The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
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
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
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
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
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 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
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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.


Related links

Related book reviews

Related art reviews

%d bloggers like this: