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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Part 2 (The Planter): Washington: A Life

First portrait of George, age 40, by Peale
I'm still happily reading along in Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life and just finished Part 2: The Planter.  This section covers George Washington's life from age 26, his resignation from the army, marriage to Martha, and focus on Mount Vernon to the first days bloody days of the Revolution when he was in his early 40s.

Although the book doesn't read like a novel it has a nice clip, juicy detail (George ordered Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac--you can now buy some online--for his honeymoon, George and Martha owned some racy books) and some subtle cliffhangers (at least in my mind): what will be the outcome for George's aimless, filthy rich step-son Jacky?  Will George ever see his hypocrisy of agitating for liberty and owing slaves?  How does this man who "knew the value of silence, largely kept opinions to himself, and seldom committed a faux pas" become our first president?

George Washington certainly wasn't a humble man; he simply wanted the best. During his early manhood he continued to struggle with outward displays of his fiery temper except when it came to issues of money around which he could be brutal and snappish towards others.  He was in dept up to the hilt with lenders from England, as were most colonial planters who needed tools and goods from England and gambled on good future crops to pay their loans. They were land rich and cash poor.

Although George never traveled to England, he liked the latest fashions and spent as much as he could on decor for his home, carriages, clothing, and other outwards displays of wealth.  In 1758 he doubled the size of his house (for a virtual tour of the house, click here). He apparently didn't do this to flaunt his position as much as he did it to gain the respect and acceptance of others.  Whereas in Part 1 George's main complaint in life was the treatment of colonial officers by the British military, during this time period he has multiple thorns in his side: debt, the high cost and shabby quality of goods he's forced to buy from England, and England's restrictions on and taxation of its North American colonists.

It wasn't until after George started experimenting with crops and diversifying what he planted and produced that he gained more financial stability and came to relish his work as a plantation owner.  From 1763 to 1770 he was able to cut his debt in half.  Prior to his focus on Mount Vernon his plantation was mired in the labor intensive work of growing tobacco. "Labor intensive" for this time and place means slave labor and George owned 87 slaves in 1770.  After he quits focusing on tobacco, he doesn't need so many field hands and had many of his slaves trained in various trades and crafts. Who trained them?  Indentured servants that George acquired from England. George's slaves worked around his plantation (which was huge and included 5 farms) and he also loaned them out to work at other plantations.  Although George was against splitting up slave families, members of families sometimes only saw each other on Sundays if they worked on different farms.  George was also against buying slaves, yet participated in slave lottery sales and shipped problem slaves to the Caribbean which was a virtual death sentence due to working conditions.

By all accounts George treated his slaves "well": inoculated them against smallpox, gave them good medical treatment (sometimes tending them himself), mandated that overseers get his permission before whipping a slave, and he quit buying slaves in 1772. Because he usually didn't split up families, the slave population of Mount Vernon grew to 135.  He also entrusted slaves as overseers at 3 of his 5 farms and allowed slaves to go to Alexandria to peddle their wares at the market on Sundays. Yet, no matter how well he or Martha treated them or how much they considered them part of the family, slaves did not have liberty or rights. George didn't stop to consider the psychology of being a slave.  He expected them to have his own work ethic and didn't understand why some would want to run away (about 7% did). Billy Lee, a slave, was George's personal manservant. Martha had her own set of slaves for domestic work as well as a sewing crew.

During this time England made a series of decisions that cause discontent and outrage among the wealthy colonial planters. In an age when land acquisition was a mania, one of the most grievous mistakes the crown made was forbidding colonists to settle west of the Alleghenies to protect the fur trade with the Indians even though settlers from Germany, Ireland, and other places were settling there.  Washington and other veterans of the French & Indian War were also told they wouldn't get the land grants which were promised them for their service.  Washington had gone on surveying trips for these lands and was accused by at least one man for taking the best lands for himself. When it came to land acquisition, George broke various laws and did whatever he could to snap up as much land as he could.

There was also the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Boston Massacre, the repeated dissolution of the House of Burgesses by the British appointed governor whenever George and his fellow elected officials agitated a little too much.  George's perspective begins to widen as he contemplates how these decrees hurt not only the growth of his own wealth, but the country's wealth as well.  He starts "mingling idealism with profit."

The Boston Tea Party
George disapproved of the Boston Tea Party actions of December 16, 1773 when colonists, dressed as Mohowk Indians, dumped 342 chests of tea into the Massachusetts Bay. He also spoke out against the British military crackdown. By the summer of 1774, however, George was also sounding pretty militant and accused the Indians of the back country as being "cruel & bloodthirsty" and the Crown as endeavoring to "fix the shackles of slavery upon us."  At this time in the book I get the clear sense that "us" refers to wealthy landowners of George's class and not so much an abstract sense of Americans in general.  As Ron Chernow bluntly writes, at this time Washington doesn't have political ideas of his own, but soaks up the ideas of others.  And so far I get no sense that George was around any other type of  men other than those of his own class or his slaves (he often got off his horse to help mend fences or do other physical labor with his slaves).  In his 20s he commanded men from the lower classes and not much is said about what he thought of those men, other than those who deserted.

The movers and shakers, the rich landowners of each colony, decide to take matters into their own hands.  They get together to form the first Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia on August 5, 1774.  They decree to stop all imports and exports to England was well as horse racing, gaming, cock-fights, shows, plays, and other "expensive diversions and entertainments" (its a 'moral' revolution, too, even if George did like to attend the theatre).  It also endorsed an end to the slave trade but there seemed to be no talk of actually ending slavery.  The continuation of the slave trade was forced upon them by the British, but considering that 40% of the population of Virginia was slaves and that slaves were continuing to have children, how much new influx did they need?  The call to end the slave trade seems to be about economics--supply and demand--rather than morals.  (Let me point out that Chernow doesn't go into details on the issues as this is a biography about Washington and not a history of slavery or American politics. I am just thinking out loud.)  These leaders encouraged the formation and organization of colonial militias even though there was hope that grievances could be ironed out diplomatically.  They also organize local committees to ensure these decrees are followed.

George Washington talked a lofty talk of putting forth all of his wealth to support the cause, yet after giving money to the Fairfax County militia for supplies, he and other community leaders turned around and implemented a tax on all county citizens "for the common benefit, protection, and defense of the inhabitants."  Considering that one of the big beefs the colonists had with England was being taxed for the French & Indian War and ongoing protection, it seems nothing short of blatant hypocrisy that Washington and other leaders turned around and did the same thing to their "own" neighbors.  But at least Washington was voted into his position.  And the most glaring hypocrisy is, of course, the issue of liberty sought by men who own slaves.

Martha Washington
Chernow mentions several times how the American Revolution is an historical anomaly:  wealthy conservatives start this revolution rather than the poor and disenfranchised.  What made it possible for George's gentlemanly participation in the Revolution (i.e., not needing payment for his services) was the death of his step-daughter Patsy from complications due to epilepsy.  He inherited her immense wealth, through his wife Martha, upon the girl's death.  Patsy's death also freed Martha to travel with George. In Part 1 Chernow had outlined how much, if not all, of George's status and wealth derived from the death of loved ones and here it happens again.

I just started Part 3: The General, which is all about--you guessed it--George as General.  I'm on page 246, about 25% through the book.  The General looks to be the largest section.  Here's how it begins:  On April 14, 1775 Samuel Adams and John Hancock were hanging out in Lexington, Massachusetts before the meeting of the second Continental Congress when Paul Revere made his glorious ride to tell them that the British were coming.  The British arrived in Lexington on April 19th and promptly fired upon and killed some colonists.  Although George didn't openly or aggressively seek to be in charge of a continental army, he did read up on military science and wore a uniform to the 2nd Continental Congress.

More to come....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Part 1 (The Frontiersman): Washington: A Life


While I consider myself a bit of a history and military buff, I have to admit that I know woefully little about Washington or the Revolutionary War. I scarcely remember it being covered in grade school (the British were mean and then we beat them) or in the one American History college class that I took (no taxation without representation). I've read much more early American literature than history.

So, after a little research, I decided a good choice with which to start combating my ignorance would be Ron Chernow's highly acclaimed biography, Washington: A Life.  One of Chernow's missions in writing this biography is to do away with the musty, static image of Washington that many of us have and present a readable, one volume portrait of the flesh and blood man who led the colonies to victory over the mighty British Empire and became American's first President.

I just finished Part I: The Frontiersman which puts me on page 136 of 960 pages (which is 14% read according to Goodreads).  I downloaded the eBook from my library onto my Kobo which makes it convenient to carry around, but I do miss easy access to foot notes and the ability to underline or flag passages. I'm trying to relax and just read the book, taking only light notes as I go along.

Part I: The Frontiersman covers Washington from birth to age 26: his family history, his boyhood, his adolescence, his young adulthood.  It balances his early career as a land surveyor and than as a colonial officer under the British Army during the French and Indian war (and pre-war run-ins) with his personal life: friendships, relationships, how he strove to better himself and also with his budding political aspirations (his first successful election was in 1758 to the House of Burgesses).

George Washington was raised by a single mother. His father died young. The influence of his half-brother Lawrence, who was like a second father in some ways, was tremendous, but Lawrence also died young (at 36). The wealthy and well-connected Fairfax family took George under its wing and this was the first connection that would elevate young George's social rank and provide a life-long friendship and sense of family, it seems. Young George had lots of ambition in a time and society where rank and connections more than mattered: you couldn't get anywhere without them. Some of his early successes and improvements in station were due to dumb luck or the untimely death of others.

George consciously worked to control his temper and conceal his emotions to be a more effective leader.  Chernow quotes from Washington's letters to show him a man of passion and great feeling.  Early on Washington established what would become a life-long attitude of "disinterested service," meaning that he didn't want to look too ambitious even as he went after what he wanted. He also used corporal punishment on his soldiers (he ranks as an equal to some of the most brutal British officers for the number of lashings he'd order on a rule breaker) and eventually put to death by hanging those who deserted a second time (as a warning to others who were contemplating desertion). Desertion was a common problem. Washington owned slaves and his overseer lashed them as well.

What is most interesting (to me, anyway) is how Washington learns the Indian way of warfare--quick sneak attacks and then melting away into the forest--during a time when the British generals were still insisting on open field formation tactics in battle. I was aware of this learning curve from reading early American captivity narratives and other literature of the period. I didn't realize how stubborn the British army was about adapting these methods of warfare even when British subjects with experience fighting the Indians, such as Washington, tried to advise them. The French, on the other hand, learned quickly. George did his best to work within the power structure, but he soon started annoying politicians and generals and even going behind higher ups's backs to make his arguments. 

Washington realized he'd never get the royal commission that he sought due to the prejudice against colonial subjects serving in the army (regular British officers with royal commissions outranked colonial officers of a higher rank).  He resigned from the army after five years and decided to focus on his upcoming marriage to Martha, on Mt. Vernon, and on his new position in the House of Burgesses.

So far in his 26 years, Washington learned that the invincible British army was indeed defeatable, and that unity and cooperation among the colonies as well as a strong central leader was essential for success against larger enemies.

Chernow's writing style is relaxed and easy to read.  I hope the rest of the book will be as well balanced in presenting both the public and private side of George Washington.  My plan is to write a post on each of the parts that the book is broken into (there are six), so check back again soon if you're interested.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended years ago (I don't recall where or by whom)  for people who like Sarah Waters's 19th century novels (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith) of which I am a huge admirer.  I bought a copy of Slammerkin at Emma Donoghue's book signing at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL this last fall.  It's one of those books I was saving for when I knew I'd need a good, thickish book to dive into.

I didn't realize until I was more than halfway through it that Slammerkin is the fictionalized story of the life of a real girl--Mary Saunders--who at 16 or 17 was hanged for a crime she committed in 1764.  As Donoghue explains in her note at the end of the book, not much is known about the real Mary Saunders and I don't want to give away much about the plot, because, as with most historical fiction, part of the enjoyment is in the unfolding of the story.

Slammerkin is historical fiction at its finest.  It presents what seems to be a realistic picture of the period.  It is a dark book.  The copy that I have is the quality paperback edition with the new cover that came out around the time Donoghue's Room was published last year.  The blurb near the bottom is from the New York Times Book Review which calls Slammerkin, "A colorful romp of a novel . . . Impossible to resist."   Colorful, yes (there are many, many wonderful descriptions of clothing from the period and street scenes, along with brief shots of STD infections, abortions, and other un-sanitized realities of 18th century life).  And the novel was impossible for me to resist--I thought about it a lot when I wasn't reading it and read faster as bed time approached.  But I wouldn't call it a "romp of a novel."  Romp implies play and frolicking, not the hardscrabble life of a penniless 14-year old girl who is thrown into the streets of London by her own mother and turns to a life of prostitution.  So if you're into happy, feel-good historical fiction, this won't be your cup of tea.

Donoghue presents a decidedly un-romantic version of both city and rural life in 18th century England.  But there are great moments and whole scenes of hope.  Mary Saunders and many of the other characters in the novel are the sort that I found myself alternately cheering on or chastising.  Mary Saunders's first crime was wanting a better life for herself in a time when people were expected to accept their lot in life.  Liberty, servitude, slavery, class, choice, acceptance, denial, seeing, darkness, ambition, tradition, enlightenment, human nature . . . all of these themes and more are seamlessly woven throughout this 384 page book.

This is the second novel that I've read of Donoghue's and I appreciate her lack of preachiness toward her readers and lack of judgment upon her characters.  She seems to present nothing more than a story laid bare and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.  This is what makes her characters likable in one scene and annoying or disappointing in the next.  They're all very well rounded characters.

Slammerkin
Emma Donoghue
First published by Virago Press, 2000
Edition I read: Mariner Books (ISBN 978-0-15-600747-4)
Source: own it

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Books I didn't read in 2010 & Reading Plan for 2011

Happy New Year!  2010 was a great reading year for me.  Among my favorites released in 2010 were ROOM by Emma Donoghue, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, and Scars by Cheryl Rainfield.  Books that were released prior to 2010 that I loved were Every Man Dies Alone (1947) by Hans Fallada, The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak, and Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949 (1993) by Siegfried Knappe with Ted Brusaw.

There were so many books that I didn't get to, though, that are now on my To Be Read list.  Here's a handful that have been on my mind:
  • Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin
  • How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Most bookworms rejoice that there's just so many wonderful books out there to read and then lament the lack of time to read them all.  Working in a bookstore (or library) can make matters worse.  For over a decade I've come home after every shift with slips of paper in my pockets with notes to myself about specific books to read or a new author to investigate or some subject to research.  It's a great "problem" to have, no doubt.  For a while I was carrying a little notebook but I lost it.  Not to worry because I used to transcribe these notes into a spreadsheet on my computer, my master To Be Read list.  I am a dork.

But in 2011 I'm planning to be a bit more disciplined in my reading.  I want to read a bunch of classics that I haven't yet gotten around to as well as some hefty biographies & history books. I'm not a particularly fast reader and these days I dedicate morning time to my writing.  That leaves some time to read at lunch and then usually an hour or so in the evenings.  Sometimes I do get caught up in the number of books I read, especially at the end or beginning of a new year when friends announce they've read XXX number of books.  It's not competitiveness, its more like I feel like I'm missing something if I don't read more.  But I like to read slowly to experience a book, to give myself to a book.  I am happy with my reading speed.

Last week I started creating a month-by-month reading plan, but rebelled against myself within a couple days.  I need flexibility but some sort of standards.  So, in order to get to the books I want to read, I'm making some changes:
1.  I deleted that big master To Be Read spreadsheet.  I can't believe it, but I did it.  It's actually a load off my mind now.
2.  No more squirreling notes in my pockets about books to read--if a book doesn't stay on my mind, then it wasn't meant to be (at this time, anyway).  If, on the other hand, I keep coming back to it or it keeps crossing my path, I'll put it on my now much shorter To Be Read list.
3.  Keep the To Be Read list to 50 books.  If I add one I have to take another off.  This will allow for coming across new releases or new finds that become 'must read nows.'

In order to help me feel like I'm not missing something and just to be in the know of the book world, I'm also planning on reading book related periodicals more consistently in 2011.  My partner got me a subscription to Mystery Scene Magazine for Christmas.  I subscribe to The New York Times weekly Books Update email and also listen to their weekly book review podcast.  And I just purchased recent issues of: WLT: World Literature Today, the London Review of Books and the Jewish Review of Books.  I'll also read other book blogs a bit more regularly and will continue to listen to my favorite book podcasts such as the BBC World Book Club and Books on the Nightstand (BOTNS).

My classics reading will start in February with BOTNS's War & Peace read-a-long.  Check out the read-a-long website here or join their Facebook group here.   I may read Hawthorne's The House of The Seven Gables in January, but I haven't committed yet.

That's a lot of book stuff and I'm really excited to dig in!  Anyone out there make reading plans for 2011?
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