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!
April 7, 2020
I hope that all of you are well, although perhaps a bit bored? It was suggested that I might create a reading list of good history books, so here is our Fall reading list, a bit early. Remember when I asked you all about reading books that were quite long? There was general agreement that, given enough time, that would not be a problem. Well, time is not a problem now, so you will find two long books on the list for October and November. Start reading now; you are in for a treat. I am only listing the months with the books as I do not know the exact dates that we will meet this Fall. I do know that I am so looking forward to us getting together physically again. In the meantime, happy reading! And don’t forget that The Historians website has all the books that we have read listed at the bottom. This is a great time to read any books that you may have missed.
The Historians Fall 2020
September – Bolívar: American Liberator by Marie Arana
October – The Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson
November – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
December – The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller. (The paperback is out in April and, believe it or not, this is not one of the long books, despite the title.)
We are still looking at the possibility of having a Zoom conference to discuss Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman. More information will come on this in the next few weeks. This has turned out to be a surprisingly timely text, hasn’t it? And that will, I think, change the nature of our conversation. With that in mind, as you read, notice how difficult it was to get everyone on board with the new production needs, even after Pearl Harbor. Remember that even as we prepared for war prior to Pearl Harbor, the country was deeply divided about being swept into another “European War.” What lessons can be learned from this? And have we learned them? As we discuss Freedom’s Forge, this will also be an opportunity to give credit to the men and women who produced what was needed for the war. Were you as surprised as I was to read about the number who died on the Homefront? And of course, we also want to give credit where credit is due to the people who made this happen, names that are not mentioned in history courses. This will be an eye-opening discussion in unexpected ways this year! Watch for future information from The Dallas Institute on when and how for a Zoom conference. I hope to see you there!
February 16, 2020
Welcome to our March book, Historians!
Our next meeting is Tuesday, March 3 at 6:30. That is Super Tuesday so if you are planning to vote in the primaries, just remember to vote early. We will discuss Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906 by David Cannadine published in 2017. Sir David Cannadine is the Dodge Professor of History at Princeton and this book is, in many ways, the overview of 19th c. British history that history students no longer seem to study in today’s hyper-specialized world. And it is an important history as nostalgia for this period is part of what drove some segments of the British population to embrace Brexit. Britain in the 19th century could celebrate military victories and naval superiority. This was the era of great statesmen such as Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone and the era of great political reform and potential revolution. This was the period of great technological and material progress as celebrated by The Great Exhibition of 1851. The sun never set on the British Empire as British Imperialism spread to every continent and Queen Victoria ruled over one in every five people in the world. But most people in Britain were still desperately poor. The Irish were starving. And colonial wars took money and men to manage. Dickens would write “It was the best of times and the worst of times” to describe the French Revolution. But the same could be said of 19th c. Britain.
Cannadine begins his history with the 1800 Act of Union which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The book ends in 1906 when the Liberal Party won the election and then passed Home Rule for Ireland, thus ending the United Kingdom. This is a somewhat unusual choice for dates for the Victorian Period, but the choice of these dates fits Cannadine’s focus on Parliament and the men who wielded political power there and what they did with this political power. In some ways, this is an old-fashioned approach to history, but Cannadine argues that it is in fact a necessary corrective to today’s over-emphasis on identity politics. In the best of history worlds, these approaches blend together, but it does make sense to begin with the men who drove domestic politics which in turn drove Britain’s imperial outreach.
Victorious Century is also a study of the culture of this period. There too it was an age of contradictions. Parlors were filled with overstuffed furniture and sentimentality was the fashion of the day. Yet at the same time, Turner was painting and George Eliot was writing her realistic novels, and these were also accepted by the public. And they purchased all these things with the money earned by the newly rich and the newly respectable middle class. In taste and in politics, the 19th c. was the age of the middle class whose political fortunes rose with the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 while the political power of the nobility began a downward trajectory. The Reform Bill also split the political aspirations of the middle class from those of the working class, leading to an underlying radicalism below the bourgeoise’s satisfaction with life.
As you read, note these contradictory movements. How does the rise of capital and newly efficient banking and lending systems affect both imperial and domestic politics? What about the various reform movements—votes for the middle class, votes for the working class, and how to deal with the Irish problem? And what about the tensions between British traders and settlers in the colonies as they conflict with the interests of the local populations? Overall, how are Britain’s relations with Europe and Britain’s own expanding empire integrated into domestic politics? Who wins and who loses?
Victorious Century is an insightful overview of the 19th c. as told by a master historian. As one awed critic, and fellow academic, noted, there are no footnotes! As he said, only a master historian would dare. So as you read, enjoy the tale of a fascinating era which still affects us today as told by an outstanding historian. And bring your thoughts and questions to our meeting on Tuesday, March 3 at 6:30. See you there! Cheerio!
January 20, 2020
Welcome to our February book, Historians!
Our first meeting for this Spring is on Tuesday, February 4 at 6:30 to discuss Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King published in 2014. Charles King is a Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University. His best-known books are on Odessa and the Caucasus and Black Sea regions and their histories. With this book, King follows the White Russians fleeing Bolshevik Russia and the Bolsheviks fleeing Stalin into Turkey and into the tumultuous history of Constantinople/Istanbul following WWI.
Midnight at the Pera Palace tells the story of the end of the Ottoman Empire as it plays out in Constantinople and the beginning of the Turkish Republic as it is birthed in 1923 in a city renamed Istanbul in the 1930s. The hotel itself is both a metaphor for the move from eastern Ottoman Imperialism to western Turkish modernity and the stage upon which much of it happens. Midnight at the Pera Palace is both a tale of a hotel and a story of a city overrun with refugees from all over Europe during the period between WWI and WWII. History is messy. And the ebb and flow of refugees and cultures in Istanbul during this time, all of them leaving their mark upon the city, and all of them contributing to the rich culture and the messy politics of Istanbul today contribute their own stories. The city faces both East and West, and Midnight at the Pera Palace shows us the promises and perils for the Turkey of the time and how that leads us to the Turkey of today under Erdogan.
King takes the reader on the Orient Express, the first major opening to the West, to the splendor of the Pera Palace Hotel, the first luxury hotel in Istanbul, built to cater to these travelers. But it is a strange group of travelers who wash up on Istanbul’s shores between WWI and WWII. Mustafa Kamal, the father of modern Turkey, had a room at the Pera Palace. White Russians fleeing Bolshevik Russia stayed there. Leon Trotsky also came to Istanbul. The hotel, like the city, was always full of espionage and intrigue. Alongside the Russians were the Allied occupiers, Turkish nationalists, Nazis and the Jews and German intellectuals fleeing from them. Ernest Hemingway reported from Istanbul, and Frederick Bruce Thomas, a Russian citizen and the son of former Mississippi slaves, established one of the best-known jazz bars, Maxim, in the 1920s. King brings to life these vivid personalities with vignettes of the city and stories of the people from all walks of life who live there and take refuge there. For example, the eunuchs from the Imperial Ottoman Court formed a Mutual Assistance Society to help one another make the transition to Kamal’s modern Turkish republic. King tells these and other stories to bring this place and time vividly to life.
As you read, think about what is gained and what is lost in this tumultuous period. The city is a crossroads not only of people, but also of the competing ideas of nationalism and cosmopolitanism. What about the loss of place for the long-time communities of Ottoman Christians and Jews as Turkish identity becomes framed in ever narrower terms, leading us to Erdogan’s Turkey of today? And what is gained for the Turkish people as the very name “Turk” changes from something along the lines of a “deplorable” to a badge of honor? Is it better to look East or is it better to look West? And is it even possible to be both at once?
Midnight at the Pera Palace leads us from what was to what might have been to a glimpse of what Turkey will become post-WWII. While Turkey and Istanbul are a unique part of Asia Minor, the mixing and the clashing of East and West there mirror larger questions that we face today. Join us for a thoughtful discussion of Istanbul during a fascinating moment in its history and how that sheds light on today’s Istanbul as we meet on Tuesday, February 4 at 6:30 to discuss Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King.