed some old note card made its way on into the manuscript? As soon as I returned to my office, I pulled the copy of MDDoff my shelf and was relieved to find that this was no reference to MDD. Instead, Flores was referring to Stefan Bechtel’s Mr. Hornaday’s War, another example of a popular historian who did not consider the sources critically. What’s more, Bechtel cites a website for the quote, not even the original source. Although I was greatly relieved that Flores was referring to another biography, I must candidly admit that I was sorely disappointed that he had not consulted mine! 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Slow down and shut up, Caro’s Working, pt. 4

In this installment in this short series on lessons learned from reading Robert Caro’s WorkingI am going to combine two phrases that Caro repeats several times: “slow down” and “shut up.”

In the frantic and frenetic whirligig of activity that is the twenty-first century, with its constant demand for instant information and measurable metrics of performance, the concept of slowing down might seem totally anachronistic. But the historian does need to slow down, despite the pressures to consume and produce scholarship at a breakneck pace. Synthesizing such enormous volumes of information, collating it all, analyzing it, and producing meaningful contributions takes time and cannot be rushed. Facts need to be verified, stories corroborated, dates checked, etc. The graduate school pace of at least a book a week, frequent papers, and preparation for classroom presentations and discussions encouraged the sense that speed is what mattered most. Anyway, that is how it felt to me. Slow down and make it count is always simple, sound advice for the historian. 

Caro laments the early days in his work on Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) –back in the 1970s and 1980s – when he could call someone on the phone for instant verification. Since then, however, many of his correspondents and interviewees, the players who knew LBJ during his early career as a staffer, congressman and senator have long since passed. For Caro, that same process in later decades of the work is done by referring to the millions of pages of documentary evidence, including interview transcripts. 

Slow down works in close conjunction with the importance of editing that I focused on in part 3 of this series. Precise language, clarity, and a concise, even if lengthy, text, are all shaped by the patient and often slow work of editing.  

Where does shut up fit in for the historian? Caro relied a great deal on interviews in both his works on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. One of the lessons is learned was to curb his own need to talk, interrupt, and interject questions during an interview. Whether it is because silence is uncomfortable or because it feels better to provide information voluntarily instead of being prompted, Caro learned that one of the most productive things that he could do during an interview was to say as little as possible; let the subject have the stage. He even wrote “SU” on his legal pads as a reminder whenever he felt the urge to open his mouth. 

Caro’s accounts of his interviews, the behind-the-scenes work of being an historian, are quite interesting. Robert Moses refused to speak with him at first and ordered those closest to him to clam up as well. He figured this would have snuffed out the biography in its infancy. But Caro was too creative for that! He drew some circles on a paper, each one a level of proximity away from Moses at the center. Sure, Moses could control his nearest family and associates, but not those further out, the partial acquaintances, the one-time collaborators, let alone all those who were negatively affected by his actions, such as the people of the East Tremont section of the Bronx who were forcefully relocated to make room for the Cross Bronx Expressway. Once Caro cracked those outer rings, Moses realized that his biographer would not be so easily put off and consented to talking on the record. Caro interviewed his formidable subject seven times before broaching a forbidden topic that triggered Moses to end the sessions. You really need to pick up Working to read about these and many other interviews. 

I am sad to say that I interviewed only one person for The Most Defiant Deviland that was early during the dissertation stage. Rosalie Edge was an important conservationist who worked with William T. Hornaday in the 1920s and 1930s to challenge the leadership of the National Association of Audubon Societies. Later Edge would establish Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, the nation’s first wildlife refuge dedicated to a predator species. The use of traps on Audubon preserves was one of the issues that united Edge and Hornaday. Rosalie’s son Peter Edge was a young man at the time and he drove his mother to Hornaday’s home in Stamford, Connecticut for their strategy sessions. He met Hornaday several times. He was still alive, if elderly, in the late 1990s when he graciously consented to a telephone interview. I don’t recall how I tracked him down. He was the only living connection that I could establish with Hornaday. There were a few other possibilities, but I could not get in touch with them. And the only direct descendant that I could track down either never received my requests for an interview or simply ignored them. Looking back, I wish I would have read been able to read Workingwhen I was in graduate school.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Editing and Workflow, Caro's Working, pt. 3

Would any be surprised if the eighty-three-year-old Robert Caro adheres to the familiar and writes his manuscripts out in long hand before typing them out on an electric typewriter? For the typing, he uses legal paper, triple-spaced. This way, Caro has ample room to edit and re-write his text before having to type it again. It is the same method that he has used since he was a rookie reporter fresh out of Princeton. I think there are two things to look at here: First, the importance of editing; and, secondly, the issue of workflow. 

Over the course of my career I have developed a much deeper appreciation of editing as part of the writing process. When I was I younger I labored under the delusion that good writers managed to produce a quality manuscript of any length on almost one draft, and that editing was a monotonous drudgery that the rest of us had to endure. Numerous drafts discouraged me because I treated them as a sign of my weakness as a writer. To me writing seemed to be an art that you got or did not get. Then one day, about ten or so years ago, I saw a panel on C-SPAN or Book TV panel discussion on the editorial process. One of the panelists was Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of my favorite books. Egan confessed to producing over eighty drafts of her book. That was liberation!! An award-winning novelist needed eighty drafts. It is at that point that I came to understand that editing is a vital part of the process that requires all the diligence, patience, and practice of writing itself. Caro reinforces this belief in Workingby emphasizing that editing is as an essential part of writing, not a separate task. Writing, in other words, is a demanding craft. And I felt vindicated when he stated that the final version of the printed page bore almost no resemblance to the very first triple-spaced typed draft. There are samples of this in the fly pages at the start and end of the book. 

I have always been very interested in the workflow of authors and historians. There is something fascinating to me about how others arrange their research and writing. Whether it’s a high-tech use of several different computer programs or writing it all out by hand, I always feel I learn something by a discussion of workflow. Let’s be honest, we all think we should be more productive and efficient when it comes to writing, and I am always hunting for tips and tricks.

Richard Nixon used to sketch out ideas on yellow pads of legal paper, and I have always wanted to look at that them to see what that looked like. Shelby Foote, author of the three volume Civil War: A Narrative, professed to write in an old-fashioned feather quill pen. That sounds tedious, assuming it is true. On the scarier side of the spectrum prolific historian Forrest McDonald claims that he wrote in his birthday suit. One of my mentors in graduate school was a student of McDonald and had known him quite well. And, if the stories are to be believed, McDonald was quite a wild character, so that seems plausible. For those of us with a more modern bent to integrate the latest technology, there are many websites by academics describing how to utilize various word processors, bibliographic compilers, search tools, and note-taking programs. My preference is to use Scrivener and Zotero. 

I am not going to dump my MacBook for an electric typewriter, so I cannot say that I got any specific tips from Caro’s workflow. What his example clearly demonstrates is that each writer has a very customized and personalized workflow, and we should each do what works best for us. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Context, Caro's Working, pt. 2

One of the most important tasks of the historian is to put events, movements, people, places, etc., in historical context. It really gets to the heart of the questions of “why and how” did something happen. Robert Caro takes this to new levels when it came to providing the “context” of Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) youth in west Texas. What was it like? What relationships did he have with his family? What role did the environment play in his development? 

An urban New Yorker, graduate of an Ivy League university, and Jew could not have been more distant from background of the thirty-sixth president. Caro quickly realized that he had no understanding of where LBJ had come from and decided that the only solution was to immerse himself in west Texas. To wit, his superhumanly supportive wife, Ina Caro, quipped, “Why can't you do a biography of Napoleon?” (p.103) Nonetheless, the couple departed for hill country in 1976, only three years after LBJ’s death. It stood to reason that Caro could meet enough of his subject’s contemporaries that he could get a good flavor of what it must have been like for LBJ. 

The Caros lived in Johnson country for three years, getting to know his former classmates and neighbors and emerged from the experience with a much better understanding of the environment that made LBJ. It was a hot, dusty, isolated country, mostly poor, and without electrification or running water. To some extent this explains LBJ’s notorious crudity, but also what inspired the future congressmen, senator, and president to his New Dealerism.

Family, of course, provided another context, that was rooted in the same place. Caro got to know LBJ’s surviving siblings. One of the most interesting parts of Workingis his description of how he finally tricked Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s youngest brother, to tell him what the family life had really been like. The problem was that Sam was a notorious bullshitter and Caro discounted most of the information that he received from that source. But how could he get some reliable information from Sam? In a most novel approach, Caro convinced the National Park Service to let him into the LBJ childhood home, put Sam Johnson at the kitchen table, stood behind him, and asked him questions, ones designed to probe deeper into the visceral experience of being at the Johnson kitchen table. Sam seemed almost hypnotized by the experience and described the family scene in intimate detail. And it proved that the kitchen table was not to be a warm and fuzzy place where family members came to break bread after a weary day; instead, it was a place of frequent clashes, some even violent, between Lyndon and his father. Poor Sam Johnson, the elder and father of the Lyndon and Sam, was a classic ne’er-do-well, prone to drink, hyperbole, and poor decisions, especially in financial matters. Young Lyndon came to see his father as a loser and source of embarrassment. This upbringing imparted a relentless drive to succeed. One can also see where LBJ got his west Texas populism, hunger for wealth, womanizing, and willingness to skirt legality. 

I am not arguing that every graduate student should immerse themselves in some obscure, out-of-the-way place for three years during their dissertation to understand context. Certainly not! I did not follow that path myself, other than visiting the Bronx Zoo, which I had to do anyway for my research on William Temple Hornaday. Moreover, from what I picked up somewhere, what had once been Hornaday’s father’s farm is mostly paved over and subdivided. As many hardships as farm life possessed in the 1990s when I started my research, it would be hard, I would think, to get the same sense of what life was like 150 years before from an Iowa immersion. That level of understanding for me came through more clearly in his mother’s letters to her family Indiana in the 1850s and to her son Minos Miller during the Civil War. Her letters ooze with regret for having left a more settled and comfortable life for scratching out a new homestead from the earth in what still felt very much like the frontier. Despite Hornaday’s later accounts of an idyllic childhood, it was a hardscrabble, tough life. It was a story that only his mother told.   

But, what I am saying, is that Caro calls to mind that context can have multiple definitions in historical and biographical writing. It was within Caro’s means to come into direct contact with the world of LBJ. He understood that was the case and acted to maximize its fleeting advantages.