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Scott’s Column: History

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
December 5 2019

One of the goals I set for 2019 was to read more history.  I began the year reading Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II.  Alexievich interviews Soviet women who fought in the Second World War, which apparently many women did, in all sorts of roles. These stories had not been widely told before she set out to capture them in the 1980’s.  I found the book difficult to read, because the subject matter was so often horrific.  Near the end of the book, Alexievich writes, “I don’t see the end of this road. The evil seems infinite to me. I can no longer treat it only as history.”  Her final interview subject, Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina, who was a junior sergeant in the guards, speaks the words that make reading this book and enduring the pain it reveals a worthwhile experience. She said, “Yet this must be preserved, it must. We must pass it on. Somewhere in the world they have to preserve our cry. Our howl . . .”

Next up was Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Hansen, a journalist, moved to Istanbul in order to gain a better understanding of the world.  What she ultimately gained was a better understanding of America, as she began to see it through the history of our impact on other countries, particularly the Muslim world. This book challenges our self-understanding by exposing how America is viewed from abroad, particularly taking aim at “American exceptionalism.”  An important and sobering read and an excellently written book.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848 by Daniel Walker Howe had been recommended by The Christian Century for its significant treatment of religious history in the time covered, though that’s nowhere near the main focus of this monumental work.  I greatly enjoyed Howe’s history and learned a lot, mostly details of topics I only had surface knowledge of, such as the Mexican War, one of the worst moments in our history.  The book confirmed my hatred of Andrew Jackson and compelled me to place James K. Polk right behind him in the ranks of evil presidents.  Howe’s heroes are John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, standing for a vision of America that challenged the white supremacy of the Jacksonian Democrats. He feels that Abraham Lincoln fulfilled the Adams-Clay vision for America and that that vision ultimately triumphed over the other. He closes with Seneca Falls as the 1848 event that most heralded America’s (and the globe’s) future.  Which is interesting to read now, more than a decade after he published the book, for Jacksonian populist nationalist white supremacy has reared its ugly head again in contemporary American politics.

Despite its heft, I read Ron Chernow’s Grant quickly, for Chernow is such an engaging writer. I learned a lot about Grant, his time, and other figures he interacted with. I’ve gained a greater understanding of him, better appreciating his strengths and accomplishments and also better recognizing his serious flaws.  His greatness rests on his clear attempts to destroy the white supremacist politics detailed in Howe’s book.

I often walked the Parrington Oval while a student at the University of Oklahoma, and I remember the photo of Vernon Parrington that hung in Dale Hall celebrating OU’s former head football coach who was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. I found that prize-winning book, The Colonial Mind, in the church Thrift Shop.  Parrington favors the Jeffersonian philosophy–agrarian, egalitarian, and democratic–and is strongly opposed to the Puritans, Tories, and Federalists, so it was interesting to read his takes on various thinkers. He was a big fan of Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and deeply critical of John Winthrop and the Mathers. He thought Jonathan Edwards had great ability which was squandered on his Calvinism. Hamilton he thought of great ability and very successful at achieving his goals of establishing the national economy, but he thought Hamilton completely wrong about what direction America should head and that we were still saddled with problems he had created. Strangely, he writes the only vigorous defense of Philip Freneau I’ve ever read.  Parrington has blind spots. He lauds Jefferson, though we now have a far more critical view of Jefferson, especially his hypocrisy about race and slavery. But Parrington is a fun read. He is eloquent and witty with his descriptions of all these thinkers and movements. I enjoyed getting a perspective very different from my own.

Over Thanksgiving weekend I completed Jill Lepore’s much lauded 2018 one volume American history These Truths.  I thought the Introduction and first chapter were brilliant. Also the sections on the Populist and Progressive Movements (she seems to be a big fan of William Jennings Bryant) and the chapter set during the Second World War. But others were more uneven. Any one volume national history obviously makes choices, skimming over some things and digging deeper into others.  Lepore’s focus is our national pursuit of truth. In the Declaration Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self evident” and in the Federalist papers Hamilton wrote of America being a test of truths. From this frame she explores the nation’s history, with much focus on communications technologies, journalism, and how we’ve viewed our history.  The final section of the book tries to explain the development of our current moment when many of our institutions are breaking down and the commitment to the Founders truths is under attack.  Which makes for a depressing conclusion.

Finally, as I write, I’m about halfway through James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, which was also recommended by The Christian Century in order to better understand the rise of the first states in Neolithic Mesopotamia, which deeply influenced the world of the Bible.  I’ve made it to the founding of Uruk, the first city-state, in about 3,300 B. C. E. and the reign of the historical Gilgamesh.

It has been my tradition to write a column every year reviewing the books I’ve read.  This year I decided to break that up, so look for a later installment to discuss other books.