Joe Gould’s Teeth–Jill Lepore


Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University, but, despite her Ivy League credentials, she has become known as a historian who can write popular history.  Her most recent book is The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  Joe Gould’s Teeth comes out May 17, 2016 and is reviewed here as an uncorrected proof.

One of the highest forms of praise for any book, in my mind, is to say to yourself after closing the back cover that your mind is unsettled.  That is how Joe Gould’s Teeth left me.

Lepore introduces Joe Gould as he saw himself–a brilliant historian who was creating a new form, the oral history, which would record the everyday voices and happenings of common people to balance the political/diplomatic/intellectual history that reigned in the early twentieth century.  He wrote in common composition notebooks with mottled black and white covers and wrapped stacks of them in twine, also a very common material.

He had uncommon friends:  Ezra Pound, ee cummings, Joseph Mitchell.  He was a prolific letter writer.  Later psychiatric hospital records would call it paranoid letter-writing.  These letters gave Lepore a glimpse into Gould’s mind and his relationships.  Friends reported that they had read pieces of The Oral History of Our Time, but when publishers asked Gould for chapters, he had trouble producing them.  Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who wrote a profile of Gould in 1942, gave weight to the Oral History‘s existence, but when he wrote again about Gould in 1964, he called its entire existence into doubt.

Gould’s story wins the title and his descent into madness and his ability to get away with sexual assault, racism, verbal assault, bad friendship, begging, and just plain anti-social behavior while still having people who cared about what happened to him, is a fascinating morality tale.  Hint–the story does not end well for him, so the rule breaker gets his in the end.

However, what was more interesting to me were the stories of two women–Augusta Savage, whom Gould stalked and perhaps assaulted, and Lepore herself, who was drawn into their stories.

Savage was a sculptor and patron of black art and artists at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance who eventually fled New York for a quiet home in the countryside and who likely destroyed as much of her work as she could get her hands on.  Lepore is fascinated with her, but I was left feeling that she had just started exploring her story when Joe Gould’s Teeth ended.  I felt Lepore was trying to suggest something about history and who is reflected and how in the historical record, but that she was just building to it when she quit writing.

Lepore’s story, perhaps not surprisingly, was most interesting to me.  She came to Gould’s story as a small part of a class on biography and was sucked in when she began searching for supporting materials and realized that the story, the received narrative, did not match the sources that should have created it.  Lepore, one of our great historians, was caught by a man who called himself the greatest historian of his time.  She would find the missing Oral History, maybe “under a bush, in a gutter, down a ditch.”  The class ended, but she could not stop looking.  She found a notebook dated 1922, “Meo Tempore. Seventh Version.  Volume II.”  And she kept looking.  She speculates that those who supported him, those who wrote about him, did so because they saw pieces of themselves, alternate feared fates, in Gould’s story.  Because he is me, she writes.  She finds the answer to her question about biography.  She keeps searching after Augusta Savage and visits the home in which she ended her days, commenting that the property contains a cistern that could drown a man, echoing the “chasm” into which she fell when she began researching Gould’s story.  In her epilogue she relates packing up the materials she had collected and returning the books she had checked out of libraries.  I could almost hear the pride/resolution when she confided that she had not called back a man who said he had some of Gould’s notebooks.  She then goes into a vision she has of madness and scholarly pursuit.  Like Gould, Lepore wants to broaden the scope of history.  At the heart of the puzzle, for an American historian, is race, sex, privilege.  In the vision the pieces are present, but, unlike Gould, Lepore does not go down the rabbit hole too far.  She backs out of the room, shuts the door on the madness.   And that, perhaps, is why I closed the covers wanting her to do more, to say more, to answer more.

Finished 3/25/16



The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Shame and Honor in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century–Joel Harrington

Medieval justice.  The phrase brings to mind, for many of us influenced by popular culture, something less than just.  Cruel and imaginative tortures and punishments.  Joel Harrington demonstrates, through the well-contextualized life of one executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, that the early modern’s cities’ search for justice and order, administered by the growing municipal governments as well as larger states, led to an increase in torture and executions.  In an era with limited forensic science, torture was the surest way to learn the facts of a case.  Governments agonized over the forms of torture, in what order they should be used, and when they should be stopped.  Many crimes were punished with fines or flogging, some with exile from the city.  Heinous crimes or repeat offenses were dealt with through execution, but even here the government agonized over method.  The goal of early modern execution was not to create a spectacle of excessive physical suffering, but to demonstrate that the society operated according to laws overseen by the city fathers.  Many judgments noted that an execution was ordered in mercy, for instance beheading rather than hanging.  Burning at the stake could be done after the executioner broke someone’s neck or with a bag of gunpowder around the neck to facilitate a faster death.  Even hanging could be made less painful by having the executioner’s assistant hang on the condemned’s legs to hasten strangulation.  There was, Harrington explains, no trap door hangings and so no swift deaths from snapped necks.  Hanging was a slow strangle if done purely.  The most difficult execution to comprehend, perhaps, for a modern audience, is death by the wheel, in which the condemned was pinned to the ground with supports beneath his or her joints and beaten to death by the executioner using a large wooden wheel.  I wanted to know more about the origin of this punishment, about what had made anyone decide that breaking someone with a wheel rather than any other blunt object was preferable.  Perhaps the wheel also hastened death by beating someone’s body all over at once rather than one area at a time as would be possible with a cudgel.  Once broken, the condemned’s body would be attached to a wheel on a pole and the corpse left exposed for the birds. As further proof that executions were not spectacles of excessive physical pain, Harrington relates cases in which executioners were stoned or otherwise attacked my mobs when they botched an execution, such as requiring several blows in a beheading or overseeing a burning that went on too long before actual death.

Executions were at their height in the sixteenth century and diminished rapidly in the seventeenth and eighteenth as, Harrington postulates, governments became more secure in their authority, having performed it repeatedly throughout the sixteenth.  Harrington’s executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, served his career as the city of Nuremberg’s executioner during this high point.

I began this review with medieval justice because the phrase is often invoked to critique modern justice systems, but the sixteenth century was not medieval. It belongs to the early modern period and the growing power of national monarchies, emerging structures of national identity that overlapped, coincided, or even conflicted with changing religious identities in the wake of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.  The story of how governments used their handling of crime and punishment to build authority and gain the trust of their citizens is one story line.

Another involves the Schmidt family’s efforts to escape the dishonor of execution.  Even though governments needed the executioners to build and buttress their reputations as guardians of justice and even though society needed executioners to be the public face of the maintenance of law and order, the gory nature of their work made executioners outcasts much like butchers and others who dealt in death and blood.  Meister Frantz Schmidt’s father became an executioner at the command of his lord.  He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Bamberg needed an executioner and the office was empty.  Pressed into service, Schmidt’s family became tainted and left the ranks of polite society.  Frantz’s father encouraged him to change their situation and, when Frantz followed in his father’s footsteps (other trades no longer being open to him), he began keeping a journal of his official work that ultimately documented 394 executions and hundreds of other punishments over his forty-five years as Nuremberg’s executioner.  Frantz documented the crime with which the condemned had been found guilty and, as the years went on, added more about the criminal pasts of the condemned as he saw the same people come before him for punishments and, eventually, execution.  His entries are sober, as was he.  Unlike many executioners, who sought solace in drink to escape the realities of the violence and, perhaps, the social injustices heaped on the executioners and their families, Meister Frantz Schmidt remained sober throughout his life, drinking neither on or off the job.  His sobriety and his skill at his job, his professionalism, allowed him to negotiate very good terms for his employment as well as a pension.  Near the end of his life, his record, both in terms of people who knew and had worked with him and the written record of his career through his journal, earned for him an imperial restitution of honor.

The role of honor in the sixteenth century is a third story line.  The Schmidt family needs to demonstrate their honor despite their dishonorable profession.  Those accused of crimes are often condemned through a demonstrated lack of honor.  The city government pursues, punishes, and executes criminals to build and maintain its own honor.  The Nuremberg citizens refuse to socialize with the Schmidt family because to do so would taint their own honor.  Honor is a currency harder to accumulate than gold and much more quickly dissipated.  Honor is an internal value, but, more importantly, an external standard to which individuals, families, and groups needed to perform.  This story line takes Harrington into the history of gender and sexuality and allows him to integrate women into a story otherwise dominated by men.  Harrington is blunt about the limited choices available to women that often put them under the purview of the court.

In a fourth story line, Harrington analyzes Meister Frantz Schmidt’s views of his job over time.  The spare youthful entries that simply mark the facts of judgment and punishment or execution are replaced by longer entries that tell stories about the condemned and seek to put their violation of the law and society’s norms in a larger context, to make sense of their choices.  His own life choices and limitations influence his views.  For example, Harrington argues that Frantz struggled to understand people who set aside their privilege, their honor, to commit useless crimes or to ruin the honor of others.

When Frantz’ honor is restored by the imperial court, he asks to be allowed to continue his work as a healer, which was part of a sixteenth-century executioners job, as odd as that may sound to us.  Executioners were allowed, and expected, to treat external wounds.  At its most basic, prisoners damaged in interrogation needed to be whole and hale on their execution days, another proof that the sixteenth-century justice system was not simply a sadistic spectacle.  Executioners gained reputations as efficient healers, some better than others, and Frantz seems to have read or been informed of key medical treatises of his day that made him a valuable healer.  He was not simply peddling charms and amulets, although such healing was part of the mix of early modern medicine.  He was so good that his successor as executioner repeatedly complained that he was stealing his clients.

Harrington starts with Frantz’ journal, which he happened upon in a German bookstore, and he leads us through his journey as a historian to make sense of what was in its pages.  He looks at Nuremberg municipal records as well as those from other cities.  He integrates literature of the time as well as period drawings.  He is fortunate that Meister Frantz Schmidt was Nuremberg executioner during the period in which the famed Nuremberg Chronicle was compiled and printed in all of its glory, so he is able to share with us woodcuts of the town and even Frantz at work executing criminals.

Like Jill Lepore’s recent work on Jane Franklin, Harrington seeks to present to us the life of an ordinary person (though perhaps less ordinary than Jane in that he was a government official) through his subject’s own words put into context by a larger historical study.  Both are highly successful, but Harrington is more successful in keeping Frantz’s story always in focus and not let the master narratives (the rise of the state, for instance) take over. Once again, this book is a model of popular history done very well.

Finished 6/11/15

The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret–Catherine Bailey

secret rooms

A friend recommended this book as we were discussing my current research project and the unexpected turns it was taking.  It was, she thought, a good example of popular history that talked through the historical process.

She was right.  In fact, Catherine Bailey should have listened to her.  Closely.  This story involves secret rooms, a plotting duchess, and a family secret (and briefly a haunted castle story).  The plotting duchess is not surprising and the family secret all too quotidian once revealed.  What’s worse, the epilogue suggests all of it was for naught, which might leave a reader wondering why they had invested in more than 400 pages of reading for naught.  Even Bailey seems annoyed, as she lists the men about whom she had intended to write her book and from whose story the secret rooms had diverted her.

There is the story.  Bailey came to Belvoir Castle to tell the story of the men of the Midlands who fought and died in the trenches of WWI.  The secret rooms began the flirtation and the meticulously archived letters and artifacts of the 9th Duke of Rutland, the man who died in those spare secret rooms, completed the seduction.  Readers should not invest in this book for the story of Rutland, whose childhood sorrows and young adult dramas are different only in time and degree of privilege from most of our own.  They should invest because Bailey, almost inadvertently, tells the story of a historian’s love affair with the past and passion for a historical puzzle.  In the early chapters, Bailey keeps us focused on both her path and the duke’s emerging story, but, as the duke’s story unfolds, her path fades into the background and the duke’s story takes over.

Publishing is a business and readers are fickle buyers.  I get that, which is why I forgive the bogus haunted castle in the subtitle and the melodramatic cover art.  But readers are fickle lovers, too, and they expect satisfaction in the end.  Bailey should have mirrored her seduction of the reader with her own seduction by the archives.  Use the glamour of the castle and the family to draw us in, then ensnare us in the puzzle and let us share in the satisfaction of solving it, of having chosen to follow the duke’s story rather than the story that brought her to Belvoir in the first place.  Then we could close the covers satisfied, satiated, rather than disappointed and slightly empty.  Maybe then she would not feel herself as if her noble goals had been hijacked for an unworthy subject.

Is it worth the read?  Yes, but don’t go into it thinking that you are reading a great mystery with all the expectations that genre entails (and that the jacket blurb promises).  Read it with a keen eye to how she tracks down the story and appreciate the way in which she pulls the puzzle together.  The Secret Rooms:  The True Story of a Privileged Family, a Persistent Historian, & the Unsung Archivists.  Just a suggestion.
Finished 6/23/14

Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire–Andrea Stuart

 sugar in the blood

I first heard of this book on public radio’s Fresh Air.  The idea of trying to trace the history of people who left no records intrigued me.  Women’s historians do this all the time, particularly for premodern women or non-elite women and I wondered how this would look when taken to the Caribbean and the world of the sugar plantation.

Andrea Stuart attempts to trace her family, but faces several handicaps.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados from England.  That branch was not the most difficult, but offered several challenges.  Part of her maternal family came to Barbados enslaved from Africa and this offered much more difficulty, as I have heard from friends who have attempted smaller-scale family histories.  Her story becomes so engaging that it was only in the last chapters that I realized the book was about her maternal family and her paternal family only comes into play in the last pages and with little fanfare because so little is known and so much of the general slave narrative had been told.

When Stuart runs into gaps in the documentary record of her own family, she uses well-known accounts of others in similar or somewhat similar circumstances and times.  Sometimes she is pushed to use sources from later times and extrapolate backward.  Much of her story is contingent.  This may have been the way, this may have been the reason, the feeling, the result.  Welcome to the world of telling the story of the underrepresented, the faceless majority.  And this is just for her planter ancestors.

Her slave ancestors come into the picture when her planter ancestor chooses to become involved in a relationship with a slave women and elevate the resulting child (one of many illegitimate children he fathered with one of many slave women).  He enters the plantation’s records as property to be inventoried.  This record is harsher than the passenger list that records her English ancestor and starts the story, but tells us as little about his dreams and his judgments of what was going on around him.

Neither European nor African ancestors are completely free in this story–both differently circumscribed by the institution of slavery, but even earlier, pushed by economic and political circumstances beyond their control and trying to eek out a living in a harsh colonial environment.  

In the midst of her family’s story, Stuart mingles in the story of sugar, of slavery, of Haiti and Jamaica, of bits of the United States, and of England and France.  Once the narrative get underway somewhere in chapter two, the dance between these narratives is mostly logical and nearly seamless.  From these stories I learned many new connections of which I should have been aware, but was not.  Putting these complex connections in the context of the Ashby family story made heavy analysis fun and that is a good thing.

I do, however, have a few critiques.  At times, Stuart dives into side histories that are very interesting and in which she becomes very involved, but that threaten to overwhelm the family story that is part of her title.  The book contains some footnotes and a fairly lengthy bibliography, but Stuart’s inconsistent use of quotations is troubling to an academic and, I think, any reader.  In most chapters she gives the author’s last name and the quote, even if not footnoted, but in the first chapter and in a couple of later chapters, she says merely something like “according to a historian xxxx.”  I understand the impulse to avoid overwhelming the reader with a litany of names, but this is just bad practice.  If what the author said was important enough to quote, they are important enough to name.  This is respectful to the author whose words she is quoting as well as the reader, who may wish to follow up and read more from the quoted author.  My last critique is also in the first chapter and it was nearly enough to cause me to give up reading the book.  The first chapter of any work is crucial in terms of engaging the reader.  The reader has to be in the story enough to continue reading.  This book is trying to accomplish a lot, but the first chapter may not be the place to roll all of that out.  Introduce us to the family.  Set the stage for the opening scenes.  Tease us about where the plot is going.  Do no try to give us all of the historical background we will need to follow the story in the first chapter.  I love history.  This is not about history.  It is about too many narrative threads.  Unless one is Tolkien, keep the introduction what the name implies–an introduction.  

One last note is not to do with Stuart, but with my own field.  The back cover of the paperback quotes The Independent as saying this is a magisterial work of history.  Stuart has an English degree and has written a biography.  Historians are ceding their place to journalists and technical writers when it comes to popular history and this must stop.  Such authors are free to write history.  The more history in circulation, the better.  But professionally trained historians, who understand the importance of naming historians one is quoting, who use accepted historical methods, need to also speak to the masses about how we interpret history.  

Ultimately, I will pass this book along to several friends, but with the caveat to feel free to skim in the first chapter and catch up on the background information later once they have a good sense of where they are.  What comes later is worth the effort.

Finished 6/10/14


Unfamiliar Fishes–Sarah Vowell


After a trip to Hawaii this summer and as part of my growing interest in all things eastern, I asked for who knew what books were good on Hawaiian history.  My brother suggested this one by Sarah Vowell, who had earlier written a book on the Puritans.

Her interest in the Puritan mindset continues in Unfamiliar Fishes as she explores the flood of haoles overflowing Hawaii after the landing of Captain Cook.  Vowell uses discrete events, like the death of Henry Obookiah’s parents at the hands of the conquering army of Kamehameha, who “unified” the islands in a tide of death.  Obookiah’s orphan status propels his fate forward, landing him in New England, where he was taken in by the President of Yale (founded because Harvard wasn’t puritanical enough).  His memoirs, assembled after his death, pushed the agenda of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which in 1820 sent missionary couples to bring Christianity to heathen Hawaii.  Vowell’s story candidly portrays the ways in which Hawaiian natives, particularly elites, cooperated in their own westernization as traditional culture was subverted for profit and prestige.  Her missionaries clash with New England whalers and diverse sailors who come to port after months at sea looking for fun.  All of these visitors bring death to the Hawaiians, whose population falls from 300,000 to less then 35,000 from the arrival of Cook to the annextation of Hawaii.

Vowell traces the change of western business from God to sugar and the declining fortunes of the descendents of Kamehameha, one of whom dies of measles on a trip to England to secure protection from American interests and another of whom dies in California after being ousted by sugar plantation-owning descendents of the original missionaries backed by outrage over greed and rapacious governing.  Her discussion of King Kauikeaoluli’s creation of a constitutional monarchy and the Great Mahele, alienating of crown lands, reminded me of the story of Joseph II of Austria, whose Enlightened good intentions for his people led to misery for them and him.  Kauikeaoluli’s constitutional monarch required an infrastructure that invited non-natives to dominate his government and the sudden privatization of land in a culture that had not practiced such a concept led to the gobbling up of land by haoles and the separation of natives from their own lands.  Even here Vowell does not blame a straw haole, but acknowledges that 19th-century capitalists acted as 19th-century capitalists and bought land that came up for sale and exploited it for profit. 

Vowell also does not shrink from the present anger of many Hawaiians at the events that led to their annexation.  Despite the complicity of Hawaiian elites in the destruction of their own culture and infrastructure, Vowell’s explanation of the American government’s shoddy pretense of a joint resolution to annex the islands when Congress would not vote through the treaty of annexation makes it difficult not to empathize in their anger and feel, once again, shame at the imperialist self-righteousness of my (figurative) ancestors.

My only complaint with the book, besides my wish that a trained historian had written it, is Vowell’s frequent references to Obama’s Hawaiian birth and his election as president–like, I wonder what King so and so would think of this fact or Queen somebody or other.  Read your own narrative.  Some would be pleased.  Others would roll in their graves.  He is not native Hawaiian, not part of the royal bloodline.  The logical conclusion on this issue based on Vowell’s telling of events is that Obama’s election as president is the capstone in the imperialist project that was begun with the commissioning of missionaries in the early 19th century. Even the first Hawaiian president is not Hawaiian. 

Finished 12/30/13