Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on. You are bombarded with information, from which you can pick the main threads and choose the details which most inspire you.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it.

Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps at all. There are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information, but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a far-flung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of wars.
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between the North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is also the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (the Yankee name for buccaneering adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’, large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole mid-West of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange from the Europeans; much of newly-settled West preferred small local market economies, virtually barter economies, to the cash-based capitalism of the East.
  • Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the actual history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To give another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution‘. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification‘.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up than he provides, and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to have understood it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the era, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them.

As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn? How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change? When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… in order to devote the rest of the book to answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative stuff.

Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, and won significant political and administrative posts across the South, before, eventually, an anti-black backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now going to  bravely present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later part of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Interesting, because so counter-intuitive.

McPherson shows the important role of women in the 1840s in creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians so much that it made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

All this is in the McPherson. You can see how it is all immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself, than bland generalisations. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund Hahn’s core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage of’ or just ‘use’. Hahn is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; he always say ‘thereby’ some great change took place.

Hahn has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis before going on to finish the sentence – often combining two contradictory thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Given his bang up-to-date usage of latest PC jargon, it is a surprise that Hahn combines this with a fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor as historical explanation. Instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Bad Wolf, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis. What is he talking about?

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Ah, the fires of hatred. Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in the Santa Anna paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I had to look it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’.

The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 in America is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So once again I had to go off to the internet to really learn about the period.

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the book does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single place name except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period. The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any contemporary photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No. It’s a token gesture, and almost an insulting one at that.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to.

The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the War of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of opposition.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which had dominated the Congress and Senate during the war, was a Democrat. For a fatal year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations’. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors were black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and West, infected all of American life – which is the real issue.

It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day, albeit more subtly. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

Capitalism and its enemies

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which had preceded it (pp.454-464). I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. By the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of these huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

We learn about greenbackism, anti-monopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary.

There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s, all a revelation to me.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement laid the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates, in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America completely annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset.

By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t abolish until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was an absolutely basic, entry-level element of left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Alan Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia has finally become free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. But to educated, and especially left-of-centre people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, very often Hahn’s widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, tends (paradoxically) to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts to be far more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slave-hunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own.

You can see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t Hahn’s.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that all previous histories of this period utterly failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time (and ever since) haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to piously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again (after American Prints at the British Museum, America after the Fall at the Royal Academy, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder at Tate Modern). Can’t have too much art from America.

And the 1960s again (after The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern and You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A). The 1960s are art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.)

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Betye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution — I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – managed to extract from it.


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