Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

That Duel

July 11, 2015

211 years ago today, Aaron Burr (the Vice President) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (the former Treasury Secretary and still leader of the Federalist Party) on a dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey.Aaron Burr

In addition to a) being a fabulous story, and b) playing a peripheral role in my book (mainly because Burr, under indictment for murder in New Jersey, undertook a bizarre Western “adventure” that had all sorts of consequences in New Orleans), this happens to be c) the first historical event I can remember having any specific awareness of.

It was like 5th grade or so, and I was reading my US history textbook in class — whether directed to, or surreptitously, who knows — and I came across a paragraph about the duel. Double take — wait — what? The Vice President shot the Secretary of the Treasury? Why? Where? How? He didn’t get prosecuted? What exactly was going on in this strange foreign world of this early American republic?

I don’t consider Burr a villain, nor do I make him out to be a hero as some of his contrarian advocates do. He was an interesting blend of democratic ideology and self-interested opportunism — in other words, a really good emblem of the early republic writ large. Hamilton, on the other hand, although he gets tons of great press lately, was basically Mitt Romney, an advocate for the banks and the wealthy, and a skeptic on democracy. (No wonder he gets lots of great press lately!) They’re both among the most interesting figures of this whole period, and reading about the Duel will teach you a lot, if you’re willing, about politics and society in Jeffersonian America.

I’d suggest Thomas Fleming’s Duel and while it is slightly eccentric and idolizes Burr way too much, Roger Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character; also, if historical fiction is your bag, Gore Vidal’s Burr is a loose but entertaining treatment of the episode and Burr in general.


Sarah Carr, Hope Against Hope

June 15, 2015

This is a profound, beautifully written, intelligent and moving book about the jarring changes in the New Orleans public school system since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. As you may have heard, our Crescent City is now on the cutting edge of the school privatization/reform/charter movement that has been sweeping the Sarah Carr Hope against Hopenation, and has been cited by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a model for the nation. Those of us who actually live here tend to see things differently; in my own opinion, New orleans becoming a model for the nation would be a tragedy of the first order. In any case, what is really wonderful about Carr’s book is that she avoids the postage-stamp caricatures that both sides in the debate generally make of each others’ points of view. She explores all viewpoints with nuance and compassion, following a freshman at a KIPP high school, a young white teacher at Sci High, and an experienced black woman principal at O. Perry Walker school, through the ups and downs of a whole school year. While doing this she also considers the history of public education in the United States and New Orleans in particular, segregation and integration, No Child Left Behind and the quantification movement, Teach for America, and many other aspects of the subject. There are many books about these issues — I also like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System — but Hope Against Hope is one of the best out there, a must read for anyone interested in education.

Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself

May 6, 2015

This history of Stax Records is simply a fantastic book by any standard. It’s compulsively readable, it’s painstakingly researched, and it is about a wonderful topic. It works very well on two levels: one, the personalities (on both sides of the art/business divide) that make timeless, deeply influential music at Stax from 1958 to 1975; and two, for more serious historians, the parallels between the Stax story in Memphis and the broader regional and national stories of racial oppression, unrest, and the golden years of the Civil Rights movement.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon


Stax is often twinned with Motown, which existed at roughly the same time (but lasted longer). Both were hugely important to the history of American music, and both maneuvered in the neutral zone between R&B, pop, rock, and funk to create new kinds of musical experiences that proved irresistibly appealing and surprisingly lasting. But there were many differences too: while black-owned Motown built an assembly line model inspired by its Detroit location, and made a successful business at the occasional expense of its artists, both their income and their creative autonomy, multiracial Stax was an artists’ label first and foremost, where creativity was king — and business often took a back seat. Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and house band Booker T and the MGs were part of a musical and social family that was all the more incredible for having been born in the heart of ultra-segregated Memphis at the damn of the 1960s. Gordon does not sugarcoat, and there is plenty of dark stuff — payola, drugs, violence, and the tragic plane crash that ended Redding’s life at age 26 — but on the whole, the Stax story is an inspiring one about how a dedicated record company can change both music history and the world itself.

For me there was an extra edge to this having been to Memphis in the 1990s to record $1.99 Romances, my first major label album, and having listened to endless stories of Memphis recording lore — stories that now make sense to me in light of Memphis native Gordon’s deep context. Along with, perhaps, the Jac Holzman/Elektra autobiography, this is probably the best book about a record label ever written.

Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land

June 30, 2014

I discovered this book and Ghosh though my friend Matt Ellis, who teaches Modern Middle East history at Sarah Lawrence (and who had to share an office with me at Princeton when we were grad students).

Ghosh Antique LandIt’s a difficult to describe book, part history, part memoir, part present day sociology. It describes Ghosh’s experience living in a rural Egyptian village in the 1980s, where he was learning conversation Arabic towards the completion of his anthropology PhD, alternating with an account of the Jewish 11th century merchant who was the central figure of the dissertation. It weaves the personal and the political, the historical with the present, so deftly and organically, it doesn’t seem at all contrived.

One of Ghosh’s themes, both here and in the Ibis trilogy which I also strongly recommend, is diversity and overlapping, coexisting cultures — in particular, here, the contrast between what he presents as the relatively tolerant world of Indian Ocean traders in the medieval period and the atomized, separated, suspicious world of the present. In former times, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Parsee merchants coexisted, sometimes at arm’s length, sometimes with the mutual respect derived from the brotherhood of commerce. The centrality of world commerce in the Indian Ocean world of the 11th c. also contrasts ironically with the clear sense of impoverished Egyptian villagers today that they are on the periphery of the fast moving global capitalist economy. TVs and hydraulic wells appear in their village, but instead of being seen as signs of progress, they only serve as reminders that innovation and profits are mostly happening elsewhere.

Taylor Branch

January 25, 2011

One thing I did manage to do during the last six weeks of general unproductivity was to read Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s wonderful first volume of his America in the King Years trilogy. I read the book slowly, enjoying every bit, and honestly it was as much a needed diversion from 1803 New Orleans as it was a learning exercise. I have an impression that Branch is taken pretty seriously by academic historians; more so than, say, Robert Caro or David McCullough, for instance. But not being a 20th century specialist, it’s hard to judge how important the King trilogy is from a scholarly perspective.

What reading Branch undoubtedly did do for me, in addition to teaching me an awful lot I never knew about the Civil Rights movement, was to remind me how important it is, no matter what one’s time period or type of history, to do work that matters; work whose relevance is not totally abstract or obscure; work whose meaning can be explained in a few sentences to an intelligent non-specialist. And another thing: it’s not just permissible to judiciously include a little passion, a little subjective emotion, in the course of a long narrative; it’s necessary, if you want to avoid falling into a dry-as-dust chronicler voice.

I do wish that Branch had done just a bit more of the social history of the movement. Again and again he makes the point that it was the rank-and-file, not the leaders, who really powered the movement; and the upswelling of fervor on the part of young black southerners around 1960 seems a fascinating story not fully explained; but the nature of the book, and the fact that it is continuously intertwined with a biography of King, always brings us back to a narrative of the leaders, their outlook, and their strategies.

Mark Fernandez “From Chaos to Continuity”

May 28, 2009

This is a useful book, a clearly argued book, and a really comprehensible book. I say all these things because From Chaos to Continuity is also very much a legal history — and “useful,” “clear,” and “comprehensible” are not always words I find applicable to legal histories.

In only 117 cogent and readable pages, Fernandez makes a distinctive contribution to the major debate in Louisiana legal history: the question of the state’s supposed distinctiveness as a bastion of civil law in a common law nation. The argument is clear: for Fernandez, the distinctiveness has generally been dramatically overstated. Though he calls Louisiana a “mixed” system which includes both statutory codes and stare decisis, he takes care to point out that other U.S. states are also technically “mixed” jurisdictions in the same way; and his evidence, from the American arrival in 1803 up to the Civil War, repeatedly emphasizes the Anglo-American influence in the state’s legal system.

Previous legal scholars (especially George Dargo) have treated James Brown and Louis Moreau-Lislet’s 1808 Digest of Laws as a political victory for local Francophones, who managed to retain a civil code in the face of Thomas Jefferson and the U. S. Congress’s insistence that the Orleans Territory should adopt the common law. Fernandez shows that while this may have been the legislature’s intention, judges in practice used the Digest not as an inflexible code but as only one among several possible textual authorities — much as common law judges would use Blackstone, Coke, or Vattel, or (in Louisiana) the never-repealed French and Spanish laws. In fact in the most crucial cases, “judges disregarded the Digest in favor of Spanish sources, creating a sort of common law basis for Louisiana’s private law, a common law based on Spanish civil authorities.” (62)

The story repeated itself in the 1820s, when uber-codifer Edward Livingston wrote his famous Louisiana Code of 1825 — which was followed by an 1828 statute positively repealing “all foreign laws in force at the time of the [1803] cession.” But no sooner had Livingston won this seeming victory than “immediately, the supreme court began to reduce the Louisiana Code to the less authoritative stance of a digest of the laws.” (81) In the case of Reynolds vs Swain et al, chief justice François-Xavier Martin ruled somewhat ingeniously that “the Spanish, French, and Roman civil laws, which the legislature repealed, are the positive, written or statute laws of those nations,” and that “the legislature did not intend to abrogate those principles of law which had been established or settled by the decisions of courts of justice.” (86) In other words, Spanish, French and Roman laws were reduced from the status of positive codes (a status they had never really held after 1803, in any case) to the status of a body of case law or scholarly authorities. This use did, of course, contravene any reasonable interpretation of the legislature’s intent in enacting the Livingston code — and the attempt to install true civil law was ultimately undone by its dependence on thoroughly Anglo-Americanized judges to carry it out.

Fernandez’ argument is convincing, to me, and useful not only on its own terms, but because it fits well with my increasingly conviction that Louisiana’s exoticism and difference has been overplayed on many levels and in many spheres, in ways that frustrate solid understandings of its history. The culture, the slave system, the racial order, the political climate, even basic geography — all these and many other aspects of Louisiana have been presented as anomalous, unique, and at worst irrelevant to the broader sweep of American history. This is only more true if one deals (as I do) not just with Louisiana but specifically with New Orleans. My view is not that there is nothing unique about New Orleans — obviously the French language is, and more broadly, the city’s standing as the only real urban center in the slave South — but that when difference starts being magnified into exoticism, and voyeuristic fascination with the region’s distinctiveness becomes the dominant mindset, we are in danger of crossing the line from historicizing to mythologizing.

Fernandez’ work does a wonderful job of pressing against the specifically legal aspect of this counterproductive Louisiana exceptionalism. Despite acknowledging in his first sentence that “[l]aw and society bond in an intricate dance,” he never really does explore the social implications of his contention that Anglo-American traditions lie at the heart of Louisiana law. And I’m too much of a neophyte in terms of understanding that “intricate dance” to make anything more than tentative guesses. Would the institution of true civil law have been as progressive as Livingston and the Jacksonian codifiers hoped? Is Fernandez’ story more proof of the conservative, elite-dominated nature of Louisiana society? From Chaos to Continuity declines delving into these and related questions — but it does constitute a wonderfully clear, thought-provoking starting point for considering them.

Mark Fernandez, From Chaos to Continuity: the Evolution of Louisiana’s Judicial System, 1712-1862 (Louisiana State University Press, 2001).

Jon Kukla “A Wilderness So Immense”

May 27, 2009

There’s a lot to admire about this narrative history of the Louisiana Purchase. Kukla takes a geopolitical and diplomatic story of enormous scope and complexity and fashions it into an account that is coherent, readable, even entertaining. He rightly stresses that the factors that led to American possession of Louisiana were global in area and long in duration.

For the most part this is a tale of personalities: Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, James Monroe, Carlos IV, Napoleon, Talleyrand, and numerous others maneuver, intrigue, plan, and scheme to decide the fate of the vast interior of the North American continent. Kukla’s preferences are worn on his sleeve: he admires Jefferson, more for his pragmatic politician side than his democratic theorist side, he mocks the impotent Spanish royals, and he has nothing but contempt for Timothy Pickering, whom he characterizes somewhat hamfistedly as having had a “thirty-year obsession” with dismembering the union. The peculiarities and foibles of these dramatic figures are emphasized considerably more than I would like: at times Kukla descends into a sort of historical version of Us magazine celebrity journalism. My rather condescending graduate student notion is that general audiences who buy books in Barnes and Noble undoubtedly eat this sort of thing up, but that it doesn’t help us much with the bigger questions we all want to address.

Kukla interestingly suggests that the purchase and acquisition of Louisiana constituted a democratic revolution in its own right; this is an idea I would support, though I would focus it more on the longue durée process of attachment (c. 1800-1820) than on just the moment of the Purchase in 1803. But A Wilderness So Immense is so busy crafting an engaging narrative that it only makes these kind of analytic points offhandedly and in passing. Also worth mentioning in this regard is the generous attention Kukla gives to the New England separatists of 1801-04 and 1814-15 (ie Pickering and the “Essex Junto”); he seems to be making an argument about the fragile nature of the national union long prior to the more famous disunions of 1832 and 1860, but what exactly this has to do with Louisiana I wasn’t quite able to derive, and it wasn’t made explicit. Finally, Kukla clearly realizes that the diplomatic settlement reached in Paris in the spring of 1803 owed everything to the Ross Resolutions in the U. S. Congress, which in turn owed a great deal to the people of the trans-appalachian west and the political pressure they exerted in support of American control of Louisiana (whether by force or purchase). But he doesn’t develop this insight to tell a revolutionary, bottom-up, democratic telling of the Purchase story — at the end of the day, in this telling, it’s diplomats in Paris, not “Kaintucks” on the Mississippi, who are the agents of history.

This is really a problem not with Kukla, who has given us a book that admirably accomplishes what its sets forth to do. On the diplomacy and the geopolitics of this major episode in U. S. history, there is probably no better book out there. But both Kukla and the field of early national scholarship as a whole seem to me to miss the opportunity to describe the local, social processes of American expansion — to describe the ways in which demographic pressures, economic ambitions, and republicanist ideologies all met on the ground, in the lower Mississippi region, and combined to transform a continent — bringing both the liberatory potential and the destructive capacity of democratic capitalism.