Saturday, 14 February 2009

Honest Abe; and some other good stuff

I enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals -- actually it's more a group biography of him and some of his contemporaries. This tactic works very well in putting into context things like passionate friendships and disturbing statements about race. I particularly liked the evocative names, and got a bit carried away in collecting them. Schuyler Colfax; Eldridge Spaulding; Thurlow Weed; Millard Fillmore; Reverdy Johnson; Lyman Trumbull; Hannibal Hamlin; Montgomery Meigs; Amasa Sprague; Elmer Ellsworth; Roscoe Conkling; Hamilton Gamble; Ulric Dahlgren; Junius Booth; Elihu Washburne; Jubal Early; Pamphila Walcott; Erastus Corning; Orpheus C. Kerr; Murat Halstead; Ithamar Chase, his brother the bishop Philander Chase, and his son Salmon Chase. The last wanted to change his name, finding it "awkward, fishy"; which is such a wonderfully Pynchonesque way of putting it.

I know very little about American history. I've never really found it that interesting. This Lincoln biography, which has been huge in America, has been marketed on the assumption that all that has changed since November. I counted eight mentions of Obama on the outside of the book and only five of Lincoln -- Obama even makes it onto the spine, which Lincoln doesn't. I was sufficiently influenced by a positive write-up in the Literary Review to overlook this annoying attempt at relevance. Another reason for my change of heart may be because I've always looked upon the Roman Republic and America as similar in the way that their self-satisfied claims to be founded on high principles just make their revolting failures of moral behaviour all the more depressing; but recently I've been really enjoying learning about the Roman Republic in the History of Rome podcast, which is the best podcast, especially if you discount ones which are just edited highlights of radio shows.

Anyway my ignorance meant that some things surprised me. I hadn't known that at this period the Democratic party was automatically seen as the party of slavery and the agricultural south, rather than the industrialised north. (Which made me think, probably irrelevantly, of this map from the excellent Strange Maps blog.) That the Republican Party arose out of the Whig party also surprised me. Mostly however I was struck by the fact that 1860 really isn't that long ago. It's the era of my great-great-grandparents, and I can remember some of my great-grandparents. But even that recently some terrible things were being said about race not just by those who supported slavery, which you'd expect, but by those who opposed it. Everyone was keen to dodge the accusation that they believed in racial equality. Even as Lincoln was waiting for the right moment to make the Emancipation Proclamation he was trying to persuade a delegation of freed slaves to support a mass emigration movement to settle in colonies in Africa; and the ex-slave Frederick Douglass's emotional response to being allowed to enter the White House, and being treated as a man by Lincoln, is touching and upsetting. I knew that it was a naive view to see the American Civil War as just about slavery, with the righteous North trying to stamp out the evil, but I suppose I was surprised because British opinion by that date was mostly more advanced. Am I not a man and a brother? etc. But maybe I only think this because I only read biographies of the sort of people who were likely to be on that side of the debate. I think I will look out a good biography of Frederick Douglass, who sounds like a remarkable man.

I was also disturbed by the author's anxiety to distance Lincoln from depression at all. She says that he had melancholy instead. Apparently "melancholy differs from depression. It is not an illness; it does not proceed from a specific cause; it is an aspect of one's nature ... perhaps genetically based." Her logic seems to be that Lincoln functioned as a human being and as a president and that therefore he can't have ever suffered from mental illness. It seems rather old-fashioned to me to see mental illness as necessarily incapacitating, rather than something with which people might be able to deal. Actually it makes me very angry. I also dislike the Stephen Fry madness-and-genius thing, which runs the risk of being a bit like that old patronising attitude that blind people have remarkably developed senses of smell and hearing, etc. I think that both of these are harmful; people who find themselves mentally unwell should not have to think that they are now incapacitated and unable to contribute, or that they now have to do genius things to justify it and not be a double-loser. If people in general had a better sense that this is an illness that can be cured or managed then maybe people might deal with it better, maybe there could even be fewer deaths. For now this is the end of my rant, but I might return to it at some point.

In other news
I like the Black Cab Sessions. Here is Benjamin Zephaniah doing an excellent The Wrong Radio Station. Here's Amanda Palmer doing Radiohead's Creep, always a fantastic and moving song. Here's Lykke Li.

Also good; Amanda Palmer's I Google You song, with lyrics written by Neil Gaiman. Someone I work with joined an academic networking site which he didn't realise at the time would subsequently e-mail to tell him every time he's googled -- he finds it disconcerting.

And this is still great!

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