Tag Archives: history

Novel History

Maybe my case is not that unusual?  But when I was in school (thru high school), I believe that I only took history classes when I had to. I don’t think I really got any pleasure out of them. I recall paging through review books, to get the lowdown on main events, so that I would do respectably on the tests. In English, at least I recall one teacher (in junior high) who kind of gave off sparks, and got me interested. But in history, nary a one do I remember.

In college, as you might guess, I was not inspired to take any history classes at all. But since then, I now realize I’ve creepingly worked my way into an interest in — and a reading acquaintance — with history. I still, even now, don’t think of my self as “reading history”. (I am, rather, a novel addict.) But here (roughly chronologically) are some ways in which I’ve managed to learn a bit about the past, with interest …

Books on the history of certain major technological advancements. I’m especially thinking of David McCullough. I know I’ve read his The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas, about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, respectively. I’ve also read books by others on the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and the first trans-Atlantic telephone cables. (The latter being Voice Across the Sea, by Arthur C. Clarke, who this time is not writing science fiction.)

What one might call “popular history”. I’m thinking right now of the writers Barbara Tuchman (e.g. The Guns of August, on the start of World War I) and Collins-Lapierre (Freedom at Midnight, about the Indian independence movement).

Various readings about the history of mathematics. I’m especially interested in the work of Archimedes, who figured out such matters as the area between a parabola and a straight line, with methods that can be hard to understand today, but which were in some ways as powerful as calculus, which didn’t emerge until almost 2,000 years later.

The New York Review of Books is my favorite periodical.  (Yes, even including the New York Times.)  I have been recently catching up on several months of past issues.  (I used to allot this journal to my subway reading, but for obvious reasons that option was not a good one during the past year.)  Here, from the April 5, 2018 issue, is an example of their coverage of books of history: one about George Washington’s relationship with Native Americans.  (Spoiler: “[Washington] was the only prominent founder to invest his enormous prestige in a just solution to America’s Native American dilemma”.)


Unconventional views of history. I’m particularly thinking of David Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which presents events not from the “winner’s” perspective — the way one usually gets history — but from the point of view of those downtrodden over the centuries: Native Americans, Blacks, women …

Podcasts. My favorite podcast is the ongoing History of the English Language.  This non-trivial endeavor began in 2016, and now comprises 146 hour-long episodes, not to mention “bonus episodes” (for Patreon contributors), stand-alone audiobooks, etc. The creator/narrator, Kevin Stroud,  takes the broad view, demonstrating how developments in the English language cannot be understood without investigating political, economic,and social developments. True to my affinity for “non-standard” history, Mr. Stroud does not even have a degree in linguistics! He is only driven by curiosity, dedication … and an obvious love for his subject.

I have just recently come upon Mike Duncan’s podcast, The History of Rome. Begun in 2007, this project was completed in 2012, after 179 episodes running a total of 73 hours. I hope my interest in this will hold … in that case I have a lot of enjoyable listening ahead of me.

Heather Cox Richardson is an historian. On her Facebook page (and also, some days after their Facebook appearance, posted to YouTube) she makes two one-hour videos every week. Tuesday is devoted to current political events in USA. On Thursdays she speaks about topics in American history, particularly as they relate to our present situation.

Recent example of HCR’s video talks:  On March 11, 2021, a fascinating discussion of how the Republican and Democratic parties have essentially reversed roles policy-wise, since the time of Lincoln (who, as you possibly might find surprising , was a Republican).

HCR is one of the only people, for whom I would say that their videos are more interesting to me than their prose output. (I normally avoid informational videos as much as I can, since — despite YouTube, for example, allowing one to speed them up — I get impatient, and would usually much rather scan through a written document, pausing where I want/need to pick up information.)

My last category, books about history by writers who are primarily novelists, consists (at least so far) of only one book: Son of the Morning Star, by Evan Connell. I read this some years ago, and it has managed to “haunt” me, so that I just gave it another read recently (an unusual event, since I’m typically eager to go on to the next book). I believe that it is quite unusual for a novelist to write a history book. (Note that I am not talking about an “historical novel” here, but rather bona-fide historical non-fiction.)

The special quality of this book starts, for me, with its title. This is the story of George Armstrong Custer, known especially of course for his “Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). Custer was, after his death and the loss of all his men in that battle, originally greatly admired, as a tragic fallen hero. But as Connell says, nowadays his “stock sells for nothing”.  Nevertheless, Connell chooses to name his book so as to cast a romantic kind of glow upon him. (“Son of the Morning Star” was a name conferred upon Custer by the Arikara Indians, apparently from the appearance of Venus at dawn, during a battle in which Custer figured.)

Connell, while I believe sticking to facts, nevertheless takes liberties with his narration that conventional historians would normally not allow themselves to do. He dwells on apparently minor figures for pages at a time, just because he finds them interesting. (As do I.) He digresses to discuss Native American artistic practices:

A gunshot was represented by fan-shaped lines diverging from the muzzle, just as European artists tried to represent a shot, except that this symbol might appear without the gun — indicating that a shot had been fired at a certain time or place. Similarly, a club or a bow or a whip might be shown in contact with an enemy although the owner might be some distance away, meaning that this weapon did at one time strike the foe.
They had no concept of perspective and almost never attempted to foreshorten. In a trail of hoofprints passing out of sight the farthest would be as large as the closest for the very good reason that whether a horse is close to you or far away his hoofprints will be the same size.

Connell pauses to muse on the images that we have of Frederick Benteen, an officer in command of a battalion at Little Bighorn:

In not a single photograph does he look formidable, not even very military. He appears placid, gentle, benevolent, with feminine lips and prematurely white hair. Only after contemplating that orotund face for a while does one begin to perceive something rather less accommodating. Embedded in that fleshy face are the expressionless agate eyes of a killer. One might compare them to the eyes of John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid. Now, this sinister absence of expression could be nothing more than a result of myopia, a condition afflicting him after the Oklahoma winter campaign of 1868-9 when he lent his protective goggles to a regimental surgeon. Still, in Civil War photographs he has almost that same look.

Connell does not bind himself to the chronological narrative of the typical historian. For instance, he begins his book with the shock of the first revelation of the Little Bighorn battle to the outside world.  Initial assumptions had to be soon reversed:

… a party of at least sixty United States cavalrymen — or what resembled cavalry, proceeding by twos, with a guidon flying — rode into view. A second cavalry unit then merged with the first and Lt. Roe understood that they were hostile Indians dressed in Army clothing.

About this time Lt. Bradley returned from the other side of the river to say that the dark objects on the hillside thought to be buffalo skins were, in fact, dead horses. What had been mistaken for skinned buffalo carcasses were the naked bodies of Custer’s men. Bradley had counted 197 dead soldiers.

I would be grateful to find out about other works of history, written by authors who normally are novelists. At least up to now, history books by conventional historians just do not seem to do it for me …

WELL —  now that I have put all my sources for historical information down in one place — maybe I have been able to compensate just a bit, for neglecting the normal, formal history book?

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Did it have to end with tragedy?

It was a book I had always wanted to read. I just didn’t know that it existed.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be playing violin in a reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s C-minor Piano Trio.

After the playing, a discussion arose about the well-known renunciation of Judiasm, and the adoption of Christianity by Mendelssohn’s family (initiated by Felix’s father Abraham).

I ventured that the Mendelssohn family converted, as simply a means of social advancement. The cellist, knowledgeable on this subject, told us that the situation was really more complicated. For instance, many German Jews came to regard the traditional form of their religion as old-fashioned. The great “takeaway” I got from our discussion, was the cellist’s recommendation of the 2003 book by the Israeli writer Amos Elon:  The Pity of It All:  A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933.

Although I had never heard of this book, I have a very personal connection with its subject. My parents, both Jewish, were in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. They managed to emigrate to Switzerland (and some years later, to New York) to escape the Nazis. My father’s relatives in Poland, however, did not fare as well; many of them were lost in the Holocaust.

The Pity of It All starts arrestingly:

IN the fall of 1743, a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass.

This Jewish boy was Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn).

Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher, became celebrated as the “German Socrates”. Though remaining a Jew, he advocated a form of Judaism which he felt was in harmony with the ideas of the Enlightenment circulating at that time. German should be the secular language of Jews, not Yiddish. “One could be both a practicing Jew and an enlightened German.” Through his good friend Lessing — the famous writer and philosopher — Moses Mendelssohn became known to the public. German Jews took the first steps toward becoming integrated into German society.

From this book of many characters and events, I can only give a few highlights. Let’s now turn to Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).

Heine converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1825, characteristically taking “Christian” as his new first name. His radical political views were not appreciated by the German authoritiies, and he spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris. He is today best known for his early lyric poetry, set to music by Schubert and Schumann. From what I saw of his ironic voice in The Pity of It All, I am now curious to read some of his writing.

Along with being one of Germany’s great writers, Heine evidently had the gift of prophesy. Here, from 1834 — long before Germany’s unification — is his eerily accurate prediction about the twentieth century:

A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardor of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again,… the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak. … The old stony gods will rise from the rubble and rub the thousand-year-old dust from their eyes. Thor with the giant hammer will come forth and smash the gothic domes.

The German thunder … rolls slowly at first but it will come. And when you hear it roar, as it has never roared before in the history of the world, know that the German thunder has reached its target.

The progress toward Jewish assimilation into German society (with many Jews converting to Christianity) was thrown awry by World War I (1914-18). Even before this war, “real power in Germany was centered not in the Reichstag but in the occult triangle of monarch, army, and bureaucracy”, rendering true democracy impossible. But with Germany’s losing the war, things degenerated. In a terrible irony, Jews — some of whom were the most fervent patriots — became scapegoats for the war loss.

Between the world wars, the sun did come out for a few years with the Weimar Republic (1919-33). My father (Stefan Frenkel) was a violin soloist in Germany during this period. He was friends with Kurt Weill, of Threepenny Opera fame. He played the German premiere of Weill’s Violin Concerto, and performed many other contemporary works as well. Berlin at this time was arguably the cultural capital of the world. Jews seemed to be more a part of German life than ever before. But things were on shaky ground.

[After World War I,] Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and other high-ranking officers wished above all to save the army. At their urging, the republican government accepted the terms of a humiliating armistice. The republicans should have compelled the generals to assume responsibility for this step; instead, they readily took it upon themselves — with disastrous political consequences later on.

There was a fateful loophole in the Weimar constitution, allowing for the possibility of rule by decree. (Hitler was able to take advantage of this when he came to power.)

Other factors contributed to a “perfect storm” in Germany, that led to the Weimar Republic’s collapse. There was hyperinflation.

The worldwide Depression of the 1930’s led to mass unemployment. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles called for huge reparation payments. Germany felt totally humiliated by the peace terms.

But. Even though conditions were so dire in the Germany of the early 1930’s, was it historically inevitable that Hitler should gain power? The Pity of It All argues that the Nazi takeover was not a foregone conclusion:

Alongside the Germany of anti-Semitism there was a Germany of enlightened liberalism, humane concern, civilized rule of law, good government, social security, and thriving social democracy. Even Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 was not the result of electoral success (the Nazis’ share of the vote had seriously declined in the fall of 1932). Rather, Hitler’s triumph was the product of backstage machinations by conservative politicians and industrialists who overcame the hesitations of a senile president by convincing him (and themselves) that they were “hiring” Hitler to restore order and curb the trade unions. Installing Hitler as chancellor was not the only alternative at the time.

Instead of Hitler, what else might have happened?

Given the ineptitude and mediocrity of the Social Democratic leaders, the most obvious alternative to Hitler might have been a military regime, such as existed in several other European countries at that time. A military regime would certainly have been dictatorial, and it might have led to a war with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps France. But, as Henry Ashby Turner suggests, there would have been no Holocaust.

If one takes Elon’s view, one could argue that if there had been one or two strong personalities opposing the naming of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, the history of Jews in Germany — and elsewhere in Europe — might have turned out completely differently. Perhaps the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust would have remained alive.

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Did slavery make America?


My wife  and I recently visited some relatives of hers, who live near Charlottesville, Virginia.  We had been to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation before, but of course her relatives, who live just a few miles away, had never been.  So we took them there.  Jefferson, as is well known, kept slaves; and before entering the famous Jefferson home, we went on the “slavery tour”.  The very knowledgeable guide reccommended a book that came out only last year:  Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Baptist’s book does for slavery, what Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States does for America as a whole.  That is, it sees history not from the point of view of the capitalists, but rather of those exploited by that capitalism.

One of Baptist’s main points is that “Slavery was a key driver of the formation of American wealth”.  And not just Southern wealth — as most people might expect — but Northern wealth as well.  Perhaps — just as Germany is still paying Jewish survivors for the Nazis’ crimes — reparations are still due to the American slaves’ descendants?

For a fuller discussion of Baptist’s arguments, see this Huffington Post article.

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Mathematics for the Thousand

dunham 0236957

I am not easy to please, when it comes to books about mathematics.  (I’m not talking about textbooks, but books that try to “popularize” math in one way or another.)  Couple years ago, I tried The Music of the Primes, by Marcus du Satoy.  One might call this “mathematics for the million” (with apologies to a book by that name, which actually might not deserve this designation).  It skates over subjects, dumbs them down.  Take for instance this reference to a famous theorem:

It’s likely that the twins were using a trick based on what’s called Fermat’s Little Theorem to test whether a number is prime.  The test is similar to the way in which autistic-savants can quickly identify that April 13, 1922, for instance, was a Thursday — a feat the twins performed regularly on TV chat shows.  Both tricks depend on doing something called clock or modular arithmetic.

It’s too bad that, instead of diverting the reader’s attention to autistic-savants, the author did not try to actually explain how Fermat’s Little Theorem works. It really is not that hard to follow, and rewarding to understand.  (Look it up in Wikipedia if you are curious.)

On the other extreme, there is what I would call “mathematics for just one or two”.  Case in point is another book I dipped into recently:  God Created the Integers.  This fat tome, edited by the redoubtable Stephen Hawking, is an anthology of excerpts from famous mathematical works over the centuries … from Euclid to Alan Turing.  Although Hawking writes an introduction to each excerpt, going through the actual treatises is often an arduous task.

A happy medium — why not call it “mathematics for the thousand” — is, I think, struck by William Dunham’s work (cover illustrated above): Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics.  Like Hawking’s work, it is a survey of mathematical ideas over the centuries.  But Dunham puts the ideas into modern language, facilitating coming to terms with concepts that are definitely substantial enough even when presented in that manner.  He is helpful to the reader … but also challenges the reader to come to terms with real mathematics.

For an example, let’s look at Dunham’s treatment of quadrature, an interest of the early Greeks (even preceding Euclid, although it does appear in his monumental Elements).  A simple case is quadrature of a rectangle.  The idea is to construct (using only straightedge and compass) a square with area equal to that of the rectangle.

Quadrature of rectangle (800x559)

We are given the arbitrary rectangle BCDE.  To do the quadrature, extend BE to the right, for a distance equal to ED.  Now find the midpoint (G) of BF, and draw a semicircle with center G and radius GF.  Finally, construct a perpendicular EH to line BF at point E.  The segment EH will now be one side of a square (EHLK) that has an area equal to that of the original rectangle BCDE.

Blog reader, your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to prove that the two areas — rectangle and square — are indeed equal.  (Dunham provides the proof, but isn’t it more fun to try it on your own first?)

I have not yet read most of Dunham’s book, but it is likely that some of the ideas will get a bit harder to grasp than those above.  I know that this was true when I read about “Newton’s Binomial Theorem” in Chapter 7.  But I,  for one, would rather be left with horizons still to conquer, than have things pre-digested and spoon-fed to me …

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History of the 99%

History of the 99%, for the 99%

From the very beginning, Zinn tells things from the point of view of the downtrodden:

“‘They [Columbus wrote of the Arawak Indians] have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’

“These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

Orig. posted on FB, 13jun2012

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August 20, 2013 · 11:16 pm