Saturday, October 30, 2010

James G. Blaine, Continental Liar from the state of Maine

Today I finished reading Neil Rolde's Continental Liar, a biography of James G. Blaine. This is not the first historical account of Blaine I have digested. Before this, I read Edward Stanwood's (1905) and David Muzzey's (1934) biographies as well as Edward Crapol's study of Blaine's terms as the nation's chief diplomat (2000). Mostly forgotten today, Blaine was one of the most popular political figures of the late 19th century. He was a school teacher and newspaper editor before becoming a Congressman, Speaker of the House, Senator, Secretary of State, failed presidential candidate (1884), and Secretary of State again.

Rolde is very good at two things. First, he does an excellent job in depicting Blaine's family life.  Today we seem jaded on the subject of the family lives of our politicians. From Kennedy's philandering to the drama of the Clinton marriage we question the sincerity of their relationships. There can be no doubt Blaine loved his family and his role as father, husband, and grandfather were just as important in his life as his role as statesman. Second, Rolde, a former Maine politician himself, focuses on Blaine's role in Pine State politics, even when he was a Senator and Secretary of State.

Despite these two positive attributes, there are some negatives to Rolde's biography. He never answers the question of where Blaine got his money from. He seemed to have plenty of it, far in excess of his government pay. Was he as corrupt as his contemporaries charged? Did he benefit from wise investments? These questions are not satisfactorily answered. Second, Rolde did not seem to sift through the 7,000 items that comprise the Blaine papers in the Library of Congress. He did access a journal written by one Blaine's daughters from the Blaine papers, but nothing else.  Rolde leaves some gaps in Blaine's legislative career. He covers the Reconstruction period throughly enough, but there is little else on the rest of Blaine's Congressional career. For example, where did Blaine stand on President Grant's financial legislation in the wake of the panic of 1873. Finally, I don't think he really explains Blaine's interest in reciprocity or how it connected to his larger views on expanding American power overseas.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out of This Furnace

Back in the late 1990s, in the days of my ABDhood, I used to hunt for syllabi for courses in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Many of these syllabi required or recommended Thomas Bell's Out of this Furnace. Totally unfamiliar with this title, I decided it must be fairly new and with it being so esteemed I placed it on my reading list. For some reason Out of This Furnace proved very difficult to locate. Several libraries I visited listed it in the catalog but a copy could not be found on the shelf. Two months ago to my great surprise I found a copy at Barnes and Noble. First, I have to admit I had no idea it was a fictional account of Slovak family through three generations, which is why I stared at it for a couple of minutes thinking what is this doing here? Second, I was surprised to find out that it was written in 1941.

I can't say I really enjoyed Out of This Furnace. Even though I can believe that immigrant life in the steel towns of late nineteenth and early twentieth century was as bleak as Bell depicts it, I have to think there were still moments of happiness and joyful events. What I really took away from the book as an historian is the way the different generations related to life in America. The first generation seemed content to work and isolate themselves. Coming from a fractured Austro-Hungarian Empire, it only seemed natural for them to withdraw into themselves and forego learning English or making any attempt to assimilate into the larger culture of which they remained largely suspicious. The second generation wanted to fit in, but were not welcomed. They learned English, attended schools, but were derided as "Hunkies". Conscious of otherness, they felt stuck between two worlds - wanting to be Americans but not accepted as such. Finally, the third generation demanded a piece of the pie and felt comfortable using American methods to attain it. The triumph of the third generation in winning labor reform clearly votes for FDR.