Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Nathan Irvin Huggins & Oscar Handlin

Frederick Douglass is my hero.  Him and Julian of Norwich – an unlikely pair, and I am not really sure what they would make of each other, but there you go.  I have been saying for ages that we should put Frederick Douglass on our money.  And bump Jackson.  Jackson is the obvious choice to get bumped, but I also think we could get rid of Grant, in a pinch – it’s not that I hate him or anything, it’s just that, you know, he wasn’t that amazing a president, and we are already representin’ for the Civil War with our good buddy Lincoln.  Get rid of Jackson and Grant and substitute Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  I think we can all agree that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are way more legendary than Jackson.

Anyway, I really like Frederick Douglass, and reading this biography of him made me feel all full of snuggly love.  I started reading another biography of Frederick Douglass earlier this month in which the author asserted that Frederick Douglass really loved Thomas Auld (Auld was one of his “owners”) and had many complicated feelings about him, as evident (said the book) from the fact that Frederick Douglass never said a nice thing about Auld.  Um, sure.

Slave and Citizen is a political biography of Frederick Douglass – specifically, a biography of Frederick Douglass’s political life relating to antislavery and the rights of African-Americans.  For the first two-thirds of the book, this is fantastic.  Even when Lincoln is dragging his feet and failing to follow through on his promises, there’s a sense of movement forward.  We know where this goes; the Civil War ends and the slaves are free.

After that, everything gets really sad.  Frederick Douglass and the women’s movement both sort of act like jerks and stop being friends (for a while! not forever!).  He waits and waits for the government to treat him with the respect he totally utterly deserves, but they don’t really want a black man in a responsible government position.  There are tragic passages like this:

In his last years, whatever sense of personal accomplishment Douglass may have felt was overwhelmed by the knowledge that his great crusade had failed.  The American people had succumbed to self-indulging prejudice and had missed their chance to create a national community based on law and justice.

People can be so shabby.  Andrew Johnson, for one, is dead to me – he met with Frederick Douglass and afterward said a number of things about him that I am far too much of a lady to repeat.

If I were going to complain about one thing in this book, it would be that there are not enough excerpts from Douglass’s speeches, editorials, and letters.  For a book about Frederick Douglass’s voice in American politics, there wasn’t a whole lot of Frederick Douglass’s voice.  In the epilogue, the author makes note of Philip Foner’s multivolume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, which I now covet, but can only read in short, controlled bursts at the university library.

Slave and Citizen left me wanting to know much, much more about Frederick Douglass and especially about his involvement with the women’s movement.  From this book, it appears that the women wanted their right to vote included on the Fifteenth Amendment; the Fifteenth Amendment folks knew that there was a limited amount of political capital stored up for getting black men the vote, and were afraid that putting women in there too would kill it dead, and NOBODY would get the vote EVER.  The women said why should ignorant black men get to vote and not educated us?; Frederick Douglass said white women already have a voice in the government through their brothers & fathers & husbands.  Sounds like a festival of ungenerosity to me; I yearn to know more!

The Case of Madeleine Smith, Rick Geary

Oh, dear, the plight of women throughout history has been really dreadful.  The Case of Madeleine Smith is a graphic novel (graphic history, I guess) about real-life Victorian lady Madeleine Smith, who may or may not have murdered her lover Emile L’Anglier (though she probably did murder him, the book strongly implies).  It’s a straightforward, fairly impersonal depiction of the story – could just as well be the Classic Comics version!  The book deliberately (I assume) sets the reader at one remove from the players in the story, so it’s more of a history than a story.  I would have liked to hear more about the trial itself.  I love scandalous trials!

It’s a pretty woeful story.  Madeleine Smith, a Glaswegian lady, gets involved with a French guy called Emile L’Anglier.  Against her father’s express wishes, she continues to correspond with him and even has sex with him.  (He lost a lot of sympathy from me by fretting over the fact that she didn’t bleed when she quote unquote lost her virginity – shut up, asshat!)  After a while, her family proposes a more eligible (richer, higher society, nonforeign) suitor for her, and she becomes engaged to him.  Emile L’Anglier is understandably upset about this, given the passionate nature of her letters.  He refuses her request to return the letters and threatens to expose their affair to her father.  Shortly after that he dies of arsenic poisoning.

I feel sorry for both of them.  I feel so sorry for Madeleine Smith, because it’s just not fair that her lover had this much power over her.  She wasn’t the soul of honor throughout their affair, or anything, but it’s legit for a girl to break up with someone.  Instead of accepting it, he threatened to do something that she couldn’t stop him from doing, something that would force her to stay with him.  Ick, ick, ick.  Taking advantage of all the things that penned women in Back In The Day.  And then she goes and (probably) murders him, and everyone calls him a vile seducer and she gets off.  Not really fair, this class business.

An interesting history in comic book form, with nice simple black-and-white line drawings.  Harvard has a glorious digital archive called Studies in Scarlet, all about these sorts of trials in the Victorian period, and they have several resources on Madeleine Smith and her trial, including a bunch of her letters to the unfortunate Mr. L’Anglier, downloadable in handy PDF format.  Sometimes technology is a pain in the ass (see Blackberry) but sometimes it is simply fantastic.  Thanks, Harvard!

What I am thinking about after reading this: Dorothy Sayers and Harriet Vane.  Dorothy Sayers wrote three wonderful books and one slightly-less-wonderful book about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, who solved mysteries together while Peter nursed an (officially) unrequited passion for Harriet.  In the first one, Strong Poison, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her lover Philip Boyle.  She is a mystery writer and had purchased arsenic as part of her research for a book she was doing, and Philip Boyle died of arsenic poisoning, so that doesn’t look good for her.  Even worse for her, she and Philip had been lovers for some time, and had not gotten married because Philip said he didn’t believe in marriage; and then, after stringing her along in this fashion, he finally proposed to her, which irritated Harriet so much she dumped him.  (And then he died.)

Here is why Dorothy Sayers is my total hero, apart from her brilliance and wit, her skill as a writer, her radio plays where Jesus’s disciples had Cockney accents, and her many other lovely qualities: It’s all true.  Not the arsenic part, but the marriage part.  Dorothy Sayers was indeed involved with a writer who claimed not to believe in marriage, and then after a whole year, he told her that no, actually, he had just been pretending to be against marriage in order to test her devotion to him.  So she killed him.  And then had everyone say loads of nasty things about him after he was dead (in her book, I mean – not in real life obviously).  I love her.

Other views on Rick Geary:

an adventure in reading
Andi over at Estella’s Revenge

Murrow: His Life and Times, A.M. Sperber

This is the hugest book ever.  I have been reading it and reading it.  It’s about Edward Murrow as you might have imagined, and I will just tell you now that Edward Murrow was quite a person.  He wasn’t always perfect (of course), but I admire him tremendously.  Everyone I know is now tired of hearing Edward R. Murrow stories.  Like the one about when he went to Buchenwald with the troops, and people there – people who were in Buchenwald – recognized him and asked if he remembered them.  And the one about how someone asked his four-year-old son Casey if he had been to the playground and Casey said, “I have not.  I have spent the day investigating Washington.”

But my favorite story is this story.  Someone Murrow knew had been blacklisted, and had subsequently (of course) had trouble finding work, so this guy was going to sue the blacklist people, and the lawyer fee was $10,000.  Edward Murrow told the guy, no worries, CBS will pay for it, it’s in everyone’s best interests that CBS pay for it; so he went and asked CBS to pay for it, and CBS said no.  So Edward Murrow said to the guy, okay, you pay what you can, and I’ll pay the rest, which was $7500.  He said he didn’t want to be paid back.  He said it was “an investment in America.”  He said he had a son to raise and he wanted this lawsuit to work out because the blacklist was paid.  And eventually the guy won the libel suit and got several million dollars, and still Edward Murrow wouldn’t let him pay him back.

So that is a really nice story.  Edward Murrow was a really good guy.  I admire him, and I enjoyed this book a lot.  It was very sad in many ways because Edward Murrow was often very depressed and felt defeated, and the author conveyed that quite well.  I found it hard to read some of it, how unhappy Edward Murrow must have been.  Like when he said it was a hell of a thing for your eight-year-old son to be called a dirty Communist.  That hurt my heart.  Poor Edward Murrow.

I thought that sometimes the author wasted a lot of time on setting up a story or anecdote that didn’t really lead anywhere; i.e., to understand the story you had to have all this very dull backstory first, and then the story itself wasn’t that interesting to start with.  As well I had the same problem I always have with biographies, which is that I couldn’t keep track of all the characters there were, which was many, many, many.

My other complaint was, not enough Janet Murrow.  I believe that Janet Murrow was a very cool and smart person, and I wanted to hear more about Edward Murrow’s family generally.  Family is important!  I wanted to know more about it!

Still, it was an excellent book.  While I was reading it, I started also watching Good Night and Good Luck, to see how it compared.  I liked it that I knew who all the characters were – aha, Robert Downey Jr. is Wershba!, I said to myself with happiness – but I decided to wait until I finished the book, to watch the movie.  So that I would know what was going to happen in the film, and also so that I could decide how I felt about the way they did all the different things.  I shall watch it tomorrow maybe.

Broadcasts from the Blitz: How Edward R. Murrow Helped Lead America Into War, Philip Seib

What a lovely book.  I didn’t know Edward Murrow had had anything to do with Britain in the War at all, but evidently he and his wife moved there before the war started and stayed after it began.  The Murrows came home to America in 1941, just in time for Pearl Harbor, and then they went back to England again, because Edward Murrow wanted to explain America to Britain and the other way around.  When I was reading this book, I discovered lots of nice things about Edward Murrow and his lovely wife Janet.  For instance, they moved to London before the War, and they stayed there all through the whole war.  Janet Murrow worked on committees and wrote charming letters to their parents, viz.:

Janet told her parents that Mary Street, an older woman who lived in a flat below the Murrows, had “heard that my husband was out all night broadcasting.  So, thinking I’d be nervous, if there were air raids at night, she wanted me to know that she’d be glad to have me come down anytime and sit with her.  She has made a gas-proof room out of one of her small rooms.  I thought it was terribly sweet of her to say I might share her gas-proof room.”  Janet reported that Miss Street had also told her she’d be ready at any hour: “I’m an old trouper.  When I hears the guns I tuck me nightie in me knickers and put on me shoes.”

Actually I found all the excerpts from her letters really endearing.  I wished there were more.  She said that when she and her husband went to see Gone with the Wind, “Ed kept saying ‘God, this is horrible,’ in all the most sentimental parts, much to the annoyance of the people about us.”  I so feel it.

In addition, they worked really hard to get children out of London.  They would ring up their friends in America and ask them please to sponsor families  from London who were escaping to America away from the bombs, and they would say, Do not worry if they incur any expenses, we will pay those expenses.  And they both wrote, and Edward Murrow delivered, many broadcasts on the American radio to tell everyone in America what was going on, so that America would come and help Britain to defeat Hitler, who was very, very evil.  Edward Murrow would say “This is London”, and he would tell stories about how brave the Londoners were even though they were being bombed, and he would tell them what was happening with Hitler and the War.  He did this very much, in order to build support for the war in America, so that people would not listen to That Enormous Poophead Charles Lindbergh who said that London was doomed and anyway the Jews probably deserved it because they were annoying.

And the Londoners were very brave.  Darling, darling London.  London is so brave and stiff-upper-lip-y.  I always thought it was exaggerated, but then one time I was in London when they had a massive catastrophe, and no, really, the truth is, the Brits have a stiff upper lip.  They are the people you want to hang out with in a crisis.  (Out with in.  Mercy.)

So I feel extremely fond of the Murrows.  They did not have to stay in London when it was being frighteningly bombed.  They could have gone straight home when the war started, but instead they stayed put and tried to communicate what was going on to America; and when they were not doing that, they (and by they, I think I mostly mean Janet) were organizing helpful war effort projects like evacuating children and making things for the soldiers.

This book was rather slight, but it was sweet.  Like when Churchill told Joseph Kennedy that the British would fight Hitler to the last man, and if Britain should be overrun, then they would move the government to Canada and fight on from there.  Bless them.  And bless Edward Murrow, he seems like a man of such conviction.  I admire a man who can make an impact.  Here is what Archibald MacLeish said to him, after America had finally entered the war, after Pearl Harbor:

“You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.  You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead – were all men’s dead – were all mankind’s dead – and ours.”

P.S. On the other hand, Nancy Astor was evidently so awful and anti-Semitic and let-the-Germans-have-what-they-want-y, and BFF with Joseph Kennedy who got his daughter a lobotomy and didn’t even tell his wife – anyway, she was an MP, and one time another MP referred to her as “the honorable member from Berlin.”  Ouch.

Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller

Recommended by: Book Nut

I love Annie Sullivan.  Every time I think about Annie Sullivan it blows my mind.  She was twenty when she went to go teach Helen Keller, and she’d had no proper parenting, and she was twenty, and she must have been just about the most brilliant and inventive person of all time.  Annie Sullivan.  WOW.  There was a woman who knew how to parent.

Anyway, I was excited to read this book about her.  I like young adult books, even though I have now become a real adult and can no longer feel smug, as I did when I was seven and eight and nine, about reading way above my grade level. So I checked out Miss Spitfire to read.

And it was, you know, fine.  Nothing wrong with it at all.  It’s just – we all know this story already.  I guess I was hoping for a fresh look at the story, and this really wasn’t it.  It went down just about the way you’d expect: Annie comes, there are big fights, she feels anxious, she makes Helen behave, there’s a breakthrough, things improve, the end.  Of course Ms. Miller has given us a good story, but the story of Helen and Annie is a good story, and it would be some trick to make it boring.  But she hasn’t brought anything new to it.  For me.

However, there was a picture of Helen’s house when she was a kid, and I was really surprised about it.  Look.  In my mind I always pictured something more airy and grand and plantation-like, but this could very easily be a house in the Garden District or something.  It’s cute!  It’s the kind of house everyone is tearing down now to build their McMansions.  Learn something new every day.