Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reading List: A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
by Barbara W. Tuchman

Let me just begin with a naive statement: I believed that this was a newer book than it actually is. It was published in 1978, but it held such a prominent place in the bookstore I used to work at, I assumed it had to have been a more recent publication, since by and large, most older books in bookstores are found in the literary departments. There are certainly exceptions, and apparently A Distant Mirror is one of them. (Tuchman, by the way, is probably better known for The Guns of August, just so you know that I know.) Anyway, history has always been a fascinating subject to me, something school (even in college) never really seemed to vindicate for me, since most teachers are bent on drilling facts rather than allowing them to soak in. (Oh, to have been a history major at an institution that allowed me to immerse myself in the subject. That seems to be a privilege not available to me, except on my own time.) Tuchman examines what she considers to be a signal moment in time, one she believed mirrored (hence the title) the horrors of the 20th century, so that the reader will truly come to appreciate what life was like in the Middle Ages. Perhaps not surprisingly, I'm finding it to be fascinating.

Thoughts on The Glorious Cause

There are only a handful of subjects that endlessly fascinate Americans, and they all involve wars. The Civil War, obviously, is a leading contender, and there's also WWII, the Vietnam War, and probably the War on Terror. This was a trend started by how the nation began, the Revolutionary War.

Jeff Shaara's The Glorious Cause details how that war was won, and is essentially a look at how George Washington managed to become the Father of His Country, even though at the time he was one of the least popular figures of the country, thrust into the thankless role of commander-in-chief of an army that barely existed simply because he had the most visible experience. Time and time again, he was forced to retreat, which was a curious gesture for those seeking victory and gallant figures. Shaara may inadvertently contrast Washington with Benjamin Franklin, actually, who is a legend in his own time, the toast of France as lead negotiator for an alliance that eventually leads to Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris.

Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, naturally, author of The Killer Angels, which at one time became more famous as the basis for the film Gettysburg, and the template for how Jeff would launch a similar career writing historical fiction describing American wars and the personalities who dominated them. In The Glorious Cause, he seeks to remind readers of lost or misunderstood figures, though Washington towers above them all, just as he did (he was a very tall man) in life. For what he sets out to do, Shaara certainly succeeds, and it's a riveting, breathtaking read. You know how it ends, but you may not know exactly how it happened.

There are no notes to support the story, which was a little odd for me, because I'm used to that in nonfiction writing, even though I don't always scour them, or read through the sources. There's a sense that Shaara did do his homework, but the fact that he didn't show his work deprives us of more than he might have assumed. It's already a long work and meant for a wide audience, but it would have been nice to see how he reached his conclusions. His characterizations are vivid, but there's no way to know how accurate he actually is.

Having recently read a biography of John Adams, for instance, I read Shaara's depiction of Franklin with some bemusement, since it's a dismissive of Adams as it is ready to embrace the reputation of Franklin. And though we follow Washington's miseries, Shaara quickly transitions to everyone's knowledge of his happy vindication, so that there's no sense of how that managed to happen.

One almost has the sense that he should write another book about the later careers of Washington, Cornwallis, and Lafayette, for instance, that would be more interesting, since for the majority of The Glorious Cause, he tracks military campaigns with more vigor than he writes about the people who experience them, which is half the point.

I appreciate what Shaara accomplishes here (and no doubt in all his other similar books, which no doubt closely follow the pattern set by his father), yet I see where he could do himself one better. Again, this is what editors are for. They're supposed to encourage the best instincts already inherent in a writer, which in turn encourage the best results. These are good results. I see the possibility of better.
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