The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

In the soothing reek of his tobacconist’s quiet stockroom, at the corner of Chancery Lane and Carey Street, Oliphant held the corner of the blue flimsy above the concise jet of a bronze cigar-lighter in the shape of a turbanned Turk. (p.338)

This is a really absorbing, intelligent and often mind-blowing book.

We are in 1855, though not the 1855 familiar from history books, for this is an alternative history. The ‘point of divergence’ from actual history appears to come around 1822 when Charles Babbage, not only theorises about the possibility of a computing machine (as he did in actual history) but builds one. This sets off a cascade of technological changes which result in a new political party, the Industrial Radical Party, seizing power, apparently by the assassination of then-Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, in 1831. This led to a period of widespread rioting and anarchy, during which Luddites smashed the new-fangled machinery, referred to by the characters as the Time of Troubles.

It was during, or as a result of this disorder, that the Industrial Radical Party came to power with a vision of a completely new type of society, governed by reason and science and calculation. The ‘Rads’ co-opted the more flexible of the Luddite and working class leaders into cushy jobs as leaders of tame trade unions (p.295). Once in power the ‘Rads’ inaugurate an era of dazzling new technological and industrial innovations, led by a great social movement of industrialists, radicals and savants.

Lord Byron emerges as the great orator of the Industrial Radical Party, but Charles Babbage is its grey eminence and foremost social theorist (p.93)

Examples of these innovations are that Charles Babbage’s Calculating Machine has found a wide variety of applications, including the creation of a Central Statistics Bureau which stores information about every person in the country via the medium of paper with holes punched in them (in reality, ‘punched card’ computers, which could only do very basic data storage, were not developed till the late 1890s, early 1900s).

Babbage’s very first Engine, now an honoured relic, was still less than thirty years old, but the swift progression of Enginery had swept a whole generation in its wake, like some mighty locomotive of the mind. (p.121)

British people are no longer ‘subjects’ in this technicalised society, they are ‘citizens’, each issued with a unique citizen number, against which numerous records are kept, including their credit rating.

Another example is the new-fangled kinetrope machines, sets of cellulose cards with images on them which are ‘clacked’ through a machine in front of a light source to produce moving images (about 40 years before the earliest moving picture machines were actually invented).

London’s underground train system is well advanced, with characters hopping off and on the noisy, smelly subterranean trains (in reality, the first tube line wasn’t opened until 1863). London’s streets are filled with steam engine-driven omnibuses or ‘gurneys’ as they seem to be called.

To summarise, in this alternative history, a wide range of new technologies have been developed about 50 years before they did so in the real world, and this produces a continual clash between the characters’ mid-Victorian speech, dress and behaviour, and the continual array of newfangled technology the authors keep creating for the to interact with.

Historical jokes

There are a number of knowing, nudge-nudge, boom-boom jokes in which the authors imagine alternative destinies for various Eminent Victorians. Thus I sat up with a jolt when one of the central characters is approached by a short, grey-haired man who says he started life as a doctor but then wasted his youth dallying with poetry, before finding his current métier – as a purveyor of kinetrope films. His name? John Keats.

Benjamin Disraeli, far from gouging his way up the ‘greasy pole’ of politics (it was Disraeli who coined that expression), is stuck as a super-fluent novelist and journalist.

A divergence from our history which is probably too large to be a ‘joke’ is that, in this alternative history, the American Civil war has already broken out and war is raging between the Union North and Confederate South. The most striking feature of the war has been a working class insurrection in New York which has led to the creation of a ‘Commune’ (just as was to happen in Paris in 1870) led by the German émigré journalist and agitator Karl Marx! Presumably he found an England ruled by the Industrial radical party not a safe place to settle and moved on to New York (where, after all, he had many sympathisers, the real Karl Marx writing numerous articles for the New York Daily Tribune as its Europe correspondent from 1852 to 1862).

Another joke for the literary-minded is the fact that, in this world Lord Byron did not die of malaria in Greece in 1824, but lived on to become a leader of the Radical Party and is, at the time of the novel, Prime Minister of England, although the social disturbances described in the middle of the story coincide with the ‘old Orator’s’ death.

In fact this is a central fact to the plot, because the mystery or secret at the heart of the book rotates around Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Byron who was, in our version of history, an advanced practitioner of Babbage’s theories, so much so that she is nowadays sometimes credited with being the very first computer programmer. In reality Ada died aged only 36 in 1852; in the novel she is still alive, but a very dubious figure, rumour has it she is addicted to gambling of all sorts and, when we first meet her, she appears to be high on drugs.

Style

The prose is stuffed and cluttered with two distinct elements, steampunk and Victoriana.

Steampunk

Continual reference to machines and technologies and the political party and scientific discoveries which dominate the age, never letting you forget its novel alternative industrial ambience. Wherever possible people use gadgets, machines which click and clunk together, cards which have hole punches, steam-gurneys in the street, offices with voice tubes, telegraphs not only between post offices but extending to people’s individual houses, and so on. Here’s a description of Oliphant’s telegraph machines.

Three Colt & Maxwell receiving-telegraphs, domed in glass, dominated the end of the table nearest the window, their tapes coiling into wire baskets arranged on the carpet. There was a spring-driven transmitter as well, and an encrypting tape-cutter of recent Whitehall issue. the various cables for these devices, in tightly-woven sleeves  of burgundy silk, snaked up to a floral eyebolt suspended from the central lavalier, where they then swung to a polished brass plate, beating the insignia of the Post Office, which was set into the wainscoting. (p.296)

Or the scene at the enormous Central Statistics Bureau, keeper of the most powerful Engines which keep tabs on all citizens:

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye – the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as railcars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewashed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. (p.136)

Victorian slang

I wonder how two authors born in South Carolina (Gibson) and Texas (Sterling) managed to create a prose style absolutely stuffed with Victorian slang and argot.

Rich style

But above and beyond these two identifiable components, the style is just very rich, the sentences seamed with inventive imagery and interesting vocabulary. Here are our heroes standing by the sewage-laden Thames.

Fraser looked up and down the mudflats at the foot of the embankment. Mallory followed his gaze. Small boats were embedded in the grey-black mud as if set in cement. Here and there along the bend of the Limehouse Reach, rivulets of viridian slime reached up through the gouged tracks of channel-dredgers. (p.253)

Or Oliphant looking at mugshots of Victorian criminals:

It was a collection of stipple-printed Engine portraits. Dark-haired Englishmen with hangdog looks. The little square picture-bits of the Engine prints were just big enough to distort their faces slightly, so that the men all seemed to have black drool in their mouths and dirt in the corner of their eyes. They all looked like brothers, some strange human sub-species of the devious and disenchanted. (p.128)

Or the lowering weather during the Stink of London:

Outside the Palace, the London sky was a canopy of yellow haze.
It hung above the city in gloomy grandeur, like some storm-fleshed, jellied man-o’war. Its tentacles, the uprising filth of the city’s smokestacks, twisted and fluted like candlesmoke in utter stillness, to splash against a lidded ceiling of glowering cloud. The invisible sun cast a drowned and watery light. (p.164)

Or the kind of zippy, mind-expanding phraseology which prose can do better than all TV or film:

It was hot, uncommon hot, beastly hot. There was not a ray of sun but the air was mortally still and the high cloudy sky had a leaden, glowering look, as if it wanted to rain but had forgotten the trick of it. (p.138)

The plot

The book is divided into five ‘iterations’.

First Iteration: The angel of Goliad (62 pages)

Cockney courtesan Sybil Gerrard, daughter of the Luddite agitator Walter Gerrard (who was hanged as the Radical Party took power) has been taken up by Michael Radley, Flash Mick, who promises to make her an apprentice adventuress and take her with him to Paris. Flash Mick is orchestrating the European speaking tour of Texas legend and American politician, Sam Houston. We witness one of his speeches about his life and times, which is accompanied by a kinetrope projection of moving pictures onto the backdrop behind him, managed by Mick. However, Houston double crosses Mick by stealing the projection cards. Mick sends Sybil up to Houston’s hotel room, while he keeps the Texan busy drinking in the hotel’s smoking room but Sybil is horrified to discover an assassin waiting in the room, who holds his knife to her throat to hush her. A few minutes later Mick opens the door into the darkened room, and finds himself pinned against the wall by the assassin and his throat brutally cut. Then Houston himself arrives to find himself confronted by the assassin. He’s one of the Texan fighters who consider that Houston betrayed them, particularly when Texan soldiers were massacred by the Mexicans who’d captured them after the battle of Goliad, and ran off with their money. Houston tries to sweet talk him round but the assassin pushes him to the floor and then shoots him in the chest, before smashing the hotel window and escaping down the fire escape.

Horrified, Sybil crawls to Houston’s body as he gurgles pleas for help, and realise she is crawling over diamonds which have spilled out from Houston’s cane. The man was a walking treasure trove. She stuffs as many as she can into her bodice, then stands and exits the hotel room. Standing for a moment quietly in the empty hotel corridor, before walking as casually as she can away.

Second Iteration: Derby Day (23 pages)

Introduces us Edward Mallory, tall, bearded hero of a scientific expedition to Wyoming where he discovered the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus, hence his nickname ‘Leviathan Mallory’.

He is at Epsom for the Derby, drinking in the sights and sounds of a mid-Victorian day out. He goes to see his younger brother, Tom, who’s got a good job working for the designer and builder of a new type of (steam-powered) racing machine, Michael Godwin (p.74). The machine looks like a big tadpole on wheels, named The Zephyr. Godwin suggests Mallory bets £10 on the Zephyr, but he doesn’t have that much. So Godwin says he’ll lend Mallory a tenner and if they win they’ll share the proceeds, or he can pay him back if it loses. So Mallory goes along to a betting booth, places the £10 and then, on impulse, decides to gamble all the money he has in the world, £40. In an exciting race, Zephyr wins at long odds. Mallory makes £500 – he is rich!

Mallory is making way for a steam-powered brougham or carriage pushing through the crowd, when he notices the young woman sitting in it punching the older woman by her side (p.85).

Mallory immediately intervenes to protest but a rough-looking man driving the carriage leaps out and asks him what business it is of his, lunges at him and – Mallory realises – stabs him in the thigh with a stiletto. Mallory is a big man, he was a boxing champion and has survived in the wilds of the American West. Now he smashes the little spiv in the face, breaking some of his teeth. The bloodied little man screams at Mallory that he will not only kill him, he will destroy him.

Mallory helps the woman who was hit out of the coach. She is wearing a veil and talks as if drugged and quite calmly hands a long wooden box, ‘something like an instrument case’ (p.85). When she removes the veil he realises it is Ada Byron, daughter of the Prime Minister and one of the most important theoreticians of the calculating machines which dominate modern life, ‘Lady Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines’ (p.89). Mallory accompanies her to the Royal Box where she is let in by the security guards, but not him, who they turn away. He wanders off puzzled, to collect his winnings, and realises he is still holding the long wooden case. What is in it? Why did she hand it to him?

When Mallory opens it he discovers it is full of Engine-produced cellulose cards i.e. designed to be ‘clacked’ or projected onto a screen via a light source. Mallory stashes it in his locker at the Museum of Practical Geology (p.103).

Third iteration: Dark Lanterns (102 pages)

The phrase dark lanterns appears to refer to people working undercover, for whatever reason.

Having recently returned from a scientific expedition to the American mid-West – where he cemented his reputation by discovering the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus – Mallory is staying in rooms at the vast Palace of Palaeontology. Here he is visited by Laurence Oliphant, supposedly a journalist, in fact some kind of official, and wounded in the ‘Tokyo Affair’, by a sabre slash across his wrist.

Oliphant knows Mallory’s secret – that on the scientific expedition he also undertook gun-running tasks for the Royal Society Commission on Free Trade. Unnervingly, he also knows that Professor Rudwick, who has recently been murdered in London, was also carrying out secret offices for the Commission on Free Trade. Rudwick had been arming the Comanche Indians in Texas. He was murdered the same night Sam Houston was wounded and his publicist, Mick Radley, was eviscerated, as we saw in the first iteration.

(It takes some teasing out from the hints scattered across the narrative, but I think the gun-running is somehow to undermine America by making Texas focus on is own troubles with Indians. We know America is racked by a civil war. Britain is happy for America to remain fragmented into separate countries – the Union, the Confederacy, an independent republic of Texas, and so on.)

Mallory walks through central London to the Museum of Practical Geology in Duke Street, where he meets and chats with Thomas Henry Huxley, in real history famous for publicising Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. For a long time after Darwin’s theory was published there were two schools of evolutionists: uniformitarians who believed the world was immensely old and evolution had taken place very slowly over vast periods; and catastrophists, who believed the whole world and its living systems were regularly shaken by cataclysms, volcanic activity, tsunamis, comets crashing into the planet, you name it and that these catastrophes ware the driving force of change in life forms. Until the start of the 20th century they actually had science on their side, because all educated opinion had it that the sun was only a few million years old. This was because astrophysicists knew nothing about radiation and dated the sun on the basis that it was a burning ball of hydrogen (p.178). Only with the discovery of sub-atomic particles and the splitting of the atom did science realise that the sun is driven by nuclear fusion, and that this process could have been going on for billions of years, which swung the pendulum in favour of the uniformitarians.

In the 1980s and 1990s Stephen Jay Gould and colleagues advanced the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ i.e. the notion of very long periods of slow change interrupted by a number of cataclysmic events which rewrote ‘the book of life’. The debate continues to this day.

The conversation with Huxley makes it clear that Mallory was a catastrophist (which matches the sometimes melodramatic events of this book) (p.115). Huxley introduces the man who is going to erect the brontosaurus bones into a life sized model at the museum, and they have an argument since he has been told to build the animal squatting like a frog, since a rival palaeontologist thinks it lived in swamps. Mallory strongly disagrees and says it must be built with a tall neck stretching up like a giraffe, since it ate leaves off the canopies of trees.

Mallory goes to Horseferry Road, site of the Central Statistics Bureau, heart of this Engine-based society. He’s been advised to come here by Oliphant, in order to track down the ruffian who stabbed him at Epsom using the CBS’s vast ‘Engines’, primitive computers used to file and sort vast numbers of punched cards. Oliphant told him to contact Wakefield, Undersecretary for Quantitative Criminology.

Mallory bribes the assistant, Tobias, who Wakefield allots to help him look through the mugshots the Engines shoot out on the basis of his description. Doesn’t seem to be a record of the cad who stabbed him. But there is a mugshot of the vividly red-haired ‘tart’ who he saw punch Lady Ada. She is Florence Bartlett.

Back at the Palace of Palaeontology, sweating because of the hot summer weather, Mallory has lunch and picks up letters from his family back in Sussex (much is made of his Sussex heritage and a Sussex accent he can revert to, if provoked), and his little sister who’s getting married. it crosses his mind to buy her a wedding present.

So after lunch in the Palace’s dining room, Mallory walks along Piccadilly to Burlington Arcade where he buys a large clock for his younger sister and discovers he is being followed by a man who holds a handkerchief to his mouth a lot, who Mallory christens the Coughing Gent. Mallory lets himself be trailed into an alleyway where he suddenly springs on the man, driving him to the ground when he is himself struck hard on the back of the head by a cosh and collapses dazed, then wanders back down the alleyway to Piccadilly, leaning against a paling with blood coursing down his head and neck.

He realises he is near where Oliphant lives and blunders up to the door of his house in Half Moon Street. Oliphant lets Mallory in, tells his man to get water and a flannel and proceeds to clean and stitch up the wound. When Mallory suddenly remembers he left his sister’s precious clock in the alleyway, Oliphant dispatches Bligh who discovers it untouched and brings it safely back. Oliphant playfully speculates whether the attack was made on behalf of rival scientists (or ‘savants’ as they’re called throughout the book) or is some kind of payback for his gun-running activities in America.

Either way, he recommends the discreet services of Inspector Ebenezer Fraser of the Bow Street Special Branch.

In an eerie scene Oliphant then introduces Mallory to half a dozen Japanese businessmen and diplomats who have come to learn the ways of the West and raise their land out of backwardness and superstition. They are all kneeling Japanese style at a lacquer table in a back room of Oliphant’s apartment. Here they demonstrate to him a robot woman they have made which pours out drinks.

After passing a hot sweaty night in his rooms at the Palace, Mallory is woken by cleaners come to flush out the stinking toilet. There’s also a letter printed on celluloid, demanding that he return the box he took from lady Ada, via instructions given in the Daily Express, and threatening to ruin him otherwise, signed ‘Captain Swing’. Even as he reads it the card bursts into flames and he has to grab other papers to douse it. At that moment Ebenezer Fraser enters his office.

Fraser shows Mallory a photo of Professor Rudwick’s cut-up body and a note which implies it is only the first in a series. It seems someone is trying to frame Mallory and scare fellow savants into thinking he is instigating a series of murders.

Fraser and Mallory walk through London while they discuss a number of issues, recent history, the Time of Troubles, the triumph of the Industrial Radical Party, Lady Ada Byron’s real character (a savant, yes, but also a notorious gambler) for Mallory has an appointment to meet the noted romantic novelist and scribbler, Benjamin Disraeli, who he finds eating a breakfast of coffee and stinking mackerel fried in gin (!). Disraeli has been engaged to write an account of Mallory’s adventures in America, which went well beyond scientific investigation for fossils and included friendship with the Native Americans. Mallory censors his memories for Disraeli (leaving out the fact he had sex with Indian women) and ends up helping the author fix an early form of typewriter.

Back in the street, Mallory hooks up with Fraser who had been waiting. Something weird is happening to the sky. It has turned a yellow colour and the atmosphere is thick and pestilent. Smells of sewage. This is the book’s version of the real historical event of the Great Stink of London which took place in 1858, when hot weather made stinks from the Thames overrun central London forcing Parliament to move to Oxford.

In this novel it combines with dense fog to create an end-of-the-world atmosphere.

Fraser exposes the Coughing Gent and (presumably) the accomplice who coshed Mallory, as well-known private detectives Mr J.C. Tate and Mr George Velasco. Sullenly, like naughty schoolboys, they put up with Fraser’s description of them, then, when Mallory offers to pay guineas, confess the man who put them up to following Malory is a fellow savant and rival palaeontologist, Peter Foulke.

They have a gritty lunch at a roadside booth and then return to the Palace of Palaeontology to discover that someone has broken in and set fire to his room, burning a lot of his papers and clothes. It is this ‘Captain Swing’ again who is clearly carrying out a vendetta till he gets the box of cards back. Luckily Mallory has hidden them safely where no-one will ever know – inside the skull of the brontosaurus fossil which the assistants are even now erecting in the museum. the only person he tells is Ada Lovelace, who he writes a personal message to.

Mallory now decides he wants to do some ‘genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken drinking’ and Fraser suggests they go to the pleasure grounds at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. The shops are closing, The sky is dark yellow. it is difficult to breathe. Earlier they’d noticed the Underground railway workers had come out on strike claiming it was impossible to breathe underground. Now shops are putting up their shutters. Somewhere on the way to Chelsea Fraser and Mallory are best by a gang of boys, jeering in their faces, one of them riding an early type of roller skates. After yelling abuse at our chaps this boy spins out of control and shoots through a plate glass window. Instantly his mates start looting the shop. Fraser wades in and someone throws a shard of glass which embeds in his back, painfully though not fatally. Mallory pulls it out, staunches the bleeding and helps Fraser to the King’s Road police station.

Fourth iteration: Seven Curses (93 pages)

Mallory proceeds on to Cremorne Gardens where he gets drunk and chats up a woman with a fine figure if a blocky, lantern-jawed face. After a dance, they proceed to a snog, she takes him outside and lets him touch her breast. She persuades Mallory to pay their fare on a paddle streamer which will take them along the sluggish, effluent-filled Thames down to the East End. She’s called Hetty and we realise she is the flatmate of Sybil who we met in the first iteration. They are both courtesans.

Hetty takes Mallory back to her squalid little rooms where they have sex several times, in a manner constrained by Victorian convention and vocabulary, for example he has to pay a lot extra for her to strip naked. Mallory uses French letters he had earlier purchased in Haymarket, and the authors use the Victorian word ‘spend’ for orgasm which, along with numerous other details, give it an authentic historic feel.

Next morning Mallory emerges into a London which seems overcome by cataclysm. Overnight there has been widespread looting and shooting. Mallory himself is nearly shot down by a nervous shopkeeper. Firemen have been attacked. An omnibus pushed over and set on fire. London has collapsed into complete anarchy, with armed bands, drunk bands, rioters and looters roaming the streets and trashing street after street, as Mallory discovers as he makes his way through the foggy, dangerous streets. He gets set on by a mob and only frees himself by firing his revolver into the air.

Then, in a surreal scene, he comes along a trundling cart being used by three bill posters to stick up enormous posters along the base of London buildings. This all seems harmless until he reads one they’ve just put up which starts off publicising a speech to be given by him, Mallory, before turning nasty and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Mallory threatens the bill posters who call for their boss, who describes himself as the Poster King and sits inside the jaunting, swaying carriage into which he invites Mallory for a civilised chat. He explains that they were engaged this morning by a man calling himself Captain Swing. This captain has based himself in the West India Docks. Mallory gives them cash in exchange for all the posters libelling him.

Mallory blunders through the fog dodging rioters to arrive back at the Palace of Palaeontology, with his clutch of posters. It is full of refugees from the heat and stink and fog and anarchy.

Here he is delighted to discover his brother Brian, back from service in India. And Tom, the youngest brother, has motored up in the famous Zephyr. What of the marriage of their younger sister? Mallory asks. Brian sadly informs him that some bounder wrote a letter to Madeline’s fiancé accusing the innocent girl of all kinds of scandal (pre-marital sex, basically).

Mallory explains the letter was written by the tout, the driver, the man who attacked him, the infamous Captain Swing. It is just part of a much larger campaign, for London is now plastered with posters exhorting the working classes to rise up against their oppressors and claim what is theirs. Fired by revenge, Brian and Tom vow to join Ned on a march to the west India Dock to find and punish this fiend. Fraser (who has joined them) agrees to come along, in the spirit of arresting this dangerous anarchist.

They trundle across London from Kensington to the Isle of Dogs on Tom’s Zephyr but when they get to the docks realise that its eight-foot-high walls are guarded and the gates locked and barred. The only way in is via the locks giving onto the Thames which is at low tide. So they strip and wade across the foul stinking mud, until they’re spotted by guards, a ragamuffin crew of anarchists, but pretend themselves to be anarchists and looters and so are helped up to ground level, washed off with water and cologne, and led along to a big meeting of the lads by a cocky young lad who calls himself the Marquess of Hastings.

Here, in a warehouse, Mallory is astonished to find an audience of looters and anarchists and communists being addressed by none other than Florence Russell Bartlett, the red-haired young woman who had been bullying Lady Ada at Epsom and is now haranguing an audience of lowlifes about ‘the revolutionary spirit of the working class’ (p.268)

Mallory has a coughing fit and is led away by the Marquess but, in his reactions to the speaker, pretty clearly gives himself away as a patriot and radical. Before he can react Mallory punches Hastings unconscious. Hasting’s black servant Jupiter stands watching, not lifting a finger. As he remarks:

‘There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror.’ (p.272)

Mallory returns to the lecture to find Bartlett now onto the death of the family and the triumph of free love in the communist society when he stands up and declares he has a message for Captain Swing. An uproar breaks out, chairs are thrown at him, Mallory brings out his pistol and shots are fired. Suddenly he, Brian, Tom and Fraser are on the run through the warren of Victorian warehouses. This turns into a prolonged fight, with our boys doing well but soon running out of ammunition while the enemy consolidate their position and begin sniping. our boys hide within an enormous pile of bales of cotton which they hurriedly erect into a makeshift fortress. The tide turns their way when Brian lets off an artillery piece he has, killing quite a few of the attackers, and making his way into the fortress with new rifles, but then they are again pinned down.

Captain Swing himself approaches waving a white flag, calling for a truce and asking for the return of the wooden box of cards. Then the entire situation is transformed with a tremendous explosion and collapse of part of the ceiling. One or more naval ships out in the Thames are firing at the docks, which have been identified as a centre of sedition. The roof collapses. Fire breaks out. Dead and injured anarchists lie about the floor. In a cinematic moment Mallory emerges to stand on the ‘parapet’ of the cotton fortress. Captain Swing, far away on the floor of the warehouse, takes aim and misses, while Mallory methodically swings a rifle into the correct grip, takes aim, and shoots Swing down. Fraser leaps to the parapet beside him then clambers down and across the body-littered warehouse floor to clap the wounded captain in handcuffs.

At just this moment the long sweltering heat stifling the capital finally breaks in a tremendous thunderstorm.

Catastrophe had knocked Swing’s fortress open in a geyser of shattered brick dominoes. Mallory, blissful, the nails of his broken shoe-heel grating, walked into a London reborn.
Into a tempest of cleansing rain. (p.287)

The last four pages of the chapter jump to Mallory as an old man of 83 in 1908. He lived to a ripe old age and rose to become President of the Royal Society. Now we find him in the study of his home and, in a manner entirely fitting the rather hallucinatory scenes we’ve just witnessed, the narrative gives two alternative scenarios for his death from heart failure.

On his desk are two folders, one to his left, one to his right. In one scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his left which describes the demise of the Japanese branch of the international Society of Light, which makes him sad and then so angry that he bursts an artery.

In the other scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his right which describes the amazing new fossil finds which have been made in the Burgess shale in western Canada, an explosion of weird and inexplicable animals shapes never seen before or since which creates such a rush of blood to his head that he suffers a stroke and dies.

Fifth iteration: The All-Seeing Eye (64 pages)

We appear to have left Mallory now. The new focus of the narrative is Laurence Oliphant, who poses as a dandyish journalist but quite obviously belongs to one of the security services with a special interest in tracking representatives of foreign powers.

It’s in this respect that he was hosting a dinner party for six Japanese men that Mallory interrupted. Now he goes about a day’s work accompanied by another fawning Japanese who is infatuated with British technology ad modern appliances, a Mr Mori Arinori.

We are told that it is November 1855, some six months after Mallory’s adventure in the cotton warehouse. Lord Byron has in fact died, and been replaced by Lord Brunel (presumably Isambard Kingdom) though not without civil disturbances through the summer and there now appears to be a purge of old Luddites whose cases are being reopened and re-prosecuted by the zealous Lord Charles Egremont who is conducting something of an anti-Luddite witch-hunt.

Oliphant’s leisurely drawling personage (‘his gaze, beneath the black brim of his top hat, is mild and ironical’) proceeds to:

– visit Dr McNeile, a physician who uses an articulated ‘manipulation table’ and electric currents applied to the body to try and cure ‘railway spine’, a spurious medical condition in which the ‘magnetic polarity of the spine’ is supposed to have been reversed by trauma. Oliphant had been recommended to McNeile by Lady Brunel, wife of the new Prime Minister (p.295).

– home to his house in Half Moon Street off Piccadilly, where his butler Bligh serves him a luncheon of cold mutton and pickle with a bottle of ale. Oliphant checks the three receiving-telegraphs on his desk and finds a request to meet from Fraser, the detective who accompanied Mallory through most of the previous two sections.

– take a cab to Brigsome Terrace in the East End where Fraser is waiting to show him the body of a huge man who died of poisoning while eating a tin of baked beans in a squalid little flat. Oliphant questions Fraser and his subordinate Betteridge. A complicated picture emerges whereby several Pinkerton agents arrived in London eighteen months earlier and had begun to extend a network of contacts and informants. Betteridge had been tasked with attending a performance by a troupe of women dancers come over from New York – The Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. New York is now a workers’ commune, run by Karl Marx (the authors describe the revolution growing out of anti-conscription riots, and there were indeed widespread and violent riots against the conscription imposed during the Civil War).

In the crowd at the panto performance Betteridge had spotted the well-known agitator, Florence Bartlett. It emerges that Bartlett is a well-known murderer and vitrioleuse i.e. acid thrower. She likely commissioned the Texian giant whose corpse they’re standing over to murder Professor Rudwick, when he refused to agree to some mission or task – and then poisoned the giant.

– next day proceeds to the Statistics Bureau and to see Wakefield to ask him to run information through to the Engines to tell him who sent a particular telegram to the Duke’s Hotel. Wakefield’s machine tells him it was Charles Egremont. Oliphant asks Wakefield to find the text of the telegram and leaves.

–  Oliphant is much possessed by memories of flash Mick Radley’s death. He was there in the smoking room getting drunk with Houston and Mick, when Mick was called out of the room by a scared-looking woman (who we know to be Sybil Gerrard). Later that night Oliphant was called back to the hotel and has vivid flashbacks of searching through the belongings of the eviscerated Radley and wounded Houston. The Texian connection links into the visit of the red Ballet, and the arrival 18 months earlier of the Pinkertons. No direct links, But a mood.

– to visit Mr Hermann Kriege, late of the New York Volks Tribüne, who had greeted Karl Marx to New York, and had been on the central committee of the commune Marx set up there, till they fell out and Kriege had to flee for his life, now living in poverty-stricken exile in a slum in Soho (like many other American exiles). Oliphant is paying him to be a spy and informer about goings-on in the émigré community.

– to a pub in nearby Compton Street, which hosts dogs fighting rats competitions. Much drinking and gambling and dead rats and, occasionally, dead dogs. Oliphant meets Fraser and together they go up to the rat arena where they meet the manager Sayers, and show him a daguerreotype of the giant found murdered in the East End. Sayers confirms that that’s the big man who murdered professor Rudwick. They bump into Tate and Velasco, the confidential agents we last saw assaulting Mallory, guns for hire. They are cocky and abusive so that Fraser nearly arrests them, but suave Oliphant is charm itself and tells him to desist. They swank themselves that they are hired by an eminent member of Parliament, Oliphant guesses Egremont.

– Oliphant breakfasts (presumably the next day) with Mori Arinori, the most zealous of the Japanese who have come to Britain to study its go-ahead culture. Oliphant takes him to the pantomime at the Garrick theatre, Whitechapel, to see the Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. The performance is full of inexplicable modernism and half naked women. They go backstage and are introduced to a ‘Helen America’ who insists they go round the corner to the latest thing in self-service cafeterias (Mr Arinori is entranced; in reality this kind of thing wouldn’t appear in America till 100 years later). Oliphant shows her an Engine-produced image of Flora Barnett which makes Helen America cross, saying Flora is no communist, is not even American. She realises Oliphant is some kind of policeman and storms out of the café.

– Arriving home, Oliphant discovers that the boy Tobias who he bribed at the Statistics Bureau has tracked down the punch code of the telegraphic message sent to Duke’s hotel and delivered it while he was out. After fiddling about with screwdrivers and such, he rigs up his own telegraph-receiving machine to read the card and translate it into text. It is an illiterate long message sent by Sybil Gerrard accusing Charles Egremont of ‘ruining’ her i.e. taking her virginity out of wedlock, which we saw her dictating and sending in the first chapter, when Sybil thought she was going to Paris with flash Mick.

– Oliphant, rather amazingly, pays a visit to Albert the Prince Consort, with whom he on intimate terms, having brought a present for the son and heir, Alfred. (It turns out the Japanese automaton we saw earlier in the story was also a gift designed for young ‘Affie although, like most children, he’s managed to break it). In the middle of reading Affie the new storybook he’s brought, an urgent message comes for Oliphant.

He races by cab to Fleet Street where he discovers there’s been an outrage. Florence Bartlett and two assistants broke into the Museum of Practical geology and stole the skull Mallory’s brontosaurus. They made their getaway in a horse and trap. Getting caught in a jam with another cab, the baddies pulled out a gun, passing police fired on them and there happened to be a soldier passing by and carrying one of the new ‘Russian shotguns’ which – I have only now realised – are a newfangled type of extremely destructive hand-held weapon, maybe like a bazooka (I realise Brian had used one of these to devastate the attackers in the Battle of the West India Docks). Anyway, Florence Bartlett and her two assistants are very dead, along with half a dozen passersby and police. Rival police agencies are at work on the bodies and Fraser takes Oliphant aside and slips him the case they found on the dead robbers, covered in plaster and obviously extracted from the skull. And a letter informing Bartlett that the case is inside the skull. They both recognise the hand-writing of Ada Lovelace, deary me she really is deep into this trouble.

Oliphant slips away with this booty, and examines it at leisure at the office of his tobacconists’, not far away in Chancery Lane. He destroys the letter from Ada then asks the man to lock the box containing the Engine-cards in his safe. What the devil is on them??

The climax

In pages 330 to 355 or so we find out what it’s all about. The set of Engine-cards which Mallory received from lady Ada and Captain Swing went to such trouble to reclaim and which Flora Bartlett died stealing, are French in origin. They contain a code designed to disable the Great Napoleon, the name given to the vast calculating machine prized by the French. Disabling it is a blow for the anarchists and those who oppose this surveillance society.

Oliphant confronts Wakefield in his club and learns that Egremont, via his department of Anthropometry, has taken over the Bureau of Statistics. Wakefield is scared to be seen with Oliphant. We learn from his muttered remarks that Oliphant and his people were the first to practice swiping people off the street, interrogating them and then making them disappear. They did it in a ‘good’ cause. But now Egremont and his people are going to do it in order to secure their grip on power. Egremont is close to Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who holds power in the Lords and is a strong proponent of genetics. Of helping evolution along by sterilising the poor and weak and forcing the breeding of the noble and fit. It isn’t stated in these terms, but this constellation of forces has the potential to institute a Fascist society.

Convinced he is being followed, Oliphant slips out into a back alley, and catches a night train to Paris where he meets a trusted colleague high up in the Imperial Police Force. He wants to the whereabouts of Sybil Gerrard. It is only when he meets Sybil in a bohemian Montmartre café that we learn that it isn’t simply a case of Egremont deflowering – or maybe ‘abusing’ Sybil, as we would say nowadays.

Much more dangerous to Egremont is that in his early days, he was a sympathiser with the Luddites, he was a colleague and friend of Sybil’s father. It was only later that he helped get him arrested and hanged. And the witchhunt he is organising under the new Prime Minister, Lord Brunel, reflects his paranoia about his old links with the Luddites resurfacing.

In the Montmartre café Oliphant appears to persuade a reluctant Sybil to help him, to dictate a testament about her own deflowering but also about Egremont’s early political heresy, which will ruin him and stop the totalitarian party.

Cut to a really brief, clipped scene: Mr Mori Arinori arrives outside the Belgravia home of Charles Egremont MP in a new-fangled Zephyr, parks, takes off his goggles, walks politely over to Egremont, ignoring the machine-gun-armed bodyguard, bows, hands Egremont ‘a stout manila envelope’ and returns to his car. Egremont watches him, puzzled.

The reader is left to deduce that the envelope must contain Sybil’s testimony and some kind of demand that Egremont resign.

Modus: The images tabled

This is a peculiar thing to have in a work of fiction: the last 27 pages form a sort of appendix made up of excerpts from various documents, diaries, letters, recordings, histories and so on which shed light on how the alternative history came about, tell us about the later destinies of many of the characters, and ‘explain’ the meaning of the Engine-cards.

1864 – A (fictional) extract from an essay by Charles Babbage explaining how insight into using a language of signs and symbols extended the theoretical workings of the Difference Engine into the practical form of an Analytical Engine.

1830 – Letter to a newspaper encouraging readers to go out and vote for Babbage in the 1830 General Election.

1912 – (Fictional) history describing how Wellington’s repression in 1830 featuring massacres of protesters led to the Times of Trouble and eventual triumph of Lord Byron’s Industrial radical Party.

1855 – (Fictional) letter from Disraeli describing Lord Byron’s state funeral.

1855 – three-page testimony from Byron’s wife describing how she had to put up with his – to her – disgusting sexual practices which she out up with while finding solace in the kindly educating of Charles Babbage, full of ‘the pure light of mathematical science’.

1855 – a couple of miners working with the huge underground digger boring tube tunnels witness a visit by the Grand Master Miner Emeritus

1855 – record of the words of the Reverend Alistair Roseberry who denounces Ada Byron as a debauched gambler, before he is grappled to the ground and actually shot.

1855 – Brunel’s address to his cabinet asking their help to deal with the murder of Roseberry.

1855 – testimony of Kenneth Reynolds, nightwatchman at the Museum of Practical Geology, on discovering the corpse of the Marquess of Hastings who a) we met cockily inviting Mallory and brothers up into the West India Docks, who then b) Mallory punched unconscious and c) took part in the robbery led by Florence Bartlett to steal the box of Engine-cards from their hiding place in the skull of the brontosaurus, being lowered by rope through the skylight, extracting the box and handing it up to his colleagues before slipping and falling onto the hard stone floor below, shattering his skull.

1870 – memo to the Foreign Office from Lord Liston, describing the drunk behaviour of the ex-President of the American Union Mr Clement L. Vallandigham – to which is added a note that Sam Houston, ex-President of Texas, recently passed away in exile in Mexico.

1875 – spoken reminiscences of Thomas Towler, grandfather of Edward Towler, inventor of the Towler Audiograph who remembers a) the extreme poverty before the Rad government revolutionised the economy and b) the way Lord Byron roused the English to send food to Ireland during the Potato Famine, thus securing the loyalty of the Irish for generations.

1857 – John Keats gives testimony about a meeting with Oliphant. Oliphant is a smooth operator but we have but we have been given access to his mind and his rather paranoid fears and waking nightmares about an ‘all-seeing Eye’, which knows all our numbers and identities, that the computational powers of the Engines will match and supersede God’s knowledge. Oliphant has Keats confirm that kinetropy is probably the most advanced branch of computing, and then gives him the French Engine-cards to analyse and find out what they mean.

Lyrics to the Great Panmelodium Polka, the panmelodium being the Victorian steampunk version of a juke box.

1860 – snippet of gossip from Tatler machine that Oliphant has set sail, leaving Britain to join the Susquehanna Phalanstery established by Professor Coleridge and the Reverend Wordsworth, which could be interpreted as a) the gloomy religious visions which we saw occasionally dogging his mind have tipped him over or b) Britain became too dangerous for him.

1866 – the full Victorian-style playbill of a major new Kinotropic Drama staged by J.J. Tobias, who we met as the junior clerk in the Quantitative Criminology section of the Central Statistics Bureau, and who Oliphant bribed to get him the text of the telegram which turns out to have been the accusation sent by Sybil to Charles Egremont.

1854 – poem written by Mori Yujo, samaurai and classical scholar on his son’s departure for England.

1854 – letter home to his father from Mori Arinori describing his first sighting of the shore of England.

Narrative A – a return to the third person narrator which gives a seven-page description of Lady Ada on a speaking tour of Paris in which she describes in rather mystical terms the potential for the so-called ‘Modus Programme’ to lead to an Engine whose method of self-referentiality might eventually lead it to self-awareness. There’s scattered applause from the half-filled auditorium and Fraser (for it is he; a much older, white-bearded Fraser, wounded from some incident in the line of duty, now retired and allotted a final task of being Lady Ada’s bodyguard) helps her to her changing room where he knows she’ll help herself liberally to the gin. He waits at the stage door where he finds a woman loitering. At first he (and the reader) think it might be part of some diabolical scheme: maybe someone’s going to kidnap lady Ada and replace her with an impersonator who will travel across Europe saying… saying what, exactly?

But it turns out to be Sybil Gerrard, only now using the surname Tournechon (as she told Oliphant when he tracked her down to the Montmartre café). When Ada emerges, at first Sibyl asks for an autograph – then changes her tone and asks what it feels like to be a little old lady, lecturing to empty halls, deliberately hurtful. Then changes her tune again, trying to push past Fraser (who is by now pushing her away) in order to give Ada a large and genuine diamond ring, presumably made with one of the diamonds she stole from Houston after he was stabbed.

Then she is gone. Fraser helps her into the gurney. It drives to their hotel. Fraser helps her up to her room. They discuss money. Maybe she will have to go and lecture in America, though whether Confederate South or Union North… Fraser recalls being given the job by ‘the Hierarch’ (the only time this word is used in the book: who does he mean? is it as simple as Lord Brunel?) His task is to keep her out of England and so out of scandal, away from gambling dens, try to keep her sober and out of trouble.

1991

And then, in a weird and disorientating final move, Ada is in her hotel room, looking into a mirror and… it reflects a city which is… the city of London in 1991.

These last four or so paragraphs are confusing. The Wikipedia synopsis says that the London described on this final page, the London of this alternative world, is a city built entirely of Engines in which the self-referential computer programme referred to by Lady Ada finally, at the very end of the book, in its last words, attains self-consciousness!

When I first read it I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand the final, impressionistic sentences where this is, apparently, described as happening.

What I very much did read into the final couple of paragraphs was the apparent fact that human beings have ceased to exist. That cities are futuristic artefacts in which human-like simulacra are created by the All-Seeing Eye solely for the purpose of analysing their actions, interactions, for analysing the nature of causation and chance themselves.

Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data, its constituent bits and motes. But new fabrics of conjecture are knitted in the City’s shining cores, swift tireless spindles flinging off invisible loops in their millions, while in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gearwork in a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh… (pp.382-3)

Comment

I am in two minds about this conclusion. On the one hand it is a familiar science fiction trope, that somehow humans have been eliminated by computers – as in the Terminator franchise of movies – or only the facade of human life is maintained to serve the computers’ purposes – very like the situation in The Matrix films.

And it’s fair to say that this abrupt, dystopian future does follow logically from the speculations of Ada Lovelace, which themselves grow out of the pioneering work of Babbage, so worryingly premature and advanced in this alternative history.

BUT, all that said, the appeal of the previous 282 pages all derived from the vivid language and extravagant delineation of a host of very human characters, especially tough Mallory, suave Oliphant, and unflappable Fraser. And a lot of the appeal is from the verbal energy of their dialogue and the Victorian vocabulary deployed in the narrative prose.

The final Terminator-style vision of a post-human world goes a long way to annulling all the affection and complex network of feelings for both the characters and the prose which the previous 380 pages had so carefully, and impressively, built up.

I wish they had found some other clever way of rounding off the story which kept it within the gorgeously humanistic tapestry of the alternative 19th century.

Or maybe left it with the rather inconsequential back alley confrontation between Ada and Sibyl. It’s often a feature of ‘literature’ that it does not end with a boom and a bang, it relies for its final impact on something more obtuse and implied, such as that vivid but ineffective confrontation between Ada and Sybil would have provided.

So I think I think that the ending of this wonderful, thoroughly researched and deeply entertaining book, lets it down.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Alternative histories

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) 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.
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) Set in a 20th century England and Europe where the Reformation – and thus the Industrial revolution – never happened and so the Catholic Church still rules the entire continent.
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978) A detective thriller set in England soon after Nazi Germany won the war and occupied England.
  • Russian Hide-and-Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) Set in a near-future when the Soviet Union took advantage of the campaign for nuclear disarmament and invaded and conquered England.
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) A detective thriller set in the 1960s after Nazi Germany invaded Britain, made peace with America, and now rules the entire continent.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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

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

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

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, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
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

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 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
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 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
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 a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
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?

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, namely 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 enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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 London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion 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 passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring 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 Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to 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

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

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, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
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, namely the 1950s

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kingship, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


Related links

Related reviews

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

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

Executive summary

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

Two types of history

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

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

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

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

Reinterpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Terms

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

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

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

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

Show or Tell

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

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

Hahn tells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McPherson shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

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

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

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

2. Glossing over key events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

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

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

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

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

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

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

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

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

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism and its enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Old for us, new to the Yanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word

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

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


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Karl Marx on the American Civil War (1861-65)

Marx the journalist

Karl Marx fled the revolutions which rocked Europe in 1848, to the relative calm and safety of London. Although he never intended to, Marx then ended up spending the rest of his life – three quarters of his adult life – in England.

Ironically, he lived here during pretty much the quietest period of 19th century English history. The uproar surrounding the Great Reform Act of 1832 was long over, and the Chartist Movement failed and fizzled out after 1848. There followed 25 years or so of growing wealth, accompanied by, admittedly piecemeal, legislation to try and improve the lot of the working classes toiling in the new industrial cities in their grim seven-days-a-week factories. It was the era of the triumphant bourgeoisie and the unstoppable rise of British Imperialism, in India, China and around the world.

Although Karl wanted to write great masterworks of historical and economic theory, these wouldn’t pay the rent for himself, his wife and growing family. Although he wanted to be at the head of great revolutionary organisations, the Communist League with which he’d been associated during the 1848 revolutions, splintered and fizzled into insignificance.

So Karl turned to journalism, which he had actively pursued in Germany since his student days (it was his editorship of the seditious the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne which was the reason he was kicked out of Germany in 1849).

Incongruously, Mark got a job with the New York Daily Tribune, as its European correspondent, from 1852 to 1862. The Tribune had wide working-class appeal and, at two cents, was inexpensive. It had a circulation of 50,000 copies per issue and its editorial line was progressive and anti-slavery.

The New York paper paid the rent. But when civil war broke out in America, in the spring of 1861, it was for the Liberal Vienna paper Die Presse that Karl wrote 37 articles about it, starting six months into the conflict, on 20 October 1861.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Marx’s articles about the American Civil War

The American Civil War began with the secession of the southern slave states, starting with South Carolina, which declared independence in January 1861.

The eight seceded states went on to declare themselves a new nation, the Confederacy, with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. On 12 April 1861 Confederate forces shelled Fort Sumter, a fort off the coast of South Carolina which was still held by units of the U.S. or Union army. It was this action which signalled the start of the American Civil War.

Of Karl’s 37 articles just two are translated and published in the Penguin selection of Karl’s Writings From Exile 1848-1863. Shame. I wonder if you can read the lot in a pamphlet somewhere.

Karl begins by lining up the London papers of the day, The Times, The Economist, The Saturday Review and summarising their positions.

Apparently, most of the British press sympathised with the southern states. They thought the war was mostly about the issue of trade tariffs. The North imposed various tariffs on imports and exports, whereas the South didn’t. Moreover, an enormous amount of southern cotton was bought by British factory owners, turned into clothes, and traded back to the South (or sold on to India).

This explains why Britain, being a free trade nation, and economically linked to the region, had strong sympathies with the South.

It was because of this economic self-interest – Karl argued – that Britain’s papers and politicians argued, ‘Why shouldn’t the South declare itself a separate nation?’ And ‘Why should the North bother, or dare, to try and invade and suppress this nation?’

Buried, pushed aside, undiscussed in all the mainstream media articles which Marx quotes, is the issue of slavery. In the two articles published in the Penguin selection, Marx sets out to contradict and refute the British bourgeois position.

Karl’s knowledge

Marx is incredibly knowledgeable. I found reading the nineteen pages which these articles make up in the Penguin edition nearly as illuminating as reading James McPherson’s 860-page history of the war. Karl demonstrates a surprisingly detailed grasp of the geography, the economic facts, the population, and of the political manoeuvring that led up to the war.

Karl gives his unstinting support to the North and says it must conquer the South and overthrow its iniquitous slavery system. Otherwise the South will triumph in its pre-war attempts to impose and spread slavery to all parts of America and with it, to enslave the working classes, too.

Karl says the war is about slavery pure and simple. The Founding Fathers may have been slave-owners (most famously Washington and Jefferson), but they thought slavery was an evil imported from England which would eventually die out. By contrast, apologists for the South treat slavery as a good in itself which deserves to be spread as widely as possible. According to them, slaves love their slavery. The South is fighting, as one apologist put it, for ‘the foundation of a great slave republic.’ (p.336)

Karl details the political build-up to the war, including:

  • the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which established 36º 30′ as the northernmost extent of slavery)
  • the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (which retracted that ruling)
  • the attempt to spread slavery into New Mexico
  • the 1857 Dred Scott case which established that slave owners had a right to take their slaves anywhere in the country
  • the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which forced northern officials to acquiesce in the hunting, kidnapping and return south of runaway slaves from their territories

He describes the revival of the slave trade in recent years which, he claims, has resulted in 15,000 new Africans being kidnapped and brought to America (making a bigger deal of it than McPherson does in his history).

And repeats the outrageous but widely publicised aims of the southern states to conquer Cuba for America, and extend their rule throughout Central America (specifically in Nicaragua where, for a year, a southern American mercenary did, indeed, manage to become president!).

All of these political events show, to Karl, the wish of the South not just to defend slavery, but to actively extend it throughout the states.

Why?

An economic explanation for the motives of the Confederate states

Karl gives a characteristically economic explanation for political events.

The old slave states are exhausting their soil. Maryland, Virginia, even South Carolina, have become net exporters of slaves. ‘Breed ’em and sell ’em,’ is the slavers’ policy. Therefore, the slave states need a steady supply of new markets, they need to make new territorial conquest, in order to maintain their economies.

Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil… South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the Deep South and South-West to the tune of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves. (p.341)

There is also politics. Each American state sends two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there is a naked power struggle whenever a new state is admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators will be pro or anti slavery, each new state’s nature threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

Who is doing all this? Karl estimates that there are only some 300,000 significant slave owners in the whole of the country. So an oligarchy of 300,000 has been trying to impose the political, legal and economic system which underpins its wealth onto the other 20 million Americans.

The ‘plantocracy’ was well aware what it was fighting for, that to restrict slavery to its current territories would:

  • reduce slaver representation in the senate i.e. undermine their political power
  • lead, over the long term, to the inevitable extinction of slavery
  • the consequent general impoverishment of the South would lead to class warfare with poor whites who would, finally, realise how they are being exploited by the wealthy 300,000

Thus the war is nothing to do with free trade and tariffs, as the respectable London papers were trying to claim. It was about whether:

  • the 20 million free Americans should submit to a political and economic system imposed by an oligarchy of 300,000
  • the vast new territories of the Republic should be slave or free
  • whether the foreign policy of America should be peaceful – or get dragged into further wars with Cuba and Central America

Punchy and pithy

Karl is at his journalistic, punchy and pithy best. In the second article he makes the rhetorical point that the South – which had declared itself a new nation – isn’t a proper nation at all.

It is not a country at all, it is a battle-cry. (p.344)

In the second article he gives a detailed description of the geography and slave populations of all the ‘border’ states between south and north and describes how the slave states had made political, legal and, finally, armed attempts to infiltrate and capture these states for slavery.

Conventional opinion had it that it was the northern armies who had invaded the south, and indeed most of the fighting was done on the soil of southern or the so-called ‘border’ states. But Karl’s list of, first, the political attempts to suborn the border states, and then his detailed accounts of border incursions and raids by southern forces, makes a powerful case that the war is in fact:

a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. (p.350)

A glance at the map of America in 1854 shows what was being fought over. The southern slave states (dark green) already controlled significantly more land than the northern free states (pink). The issue was: should slavery be extended into the huge expanse of land to the west (light green), nearly half of the American land mass, which was still only roughly defined as territories such as Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon etc, but which would, in the near future, attain the status of ‘states’ and be admitted to the union. Should they be slave – or free?

American states in 1854

American states in 1854

Marx was wrong about lots of things, but the materialist worldview which predisposed him to see all major events in terms of their economic basis and in terms of the class conflicts which they inevitably give rise to – often gave him a thrillingly incisive vision which cut through the painful bombast and wordy rhetoric of the stuffy, obtuse Victorians he lived among.

Thus in Marx’s view the American Civil War was emphatically not about tariffs or free trade or the right to have a separate culture or any of the other mystifications and obfuscations which filled so many speeches and newspaper columns, no:

The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer peacefully co-exist on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

He thought the North would win and that the full emancipation of the slaves was inevitable.

Given that he was writing in November 1861, with the war only six months old and most Republicans (including President Lincoln) still reluctant to countenance slave emancipation under any circumstances, Karl in these articles was not only typically incisive and insightful, but remarkably prophetic.


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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (5) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Stepping back from the detail, this reader’s general sense of the actual fighting of the American Civil War – having just finished this 860-page book about it – was that the slaughter steadily escalated, until tens of thousands were being killed and wounded at each brutal, bloody, slogged-out battle, death and injury on such a scale you’d have thought they’d be decisive. And yet they weren’t. There was a terrible fatality or weakness about the commanding generals on both sides which prevented them landing really knockout blows and allowed the war to drag on for years longer than necessary.

The reader gets very impatient with General George B. McClellan who was in charge of the north’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac. He was, by all accounts, an excellent organiser of armies and inspirer of men who, however, turned out to be pathologically reluctant to risk his shiny machine in actual battle. And, on the rare occasions when he did engage and repel the Confederates, McClellan consistently failed to pursue and crush them, allowing them to retreat, lick their wounds, regroup, re-arm and come again. Eventually, President Lincoln became so impatient with McClellan’s fatal indecisiveness that he sacked him.

But, to the reader’s frustration, the turns out to be true of his replacement, Major General George Meade, who commanded the northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863), massacring the rebels as they tried to storm his entrenched men along Cemetery Hill.

But then, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called off the rebel attack and withdrew, Meade refused the calls from his officers, and from Lincoln himself, to pursue and crush the exhausted southern survivors – thus ensuring that Lee could withdraw, regroup, and that the war went on for another two years!

Apparently, a contemporary satirist described the armies of the American Civil War as little more than armed mobs wandering over the Virginia countryside at random, occasionally bumping into each other, massacring each other, then wandering off again with no decisive result. For long periods of time this satire does seem to be true.

According to McPherson, the siege and capture of the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, which took place at the same time as the enormous Battle of Gettysburg (May to July 1865), marked a turning point in the war – but quite clearly neither was a knockout blow, and the South continued to field armies for 24 more bloody months.

Two years of bludgeoning, desperate bloodletting, as bigger and bigger armies engaged for longer and longer, at the costs of tens of thousands of eviscerated mangled bodies, with an enormous loss of life and treasure.

Meanwhile, as the generals of both sides failed to win the war, the conflict was nonetheless a time of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Military innovation

The generals initially carried on implementing Napoleonic battle strategy i.e. close ranked men march forwards, protected by cavalry on the flanks, until they’re within range to charge and close the enemy with bayonets – at which point the enemy breaks and runs, hopefully.

However, this was the war during which the rifle replaced the smooth-bore musket. Rifling made a bullet fly further and more accurately. This meant rifle fire could now kill men at three or four times the distance i.e. infantry advancing in the old style were cut down like grass.

Suddenly the advantage was with well-entrenched defenders. This explains the carnage at the Battle of Antietam as attacking Union troops found themselves funnelled into a lane which led towards the Confederate positions, and were mown down in their thousands. Or the carnage at Fredericksburg, where Union troops walked towards a solid wall at the base of St Marye’s Heights lined with Confederates assembled in ranks who fired in sequence – it was like walking towards machine guns.

It’s in the last two hundred pages, from the year 1864, that the power of defensive trenches really comes into its own, with the enormous losses suffered by Union soldiers trying to take rebel trenches at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Here the fighting anticipated the appalling attrition rates of the First World War.

Arguably it was the development of the rifle, and the advantage it gave defenders, which is the one big reason why the American Civil War was so long and so bloody. (pp.477ff)

The scale of the slaughter

Some of the slaughter was awe-inspiring. The massacre at Antietam Creek left 6,000 men dead and some 17,000 wounded – four times the total number suffered on the Normandy beaches on D-Day – more than all American casualties in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American war combined.

Similarly, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg was an abattoir, with some 8,000 killed out of about 50,000 casualties.

Even relatively minor encounters seemed to result in appalling rates of death and maiming.

Some 620,000 men from both armies died in the civil war. it was a catastrophe.

Disease the biggest killer in most wars

But disease was an even bigger killer than rifles and artillery. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. The biggest killers were intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhoea, which alone claimed more men than did battle wounds. Other major killers were measles, smallpox, malaria and pneumonia.

The fundamental basis of modern medicine – the fact that microscopic bacteria spread infections – had not yet been discovered. Medicine was, as McPherson puts it, still in the Middle Ages. The result was that no-one appreciated the importance of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, and the vital importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The impact of disease was so severe that it disrupted or led to the cancellation of a number of military campaigns. (p.488)

The changing role of women

McPherson goes out of his way in several places to discuss the changing positions of women. This is especially true of his section on 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 medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness.

Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn an MD.

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

Financial innovations

But arguably the most profound changes wrought by the Civil War – and certainly the most boring to read about – were the financial innovations it prompted.

To finance the war the northern government instituted the first ever federal income tax, on 5 August 1861. Taxes on other goods followed quickly under the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which taxed ‘almost everything but the air northerners breathed’ (p.447) including liquor, tobacco and playing cards, carriages, yachts and billiard tables, taxes on newspaper adverts and patent medicines, licence taxes on virtually every profession, stamp taxes, taxes on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, insurance companies and the dividends or interest they paid investors.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never the same again.

This was accompanied by a Legal Tender Act of 1862 which issued, for the first time, a federal currency. Until this point each of the states had had their own treasury and their own forms of payment. Now the Federal government set out to supersede all these with the green dollar bills it produced by the million. These soon became known as ‘greenbacks’ and endure to this day.

Having revolutionised the country’s monetary and tax structures, the 37th Congress (1861-62) did the same for public land, higher education and railways.

McPherson shows how the economic dynamism of the north had been hampered and blocked for decades by southern states suspicious that every attempt to spread its free market, industrial culture was an attack on the South’s slave-based, agricultural economy.

Once the southern states seceded the Congress, now representing solely northern states, was set free to unleash its vision. A homestead act granted 160 acres of land to settlers who developed it for five years, underpinning the explosive expansion westwards.

A Vermont congressman developed a bill to make 30,000 acres of public land in each state available for the founding of further education, and especially agricultural colleges – establishing a network of institutions which ensured the most efficient exploitation of farmland by American farmers for generations to come.

And the Pacific Railroad Act granted land and money for a railway which eventually ran from Omaha to San Francisco. Much of the land dealing and speculation about the construction of this and later railways became notorious for corruption and sharp practices. But nonetheless the railways were built, connecting people, services and supplies across this vast continent.

Taken together these changes amounted to a ‘blueprint for modern America’, a:

new America of big business, heavy industry, and capital-intensive agriculture that surpassed Britain to become the foremost industrial nation by 1880 and became the world’s breadbasket for much of the twentieth century… (p.452)

The capitalists, labourers and farmers of the north and west superseded the plantation aristocracy of the South in the economic and political system, permanently remodelling America as a high-finance, industrialised, capitalist country.

Reconstruction

And this is the background to the idea of ‘Reconstruction’.

As in any war, the war aims of both sides changed over time. Initially most northern Democrats and many Republicans simply wanted the southern states to de-secede and return to the Union, more or less as they were.

But savvier radicals realised that there would have to be drastic changes in southern economy, culture and politics if the whole nation wasn’t simply to return to the permanently blocked political deadlocks of the decades which led up to the conflict.

Even slow-to-change Abe Lincoln realised that the South would have to be remade on the model of the industrialised, capitalist North. Having been devastated, economically, in terms of war dead, in terms of goods and assets destroyed, burned and bombed to bits, and having had the fundamental underpinning of its entire economic existence – slavery – abolished – the South would need to be entirely rebuilt from scratch.

This is what the term ‘Reconstruction’ came to mean and McPherson’s book comes to an abrupt stop just before it begins. His book ends with the end of the war, with the moving encounter between the old enemies as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, and then Confederate troops came in and surrendered their weapons to their union victors.

A short epilogue fleetingly references the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865, the vast funeral, the flight of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and half a dozen other events which quickly followed in the wake of peace – but that’s it as far as McPherson’s account is concerned.

The whole enormous story of what came next:

  • the attempts to reconstruct the South and their long-term impact, in terms of poverty and ongoing racial prejudice
  • the conquest of the West and the so-called Indian Wars
  • the astonishing industrial and financial rise of the North until America was on a par with the mightiest European powers

remains to be told in the next book in the series.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulyses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (4) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Slavery is the normal condition of the negro… as indispensable to his prosperity and happiness… as liberty is to the whites. (From a petition sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the 56th Virginia regiment against allowing black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy, quoted on page 836)

Racism…

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong if they meant to include Negroes among ‘all men’, said Alexander Graham after he had become vice president of the Confederacy.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (quoted on page 244)

Repeatedly, every few pages in this long book, the reader is slapped in the face by quite breathtakingly racist statements made by all classes of Americans in the 1860s. Here is the southern newspaper, the Richmond Whig, in 1865, discussing the heretical idea of arming the South’s slaves to fight for it. The idea was:

a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave. (quoted p.834)

It is one of the characteristics of McPherson’s immensely thorough account of the American Civil War that he lards his text with quotations – from speeches by presidents, senators and congressmen, from newspaper articles and editorials, from the diaries and letters on both sides of the argument, and statements from the lowliest, barely literate, farmhands-turned-soldiers.

In other words, McPherson gives you deep insight into the minds of people at every level of society on both sides of the war.

And one of the big things that comes over is a level of anti-black racism at all levels of 1860s American society which is staggering, almost beyond words to describe.

Nowadays the word ‘racism’ is quickly applied to the slightest verbal slip or misspeak. It is eye-opening to come to understand what institutional racism really means, in the sense of a quite overt, explicit, unashamed and widely popular belief, promoted by politicians from the (Confederate) president at the top, throughout the entire (Confederate) press – that black Africans are a separate and inferior race, quite incapable of education, higher thought, or serious mental activity, a race set aside by GOD specifically to perform the most menial, humdrum, mindless activities. And a race which posed a permanent terrorising threat to all decent white folk.

As the Charleston Mercury put it, emancipation would mean:

the poor man… reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them. (p.836)

I suppose it was obvious that this would be the mindset of the southern plantation-owning class but it is still shocking to read.

But almost worse is the revelation that even in the north whose politicians were anti-slavery and who eventually turned the war into a crusade to emancipate the slaves, there was, of course, a strong abolitionist movement, particularly in snooty, Puritan New England – but there was also anti-black sentiment almost as strong as in the south, and just as profoundly racist.

Many northern soldiers, and their newspapers and congressmen, went out of their way to explain that they were fighting the war against rebels but certainly not for uppity Negroes. In the north, there were protests against the new draft introduced in July 1862, where protesters carried banners saying things like:

We won’t fight to free the nigger (p.493)

MacPherson quotes a Union soldier as writing: ‘I am not in favour of freeing the negroes and leaving them to run riot among us’. It wasn’t isolated bigots, but the state legislatures of Illinois and Indiana who called the Emancipation Proclamation ‘wicked, inhuman and unholy’. It was an Ohio newspaper editor who described it as ‘monstrous, impudent and heinous… insulting to God as to man, for it declares those “equal” whom God created unequal.’ (p.595)

In the 1863 congressional elections in the north, the remaining Democrats (a party mostly associated with southern slave-holders) campaigned as the peace party, expressing such vehement opposition to the war that one of their leaders, Clement Vallandigham, was forced to flee the country and campaigned from Canada. He wrote:

In considering terms of settlement we should look only to the welfare, peace and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African. (quoted page 592)

The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that:

when the president called for them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be damned if he believed they would go. (quoted p.609)

The Democrat Party in the north split into war democrats and peace-at-any-price Democrats. The most outspoken wing of the peace Democrats was given the nickname ‘copperhead’, after a particularly venomous American snake. A copperhead campaigning in the Ohio elections wrote:

Let every vote count in favour of the white man, and against the Abolition horses, who would place negro children in your schools, negro jurors in your jury boxes,  and negro votes in your ballot boxes. (quoted page 686)

Being a democratic politician means you have to listen to the people, you have to take their beliefs into account, even if you think they are ignorant and prejudiced beliefs. As Lincoln himself put it:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (p.128)

All of this evidence, which McPherson marshals so effectively, explains why Lincoln had to proceed slowly, retaining as many allies as he could, in the political class as well as among the broader population, in a culture awash with anti-Afro-American thoughts and prejudices.

But it’s still a shock to read the remarks he made to a group of black leaders in the White House on 14 August 1862. Slavery was:

the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.

But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain.

Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain among us… I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I could.

This fact, Lincoln thought, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities. He asked the black leaders present to ask for volunteers for a government-sponsored pilot scheme to resettle black Americans in Central America. (p.508) So even the leader of the North and the proclaimer of the emancipation of the slaves thought the only real solution to the ‘Race Problem’ was to pack off the ‘other’ race to a different country. Wow.

It makes for a lot of unpleasant reading, but it also gives the reader a sense of the deep, deep, deep racist, anti-black sentiments which were central to American society, had been for decades beforehand, and would continue to be for decades afterwards. It helps you understand why profoundly racist attitudes continued in full flood well into the 1960s and beyond, and had to be combated by black movements which themselves were often radical and violent.

It makes you understand that African slavery and the racism it engendered is the Original Sin which just can’t be cleansed from the American soul.

… and constitutional law

It’s easy to overlook because it’s so much less shocking than the racism, but in among the descriptions of the economy, of banking and then – of course – of the paraphernalia of war, the recruitment, arms factories, train lines and battles – a steady hum which, once you notice it you realise makes up most of the book, is the central importance to American politics of the law.

Having read Alan Taylor’s book about the American War of Independence I now understand that the American constitution wasn’t some pristine and perfect theory of government devised by political philosophers working in a vacuum, but an extremely hard-headed set of compromises between the squabbling thirteen colonies who all had particular interests to protect, not least the southern slave states who fought to ensure that slavery was protected, even if it was nowhere explicitly mentioned.

Reading this book helps the reader to understand the uniquely complex and legalistic nature of American society, whereby each state has its own elected officials and supreme court, which may – or may not – be overridden by federal i.e. national president, congress and Supreme Court.

In other words, any two parties caught in a civil or criminal case, has at least two sets of authorities to appeal to, state and federal. When U.S. society split from top to bottom in the civil war there became in effect four sets of law. And since each state had its own traditions, made its own laws, and elected its own officials, the reality was something more like 30 squabbling states, plus two overriding federal authorities who were at war with each other.

What is fascinating is the extent to which neither side really appealed to moral or religious principles, but tried to dress up their decisions in the cloak of the Constitution. The main arguments of the civil war occurred at the where Law meets Political Theory. Both sides appealed to the Constitution, but gave their own (wildly conflicting) politico-legal interpretations of it.

Thus the most obvious thing, to us, today, about the quote from the Confederate vice-president at the top of this review, is its repellent view of race: but what’s symptomatic of its era is that it is couched not in terms of scientific theory or morality or religion – but as a theory of government.

When politicians argue in this book (and they argue all the way from page one to page 860) of course they sometimes express themselves in terms of ‘racial theory’ or religion but, when push comes to shove, they argue strongest about laws and the basis of all American laws, the Constitution.

They argue whether the Kansas-Nebraska Law of 1854 is constitutional, whether the president has powers to proclaim emancipation, they argue whether states have the right to secede under any circumstances, about what a state actually is (early in the war West Virginia seceded from Virginia – was it allowed to? who said so?).

What’s easy to forget in all the bloodshed and in the inflammatory rhetoric of racism, is that this was a highly articulate, well-educated argument taking place among sometimes blunt and rude but often very subtle and clever lawyers.

If one obvious element of Battle Cry of Freedom is to rub your face in some very unpleasant racist ideology and make you appreciate how deep and enduring anti-black racism has been in America – a less immediately obvious but just as important conclusion is the extent to which America is a country meshed in a fascinating and endlessly complicated web of state and federal laws and courts and legal powers.

Something which goes a long way to explaining why outsiders often find American politics confusing and end up with a simple-minded focus on the personality of whoever happens to be in the White House (JFK, Nixon, Barack, Donald), ignoring the complex web of political, legal and constitutional wrangling which go on continually at lower levels of American political life, and which are often more important in determining the lives and livelihoods of most Americans.

And explains Americans’ apparently ceaseless appetite for TV shows about lawyers. Are there any British TV series about solicitors? No, because their work is very boring. Whereas American law really is a) more complex, challenging and swashbuckling; b) seems to automatically offer the possibility of a career progressing into state politics and then, potentially, on into national politics.

In terms of its racial heritage, and its legal-political arrangements, this books helps the reader really come to appreciate what a very different country from our own America is.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the American Civil War. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep and enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other American states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state, thus giving the existing slave states more political clout, b) add a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold i.e. where slave traders could make a profit.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, establish a new slave empire.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him: ‘Endorse repeal or lose the south’.

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight in Ireland of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped stoke anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a result they became known as the ‘Know-nothings’, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states, which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more. (For example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in the so-called Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, capital of South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political – broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always pre-eminent.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and that Democrat Party apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether each the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate unending squabbles on their own sides about the war’s goals and strategies. McPherson notes how both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and how both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and build-up in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example, Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side, degenerating into tit-for-tat bloodbaths.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a caste of people who were professional slave hunters. Hold that thought… People whose job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of a southern slave owner.

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon recapture, be returned to their masters, and that the officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which used various strategies to try and to block the Fugitive Slave Act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities from collaborating with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case brought under the new act caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury ‘nullifications’, where a jury refused to convict because they believed the entire basis of a federal law was unjust.

Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, often with guns, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (a circular definition in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property confers the independence from poverty which underlies the notion of personal freedom).

The clash between the pro-slavery Federal law and the anti-slavery strategies taken by various northern states made almost every case of a runaway slave being recaptured into a show trial.

Imagine being a freed black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, and suddenly being set upon by a gang of men and hustled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property!

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at the risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

It was a flavour of slavery and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And it forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaway blacks, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery story told with moral passion. The book was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, Stowe wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. I wish I had that much energy.

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes of safe houses and sympathetic helpers who could ferry blacks north through the free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – much like the networks which shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke in, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, some 332 slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both the north (disgusted) and the south (outraged that the north tried to steal their ‘property’), compared to the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in this country, could recover from the trauma. Easy to imagine the aftershock lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…


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