This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,091) on October 5, 2018
As I look through this week’s newsletter — as well as those of the last few weeks — I find that the items I have included seem to be getting a bit longer. That is the case this week, I’m afraid. I will try to dial it back a bit in the coming weeks, so bear with me this week at least.
Still, I get plenty of emails telling me how much readers enjoy this newsletter. I am thankful, grateful, and humbled by that. I always look for things to tell you that you might not have known, and I try to make it all interesting. It’s interesting to me, and as long as you are reading and I am able, I will keep writing.
Thanks, too, for this bit of personal indulgence.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ve had a wonderful week and are looking forward to a great weekend.
Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.
Benedict Arnold, explained by not excused
Nathaniel Philbrick‘s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. explains–but does not excuse–Benedict Arnold. And the explanation is an important part of the history of the American Revolution. As such, it is important for Americans to hear and understand.
Philbrick is a top-flight historian whose narrative prose makes any topic he tackles readable and enlightening. I was disappointed with his book Valiant Ambition only because it ended where it did — and too soon.
Philbrick’s major theme in Valiant Ambition is that rather than the “Glorious Revolution” that we think of, the period during which we separated ourselves from Great Britain was a time of strife and dissension, pitting brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. At no time other than the Civil War was America so divided. The political divisions that we lament in our current era pale in comparison to these two periods.
It was this dissension that, in part, created Benedict Arnold, the traitor.
Arnold had been a successful Connecticut businessman who had given himself fully to the idea of independence for the American colonies. In doing so, he discovered that he was a brilliant, fearless, and inspiring battlefield commander. But he was also selfish, egotistical, and narcissistic.
He made enemies rather than friends; he remembered slights and held grudges; and when the Continental Congress failed to adequately recognize and compensate him — despite his sustaining severe wounds in the battle of Saratoga — he had neither the inner strength nor the political skills to deal adequately or equitably with the situation.
The war against Great Britain was a long one (eight years), and for much of that time, things did not go well for the Americans. As their fortunes waned, so did their will to carry on. The Patriots began turning on each other as well as the Loyalists, and Arnold was caught in the middle of these battles and was, more often than not, on the losing side.
None of that, of course, excuses the treachery that involved his plan to hand over the American base at West Point, New York to the British in 1780. Arnold did it, in the end, because he had received promises of money for doing so. His traitorous actions were exposed, accidentally, when British Major John André was captured carrying some incriminating documents by American troops. Arnold barely escaped to the British as George Washington found out about the plan.
Inadvertently, Philbrick argues in his book, Arnold performed a valuable service for America when he betrayed the cause of independence. He gave the story of the Revolution a villain. His actions became quickly and widely known and served as a wake-up call to the colonists. They needed to stop fighting among themselves and remember who they should be fighting and why. Benedict Arnold helped them do that, at least.
William Davies: How feelings took over the world
Those of us concerned about the increasing irrationality of civic life and public debate –the denial of expertise, the “fake news” canards, the rush to believe rather than to examine, etc. — should pay some attention to why we have come to this state.
William Davies, a sociologist whose next book is Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, has a perceptive essay in The Guardian that is filled with some thoughtful insights. Feelings and emotions, he writes, can conflict with the facts and evidence before us, and our inclinations are to ignore, or change, the facts to fit our feelings:
Unscrupulous politicians and businesses have long exploited our instincts and emotions to convince us to believe or buy things that, on more careful reflection, we needn’t have done. Real-time media, available via mobile technologies, exacerbate this potential, meaning that we spend more of our time immersed in a stream of images and sensations, with less time for reflection or dispassionate analysis. If politics and public debate have become more emotional, as so many observers have claimed, this is as much a reflection on the speed and relentlessness of current media technologies as anything else.
A major villain in this process, according to Davies, is speed — the time it takes to receive and process information, both with our devices and with our brains. The value of the “scientific method” — evaluating information with observation and experimentation — is that it is a slow process.
Take some time and read — with some deliberation — Davies’ essay: How feelings took over the world | Culture | The Guardian
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Wendell Berry: begin with natural resources and local cultures
If you aren’t familiar with Wendell Berry, poet, essayist, and most of all farmer, this article by Gracy Olmstead in the New York Times is a good introduction, and you should take your time and read it.
Berry is an ecologist who has long been critical of the way in which we farm.
Mr. Berry argues that healthy forms of agriculture require intentional cultivation on the part of both consumers and farmers. Americans presume there will always be enough — money, clean soil, healthy water — to fulfill our desires. But our ravenous economic disposition goes against the very nature of our world and its finite resources. Advocates for sustainable agriculture argue that we ought to recognize the limits of our world and, as Mr. Berry writes, “live in it on its terms, not ours.” Source: Opinion | Wendell Berry’s Right Kind of Farming – The New York Times
Berry has a long list of problems with today’s agriculture system that include “soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.”
Berry is critical of today’s politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, who have embraced big agricultural interests to the detriment of small farms and farmers who serve their local areas.
Berry is the soul brother of Gene Logsden, farmer and writer who tackled many of the same issues. Logsden (The Contrary Farmer), who died in 2016, wrote that an ecologically balanced farm consisted of four things: pasture, garden, woods, and water (pond or creek). Those four things, working together, would sustain itself and the people who worked and lived near it.
But in today agri-business model, it’s 500 acres or corn (or soybeans, or whatever). And nothing else.
No wonder our honeybees are in trouble.
William Tecumseh Sherman: Marching through the American mind
We’ve talked about William Tecumseh Sherman before. He continues to fascinate.
The Union Army, under the command of Sherman, decamped from a devastated and burning Atlanta on November 16, 1864 and marched across the expanse of Georgia until it reached Savannah. The purpose, according to its commander, was to bring the horrors of war into the farms, fields, parlors and living rooms of the South in a way that would teach Southerners the futility of continuing the fight for their independence.
The march took almost exactly a month. A week before Christmas, Sherman wired President Abraham Lincoln from Savannah, offering him the city as a “Christmas present.”
Sherman succeeded far beyond anything that he had in mind at the beginning of his journey.
The myth of the March and the man gained momentum for the rest of his life. Old soldiers told tales and reminisced, while Sherman lectured and wrote his memoirs. By the time of his death in 1891, the March was a term that meant one march, embodied in one man in American history. Ironically, the “Old South” and “the March” had become intimately linked as thesis and antithesis — agrarian and industrial, tradition and modernism, spiritual and material. . . .
The memory endured in the South and became a nationsl one, encapsulated in a few seconds from a film now three-quarters of a century old, Gone With the Wind: “And the wind swept through Georgia: Sherman!” in giant letters as the screen goes up in flames.
Caudill and Ashdown’s book is the third of three that examine the myths that grew out of prominent Civil War figures. The two earlier books looked at John Singleton Mosby, the Gray Ghost, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Mosby’s accomplishments during the war were relatively minor, but Mosby was literate and wise in the ways in which an image could be formed, and he also had the good fortune to live well into the 20th century. Forrest, more impressive in his military accomplishments than Mosby, was not so fortunate in any respect and is now a historical oddity that fires controversy even at the mention of his name.
Sherman is a towering figure of the war, a man who is mentioned along with Grant, Lincoln, and Lee. He lived longer than Forrest and wrote his memoirs, but he never appeared to have much concern for his image — at least, not as much as Mosby showed. Sherman seemed content to leave his image in the hands of others, especially journalists whom he professed to hate.
What happened on the march through Georgia is just one of the mysteries of myth that surround William Tecumseh Sherman. The book by Caudill and Ashdown reveals him to be a fascinating and complex character far beyond the hero or villain that emerged from the road across Georgia.
Each of the books in this series is a shrewd exploration of the way in which memory and myth work in the American culture. They are highly recommended.
Linda: Thank you for all your wonderful emails. I enjoy reading each one thoroughly.
A.J. N.: Thank you for another very interesting, informative and entertaining newsletter. I have forwarded it to a friend who is very interested in nonfiction works about Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters, as I’m sure she will be most interested in that section. Love your watercolors, also. . . . I’m so glad to be on your email list!
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Joseph Plumb Martin
Who knows who Joseph Plumb Martin was (without looking it up)? If you do, let me know. You will be hearing more about this remarkable guy in next week’s newsletter.
Best quote of the week:
My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. Joan Didion, journalist and author
Helping those in need
Hurricanes on the coasts and a tsunami in the Pacific. All over and in between, people in this world need help. This weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that the needs are never completely met takes on special urgency.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Channeling Phillip Marlowe, libraries on donkeys, and All About Agatha; newsletter, September 28, 2018
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