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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Guess what? This post is not going to contain a single picture. So, I suppose I’m going to have to write a thousand words to make up for it. Or, using that formula, and taking into consideration the last post contained ten pictures, that’s, what….ten thousand words. At an average of 250 words a page that’s, what…forty pages. That may be a bit too much, so I’ll cut everybody, including myself, a break and keep this piece at a reasonable length.

Guess what? There’s no mention of a certain river in this post. I feel like I’ve been trailing a certain ribbon of water virtually every weekend for the past two months, from West Virginia and down both the Maryland and Virginia sides. There is going to be more in the future, simply because of the role a certain river played in places I visited, but not today. I need to somehow get Roger McGuinn out of my head, because the “Ballad of Easy Rider” keeps floating through my head. “The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be; flow, river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town.” Or maybe it’s Eric Anderson’s “Blue River,” that keeps haunting me.

Guess what? I’m just about halfway through my latest commuting book, i.e. the one I read going to and from Washington on the Metro train. I picked up Walter McDougall’s “Throes of Democracy, The American Civil War Era 1829-1877,” because he’s going to be appearing with Drew Gilpin Faust (“Republic of Suffering”) and Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “March,” next Tuesday evening at a book seminar sponsored by the Washington Post. Out of curiosity I checked Amazon. Faust’s book ranked 1,771st, McDougall’s placed at number 8,061, while Brooks checked in at 193,158. I couldn’t resist the comparison. “The Civil War Research Guide” was nicely situated at number 239,234. Hmmm. I wonder what would happen if I purchased say,… a hundred copies….

Guess what? McDougall can write. I know that sounds like a stupid remark, but most historians can’t, write, that is. I mean really write. As a whole, the best of them write well, but, they’re not writers. I’ve mentioned this before, but the best histories I’ve ever read were from non-historians. Of course some people would then argue if it wasn’t written by a historian then it’s not history. With all due reverence to certain reknowned historians, and without mentioning names, they're not in the same league with historical writers like, say, Nathaniel Philbrick. I suppose, too, it depends on the preference of the reader; straight fact telling versus some creative writing style interjected into the story being conveyed. But, as someone recently reminded me, without creating scenarios that didn't exist, or imagining conversations that never occurred.

Guess what, though? If you want to take a rollicking ride through history then pick up McDougall’s book. It’s entertaining, fascinating, irreverent, and great fun as he skewers virtually every American politician, personality, and institution in the era he writes about. This on Henry David Thoreau, for example:

[Emerson’s] most representative disciple was the bathetic David Henry Thoreau (he transposed his given name). When Emerson settled in Concord, he invited Thoreau – a timid, tubercular, Harvard-trained teacher – to join his household and pursue a literary career. Thoreau made a minor splash in the magazine trade, thanks to assistance from Horace Greely, but won lasting fame by camping out at Walden Pond in 1845-1847. Thoreau’s self-reliance was less than heroic. He went into town almost every day, sponged off friends, and hosted regular picnics at his cabin. Mountain men such as Jim Bridger would have guffawed at the pretense…Thoreau in fact experienced very little of life. He never married, and never traveled beyond the Northeast. His greatest adventure was spending one night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. Even his signature essay “Civil Disobedience” was ignored until after his death.

Thoreau was standoffish and timid…Caroline Sturgis Tappan likened him to a porcupine. Emerson thought him fit only to lead a huckleberry party…”

Obviously if you’re a Thoreau fan you’re going to clench your teeth and wait for McDougall to walk underneath a window so you can drop his book on his head. But it’s an example whereby no cow is sacred. However, if a buck could be made off a cow, then P.T. Barnum was the guy. Barnum’s never been labeled a visionary, but he laid the groundwork for all the hucksters who now appear regularly on early morning infomercials when he wrote his book “Rules for Money-Making,” which according to McDougall “became a model for all who get rich by professing to teach others how to get rich.” The words, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” by the way, were not Barnum’s, but rather belonged to a Chicago gambler named Mike McDonald.

Coincidentally I had an email yesterday from someone I hadn’t heard from in a while. They’re in the middle of “Republic of Suffering,” and labeled it one of the most thought provoking and depressing books they’ve read in a long time.


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