Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

In May 1977 young Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds MBE (born 9 August 1945 and so aged 32 at the time) started to draw a weekly comic strip for the Guardian newspaper. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a jokey reference to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and consisted of parodies of jolly hockeysticks public schoolgirls’ adventures.

However, the strip soon evolved to focus on the stories of three girls in particular, showing how they had grown into middle-class, middle aged adults. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a large exhausting brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to whisky salesman Edmund Heep, mum to two rebellious teenagers
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

The strip soon dropped the St Botolph’s title and used ad hoc titles for specific strips or episodes, eventually becoming known simply as ‘Posy’. In the end the strip ran for ten years, until 1987, and was periodically collected into books. Mrs Weber’s Diary was the first of these collections. It was published in 1979 and is a slender 64 pages long.

Mrs Weber’s Diary

Diary format

The first thing you notice is that, for the book version, Simmonds embedded the original cartoon strips into mock-ups of Wendy Weber’s diary entries. These consist of shopping lists, lists of chores, notes and doodles, and occasional longer entries which comment on, or explain, the strip below.

January entry from Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

I’m sure George Weber would have a field day discussing the hypertextuality and interplay of discourses thus created, but I found the diary entries read a lot like, well, diary entries. ‘Cleaned out lint from tumble dryer’, ‘Lunch with the Whites’, ‘must get new guinea pig litter- it’s not riveting stuff. More a kind of ‘phatic’ text which helps to extend – and so further enfold you – in the imaginative world of the cartoons.

And like Bridget Jones’s Diary (which started in 1995) the diary format, apart from anything else, fills up space. It is an easily repeatable filler idea. (This diary format is dropped in the succeeding books, but is revived big time in the 1993 collection, Mustn’t Grumble, which collects the large-format calendar pages made for the years 1988 and 1989, each month represented by a full-length profile of a representative figure of the day.)

Wordy

The next impression is how very wordy the strip is. Everything requires a lot of talking. The strips are packed with speech bubbles. Dialogue is absolutely crucial because the humour – such as it is – lies in the nuances of what people are thinking and saying, rather than in anything they actually do. It lies in satirising the modish, liberal, left-wing views and attitudes of the comfortable middle-middle-classes (and their children), and these have to be expressed in order to be lampooned.

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wordiest of all is George Weber who struggles to maintain his earnest feminist, environmentalist and socialist views in a world which obviously doesn’t give a damn. He is supposed to be writing a vast book which will be the last word in structuralism and semiology – a theory of how meaning is constructed in cultural artefacts – which was all the rage in the late 1970s, but which will obviously never be published or even completed, while his long-suffering wife Wendy, a part-time illustrator of children’s books, is the one who keeps the household together. In an early strip, Wendy changing the kitchen curtains triggers a characteristic outburst of Georgian rhetoric: ‘the blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes.’

From Mrs Weber’s Dairy by Posy Simmonds

Variety of font and style

In the strip above you can see – before you even read the words – that they are arranged in a striking variety of fonts and sizes and formats. A lot of words are in bold, symbols are used to replace swearwords, a lot of dots indicating pauses, there’s the alternation of sentence case with capitalised words – generally there is a lot going on in the text. In fact arguably more goes on in the speech bubbles than in the actual ‘world’ of the images, and this is entirely characteristic. The strips are about what people are saying and thinking, often at great length, rather than what they do – which is often little or nothing. (In its way a typographic satire on bien-pensant liberals’ concerns with what people say, to the complete neglect of what people actually do.)

The most common variation is to use bold and/or capitals to bring out the simply adorable emphases which the unbearably twee and posh middle-classes give to words, to make everything sound so simply super and marvellous. Thus the exchanges in this picture: ‘Wendy! You DIDN’T make ALL those!’ ‘Yes, I did… but QUICHES are MARVELLOUS! They’re all out of my freezer.’

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds

No continuous narrative

Within each individual strip there is a strong narrative with a (sort of) punchline or payoff, but between strips there seems to be no overarching narrative. In fact, as well as the ten or so regular characters who we get to know (based around the three women, their husbands and the kids) Simmonds sometimes introduces completely unrelated characters and stories.

Some strips abandon the format of a series of pictures to focus on, say, just two large ones, or even one very big one, for example as in the scene above which depicts a street party in the street where the Webers live.

The ‘joke’ of this piece is that all the well-meaning mums and dads spend ages agonising over preparing all the food themselves, making sure it is vegetarian and organic and home-made and all the other Guardian reader shibboleths all in the name of keeping it as simple and ‘authentic’ as possible – with the result that the street party is a pretentious, urban, middle-class pastiche of a peasants’ meal. Witness the man at the bottom left offering his daughter, Sasha (such a nice middle-class name) a glass of mead. Yes, mead.

But the picture contains another joke, for the composition of this large final frame in the strip is based on a 1567 oil painting, The Peasant Wedding, by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel (1567)

This is learnèd and witty, but not what you’d call funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. It typifies the way more than half the pleasure of the strips comes from ‘getting’ the references, not the jokes. When George starts droning on about Nathalie Sarraute or the nouveau roman or Roland Barthes or hypertextuality, the reader is not meant to laugh out loud. It is, after all, not particularly funny. It’s more that the reader is meant to nod wisely to themselves and think, Nathalie Sarraute, yes I’ve hear of her; the nouveau roman, I tried reading an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel once.

Although the strip satirises a certain type of 1970s pretentious intellectuality (almost all the thinkers and film-makers referred to are, of course, French) you have to be pretty familiar with the subject matter to ‘get’ the references. Later in the series she plays the same joke, where Jocasta the art student and several other young women go out to the country for the day with their tutors who criticise something they’re wearing prompting the girls to take off all their clothes – but the point, the purpose and the ‘punchline’ of the strip is that the final picture is a Simmonds version of the famous Manet painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Aha, the cultivated reader is meant to nod sagely to themselves. ‘Of course. Very funny.’ I am reminded of the comic tag which dates from around this period, where some preening clever clogs is meant to exclaim: ‘Pretentious?? Moi???’

Thus there is a kind of cosy self-referentiality going on, where readers of the Posy strip can congratulate themselves on being as well-read and culturally in the know as their creator and – presumably – all the Guardian‘s other clever, with-it, intellectuals.

The same is even more true of so many of the ‘situations’ Simmonds depicts – mums in the playground blaming each others’ kids for an outburst of nits, George’s acute embarrassment at being deputed to make the farewell speech to the extremely unpopular serving lady at his polytechnic’s canteen, George agonising over the morality of having a vasectomy, George and Wendy being berated by their teenage daughter’s punk boyfriend, Wendy’s chagrin at her little boy not getting involved in the perfect party and party games and party spread laid on by a perfect mother (Pippa – ‘I don’t know HOW she does it!’)

These are all very mundane everyday subjects and that’s the point. The humour, if humour it is, comes from the familiarity, from recognising the situations, from thinking, ‘Oh God, yes, that happened to me.’

Sexism and feminism

Two consistent threads are a) the draining harassment of being a mother and b) the permanent atmosphere of harassment endured by women at work, in pubs and bars or even walking down the street. The cartoons accurately convey exactly the kind of angry, embattled feminism expressed by the young women I met at university in the early 1980s.

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wendy’s glasses

Many of the greatest cartoon characters have one or two tell-tale motifs. Arguably the entire Posy strip is signified by Wendy Weber’s enormous glasses in which the black pupils of her eyes roll around like marbles.

Although she is just as liable to say or think silly things as any of the characters, there is a deeper sense in which the whole world is seen, caught and captured through Wendy’s eyes. Wendy Weber sees all and knows all, particularly in this book, where the initially rather random cross-section of subject matter, is all rolled up into – caught and contained within – the format of being from Wendy’s diary.

Frontispiece to Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Cartooning

Study of all the examples I’ve chosen will show you how very carefully all the strips are drawn. Each frame is packed with detail. Take the two cars parked in the first frame in the January picture, or the detail of the piano keys in the punk strip, or the scaffolding, sack of cement and traffic cones in the one about workmen wolf-whistling the girls.

Again, this isn’t exactly humour, but it is the transformation of the world of reality into a gentler, rounded, somehow mollified and more reassuring cartoon format. Everything is just so, everything is just as you would expect it, but nicer.

Simmonds the feminist may be mad as hell about street harassment and everyday sexism, but the viewer’s eye, while taking the point, also takes in the myriad details including, for example, the care with which she’s drawn the metal clips on Jocasta’s dungarees.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the famous modernist poet T.S. Eliot said that the ‘meaning’ of a poem is a bit like the raw steak a burglar throws to a guard dog to keep him distracted while he goes about his business of nicking stuff; the ‘meaning’ of a poem is the bit which engages the conscious mind while the actual poetry – the euphony of sounds, the metre and rhythm, the alliteration and assonance and so on – do their infinitely subtler work of conveying unconscious or preconscious feelings and impressions. Of changing your mood and, maybe, perceptions.

Same here: each strip has an ostensible subject – children’s parties, old drunks down the pub, meeting an architect to discuss an extension, visit from an American friend the Webers knew back in the heady 60s – but I didn’t find any of them funny, and not many of them even amusing. Often they lack any kind of recognisable punchline, or the punchline – instead of being a shock, surprise, which triggers laughter – is more like a confirmation of everything about the situation which you had already noticed.

Take the strip in which a too-perfect househusband Adrian Smythe, and his adorable daughters Amy and Saffron, drop in on their neighbour Trish Wright, and while she rushes round flustered and harassed by her one child, young Willy, he coolly, calmly sorts everything out and – without meaning to – shows off what a perfect father he is, growing vegetables with his kids, having set up a Nature Table for them to study insects and flowers, and so on and so on – and all the time, of course, writing his next book, which, in the last frame, Trisha, pushed to the limits of chagrin and frustration, thinks should be titled ‘One Woman’s Sink Is Another Man’s Swimming Pool’.

I recognised the general situation, having been a househusband myself, and I recognised Trisha’s irritation at Adrian’s calmness and effortless superiority. But I didn’t think it was funny, and certainly the punchline – Trisha’s alternative title for Adrian’s book – didn’t strike me as either funny or clever.

The point of the strip – as far as I could tell – was not humour as such, but the reader’s recognition of the situation – and in this transformation I am describing, the transformation of the harsh unpredictable world into the warm, cosy and predictable set of stereotypes and caricatures with which she populates the cartoons; and in the essentially softening effect of the visual style.

Credit

All images (except the Bruegel) are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism.


Related links

Other Posy reviews

Posy Simmonds: A Retrospective @ the House of Illustration

‘The humour tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’

I hadn’t realised she was so posh. Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds (MBE) was born in 1945 in the Royal County of Berkshire and educated at the independent, fee-paying Queen Anne’s School in Caversham before going on to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then returning to London to attend the Central School of Art & Design.

In the video interview included in the exhibition, she remembers growing up in a house full of books which included leather-bound volumes of Punch magazine, which she loved looking through from a very early age.

The exhibition includes a display case of some of the earliest sketches and drawings she did, while still a child, spoofs of 1950s glamour magazines and so on.

In 1969 Simmonds began her first daily cartoon feature, Bear, in the Sun newspaper, and she also contributed to The Times and Cosmopolitan magazine. But it was her move to the Guardian in 1972 that fully established her as an artist and social commentator.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Simmonds entertained readers and won critical acclaim with her low-key but bitingly satirical comic strips, commenting on the changing face of the English middle classes. She has worked on other newspapers and magazines, but it was her Guardian work that made Simmonds’s name.

The Silent Three

After years of contributing ad hoc and topical cartoons, in May 1977 Simmonds started drawing a weekly comic strip for The Guardian. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a tribute to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and parodied the tradition of the harmless adventures of girls at precisely the kind of jolly hockey-sticks private school which she had herself attended.

The strip quickly focused on three girls in particular and contrasted their school adventures with the ongoing tribulations of their grown-up, adult selves, set in the contemporary world of the late 70s. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber and struggling to look after a large brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, with two rebellious teenage sons who form a punk band
  • Trish Wright, in an ‘open marriage’ with philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and their small baby

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds

Posy

The strip eventually dropped the references to ‘St Botolphs’ and became known simply as ‘Posy’. It ran for ten years, from 1977 to 1987. During that period the cast of characters was expanded, as the children grew up and developed characters of their own. The strips don’t tell a consecutive narrative: each one focuses on an issue or event or slyly comic theme, and Simmonds gave herself the freedom to depart from the well-known cast altogether, as well as experiment with format and layout.

Periodically, the strip was collected into a number of books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

The three families are distinct middle-class ‘types’; they each occupy a specific niche within the broad sprawling category we English refer to as the middle classes and the humour, such as it is, comes from the precision of Simmonds’s depiction of all the aspects of each group and their ‘set’ of friends.

But although the strip sometimes left all the known characters behind to experiment with purely political or satirical commentary, at its core were the couple of Wendy and her husband George – epitomes of the popular conception of the Guardian reader – intellectual, ex-hippie, bookish, left-wing, vegetarian and wracked by a whole raft of liberal causes – anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-nuclear and so on.

The point is that the humour is often at their expense, Simmonds gently satirising ‘the furrowed brow of liberal guilt’, showing the thousand and one ways in which they fall short of their own high ideals. In particular, many of the strips mock the high-falutin’ modishly French intellectual ideas George is liable to bring to completely inappropriate situations, such as the choice of new kitchen blinds dinner party chat.

Consumers, a George and Wendy Weber comic strip by Posy Simmonds

The five books listed above were eventually brought together into hefty omnibus hardback edition comprising some 480 pages (Mrs Weber’s Omnibus) which makes up a fascinating and revealing social history of the bien-pensant liberals of its time.

Feminism

Alongside the regular Posy strip, Simmonds produced topical cartoons and illustrations for other publications and for one-off occasions. According to the wall label:

In her newspaper strips and graphic novels, Simmonds returns regularly to the experience of women. An affirmed feminist, she has been advocating for women’s rights since the 1970s, challenging the injustices of male privilege and sexism in the home, at work and in wider society. Simmonds’ regular contributions to The Guardian newspaper’s women’s page have enabled her to make comment on issues ranging from the judgement women face when breastfeeding to the portrayal of ‘femininity’ in advertising.

So the exhibition includes a wall of narrative cartoons satirising women’s experiences of being harassed in pubs, or walking down the street, or by leery bosses, and so on. Take this satire on the way women only ever appear in the cartoon genre as foxes, babes and sex dolls, with all other periods of women’s lives completely ignored by the genre.

Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

Children’s books

Also during the 1980s, Simmonds turned her hand to writing, and in particular to writing children’s stories. Thus began the sequence of illustrated children’s books including:

  • Bouncing Buffalo (1984)
  • Fred (1987)
  • Lulu and the Flying Babies (1988)
  • The Chocolate Wedding (1990)
  • Matilda: Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death (1991)
  • F-Freezing ABC (1996)
  • Cautionary Tales And Other Verses (1997)
  • Mr Frost (2001)
  • Lavender (2003)
  • Baker Cat (2004)

The exhibition includes original artwork from most of these children’s books. The illustrations to Hilaire Belloc’s classic cautionary tales show a sketchy, washed-out style a little like Edward Lear. But it was the intensely coloured illustrations of a book like Fred which I liked most.

Illustration from Fred by Posy Simmonds (1987)

Text heavy

Comparing Simmonds’s children’s illustrations with the adult ones revealed one single, central, massive difference – the amount of text.

The children’s books have almost no text and, as a result, feel light and airy. The adult strips, on the other hand, are packed with text. I thought it revealing that, at the start of the Mrs Weber Omnibus there is an extensive cast list which gives not only names but information about each of the characters’ lives, careers and interests, right down to the number of A-Levels the older children are taking.

I think this may explain why I found hardly any of the hundred of more strips on show here very funny. Certainly none of them made me laugh out loud, it’s not that kind of humour. A few of them made me smile. And it wasn’t just me: there was no audible response from any of the other visitors who shuffled around the rooms in respectful silence. The humour, as another online reviewer points out, ‘tends towards the wry rather than laugh-out-loud’.

More than that, I’d say you have to pay a lot of attention and read the text very carefully, in order to ‘get’ many of the strips – in order to notice the very slight nuances, and digs and satirical swipes at the affluent middle-class types who she so likes mocking.

The graphic novels

This becomes evident in Simmonds’s graphic novels. In 1981 she published True Love, which is an extended parody of sensational romance comics. In it the plain and mousy young Janice Brady – who we first met in the Weber strips – is working in a male-dominated publishers office and mistakenly imagines that tall blonde handsome Stanhope Wright is in love with her. In reality he is juggling at least two other love affairs which he is trying to keep hidden from his wife – but in her naive innocence Janice dreams that, if she applies enough make-up and wears the right glamour clothes – Mr Wright can be hers!

True Love by Posy Simmonds (1981)

True Love is now generally acknowledged to be Britain’s first ‘graphic novel’, although I’m not sure the genre really existed when it was written and it’s certainly not what you associate with the walls of graphic novels you can find in any bookshop nowadays.

In fact the narrative is pleasingly ‘unstable’ in the sense that it is still made up of self-contained ‘strips’ and some of them wander away from the central plot altogether to show characters from the main strip, e.g. the ever-agonising liberal George and Wendy at the cinema, and the tiresomely cheery Edmund Heep also makes some appearances.

There is a central event of sorts, which is an advertising shoot out in the country which requires the hiring of some sheep to make it look more scenic. Janice overhears Stanhope on the phone to what she thinks is his mistress, and his mention of ‘sheep’ sets off a broadly comic misunderstanding in which Janice wonders if they’re into perversion and bestiality.

On the day of the filming, Janice is sent by the crew filming the ad to find Stanhope and discovers him having a little ‘picnic’ with his pretty mistress. From her hiding place in a copse of trees Janice rolls down downhill towards the spooning couple the tin of cheese which Stanhope gave her at the firm’s Christmas party (and which has become a sort of comic totem of their love). Unfortunately the tin bounces off a tree root and hits Stanhope on the head, giving him concussion and forcing a trip to the local hospital, which he then struggles to explain to his long-suffering wife Trisha.

Anyway, from a visual point of view, Simmonds enjoys counterpointing the freckly, bong-nosed young heroine with impossibly glamorous images of gorgeous pouting dollybirds from 1950s and 60s romance comics, and the entire book mimics the genre’s exaggerated glamour, overblown prose, capital letter fonts, and the liberal use of glamour magazines’ tell-tale colour – hot pink.

It is without doubt clever, and full of subtle references (like this copying of the form’s visual style), but I rarely really found it funny. It all seemed too predictable to me. It is exactly the kind of rather obvious satire you’d expect an exasperated feminist to make. And mocking 1950s glamour magazines for being unrealistic… it’s not a difficult or novel target for satire, is it? By the 1980s.

Gemma Bovery (1999)

In the late 1990s Simmonds returned to the The Guardian with the first of what has turned into a series of graphic novels, Gemma Bovery.

Gemma Bovery is a modern, comic-strip reworking of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary. In Simmonds’s hands this becomes a satirical tale of English expatriates in France, enmeshed in divorces, whining exes, needy children and ghastly rich banker neighbours. It was published as a graphic novel in 1999 and was made into a feature film in 2014.

Given that the wall labels emphasise what a feminist Simmonds is, and how she has spent her life campaigning against sexist stereotypes, I was surprised that this long graphic novel is devoted to a fabulously slender, attractive and sexy young woman who has numerous ‘affairs’ (i.e. super-idealised, glamorous sex) with a succession of tall, handsome, slender young men. Here she is, getting it on with the tall, slender, good-looking aristocrat Hervé de Bressigny.

A lot has happened in the 18 years since True Love. Simmonds’s drawing style is infinitely more sophisticated: she can draw anything now, and the arrangement of pictures and text on the page is far more professional and effective. True Love felt like an extension of the weekly comic strip consisting, in effect, of a series of gags and comic scenes – Gemma Bovery really feels like a graphic novel.

Nonetheless, moving a few yards along the exhibition wall from one to the other, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the apparent contradiction. In 1981 true romance was despicable, unrealistic, sexist stereotyping – in 1999 it deserves a long, intensely imagined novel.

Tamara Drewe (2006)

This apparent contradiction was emphasised by the frames on display from Simmonds’s next graphic novel, Tamara Drewe. It also depicts a wide range of middle class characters who are, as usual, skewered for being pretentious, rich, snobbish, hypocritical and so on and yet, once again, the story focuses on a strikingly tall, statuesque, slender, shapely, nubile young babe, the eponymous Tamara.

The homely clunkiness of the Webers and of freckly, dumpy Janice Brady seem light years ago. The fusty little world of George and Wendy fussing about lentil soup or fretting about the introduction of business studies at the polytechnic where he teaches, have been replaced in both these graphic novels by tall, streamlined young sex goddesses living wonderful lives of affluence and foreign travel.

Tamara Drew makes her first appearance in the revised graphic novel, 2007 by Posy Simmonds

Both these novels features sexy heroines and they are about love affairs and sex and emotions. The women in them have careers, of sorts – Gemma is an interior decorator – but seem to define themselves by their relationships with men. For all the feminist rhetoric of Simmonds’s own cartoons, and of the curators’ wall labels, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, as if earlier thoughts and beliefs had been abandoned.

Tamara Drewe debuted in the Guardian’s Review section on 17 September 2005 and ended, with episode 109 and an epilogue, on 2 December 2006. It was published as a book in 2007 and was also made into a film, starring tall, nubile young actress Gemma Arterton.

On the upside, both these graphic novels really do read like novels. I borrowed Gemma Bovery from the library, read it in one sitting and was slowly entranced. The characterisation initially felt thin and the satire of ghastly rich Brits abroad was irritating, but slowly, something deeper and more tragic genuinely emerged, and by the book’s last few pages I was absolutely gripped.

Cassandra Darke (2018)

Most recently – and in a relief from this succession of nubile young heroines – Simmonds has produced a much darker graphic novel, about a disgraced art dealer, Cassandra Darke. She’s caught selling dodgy fakes to the rich clients she despises, sentenced to community service, and then emerges almost penniless into a dark, gritty London just at Christmastime which is when the genuinely threatening sub-plot kicks in, concerning the young daughter of a friend who she lets her basement room to and who’s gotten involved with some seriously violent people, guns and drugs.

There are only three exhibition rooms in the main gallery of the House of Illustration and the entire third room was devoted to Cassandra Darke, with a book-size strip running continuously right around the wall and a set of display cases showing original artwork for the book, including early sketches of the characters, the initial paste-up sheets showing rectangles of paper with the text printed on them, glued onto the drawings – all this giving insights into how the book progressed from conception to completion.

What interested me was how distinctly darker and more pessimistic the story and the images are than anything else Simmonds has done. The Webers, back in the late 1970s, inhabited a safe and cosy world, cosy in the sense that they felt confident that good people everywhere shared their values. They were at home in what felt like a relatively benign society, everyone turned out for the annual street party or went on CND marches.

Now, forty years of feminism, identity politics, mass immigration, and neo-liberal right-wing economics later, the world feels a lot, lot, lot less friendly. It feels dark, rundown and dangerous, with vandalism, graffiti and the threat of violence on every corner.

Cassandra Darke goes to the rundown East End of London looking for clues as to the identity of the murdered young woman at the centre of the plot

What an immense distance we have travelled from the jolly hockey-sticks girls of St Botolphs. And it feels like Simmonds’s laser-sharp satirisation of changing middle-class mores has reflected every step of those socio-economic changes.

Social history

All in all, then, there are a few smiles but no laughs – I found this more of a thought-provoking exhibition than I expected.

The feminist stuff from the 70s and 80s reminds you what a horrible hairy, drunken, lecherous world it was back then. The Weber strips remind you of a whole type of knit-your-own yoghurt, ‘concerned’ and caring moustachioed polytechnic lecturers blabbing on about the nouveau roman and structuralism, who don’t seem to exist any more.

In fact the first half of the exhibition reeks of a world which is long gone. When True Love satirises the glamour images of the 1950s you can see Simmonds taking revenge on the sexist bilge she was fed as a girl, but, as a parent struggling to bring up my own teenage girl in 2019, not only the 1950s originals but also Simmonds’s 1980s satires on them, have a massively dated feel. The Weber strips feel like they could contain the threat. Satirise her characters as she did, you still had the sense their values were good, were the right ones, and would triumph.

But they didn’t. They were squashed and obliterated. Thatcherism confronted organised militant left-wing politics but what really killed that entire world of earnest, moustachioed left wingers was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s. The demise of actual socialism around the world left a huge intellectual, ideological and imaginative hole. Suddenly the underpinning for everyone on the soft or hard left just disappeared. Into this vacuum rushed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Third Way, slowly acclimatising all of us to the soft form of neo-conservative capitalist economics and consumer culture which we have inhabited ever since.

Thus it is that the graphic novels seem to come from a completely different world from tut-tutting George and Wendy Weber. You can see that Simmonds ceased drawing them not only because she was bored of doing the same old thing, but because their world was fading into insignificance compared to the bright and brash, shiny consumerist paradise which the 1990s promised everyone.

Gemma and Tamara – as the names suggest – come from the heart of the shiny, comfortably-off 1990s when old-style Labour politics had been obliterated and people were now making immense amounts of money ‘in the City’ or in advertising or in TV or in publishing – where the rich were buying up holiday homes around Britain and in France (where Gemma and Tamara are set) and beyond.

Certainly all of the characters in the graphic novels are comfortably off and well-heeled in a way the make-do-and-mend Weber family never was. They inhabit different imaginative universes.

So that’s why I liked the Cassandra Darke section of the exhibition most – because it is fascinating to see posh 1950s public schoolgirl Simmonds’s take on the world most of us now live in – not slender sexy heroines bonking in French chateaux – but the grisly streets of modern British cities, filled with closed-down shops, odd-looking people from all around the world speaking a babel of languages, the sense of public decay and dereliction, all contrasted with the comfortably-off art world which Cassandra inhabits and which gives her a window onto yet another world, that of the really genuinely super-rich international art collectors, the American and Russian and Arab billionaires who buy up art like they buy London properties, to add to their investment portfolios. And lurking beneath all this glitter, in the main plot of the novel, the threat of serious violence from white working class hard men.

It is a modern world where everyone is on their mobiles phones all day long, locked into their own little Facebook universes, consuming music, TV, movies and American culture like there’s no tomorrow, utterly heedless of the careful, caring values which George and Wendy devoted their lives to.

George and Wendy worried about their children showing the tiniest signs of becoming a bit materialist, and quoted French cultural critics to make snide, knowing criticisms of ‘consumer culture’. Their world has been obliterated, buried, drowned in an unprecedented global tide of mass consumption, and it is the unbridled greed and heartlessness of the modern world which Cassandra Darke conveys so well.

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

So reading about the everyday trivial hypocrisies of the 1980s lower middle-classes, of competitive gossip in the playground – the difficulty of telling your childminder what to do without offending her, or the frustrations of stay-at-home mums or the even worse frustrations of mums who go out to work – all this was mildly entertaining. But as my cruel teenage kids would say, ‘Yeah, so what, grandad?’ They don’t give a monkeys what happened ten, twenty or thirty years before they were even born.

So I think the curators were right to devote the last room entirely to Simmonds’s most recent book. Satire, or observational cartooning like this, is at its most powerful when it is about the now. And I found the rich colouring and the depth of texture of the illustrations to Cassandra Darke as interesting, as new, and as up-to-date, as its gritty, violent storyline.

And lastly, what a relief that the central character, Cassandra, is a grumpy, frumpy, older woman, well into her 60s, maybe 70-something, what a relief and a pleasure. After the nubile heroines Gemma and Tamara, it felt good to see Simmonds being true to the critique she herself made all those years ago in that ‘Seven Ages of Women’ cartoon, and depicting a woman who is not young and lithe and sexy and obsessed with bonking, but is nonetheless just as interesting and rewarding a character and easily meriting a book of her own.

Hooray for frumpy, grumpy Cassandra Darke, and hooray for Simmonds’s detailed, deep and discomfiting cartoons!

Preparatory character studies for Cassandra Darke (2014) by Posy Simmonds


Related links

Reviews of Posy Simmonds’ books

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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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