… here in the West, I, on behalf of Bapton Books as a whole as well as in propria persona, wish all of you a very Happy Hobbit Day 2021.
Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed:
Volume I. Starting University.
The first in a new series … in which Uncle Grumpy—me: the historian, critic, publisher, and retired attorney Markham Shaw Pyle—explains the purpose of a university; its pitfalls; how not to let it turn into a mere trade school for you; what tools to pick up there; how to avoid become a conforming cog in the machine; how to become and remain cultured there despite the modern university’s best efforts; how to stay sane, fit, and reasonably sober; how to avoid becoming arrogant and too clever by half; and generally how to avoid all the mistakes which he made forty years ago.
I’m not, as it happens, Jewish.
In religion … I can do no better than to paraphrase Will Rogers: I’m not a member of any organized denomination, I’m an Anglican. My ancestors of record have, preponderantly, been Anglicans since the Elizabethan, though not necessarily the Henrician, Settlement. Before, and in some cases after, as recusants, they were RC. Despite a fair number of Scots Piscies, a few, sadly, were members of the Kirk. Some were so Low Church as to become Methodists in the modern sense. During the lead-up to, and during and just after, the civil war – the “King, Cromwell, and Cavaliers” one, not the “Lee and Lincoln” one – and the Interregnum, some were so traumatized as to become for a few generations Friends, though most of these drifted back into the C of E. And, of course, once safely in North America, they experienced a bit of a free-for-all.
Some of my ancestors have been, rather than RC, Orthodox.
And before all that, they followed whatever local paganism was popular for their time and place.
Owing to some intermarriages in the past few generations, I have cousins who are in part ethnically Jewish and, in some cases, religiously so, having returned to the faith of, if not their fathers, their grandfathers. But this is not my case.
I’m not Jewish. Ethnically, I have no recorded Jewish ancestors. (And my people, even in America, long antedate, and never went through, Ellis Island or anything of the sort, so it’s not a case of changed names.)
Please note that statement carefully: I have no Jewish ancestors of record. I am not interested in DNA tests, because the point of DNA is genetic recombination, such that it is a complete crapshoot as to what ancestral DNA one inherits, and how much; and this often is different from one sibling to another. I am interested in records, and I draw the line mostly in the 11th Century, or, sometimes, in very well-attested cases, mostly involving stable polities in the Mediterranean, in the 9th Century. I have a good deal of Welsh and Irish ancestry, and, with all due respect to Welsh and Irish genealogists, I am disinclined to go beyond the 8th or 9th centuries into the mists and myths of Celtic kin- and king-lists. This is true also of the pleasant, flattering fantasies of ancestry so dear to the West Saxons, the Norse, the Franks, and the Normans.
(Naturally, where power or privilege or prestige or land or money is an issue, there is a motive for the making of false claims to lineage and relationship. But for that very reason, those tend to be contested by others seeking the same benefits, and thrashed out. It is an adversary process. For that reason, beginning in the 10th Century at least, one can trust the records sufficiently to put them up as evidence, in the full, lawyerly meaning of evidence, in any stable society and amongst people who understand the difference between political reality and pious myth.)
I am as a matter of record descended from Warulfe Ier “le Loup,” “le Garoux,” Seigneur of Uxelles and of Brancion; from Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, nicknamed “the Wolf;” from Trayan of Bulgaria; and from the viscounts of Millau … and Gévaudan. None of that makes me a God-damned werewolf. (That’s not swearing, that’s a theologically accurate qualifier.)
Regardless of the sycophantic claims made for various petty kings in the sub- and post-Roman and Early Medieval periods, and after, depending upon place and level of culture, I am no more descended of the House of David than I am descended of Odin: although David and the House of David existed, and Odin did not.
Remember: ancestors of record. Reliable record. I am content to rest provably descended of Brian Boru, of Malcolm III of Scots, of Alfred the Great, of Harold Godwinson, of Robert Guiscard, of Billy the Conk; of Charlemagne and Charles Martel, of Olof Skötkonung, of Henry the Fowler and the Ottonian emperors, of the Komnenoi, of Grimoald of Lombardy, of Baldwin and Fulke and the Kings of Crusader Jerusalem; of the Houses of Barcelona and Trastámara, the Elder Welfs, the Cometopuli, the Gedminids, and the Houses of Holland and Hainault and Capet; of Bolesław the Brave and of the House of Árpád, of Elisabeth the Cuman and Khan Köten her father, of Henry II of England; and of Rhodri the Great and Hywel the Good, of Rhys ad Tewdwr and of the Lord Rhys, and of Llewelyn Fawr ab Iorwerth. I feel no need to try to determine the lineages, historicity, and correct floruits of such legendary or semi-legendary figures as, e.g. and inter alia, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Harald Fairhair, Ivar the Boneless, Kenneth McAlpin, Cerdic and Eoppa, Ganger-Hrolf, the Merovingians, Macsen Wledig, Coel Hen, Padarn, various Halfdans, Rurik, Rorik of Dorestad, Scyld Scefing, Piast, and some asserted daughter of Pybba of Mercia. I’m an Eppes, not an Eopping. Nor, no matter what the Bulgarians say, do I claim descent from Attila.
As a matter of record, owing to Byzantine and Middle Eastern and West Asian politics of the time, I could claim Timur – Tamerlane – as a connection.
Owing to the situations both in Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, and in Iberia, I could at least survive a 12(b)6 motion, if not summary judgment, in asserting descent from the caliph Marwan and from the Hamdanid emirs of Mosul and Aleppo. If this were so, if it be so, I could claim descent of the Quraysh.
There is colorable, prima facie evidence, based upon such near-contemporaneous historians as al-Tabiri, that the Eastern Roman Emperor Nikephoros I, an ancestor of mine, was descended of a Christian Levantine Arab tribe ultimately originating in the Yemen. And then, of course, there are Spain and Portugal, or, rather, what are now Spain and Portugal.
Musa Ibn Musa lbn Qasaw, Walí de Tudela y Huesca y Zaragoza, was the half-brother of my ancestor, the great Basque leader Íñigo Arista, Eneko Aritza, the founding king of Pamplona. No one knows anything of the origin of their mother, but Musa’s father seems to have been Musa ibn Fortun ibn Qasi, one of the Banu Qasi, a dynasty purportedly descending from one Cassius, a Visigothic convert to Islam. (I am myself, separately, descended of the Spanish Visigoths, in the person of Wilfred the Hairy, Count of Urgell, Cerdanya, Barcelona, Girona, Besalú, and Ausona.) The descendants of these two half-brothers, Musa and Eneko, intermarried.
And of course the history of the Iberian peninsula is such that even those claiming limpieza de sangre – such as my ancestor 32 generations back, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el Cid Campeador, might have done had it been necessary – are and have always been, even since before Hannibal came through with an army, a mixed lot: since the fall of Rome in the West, a mix of Celtiberians, Visigoths, Carthaginians, Berbers, Moors, and, in many cases, sub-Saharan Africans. (Of course, as I am human, I have, as do you, sub-Saharan African ancestry, as the entire species originated in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. But we are talking here of historic times. We could all “go back to where we came from,” as various ethnicities have demanded of other ethnicities who are their neighbors, but Olduvai Gorge’d get right crowded, right quickly.)
The point here is that I could colorably claim a fair quantum of Arab, North African, Middle Eastern, steppe, and Southwest Asian ancestry: which ancestors were in many cases Muslim.
I, however, am Anglican. And almost all my immediate descent is derived from the British Isles. This was certainly the case when we got to this continent, before we and various kinspeople of ours made it a country; and this has not materially changed a right smart since. Once here, we picked up a German wife, a Dutch wife, a few Huguenots, and a couple of wives who were legally Swedish, but in one case, at least, ethnically Finnish.
But my considerable descent from the Eastern Roman Empire and its territories, from the steppe, from Asia Minor and Southwest Asia, from the Balkans, from Eastern Europe, from Middle Europe, from Russia, from the Baltic, from the Nordic states, from Germany, the Low Countries, France, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, and almost certainly from the Maghreb, all long predates our leaving Blighty and Eire. And this is precisely because we were British. Crossing the Channel is not always comfortable to the tummy, but it’s easily done. El Cid, for example, is an ancestor of mine because Iberian and French royalty intermarried, and the jockeying princelings of the Low Countries married who they might; and so, through such conduits as the Plantagenets, the Hollands of Upholland, the Lumleys, the Tyrwhitts, the de Mohuns, the Newenhams, the Woodhulls, and the Elkingtons of Elkington, we eventually reach me. I am descended of the khans of the Cuman-Kipchaks, and of the West-Asian-steppe-origin Árpád dynasty, and the Turco-Hunnic Dulo clan, by similar routes; I am descended of a startling number of Eastern Roman Emperors (a shocking number of them at least partly Armenian), and of doges of Venice, in a number of ways: amongst these, their marriages into the Houses of Montferrat and Saluzzo … whose daughters married into the Percys and the Lacys and the FitzAlans of Arundel. The same sort of pattern repeats in my very British descent from various Polish, German, Holy Roman Imperial, Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Bohemian figures.
And, in any era, once the genes of the great and the good, or at least of the royal and renowned, cross the Channel, they are subject to the British system: such that, within three to six generations, the unlanded sons even of peers are reduced to being gentlemen farmers on a small scale, vicars or (if lucky) rectors, barristers, MPs, officers of the Forces, or merchants in the less grubby sorts of trade. (I suggest, based on ancient family experience, the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the Worshipful Company of Drapers, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, and the Worshipful Company of Vintners.)
Admittedly, bar agriculture, the church, and trade (unless one becomes Lord Mayor of London), these – especially the Bar and the Commons – do offer routes back into the peerage, baronetage, and knightage.
So long, that is, that they, their fathers, or their wider family do not put a foot wrong during the Conquest, the Anarchy, the Deposition of Richard II (which did for the Lumleys, the Greens of Drayton, and plenty of others), the Wars of the Roses, the Reformation (another tricky period for us), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the supposedly Glorious Revolution, the ’15, or the ’45. If they do, a man who is by descent a gentleman entitled to coat armor may be glad to be on the first ship for the New World, even at the cost of becoming there the village blacksmith or an indentured servant, so long as the ship sets sail before the High Sheriff of the shire can make it to the quay.
I have the blood and genes of half the world in me. But I am not provably Jewish. Indeed, Jewish is one of the few things I, on the record as it stands before us, am not.
It is of course quite probable that I am in part of Jewish descent; but it cannot be proven. The probability and the lack of proof alike rest in substantial part upon my descent from the Dukes of Aquitaine and from the Houses of Rethel, Montdidier, Dammartin, and Roucy. The latter four, despite being at the other end of France from Aquitaine, part-descend from William, Duke of Aquitaine, whose grandfather was Ebles, Duke of Aquitaine. As was not uncommon at the time, Ebles was the bastard son of his predecessor, but managed to take and hold the dukedom all the same. What was uncommon at the time is that, though William of Normandy and a right smart of others in the same situation were content to be known as William (or what have you) the Bastard, Ebles of Aquitaine was known as Ebles the Mamzer. This suggests, but does not prove, that his unknown mother was Jewish. Equally suggestive is the remarkable and repeated appearance of his forename and that of Manasses in his descendants over many generations in the House of Aquitaine and the cadet Houses of Rethel, Montdidier, Dammartin, and Roucy.
And then there was my landed Anglo-Norman ancestor William Bisset “Carpentarius,” whose son became Steward to my ancestor Henry II “Curtmantle,” and whose Christian name was Manasser Bisset. There is no certainty of the origins of that family, or of any connection with the Houses of Aquitaine, Rethel, Montdidier, Dammartin, and Roucy, though it is certainly possible.
If we knew who was the mother of Ebles the Mamzer, Duke of Aquitaine, we might have an answer to part of the overall question. We don’t, and we don’t.
Thus, I can state with confidence and with evidence that I am by descent an Angevin and a Plantagenet, a (or, “an”) Hauteville, a Robertian and a Rurikid, a Comnenus and a Cantelow, a de le Zouche, a Green of Drayton, a de Vere, a Shaw of Rothiemurchus and Tordarroch, a Schaw of Sauchie, a Lindsay, a Ludlow, a Beauchamp, a Neville, and a member of Clann an Bháird, the Wards of Ballymacward, Abbeyknockmoy, and Inis Mór. And I cannot, in the face of the evidence, allege, without risking Rule 13 sanctions, that I am a Warszawski, a Nathans, a Benveniste or Benjamin, a Lewis, a Schneersohn or a Salomon, a Davidman, a Greenberg, a Zuckerman, a Cohen, a Rumper or a Rothschild, a Hirsch, or an Abrahams, Abravenel, Pinto, or Penzig.
I’m not Jewish.
Nor, you will have gathered, am I an Evangelical. I’m a High Churchman.
And therefore this very Gentile, Conservative – not merely Blue-Dog – Southern Democrat, Anglo-Catholic Anglican, who might be presumed to have no dog in this fight, tells you this. I support the State of Israel. I do so because I am not a fool or a Leftist or a progressive (but I repeat myself). I do so because in any fight between civilization and barbarism, I am on the side of civilization. I do so because Israel has conducted itself not only in conformity with, but to a standard higher than that required by, the law of arms, and international law. I do so because the only people working, and with some prospect of success, truly to free Palestine are the IDF. I do so because the Geneva Conventions specifically exempt from their protections, as an intended deterrent to illicit acts, unlawful combatants, and those engaged in such war crimes as hiding military installations and forces amidst the general public: which the Palestinians have been doing for decades, with impunity.
And this warning I am making goes double for anyone who, religiously or politically, claims to be on my side.
I do not need to have a dog in this fight to know which dog is fighting fair.
I try very hard not to judge people who differ from me and religion, politics, and view. I acknowledge that there are people who are simply wicked; others who are deluded; others who are flat ignorant; and others still who have been propagandized. I try not to judge others for folly. (My fielding percentage in this regard should be woeful even for Rookie League ball, but I do try.)
But let me be very clear indeed. Those – including anyone who, religiously or politically, claims to be on my side – who knowingly, or stupidly, out of malice or for political gain, out of mere tribalism or out of invincible and willful ignorance, whether pop stars or politicians, range themselves on the wrong side – the putatively “Palestinian” side; the anti-Israel and objectively antisemitic side – of one of the great moral issues of our time, neither deserve nor shall receive my respect. They deserve and shall receive both barrels of my contempt and my disdain, openly and fiercely expressed.
The Jews generally, and the State of Israel in particular, are, as commonly, the canaries in the moral coal mine. As ever, their opponents and persecutors are poison. And I have neither time nor respect for morally verminous gasbags.
Why so, when I have no dogs in the fight? Because I do have a dog in this fight, as has every decent person. As Terence said, Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
The only question is whether you are a decent person or not. Your position on this moral issue shall give me and all others the answer to that question. No excuses shall be accepted.
A late Lenten look at the adventus
In a forthcoming video on my channel, I have occasion to say, “I do not (any more than do Francis Pryor and Susan Oosthuizen), credit the Anglo-Saxon invasion-and-replacement mythos.” (I may add that I am likewise unconvinced of the traditional view of the “Claudian” Roman arrival in Britain, tending rather to agree with Sir Barry Cunliffe, Martin Henig, John Manley, J. G. F. Hind, and others -including Cassius Dio and Suetonius, for that matter –, that they were invited in by one side – that of Verica of the Atrebates – in one of the endemic tribal wars of the Iron Age population: here, against Caratacus and his Catuvellauni; and landed at Chichester or Portsmouth, say.) I shall, as usual, explain.
I am very much not a scientist. I am most certainly not a geneticist, let alone an archaeogeneticist. It is a commonplace observation that most of those who go to law school do so for the express purpose of avoiding mathematics and science for the rest of their lives, and being able to treat the rest of their lives as an essay question. On the other hand, my having degrees in politics; philosophy (which in my day required courses in formal logic); and law (which in my day required courses in evidence, not in feelings), has had some knock-on effects, not least for me as a writer of history. I do not for a moment deprecate the scholarship and accomplishments and results obtained by such geneticists as Brian Sykes and Mark Thomas – and of Cristian Capelli and his team. What I am a little dubious about are the various interpretations which have often been made of these results … usually by others who are not geneticists, let alone archaeogeneticists.
Never mind the formal fallacy involved: these interpretations assume facts not in evidence. I therefore, as counsel, object. Now, this is a matter on which I have had many discussions, in our capacity as historians, with my colleague, publishing partner, and nonfiction coauthor, GMW Wemyss, although we are not currently contemplating a work concentrating on this period. Nonetheless, I can do no better than to hand over to him, by quoting a passage from his most recent novel, Ordinary Time, in which his learnèd – if infuriating, and infuriatingly ducal – character, the Duke of Taunton, is discussing these issues with the colleagues and students of his wife the Duchess, a celebrated historian-archaeologist in her own right.
‘… Yellworthy: hele-worthig, hidden. That whole area of the Vale wants a careful survey.’
‘That’s a Saxon name enough,’ said one of the juniors, much daring: the new-minted Dr Jane Kitching. ‘Yet you mentioned vicinal ways, earlier, and ancient droveways, and Romano-British continuity in an essentially Iron Age landscape.’
‘And you from Lincolnshire,’ smiled the duke. ‘Angels and ministers of Dominic Powlesland defend us.
‘Genetics is perhaps an exact science. Its interpretation, however…. One can’t really distinguish a bunch of Sixth Cee Angles from a lot of Danes in the Eighth Cee comin’ from The Angle, or even tell the Norse from the Normans in the Eleventh – speakin’ of Lincs; and that’s assumin’ a lack of trade contacts with the Continent in peaceful times: sailors gettin’ bastards in every port, a few families settlin’ here for commercial reasons, refugees, et hoc genus omne, damn it all. Christ aid! By the Iron Age, the tribes of Britain may’ve – may have – been mostly “Celtic” in culture and in tongue – “Celtic” has always been a language group, not an ethnicity –, but damn me if half of ’em weren’t half-Continentals already, particularly in East Anglia and Kent: fathered by the fathers of Saxons and Frisians to come. Never mind the future Norse, the East Ridin’ was home to the Parisi, an Arras Culture groupin’ likely related t’ the Gallic Parisii. The Belgae are … the Belgae; and the Suessiones likewise held a cross-Channel lordship, and the Cantiaci were Gauls, as the Atrebates may have been: “Britanniae pars interior ab eis incolitur quos natos in insula ipsi memoria proditum dicunt, maritima ab eis, qui praedae ac belli inferendi causa ex Belgio transierunt (qui omnes fere eis nominibus civitatum appellantur, quibus orti ex civitatibus eo pervenerunt) et bello illato ibi permanserunt atque agros colere coeperunt. Hominum est infinita multitudo creberrimaque aedificia fere Gallicis consimilia, pecorum magnus numerus”: the interior of Britain’s inhabited by the Ancient Native Brits, the coasts, by Gaulish plunderers and invaders who stopped on; they are many, their houses are Gaulish, and they’re up to their oxters in oxen.
‘It’s all in Caesar, damn it all, and – though I ain’t one of Old Baldy’s admirers –, Caius Iulius, the Bithynian bugger’s bum-boy, was not a bad ethnographer – includin’ in his recordin’ the kinship of Gauls and Jerries. D’ y’ recall? He was told, he says, “… plerosque Belgos esse ortos a Germanis Rhenumque antiquitus traductos propter loci fertilitatem ibi consedisse Gallosque qui ea loca incolerent expulisse, solosque esse qui, patrum nostrorum memoria omni Gallia vexata, Teutonos Cimbrosque intra suos fines ingredi prohibuerint”, – which caused ’em to swagger ever after –; and, “Apud eos fuisse regem nostra etiam memoria Diviciacum, totius Galliae potentissimum, qui cum magnae partis harum regionum, tum etiam Britanniae imperium obtinuerit”:most of the Belgae were Germans who’d crossed the Rhine of old, settlin’ in Gaul because the land was better, drivin’ the natives off, and were the only people who’d fought off the Teutons and Cimbrians when Jerry had overrun the rest of Gaul; and in livin’ memory, Diviciacus, the biggest boss in Gaul, had been king of the Suessiones who were the Belgae’s neighbours, and ruled the region and parts of Britain as well.
‘If ever there were an adventus, it was in or before the Iron Age, damn me. God damn m’ soul – sorry, Padre –, don’t anyone read Ptolemy nowadays? Or Strabo?
‘The idea of a purely “Celtic” Iron Age population’s silly enough; the notion that “the Romans” were a pack of Italians is simply bollocks. Leavin’ aside the auxiliaries – Gauls of every description, Batavians, Tungrians, Dalmatians, Menapii, Moesians, Dacians, Cugerni, Nervii, Thracians, Alsatian Vangiones, Illyrians of all sorts –, there was the increased legionary replacement and recruitment from locals, especially after Caracalla issued the Antonine Constitution, the “Edict of Caracalla”. A look at where the Legions were stationed before comin’ to Britannia is fascinatin’: Marcus Valerius Maximianus, f’r example, was born at Ptuj; and, God damn m’ soul, there were camp-followers, and wives and all sorts picked up on previous deployments. ’S where this LHON question started, damn it all.’
In fact, alongside the Dig, a huge archaeogenetic survey was underway in the District, even including such unlikely, because thoroughly mixed, candidates as His Grace: which had been referred to in his case as ‘getting DNA out of a stone’.
‘Good God, we’ve known this for goin’ on fifty years, and yet cling, most of us – most of you –, t’ the Victorian myth: despite Philip Barker and young White at Viroconium Cornoviorum, despite Tony Wilmott at Birdoswald, despite Finberg, never mind Richard Reece, at Withington, and Mike McCarthy at Carlisle, when Mils and I were younger than you lot are now. It was all tangled up with fantasies of “race”, and soppy cod-Germanic Romanticism, and Victoria’s Dear Prince Albert, and a determination not to be taken for the damned French, or, worse still, for Welsh or Scots or Irish or Cornish, and thus prey to “the schoolboy heat, the blind hysterics of the Celt”.
‘What’s today’s excuse for it?
‘Dark Ages be damned! You’ve forgotten the fact of Christendom, damn it all! You’ve Francis Pryor, and Su Oosthuizen, Paul Budd of Mils’ own Durham, Mark Whyman at York, Charles Thomas, Jonathan Wooding, David Howlett, Martin Henig, John Creighton, the great Barry Cunliffe, Ken Dark, that same Dominic Powlesland in the Wolds – brilliant feller, but wants desperately t’ visit a barber and t’ sack his tailor and bootmaker, and find better –, a cloud of witnesses t’ British continuity –’
‘Katie Lowe,’ murmured the duchess, to a ducal nod of approbation. ‘And dear Sam Lucy.’
‘– quite – and y’ go on assumin’ nursery tales t’ be true despite ’em, damn it all.’
Professor Herries remarked – silently, not being a fool – that, even in speaking thus extempore, Charles duke of Tauton had managed to list a fellow OE first.
‘Continuity, damn it all! Look at Hugo – and never mind de Clifforde and Owldbrigg / Vypont and de Brus and Taillebois and de Lancaster, de Busli and Ferrers and Leyburn –: if charters and lands speak true at all, he’d forebears at Stainmore where Eiríkr Blóðøx had the hems put to him: ancestors on both sides, likely commandin’ archers or some damned thing in default of artillery: Sweyn of Earlscliffe, the Northumbrian, who may, admittedly, have been rather on Bamburgh’s side than on Bloodaxe’ – Hugo has yet the advowson of S Edwin Earlscliffe –, and Pasgen son of Cystennin, the Cumbrian, a descendant, look you, of Urien of Rheged. Plenty of continuity in Yr Hen Ogledd, damn it all. There was no more a Roman invasion-and-replacement than there was an Anglo-Saxon one – fashion ain’t family trees –, or a Norse, save in isolated parts, or a Norman: that old, exploded myth sounds like one of Farage’s nightmares. Christ! British culture ain’t changed, deep down, where the people live, since the Mesolithic or before – ask Tim Schadla-Hall, up at Star Carr –; and y’ don’t want an art historian to tell y’ that Sutton Hoo and Insular Celtic and Norse and Pictish work, and stone crosses and carpet pages in Gospels, are all variations on La Tène style – just you look at the Battersea and Wandsworth and Witham Shields as against the Sutton Hoo helmet inlays and shoulder-clasps and purse lid, and the whole of the Staffordshire Hoard, damn m’ soul.’
Her Grace did not speak aloud; but her lips were clearly reciting, Everything is older than we think.
‘Pottery ain’t people – y’ know that, damn it all –; and blue jeans ain’t genetics. And language don’t mean invasion-and-replacement: look at the Septics, all speakin’ Ulster Scots regardless of ethnicity.
‘I can show yer, tomorrow, in this District, hedges datin’ t’ Sub-Roman times, which are boundaries now, were metes and bounds in Wessex charters, and were estate boundaries of Roman proprietors, just as at West Meon. (Viney? If you’d be so kind….) There are people today of mixed British and Subcontinental heritage, from Hugo Mallerstang t’ Sher Mirza: although – as with the Roman Britons and the Continental pagans after the conversion of Britannia – fewer than there might be did not religious obstacles intervene –; there are converts to Islam from traditionally nominally Christian, White British families – a remarkable number of ’em gingers, for some reason, which goes t’ show yer, don’t it, though I don’t see Mgr Folan goin’ over and becomin’ an imam in this or any lifetime; but – there ain’t enough British Pakistanis or British Indians t’ justify assumin’ an invasion-and-replacement theory, or a genetic component with it, sufficient to explain the proliferation of curry-houses and the existence of the Balti Triangle. Even where accompanied by an increasin’ loss of faith, a post-Christian society, in the White British, so-called.
‘We’ve a German Royal Family, yes, but not from bein’ overrun: we invited ’em – as we did the Romans at Chichester –: invited ’em out of religious prejudice. And overhearin’ you lot and your studentry at the Dig has but confirmed t’ me that most people speak American, nowadays: I distinctly heard several mispronunciations of, “schedule”. And American’s a dialect, I remind yer, not of English, but of Ulster Scots, which is why, f’r example, both lots, when injured, “go to the hospital”, damn it all. And, in the Republic, the very accent’s more Americanised by the year.
‘Damn me, I can imagine a cataclysm or a slow decline, a loss of records – we really do want to be puttin’ things on paper, there are floppy disks from m’ own youth which are now unreadable –, and All Sorts … and, in a thousand years, your successors positin’ a grand theory of utter balls. I can hear it now.’ He dropped into mimicry of a placeless and rather robotic accent. ‘“American domination of the British Isles – both culturally, from the first Coco-la to the last Wimpy and the last Stawb-bux and Kay Effsea, and by a military occupation, as at the sites tentatively identified at Mill Den Hall – we dismiss Professor Zellner’s variant reading of, “Mine All” –, at al-Conbri, and at La Kenneath, and the perhaps older sites at Camgriffiz and elsewhere – was replaced, at least in part, via processes not yet fully understood, by Indo-Pakistani control. Although in a few places – notably the Wool Fonts – the culinary, cultural, and religious traditions of the British carried on, even there the Dux remained only Gracious, and Wool Down was overlooked by a Gurkha settlement, and the Big Man in the District was a Nawab, who was a Highness to the Dux’ mere Graciousness.”
‘Cue immemorial academic chorus, accompanied by a grant application: “More study is wanted”….
‘Well, damn it all, we do have records (thank you, Viney): these abstracts from a few casual hours in the muniments show – and from tomorrow on, you’re all of y’ free of the muniments, so do fossick and rootle in ’em – that, precisely as I –’
It had been just then that the lights had gone out.
‘All rather –’ and here the power came back on –: ‘ah: thank y’; well done, Viney, and all of you: all, as I was sayin’, not unlike, oh, Birdoswald when the lights allegedly went out – Postr- –’ and here the duke paused, as one who remembers that, No one knows Latin these days, damn it all, what in buggery is the country comin’ to?, and translated – ‘ah, “The last Roman to leave Britannia is to snuff the candle” – though the last Roman never left Britain any more than he did Byzantium, and the lights stayed on: look at the palynology of your imagined feral wasteland –, Birdoswald, then, though there they’d a longer sinkin’ of the light for those who imagine it sank at all, and more time that’s dark t’ us; and throughout Rheged and the Old North. In any case … these abstracts –’
‘That was a suspiciously apt demonstration.’ Dr Reckley’s tone, clipped as it was, was aptly – and amply – suspicious.
The ducal eyebrow went up. ‘Come, come: should I have arranged that?’ His Grace was dangerously bland. And he did not stay for an answer. ‘I’d like to imagine I might make m’ points, to ripe, approved, mature-minded scholars, without parlour tricks of that sort.’
The duchess and Den Farnaby, at least, remarked this second non-denial-denial as being equally blandly equivocal. So, it appeared, did Dr Das, who winked at Millicent.
‘These abstracts, then. The –’
‘“Parlour tricks”,’ murmured Den, quite audibly; ‘this from a man who’s rumoured to’ve once hustled Ricky Jay at the poker table.’
‘What an absurd rumour,’ said Charles, with his infamous smile-like-a-drawn-blade. ‘Can’t think who puts these about. I certainly didn’t.’
Den, with a smile of admiration at this further ambiguity, subsided, and allowed His Grace to go on about the abstracts without further interruption.
Beneath all its purposes in the story and as a fictional device, this seems to me important. I might go further: pointing out, for example, that the changes in burial rites, which have led to the identification of many cemeteries as somehow “Anglo-Saxon” regardless of who is buried there, no more mean “new people” and an invasion-and-replacement hypothesis than the Victorian and post-Victorian acceptance of cremation in preference to inhumation reflects necessarily a loss of Christian faith and tradition, much less of an invasion-and-replacement model in modern Britain in which the British have been displaced, rather than added to, by, say, Subcontinental immigrants … let alone invaders.
What I wish to stress is the extreme probability, indeed the presumption, of continuity. I believe it was Richard Reece who stressed this, buttressed in part by a perfectly colorable reading of Bede, regarding the settlement of such mercenaries and economic migrants from the Continent who arrived in the sub-Roman period, and who took up lands given them in waste and marginal areas, the villas remaining in the hands of the Romano-British as those villas and those owners transitioned into the early medieval proto-manors and thegns of the pre-Conquest period.
The last thing I wish to do is to pick a quarrel, particularly one well outside any field or expertise I can claim, with Saxonists, some of whom are amongst my favorite people. I cannot claim to be on any intimate terms, even by correspondence, with any of them, let alone claim to be their equal: though I have had some quite friendly correspondence with Sam Newton, far beyond my merits or deserts. But if I recall aright, Helen Geake is on record as saying that we do not know how the future petty kings identified, or identifying themselves as, “Anglo-Saxon,” arose, who they were, from whom they were descended, or whence they came.
Precisely. Certainly Cerdic – Caratacus, Caradog – and his immediate successors in the House of Wessex bore Celtic names; and the same crop up from time to time in Mercian and Northumbrian king-lists.
And what I do maintain is this, that, even in so limited a scope as the population genetics of England, not even of the UK as a whole, the use of genetic data to buttress theories of racial or national descent of the population is exceedingly unwise. The idea that, prior to any claimed Adventus, what is now England was populated by so many Welshmen (and bear in mind, boyo, that I am Anglo-Welsh myself by descent), and that it became England due to a sudden influx of people from Frisia and the Angle, seems to me to be rubbish. We do not know how these peoples self-identified. We do know that their contemporaries recognized a commonality between some Gauls and some of the Germanic tribes, and that Gallo-Germanic tribes were identified as already present in and populating considerable parts of Southern, particularly Southeastern, and East Anglian Britain, in the late Iron Age and before the Roman era in Britain. And we know that even in so small a field as this, “race,” even in the sense of nationhood and ethnicity, is a construct, and one constructed by racists. I am not and do not claim to be a scientist, let alone a geneticist; I am an immeasurably minor historian. But I am something of a logician, with a lawyer’s training. And on the evidence, the only possible verdict is that which I once again propound as a maxim of universal applicability: Race, and indeed ethnicity, is a construct: one constructed by racists. It may be a political fact; like most political facts, it is an objective falsehood.
Here endeth the lesson.
The evidence of one’s senses is always in both senses material: a point which writers generally, and historians particularly, ought to bear in mind. Life is not carried on, carried out, lived, in hermetically sealed, soundproof rooms.
The writing of history is a literary art. The writer of fiction is the historian of his or her world. Both sorts of writers, and all sorts of writers, need to be able to immerse themselves and their readers imaginatively in the world they are portraying: the past, or the fictional. Accordingly, both sorts of writers, and all sorts and conditions of writer, need to be able to immerse themselves (and their readers) sensorily, bodily, sensually, in the world they are portraying – whether the past, or the fictional – to be worth a damn, and to be worth reading.
The writer, in any genre, is tasked with answering one question above all which must be, and always is, in the reader’s mind: What’s it like? And that, in practice, means, very much, How did or does it feel, how did it sound, how did it smell, what did it look like?
As I slowly begin to stagger back from the latest bout of heart trouble and recovery, I have begun sporadically to resume work on our (long-delayed, by my health troubles) book about the July Crisis of 1914. Our first notion, of getting it out as a centenary history, as we were able to do on the Titanic book, went to hell when I had major heart attack and consequent triple bypass surgery in 2014. My recovery therefrom was interrupted, and the book further delayed, by a series of further health problems, the most recent of which was my (comparatively) minor heart attack in November of 2020, and the subsequent angioplasty and stent. In response to my entering anew upon the task of working on the 1914 book, Gerv emailed me urging restraint, on the ground that, whilst he indeed wished to finish the book, he did not care to become known as the former writing partner of the last casualty of the Great War. He was “not, of course, suggesting that the book was, as a collaboration, cursed, but….” One sees his point. All the same, one carries on.
And, carrying on, I find this as good a time as any to stress, perhaps as such legacy as I shall leave, this point, to writers of fiction and nonfiction alike, and to their readers: the senses matter. Allow me to point a few examples of what I mean and what this can accomplish. They are taken from my, Wemyss’, and our joint, works, for the excellent reason that, although these may not be the best examples, I have the rights to them. The easiest thing to do after detailing how Congress, by one vote, in August of 1941, kept the draft going, four months before Pearl Harbor, would have been to wrap it up in a few sentences and say that, because of this, the country, though not expecting war, wasn’t caught flatfooted by it completely; but that hardly catches the mood and the facts – or foreshadows the all too imminent future. This does:
… Congress had voted, which is what they were there for, and the promised hell hadn’t broken loose, and Lend-Lease and defense contracts and all had put money in the pockets of folks who hadn’t seen just a whole hell of a lot of that during the Depression.
The long burning stasis of August ended, and September followed, with harvest and the proceeds of harvest. Auctioneers were at work in tall, airy tobacco barns; steers were sold; grain poured into silos. At various days in various parts of the country, hunting season began. Volunteer fire departments held turkey shoots. When the frosts came, apple butter was made and hogs were slaughtered for the smokehouse.
Students were back in school. Frank Dobie was contemplating the longhorn; Walter Prescott Webb, the frontier; Roy Bedichek, sighing over his papers as head of the UIL, brooded upon the Inca dove and the hackberry tree; John Graves considered the Upper Brazos from the library at Rice Institute.
In Rockbridge County, the established kirk of the Ulster Presbyterians, the gratin of Episcopalians with vague connections to the First Families of Virginia, the humble Roman Catholics and the solid, worthy Methodists and the Baptists all afire with the Good News of the Gospels, began to contemplate anew the mysteries, as cool weather spilled down the slopes of the Great Valley like sweet well-water in a dipping-gourd. The annual cycle of revivals and “mother-church” parish reunions and dinner-on-the-grounds and church bazaars and dowager Episcopalian churchwomen making plum puddings to sell for Christmas in aid of the church funds, went on with the regularity of a settled order of nature. The Stonewall Brigade soldiers of the 116th were long since resigned to the Guardsman’s fate.
Across the mountains, in Bedford, beneath the Peaks of Otter, small merchants and farming families whose sons were in the National Guard wished the boys could stay at home and do their jobs.
As harvests came in and the leaves blazoned autumn and farming families had harvest-money to spend, it was a time of Smithfield or country ham, fried chicken, creamed salsify, spoonbread and corn pudding and chess pie.
Americans could no more contemplate a future of rationing than of war.
November was coming, with Thanksgiving and all the trimmings; and after that, Christmas, in a land yet at peace in a war-torn world.
And so, when the first, mild Sunday in December brought a reckoning to a confiding nation, the country was unprepared, perhaps, but not unarmed.
– Pyle, “Fools, Drunks, and the United States:” August 12, 1941, 2011, 2012 (2d ed.), 2012 (3d ed.)
The language of a sociological tract could presumably have conveyed something of life in 1937; but not, I venture to say, quite as much as this:
In September of 1937, from Shockoe Slip to the Fan District, Richmond, Virginia was one great Call for Philip Morris – and the factory floor was integrated. Wise housewives shopped at Ukrop’s for groceries – including Duke’s Mayonnaise, Richfood milk, Mrs Fearnow’s Brunswick Stew, and Sauer’s Vanilla Extract – and at Standard Drug for pharmacy, the Vick’s on the Biggs Furniture bedside table. (If sister truly felt right low, some Northern Neck ginger ale might help – and some ice cream from White’s.) The Virginia Seed Service was now the Southern States Cooperative, for all your farming needs.
Up north, in Philadelphia and New York, people relied on Horn & Hardart’s Automats for meals.
North Carolinians insisted on Luck’s Black-Eyed Peas. In the Deeper South, everyone knew that ‘Colonial is good bread’. And Nabs went with a Co’-Cola as much as peanuts themselves did.
From Sout’ Louisian’ to Deep East Texas, you slathered Steen’s Cane Syrup on your Light Crust biscuits. Pickles were Del-Dixi, light-bread came from Mrs Baird’s, canned vegetables were Allens or Trappey’s, and ice cream came from the little creamery in Brenham: Blue Bell. In the summer, a Haspel seersucker suit was just right for the business day at the Esperson Building in downtown Houston – although you wanted to be careful not to get your James Coney Island cheese coney on it, at luncheon.
In Britain, the hoardings shouted the merits of Cadbury’s and Guinness, Lucozade, Ribena, Hovis, Quality Street sweets and Cowan’s Whisky. Peek, Frean and Ovaltine; Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Virol, Bovril for beef-tea, and Marmite; Roberston’s, appallingly, not only used Golliwog in everything, including its marmalade adverts – Golden Shred –, but for its ‘Golliberry’ jam, blackberry jam, bramble. These were the years of Morris Motors and Senior Service cigarettes, Sunlight soap and Hornby trains…. The Bermaline loaf was sliced for a Scots tea. Huntley and Palmers for biscuits; Palethorpe’s for bangers.
It all moved by rail, just as the post did, the down postal train, the Night Mail celebrated the year prior by Auden and Britten in a classic short film. This was why men dug coal and died at Holditch.
August was the harvest month, and September hardly less so: the cereal crops were harvested, stooks in Britain and shocks in America heaped golden in every arable field, but September was the time of fruit, of bramble and of apple. (In the American South, the cotton was yet being harvested, and might be picked until January, still largely by hand.) All through the West Country, men dreamt of cider – and were part-paid in it. The corn of August had been reaped with luncheon harvest ales and tea in the fields at 4.0 or 5.0.
And it had relied on horsepower: on horse power. The hobbits of the Shire were little less advanced.
– Pyle & Wemyss, ’37: the year of portent, 2012 (1st ed.), 2013 (2d ed.)
Any fool, even I, could recount the bare bones of how Georgia persuaded itself into adopting slavery, forbidden by its founding; and adopted it much later than in Virginia and the Carolinas. Any fool could then dismiss those who did so as one-dimensional villains. Of course they sinned terribly in doing this; but even sin has motives, and a rationale, and a despair of other options, as anyone writing anything more thoughtful and more serious than a comic book or a Victorian melodrama ought to know and to be able to convey:
The Countess of Huntingdon had her hands full in 1770. Two years before, she’d opened her seminary at Trevecca, hard by the community founded by the Welsh Methodist leader Hywel (or “Howell,” if you were English, Saes) Harris. Now Whitefield was dead, the Minutes Controversy was raging, the first president of her new Trevecca College (John William Fletcher, the vicar of Madeley) had left it through taking Wesley’s side, Harris’ foundation at Trevecca and the Countess’ College there were at daggers drawn, and her late chaplain had left her what she did not yet realize was a poisonous bequest.
The colony of Georgia, like Bethesda Orphan House itself, was founded as an act of practical charity: in Georgia’s case, for those who’d had their brushes with His Majesty’s debtors’ prisons. It oughtn’t to take a right smart of familiarity with the Parable of the Unjust Steward to realize that that, as we say down home, “cuts and shoots, both.” For those making their way, hoeing very stony ground, in General Oglethorpe’s colony, failure was familiar enough that a second failure was in no way an option.
I have seen young men in the peak of their physical condition and in the prime of their youth collapse messily and bloodily on tarmac, face-first, incapable even of attempting to break their falls: going down like a gunnysack of cabbages, brains shut down, not knowing they were falling, dead to the world. It’s called Summer at Fort Benning, the happy home of heatstroke. And it’s not unknown at A. P. Hill, as far as that goes. I don’t know if I can convey to, say, Europeans, what it is like. Usually by April, pretty often by February or at least by March, the first few minutes in a pick-up truck in Texas, before the airconditioning beats back, for a time, the bewildering force of heat and humidity…. A heat-wave in the dog days of a British Summertide racks up high temperatures that are the overnight lows of Winter, let alone Autumn or Spring, in the American South. We may, nowadays, be weaker, tenderer, than our colonial and pioneer ancestors, ruined by airconditioning and soft living, fatter and weaker and older than the old ones; but I’m betting the over. The heat is bad enough. The humidity is worse. We call it “muggy”: well, it feels like a mugging. In those first few moments of our encounter with it, the face goes numb, precisely as if with bitter cold. Breath labors. It is stupefying. And it was just as stupefying, this appalling climate, in Georgia in the 1760s and ’70s.
For colonists escaping prior failures, failure in their refuge and escape was not to be tolerated. Neither, though, was the intolerable climate. And so they persuaded themselves into a work-around. Chattel slavery.
In fiction, and still more in life, in history, people are not the personified Vices and Virtues of a morality or miracle play.
People are shaped by, and shape, their environments. And it is the author’s job to depict those environments.
Here’s Brother Wemyss:
I’ve had the great world, and you may have it if you like. For the writer, particularly, the universal inheres in the local. To be at once servant and master to and of one’s own ground is the secular beginning of wisdom. It wants time, as slow and as deep-rooted as itself, to see and comprehend an oak; and the time even of the butterfly is of equal duration beneath the eye of heaven.
In East Sussex, let us say, an old farm sleeps in sun-dapple, its oast-house with its cowls echoing the distant steeple of SS Andrew and Mary, Fletching, where de Montfort had prayed and Gibbon now sleeps out a sceptic’s eternity. The Sussex Weald is quiet now, its bows and bowmen that did affright the air at Agincourt long dust. A Chalk Hill Blue spreads peaceable wings upon the hedge. Easter is long sped, yet yellow and lavender yet ornament the land, in betony and dyer’s greenweed and mallows. An inquisitive whitethroat, rejoicing in man’s long opening of the Wealden country, trills jauntily from atop a wall.
Or awa’ upon Islay, in January, the wind was honed to a cutting edge across the queer flatness of Loch Gorm and the strand and fields ’round. The roe deer had taken shelter in good time and the brown trout had sought deeper waters. An auld ram alone huddled against the wind, that had swept clear the skies even of eagle, windcuffer, and goose. The scent of saltwater rode the wind over the freshwater loch, and the dry field-grasses rattled, and there was the memory of peat upon the air: a whisky wind in Islay. The River Leòig was forced back upon itself as the wind whipped the loch to whitecaps; only the cairn and the Standing Stones stood unyielding in the blast as of old.
For the author as for God, standing outwith his creation, all times are one; all times are now. In mine own country, we accept as due and right – as very meet, right, and our bounden duty – the downs and their orchids and butterflies, the woods and coppices, ash, beech, oak, and field maple, rowan, wild cherry, holly, and hazel, bluebells in their season and willow, alder, and poplar in the wetter ground. We accept as proper and unremarkable the badger and the squirrel, the roe deer and the rabbit, the fox and the pheasant, as the companions of our walks and days. We remark with pleasure, yet take as granted, the hedgerow and the garden, the riot of snowdrops, primroses, and cowslips, the bright flash of kingfishers, the dart of swallows and the peaceful homeliness of house martins, the soft nocturnal glimmer of glow worm and the silent nocturnal swoop of owl.
On late Summertide Sundays shading into Autumn, after service, the gentle sun has long since burnt away the earliest morning’s fog, that had bedewed and bejewelled the first autumnal spider webs in hedgerow and rosebush. The sky is perfect, as blue as the butterflies that adorn each sunny surface fit for basking; the breeze gentle, and the air murmurous with the hum of bees and the drowsy susurrations of wood-pigeon and stock-dove. There are shy, largely unseen bullfinches in the ancient hedge that bounds the pub’s back garden, where it slopes down towards the winterbourne. The ancient turf is sweet underfoot, and God, assuredly, an Englishman today: here, at least, There Will Always Be an England. Just beyond the peaceful, quiet churchyard, the village trails away into countryside: white horses in the chalk, and larks, above, ascending. Sand martins are on the wing above the river and the quarry, thrushes and meadow pipits dart and flutter. Local JPs and the district medico talk of roses and wall-fruit: the good doctor is complaining of his never-ending war against a nearby sett of badgers who have taken his garden’s bulbs as a buffet supper for the third year, now.
The Ringer’s Guild host their opposite numbers from a Cotswold parish and a Berkshire parish; not a few once served in the same regiment, the old RGBW, and its forebears.
Some of the village youths, intent upon seeing the cricket when village XI meets neighbouring village XI and there comes the clash of arms, are trailing back, muddy, damp, and chuffed, with the trophies of a day’s fishing, their long poles casting shadows in the afternoon’s long slant of light that recall the spears of Alfred’s army when Wessex fought the Dane.
And just outside this charmed circle, where the countryside begins, the Ancient ever and always is: the land everlasting, sacred with circles and henges, horse-carven, stream-scrolled and fluted, rich; otters and voles slide into the waters and play in the wild cress, dormice sleep in coppiced bluebell-woods, foxes and deer, nightingales and woodcock, make them their homes in ancient woods of oak and ash, beech and silver birch; and the great bustard once again makes the downs its home.
We live, all of us, in sprung rhythm. Even in cities, folk stir without knowing it to the surge in the blood that is the surge and urgency of season. In being born, we have taken seisin of the natural world, and as ever, it is the land which owns us, not we, the land. Even in the countryside, we dwell suspended between the rhythms of earth and season, weather and sky, and those imposed by metropolitan clocks, at home and abroad.
– Wemyss, Sensible Places: essays on place, time, & countryside, 2012
Wherefore you shall find, we trust, when it is finished, in the 1914 book, this, prefacing a statistical account of Britain on the eve of war:
It can be terrifically difficult to recover a sense of the past, and even of the recent past. Facts do not always tell the full story: or, rather, they do, if they be themselves full, but they cannot always convey it to us. Even the past of sixty years ago is remote now to many people, including those who lived in it. That this is so is not solely owing to the pace and increasing rapidity of pace of technological change, but to the loss of sensory perceptions which have accompanied it. The past is a vanished soundscape, and smellscape, and viewscape. Americans of Mr Pyle’s generation not uncommonly react to the taste of Tang and the sight of an Apollo Program patch or decal as Proust reacted to a soggy madeleine biscuit and a typically appalling French substitute for proper tea. Mr Wemyss cannot always resist the urge, on hearing an aeroplane overhead, but to hope that his daydreams have come true and Concorde flies once more: ‘last night I dreamt I went to Filton again’.
The auditory, visual, and olfactory world of 1914 is remoter still. City, town, and countryside were more distinct then. So also were the districts of each. Could we but walk in 1914 again, before the War, we might soon become able to guess, blindfolded, where or in what sort of place we were, simply by snuffing the air and pricking an ear. Soapworks and steam laundries, coal and clinker and soot and steam from the railways and urban railways; cabbage boiling, and the scent of imperfectly washed humanity in clothes not of the cleanest; the pervasive smell, then outside of academia and politics, of horse manure, in a world in which horsepower was almost entirely yet literal; beer and gin and oysters and beefsteak, steelmaking, leatherworking, the sounds and smells of the farrier’s and the blacksmith’s trades; the sound of hundreds of inexpertly played parlour pianos heard through opened windows from the same middlebrow songbook of sentimental treacle. The rattle of wheels, the jingle of harness and brass and trace, the bells of the hansom cab and the carriage and their horses, the trundle of the beer waggons from the little breweries pulled by great draught horses. Pub sing-alongs, and the sudden hilarious roar and cheering from the music hall. The sound of plough and ploughman, of the reaper in its season; or of pastoral animals and one man and his dog. The scent of sweat and pigs and cider presses, of hedgerow and churchyard yew. Birdsong in the countryside; sparrow, pigeon, and starling in the cities, rioting over the bounty spread daily upon the streets by the innumerable horses. Change-ringing and church choirs and Mattins and market days. Or, in America, the disturbing and fascinating aromas of foods scarce known in Britain save in the East End of London, and of foods less familiar even yet; church choirs of inexpressibly different voice and accent singing hymns unfamiliar to British ears, unknown even in the chapels of the Welsh valleys; crowds at a baseball game speaking, cheering, in a language which was not cricket; the braying of mules where the American plow and the American plowman worked a very different team in very different soils; the scent of oleander, honeysuckle, and magnolia, of ripening sweetcorn or of cotton, flowering (‘White? Lord, Lord, there’d be days when you got out of bed and’d’ve swore it done snowed in Summer, them cottonfields all white an’ all’), and of sugarcane and sorghum at the mills. The resounding clank and clatter and rattle, of railroad trains the rhythms of which gave the travelling George Gershwin the inspiration for Rhapsody in Blue, or of early oil rigs, casing and pipeline … and sometimes the noise, the roar and the heat and the noonday terror and the acrid smoke of a blowout well, or the viscous rain of crude petroleum from a gusher. The old, slow, long sounds of cowboy and cowhorse and cattle on vast ranches, and the reek and the uneasy or terrified noise of thousands of cattle in feedlot or stockyard, waiting to be turned into beef, at trailhead and railhead. The rustle of rows of tobacco, the dizzying scent of curing, the echoing acoustics of tall barns in Southside Virginia and the rhythmic, spellcasting, ritual voice, rising, falling, urging, plangent, hortatory, wheedling, of the auctioneer, running up bids on Cavendish and Burley and Bright Burley.
We cannot re-enter that world; we cannot recapture its feel, its sounds and smells. Fact, naked and bare, must do what it can.
– Wemyss & Pyle, The Crisis 1914 (forthcoming)
I have tried to make this point, not least by example, is every book I have written or cowritten (or edited), and distinctly remember making this point, in lecturing on Titanic, and the world in which she sailed and sank, to the Darien Historical Society in 2012. We cannot re-enter that world; we cannot recapture its feel, its sounds and smells. But we must try. Unless we do, we cannot understand for ourselves, nor can we convey to anyone else, a reader, what we most importantly and significantly mean, and the reality we seek to depict, be it historical or fictional.
From cruising altitude, groundscape becomes very two-dimensional – such that a road to a farm can at first appear to be an obelisk. There is a lesson in this for historians and historiographers.
So too is there such a lesson in the way in which, at cruising altitude, one feels – and the view looks – as if one were falling back towards stall speed. But this is not so, any more than a road is an obelisk casting no shadow at noon: it is all quite literally a matter of perspective. A nearer horizon is necessary: it undeceives. For reasons of speed, scope, and three-dimensionality alike, history cannot successfully be done from thirty thousand feet.
On the other hand, even at thirty thousand feet, you can’t miss the Gulf or the Mississippi. And you cannot help but wonder how we made it across a continent, we Americans who are not wholly of Native American ancestry (and indeed, from Bering to Patagonia, how they managed). It’s a big country, and its big bold features can’t be missed at any altitude; may perhaps be seen most wholly at altitude. This may explain the recent fashion for Big Ideas History: you don’t have to leave First Class, come back to earth, and get close to things.
By contrast, train travel – rail travel – is as linear as history itself, and inevitably at or near ground level. It necessarily comes freighted with history, the recapitulated history of itself and its own technology. It bridges, it cuts – if the rock is competent –, but it is all but literally in a rut. To some extent, the same is so of the automobile: it requires roads. A pedestrian history avoids this restriction; but it is too slow, too limited, and too low to the ground to take any wide view. Metaphorically, at least, history is best done on horseback.
*** I was scheduled to speak on the Sunday, and to fly back to Houston on the Monday. Saturday was devoted to a pre-Halloween trip to an orchard (and pumpkin producer) in Bethel, in a part of the Connecticut countryside that unequivocally recalled the fact that it is, geologically and geographically, a part of Appalachia, linked indissolubly to Rockbridge County, Virginia, to Belle Isle off Newfoundland and Labrador, to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama: even as the Maryland and Virginia Lines of Washington’s Continental Army were bound to the troops from New York and Connecticut and Massachusetts: the Appalachians, that great barrier to the westward expansion and settlement of the British colonies and the fledgling United States that were their diadochs.
… I had determined that the correspondence between George Washington and Lady Huntingdon was begging for a fuller examination, in itself and in its context: a wider context, which included the American expansion through a continent of natural obstacles and wild weather, of all but impassable mountains and rivers that few dared to bridge;[*] and which included as well the growth of the American spirit and character, our tangled relations with the possessors of the land before us and the enslaved peoples who were brought here to ease the Anglo-Americans’ way forwards and westwards, the religious roots of abolition and the predestinationist attitude of Manifest Destiny….
Rock and river; wind and weather…. Robert Louis Stevenson’s highlands have their American counterparts: old plain men with rosy faces; young fair maidens with quiet eyes; winds and rivers, life and death. Within a century of the last correspondence between Selina Huntingdon and George Washington, the former colonies had extended over the continent, to the Pacific strand. The aged Sam Houston asserted that the American epic was superior to the romances of Europe: that the true saga was in “the unwritten legends of heroism and adventure which the old men would tell them who are now smoking their pipes around the roof-trees of Kentucky and Tennessee.” Yet there was more to it than that. The peopling of the continent by what we loosely – and inaccurately – call “Anglos” was more than adventure, or heroics. Consider my journey between Connecticut and the Gulf Coast of Texas. The “fall line” all along the Atlantic seaboard is quite near the sea: in New England, almost on top of the shoreline; further south, to the southern end of the Appalachians, increasingly distant, yet not too far removed. The head of navigation on the rivers of Texas is much further inland. Yet in 1783, the Appalachians and their piedmont, even without the Native Americans’ presence, were a barrier to the Westward expansion. Florida was then Spanish. Between Georgia and Maine there were few passages through the palisade and rampart of the mountains; only in the Northeast Appalachians, east of the Adirondacks, do the mountains bend their axes, creating routes to the Northwards: in the Taconics, the Berkshires and the Green Mountains, the White Mountains and the Mahoosucs. And these routes are in a sense dead ends, leading only to the St. Lawrence and, politically, to Canada: hostile territory in 1783. The Great Valley was accessible, and accessed, by the Germans we call the Pennsylvania Dutch and by wave after wave of Ulstermen; but it also was a cul-de-sac, for, once in it, Westward, ho, the way was blocked, Cumberland and Allegheny insisting, “They shall not pass.” That there is a Houston at all – the man or the city – is testament to a great event.
– Benevolent Designs
I do not say, Go thou and do likewise. I say, Go thou and do better.
Here endeth the Lesson.
* “For four centuries now, the American people have resigned themselves to natural disasters and acts of God: floods, prairie fires, blizzards, tornados, hurricanes, dust bowls, epidemics, academics, lawyers, and politicians.”
– Me, in “Aphorisms & Observations,” Pyle & Wemyss, The Transatlantic Disputations: Essays and Meditations, 2012
Markham Shaw Pyle is a published legal, political, Congressional, diplomatic, and cultural historian, and the author of “Fools, Drunks, and the United States”: August 12, 1941; Benevolent Designs: The Countess and the General: George Washington, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, their correspondence, & the evangelizing of America; “Roses and Bayonets: A theory of civil disobedience;” and the medical memoir, Tonight at the Morpheum: A Hospital Farce in Three Acts. With the UK historian GMW Wemyss, he is the author of, inter alia, ’37: The year of portent; When That Great Ship Went Down: The Legal and Political Repercussions of the Loss of RMS Titanic; and the forthcoming The Crisis: 1914; and co-editor and -annotator of The Complete Mowgli Stories, Duly Annotated; The Annotated Wind in the Willows, for Adults and Sensible Children (or, possibly, Children and Sensible Adults); and a forthcoming annotated edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
He holds his BA (Politics and Philosophy (Special Hons.)) and his JD from Washington and Lee.
Executive summary / summary execution / summary judgment
Quidquid præcipies, esto brevis.
SLAVERY, RACISM, AND that narcissism of small differences which is the twisted soul of all ethnic, national, and religious prejudice, have always been with us as a species, as a form of original sin. As Horace also said, naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret: you may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she always keeps shoving her way back in. The work of repentance and reformation is never fully done, and must be done again in each new generation. Laws can change, but the darkness of the human heart, which is not divided by ethnic origin or geographic location, but runs down the broad middle of every human soul, must always be fought against. The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.
The question is, Who is to carry on that fight, and keep that vigil, that unsleeping watch and ward?
Nations can fall. Armies can triumph … and suffer defeat. The oppressed can be liberated. Constitutions can be amended and laws passed. Churches can preach. Great men can set examples. Business and organized labor can join hands to oppose evil. Social pressure can be exerted.
These are necessary. They are rarely sufficient in themselves. And sometimes, all of these institutions ally themselves, not with virtue, but with a vice so engrained and so fashionable as not to be recognized as an evil.
Gibbon said of history that it “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” It must be learned from lest, as Santayana said, it be repeated. Even today, in our own times, an illiberal populism opposed to the principles of the founding: which, in America, is what conservatives are meant to conserve: has joined hands with a separatism claiming the mantle of wokeness to resegregate housing and education and to institute anew racially discriminatory practices prohibited by law, in a pincer movement from two fundamentally opposed evils, operating on fundamentally opposed principles. They have formed a domestic Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Britain and America, in the 19th Century, did two unprecedented things. Both expended blood and treasure untold in abolishing slavery and putting down the international slave trade. Sadly, in both countries, they also preserved the unique habit of Western Europe and the colonies, arising from the Transatlantic slave trade, of engraining an association between skin color and past or present slavery, of servile status, from which modern racism arose.
Laws and governance and constitutions can be changed; and the oppressed, unshackled. But the war for hearts and minds is never-ending.
When, going on eight years ago, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder that the purposes of the Voting Rights Act had been so far achieved that its pre-clearance regime was no longer constitutionally justified, this was not because education, religion, social pressure, or public prosecution had sufficed to make those changes. To the contrary: these had failed from 1865 to 1964, and been inadequate from 1964 to 2013. Until the 1950s and 1960s, Congress and the Supreme Court had failed of their duties, in the teeth of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. Business, labor, the schools, the churches, and civil society, had likewise failed. For fifty years thereafter, civil society continued to fail. And it is a frail reed even now.
None of these bulwarks had kept Jewish Americans from being discriminated against and sometimes lynched. None had adequately defended the Native Americans against dispossession and genocide. All had failed when faced with the moral challenges of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the persecution of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. None had operated to prevent segregation and discrimination and exploitation under color of law against Hispanic Americans. And none had prevented strange fruit hanging from the limbs of lynching-trees in the South, or sufficed to protect the African Americans for whose freedom men had fought and died – and who in turn fought and died for a country which did not grant them the basic rights and dignities of the citizenship which was theirs by law.
These Americans: Black, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish, and even poor whites: were “despised and rejected of men” (Isaiah, liii.3), and not to the magnificent setting of Handel in Messiah. They were not without agency. They fought for themselves and their rights, and for their country, however unrequited their love of their country was. Had their persecutors been amenable to reason or to example, the exploits of 442 Regimental Combat Team in the European theater, the most decorated unit for its size in the history of warfare, composed almost exclusively of Nisei; the work of the Native American Code-Talkers in both world wars; the Nobel prizes racked up by Jewish Americans and Chinese Americans; and such monumental heroism as earned Texans Roy Benavidez the Medal of Honor and Dorie Miller the Navy Cross, should have persuaded their detractors that their prejudices were irrational, untenable, despicable, and contemptible.
But racism, like the concept of race itself, is irrational, and rational people do not hold it. Even the efforts of great Texas-born presidents such as Ike and LBJ, whether by sending in the 101st Airborne to desegregate a school or ramming the Civil Rights Acts through a hostile Congress, can do only so much.
The battle is fought and won in the trenches. And it is fought and won for the despised and disregarded by that despised and disregarded class, lawyers, fighting with the weapons of the law. The private attorney for a private litigant may be, to the layman’s eye, an unimpressive and faintly ridiculous figure viewed with suspicion. But a private attorney for a private litigant bringing a non-frivolous civil rights action is vindicating, not only the interests of his client, which is his duty and a thing laudable in itself, but the purposes of Congress and the better angels of our nature, as a private attorney general. When a private attorney for a private litigant brings a non-frivolous civil rights action, she is engaged, as a private attorney general, in making good what Dr. King called the promissory note this nation issued at its founding, and redeeming the bounced check we as a nation wrote generations before. Counsel in such cases is doing what the nation and its government ought to have done and sometimes even yet fails to do. This is a task worthy of praise and honor.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
— GK Chesterton
SEVEN YEARS AGO, in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013), the Supreme Court struck down section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, on the grounds that it had worked, and things had so changed in the country that the Act’s enforcement regime was no longer necessary or constitutionally justified. Of course, there was resistance to this holding: few things are as permanent as a temporary measure, and bureaucrats do not like giving up powers awarded them for emergency purposes, no matter how long ago the emergency has passed. The Trading With the Enemy Act, 50 U.S. Code § 4301 et sequitur, was directed against the Kaiser’s Germany and its reluctant allies in 1917, when the US finally decided to join in the First World War: it is still on the books, and there is still a bureaucracy devoted to enforcing it. Even in times of peace, an enemy can always be found.
The Shadow of the Past
… do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends….
– JRRT, LoTR
THE COURT MAY well have been right. But it must not be forgotten that it took legislation and enforcement to change things in the country: mere social pressure was not doing the job. Racism and then Jim Crow had survived the defeat of the Confederate States of America and the formal end of slavery; Reconstruction; and the lessons, evident loyalty, military heroism, and example of two world wars. It persisted for a century after the War, until Congress took action. In many ways, after 1865, slavery was still running its old business on new premises under a new company name, to trade upon the credulity of the public.
Education failed. Religion failed. Even in churches which had a national or international basis, governed by bishops, in which local social custom ought not to have mattered, Jim Crow persisted. On the Eighth Sunday after Appomattox, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, the congregation sat frozen and the rector stood still as a stock when a well-dressed free African American man left his segregated seating, came forward, and prepared to receive communion at the altar rail. Time started again when a grey-suited – white – gentleman in his late 50s, white-haired and white-bearded from the strain of war, quietly went up to the communion rail and joined the African American communicant in expectation of receiving the sacrament. Yet not even the example of RE Lee sufficed to change the mores of the South, even in the Episcopal Church; and was swiftly explained away by others. Segregated churches and parishes persisted, as they did in the Roman Catholic communion, where, notably in South Texas, racial discrimination was unofficially extended against Hispanics as well as Blacks. Other denominations, such as the Methodists and the Baptists, which had split into Northern and Southern branches during the War or before it over the issue of slavery, did likewise. More fundamentalist denominations, where the call of a pastor was an entirely local matter, were even worse, in their little asbestos-shingle or tin tabernacles, and remained so well into the 1960s in what the great Texas writer John Graves called the crabgrass, dirt-road fringes of cities. And this was certainly true of rural churches: the great Texas writer AC Greene recalled one adamantly segregated country church in West Texas, in a denomination where one man or a group of trustees owned title to the church building and its land, there being no parish organization and no diocese, which was curiously integrated to the extent of keeping a seat of honor for one black man and his wife. That man was “80 John” Wallace, the former slave turned cowboy turned millionaire rancher who, alongside Bose Ikard, was one of the models for Joshua Deets in McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. He sat there in the church because he’d paid for the church outright when the poor white members of the white branch of his segregated denomination had asked him for a contribution to the building fund.
The cowboy successes of “80 John” Wallace and Charlie Goodnight’s right-hand man Bose Ikard, of Nat Love and Bill Pickett, were, however, uncommon. And everything conspired to keep them so.
Scouts and mountain men such as Jim “Bloody Arm” Beckwourth and Edward Rose, Samuel Fields of Deadwood and the cowboy archaeologist and historian George McJunkin, discoverer of the Folsom Site that revolutionized North American prehistory, were written out of the common record of American history for decades: because of their race.
Nor were they alone: Hispanics, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, and Jews were also discriminated against both by law and by custom. Even where the law did not discriminate and was not intended to discriminate against them in the way in which it discriminated against African Americans, it tended to be applied to them.
American Jews were discriminated against, exploited, made scapegoats, denied housing, barred from hotels and restaurants, and occasionally lynched, just like African Americans. North and South, they found deed-restricted houses, and public accommodations which declared themselves “Restricted,” “Gentiles Only,” “We Cannot Cater to Persons with Dietary Restrictions.” Some were more forthright: “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” There were clubs which would not accept Groucho Marx as a member when he was one of the most popular and beloved men in America. (Not that Groucho was much for clubs: he in time joined one which did not have these restrictions, and then jokingly resigned, spouting his famous quip, “I decline to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”)
Arthur Godfrey, who was, in the 1940s and ’50s, a hugely popular broadcaster with a reputation for geniality, began his descent into disgrace by firing Julius LaRosa, one of his cast, live on the air in a fit of pique and hitherto concealed megalomania; it made it all too easy to believe by the end of his fall that Godfrey had been involved in the “restricted” practices of the Kenilworth Hotel in Florida, which he part owned, although in fact he had apparently demand these cease as a condition of his investing.
In 1915, Leo Frank was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young girl in Georgia and lynched by a mob … which included a former governor of that state, other politicians, lawyers, and local sheriffs.
America is a land rich in natural resources. One of these is a deep and inexhaustible vein of irony. Georgia both judicially and informally lynched Leo Frank because he was a Jew and because he was seen as a damnyankee, a rich industrialist “battening” upon the South, a “Shylock.” He was Jewish; he had been raised in New York; but he was by birth a Texan, born in Cuero, and, rather than a rich industrialist, was a factory executive, working as a middle manager, a company man. And he was convicted based in part upon the rather contradictory and self-contradicting testimony of an African American, Jim Conley, who rightly feared that he was the other prime suspect if Leo Frank escaped conviction. No one can blame Jim Conley for saying whatever he felt necessary to escape the usual fate of a black man accused of crime against a white woman in the South. But it is testament to how determined the prosecution was to secure a politically popular conviction that it was willing to rest its case on the sort of testimony which prosecutors of the time universally considered, in all other circumstances, worthless: the testimony of a black man in a white court.
In 1939, the Motor Vessel Saint Louis sailed from Hitler’s Germany for the New World, with 937 refugees, 936 of whom were Jewish. Cuba would not let them land. Canada would not let them land. And at the personal directive of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States would not let them land, either. They traveled back across the Atlantic, and many of them found refuge in Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands: where, other than in Churchill’s unconquered Britain, they were rounded up after the fall of France and the Low Countries, and up to a quarter of them perished in the death camps.
Jews weren’t “white” enough.
For every Sam Houston, The Raven, blood-brother to the Cherokee, there was an Andrew Jackson. Or a few thousand. A century after the Trail of Tears, Virginia, led by Progressives, followed the lead of other states and passed its Racial Integrity Act, classifying people in accordance with the “one-drop rule,” and declaring that anyone with 1/64th “non-white” ancestry – including Native American ancestry – to be “colored” for purposes of prohibited intermarriage and of segregation. The rabid racists who proposed the bill which became this act wished to exclude anyone with a “single drop” of “non-white blood,” and specifically targeted those with Native American ancestry; but the General Assembly recoiled from this, as it should have meant that numerous Blands, Bollings, Burwells, Carters, Carys, Dandridges, Eppeses, Fairfaxes, Fitzhughs, Harrisons, Jeffersons, Lees, Markhams, Marshalls, Pages, Randolphs, Rolfes, Taliaferros, and Washingtons were suddenly relegated by law to using the “colored” water fountains and riding in the back of the bus. America is a land rich in natural resources. One of these is a deep and inexhaustible vein of irony. The General Assembly’s adoption of what was called “the Pocahontas Exception” is one of those ironies.
That was a small and purely self-interested victory to set against forced removals, reservations, massacres, segregation, discrimination, and several determined attempts at outright genocide.
Until 1924, Japanese immigrants could not be naturalized as American citizens. There were restrictions upon their ownership of land. Their native-born sons and daughters, however, had birthright US citizenship: these were the Nisei. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans were … infamously … rounded up and put in what were, quite openly, concentration camps: to the vociferous approval of that later bête-noire of American conservatives, the future liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren; of the conscientiously liberal, New Deal Washington Post and LA Times; and of almost every pundit in the country, and most Americans: all by the orders of that Progressive hero, FDR. Those orders were rescinded only the day before the Supreme Court issued its opinions in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), and Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, 323 U.S. 283 (1944). There is a certain amount of confusion and outright mythology which has grown up around these two opinions. Korematsu held only that the executive orders, in wartime, removing civilians from zones at military risk, were not unconstitutional on their face, as such. Endo held that loyal American citizens could not be subject to such detentions. Endo was a unanimous decision. Korematsu was decided by a 5 – 4 majority, with the Court’s majority opinion being written by Justice Hugo Black: the first of FDR’s nominees to the Supreme Court, a liberal icon, a former Democratic US Senator from Alabama, and the man whose rise in Alabama politics was owed in some part to his having been, before going into the Senate, a Klansman. And not even one out of principle, but for political advantage, going along to get along.
There were Americans in the Second World War willing to engage in treason or espionage on behalf of the Axis: a couple of white racists, and a passel of blond, blue-eyed, boy-next-door German Americans and Scandinavian Americans from the Midwest. The Nisei, by contrast, though their parents and siblings were, and many of them had been, in the camps, proved their loyalty to the United States – despite America’s treatment of them – in blood. (As the great African American boxer, Joe Louis, said at the same time, there might be a lot wrong with this country, but it was nothing Hitler was going to fix.) The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost exclusively of Japanese Americans, in the European Theater in World War Two, became the most decorated unit for its size in US military history: earning more than 18,000 awards in less than two years, including more than 4,000 Purple Hearts and 4,000 Bronze Star Medals; being awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations – five of these in a single month –; and having twenty-one of its members awarded the Medal of Honor. Years later – typically – Congress approved the granting of the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd RCT and associated units who served with them during World War II, and in 2012, all surviving members were made chevaliers of the French Légion d’Honneur. Among the unit’s exploits was the rescue of the Lost Battalion: 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, originally a unit of the Texas National Guard. In 1962, Governor John B. Connally made the 442 RCT honorary Texans for that.
Ironically, the mid-20th-Century wave of Hispanic immigration into Alta California, Arizona, and Nevada, vastly reinforcing and then outnumbering and supplanting the old Californio population, was begun owing to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, whose absence from the Military Exclusion Zone created a huge agricultural labor shortage.
Chinese Americans were subject to the Chinese Exclusion Acts notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision on birthright citizenship in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898). California’s state constitution of 1879 forbade the employment of Chinese people by state and local governments, and by businesses incorporated in California (now that the railroads were built and the Chinese were surplus to requirements), and green-lit the forcible local removal of Chinese people from and by any local government in California which chose to do so. Chinese Americans were subjected to segregated schooling just as African Americans were, and were subject to “Yellow Peril” race riots and persecution, with governmental blessing. Even the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), Justice Harlan, wrote that there was one “race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.” The only thing that got rid of the Chinese Exclusion Acts was, ironically, the warmongering of Imperial Japan: the Nationalist Chinese were America’s allies in World War Two, with Imperial Japan as their common enemy, and, in 1943, the Exclusion Acts were finally repealed.
Hispanic Americans were not the explicit targets of the racial discrimination, enshrined in law, directed against African Americans. But definitions of color were infinitely elastic when politics so dictated. Tejano citizens were often included in the discrimination and segregation of the time: partly because they were not visibly “white” in the Anglo-Saxon sense; partly because of old, festering enmities dating from the Texas Revolution; and partly because they were largely, and were always presumed to be, Roman Catholic. The revived KKK of the 1920s directed its hatreds towards Jews and Catholics as well as African Americans, with an evangelical fervor. In Texas, the “white primary” system, and segregated schooling, all put through by the only political party in Texas, the Democrats, disenfranchised and segregated Mexican American Texans as well as African Americans. Separate always meant unequal. At the peak of its political power, the Klan elected a US Senator from Texas, Earle Mayfield, partly as the Prohibition candidate; controlled the city governments of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls; and probably had a majority of the Texas legislature in its pocket. Its political fall was swift and sudden: it ran a candidate against “Ma” Ferguson for governor and got its clock cleaned by the very populist, Protestant, rural voters it was counting on; and its attempt to have a huge rally outside Waco, in which some of the Kluxers included serving Waco policemen, ran into McLennan County Sheriff Bob Buchanan and his deputy “Red” Burton, the future Texas Ranger and member of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. The Klan got its pointy, sheet-wearing … head … handed to it.
Yet the prejudice, and its legal expression, continued. It was “Ma” Ferguson who, opposing bilingual education plans in the Valley, waved a bible and declared, “Iffen th’ Anglish language was good enough fer Jeeeesus Chriiiiz, hit’s good enough fer the school-childer’n of Tex-iss.”
The prejudice, and its legal expression, continued, outliving the Klan. In a country as old as England, most cities, towns, and villages, have very old names, mostly geographic; but sometimes towns and villages have compound names, with the suffix relating to who used to own the place, as its feudal lord. Many surnames are locational: they show a shared place of origin for families who are not related by blood but share a surname. Every Sampford is named for its firm, sandy ford, a good crossing place. But Sampford Brett was named for the lords of its manor, the Bretts; Sampford Arundel, for its village-owning Arundels, progenitors of the Dukes of Norfolk; Sampford Spiney for its manorial lords the Spineys; Sampford Courtenay for its lords, the Earls of Devon; Sampford Peverell for the Peverells who owned it, kinsmen and right-hand men to William the Conqueror…. To be or to be descended of a Spiney, a Brett, a Courtenay, a Fitzalan-Arundell, a Peverel, is even now pretty hot stuff. Ours is a younger country, and, rather than surnames taken from towns and villages, we run to towns and villages which bear the surname of the local founder. You might think that to be a Benavidez, from the town of Benavides, descended of the founder of the town of Benavides, should be similarly impressive. It is; but it did not impress many people only seventy years ago.
Raul Perez Benavidez – Roy Benavidez – was born in Cuero in 1935 to an impoverished family, however distinguished; and raised in El Campo by his grandparents from the age of seven after becoming an orphan. He enlisted in 1952, four years after Harry Truman desegregated the army, and served with distinction in Korea. He then trained for and was accepted into Special Forces, and served in Vietnam. There, in 1965, he stepped on a landmine and was told he’d never walk again. He disagreed, and ran his own unsanctioned exercise and rehab program in the middle of the night in an Army hospital, unknown to his doctors. He won. Returning to duty in Vietnam, in 1968, Roy Benavidez engaged in close combat for six hours in a manner which resounds in the annals of military history, at one point being bayoneted and killing his enemy with a knife in response. When he was medevacked back to base, after medical evaluation, he was declared dead and they were putting him in a body bag when he spit in the doctor’s face to let him know he was alive.
I can do no better than to quote his Medal of Honor citation, in full:
Master Sergeant (then Staff Sergeant) Roy P. BENAVIDEZ United States Army, distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely valorous actions on 2 May 1968 while assigned to Detachment B56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, Republic of Vietnam.
On the morning of 2 May 1968, a 12-man Special Forces Reconnaissance Team was inserted by helicopters of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company in a dense jungle area west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam to gather intelligence information about confirmed large-scale enemy activity. This area was controlled and routinely patrolled by the North Vietnamese Army. After a short period of time on the ground, the team met heavy enemy resistance, and requested emergency extraction. Three helicopters attempted extraction, but were unable to land due to intense enemy small arms and anti-aircraft fire.
Sergeant BENAVIDEZ was at the Forward Operating Base in Loc Ninh monitoring the operation by radio when these helicopters, of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company, returned to off-load wounded crew members and to assess aircraft damage. Sergeant BENAVIDEZ voluntarily boarded a returning aircraft to assist in another extraction attempt. Realizing that all the team members were either dead or wounded and unable to move to the pickup zone, he directed the aircraft to a nearby clearing where he jumped from the hovering helicopter, and ran approximately 75 meters under withering small arms fire to the crippled team.
Prior to reaching the team’s position he was wounded in his right leg, face, and head. Despite these painful injuries, he took charge, repositioning the team members and directing their fire to facilitate the landing of an extraction aircraft, and the loading of wounded and dead team members. He then threw smoke canisters to direct the aircraft to the team’s position. Despite his severe wounds and under intense enemy fire, he carried and dragged half of the wounded team members to the awaiting aircraft. He then provided protective fire by running alongside the aircraft as it moved to pick up the remaining team members. As the enemy’s fire intensified, he hurried to recover the body and classified documents on the dead team leader.
When he reached the leader’s body, Sergeant BENAVIDEZ was severely wounded by small arms fire in the abdomen and grenade fragments in his back. At nearly the same moment, the aircraft pilot was mortally wounded, and his helicopter crashed. Although in extremely critical condition due to his multiple wounds, Sergeant BENAVIDEZ secured the classified documents and made his way back to the wreckage, where he aided the wounded out of the overturned aircraft, and gathered the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. Under increasing enemy automatic weapons and grenade fire, he moved around the perimeter distributing water and ammunition to his weary men, reinstilling in them a will to live and fight. Facing a buildup of enemy opposition with a beleaguered team, Sergeant BENAVIDEZ mustered his strength, began calling in tactical air strikes and directed the fire from supporting gunships to suppress the enemy’s fire and so permit another extraction attempt.
He was wounded again in his thigh by small arms fire while administering first aid to a wounded team member just before another extraction helicopter was able to land. His indomitable spirit kept him going as he began to ferry his comrades to the craft. On his second trip with the wounded, he was clubbed from behind by an enemy soldier. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, he sustained additional wounds to his head and arms before killing his adversary. He then continued under devastating fire to carry the wounded to the helicopter. Upon reaching the aircraft, he spotted and killed two enemy soldiers who were rushing the craft from an angle that prevented the aircraft door gunner from firing upon them. With little strength remaining, he made one last trip to the perimeter to ensure that all classified material had been collected or destroyed, and to bring in the remaining wounded.
Only then, in extremely serious condition from numerous wounds and loss of blood, did he allow himself to be pulled into the extraction aircraft. Sergeant BENAVIDEZ’ gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.
For much of his early life, and well into adulthood, Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez was subject to both legal and social discrimination on the basis of race, just like every other Hispanic American in the country.
Race is a construct: one constructed by racists. But like many other falsehoods, it has been a political and social fact.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the African American experience. This was the template for the racism, including that enshrined in law, suffered by Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Jewish Americans … and sometimes by white Americans as well of the poorer classes, who shared much of their culture with their African American neighbors, class being more important than perceptions of race, and who were accordingly damned by the middle classes as a threat within, inherently likely to overthrow the racial hierarchy by mixing socially and sexually with “nonwhite” populations. The aspiring, uneasy, insecure middle-class Southern whites feared the existence of a common culture amongst the poor of both races, and feared that poor Southern whites, partners in an Afro-Saxon culture, might, if ever they realized that their interests were not served by having their African American neighbors there as someone to look down on and to give them a sensation of superiority, turn upon the middle classes.
The aspiring, uneasy, insecure middle-class Southern whites were “who were left standing” after the War: which had killed off or disenfranchised the old Southern upper classes, a class mostly apolitical, dutifully serving their states as they saw it but never happy about secession, and not given to fire-eating and demagoguery. These new men, the aspiring, uneasy, insecure middle-class Southern whites, “scientific” racists, Progressives, industry-minded, who took their notions from Prussia, might, every once in a hundred, have a planter ancestor, in a few cases, but always one who had been a new and self-made man; and were in the main the successors of the fire-eaters, the demagogues, the rabble-rousers, and the rabble they had roused. General Lee and his kind, the old Southern aristocrats, paternalistic and patronizing but kindly, were gone. Only the raw remained: the Theodore Bilbo and “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman politicians, red in tooth and claw. Teddy Roosevelt, whose mother was a Bulloch from Georgia, had Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House; Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive hero of Princeton, resegregated the United States government.
In the end, they failed, the insecure racists of the middle classes (and the lower middle classes at that); and that despised and derided Afro-Saxon culture triumphed: as witness Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Molly Hatchet, and all Southern and swamp rock. But the bastards had their triumphs along the way, even against the poor whites: notably in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), one of the most despicable opinions ever written by the Yankee patrician, Union veteran, Progressive idol, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It was directed against what the eugenicist and bureaucrat Harry Hamilton Laughlin, another Ivy Leaguer and an allegedly expert witness in the trial, called “the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” By “antisocial,” he meant, of course, insufficiently committed to racism. Alas, it took more than three generations for the country to say that these imbeciles were enough.
Dorie Miller was one of the very first heroes of the Second World war, and the first African American hero of that conflict, which should create so many African American heroes. He was born in Waco, some two years before the Kluxers tried to riot only to run into the buzzsaw of Sheriff Buchanan and Red Burton. He’d been given the name Doris when he was born, because the midwife was certain he’d be a girl. She was wrong. He grew up to be a high school fullback of impressive power, and in 1939 he joined the US Navy. But because he was Black, they made him a mess attendant, though they also gave him training in gunnery to go with it. There was no other place for a black sailor in the US Navy of 1939, even one who was the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion. On the other hand, none of his shipmates laughed at his name.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, aboard USS West Virginia at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Dorie Miller had already served breakfast and was carrying linens to the laundry when the ship sounded “Battle Stations.” He raced for his assigned station, the magazine for one of the antiaircraft batteries sited amidships: and found that his station had been destroyed by a torpedo dropped by an aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy. That wasn’t going to stop him. He immediately reported that he was free for assignment to other duties. Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson seized upon him and his powerful build for aid in moving the wounded captain on the bridge, Captain Mervyn Bennion, whose guts had been torn open by shrapnel. Destruction on the bridge meant that it was impossible to move the captain, and the captain was not inclined to move, though mortally wounded: he insisted upon remaining at his post until he died, directing the defense of his ship. Lieutenant Frederic H. White ordered Miller to help him and Ensign Victor Delano load the unmanned Number 1 and Number 2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns aft of the conning tower, a weapons system new to Dorie Miller: which duty he performed; and, having helped load the weapons, he took over the gunnery of one gun of the battery.
When ammunition was exhausted, he returned to a renewed effort to move the dying captain from the bridge to a place of greater safety, and, having done so, rescued numerous shipmates before West Virginia sank.
The next year, he was promoted: to Mess Attendant First Class. A white survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack was given a commission. On May 27, 1942, Admiral Nimitz personally decorated his fellow Texan with the Navy Cross, noting that it was the first time that the Pacific Fleet had so honored an African American, and that he looked forward to its being the first of many. The citation for his award reads,
For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.
The Navy put him on a recruiting poster and sent him on a tour to help sell war bonds. He was promoted Cook First Class on June 1, 1943, when he reported to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay: as high a rank as an African American could achieve in 1943 in the US Navy. On November 24th of that year, during the Battle of Makin Bay, he, with two thirds of the ship’s company of Liscome Bay, went down with his ship. His parents got the telegram that he was presumed dead on December 7, 1943: two years to the day after Pearl Harbor.
He was dead at 24, having lived and died, and given his life in the service of his country, in a segregated America which would not sit with him, eat with him, go to school with him, fight beside him, or allow him into a Texas voting booth. His actions, his heroism, were extraordinary; his life and circumstances were the universal experience of African Americans from their first forced arrival in this country to two decades after his death in battle.
Of Human Bondage
IX. OF ORIGINAL OR BIRTH-SIN
ORIGINAL Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation….
– The Articles of Religion, the Church of England, 1562
SLAVERY, LIKE THE poor, we have had always with us: and in parts of the world, we yet do. Every human society which has not yet risen above what the distinguished British military historian Sir John Keegan called the military horizon, practices raiding. The Aztecs took captives for human sacrifice, in what they called their Flower Wars. Native Americans in what is now the United States and First Nations peoples in Canada regularly raided for slaves, from the Rio Grande to Canada’s Great Slave Lake. For a very long time, the slave trading capital of the ancient world was on Delos, one of the most sacred isles of Greece. Viking Dublin was its successor as the European slave market supreme. The great achievements and accomplishments of Imperial China, like that of ancient Egypt, and of most early societies, were built by slaves in their thousands. The very terms, “slave” and “slavery,” indicate one of the major sources of slaves throughout Europe, the oft-defeated Slavs. And Africa, North, South, East, and West, was full of slaves, of slavery, and of slavers: raiders and traders. There were slaves in Russia until early modern times and unfree serfs until the 1860s. Around the year 1000, the Bishop of Crediton, whose see is now the bishopric of Exeter, freed his slaves in his will: but most slaves in England, though not in Wales, in the late Anglo-Saxon period, were by then those to whom even the 13th Amendment should not apply: persons held to labor by judgment of a court. There were no jails or prisons in Anglo-Saxon England, nor was there the technology to build them: in consequence, those convicted of serious crimes were sentenced to enslavement with the local lord or, if their crimes were an offence against morals or canon law, to the local bishop. A murder, say, which could not be settled by the payment of wergild got you bound over for life to the local thegn. Incest, or raping a nun, got you sentenced to life without parole with the nearest bishop.
Racism and ethnic rivalry, the hatred of small differences in pigmentation, appearance, facial structure, language, or indeed religion, is, like the poor, always with us. Sadly, the law has too often followed these prejudices rather than its principles. Even where slavery had ceased to exist, it shapeshifted into other forms and its underlying prejudices remained. Under the Normans, slavery in England ceased in time to exist in name; but unfree peasants, serfs, bondmen, villeins, persisted, as thoroughly owned by the lords of the manor as any unfree ancestors ever were. The men who signed Magna Carta, like those who crafted and signed the Declaration and the Constitution in this country, held other human beings in legal subjection.
The African history of raiding and trading in slaves is an ancient one. There were upwards of 600,000 slaves in the Sokoto Caliphate. The Kings of Dahomey were the most notorious slave-takers, slavers, slave-sellers, and slave-traders in Africa. Muslim Arab traders had made the traditional cycle of raids and trades into an international commercial enterprise long before the Portuguese first nosed their way down the West African coast in their little ships. Zora Neale Hurston, in 1944, in “The Last Slave Ship,” detailed how this endemic cycle of petty warfare and slave-taking amongst the little African kingdoms created first the trans-Saharan and then the Transatlantic slave trade; and quoted the Jamaican proverb that these tit-for-tat wars were what brought the black man from Africa to the Caribbean and North American plantations. As late as the eve of the First World War, Istanbul had succeeded Delos and Dublin as the preeminent slave market of the Western world, far exceeding anything Charleston ever managed. In the early 1960s, the estimated slave population in Saudi Arabia was about 300,000 souls. Nor was it all one way: John Newton, when a slaver, was briefly enslaved by the West African slavers with whom he was dealing; the father of Olaudah Equiano, the great Black British abolitionist, was himself a slaver and slave-trader; the Barbary Corsairs raided for slaves around the Mediterranean and into the North Atlantic, including sacking and carrying off the entire population of Baltimore, Ireland, for which the city in Maryland is indirectly named. The US “Marine’s Hymn” begins by referring to American victories on the sites of two ancient centers of slavery: the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.
When Britain and America abolished slavery – one by the stroke of a pen which, in that stroke, discarded a considerable percentage of the country’s wealth, and which was followed by further expenditures of blood and treasure in putting down the Atlantic slave trade by the open gunports of the Royal Navy and its West Africa squadron and by armed redcoats preventing the recapture of any slave who escaped to British territory and freedom anywhere in the Empire; the other by the bloodiest war in her history, which nearly bankrupted the South and came close to bankrupting the entire Union – they were at last living up to their principles, even as other societies lived down to theirs. And continued and continue to do so.
It was necessary. It was not sufficient. Unlike other societies which had engaged in this evil, western Europeans and their colonial offspring in the Americas had done something new in the world: they had made enslaved status, or its legacy, visible, linking it to color. Racism, therefore, became intertwined with the history of slavery, inextricably, and persisted and persists, after the legal abolition of slavery, in racial discrimination.
All the same, the British and the Americans had been willing to strip themselves of blood and treasure to eradicate slavery. It was necessary. It was not sufficient. The law had to be enforced in the face of and in opposition to an ancient human instinct for sin.
Abolition was necessary. It was not sufficient. Politicians, statesmen, and lawyers, like writers, have a fatal tendency to believe that to have said something is to have accomplished it. They had scotched the snake; they had not killed it, in the hearts and minds of men.
The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
– John Philpot Curran, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, previously counsel for James Somerset in Somersett’s Case, Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499, the case which found slavery illegal in Britain
Here, too, as always, the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.
The Butcher’s Benevolence
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
– Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature & Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol 1
JACK KENNEDY WAS not a racist. Neither, really, unless perhaps by Eleanor’s standards, was FDR particularly one. Harry Truman certainly wasn’t. Ronald Reagan certainly was not, and even Dick Nixon could claim innocence on that score, if on no other. With the exception of perhaps the most evil man ever to occupy the White House heretofore, Woodrow Wilson, no president since 1860 has been a thoroughgoing, or even particularly notable, or often any sort of, racist.
For one thing, it’s no longer politically profitable. But even politics is a vocation sometimes capable of honor and virtue.
For decades after the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party could agitate for an end to legalized racism and call itself, as it loved to do, the Party of Lincoln. They probably meant it. And, after the end of Reconstruction, there was no political downside to them in doing so: they had no constituency in the white South. Waving the bloody shirt galvanized their Northern voters against the white South, politically profitably. And although the GOP began as the party of the small farmer in the Free States, against the Big Business agribusiness of the Southern plantation economy, winning the War had thrown them into close association with Wall Street and Big Business: who, for purely economic reasons, opposed segregation and legalized racism: after all, it increased overhead and limited the pool of customers.
The resistance of southern streetcar companies to ordinances requiring them to segregate black passengers vividly illustrates how the market motivates businesses to avoid unfair discrimination. Before the segregation laws were enacted, most streetcar companies voluntarily segregated tobacco users, not black people. Nonsmokers of either race were free to ride where they wished, but smokers were relegated to the rear of the car or to the outside platform. The revenue gains from pleased nonsmokers apparently outweighed any losses from disgruntled smokers.
Streetcar companies refused, however, to discriminate against black people because separate cars would have reduced their profits. They resisted even after the passage of turn-of-the-century laws requiring the segregation of black people. One railroad manager complained that racial discrimination increased costs because it required the company to “haul around a good deal of empty space that is assigned to the colored people and not available to both races.” Racial discrimination also upset some paying customers. Black customers boycotted the streetcar lines and formed competing hack (horsedrawn carriage) companies, and many white customers refused to move to the white section.
In Augusta, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, and Jacksonville, streetcar companies responded by refusing to enforce segregation laws for as long as fifteen years after their passage. The Memphis Street Railway “contested bitterly,” and the Houston Electric Railway petitioned the Houston City Council for repeal. A black attorney leading a court battle against the laws provided an ironic measure of the strength of the streetcar companies’ resistance by publicly denying that his group “was in cahoots with the railroad lines in Jacksonville.” As pressure from the government grew, however, the cost of defiance began to outweigh the market penalty on profits. One by one, the streetcar companies succumbed, and the United States stumbled further into the infamous morass of racial segregation.
– Jennifer Roback, “The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars,” Journal of Economic History 56, no. 4 (December 1986): 893–917.
But economic self-interest was not always a sufficient foundation in the short run. If the customer is always right, then the racist customer is right; and if there be a sufficient number of racist customers, business shall accommodate them: particularly if they also vote, and vote legalized racism into effect, with concomitant fines and penalties. “As pressure from the government grew, however, the cost of defiance began to outweigh the market penalty on profits.” Samuel Gompers, the great American labor leader, head of the AFL, born in the East End of London and raised in the Lower East Side of New York, was a typical labor leader, whose interest was wholly, passionately, in the labor movement. He supported integrating the unions, because that swelled their numbers and their power. But he was opposed to affirmative action in any way, and he equally opposed any loosening of immigration restrictions, even for refugees, even for his fellow Jews, if and insofar as such measures should dilute the power of organized labor.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), it’s worth noting, arose from a prosecution of a mixed-race (and white-passing) passenger boarding a “white” railroad car in New Orleans. It was in fact a test case, set up, with the connivance of the East Louisiana Railroad, which opposed the Louisiana Separate Cars Act on economic and overhead grounds, by the New Orleans Comité des Citoyens, a group of dissenting Louisiana Creoles of both races and mixed-race persons, with Mr. Plessy as a volunteer defendant.
The law was clearly on their and Mr. Plessy’s side. The Supreme Court was not. The case backfired, and the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which in practice was always separate and never equal, became enshrined in constitutional law for six decades, until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Even Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), lasted less than one decade.
The Democratic Party was an alliance between Northern, urban, often ethnic-based, and always boss-system-governed cities, and the Solid South. The only crack in the solidity of the South came when the Democratic Party nominated, at the Democratic National Convention in Houston, Governor Al Smith of New York for the presidency: an Irish American, Italian American, Catholic, Yankee anti-Prohibitionist. However that nomination may have played in Peoria, it did not play for sour apples in Palestine or Plano, or in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, or in Pensacola.
Al Smith’s successor, FDR, never forgot that lesson. With the exception of Governor Price Daniel of Texas, no politician since Washington has ever considered his party and himself to be other than indispensable. There is always something which must be done, there is always a crisis which no one else can solve, there is always some comforting reason why the ends justify the means; some justification for the easy course, some reason for profiles in cowardice. FDR was not going to jeopardize his plans and his policies in the crisis of a Great Depression, or the midst of a World War, by splitting the Democratic Party and alienating the white South over civil rights. Nor was JFK if he could possibly avoid it: even though Truman had desegregated the Army and survived. Even in proposing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Kennedy was cautious and tentative, as he had been in his term-and-a-bit in the Senate. Nor, probably, could JFK have got it through the Senate, where he had been written down from the start by his colleagues as an amiable and far too ambitious lightweight. When President Kennedy was assassinated, his pussyfoot civil rights bill and his desperately needed tax cut were both bottled up in Congress, each held hostage to the other, with no prospect of breaking the impasse.
As Milton Friedman once said, it is not enough to elect the right people: what matters is making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.
It fell to two Texans to do the right thing. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been born in Denison, and the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, having whipped Hitler, had no fear of Southern racists, including those who had been in the Senate since God was in short pants. The Supreme Court had ordered school desegregation in Brown. Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas wasn’t going to stand for that, and called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Ike wasn’t playing around. He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne.
LBJ, born in Stonewall, had not been a general in the mode of Washington and Grant, as Ike had been. But before becoming Vice President, and then succeeding the assassinated President Kennedy, he had been for many years the absolute master of the Senate. He was a calculating and crafty man, tempted on occasion to virtue but a born anti-hero. He knew where the bodies were buried and who’d buried them. His motive in getting civil rights legislation through Congress was not particularly noble, but was, rather, the result of political calculation, for partisan advantage, of which he was the undisputed master. And because he was the undisputed master of political calculation, the master of the Senate, who knew where the bodies were buried, and because he had the most virulent racists in the Senate by the tenderest parts of their anatomies, he knew and showed that he could do what he wanted when he wanted to on any legislation no matter who opposed it. Jack Kennedy could never have done it and made the Democratic Party put up with it without splitting apart; Lyndon did it without breaking a sweat. And made his fellow Southern Democrats grin and bear it.
He was determined to win election in his own right in 1964. He was determined to rub Bobby Kennedy’s nose in the fact that he, LBJ, could do what Jack could never have done. He already expected to be facing Barry Goldwater, and he was determined to beat him; and he knew that Goldwater was a lifelong member of the NAACP. Neither he nor the Democratic Party could any longer afford to be the party of segregation or the standard bearers of that party and that policy. A quarter of a century later, Bill Moyers claimed, doubtless with some advantages of memory, that, when the act passed, LBJ despaired that he might have given the South to the Republican Party for two lifetimes; but what LBJ said in 1963 and 1964, not least to Southern senators he wished to chivvy into letting the bill through, was that the party which passed a Civil Rights Act would have a lock for the foreseeable future on the African Americans whom the Act at last truly enfranchised.
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis very nearly brought to the world to a thermonuclear end. By 1963, as the country began already to blunder into the swamps and jungles of Vietnam, the question was whether America was the great liberating power, or just another name for Birmingham: Birmingham, Bombingham of the murders, of the spittle-flecked, mouth-frothing hatreds, of the firehoses and police dogs directed upon peaceful protesters by a member of the Democratic National Committee, of the murderous bombings of little African American girls on a Sunday morning at church preparing for divine service. The Cold War was running hot, and America’s friends at America’s enemies were watching.
They were watching events inside America, and measuring these against America’s moral claim to be a shining city on the Hill, the leader of the free world, the last, best hope of mankind, the citadel of freedom and Liberty.
Pending before the Supreme Court was Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226 (1964), arising from a 1960 sit-in in Baltimore. The initial conference showed the justices five to four in favor of upholding the resulting convictions, of the ground, established by much precedent, that the state could not trespass upon private business arrangements, including the refusal of service. This would have doomed the bill in Congress. Then, Justice Tom Clark of Texas changed his mind. Justice Douglas, who had delayed the decision as long as possible for fear of the congressional consequences to the civil rights bill, then delayed it further so as not to give cover to senators to vote against the bill on the grounds that the Supreme Court had already taken care of the problem. In the end, the court found a procedural reason to send the case back to the lower court.
Calculation, self-interest, and political profitability had accomplished, as they always do, what preaching and prayer had not. The Supreme Court had corrected its past errors of law and avoided committing a new error of politics. Congress had spoken. Now, though, the law had to be enforced.
I Am the Very Model of a Private Attorney General
WHEN THE CIVIL Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it was evident that enforcement would prove difficult, and that the Nation would have to rely in part upon private litigation as a means of securing broad compliance with the law. A Title II suit is thus private in form only.
When a plaintiff brings an action under that Title, he cannot recover damages. If he obtains an injunction, he does so not for himself alone, but also as a “private attorney general,” vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority.
– Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 401-402 (1968)
In Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013), the Supreme Court struck down section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, on the grounds that it had worked, and things had so changed in the country that the Act’s enforcement regime was no longer necessary or constitutionally justified. It had taken legislation and enforcement to reach that point: mere social pressure hadn’t done the job. Education had failed. Religion had failed. Congress and the Supreme Court had long failed. Civil society had failed. In fact, for much of the time, all of these were on the other side, allied to the evil.
M Homère Adolphe Patris Plessy had failed. General Cleburne, who’d urged emancipation and African American enlistment upon the Confederacy, had failed; General Lee, the apostle of reconciliation and the singlehanded desegregator of the communion rail at Saint Paul’s, had failed; General AP Hill, that Confederate abolitionist, had failed; General Jackson, who had defied Virginia law and custom to teach literacy to the enslaved, had failed: the white South had not been persuaded even by its heroes. President Lincoln, and President Grant, relenting at last upon Reconstruction, had failed, too, ending open resistance but leaving hearts and minds untouched and unreconstructed. Neither example from within the South nor pressure from without had accomplished what was necessary to be accomplished. Even the law had not worked … until Ike, and then Lyndon Johnson, by one and another form of raw power, rewrote the rules.
If things have so changed in the country that parts of the Civil Rights Acts can be taken for granted, much of the credit for that change is due to private lawyers for private litigants. Even after the passage of these acts, there was massive resistance, not only in the South, but throughout the country. There are only so many US Attorneys and their AUSAs. What Shakespeare called “the insolence of office, the law’s delays,” was deliberately deployed to resist the Civil Rights Acts. And, far too often, the resistance included local judges, prosecutors, juries, policemen, and sheriffs.
It is easy, and it is sometimes deserved, it has sometimes been earned, to agree with only half a smile to what Shakespeare has Dick the Butcher say: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Lawyers can sometimes be mercenary, in the sense of grasping. Lawyers are often mercenaries in the sense that they are guns for hire. But let us recall the words of another English poet, AE Housman:
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Sometimes, mercenaries are the last line of defense. Attorneys bringing suit for civil rights violations, as private attorneys general, are the Gurkhas of the Constitution.
Maurice Bessinger ran a chain of barbecue restaurants – Piggie Park – in North Carolina, all of them drive-through save one. Anne Newman, an African American minister’s wife, was denied service at one restaurant. A restaurant is a place of public accommodation under the Civil Rights Act. She sued. Bessinger’s defense for not serving a minister’s wife simply because of her race was that it violated his religious principles … whatever they were: as they were not Christianity.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
– Galatians, iii. 28.
The Supreme Court was not amused, or impressed.
The District Court held that the operation of each of the respondents’ restaurants affected commerce within the meaning of § 201 (c) (2), 78 Stat. 243, 42 U.S. C. § 2000a (c) (2), and found, on undisputed evidence, that Negroes had been discriminated against at all six of the restaurants. 256 F. Supp. 941, 947, 951. But the District Court erroneously concluded that Title II does not cover drive-in restaurants of the sort involved in this case. 256 F. Supp., at 951-953. Thus the court enjoined racial discrimination only at the respondents’ sandwich shop. Id., at 953.
The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s refusal to enjoin discrimination at the drive-in establishments, 377 F.2d 433, 435-43….
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it was evident that enforcement would prove difficult and that the Nation would have to rely in part upon private litigation as a means of securing broad compliance with the law. A Title II suit is thus private in form only. When a plaintiff brings an action under that Title, he cannot recover damages. If he obtains an injunction, he does so not for himself alone but also as a “private attorney general,” vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority. If successful plaintiffs were routinely forced to bear their own attorneys’ fees, few aggrieved parties would be in a position to advance the public interest by invoking the injunctive powers of the federal courts. Congress therefore enacted the provision for counsel fees – not simply to penalize litigants who deliberately advance arguments they know to be untenable but, more broadly, to encourage individuals injured by racial discrimination to seek judicial relief under Title II.
– Newman, 400-402.
Over the past half century since Newman, the concept of the private attorney general, the private litigator vindicating public rights on behalf of a private litigant, has expanded, as it had to expand. Gutless elected officials exist even in the federal system and the federal bureaucracy, let alone among elected sheriffs and police chiefs and prosecutors. The civil rights lawyer in private practice is the built-in failsafe of the system, and without him or her the past half century of progress made should not have been made.
Nor should that progress have been maintained without those lawyers. The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance. Today, just as there remain threats from white racists to the civil rights of racial minorities, there is also an assault from the Left, clothing itself in the language of wokeness, upon the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Acts, appropriating the death of George Floyd – my (O, American irony!) seventeenth cousin twice removed, as it happens – and the maxim that Black Lives Matter, urging separatism and seeking to resegregate housing and education from the other axis, often coupled with a renewal of Jew-hatred not seen since the Nuremberg Trials: which must likewise be resisted.
Some lawyers are driven by a partisan agenda; some are cynical, with an eye to political reward; some are wild-eyed; some improperly exceed the bounds of arguing colorable legal principles, making claims, defenses, and other legal contentions which, impermissibly, are not warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law.
But such lawyers do not last long in the profession, which is self-correcting. When, therefore, a private lawyer brings a civil rights action which is not facially nonsensical, but which, rather, seeks to vindicate the rights of his client, and further the purposes for which Congress passed civil rights legislation to make the Constitution truly effective, then, however uncomfortable it may make some of you, the proper and honorable response may be taken from the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.
Here endeth the Lesson.
This morning, on social media, I ran across a post in which a young PhD candidate at a Midwestern University was bemoaning the domination of the publishing lists in History by persons who were not academic historians.
I’m not going to embarrass the young man, or those who commented on his post, by being more specific in my identification of the post than that. I imagine he means well and sincerely. I also imagine that this is a received opinion, picked up from his preceptors. And I submit that this credentialism, mere credentialism, is, at least at secondhand, in essence an instance of careerism. Academic historians, without more, are by no means always the best historians; and history can be written quite successfully by those whose backgrounds, credentials, degrees, and professions are otherwhere. In fact, it is often written better.
DeVoto was an instructor in literature, a literary critic, and a journalist. Parkman was trained as a lawyer. Gibbon was a man of letters. Horgan was a novelist and librarian. Catton never completed his degree and was a journalist. Fehrenbach was a journalist. Tanner is a lawyer, with an undergraduate military education at VMI. “Slam” Marshall was a soldier and a journalist. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a teacher. Allan Nevins was a journalist with an MA in English. Tom Holland, unlike his brother James, did not read history at University, and began life as a novelist. D. Cameron Watt read PPE. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist. David McCullough’s BA is in literature. Perhaps that is why, Cassandra-like, he keeps trying to warn the profession that history is a literary art … and is not heeded.
Mattingly was a credentialed and professional historian; but it was naval service which made him the historian we celebrate.
Political scientists and practicing economists are almost invariably better writers on political and economic history than are academic historians who are that and no more; George Kennan took his undergraduate degree in History, but his formation as an historian is due entirely to his service as a diplomat.
Naturally, most credentialed, tenured, academic historians dismiss and, where they dare, despise these poachers. They are wrong.
An account of the Valley Campaign written by a VMI man who, owing to a legal education and the practice of law, has a sense of evidence and the ability to weigh conflicting eyewitness testimony, is necessarily superior to the bloodless contributions of some critical-theory-trained and -credentialed, bloodless faculty lounge warrior. Naval history is better written by a sailor than by a landlubber, credentialed though she may be. Writers and literary critics tend to handle their sources with a sharper eye than do mere academics. And they are less likely, it seems, to commit plagiarism.
They might have pegged even in prior decades. No longer. The modern academy no longer educates historians in any meaningful sense of the term: it merely credentials people. And it does so on the basis of squalid little orthodoxies. These then go on in the main to concentrate their increasingly microscopic – and myopic – focus on nonexistent issues, the chimæras of French and Frenchified theory, pirouetting in Lyotards. Of course the profession is dying: and any reasonably on-the-ball coroner should immediately rule it a suicide. It has ceased to be an academic discipline; it has become mere unacademic indiscipline. Naturally, few students wish to study it and those who do cannot find jobs in the academy, as fewer and fewer academic historians are wanted. Of course their books do not sell: the lamentably small subset of Americans, and Westerners generally, capable of reading and understanding a work of scholarship prefer that it come from an intellectually honest and well-rounded scholar who writes good English prose. Vanishingly few people wish to shell out good money for a semi-intelligible, subliterate monograph questioning – not even answering: questioning – whether the few recorded examples of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in their country’s service in the past did or did not suffer from gender dysphoria, or some damned thing.
Worse still, this abdication of – in both senses – responsibility by academic historians has allowed sheer nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that, and falsehood, to flourish: such as the execrable 1619 Project and the despicable dishonesty of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Were today’s credentialed and academic historians giving value for money: good writing and intellectually honest scholarship: it is they who would be on the best seller lists in History. They don’t, they aren’t, and it’s their own damned fault. As I wrote in the preface to Benevolent Designs: The Countess and the General: George Washington, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, their correspondence, & the evangelizing of America:
In late October of 2012, through the too-great courtesy of the Darien Historical Society, Mr. Jack Gault its learned Director, and my old friend Jon Zagrodzky, I found myself flying from IAH to La Guardia. I was booked to speak to the Darien Historical Society on RMS Titanic, thanks to my having co-written a history of the US Senate and British Board of Trade inquiries into Titanic’s loss.
As America unrolled itself in palimpsest beneath my flight, a long scroll overwritten again and again, I wrote down a few observations, on which I now draw, almost unedited. I hadn’t flown in a good twenty years (and the post-9/11 world is very different, I assure you, to a longtime non-flier); the airport at Bush had been little like the airport I remembered of two decades before. Modern airports are conventionally compared to cities; from food court to baggage cart (“comin’ through, folks!”), they have even their own costers’ and street-vendors’ cries. Once in the air, however, it is very easy indeed to feel oneself sealed off and set apart.
This is not a good thing.
… From cruising altitude, groundscape becomes very two-dimensional – such that a road to a farm can at first appear to be an obelisk. There is a lesson in this for historians and historiographers.
So too is there such a lesson in the way in which, at cruising altitude, one feels – and the view looks – as if one were falling back towards stall speed. But this is not so, any more than a road is an obelisk casting no shadow: it is all quite literally a matter of perspective. A nearer horizon is necessary: it undeceives. For reasons of speed, scope, and three-dimensionality alike, history cannot successfully be done from thirty thousand feet.
On the other hand, even at thirty thousand feet, you can’t miss the Gulf or the Mississippi. And you cannot help but wonder how we made it across a continent, we Americans who are not wholly of Native American ancestry (and indeed, from Bering to Patagonia, how they managed). It’s a big country, and its big bold features can’t be missed at any altitude; may perhaps be seen most wholly at altitude. This may explain the recent fashion for Big Ideas History: you don’t have to leave First Class, come back to earth, and get close to things.
By contrast, train travel – rail travel – is as linear as history itself, and inevitably at or near ground level. It necessarily comes freighted with history, the recapitulated history of itself and its own technology.
It bridges, it cuts – if the rock is competent – but it is all but literally in a rut. To some extent, the same is so of the automobile: it requires roads. A pedestrian history avoids this restriction; but it is too slow, too limited, and too low to the ground to take any wide view.
Metaphorically, at least, history is best done on horseback.
If academic historians want to do their jobs and have their reward, they need to get off their high horses, out of their offices, and onto horseback, in the field. Beats hell out of pissing-and-moaning on social media.
Ham-on-Wye is a perfectly plausible English place-name. So is Honey Coombe. And so is Batch Magna.
We’ll come back to that.
A few days ago (it’s been pissing down rain since), on my morning constitutional, I saw, against the backdrop of oak, pecan, and magnolia, not only mockingbirds and cardinals, but egrets as well. We’ll come back to that.
There are Hams in Gloucestershire, outside Cheltenham, in Somerset, outside Wellington, and elsewhere. There is one in Glamorgan. There is no reason there should not be one upon the River Wye.
Lulling and Fairacre and Thrush Green are unimpeachable English place-names. So is Market Blandings; and Crampton Hodnet; and Cranford. So are Lostley, Duke’s Denver, and St Mary Mead. A country which rejoices in the possession of the River Piddle can run to any number of place-names both evocative and comical without impinging upon the suspension of disbelief which it is necessary for a writer of fiction to construct to keep his readers onside. And alert and clever readers on either side of the Pond shall not then be surprised to discover, may discover for themselves, that a seemingly comical fictional place-name is as utterly serious as are any of its seemingly comical counterparts on the map. (I happen, as editor, to know, as readers within the coming weeks shall learn, that Honey Coombe, in Gervase Wemyss’ Village Tales novels, takes its name from having been, for a period of time, in the possession of one Huna, a perfectly historical, if morally dubious, West Saxon magnate and crony of King Edwy’s.)
It is said, and with considerable truth, that a thousand years is a long time to an American – even to a Southerner – and thousand miles is a long distance to a Briton. More pointedly, a thousand years to a Briton is yesterday, and a thousand miles to an American is a weekend road trip. To the Briton, the Year of Our Lord 1020 is by no means lost in the mists of time and may mark a particular known event in his family’s history or legendry, or in the history of his cottage or the chain of title to his estate on the eve of the Conquest. Equally, to him, to travel a thousand miles is not only to leave his own country but to find himself in the lands of his hereditary and quite likely recent enemies; or of course to find himself at sea, in which case there is no reason not to keep going and found a colony somewhere when next he sights land. Most Americans, by contrast, though certainly not all of us, have but the vaguest idea who their grandparents were, let alone their great-grandparents; but they can drive a thousand miles not only without leaving their country, but without leaving their region, and in one case at least shall merely have gone from less than a hundred miles East of the border of Texas to less than a hundred miles West of it, as crossing Texas takes up over eight hundred miles of the trip. When I was young, I regularly travelled some twelve hundred miles at the beginning and end of terms and academic years from my family’s house to my University. And I never left the South in doing so.
We’ll come back to this.
Most modern, recent American writers of fiction agonize, or at least dramatize, on social media over the most remarkable and absurd concerns. One will have a near breakdown over whether or not she is “allowed” to write characters who differ from her in any way: in skin-color, in ethnicity, in politics, in sex, in orientation, in religion (or, nowadays, in having one)…. Wiser heads, in hopes of prevailing, then reassure her; only for others to jump in and assert that she may so write, of course … if she first ticks off a number of boxes in the process and submits herself to voluntary pre-publication censorship in the guise of “sensitivity readers,” so-called, and bears ever in mind that she runs the risk of crowding out and doing down another author who, in writing such characters, should be writing of her own people, and who is therefore oppressed by the very existence of a rival manuscript: as if publishing were a zero-sum game.
This is the sort of arrant horseshit I dismiss as “Fiction Writer Problems.” I probably ought not to do: not because this is not arrant horseshit, but because it has ceased, disastrously, to be reserved to writers of fiction, and has begun increasingly to infect the writing of history and biography and other nonfiction.
A competent historian recognizes that no one who is not demonstrably insane in a clinical sense ever acts from a single motive; that the line between good and evil does not run between races or regions, but right down the broad middle of every human heart; that place (both geographical and social), and family, and upbringing, and the spirit of the times, materially and subconsciously influence the choices, often the tortured choices, people make; that those who came before us may have had different experiences and reasoned from different data, but were no less moral and no less intelligent than we; and that our present generation is not the apex of human civilization and morality, to which all the ages have been but mere preparation. Unfortunately, nowadays such historians are thin on the ground, and have been replaced by strident, partisan, ideological nonentities who are credentialed but not educated. That is why the current iconomachy is going on, and figures of the past are being reduced, with whatever society and State they lived in, to Manichæan two-dimensionality, in a purported history which is no more than a “woke” Sandford and Merton.
This particularly includes writers of fiction, each of whom is the biographer of her characters, and the historian of the world in which these live. And most of them are incompetent to do it and are failing resoundingly at it.
We’ll come back to this.
It has become a commonplace, so much so as to have an entry on TV Tropes, that “Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names.” In many cases, those names which are of the subset “preppy,” the American equivalent to “Sloaney,” are significant in this regard: that Americans have carried their history with them in their names as they have moved and moved and moved again across the continent. With one appalling exception, that of those who, enslaved, were brought to America unwillingly and in chains, everyone in America, including the Native Americans, is here because their ancestors somewhere else chose to come here. And once here, and once free, Americans have been a fiddle-footed lot. Never mind that boatload of lost Yankees who arrived late: my people got here, in part, sailing with Captain Newport to Jamestown. Even the last-arrived of my ancestors, with the exception of a few Scots Jacobites on the lam after the ’15 and the ’45, antedate Britain’s allegedly Glorious Revolution, let alone the founding of the United States: in which they played a part. The use of ancestral surnames as Christian names strikes modern Englishmen as a quaint and faintly ridiculous American custom: they forgetting that, for example, the father of the first Duke of Marlborough was the first Sir Winston Churchill, that Cavalier who gave almost all his substance to the Royalist cause, and who was so named because his mother had been born a Winston. This American tradition is a British inheritance.
To take a few examples from my own family history – which I choose because I can use these examples without treading on the toes of anyone to whom I am not related – my mother’s father’s family had roots in East Anglia and the East Midlands at a very early period, but early moved to the Welsh Marches – Peter Maughan’s setting –, where they settled down as a minor Marcher gentry family, Anglo-Welsh through repeated intermarriages, and often producing clerics. My ancestral Eatons, on my father’s side of the family, were a family of the same sort, from Great Budworth in Cheshire to Llanddewi. My maternal grandfather’s family in America: from Maryland, through Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, to Dallas, of which they were amongst the founders: continued in this country to name sons, generation after generation, as Al(l)anson, a connection dating back to their Leicestershire days, or as Howell … with the occasional Owen or David or even Cloyd. There is a marked quantity of Welshness and of Anglo-Welshness in repeatedly naming sons, generation upon generation, as Hywel, Owain, Dafydd, and Clwyd, or their Saesneg versions. Along the course of their American journeys, they picked up new connections, and these, too, came to be memorialized in the names handed out at the font: De Vere, Hartwell, Denzil….
My father’s mother’s family was, similarly, Scots in its patriline: Shaws of Rothiemurchus and Tordarrach and their cadets of Clan Farquharson and all the Sìol Fhionnlaigh. Three centuries in America or no, my grandmother’s grandfather was William Malcolm; and her first son, my late father, was Donald.
And so it goes: for the Wards (the bardic Clann an Bháird, of Ballymacward, Abbeyknockmoy, and Inis Mór), for the Carrolls on both sides of my family (we can all pause here and sing a chorus of “Maryland, My Maryland” if you like), for the Eatons, for the Coopers, and all the rest. Christian names commemorating the origin of the family and allied families before coming to the New World; forenames taken from surnames of families with which we have intermarried, though, generally, only the ones with money or influence: my paternal grandfather’s grandfather was not given “Carter” as his Christian name by accident, no matter how many generations or how many miles removed from Virginia the family had come; and his widow, miles and generations from South Carolina, took, as her second husband, a man whose forenames were “Francis Marion.”
With the exception of my late father, almost none of my ancestors in this country, my mother included, were born and died in the same place, or even the same county, or, commonly, the same state: as I am unlikely to die in the county and city in which I was born. This is the American experience: whether driven by gold fever, wandering fever, the land-hunger of second sons, dispossession (advice from family annals: if you must sell the Big House and the land, keep the mineral rights), downward mobility, or the lure of the frontier.
At one time, it was the British experience as well, even leaving aside the empire-builders. The Pyles spread themselves through the West Country, and thence into Hants and Berks, from origins on Dartmoor; and, among the families with whom we were connected in Wiltshire, the Ludlows had come from Shropshire and the Penruddocks from Cumberland and Westmorland, where they represented the old Celtic traditions of Cumbria and its proto-Welsh, Cumbric stratum. And the Industrial Revolution, after, mixed and churned the population mightily.
As you might expect, there are markedly few American novels and American novelists with a profound sense of place, or which are focused on a rooted population over a lengthy period. Madison Cooper, that excellent and unjustly forgotten novelist, did it in Sironia, Texas: most such American novels are set in New England, in Virginia, in the Deep South, or in Texas, which is where the history is in this country: and Brammer did it, and Miz Eudora, and Harper Lee, and Goyen in The House of Breath, and Ellen Glasgow; and of course Faulkner did it. Most of these authors are now authors one is not meant to read, let alone to approve; and it is likely not to be long before one is expressly and effectively forbidden to read or to approve them.
The common or garden writer of fiction in America or in the UK is, nowadays, commonly incapable – has rendered herself incapable – of writing books with a profound sense of place, a rooted population, characters who are apt to their environment. Partly, this seems to be the result of a self-imposed set of inhibitions: the idiot notion that one is not allowed to write about anyone not precisely like oneself. This is a luxury reserved, as I’ve noted, largely to writers of fiction: historians and biographers cannot afford it without failing massively at their tasks. Writers of fiction can afford it … if they don’t care whether or not their books sell, are read, or last for more than three months in the consciousness of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them.
Partly, also, this is a result of self-imposed ignorance: willful ignorance, the cutting of all ties with the past, for purely partisan and political reasons into which the average, the very average, modern writer of fiction has been in effect brainwashed. Crimestop indulged by cowards, really. These are people who have every opportunity to know their own past, the past of their families, which should act as a template for one or another character’s backstory or for a bit of world-building; who have every opportunity to know the past of their own homes, neighborhoods, cities, regions, which, again, should inspire world-building: and who have chosen to reject all of those ties, generally because they are ties to the past, which they have come to believe a terrible and intolerable and intolerant era in which everyone was guilty of doubleplusungood crimethink. And these are not people who have reasoned themselves into this position: they come to it through prolefeed and bellyfeel, and almost invariably are to be found beginning their assertions, not with “I think,” or “I have concluded,” or “reason impels me to note,” but, rather, with “I feel.”
These are voluntary halfwits.
Because they have severed themselves, deliberately, from the past, they are incapable, they have rendered themselves incapable, of creating a plausible world and setting, with plausible place names and plausible characters. Worse still, they have severed themselves, either deliberately or negligently, from the natural world. Perhaps one or two of them takes a morning constitutional: judging from their writings, none of them notices trees, or birds, or small animals, or architecture. Judging from their writings, none of them has ever stepped foot off of pavement, or lived in a built environment that is not soulless, Brutalist, and urban.
They have had drilled into them the maxim, Write what you know, and they do so like so many parrots. Unfortunately, they know practically nothing, and are further constrained to pretend they know less than they do, lest they inadvertently write of the experience of someone not utterly indistinguishable from themselves.
Their sunless world of tenured baristas with second jobs as lecturers in the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies, and tenured professors of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies with second jobs as baristas, is supremely, intolerably, dull and unreadable: as are they.
It is with a profound sense of relief that one turns to a mature mind and an accomplished craft and a talented art: that of Peter Maughan: a sense of relief as profound (I speak from personal experience) as one feels when opening one’s eyes after a triple bypass and realizing that one is indeed still here.
The admirable architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor – who, like Lord Clark of Civilisation, is now deliberately forgotten, subject to damnatio memoriæ, for the inexpiable crime of having been white British, male, educated, intellectually honest, cultivated, and sensible, and for being, nowadays, dead as well – always reserved his highest praise for buildings which used the right materials in the right proportions and the right styles, apt to the place and to the function of the building. That is an excellent description of the work of Peter Maughan.
In the perfect, Hilliard-miniature world of Batch Magna, incident flows with Greek inevitability from character and setting.
Character reacts upon setting, and setting, upon character. In the Batch Magna Chronicles, the setting is perfect. It makes perfect sense for its place. Its topography is consistent and plausible. It fits the area, the region, in which it is placed: the Marches. Its place names convey a sense, not only of plausibility, but of inevitability. Not everything is explained, nor need it be: yet everything is clearly explicable and nothing is out of place. That there are mysteries not yet explained, though they may be guessed at – unlike GMW Wemyss, Peter Maughan is perhaps not so likely to explain them offhandedly, six books on, in a footnote – is supremely fitting. The Batch Magna landscape and setting has as a result a sense of potential, of reserve, power, brooding and not, yet, unleashed. Like the actual Britain, like Yer Actual Marches, like “the fields we know,” Batch Magna has what Thomas Mann called “time-coulisses;” has Tolkien’s “things higher or deeper or darker than its surface.” The wise shall know that such a background and such a setting is, if anything, more necessary to comedy, high comedy, the comedy of manners, than it is to drama or tragedy. Comedy, especially, does not work beneath a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea. Nor, indeed, does story, at all, in any guise and in any genre.
Against this setting, like jewels, are characters perfectly set: proper to the setting, proper indeed in the heraldic sense. Take that Old Salt, that classic seadog, Commander Cunningham: his literary lineage goes back to well before Dickens’ Captain Cuttle: to Smollett’s Commander Trunnion, even perhaps to Chaucer’s Shipman; and forward to Admiral Boom of the Mary Poppins series. And he may be read with pleasure as no more than that, one of the great comic creations, the classic English eccentric. Yet he stands in a very real tradition: that of Beresford, of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky (Lord) Fisher, of Admiral Sir William Pakenham (to his interpreter, when quelling an uprising in Ottoman territory, “Tell these ugly bastards I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits;” to an impertinently inquisitive grande dame at a civic function who’d asked, Was he married, “No, madam: I keep a loose woman in Edinburgh”), of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith and of Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, of innumerable Royal Navy “characters” over the centuries, the Naval counterparts of the immortal and very real officer of dragoons, Lt Col AD Wintle MC and of the equally insuperable and quite as real Lt Col “Mad Jack” Churchill, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar.
A place, properly drawn, is no less real simply because it is fictional. Real places have terrain; they have geography; and, therefore, they have geology, strata upon strata upon hidden strata. The same is true of people, persons, personalities: including those who happen to be fictional. The glory of the Batch Magna Chronicles is that they also contain, and operate on, many levels. Were the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies to exist, and were it, per impossibile, an academic discipline rather than an unacademic indiscipline, and were it followed with any intellectual honesty, the Batch Magna Chronicles should be its classics and its sacred writings. They are “much riches in a little room.” I feel great sympathy for those who have yet to make their acquaintance; and an exasperated pity for those who choose not to do.