Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that’s because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It’s hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let’s just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history — more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven’t written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I’m scared to start. I have too much to say. I don’t know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong — no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don’t want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn’t what we need. We need historical vision. We don’t need new books to tell us that what we’ve learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we’ve learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I’ve read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution by Richard Slotkin
The early campaigns of the Federal army in the US Civil War went badly, and much of the trouble was General George McClellan’s refusal to move aggressively against the Confederate Army. Popular tales of this time portray President Abe Lincoln complaining angrily of his comically reluctant leader, who kept asking for more troops and more time before he would attack, and who was more concerned with keeping a safe path to retreat than in causing his enemies to retreat. The well-entrenched idea that McClellan’s leadership suffered from an excess of caution is wrong.
The Long Road to Antietam delves into the extensive written record of the Union general to prove that McClellan was actually motivated to defy Lincoln’s orders because of political differences. He was deeply committed to the kinds of views regarding slavery and secession that the Democratic Party held. He was against the idea of emancipation, and wished for eventual reconciliation with the Confederates. Lincoln’s Republican Party advocated a harder line against slavery and against the secessionists of the South, and it was the President’s bad luck to have to rely on the military leadership of a conceited general who objected to his political goals. McClellan did not want to decisively defeat the Confederates on the battlefield, but rather wished for a stalemate that would strongly favor the North but spare the South from bitter humiliation.
This book also describes the drama leading to the Second Battle of Manassas, and lays out a strong case that McClellan, stung at the promotion of his rival John Pope, purposely sabotaged the Union position at Manassas by failing to follow orders to support Pope. As a Civil War buff, I thought I knew who George McClellan was before I read The Long Road to Antietam, but I now see him as more sinister than I realized, as well as more consequential (this is borne out, I suppose, by his run for President in 1864, which thankfully did not persuade voters).
And yet virtually every popular overview of the Civil War spreads the cliche that McClellan was a hesitant and indecisive leader, rather than a decisively disloyal one. Why do our popular historians maintain this fiction? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s just a matter of good storytelling; the rich story of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War needs clearly defined sides, and the fact that George McClellan may have been a Benedict Arnold just muddies up the plotline too much.
Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation by Paul Kriwaczek
Yiddish Civilization is a broad history of the Jewish people in the European (Ashkenazi) diaspora, and it contains several revelations. Among the most surprising are the chapters about the Commonweath of Poland and Lithuania, a once vitally important presence in Central Europe, and a land with a significant and powerful Jewish presence. The progress of this thriving and highly cultured society was devastated by the partitions of Poland by Prussia, Austria and Russia in the late 18th centuries. It was after the slow but total collapse of the Commonwealth — a union of the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania — that the Jewish shtetl society so well-known to us from depictions such as Fiddler on the Roof began to emerge.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then, is where my own ancestors are from — and yet I realized after relishing these chapters that I know nothing — nil, nada, absolutely nothing — about the history of Poland. I asked around and found out that nobody else knows anything about the history of Poland either. I went to Barnes and Noble and tried to find a book about the history of Poland. There are none. There are four hundred books about World War II and another four hundred about the US Civil War, but there is not a single book about the history of Poland in a typical American bookstore. Why? With our large Jewish and Polish populations, this is our own story.
Breaking Open Japan broke open my mind — at least as far as my understanding of World War Two and the Japanese side of the story leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor goes. This book does not apologize for Pearl Harbor (a conservative friend at work saw me carrying around this book, and when I told him what it was about he mumbled sarcastically “so it was all our fault, eh?”) but it does fill me in on what happened ninety years earlier when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of black ships.
Feifer piercingly describes the humiliation and devastation that Perry’s invasion caused all over Japan. It led to the fall of the government, and to the beginnings of a new militarization that would bear fruit in 1941. I’ll never think about Japan the same way again after reading this book.
None of these three books are considered “revisionist history” — not by a longshot. They are simply history books, written by traditional and established historians. But they do point out the ways in which we don’t see what is obviously in front of us.
History is on my mind this weekend because I’m going to devote the entire next week on Litkicks to an important historical anniversary that has nothing to do with any of the three historical periods mentioned above. This historical moment revolves around a single figure who was once a gigantic celebrity in the United States of America, as well as a great subject for controversy.
This person is now largely forgotten by history — not, again, for any clear reason, other than our natural human failure to know history very deeply at all. This anniversary should be widely discussed in popular media — yet I wonder if it will be mentioned anywhere at all except here on Litkicks.
We shall see if this anniversary gets mentioned anywhere else, and please do stay tuned to find out what the hell I’m talking about, unless you can already guess.