Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Hole in the Library

My library, I realized, had a hole.

For years I've been researching and writing in American history, mostly from the Revolution through the Civil War. I'd written two books and a dozen articles on topics from that period, and I'd collected a bookcase and a half full of titles and a filing cabinet full of journal articles on topics from those times.

Two books on the Whig Party, two on tariffs, one on banking, two on immigration, one on shipping, one on locomotives, one on the Supreme Court, Jefferson's letters, a couple of volumes of the Congressional Globe, half a dozen titles on Jackson, one on Calhoun, one on farming in Pennsylvania and a whole shelf on slavery. And so on. But there was no one, single, integrated narrative history there.

Like many historians, my knowledge was uneven. Some topics I knew so intimately I could walk through them blindfolded. Others I had only superficial understanding. I wanted a book to give me the whole sweep of the times in one place, and to fill in the many holes in my learning.

I realized some time ago what was missing: One of those big, multi-volume turn-of-the-20th century histories of the United States. Every library used to have them. They were written by men (mostly men) who told stories well and loved their subjects as men and women. The books are chock full of facts and dates, and they will tell you all the details of, say, how Mississippi Territory manage to extricate itself from Georgia land claims, and how it settled the many land titles held in the name of the British or Spanish crowns.

Such books are all but extinct now. Nobody buys a multi-volume history of the whole country, so nobody writes one. And what god-like historian would write it? The leading lights are specialists now. And so many of them are obsessed with class, race, and gender, that to write about land claims in Mississippi they'd have to find a way to turn the plain story into a Sunday school lesson about imperialism.

So after poking around used book sellers, I chose my target: John B. McMaster's 1891 "A History of the People of the United States" in seven volumes. I found one -- discarded from a library, of course -- and bought it. I highly recommend it to anyone truly interested in American history, or anyone interested in a book you can literally open at random and start reading for pleasure. Go out and try to catch a copy for yourself, as modern libraries shed their old books like fall leaves.

Historians like McMaster not only had the leisure and the space to write full stories, they knew how to turn a phrase and how to write a long, sonorous sentence unencumbered by Ivory Tower-speak. Here's a half a paragraph from McMaster's description of the very foreign city of New Orleans that the Americans found themselves proprietors of in 1803.

Men who came to trade took up their quarters in the boarding-houses kept by mulattoes, and sought for the merchants on the levee. There, during the morning of each week-day, bales of cotton, casks of molasses, tobacco, sugar, flour, all the produce of Louisiana and all the produce of the Northwest, from ham and pork to the broadhorns which bore them down the Mississippi, were bought and sold. There in the cool of the day the people came to enjoy the air. Hardly had the sun set when the whole town was astir. The coffee-houses then became crowded, the billiard-rooms grew noisy, the levee swarmed with people. Some came to take part in the dancing and drinking, the carousing and singing that went on upon the decks of the boats moored to the river bank. Some came to walk. Some to seek a mistress among the quadroons who, with their chaperons or their mothers, sat under the orange-trees that still lined the river-bank. The lot of these women was indeed an unhappy one! Their stain of white blood raised them far above the negroes; their stain of negro blood dragged them far below the whites. Law and custom forbade them to marry and left them to drag out a wretched existence or become the mistresses of the whites. To suppose that they bore any likeness to the prostitutes who plied their calling in the Northern cities would be a great mistake. They held a recognized place in the social scale, and that place, such as it was, no one considered dishonorable. No man addressed them till he had been properly introduced. No engagement was made till the mother approved, and, once made, it was kept most faithfully by the woman. They could not, indeed, attend the balls to which white women went; but their own assemblies were accounted splendid affairs and were attended by all the fine young men in the city. They could not enter the lower boxes at the theatre, but the upper boxes were set apart for them, and to these they were made welcome.

History books have a longer life than science books, but a picture painted by the older ones needs to be double-checked against more recent research to know whether more information has emerged out of statistics since they were written.

But do you not feel you have entered into a time and place, in that paragraph? That you've stood for a moment like a time-traveller in the muggy heat on the levee under the scent of orange blossoms and looked into the eyes of the men, and the girls -- and their mothers -- and seen living human beings look back at you? Try that with most modern academic history writing. Too often you look into it and see only the narrow and nearsighted eyes of the author, hiding the people of the past behind his curtain, bringing them out in ones and twos and small groups to pose in his set-pieces.

Modern history students may have been scared off from older books with warnings that 19th century history texts are drearily obsessed with Yankee triumphalism and only explore the actions of powerful white males. How untrue!

You meet plenty of women, dark people, poor people in McMaster's pages. But he doesn't fall into the modern historians' trap of forgetting class, race, and gender are collectives formed of individuals, individuals who are not always acting as agents of class, race, and gender. The modern historian too often writes as though individuals only and always behave as representatives of class, race, and gender.

The stars in McMaster are not Marxist abstractions of imperialism or capitalism. If his outlook is 19th century, then that allows him to comprehend the values and flaws of the time he takes as his topic, and to paint them, not dissect them. He is alert to the living realities of the American people of 1803, who probably did not think of their lives too often in 20th century abstract constructions of oppression, imperialism, class, race, and gender. Hard as it is to imagine now, they probably did not feel the want of modern social values any more than they felt the want of air conditioning or the Internet.

With the leisure to fill seven volumes, McMaster also has time to tell all stories, including a story that has no point except that it was real, it was part of the life of the times, and it fills in another piece in understanding something about America and Americans -- Americans other than modern historians, I mean.

A discussion of debt and fiscal policy in the Jefferson Administration takes a detour through a hurricane story from 1804.

The near prospect of war with Spain over the right to navigate the Mississippi made the defence of that river necessary, and fifty thousand dollars were set aside to build fifteen gunboats. By the summer of 1804 Number One and Number Two were finished and afloat. They were low, narrow craft, clipper-rigged, built for speed, carried a cloud of canvas, and had a solitary gun in the stern. Number One was at once sent south, and in the harbor of Savannah encountered one of the most terrible cyclones that have ever visited our coast. The storm first appeared at the Bahamas on September fifth, and two days later struck Charleston and Savannah, and passed up the seaboard to Maine. Spires of churches, roofs of houses, trees, buildings, went down before it. Stage-coaches were overturned, ships were beaten to pieces, docks and warehouses destroyed, and half the rice-crop, and what little the caterpillar had left of the cotton, was ruined. Such was its violence that Fort Green, off Savannah, was all but blown away. A cannon weighing two tons was moved forty feet; a bar of lead, weighing three hundred pounds, a hundred feet; and the whole of Cockspur Island covered with muskets. The water was banked up till it was ten feet deeper at low tide than it had been at high tide. When the floods went down, Gun-boat Number One was left high and dry in a corn-field eight miles from her moorings. From the day of her launch she had been the subject of Federal wit, but she was now held up to the scorn of every New England sailor as a specimen of the imbecility of the Virginia President. At last, said one, a use had been found for her; she had become a scarecrow in a Georgia corn-field. Let her rest there, said another, and she will grow into a ship-of-the-line by the time we go to war with Spain. Should this new experiment in agriculture succeed, we may expect to see the rice-swamps of Carolina and the tobacco-fields of Virginia turned by our philosophical Government into dry-docks and gun-boat gardens. It is presumed, said a third, that the commander of Number Two, which now lies opposite Alexandria, is cautioned in his orders to beware of corn-fields. ... At Boston a great dinner was given to Rufus King, and in the list of toasts were: "Gun-boat Number One: If our gun-boats are of no use upon the water, may they at least be the best upon earth."

A president humiliated by a hurricane, and mocked by his know-it-all enemies for his military follies. Imagine that!