Wednesday, August 11, 2010

American Creation by Joseph Ellis

The founding of America was a rather amazing time, even if you don't feel that the leaders at the time were perfect men who were getting their inspiration from a higher power.

Writer Joseph Ellis has made quite a reputation writing modern biographies and period studies of the men who lived the first twenty-five years of America. I'd read Founding Brothers by him some time ago, and was quite pleased with the book, feeling as though he'd spent just about the right amount of time on each subject.

I do not like history books that are either trying too hard to capture the casual audience of the History Channel or dig so far into the minutia that I want to throw the book but at 800 some pages, it's too heavy for me to pick up. Ellis's writing style tries hard to balance the two, which is just what I want out of a modern text.

In American Creation, another book dealing with concepts rather than a single subject, Ellis once again gives a good accounting of the history but does not lay it on so thick that the reader becomes bored. By the end of each chapter, I found myself wanting to read just a bit more about each incident described, which I think should be the goal of any author not trying to write the definitive biography of a person or event.

Take his discussion of Washington's dealings with the Native Americas, for instance. I had no idea that, relatively speaking, the old general was a progressive when it came to the rights of the American Indians. In Ellis's hands, Washington is a man trying to do the right thing, within the needs of his new country, but the racial and commercial desires of the majority of the country are too much for his aura of respect and deference to overcome. It's a fascinating story of which I was previously unaware, and I definitely would like to know more.

As an aside, I wonder if maybe the problems with carving out territory for Native Americans didn't contribute to keeping the slavery problem on the back burner for so long. If Washington couldn't get any traction on this issue, how could he on slavery, even if he wanted to (which I don't know if he did)?

The section of "The Treaty" was by far the most interesting for me, but every point that Ellis tackles is a good touchstone. 1776 (with a bit of 1775 thrown in) is called "The Year", and focuses on what happens when you try to start a revolution. Valley Forge is given a new perspective as a time when the soldiers who would later be statesmen (and Federalists, for the most part) determine a national government is needed to sustain the revolution. Formation of political parties is given a big role, despite America's distaste for them. Rounding things out, Jefferson's hypocritical use of power to double the size of the United States is the springboard that moves American onto the international scene, just by its very scope.

These are all good points of discussion, and Ellis gives them a pretty good airing. My problem is that Ellis has an agenda of his own, and it seems into his writings here. I don't know if it comes from his feelings or the desire to tap into the patriotic feelings after the events of 9-11, but the idea that America was (and is) better than everyone else and even in getting things wrong, we got things right, is troubling to me.

Ellis has a tendency to make the founders seem like they had created a perfect system, and that America's path is the only way that will work, and all others are swept aside to history's dustbin. Try telling China that, given they own a good chuck of this perfect government's debt. It blinds him at times and makes it seem like there weren't other paths to take that might have worked just as well. We cannot know for certain, and Ellis leans heavily on the hindsight of a historian to declare that the choices made were the correct ones.

A typical example are his thoughts on the slow path to leaving the British Empire. He claims that historians on the left see this as a moral failure, but doesn't back that comment up. Instead, he goes on to state,

"In my judgment the calculated decision to make the American Revolution happen in slow motion was a creative act of statesmanship that allows the United States to avoid the bloody and chaotic fate of subsequent revolutionary movements in France, Russia, and China."

The fact of the matter is, it wasn't a decision made to avoid a bloody fate, it was because there were quite a few people in America (I've read that it may have even been a majority!) who didn't want to leave the Empire at all. There was no way to do this quickly, because trying would have led to conflict within the colonies themselves.

I completely disagree with Ellis here, as well as anywhere else that he posits that the folks making the decisions at the time knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish--the creation of the "best" government. That's an argument made by people who feel that America is perfect and those who criticize it are wrong. We have it better here than in a lot of other places, true, but that's not because John Adams was worried about how things were going to play out in the centuries to come--he was just worried about staying alive to make it 1777.

Time and time again, the decisions made by the Founding Fathers were on a practical level, not on one designed to make a country last for hundreds of years. They took the time to make sure that any decision put off hard choices, and only came together when things were so bad as to be untenable, such as the failure of the Articles of Confederation. It's a pattern we see over and over again in this nation's politics, and we suffer for it every time.

Practicality may have made America more stable than in other places, but it also sowed the seeds for later problems. To argue that America's history is not bloody is to ignore the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and other times during which people died to fix the flaws of the people that started this whole country. I realize that Ellis specializes in early American History, but to ignore the deaths that happened later in the struggles for this nation over the past 200 years and to say that the only alternative to America's system is Islamic fundamentalism is a terrible oversight for a historian who should know better. Even a casual knowledge of history after the early 1800s and world history in general should result in blanket statements that are not so obvious in their mistakes.

It is not within the scope of this review to argue each of Ellis's points, and I only bring the above up to show what a person who reads a lot of historical non-fiction needs to be prepared for if they opt to pick up this book. There are plenty of other points I could discuss--Ellis calling political parties necessary to harnessing the energy of democracy, completing ignoring the party machines used over the years is another sticking point for me--but I think the example I used is enough to show that if you view all history with a critical eye and an open mind to what could have been, you are going to have some issues with Ellis's take on the forming of America.

Despite my problems with Ellis' editorializing, I did enjoy this book. He's obviously done his research and is just as passionate about his time period as Bruce Catton was with the Civil War. I want that in a writer, as that passion shows and makes for compelling reading. It also, unfortunately, creates blind spots that I feel any reader should be aware of and ready for. Who knows, you may even agree with them and feel my view is flawed. I worry more for those who are reading this without any background knowledge or the time/desire to read more on the subject. For them, this may be the only take on the material and time, which I think would be a shame.

Overall, American Creation is just as human as those Ellis writes about. It's a great starting point for those looking for new areas to explore during America's early years. Just don't take it as gospel and you should be fine.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

Sometimes I feel a little strange when I'm writing up my first review for a book by a major author, because while I may have been reading them for years, this could be their first appearance on the blog.

Thus, if I'm not happy with the book I read, it can feel like I don't like the author, which is often not true. Such is the case with Blockade Billy, a book that feels like it could have been a lot more had King taken the time to write it well instead of tossing it out there in time for baseball season.

Blockade Billy is the story of a baseball player no one's heard of, because he's been erased from the record books. Only a few old timers know him, and one is willing to tell all to King himself, as it beats the boredom of sitting in a nursing home.

Soon we learn about Billy, an amazingly talented ballplayer that clearly has something to hide. As we move deeper into his magical season, you know something has to give, and it does--with a bang that's about as obvious as when a player is out at home by 30 feet.

Written in the narrative style with multiple references to the old ballplayer talking to King, it's formatted much like Deloris Claiborne, another King work I wasn't fond of, for much the same reason. Both tales never offer much on what the promise and in the end, I was disappointed. The twists just don't materialize, and I expect better from King as a writer.

In the case of this book, part of the problem is length. This book is barely 50 pages long, and I was able to read it in only a little over a half hour. As a magazine story, which was much of King's early career, it might have worked. As a novella, with the King name attached, I figured on a lot more writing. Its brevity is not refreshing for the wordy King. Instead, it constricts him, and leaves time only for a quick summary of the details as to why Billy's tale must come to the end it does.

From what I understand, King wrote this in about two weeks, and it shows. There's little plot, the character of Billy is a cipher, and if you don't know much about baseball, I'm not sure this book will mean anything to you. The trouble is, if you *do* know a lot about baseball, King's puzzling decision to make his team major-league level just creates all sorts of logistical headaches for no good reason. (Perhaps the biggest of which is the way in which Billy gets on the team in the first place. No big league club, even in this 1950s setting, would have done what this fake team from Jersey does.)

Billy could easily have played for a minor league team, and still do all that he does. In fact, the drama of having him come so close to being in the bigs before the crucial moment would have added so much. That's a lost layer of drama here.

Unfortunately, that's what happens when you rush things. Details that might be otherwise thought out get missed, and it mars the overall quality. Blockade Billy's logical leaps, obvious conclusion, and wandering text all make me nostalgic for the days when books were given stricter editing.

It doesn't help that the ending, while predictable in terms of general concept, throws more things at you as a reader than a five-tool pitcher. So many gaps in the story are covered in the last ten pages, you'd think it was a set of working notes rather than finished product. I appreciate the closure, but if your story is that complex, then take the time to flesh it out. There's no harm in more pages, especially when you're Stephen King.

I also found the setting to be weak, despite efforts to ground the text in the past. It's obvious King knows and loves his baseball history, but the references to vintage players don't fall into place very well. It's name dropping for name dropping sake. The idea of a simpler time when the game was played hard is probably what's supposed to come across, but I just didn't get anything other than a feeling of grumpiness. It didn't make me pine for the old days--except maybe Stephen King's old days.

The narrative style of the book is vintage King, and you either like it or hate it by now, after he's had such a long career. This narrator talks like so many others in King's books, and I like it, except when they're narrative first person, as this one is. The natural tone of King's best characters just feels forced to me when I have to read it like this. Let the point of view stand on its own, and don't get in the way with comments about needing water, especially if you've already done that before in your career.

Stephen King may love baseball, but his two attempts at it in fiction, Blockade Billy and Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, just don't serve his beloved sport well. He's an all-star writer that in this case, managed to strike out. For the price of this book and the size of its text, Blockade Billy just isn't recommendable. I'd turn elsewhere for my baseball or King fixes. Maybe next time the two meet, the results will be better. For now though, let this one ride the pine.