Masterpieces on Slavery and Occupied France, a Funny Books on a Nazi, Elspeth Huxley, John O’Hara–and more

By Benjamin Schwarz

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American Slavery
by Peter Kolchin
Hill and Wang 

The study of slavery is the glory of American historiography. No other aspect of our history has inspired scholarship of such sophistication and subtlety. (In fact, the single greatest work of U.S. history since the Second World War, Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, examines the world of the slaves.) And fittingly, no overview of any historical subject is more masterly, fair-minded, and elegant than Kolchin’s book. In less than 300 pages he elucidates, from the point of view of both the slaves and the slaveholders, the history of a protean institution that evolved radically, along with white and black attitudes, over two and a half centuries as it spread westward and responded to different agricultural and industrial needs. Recently the authors of a number of books on the subject, understandably appalled by its brutality, have produced little more than defiant indictments of human bondage, a topic about which there would seem already to be some moral agreement. In contrast, Kolchin’s approach is cool; he seeks to dissect and explain slavery rather than to expose and condemn it. This is especially important because he emphasizes a particularly fraught aspect of his subject: the intimate and intertwined relations between masters and slaves. He points out that the relatively high ratio of whites to blacks, along with the small size of plantations in the American South, constituted the most conspicuous difference between that slave society and those in other areas of the New World. These conditions usually assured intense day-to-day contact between slaves and slaveholders, in which master and slave often worked alongside each other in the fields, ate together, and worshipped in the same churches. Such relationships, of course, were hardly benign, and one can easily argue that American slavery—a system built on unlimited violence, in which affection and dependency flowed inevitably into hatred, brutality, and self-contempt—was all the more terrible for its paradoxes and moral entanglements. That institution, Kolchin reveals, fiercely bound two peoples together in bitter opposition, forging a relationship based on such ambivalence and interdependence that neither could convey the simplest emotions without referring to the other. Kolchin’s isn’t the only superb overview of slavery; John Boles’s Black Southerners, 1619-1869 examines this complex subject largely from the slaves’ perspective. Although Boles’s treatment of slave Christianity (and particularly of the interweaving of white and black Christianity) is even more astute than Kolchin’s, American Slavery is a richer survey, and is especially sophisticated in its comparative approach (Kolchin’s second book, Unfree Labor, explained the resemblances and differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom) and in its examination of the economics of slavery and its analysis of slave resistance. Originally published in 1993, the book has just been reissued in a second, revised edition with a new afterword and a thoroughly updated bibliographical essay of nearly fifty pages (the most astute and authoritative assessment of slavery scholarship that exists). Fluently written and a masterpiece of compression, this is one of the very few books that every American should own (it costs $14.00)—and read.

 

History

Marianne in Chains
by Robert Gildea
Metropolitan Books 

The German occupation during the Second World War remains the great blemish on the French nation and an episode that still engenders shame, bitterness, recrimination, and evasion. In this stunning work Gildea, a professor of modern European history at Oxford, attempts to move “beyond praise and blame” to explore the ever shifting lines between accommodation and defiance, cynicism and loyalty, and prudence and altruism that the French negotiated through their ordeal. He succeeds brilliantly. Unlike Julian Jackson’s recent history, France: The Dark Years, this isn’t a bureaucratic or political account; rather, Gildea examines the occupation on the ground, limiting his study to three departments in the Loire Valley, where he has meticulously and skeptically analyzed local archives (more than half the files he assessed had previously been closed) and the often contradictory testimony of surviving eyewitnesses. The complex picture that emerges will dismay those who like their history neat. The French devised informal but often clear rules for collaboration (drinking with a German officer at a bar was acceptable, but having him to dinner at one’s home was not), even as the distinction between cunning and treason remained blurry, and was often only a matter of timing, of “changing direction as the occasion demanded.” Provincial mayors saw collaboration to protect their communities as a patriotic duty, and by and large their charges were and remain grateful for their efforts. “Resistance” could be a cloak for thuggishness, and those members of the Resistance whose violent actions provoked reprisals against the local populace were and are often regarded by the community as irresponsible, if not criminal; and relations between occupier and occupied “were not always as brutal or even as one-sided as they have often been portrayed.” In his nuanced and intricate work of historical reconstruction Gildea has grappled heroically with the ambiguity at the heart of history and in the heart of man.

One Vast Winter Count
by Colin G. Calloway
Nebraska 

The first volume in the publisher’s new series History of the American West, this clearly written, monumental history of Native Americans and of white-Indian interaction in the trans-Appalachian West up to the beginning of the nineteenth century synthesizes a vast body of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical scholarship. It will long remain the authoritative treatment of its subject. Calloway briefly discusses western prehistory, but four fifths of his story concerns the region after the arrival of the Spanish, in the sixteenth century, and the volume is most detailed (not surprisingly, given the weight of the historical record) in its analysis of the impact of whites—especially the diffusion of horses and the development of horse culture—on Native American life and on relations among Indian groups. Specifically, Calloway focuses on the contact and collisions between Indians and the French in the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley, and of Indians and the Spanish in the Southwest. This, then, is primarily a frontier history, though Calloway emphasizes that the West contained a series of shifting frontiers, as Indian tribes and bands mingled and fought one another: the West, of course, was an arena of commerce, competition, expansion, and violence long before Europeans arrived. Each Indian community, Calloway’s history vividly shows, “existed at the center of a kaleidoscopic world and had to hold its place as surrounding pieces rearranged themselves in response to outside influences and internal pressures.”

Ribbentrop
by Michael Bloch
Abacus/Trafalgar Square 

Should one feel guilty about finding this definitive biography of Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister highly entertaining and often funny? A sardonic author, Bloch writes with exceptional grace and a sharp eye for the farcical—and his subject provides him with a wealth of material. Ribbentrop was a social-climbing champagne salesman who bumbled his way into Hitler’s inner circle relatively late, but thereafter his ascent was as rapid as it was ridiculous. By 1936 this anglophile had been appointed ambassador to London—Germany’s most crucial diplomatic posting. His tenure there did not go well. While presenting his credentials to George VI he gave the Nazi salute (such antics soon earned Ribbentrop the sobriquet “Ambassador Brickendrop” from the cartoonist David Low). Reflecting the consensus of the establishment, one British diplomat declared, “He says less in longer time than anyone I have met.” Sir Robert Vansittart found that Ribbentrop possessed “the sore vanity of a peacock in permanent moult.” Snubbed and resentful, Ribbentrop was soon declaring Britain Germany’s “most dangerous enemy,” and by the time of the Munich crisis he was urging war. When Hitler named him Foreign Minister, in 1938 (a title he held until 1945), he saw as one of his most urgent tasks the introduction of diplomatic uniforms, and he quickly had a theatrical costumer design a wardrobe of them. (Upon seeing Ribbentrop in one of his new outfits, Göring told him, “You look like the doorman at the Rio-Rita Bar.”) The most dramatic section of Bloch’s book authoritatively reconstructs Ribbentrop’s engineering of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which prompted Hitler to hail him as “a second Bismarck,” and which was probably the most stunning diplomatic volte-face in history. (Ribbentrop, Stalin, and Molotov negotiated and concluded the agreement in a mere thirteen hours. The swastika flags bedecking Moscow’s airport for Ribbentrop’s arrival had just been used in the Soviets’ anti-Nazi propaganda films.) Bloch presents a forceful case that Ribbentrop’s newly formed contempt for Britain caused the Second World War by provoking his repeated assurances to Hitler that the pusillanimous British and French wouldn’t fight over Poland. On the basis of that advice, Bloch suggests, Hitler invaded that country. This charge isn’t new (Ribbentrop’s rivals in the Third Reich blamed him for fumbling into war), but it isn’t convincing. Ribbentrop only confirmed Hitler in the course he would have followed anyway (and the conviction, shared by Hitler, that Britain would try to avoid living up to its commitment to defend Poland was by no means fanciful). Nevertheless, Bloch is a uniquely engaging narrative historian, and his use of biography to illuminate the most important diplomatic episodes in modern history is an enormous success.

 

Literary Studies

The Art of Burning Bridges
by Geoffrey Wolff
Knopf 

John O’Hara wrote more short stories for The New Yorker (more than 200) than any other writer in the magazine’s history. Nearly all of his total 402 are first-rate. Two dozen or so—”Imagine Kissing Pete,” “Graven Image,” and “Bread Alone” among them—are masterpieces. (The ever hostile Richard Wright pronounced “Bread Alone” “the only story about Negroes by a white author” that he liked.) In his first book, Appointment in Samarra, O’Hara managed to write one of the most precise and subtle novels of manners—and one of the most unbearably taut depictions of social, psychological, and moral collapse—in modern American literature. But O’Hara was in some sense, and in his own eyes, a failure. He never won the literary world’s admiration, for which he so pugnaciously hankered, and his work—especially the fat and sprawling novels, with their relentless accumulations of social minutiae, to which he dedicated the second half of his professional life—is now essentially forgotten. In this keen, stylish, and often acerbic portrait Geoffrey Wolff accounts unsparingly yet sympathetically for O’Hara’s (mostly self-induced) disappointments. O’Hara has been the recipient of three previous biographers’ exhaustive scrutiny, and Wolff has wisely chosen to rely greatly on their research in writing his far more impressionistic and imaginative life study. He is especially perceptive, and wickedly funny, regarding O’Hara’s obsessive fascination with the local and national WASP aristocracy (even if he at times too crudely conflates the two) and his attendant and perpetual sense of exclusion. And he makes clear just how social insecurity fueled O’Hara as an artist even though it hobbled him as a man. More than any other writer of the second half of the twentieth century, O’Hara was acutely sensitive to subtle social distinctions and to how these define—in fact, determine—character: “To read him on a fashionable bar,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.” But O’Hara masked that profound insecurity with an aggressive vanity that made him at once contemptible, risible, and pitiable. It’s impossible not to cringe at Wolff’s exquisite accounts of O’Hara’s efforts to buoy his ego (when A Rage to Live sold 100,000 copies, O’Hara insisted that Random House give him a cigarette box engraved with the words “… FROM HIS GRATEFUL PUBLISHERS AND THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND PURCHASERS … ,” which he had dictated himself), even as it’s impossible not to feel sorry for a writer consistently “dismissed, mocked, scolded, and almost always patronized,” as Wolff notes, by the magazine whose style he helped define. Just as readers begin to commiserate with O’Hara, though, Wolff forces them to remember that he was a famously mean drunk, in a world replete with mean drunks, who hit women and at least one midget (really). (In self-extenuation O’Hara offered an all too typical explanation: “Although I may often have felt like belting a woman, I have never actually taken a poke at one except in anger.”) But Wolff fails to emphasize sufficiently O’Hara’s stand-up renunciation in middle age of his drunken ways, a turnaround that permitted him to keep the regular schedule needed for the production of his ceaseless social chronicles. Wolff offers a remarkably sure and nuanced reading of O’Hara’s best work, and he’s obviously, and more or less justifiably, exasperated by such novels as Ten North Frederick,From the Terrace, and Ourselves to Know (to which he refers collectively and dismissively as “the tomes”). But in eschewing a considered discussion of the tomes, Wolff misses the one heroic aspect of O’Hara’s failure: O’Hara stubbornly shunned his gifts in pursuit of a genre that suited his ambitions and his interests. With the important exceptions of his choice of wives and his devotion to his daughter, he was a compulsively self-destructive man.

Elspeth Huxley
by C. S. Nicholls
St. Martin’s 

Best known for The Flame Trees of Thika, a highly fictionalized account of her Anglo-Kenyan childhood between the wars, Elspeth Huxley was an exceptionally hardworking commentator and writer whose forty-two works include detective stories, travel books, memoirs, biography (at twenty-eight she published a two-volume life of the British Kenyan pioneer Lord Delamere), polemics (her Race and Politics in Kenya was for years an essential text that anatomized the dilemmas posed by colonial rule), and novels (her harrowing depiction of female circumcision in Red Strangers so alarmed her publisher, the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, that he refused it). Nicholls’s quietly accomplished biography explores Elspeth’s marriage to Gervas Huxley (cousin of Aldous and Julian) and her close and combative bond with her mother (parent and child were equally brilliant and obstreperous), which was the central relationship of her life. But most important, Nicholls probes with great sensitivity Huxley’s literary and emotional attachment to Africa (despite extended regular visits, Huxley lived outside the continent all her adult life, but her early experiences there clearly defined her, and she remained forever entranced by it) and her complex and evolving views toward it and British rule there. Although, as the only female member of the 1960 Monckton Commission, which examined the future of British Africa, she endorsed a swift British withdrawal, critics charge that she was a “liberal apologist for white settlement.” This is a fair accusation, but Huxley’s qualified defense of the legacy of colonial rule was an entirely reasonable one. As Nicholls points out, that Huxley acknowledged that Africa had to be ruled (or misruled) by Africans did not diminish her sympathy for the white “men and women who introduced new farming methods into Kenya, and the … young officials who battled to administer regions as vast as small countries.” If this somewhat too thorough biography tells you more than you need to know, it’s also full of arresting details—such as Huxley’s expulsion from boarding school for running a horse-betting syndicate.

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