Lee and Sherman, plus the Morality of the Civil War and a Bleak Take on Israel

By Benjamin Schwarz

April 2006 Atlantic


Fever, by Peter Richmond (Holt) Peggy Lee was “too good for her own good,” as the jazz critic George Hoefer discerned in 1959 (a remark quoted in this book, though it’s misattributed to John Tynan). The range of her talents and the reach of her appeal obscured her extraordinary accomplishments and somewhat dented her prestige. Listeners won over by her gigantic pop hits were at a loss when she returned, as she always did, to her jazz roots. But some jazz purists shunned her because of such crossover recording successes as “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “Mañana,” and the songs in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp—all of which she wrote. Lee, of course, was one of the first great singer-songwriters (she amassed more than 200 composing credits). She was also among her era’s finest recording artists (with her 1956 Black Coffee, which epitomized world-weary sophistication for a generation, she pioneered the “concept album”). She was, moreover, the greatest chanteuse of her age (her minimalist and confessional style perfectly suited the intimacy of the nightclub, and her act at Ciro’s in the 1940s and, above all, her engagement at Basin Street East in the winter of 1961 remain legendary). She was, as Hoefer declared, simply “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey.”

Peggy Lee, of course, was one of the first great singer-songwriters (she amassed more than 200 composing credits). She was also among her era’s finest recording artists (with her 1956 Black Coffee, which epitomized world-weary sophistication for a generation, she pioneered the “concept album”). She was, moreover, the greatest chanteuse of her age (her minimalist and confessional style perfectly suited the intimacy of the nightclub, and her act at Ciro’s in the 1940s and, above all, her engagement at Basin Street East in the winter of 1961 remain legendary). She was, as Hoefer declared, simply “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey.”

To some, this is like being declared the best Jewish player in the NBA. But in fact Lee interpreted the urbane lyrics of the American songbook with a knowingness, a resigned wit, a refined intelligence, a quizzical irony—conspicuous already in her first recording triumph, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with the Benny Goodman Band—that Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday could not approach. On stage she didn’t emote; she arched an eyebrow. The introspective, slightly New Agey, domestically oriented Lee also led an unusual life for a female entertainer of her time. Many of her closest friends were men—Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer (her mentor as a lyricist), Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra (only with the last was she romantically linked). For a good part of her career, she was a single mother. Her unremarkable 1989 autobiography (which, alas, she insisted on authoring without the aid of a ghost writer) revealed little about the nature of those friendships or her experiences raising her daughter, although it was famously direct, if understandably opaque, regarding her traumatic childhood on the plains of North Dakota (Lee’s father was an amiable but ineffectual alcoholic; her stepmother beat her with sadistic regularity). This book, which perforce draws heavily on Lee’s, adds little to that picture.

Richmond, though, firmly grasps Lee’s musicianship, even if his sound judgments often lack specificity (he doesn’t, for instance, assess precisely the enduring influence of the Goodman Band, for which she was the canary from 1941 to 1943, on her phrasing and technique, although he rightly and astutely acknowledges her 1942 recording with the band of “Where or When”—the loveliest rendition ever of that supremely lovely song—as a landmark of her “maturing style”). But he fails to put Lee—in many ways as emblematic of mid-century America’s cultural and sexual style as was Sinatra—in a broader context, in the way that Gary Giddins brilliantly did for Bing Crosby. Musicians, for the most part, leave scant documentary records. So a great biography, like Giddins’s, must be as much a cultural history as a life history. Five singers warrant that sort of treatment: Armstrong, Holiday, Crosby, Sinatra, and Lee. Only one has yet received it.

Marching_through_GeorgiaUpon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout (Viking).This book’s subtitle will provoke some confusion. The work isn’t a consideration of the ultimate justice of the conflict (the author blithely takes that complex proposition for granted), nor does it primarily explore the war’s relationship to slavery. Rather, Stout applies ethical standards to the prosecution of the war. This can at times be a tiresome exercise, but it yields some refreshing and unsettling (albeit often unintended) insights into the most probed of America’s conflicts, and into aspects of this country’s moral narcissism, which much of the rest of the world has frequently found at best puzzling and at worst insufferable. First, though, one must acknowledge the book’s many and egregious faults.

Stout may be among the foremost historians of American Christianity, but his book is yet further proof that the professoriat has no business teaching the country’s youth how to write. The diffuse, 550-plus-page tome is riddled with sloppy diction (he writes of the “enormity” of the achievement of abolition) and ham-handed prose (the “Civil War may have ended with a whimper, but ongoing debates … contain a good bit of bang”). Stout gives lengthy potted histories of most of the war’s campaigns and major battles, leaving the poor reader to attempt to discern what all these unfocused accounts have to do with the often slackly developed contentions—more often gestured at than argued—that the author advances.

Still, both Stout’s sensitivity to religious rhetoric and the spiritual and ethical lens through which he examines the war allow him to show, if not really to explicate, how the North’s understanding of its purpose bequeathed to the country a muddled, missionary civic religion, which “sacralized” the American state and “elevat[ed] America as its own religion.” During the conflict, this evolving civic religion provided a “moral high ground,” which justified any military action; indeed, questions about the war’s just conduct went all but unasked. (Lincoln is the chief culprit in this development. An honest progressive should acknowledge that if George W. Bush were to deliver Lincoln’s lofty but gaseous and quasi- mystical Second Inaugural Address, said progressive would castigate that speech as, well, gaseous and quasi- mystical—and as evidence of a president’s dangerous belief in America’s messianic destiny. Then again, Lincoln is clearly Stout’s hero, so the question of what, precisely, Stout makes of that civic religion is among the many things left frustratingly vague in his book.)

The Second World War and the North’s Civil War are enshrined as America’s Good Wars, so Stout’s dogged and somewhat repetitious efforts to remind readers of the often useless battlefield slaughter that marked the conflict may have the happy effect of ruffling some Civil War buffs and those pseudo-tough-guy liberal historians who hail the struggle as an abolitionist crusade. But in fact their time would be better spent with the war writings of Ambrose Bierce, the Yankee combat veteran, whose sardonic, grotesque, hallucinatory sensibility, married to a severe and precise prose style, permitted him to depict the war as a murderous enterprise without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose—a rendition far more honest than either the North’s sanctimonious notion of the Battle Cry of Freedom or the South’s romantic idea of the Lost Cause.

Stout’s chronicle focuses on the conduct of the invading army, as it were, and he asserts that the North’s pursuit of unconditional victory produced a “total war” that deliberately targeted civilians (about 50,000 Southern civilians perished in the war). It’s debatable whether, as Stout contends, the Civil War was in fact a harbinger of the twentieth century’s far more total wars (the practice of targeting the civilian population that supports a rival’s war effort is at least as old as the Peloponnesian War). But our Civil War, like most civil wars and all wars for national survival, was a harsh and limitless struggle—and, as the first industrialized war, was unprecedentedly so. Stout’s rehearsals of Sheridan’s rampage through the Shenandoah and of Sherman’s March to the Sea (and his less known—to Yankees, anyway—swing northward through South Carolina) are, properly, portraits of remorseless yet purposeful destruction. But Stout’s indictment of the North’s actions is somewhat quaint and otherworldly.

To be sure, if the Union’s conflict was primarily a sacred—or at least a progressive—war (as Stout, somewhat contradictorily, seems to believe), then Sheridan’s and Sherman’s actions certainly sullied it. But if, as Sherman held, the North fought not to advance some uplifting cause but to defend and advance specific and crucial national interests, then it would inevitably do whatever was necessary to subdue its mortal foe. Indeed, the best rejoinder to Stout’s occasionally flatulent, ivory-tower moralizing is Sherman’s own stark, pellucid Memoirs. In this work, in contrast to Lincoln’s theistic, missionary zeal, the general who offered scandalously lenient terms to the defeated South recounts his wartime insistence that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it” and that God played no part in the conflict; and he reprints his enjoinder: “When preachers clamor … don’t join in, but know that war, like the thunderbolt, follows its own laws, and turns not aside even if the beautiful, the virtuous and charitable stand in its path.”

Those who can take their history without self-congratulation, and who can abjure the enticement of regarding the Civil War as a “treasury of virtue,” as Robert Penn Warren put it, should read instead Bierce and Sherman and, above all, the greatest book that will ever be written on the war, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, in which the author sought coolly “to disregard the pretensions to moral superiority with which we have attempted to clothe it.”

The notion that America is the “indispensable nation,” obliged to inflict its conscience upon the world, has long been in fashion among liberals and neoconservatives, Democrats and Republicans, a fact that may help explain why so many scholarly historians—academic chicken hawks—join in the Battle Cry of Freedom with gusto when writing about the Civil War. So it’s an especially apt time to read these other men, who knew that war is at best a defensive necessity, never a civilizing exercise. They grasped that war, even—or perhaps especially—a war in the name of morality, brutalizes all, and that when John Quincy Adams admonished his countrymen to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” it was for fear of the monster we may create at home.

Scars of War, Wounds of Peaceby Shlomo Ben-Ami (Oxford). Because it’s a bracing and honest history of the Arab-Zionist confrontation, this071202-A-3715G-215 book will displease partisans of both sides. But unconditional supporters of Israel will find both its challenges to many of the country’s founding myths and its frequently severe appraisals of Israeli policies over the past half century especially disconcerting, because its author, a trained historian, was also Israel’s minister of foreign affairs. Although Ben-Ami should be praised for his unsparing account, readers looking for a clear-eyed narrative of this fraught and intricate subject should turn instead to Benny Morris’s astringent, nuanced, and superbly written Righteous Victims, which remains the peerless chronicle.

Ben-Ami’s work, which incorporates the more sober and responsible insights of Israeli revisionist scholars, covers the period from the late nineteenth century to the present, but it concentrates on Arab-Israeli relations since the 1980s, and especially on the already well-chronicled story of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the Oslo Accords to the failed 2000 Camp David talks (in which he was a participant). Moreover, although he writes clearly when recounting long-past events and long-dead figures (he fashions an especially astute appraisal of David Ben-Gurion), Ben-Ami lapses into nebulous diplo-blah-blah (“an international alliance for peace … was needed in order to articulate a new peace paradigm”) when analyzing events in which he was an actor.

Still, his assessments are often spot-on: he correctly emphasizes that Israel’s basic motivation for erecting the separation barrier was to forestall the danger of a Palestinian demand for a “one-state solution”; he cogently argues that it was only unbending and even aggressive Israeli behavior—behavior he often judges harshly—that forced the Arab world to reconcile itself to the Jewish state; and he nicely highlights the historical continuities in Zionist-Palestinian relations, specifically the geographic and demographic realities that, after more than a century, still render impossible an accommodation between the two peoples.

Indeed, this is, rightly, a bleak book. Ben-Ami seems to grasp the dire long-term prospects confronting the Jewish state (owing to those vexing geographic and demographic realities), and his only way out is an international scheme to negotiate and supervise a new partition of Palestine (led by—you guessed it—the United States), which would necessitate a large peacekeeping force. Yet just over four years ago, Ben-Ami presciently acknowledged that it’s “not improbable” (!) that radical Islamists will gain power in Palestine, “possibly even democratically” (!)—which means that the likelihood that “the international community” will police that dangerous and volatile neighborhood is virtually nil.

Israelis convincingly argue that the anarchic and hostile Palestinian factions don’t present a partner for peace, but even less do they present a partner for peacemakers. Which leaves Jerusalem, much to Ben-Ami’s understandable dismay, unilaterally erecting the barrier (a solution that obviates some of the Jewish state’s pressing tactical problems, even as it promises to exacerbate its—admittedly, seemingly insoluble—strategic ones).

Although Isabel Kershner, senior editor of The Jerusalem Report, has over the years written some of the most crisply intelligent journalistic analyses of Israeli-Palestinian relations to appear anywhere, her book, Barrier (Palgrave), takes a human-interest approach. The result is a sometimes vivid but more often stale series of sketches that don’t play to the author’s strengths, and that fail to illuminate those vexing geographic and demographic realities—and the concomitant, elaborate calculations—behind Israeli policy.

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