A Foreign Country


By Benjamin Schwarz


HistoryBookHistory“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When reviewing history books I find myself quoting L. P. Hartley’s observation with annoying frequency, hoping that it will serve as an injunction to writers and a reminder to readers. History and historical biography have never been more popular, but many of the titles that appeal to educated general readers lack complexity and intellectual verve. The main reason for this is discomfort with the foreignness of the past among both the producers and the consumers of history books. Too many authors of recent popular works about the Founders, for instance, are obviously not at home in the eighteenth century. Their grasp of its religion, attitudes, mores, manners, and intellectual climate is unsure, and they lack command of the ideological, political, sectional, and social differences that divided the early republic. To me, their protagonists come off as guys in powdered wigs. But a still greater problem with reflexively approaching history in terms of the present is that it often leads to praising or condemning the past rather than comprehending it. Take the issue of the Founders and slavery. Readers and popular authors usually adopt one of two opposite but erroneous postures. Either they apply twenty-first-century standards and castigate the slave-owning Founders as racists and hypocrites, or—worse—they see those Founders as modern liberals who just happened to own slaves. Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson subscribed to a system built on unlimited violence and were willing to order that men and women be beaten or maimed to ensure that they served their masters’ will.That these men were, in Jefferson’s words, “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny” may or may not mean they were evil (a question really beyond the purview of the historian), but it certainly means that their psychology and outlook were in essential ways deeply alien to our own. Sophisticated history neither comforts readers nor seeks to arouse their righteous indignation. Rather, it reveals to them other ways of looking at and understanding the world and the human condition; it vexes them and stirs them from their complacency—be it moral, temporal, or psychological. Here are a new and two recently reissued history books, on very different subjects, that do just that.

The Stripping of the Altarsby Eamon Duffy (Yale). The winners define the past. For 400 years the British popular andimages-12 scholarly minds, possessed by Protestant and Whiggish triumphalism, believed that superstition, a disengaged laity, a corrupt priesthood, and pagan accretions had enervated the late-medieval English Church—and thus ripened it for reformation, a process embraced by the people. This vigorous and eloquent book, a work of daring revision and a masterpiece of the historical imagination, utterly transformed that thinking in 1992, when it was first published (this just-released second edition incorporates some scholarly qualifications, but Duffy’s interpretation in its essential aspects stands). At once meticulous and lush, The Stripping of the Altars patiently and systematically recovers the lost world of medieval English Catholicism. Brilliantly examining the abundant art-historical evidence along with an array of documents from liturgical books to wills, Duffy, a historian at Cambridge, constructs an elaborate portrait of ordinary people’s rich and vital religious life, characterized by the web of festivals, rituals, and images that bound their society together. He focuses not on doctrine and institutions but instead on the externals of religion (sacraments and ceremonies, altars, processions, lights, and images), conveying how liturgy—”that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture”—shaped believers’ “perception of the world and their place in it.” By taking this alien world seriously, on its own terms, he reveals to modern readers the power and pull of its distinctive religious culture. But while the first two thirds of this book is a deeply textured work of historical anthropology, the last third is a gripping narrative history, as Duffy traces the way the English Reformation (a process supported by a tiny minority, and deeply if ineffectively opposed by a population cowed by the new and crushing force of the monarchy) eradicated a thousand years of tradition and ritual. (He rightly emphasizes the psychological and spiritual impact of Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s lavish devastation of the physical culture of the late-medieval Church—a point Margaret Aston made memorably in her England’s Iconoclasts, but which Duffy vividly brings home with his discerning and disturbing photographs of whitewashed frescoes and smashed and defaced statues, stained glass, shrines, and altars.) Duffy’s most significant contribution by far is to elucidate the fragility of even deeply rooted ways of life: he convincingly demonstrates that for better or worse, the Reformation was “a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past”—a past that over merely three generations became a distant world, impossible for them to look back on as their own. A wholly compelling book (it was a best seller in the UK), this will appeal to any reader who wants to enter and understand another world (and isn’t that why we read in the first place?). After you finish it, Shakespeare’s haunting line from Sonnet 73, about the destruction of the monasteries—”Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”(which, astonishingly, Duffy resists quoting)—will resonate as never before.

2cm61The Mind of the Master Classby Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese (Cambridge). This country’s greatest living historian, Eugene D. Genovese has for more than forty years been analyzing with penetration and subtlety nearly every facet of American slavery: its economics; its ideology; its place in the national and global markets; the life, character, and culture of the slaves; slave rebellion and resistance throughout the New World; and the world view of the slaveholders—a subject to which he has returned throughout his career and which he scrutinizes here with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (who has written, among other works, Within the Plantation Household, a finely shaded study of the tangled and fraught relations between women slaveholders and women slaves). Genovese has doggedly pursued the truth for as long as necessary and regardless of its ramifications. His ultimate ambition has been to write the definitive study of southern slaveholders (of which this book will undoubtedly form the largest single part), but to fulfill that goal he had first to fathom the world of the slaves. In doing so, Genovese, then a Marxist and an atheist, was compelled to accept that Christianity formed the core of slave life; despite his predispositions, he therefore made it the cynosure of his study. That study amounted to a ten-year “detour,” which resulted in Roll, Jordan, Roll, the most insightful book ever written about American slaves and the most lasting work of American historical scholarship since the Second World War.

Since completing that detour Genovese has been laying the groundwork for this long-awaited book in articles and monographs on topics ranging from legal history to theology, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife (they collaborated on the theoretically daring and sophisticated essays collected in Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism). A work brilliant but at times exasperating, always tough-minded, often mischievous, and occasionally disappointing, the 800-plus-page The Mind of the Master Class is impossibly rich—the authors probe an astonishing variety of nearly always recondite subjects, including elite slaveholders’ ideas about the Gracchi, David Hume’s History of England, and the French Revolution—but its scope is in fact narrower than its title implies.

Unlike the opening section of Roll, Jordan, Roll, a tour de force that surveyed diaries, plantation records, and letters to delineate the paternalistic ideology, attitudes, and practices of elite slaveholders (although 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, Genovese, a good Gramscian, has always focused on the wealthiest planters, holding that this “master class” largely determined the values of the society it ruled), this book defines their “mind” by analyzing the writings of antebellum southern intellectuals—a cosmopolitan, highly educated, remarkably capable group of political economists, classicists, jurists, politicians, historians, writers, political theorists, theologians, and ministers.

But the extent to which intellectuals reflect the attitudes of the society, even the elite society, in which they’re embedded is always problematic, and perhaps especially so in the antebellum South (as Michael O’Brien carefully points out in his recent Bancroft Prize—winning work about many of the very same southern intellectuals, Conjectures of Order). Moreover, this book hardly presents a comprehensive rendering of the nabobs’ world view: the Genoveses tantalizingly refer to “volumes now in draft” that will assess many of the most essential and controversial aspects of the slaveholding intellectuals’ concepts, including their critique of capitalism, their proslavery ideology, and the acceptance of that ideology by political leaders and the clergy.

In this volume the authors illuminate in their characteristically energetic prose the myriad ways in which the master-slave relationship “permeated the lives and thought” not merely of elite slaveholders but of their whole society. In doing so they elucidate the master class’s deeply learned relationship to Christianity and to history (especially classical culture), which in turn highlights the tension between tradition and modernity in antebellum southern thought. Their chronicle attests to the Genoveses’ more general view of the Old South as a non-capitalist society increasingly hostile to but inseparable from “the expanding capitalism from which it was born.” Among its many contributions it provides significant and powerful support to the now academically unfashionable argument that the antebellum North and South were separate cultures with divergent political, economic, moral, and religious values; a work of searching historical anthropology, it reveals a profoundly alien society and culture. The Genoveses have accomplished the most difficult and intellectually imaginative feat of the historian: they have allowed us to understand the past on its own terms.

Some critics would charge that they’ve done more than that. Here, as elsewhere in their work, although the Genoveses don’t shrink from the enormities inherent in slavery, they nevertheless declare (somewhat ostentatiously) that they “do not disguise … our respect for the slaveholders … nor do we disguise our admiration for much in their character and achievements.” But to indict the authors for what is now called insensitivity (and they will be so indicted) is to ignore the psychological acuity and tragic sensibility that they bring to their subject. In defining the slaveholders’ peculiar characteristics and world view, the Genoveses dissect the graciousness and generosity, the noblesse oblige and courage, the frankness and sense of ease, that were entirely common. Nevertheless, they are at pains to show that slaveholding wasn’t a flaw in an otherwise admirable makeup but was intrinsic to that makeup—that is, they make plain that the admirable grew out of the loathsome (a pattern all too familiar to students of southern history).

Hence they open their book with Santayana’s remark “The necessity of rejecting and destroying some things that are beautiful is the deepest curse of existence.” True, they convincingly argue that a paternalist ethos often mitigated slavery; they reveal that the master class internalized Christian and chivalric values, which, they chillingly write, made its members “less dangerous human beings”; they demonstrate that in defending the peculiar institution southern theologians consistently bested their northern opponents in biblical exegeses (the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jesus didn’t condemn slavery, and Paul and other New Testament writers sanctioned it); they show that slaveholders subscribed to “a code that made the ultimate test of a gentleman the humane treatment of his slaves”—but at the same time, in their explication of the psychology of slaveholding, which emerges from their deep and nuanced grasp of Christian doctrine, the authors upend the arguments of the slaveholders and of their modern apologists.

They repeatedly dismiss as “psychologically naïve” the notion that slaveholders (able, though not licensed, to give free rein to their tempers and impulses) would invariably treat their slaves well because it was in their pecuniary interest to do so. While they admit the intellectual rigor and sincerity of the slaveholding theologians’ arguments, they simultaneously suggest the vacuity of those arguments: as Christians the slaveholders acknowledged that men are weak and sinful creatures who if given absolute power will abuse it. Because slavery perforce granted masters such power, the Bible, although it didn’t condemn slavery, did condemn the sins that grew inevitably from it (C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters”). In exploring their terrible and complex subject with honesty and sympathy, the authors have grappled heroically with the ambiguity at the heart of history and in the heart of man.

Crazy Horseby Mari Sandoz (Nebraska). Sandoz, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, was born in 1896 on a homestead in250px-RedDogDrawing northwestern Nebraska, a region Crazy Horse and his band had roamed just decades before. Growing up listening to the stories of old Indians and plainsmen, she developed an uncanny receptivity to the Indian perspective and way of life, which in her writing she married to exhaustive research. (She had been a researcher at the Nebraska State Historical Society, and in preparation for this book, first published in 1942, she immersed herself in all the relevant archives. In 1930 she journeyed 3,000 miles through Sioux country, interviewing friends and relatives of her subject and witnesses to the events she chronicled; Indians who were averse to talking with other whites would usually speak freely to her.) She conceived this densely packed story of Crazy Horse and his people, and of the epic struggle between whites and Indians on the northern Plains, with the eye of an ethnologist. Writing from an Indian point of view and in Indian language patterns (she used the same devices in Cheyenne Autumn, her immensely sad chronicle of the doomed flight of a small band of Cheyenne from their hated Oklahoma reservation to their homeland in Montana in 1878—1879), Sandoz displayed an exquisite sensitivity to the spiritual and cultural impact of landscape and topography, and intensely conveyed the emotional, psychological, and religious universe of the Plains Indians. (In the introduction to this new edition the Indian writer and activist Vine Deloria Jr., who is famously critical of white anthropologists, avers that Sandoz “captured nuances that only a few would know and understand.”) That sensitivity makes this, the most accomplished biography of Crazy Horse and one of the best and most moving books ever written about the American West, a strange, often unsettling work.


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