"The Rough Riders" (9.4.20)
"Free" is a very attractive price point these days. Lately I've been skimming through all the public domain books you can get for free on Kindle, and one jumped out at me: "The Rough Riders," Theodore Roosevelt's personal history of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War.
I picked it because I had just read about the press coverage of the war in Cuba in "The Uncrowned King." And because I like history. And again, and this cannot be stressed enough, it was free.
People know Roosevelt was a politician and a cowboy. He's less well known as an author, even though his writing paid the bills in his adult life. He wrote an extensive history of U.S. naval power during the war of 1812, and that might have helped him land the job of assistant secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. "The Winning of the West," his synopsis of U.S. expansion across North America, helped square his finances in the late 1880s after his ranching operation failed.
"The Rough Riders" was probably a quick way to cash in. Roosevelt was already a well-known public figure before the war. When hostilities were declared, he resigned from his Navy job, and successfully petitioned to form a volunteer cavalry drawing from the western territories. The unit ended up being a bizarre mix of people from the various chapters of TR's life: rich Ivy League kids looking to prove their manhood, grizzled cowboys, international drifters, and a few career crimimals to boot. The unit had the benefit of great PR: Roosevelt himself was an attention magnet, plus he was on friendly terms with many of the reporters embedded in the Army to cover the fighting in Cuba. The reports of the fabled charge up San Juan Hill were so glowing that TR became a military legend with almost no military experience.
As historian Edmund Morris puts it, right after the war TR was the most famous man in America. Within a year, "The Rough Riders" was on sale. And it reads like something banged out pretty fast.
For long stretches, "Rough Riders" is a celebrity awards show acceptance speech. Paragraph after paragraph thanks or acknowledges some guy in the unit, and (shocker) they're all virile examples of selflessness and courage. And while there was real fighting in Cuba, Roosevelt really tries to make the danger as dramatic as possible. You see something like this about six times: "Smith and Jones were the very pinnacle of American bravery. Our nation has never produced finer specimens, and they promised victory to me over dinner. Both were dead within 12 hours."
The unit saw action in two battles (including the charge up San Juan Hill), but Roosevelt's play-by-play isn't all that compelling. He's describing troop movements through the jungle, and most of the battles involved the Americans shooting at entrenched Spanish soldiers they couldn't even see. So it was brave, but it wasn't all that glorious.
Weirdly enough, the most interesting stuff (to me) was Roosevelt bitching about logistics. The unit organized and trained in San Antonio, but the process of equipping them, moving them to Tampa and sailing to Cuba was a giant clusterf***. Once they were on the ground in Cuba, supplying the troops was a daily headache. The food and clothing provided were subpar. They never even had their horses with them, since no one could figure how to ship all the animals to the front. The vast majority of U.S. deaths in Cuba probably came from disease -- the fighting stopped quickly, and as the troops sat around waiting on a peace treaty, malaria devastated the ranks. Roosevelt used his book to very publicly criticize the administration of the war effort; the end of the book is addendums reprinting his formal reports to his superiors complaining about these things.
To his credit, if you set aside some of the 1898ish aspects of his writing, Roosevelt is still pretty accessible. (Even though TR was an open-minded guy for his time, modern audiences will likely cringe when he starts going off about the characteristics of various races.) It's not hard to get through "The Rough Riders," and it is interesting to experience TR's personality on the page.
But if you had to pick any public domain TR book, I think I'd go with his 1913 autobiography. It's not comprehensive, as it's glommed together from some shorter essays published in magazines. It's a lot sharper and more charming.
"The Fire Next Time" (8.24.20)
The autobiography of Frederick Douglass was first published in the 1840s, awakening many people to the horrors of slavery and galvanizing abolitionists. (Douglass revised and added to his narrative a few times later in life, but the 1845 account of his life in slavery and his escape was what set the world on fire.) Sixty years later, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois described a world that was both radically different and depressingly similar to what Douglass described. "Up From Slavery" (1901) and "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) had competing visions for black Americans at the dawn of the 20th century, and the authors shared those visions hoping to guide America forward.
Jump ahead 60 more years and you have lots of visions to choose from. Based on reviews (and curiosity about the author) I went with James Baldwin, and "The Fire Next Time." It's a volume containing two essays, one short and one long. And it's one of the most exquisite expressions of anger I can remember reading.
The essays were first published in periodicals in 1962 -- one of them was essentially an entire issue of "The New Yorker" -- then packaged together for a 1963 release. The short essay is a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, inspired in part by the impending centennial of emancipation, and warning the young man of the the racial animus that awaits him as an adult.
The longer essay (Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind) is a little tougher to describe. Baldwin starts with his thoughts on his youth in Harlem in the late 1930s, and the terror of a young man trying to avoid a life of vice or despair on "the Avenue." The community Baldwin describes is disillusioned by decades of discrimination and divorced from any promise of the American Dream.
His way out was religion, and for a few years he found refuge as youth minister -- but then he details his disillusionment with the church and organized religion. He can't reconcile the rhetoric of the church with what he sees around him. That leads to the second segment: A narrative of Baldwin's meeting (as a then-famous adult) with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin seeks to understand and explain the appeal of that movement; but he also sees little future in its sometimes hateful outlook.
The final section hovers between apocalyptic and hopeful. Baldwin states that America can never be a great nation without the complete freedom (spiritual, economic, political) of black people, and he predicts catastrophic failure if it does not come about. When assessing whether white people have the capacity to go along, he sounds like a man struggling to be optimistic.
Baldwin acknowledges that his critics describe him as bitter. But as an emotional snapshot, "The Fire Next Time" is extremely powerful. Whether or not you agree with Baldwin's conclusions, he paints a very clear and distressingly logical picture of frustration and anger -- and the great struggle to keep those feelings from boiling over into hate. And hands down, the guy is an amazing writer. This is a short work and I highlighted maybe 20 different passages. This isn't a policy discussion. It's all narrative -- and while that approach can have its drawbacks in terms of persuasion, you have to check this out and appreciate the craftsmanship.
A few years after this book was published, Baldwin witnessed both progress (the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) and horrible turmoil (the assassinations of black leaders and the unrest of the late 1960s). He lived into the mid-1980s and published constantly, but several critics consider "The Fire Next Time" to be his most influential work. We're now 60 years removed from it ... so what's next?
"The Souls of Black Folk" (8.20.20)
Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery" was inspirational, thoughtful, and influential in shaping discussions about race in the early 20th century.
Also, a significant number of black people hated it! Well, "hated" might be a strong word. They had substantial issues with Washington's view on the best way forward for black people -- in a nutshell, that the practical thing was to focus on vocational training and economic advancement, which would eventually produce social and legal equality. Critics directly challenged his opinions, and if you skim the history of race relations in the 20th century, you can make a pretty persuasive argument that the critics won out.
The leading critic was W.E.B. DuBois, and the bulk of his argument is laid out in "The Souls of Black Folk" -- published in 1903, two years after Washington's autobiography. DuBois dove into how racism had shaped the economic and mental status of black people, with particular attention on the rural South. And according to many, his beliefs on activism became a foundation for the Civil Rights movement.
I just read "Up From Slavery," so "The Souls of Black Folk" seemed like a good follow-up. Also, it's basically free on Kindle, and with my current employment situation, you can't beat that price. Yeah.
One caveat up front: If you're talking about the opinions of W.E.B DuBois, it's not right to focus only on this book. He was in his mid-30s when "Souls" was published, but he lived until 1963, passing away the day before the "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered. (Booker T. died in 1915, so he wasn't carrying his side of the argument.) DuBois' beliefs evolved over six more decades of observation and activism, so "Souls" is DuBois version 1.0. I won't pretend to have the full context for his life's work. Theoretically I could spend a few days reading philosophy dissertations online, but to be honest, I also want to make time for "The Legend of Zelda."
I can give you a little more context, though: DuBois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts, and by almost any standard he was a brilliant scholar. He first saw the situation in the rural South while working his way through Fisk University in Nashville and teaching in rural schools. He eventually became the first African-American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, and at the time this book was published, he was writing and teaching at Atlanta University. Some descriptions call him a sociologist, but it's fair to call him a historian, an educator, an author and a political organizer. (He co-founded the NAACP six years after this book came out.)
Like "Up From Slavery," "Souls" was cobbled together from previous published works -- DuBois was contributing essays to various magazines and journals, and essays were compiled to create this book. So the ideas are thematically consistent but there's not always a clear flow. DuBois was also a much more florid writer than Washington, with a means of expression that seems a little more Victorian -- some contemporaries accused him of putting on airs or being aloof. Sometimes the writing is extremely moving; other times you have to read a page three times and say, "yeah, I get it, you're smart."
To be fair, he is smart, and he knows how to present a compelling argument. He prefaces his essays with admirable clarity: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line" -- the barrier separating blacks from whites spiritually, economically and intellectually. (DuBois also calls this the "veil" through which black people are forced to see, and be seen.) The first essay starts with a haunting question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" What is the state of a person whose existence is viewed by many as a conundrum, rather than existence as a human being?
The rest follows from there. "Souls" is grounded in DuBois' studies as a sociologist, but it's not presented for a purely academic audience. You aren't swimming through an ocean of statistics; instead, he presents his conclusions in narrative form. DuBois takes on some of the negative qualities ascribed to black people and culture, and often sees their roots in slavery. (One example: The collapse of traditional family structures in the black community is a talking point in 2020, but it's not a new concern. In 1903, DuBois theorized that marriages were seen as less permanent among blacks because, you know, for hundreds of years there was no legal marriage among slaves, and if you were married you might wake up any day to find out your spouse had been sold to someone 500 miles away and will never see you again.)
Several of the essays highlight travels through "the Black Belt," rural Southern counties where African Americans were often trapped in a segregated existence as tenant farmers. The economic and social systems that emerged in many counties after emancipation did not favor blacks; instead, they ensnared them in a vicious cycle of hard labor and mounting debt. Racist whites still grasped all the levers of power; and with the legal, financial and social systems of their world stacked against them, blacks had no realistic hope of advancing. The destruction of their hope led, in turn, to fatalistic despair and defeatism.
And this is the crux of DuBois' beef with Booker T. Washington. Washington urged black people to master certain practical trades to make themselves useful or indispensable to their communities. Theoretically, if black people were needed to keep the local economy humming, social and political equality would follow. DuBois suggested that this plan was far too narrow: Economic progress for black people was impossible if the economic system of the South was custom built to stymie that progress. There was no point in playing a game when the rules were designed to prevent you from ever winning.
DuBois stops short of a specific plan of action, but he contends that voting rights and political representation were just as important as economic growth and could not be back-burnered. Beyond that, he believed in the importance of a "talented tenth" -- essentially, the elite element of the black populace. In the absence of true integration or equality, it was incumbent on the "tenth" to produce the teachers, businessmen and political leaders who could drag the rest of black society upward.
The best essays (in my opinion) are the least data driven. In one, DuBois laments the passing of his 18 month old son -- but finds a terrible solace in the knowledge that his son never understood or internalized life behind "the veil." He died before his innocence was taken. The other is the fictional story of John Jones, a black boy from a coastal Georgia town. It quickly takes you through his development: he starts as a carefree youth, pegged by his community for great things; he is hardened by education, as he begins to understand and experience the discrimination of the larger world; in his determination to overcome, he finds himself alienated from the very people he wants to help; and he descends into a hopeless and tragic end. The story of John comes near the end of "Souls," and it serves as a powerful summary of the portrait of black life DuBois presented in earlier essays.
"Souls" is a very interesting piece of work, and reading it alongside "Up From Slavery" was a good call. It's either instructive or depressing that in 120 years, the framework for discussion hasn't shifted all that much -- we've got one guy leaning toward the relentlessly pragmatic / personal responsibility side, and the other has an intellectual / top-down change-the-system approach. (Interesting that each guy concluded the best way reflected his personal experience. Both men were educators, but Washington was a former slave who rose through hands-on vocational and technical education; DuBois had an academic career more rooted in the world of ideas.)
Washington was well-received for providing a positive and even hopeful plan of action. DuBois, on the other hand, gives a far more compelling description of the battlefield, trying to blow up stereotypes or excuses used to justify inaction by whites who wanted "the Negro problem" out of sight and out of mind. The two men weren't exactly opposed but they did have very different visions of leadership.
Who could say if one was right? Is the problem of the color line solvable? How have we (meaning everyone) fallen short in trying to solve it? Does defining your existence in terms of that problem paradoxically make it impossible to escape?
Jumping ahead 60 years for the next one: "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin. Halfway through it already and it's a corker.