Sunday, February 01, 2015

Chevengur by Andrei Platonov: excerpt in Asymptote journal

I've only given a handful of books my highest recommendation (when I add a semi-ranking), and Chevengur by Andrei Platonov was one. Robert Chandler (a polite but definite critic of the only previous available English translation), Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson will have a new translation of Chevengur, hopefully available soon. Fortunately there are a couple of articles about the book in the January 2015 issue of Asymptote journal:

I love the closing lines of Chandler's essay about Platonov:

Like a great many of the finest twentieth-century Russian prose-writers—Andrey Bely, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Varlam Shalamov, Nadezhda Teffi, amongst others—Platonov began his writing career as a poet. Though he abandoned verse, his imagination remained as bold, and his use of language as creative, as that of any Russian writer since Pushkin.

The excerpt covers a pivotal event in the novel. (The start of the quote corresponds to page 49 of the Anthony Olcott translation.) The big event in the excerpt involves a train wreck between two locomotives of the Red Army. The collision of two huge engines provides a metaphor for the rest of the novel, the collision between ideology (communism) and the attempt at utopia.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Songcatcher (2000 movie, U.S.)

I usually enjoy the Coen brothers' movies, I really do. And as much as I love O Brother, Where Art Thou? I find myself not watching it when I have the chance in order to avoid a certain feeling of fatigue. It had been a while since I had seen Songcatcher...actually last viewed upon it's release...and I wanted to revisit it. (Like too many other movies, I can say I contributed 0.001% or more of its gross upon its release.) The movie is erratic, extremely moving one minute and melodramatic the next, but the performances are a joy.

The storyline provides both strengths and weaknesses to the film. About a decade into the 20th century, music professor Dr. Lily Penleric is denied a promotion at the college where she works even though she has done much more than her colleagues. She leaves the college in order to visit her sister, a teacher in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. Lily discovers that the local residents have preserved many Scots-Irish ballads, most of them identical to their origins centuries earlier. Seeking to document and collect as many songs as possible, Lily transcribes them to sheet music and records several on phonograph cylinders. The story from there takes a turn to the soap opera-ish, usually based on stereotypes of the mountain folk and the imposition of progress in the backwoods.

One of the strengths of movie centers on how different the view of music is between Lily and the mountain people. To her it's something to document and write about. The "savage mountaineers" view music as an important part of life, something to perform and savor. To them it's to be experienced, not a specialty to be analyzed in a sterile institution. Not recognizing the importance of her presence, Lily is so wrapped up in her work that she is blind to the impacts her single-minded pursuit causes.

To the film's credit, it makes fun of the same stereotypes it sometimes falls back on. Even then, though, the effort can feel contrived at times. There are several characters who are trapped between their roots and having visited or being part of "the other world"—anything outside the mountain community. David Patrick Kelly does a nice turn with his portrayal of Earl Giddens, a coal company representative. He tries to convince locals to sell their property to the company, for a fraction of its real worth, of course. Showing up at a dance, drunk and belligerent, he gets knocked out in a fight. Awakening and starting to leave, he tries to show he's still part of the community by launching into "Conversation with Death," a nice twist but as I mentioned, a little clumsy and contrived. He helps demonstrate the traditions of the mountains have been kept alive because of their isolation. And as the central figure, Janet McTeer does well as Dr. Lily Penleric, although her doe-eyed responses wore on me after a while. Add to that an ending where Lily descends to a level of exploitation that Tom was fighting against the whole movie (but now helps) and you have a slightly confused movie.

The supporting cast helps me in recommending the movie, even with the concerns mentioned above. Jane Adams is fabulous as Lily's sister Elna, who recognizes the limitations of her role and her sex but works to make a difference within the given system. Emmy Rossum, in her first big-screen role, captivates as Deladis despite the awful (at times) accent she affects. Aidan Quinn portrays Tom, a Spanish-American War veteran displaying the difficulty of a mountaineer who has been to "the other world" and returned. Concerned that locals will be exploited, he vigorously defends their rights to live and let live, without (always) resorting to violence like some of them do. And the musical performances...whether by Emmy Rossum, Taj Mahal, Iris DeMint, or many others...are lovely. They provide the heart of the movie around which the framework, solid or contrived, hangs.

At one point Tom chides Lily "We have very different notions of what enjoyment is." That's apparent in the performances, too, marked by the difference of the mountain folk performing for themselves (with apparent joy) versus performing for Lily (starting as fun, but quickly descending to work). I'll watch the movie again because of the music and the sheer joy I can feel in those performing it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Upcoming: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (and watch the movie now!)

I reviewed Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós about two years ago. The version of the booked I posted on was Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós’ Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film by Colin Partridge (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995). My summary post links to the following posts related to the novel:
Far from the desired feminist manifesto
Don Lepe
Tristana
Horacio
A Fortunata and Jacinta quote that fits in nicely with Tristana

I'll be posting on the recent NYRB edition, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The main reason of this post, though is to mention that Luis Buñuel's 1970 movie adapted from the novel is available for instant viewing until February 1, 2015. My notes on the movie adaptation can be found here. You've been notified—watch it early and often. While making some major changes from the novel, the movie is exceptional. As I've mentioned several times, Buñuel and Galdós make a perfect pairing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S. C. Gwynne
ISBN: 978-1451673289
(Scribner, 2014, hardback)

It is a matter of record that, a mere fourteen months earlier [than June 1862], the man everyone from Charlottesville to Washington was so breathlessly concerned about had been an obscure, eccentric, and unpopular college professor in a small town in rural Virginia. He had odd habits, a strangely silent manner, a host of health problems, and was thought by almost everyone who knew him to be lacking in even the most basic skills of leadership. To call him a failure is probably too harsh. He just wasn’t very good at anything; he was part of that great undifferentiated mass of second-rate humanity who weren’t going anywhere in life. And yet on that bright June [1862] day in Charlottesville the oddball science teacher had just completed a military campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that made him the most famous military figure in the Western world. In a matter of months he had undergone a transformation of such speed and magnitude that it stood out in a war that made a specialty of such changes. … In a war where the techniques of marching and fighting were being reinvented almost literally hour by hour, Jackson’s intelligence, speed, aggression, and pure arrogance were the wonders of North and South alike. They were the talk of salons in London and Paris. (6-7)

It's rare when a book sneaks up on me and take me by surprise (in a good way), but this one did. S. C. Gwynne is upfront about this book being a selective biography of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Admitting it is not a “full-scale, A-to-Z biography,” Gwynne chooses facts, stories, and analysis that best illuminates his subject instead of providing a comprehensive report. Gwynne focuses mostly on the two years of Jackson's operations in the U.S. Civil War, but he also flashes back to early events in Jackson's life in order to provide perspective and context. Rebel Yell reads like a tale told by a master story-teller…I can almost hear a southern drawl while I'm reading it.

So who was Stonewall Jackson? To say he was a host of contradictions would be an understatement. When the war started he was recognized as an incompetent science teacher at the Virginia Military Institute. Six years before the Civil War started the school’s alumni tried to have him fired. He was orphaned at age seven, raised by family members, and received a cursory childhood education. Through sheer luck and granite resolve, he was accepted into West Point at the bottom of his class. He was socially awkward, his attempts at public speaking usually painful to watch. He had a host of physical ailments that added to his awkwardness. He was deeply religious. He had trouble with authority, especially if it was critical of him. He rarely shared his thoughts or plans with anyone. Gwynne describes him as a “comfortable mediocrity.” When the Civil War started he was all but ignored by the Confederacy government. These popular descriptions of Jackson only tells part of his story, though.

Concealed behind this carefully constructed social front was a layered, highly complex, passionate, deeply sensitive man who loved deeply and grieved deeply. He had a poetic heart, and a nineteenth-century romantic’s embrace of beauty of nature. He loved Shakespeare and European architecture. He was self-taught and completely fluent in Spanish; he was a devoted and talented gardener; and he read widely in world history and military history and reveled in travel. He had an ecstatic, almost mystical sense of God. He loved walking in the country around Lexington, gloried in sunsets and mountain views and in the blooming Shenandoah spring. He was a man who could laugh uproariously, and roll around on the floor in play with a child, speaking Spanish baby talk, a man who kept close track of news and gossip inside his large, extended family. He was a doting, affectionate, and passionate husband who, behind closed doors, had an expansive and often joyous personality. (135)

Jackson served in the Mexican-American War, receiving praise from his commanding general. Like others who had experienced war he hoped to avoid secession and the conflict he knew would follow. The unconcern voiced by others when talking of wars pained him greatly. As Gwynne puts it, Jackson understood war “at some primal, visceral level that escaped almost everyone else.” (17) Jackson’s volatile mix of beliefs would ensure that he would give his unquestioning loyalty to the state of Virginia, willing to do whatever it took to defend it. His reasoning followed his religious outlook: outcomes rested in the hands of God and Jackson was one of God’s instruments in making what was going to happen happen.

Jackson understood from the beginning what it would take to win—total war, taking the fight directly to the Union. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, believed that holding land and taking a defensive posture would be the key to outlasting the Union. Jackson was outstanding at the Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run), receiving his nickname during the fight. Also noteworthy during the battle was the first rebel yell, which Jackson initiated by telling his men to scream like Furies.

Jackson was promoted and given command of the Shenandoah Valley district. It was here that Jackson earned his warrior reputation. He marched his men farther and faster than anyone expected. He successfully coordinated attacks. His tactics were aggressive and surprising. He inspired his men to do the impossible and instilled fear in his enemies. Undermanned and outnumbered, he delayed the Union's plans to attack Richmond.

I've always been fascinated by the military genius from apparent misfits like Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman. Gwynne spends time examining why that was, in particular for Jackson. His brilliance wasn’t just in his ability to perceive what others couldn’t, although that definitely was part of it. He understood the need to wage a pitiless war in order to succeed and he was ready to take command to insure it happened. In contrast to other leaders during the war, Jackson excelled at making command decisions, willing to be held accountable for them. Combined with his daring, this meant that his badly outnumbered and ill-supplied troops would have their way against timid Union generals. Not that the opposing troops were reticent or fearful—far from it—but those men were ill-served by their early generals. Gwynne makes an excellent point on the difficulty in distinguishing between failure and success in Civil War battles before they were finished:

Though he [Union General Burnisde] has gone down in history as an incompetent field commander for his tactics at Fredericksburg, in fact there was often a fine line in the Civil War between tenacity and foolishness. At Gaines’s Mill, Lee spent more than five hours assaulting uphill against a phenomenally strong Federal position, and lost nearly 8,000 men in the process. Yet because his final charges, by Hood in particular, won the day, the battle is remembered as a glorious victory. Because Burnside sacrificed all those men in a losing cause, he is often seen as inept and mindlessly obstinate. (501-2)

This was not a war that was going to be won by conventional thinking and Jackson was gifted at being unconventional. He caused panic for Union generals, causing them to imagine phantom forces were constantly threatening them. While they weren't completely wrong, they were often mistaken about when, where, and how Jackson's forces would be deployed. After the Battle of Winchester in May 1862, Jackson’s reputation reached mythical proportions. He was a seemingly invincible warrior that the Confederacy desperately needed to sustain their dreams and support their cause.

Jackson’s contradictions seemed to grow with his fame. He tried to destroy men’s careers because of insubordination, yet he was willing to defy orders when he thought it best. If Jackson had to answer to himself he would have been court-martialed. After working independently in the Valley Campaign, Jackson was fortunate to have Robert E. Lee appointed as commanding general of the Confederacy. Despite many differences between the two men, they worked extremely well together. Jackson and his men were transferred from the Shenandoah Valley to assist in the defense of Richmond. Although he had a rough start, not seeming to live up to his reputation (and Gwynne does an excellent job of putting the disappointment of Jackson during the Seven Days Campaign into perspective), Jackson began to exceed the elevated expectations placed on him. As Gwynne puts it, when Jackson was moving from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond’s defense in June 1862,

How could one dusty, disheveled major general and 18,500 ragged troops possibly live up to such outlandish expectations? That is one of the most intriguing questions of the war. Because Jackson, against all odds, did. He fulfilled all of his countrymen’s most wildly optimistic and absurdly unrealistic expectations of him, and he did it before summer’s end. It is a matter of record that, mainly on the strength of Lee’s daring and Jackson’s astounding maneuvers, within two months the capital being threatened was no longer Richmond but Washington, DC, a city into which the defeated Union army beat a humiliating retreat—the greatest military disaster of the war to date. (359-60)

After his mediocre showing during the Seven Days Campaigns, Jackson reeled off a string of brilliant successes at the Battles of Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Jackson accurately took the measure of the men he faced and took advantage of any timidity. Lee and Jackson's respectful relationship stood in stark contrast to the Union’s command marked by arrogance, jealousy, and hatred of each other. Gwynne examines the fame Jackson received because of his success. Although Jackson found the fame gratifying, he battled it “with a combination of flight and prayer.” (486) Gwynne also examines Jackson’s insistence on fostering religion in the Confederate army. Once again, though, this stands in stark contrast to other features of Jackson. I found this exchange after the Battle of Fredericksburg particularly chilling:

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with [surgeon Hunter] McGuire and [aide James Power] Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “How horrible is war.”

“Horrible, yes,” McGuire replied. “But we have been invaded. What can we do?”

“Kill them, sir,” Jackson said. “Kill every man.” (503)

All of Jackson’s accomplishments led up to the brilliant tactics at Chancellorsville drawn up with Lee (with Jackson calling an audible on major parts) that insured victory over the Union’s superior numbers and excellent defensive position. Jackson demonstrated how he had earned his reputation with his audacious and demanding tactics. Though he faced worthier Union generals now, his reputation reached almost mythical levels for several additional reasons.

Jackson by this point in his meteoric and still ascendant career cast a large shadow, far larger than the sum of his flesh-and-blood parts. There was something fateful about him, something fore-ordained, as though he had been born to occupy precisely this moment in time and space, as though his strange and mystical communion with God had granted him special power over both his own men and his enemies. His personal oddities now fueled the legend. Though James Longstreet was a good general and a resolute fighter, he was a prosaic and somewhat colorless human being. Jackson, by contrast—remote, silent, eccentric, and reserved, his hand raised in prayer in the heat of battle—suggested darkness and mystery and magic. Longstreet inspired respect; Jackson, fear and awe. (527)

Picture source

Some of Jackson’s traits would lead to his death, particularly his reticence at sharing information and his determination to press an advantage, often beyond logic. Shot by his own troops while examining their position in relation to the enemy, his left arm was amputated a week before he died (please check out the three-part story about Jackson’s arm at the Mysteries and Conundrums blog).

Gwynne spends some time explaining what I originally found a bold claim, that Jackson’s death “triggered the first national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in the country’s history.” (556) I don’t know enough to accurately assess the claim, but Gwynne makes a compelling case.

I don’t believe you need to be extremely well versed in the U.S. Civil War history to fully appreciate and benefit from Gwynne’s book, although the more you know about it the better. For example, battles and events outside of Jackson's involvement (or indirectly affecting him) are only briefly mentioned. As I mentioned earlier, though, Gwynne makes it clear that the focus is on capturing the essence of Jackson, which means trying to understand the apparent transformation (or as he calls it in the title, the redemption) Jackson underwent. Even though I basically knew large parts of the relevant history, I still found myself enthralled, wanting to continue turning the pages to find out more about this fascinating character. Gwynne brings his subject to life and his battle descriptions are marvels of detail and action. Gwynne does a masterful job of exploring Jackson's many contradictions, objectively trying to understand both his successes and his failures. Very highly recommended.

Related posts:



If you aren’t planning on reading the book but are interested in the subject, see Gwynne’s interview with C-SPAN. In the thirty-three minute interview Gwynne covers many of the major points of the book. At the risk of repeating myself, here are a few of his talking points:
  • Jackson excelled at maneuvering—getting his troops exactly where they needed to be exactly when they was needed. [Lee excelled at this, too, which made their pairing that much more remarkable.] Jackson also had the ability to get his troops to do remarkable things.
  • You can’t understand Jackson without understanding the role of religion in his life.
  • “Command” is what transformed men during the war. Braggarts turn into cowards because they couldn’t command. Jackson and Grant became who they did because they could command. As Gwynne uses it, “command” means the ability to make a command decision and be willing to be held accountable about it. With this gift of command, Jackson didn’t have to be the most charismatic man or the most gifted speaker.
  • Gwynne reinforces a comment from his book: “Jackson’s death was the first great outpouring of national grief for a fallen leader.” This demonstration was eclipsed two years later with death of Lincoln. Gwynne acknowledges its an unconventional view, but (in the book) he outlines his argument.
  • Jackson is fascinating, but that doesn’t guarantee sustained interest. The interest in him survives because:
    - he was the ultimate underdog ,both the man and his side,
    - he had a brilliant military mind,
    - “flawed” geniuses make for engaging stories, and
    - his redemption (from the title): not just a religious meaning, but he overcame his many limitations.

Also, Gwynne has a fun piece at Biographile titled ‘Never Take Counsel of Fear’: Leadership Lessons from Stonewall Jackson.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pulgas Water Temple

Pulgas Water Temple
Photo by Dwight Green

Another post on a local spot I like...

Located in Woodside, California, the Pulgas Water Temple commemorates the completion of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct (more on that below). The original temple, erected in 1934, was replaced four years later with the current structure of fluted columns supporting a ring inscribed with words from Isaiah 43:20: "I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people." There is another plaque near the base with the same inscription.

The main structure
Photo by Dwight Green

I include this picture with the boys so you get a sense of scale. While the structure is huge, its size fits perfectly with the surrounding landscaping. East of the temple is a tree-lined reflection pool and a raised flowerbed (with the surrounding knolls just beyond the temple grounds).

Looking east from the main structure
Photo by Dwight Green

Water no longer flows into the water temple. The aqueduct now ends at a treatment plant a few hundred yards south of the temple. Before the redirection, over two billion gallons of water from the Sierras would flow into a tile basin underneath the temple, then emptied into nearby Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir.

A sad sight: a broken water fountain at the water temple
Photo by Dwight Green

While there is a parking lot near the water temple, it's only open on weekdays. On weekends you either have to bike or hike to the temple grounds. My first visit there was after a 4-mile Sunday hike. I emerged from the surrounding woods to hear a string quartet playing at the temple. I sat nearby and watched a baptism...sometimes you get lucky on your timing. It has affected the way I've always looked at the place ever since then. It's a beautiful, peaceful place to visit.

So let's back up a step...why the aqueduct?

A low Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, viewed from O'Shaughnessy Dam
Photo by Dwight Green

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco officials began looking for more adequate water supplies. They applied to the U.S. Department of the Interior for development rights of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. An act of Congress was needed, though, since the valley lay in Yosemite National Park. John Muir vigorously fought that approval, believing the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be more beautiful than Yosemite Valley. Muir died the year after the Raker Act was passed in 1913, which allowed flooding of the valley and construction of a dam. (For more on the repeated violations of the Raker Act by the city and Pacific Gas & Electric see this chronology).

Water released below the dam
Photo by Dwight Green

The dam was finished in 1923 and the aqueduct system completed in 1934. Crystal Springs Reservoir, where the water from the valley used to flow, is closed to the public but several trails wind around parts of the two reservoirs.

Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct
Picture source

Signs of the aqueduct system can be found all around the bay area. For example, if you've ever been to Great America in Santa Clara, you've walked right over one spur of the aqueduct (it crosses under the parking lot between Levi's stadium and the amusement park).


Sidenote: there's also a Sunol Water Temple located in the San Francisco Bay area, which may be the subject of a separate post.
I need to find a good book on the history of California water rights. What little I've read on it is fascinating. (See the post on California Water Wars for just some of the fun.)
The pictures of the Pulgas Water Temple were taken in July 2013. The pictures around Hetch Hetchy Reservoir were taken in January 2014.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Stonewall Jackson: An iron sabre vowed to an iron Lord

General Jackson's "Chancellorsville" portrait (Picture source)


Stonewall Jackson, wrapped in his beard and his silence,
Cromwell-eyed and ready with Cromwell's short
Bleak remedy for doubters and fools and enemies,
Hard on his followers, harder on his foes,
An iron sabre vowed to an iron Lord,
And yet the only man of those men who pass
With a strange, secretive grain of harsh poetry
Hidden so deep in the stony sides of his heart
That it shines by flashes only and then is gone.
It glitters in his last words.

- from John Brown's Body (1928) by Stephen Vincent Benét



I wanted to do a separate post on a few of the appearances by Stonewall Jackson in other literary works. The first I wanted to point out, as noted above, is from Stephen Vincent Benét's book-length poem John Brown's Body. Benét goes to great lengths in his opening note to say that he is writing a poem, not a history, and fiction will be intertwined with actual facts. With events and people I was familiar with through my readings, I was surprised how well Benét captures the essential element. His line on Jackson, "An iron sabre vowed to an iron Lord," perfectly captures in a few words a sizable part of the portrait as presented in S. C. Gwynne's Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. Other parts of the poem fill in the gaps of the 'portrait' very well. I don't want this to turn into a review of Benét's poem, but I do want to say I recommend it. The poetry is clunky at times, the effects he tries with meter can be painful to watch at times, and the length can test you. But overall Benét humanizes the war extremely well, using multiple perspectives from individuals who truly come to life. What I like best is that Benét rarely went for simple answers—people are flawed, so their actions and their creations (including nations) will be, too. The images he creates can be heart-rending, especially in their tragic beauty. The poem can be found at Project Gutenberg of Australia (depending on your country's copyright laws).

On a side note, Jackson was a professor at Virginia Military Institute and part of the group charged with providing security at John Brown's execution. Two pages with more on Jackson's account of Brown's death:
      - from the VMI archives, and
     - at Civil War Saga (also see their post on one of Jackson's strange habits, which provides detail on the separate burial of his left arm).

In contrast, Herman Meliville's poem "Stonewall Jackson" doesn't hesitate to pass judgment:
Dead is the Man whose Cause is dead,
Vainly he died and set his seal—
Stonewall!

A tear on Jackson's bier, is allowed (it seems) but not a wreath. Echoing the vain war theme, but much more sympathetic of Jackson's self-imposed duty (or following "his star"), comes from an anonymous Virginian in a poem following Melville's on this page.

I'll close with one of the more famous poems about Jackson, written by John Greenleaf Whittier. "Barbara Frietchie" was published in 1864 and quickly became a sensation. Whittier describes the real-life Barbara Frietchie as having retrieved her American flag from the Confederate troops (on their way to Harpers Ferry in 1862). Catching the flag after rebel troops have shot it down, she yells at Jackson and causes him shame:

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word.

"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet.

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Despite acknowledging the incident couldn't have happened as he paints it, Whittier relies on a "fake but accurate" excuse for his work. Regardless of the veracity or conflation of events, "Barbara Frietchie" was a tremendous hit (the poem can be found here). As S. C. Gwynne puts it in his biography,

None of this ever happened. But to the Northern nation—the wartime nation—the incident was as good as documented fact. What it said to them was that Jackson was a gentleman and a Christian and a decent person in spite of his role in killing and maiming tens of thousands of their young men. But it also said that he was, fundamentally, an American. It was his Americanness that had "stirred" in him and redeemed him.

Jackson had that effect on the Union troops and public. Gwynne recounts several times that Union POWs cheered Jackson as he passed. For someone so reserved and taciturn, Jackson's popularity was a surprise as well as a burden to him. More on these aspects of Jackson's life when I actually get to a review of Gwynne's book...

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Stonewall Jackson's Way

Come, stack arms, men! Pile on the rails,
Stir up the camp-fire bright;
No matter if the canteen fails,
We'll make a rousing night!
Here Shenandoah brawls along,
And burly Blue-Ridge echoes strong,
To swell our brigade's rousing song
Of "Stonewall Jackson's way."

We see him now, - the old slouched hat,
Cocked o'er his eye askew;
The shrewd, dry smile, - the speech so pat,
So calm, so blunt, so true.
The "Blue-Light Elder," his foe knows well.
Says he, "that's Banks, - he don't like shell;
Lord save his soul! we'll give him hell!"
In Stonewall Jackson's way.

Silence! ground arms! kneel all! caps off!
Old "Blue Lights" going to pray.
Strangle the fool that dares to scoff!
Attention! it's his way.
Appealing from his native sod,
In forma pauperis to God,
Say "tare Thine arm; stretch forth thy rod,
Amen!" "That's Stonewall Jackson's way."

He's in the saddle now, Fall in!
Steady the whole brigade;
Hill's at the ford, cut off, we'll win
His way out, ball and blade!
What matter if our shoes are worn?
What matter if our feet are torn?
Quick-step! we're with him before morn!
That's "Stonewall Jackson's way."

The sun's bright lances, rout the mists,
Of morning, and by George!
Here's Longstreet, struggling in the lists,
Hemmed in an ugly gorge.
Pope and his Yankees, fierce before,
"Bay'nets and grape!" hear Stonewall roar;
"Charge, Stuart! Pay off Ashby's score!"
In "Stonewall Jackson's way."

Ah! Maiden, wait and watch and yearn
For news of Jackson's band!
Ah! Widow, read, with eyes that burn,
That ring upon thy hand;
Ah! Wife, sew on, pray on, hope on;
Thy life shall not be all forlorn
The foe had better ne'er been born
That gets in "Stonewall's way."

Lyrics/poem from Wikipedia

One of the items I mentioned that we went over in Paul Fleischmann's book Bull Run was about music originating in the U.S. Civil War. One poem, set to music, that I ran across in S. C. Gwynne's Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Scribner, 2014, hardback) was "Stonewall Jackson's Way" (lyrics above and more on the history of the poem at the Wikipedia link noted). From Gwynne's account about Jackson's spreading fame:

One of the most telling signs of his renown—and his inability to escape it—was the song, written on the eve of Antietam, that was sweeping through Confederate ranks and that would become one of the more popular Confederate songs of the war. Set to a spirited, upbeat tune, "Stonewall Jackson's Way" was a faithful reflection of the way he was seen in the ranks in the fall of 1862. In its third verse, the song dares anyone to "scoff" at Jackson's habits of worship. ... Jackson had a contentious relationship with his fame, which he battled with a combination of flight and prayer.

Jackson was full of contradictions, although he probably would have easily explained his apparent incongruities through his religious faith. More on Jackson and the "selective biography" by Gwynne in a separate post. For now, enjoy what went to #1 on the Southern hit parade (with a bullet, of course) just over 150 years ago. It sums up Jackson's biography in a way that a simple post can't.

(If you go to YouTube, I prefer the Bobby Horton audio version, but I'm linking the Tennessee Ernie Ford version because of my mom's love for him.)

Update (9 Jan 2015): For more on the song, see Donald R. McClarey's article.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman

I'm in the process of finishing Bull Run by Paul Fleischman with my oldest son and we both really enjoyed it. The book covers the first major battle of the U.S. Civil War (and leading up to it) from sixteen different voices. Northern and Southern, male and female, black and white, young and old characters are included. I thought Fleischman did a great job of including many different topics that we were able to delve into on our own, such as

  • causes of the war,
  • 1861 timeline,
  • uses of propaganda,
  • different battle naming conventions,
  • perspective/points of view,
  • reading a battle map (included in the book),
  • historical fiction,
  • the description of a scene from Gulliver's Travels, its relevance and its irony,
  • how the Confiscation Acts could change some characters' intentions (the battle occurs before the 1861 Act),
  • the varied roles of non-participants,
  • comparison in attitudes toward war between characters who have experienced it before versus those that hadn't,
  • the change in attitude toward the war before and after Bull Run for some of the characters,
  • primary versus secondary sources, and
  • music originating in the Civil War.

There's more we'll cover, but this gives you an idea of the rich topics covered or touched on in the book. To help keep the many characters straight, we colored in a map of the U.S. for the Union and Confederate states (noting the Border States differently) and writing in each character's name in the state they were from with a one- or two-word description of them ("slave," "horse lover," "photographer," "cab driver," etc.). This probably helped me more than my son, who had no problem keeping up with the characters.

I don't see an age recommendation for the book but this was included in a curriculum that is geared for 10 to 12 year-old students, which seems about right. Obviously some of the topics are going to be sensitive and need to be addressed according to age, but this was an excellent introduction to the war in general and to the battle in detail. Having just read an account of the battle in a different source (a review forthcoming soon, I hope), I was impressed with how much Fleischman included in this slim novel.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Drawbridge, California

Photo by Dwight Green

In my previous post mentioning Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton , I posted one of Benton's pictures of Drawbridge, California. I toured the ghost town, located in San Francisco Bay, in 1997. I thought a post on the history of Drawbridge might interest some of this blog's readers. The scans of a few pictures I took aren't great, but they give an idea of the surreal nature of visiting a ghost town located in the San Francisco Bay. For better pictures, click on some of the links below, especially Shawn Clover's page.

Photo by Dwight Green

Drawbridge had an inauspicious beginning. In 1876, the South Pacific Coast Railroad worked on completing a railway between Alameda and Santa Cruz. San Francisco area residents could now travel to Santa Cruz in only a few hours at a fraction of the cost of a two-day stagecoach ride. One island posed a problem for the rail line: the sloughs on the north and south ends of the island had to remain open for shipping. Drawbridges were placed at each end of the island that could be opened for passing boat traffic and a cabin erected for the bridge tender to live. Station Island had its first resident.

Photo by Dwight Green

In an ironic move in 1887, the South Pacific Coast Railroad, started as an alternative to the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, was sold to the larger group. The island became an official stop with the name of Drawbridge. Before the advent of nearby salt ponds and the expansion of nearby cities, the southern end of the San Francisco Bay teemed with wildlife. Hunters began stopping at Drawbridge and eventually erected cabins and gun clubs. Soon permanent residences were built on either side of "Main Street," the railroad line running down the middle of the island.

Photo by Dwight Green

The Prohibition era also helped make Drawbridge a popular destination. Located on the Alameda and Santa Clara County lines and not easily accessible, the island was usually left to itself by law enforcement officials. A hotel was built. In 1926 there were five passenger trains passing through the little island with 90 structures.

Photo by Dwight Green

Expansion of nearby salt evaporation ponds, the pumping of fresh water from the underlying water table (for both the island and nearby growing cities), and the dumping of sewage into the bay changed the environment dramatically. Wildlife departed. Cabins began sinking. People abandoned the island. The last resident left in 1979 and the remaining structures slowly sink into the pickleweed and cordgrass. There used to be guided tours of the island, but they were discontinued in 2000. I can't express the eerie feeling of touring the island and its sinking structures framed by the bay. The U.S. National Wildlife Refuge governing the island decided to let the structures deteriorate as part of its wetland reclamation program.

Photo by Dwight Green

Links:

Friday, December 26, 2014

Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton

Our wonderful local bookstore, BookSmart, had a 20th anniversary sweepstakes recently. I ended up winning a copy of Saltscapes: The Kite Aerial Photography of Cris Benton (Heyday, 2013). It is a fabulous book with beautiful photographs of the south San Francisco Bay area, where some of the industrial salt evaporation ponds are being restored to their original marshland state. For over a decade I worked next to the bay and would walk among the sloughs when I wanted to take a break. It's a lovely area and these photographs show some of the beauty and the otherworldliness (at times) of the setting. I'm so glad I won the book and highly recommend it.

Links

Caption: Abandoned houses: This view of the north end of Drawbridge looking toward the south illustrates the tight siting of dwellings between the Union Pacific rail line and what was once a navigable marsh channel.
Picture source

The book has inspired me to do a post on Drawbridge, California, a ghost town in the San Francisco Bay that I toured in 1997. More on that in a few days...