November 23, 2020
Welcome to our December book, Historians!
Our next meeting is Tuesday, December 8 at 6:30 on Zoom to discuss The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller published in 2019. Moller is an independent historian who earned her Ph.D. in History from The University of Edinburgh. In this book, Moller follows the works of three famous Greek authors–Euclid, Ptolemy and Galen–as their works travel through the centuries through the seven great cities of learning: Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo and Venice. She begins with Alexandria which not only collects these works but uses them for further scientific work. And then as the works travel through translation, what links the cities that preserve and develop these ideas? And why does Constantinople preserve but never develop the ideas? What fuels scientific endeavor and what is required for it to happen? This book is a broad overview, so keep that in mind. But it is a fascinating fast paced and knowledgeable historical survey of the roads traveled by knowledge in the Middle Ages.
Moller writes this book as a narrative history of the History of Ideas, hoping to introduce this field as a way to study history to a wider audience. As you can imagine, since my degree from UTD is in the History of Ideas, I am delighted to share this book with you. As well, Moller wants to show her readers the vast amount of scholarship that was being developed in the “Dark Ages.” While we do better now, traditionally history books have skipped from the Romans to the Renaissance. Moller is one of the historians making a wider audience aware of the significant scientific contributions of Islamic scholars and medieval Christian scholars. There was no “Dark Ages” in our human history of ideas. Euclid, Ptolemy, and Galen will provide the framework for intellectual knowledge for hundreds of years.
One of the most significant themes in The Map of Knowledge is the question of what is necessary to promote a spirit of scholarship and scholarly exploration. Moller argues for “an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusivity towards different nationalities and religions.” Is she correct? Are stable and prosperous empires, tolerance and intellectually curious rulers necessary for knowledge to flourish? If so, what does that say about our present time?
Moller is another historian who reminds us that in our studies of the history of ideas, we have neglected the role of Arab scholarship, often giving credit to European scholars for the work of their Arab predecessors. But it is not just the scholars who play a crucial role. The conquering Normans prove to be an intellectually curious people who encourage learning, even when it goes against the status quo. So perhaps an element of risk taking is also necessary in a scholarly culture? There is, after all, a risk in crediting non-Christians and in challenging prevailing ideas.
And there are also practical considerations to the spread of knowledge. Until paper arrived in Baghdad from China via the Silk Road, the transmission of knowledge is difficult. But now this all changes. In its heyday, Cordoba will produce 70,000 to 80,000 books per year.
The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller is a fascinating trip through history, introducing you to people and places that you have possibly never heard of and yet have an enormous impact on our world today. There will be much to discuss when we gather Tuesday, December 8 at 6:30 on Zoom for our final Fall meeting. Looking forward to seeing you!
October 28, 2020
Welcome to our November book, Historians!
Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, November 10 at 6:30 on Zoom. We will be discussing Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2019. David Blight is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and is the author of many books on Reconstruction and on slavery. Blight’s purpose in writing this scholarly and exhaustive biography is to show us the whole man who is Frederick Douglass. Admirers during Douglass’s lifetime spoke of his dignity and power in speaking and the force of his personality. As well, Douglass was an eloquent writer who proved to the world that former slaves were not intellectually inferior. His speeches were filled with insightful references to America’s founding documents as well as his own experiences as a slave. He impressed everyone who met him. At the same time, his was a carefully cultivated reputation. Little was known about his private life because, as Blight shows us, there was a soap opera quality to the domestic drama of Douglass’s home. Why is this important? Blight wants us to know the whole man, both to marvel at Douglass’s genius and to recognize that this is yet another flawed man, like us, who fiercely defended a country that he loved, even if that country had never shown love to him. This is a timely biography for us to read in 2020.
Blight titled his book Prophet of Freedom for a reason. He is asking us to consider the role that Douglass played in the 19th c. Douglass was the most photographed man in of his time. He spent more than half a century touring and speaking in the United States and in Europe. Few people were more famous than him. And much of that fame was based on his oratory and on his uncanny ability to see beyond the issues of his time to the “what next” that would inevitably come if the issues were swept under the rug. Douglass warned in 1865 that the root cause of slavery had not been eradicated by the Civil War. Much stood in the way of black men getting true political and economic freedom. Douglass was still bringing these issues to public consciousness in 1893 as he warned against the growing power of Jim Crow laws throughout the United States.
Douglass’s warnings were framed within the powerful oratory that made him famous. Blight focuses on what it meant to be a prophet, beyond clearly seeing the issues now and in the future. Writing in a review for The Washington Post, Adam Goodheart says that Douglass’s power as a prophet was because he was “living in the realm of Language: words of exhortation, of warning, of insight as well as foresight.” It is this aspect of Douglass’s life that Blight illuminates for the 21st c. reader. Blight calls his book “the biography of a voice.” Hence his emphasis on a close reading of Douglass’s speeches and writings.
As you read, think of the ways that Blight presents Douglass as a prophet. Do you agree that this role is key to understanding Douglass’s role in American history? Don’t get lost in the textual details that Blight presents. Read for the picture of who Douglass was then and who he is to us today. How does Douglass move from opinionated outsider to political insider during Reconstruction? Does this strengthen his voice—his role as prophet—or weaken it? And what does Douglass have to say to us today?
I look forward to discussing Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight when we meet on Zoom on Tuesday, November 10 at 6:30. I anticipate a lively discussion, especially as we will be meeting post-election in a year in which the issues that Douglass cared deeply about were at the forefront for us as well.
September 28, 2020
Welcome to our October book, Historians!
We will be meeting on Tuesday, October 13 at 6:30 to discuss An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson. Published in 2002, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2003. Atkinson is well qualified to discuss WWII, despite having earned his MA in English literature at the University of Chicago. He is an army brat and grew up on army bases around the world. After spending twenty years as a journalist at The Washington Post, he turned to writing about the military. An Army at Dawn is the first volume of his Liberation Trilogy covering WWII. (I will be asking if you are interested in reading the other two volumes during Spring 2021 and Fall 2021. So think, is this is something that interests you?)
An Army at Dawn begins with Operation TORCH. It is the first time that the US and Britain will fight as partners as they launch the attacks against Vichy France’s North African colonies. The plan is to take Tunisia and use that as the jumping off point for invading Italy. The US forces are naïve about the realities of this war, and the US officers have more bravado than common sense as the battles begin. Vichy forces do not come over to the side of the Allies. And the British officers sneer at their American counterparts. Overall commander of the Allied forces, General Eisenhower, described these early months of war preparation and fighting: “The best way to describe operations to date is they have violated every recognized principle of war.”
But in the long slog to Tunisia, the Americans learn about war and the British learn better how to cooperate. In many ways, this book is about how an army of civilians becomes battle-hardened and how Allies learn to fight as one unit. But the resulting maturity of the Allied forces, which is absolutely necessary before meeting the full force of the German army in Europe, comes at the cost of thousands of lives.
It is at this critical moment that General Rommel’s Afika Corps, which has been fighting against British General Montgomery, now joins in battle against the forces under Eisenhower and on February 14, 1943, a new and even more aggressive German offensive begins. And now General George Patton and General Omar Bradley come into their own on the battlefield.
Atkinson shows his English literature roots in his ability to transform military history into an exciting story with a true narrative flow. At the same time, all the detail makes it easy to get lost in the weeds. So keep your focus, as you read, on the commanders. This will also be our focus as we talk. Atkinson makes some important points about leadership. George Marshall suspected that Eisenhower, although green in the first months of command, would be the best supreme commander in Europe. Why? Because Eisenhower admitted his mistakes and learned from them. And he was a natural diplomat. British General Montgomery possessed neither of these qualities. Pay attention to the other commanders, British, American, and French. Who was successful and why? Atkinson clearly favors Bradley over Patton. Is he right? And why?
The other significant story, told through the stories of many ordinary soldiers, is what it takes to create a true military fighting force. What changes the man (or woman today) from a civilian into a competent soldier and a member of a team? What does it mean to become battle-hardened, and what is the cost? And what does it take to mold Allies on paper—the British and the Americans—into Allies on the battlefield?
As you can see, Atkinson in An Army at Dawn gives us much to think about and discuss. I am looking forward to exchanging war stories with you and giving the North Africa campaign the attention it deserves when we meet on Tuesday, October 13 at 6:30 on Zoom. See you there!
August 27, 2020
Welcome to our Fall programs and our September book, Historians!
I am excited to start this new series of history books with you on Zoom this year. We had one Zoom meeting in May and, while it was definitely different, it was still the same chance for spirited discussion and warm fellowship centered on our book. You may have noticed that we are meeting on the 2nd Tuesday of the month this Fall. We made the move to avoid several conflicts on the 1st Tuesday, including Election Day which is the Superbowl for Historians. So please note the date change. You will find the meeting dates and the books for Fall in the Dallas Institute Catalog, and I am including them below for easy reference.
- September 8 Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana
- October 13 The Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson
- November 10 Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
- December 8 The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller
I am looking forward to talking about these books with all of you. I hope you can join us each time.
When we meet on Zoom on Tuesday, September 8 at 6:30, we will be discussing Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana. Born in Peru, Arana grew up in the United States and became a journalist and novelist. A former editor at The Washington Post, she currently serves as a Senior Consultant at the Library of Congress. She shows her skills as a researching journalist and as a novelist in Bolívar. Joseph J. Ellis describes the book best in his review in The Washington Post: “Bolívar is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening…we might call Arana’s style Bolívarian—colorful, passionate, daring verging on novelistic.”
While Americans may recognize Bolívar as the George Washington of Latin America, that is about all most people know. What do you learn about Bolívar as man and as general, diplomat, politician and lover? What do you learn about the rich tapestry of people and places that make up Latin America? As you read, you will see that many of the issues that Bolívar faced in newly independent Latin America are issues that are familiar to us today. Bolívar was a passionate abolitionist, standing firmly against slavery in a way that no American politician did at that time. And yet, racial divisions plagued his campaigns. What does that tell us about Bolívar’s time and our own? Passionate about democracy, as the rivalries, geographical differences, and racial differences split his coalitions, Bolívar came to believe that the firm hand of an authoritarian leader was needed to maintain stability. Was he right? Did he give up on democracy too soon? Was he, in the end, unable to let go of power? Again, these are pertinent questions for our own time.
Bolívar was a man of contradictions, both admired and loathed. His story reads like a really good novel, so enjoy! And such a fascinating larger than life figure will make for a lively discussion when we meet via Zoom on Tuesday, September 8 at 6:30. I look forward to seeing you!