Roads To Glory For The Political General

In reading a couple of books about Nathaniel Banks, and having previously read books about other Civil War political generals like Benjamin Butler, I was struck by the thought of how it was that political generals ended up receiving a great deal of fame, as there were a lot of political generals in the Civil War, some of whom have achieved lasting fame for a wide variety of reasons. While it is popular to mock political generals, there is a certain degree of importance in obtaining civilian support for war, and if that requires indulging the desire for military glory on the part of political leaders who can help to obtain that necessary political support, then one can at least hope that the desire for military glory can lead to a certain degree of study in military affairs on the part of those leaders who are now responsible for the lives of others. It must be remembered that most political generals were not particularly successful as generals, but a surprisingly large amount have been remembered fondly.

Some generals were so successful as generals that it can be forgotten that they were in fact political generals. Let us consider the example of Samuel Ryan Curtis, the adopted Iowan who is best remembered as the hero of Pea Ridge, where he led an outnumbered army deep in enemy territory to victory through attention to logistics even though his opponent with superior numbers had turned both of his flanks and attacked him behind his prepared lines. Later on he was victorious at Westport, turning away yet another major attack against Missouri and leading Union troops to victory. Indeed, Curtis is so notable as a general in the Civil War–and lamentably, he died soon after the end of the war [1], that it is not remembered that he was in fact a notable Iowa politician in the period before the Civil War and was as much a political general as many other people.

Most political generals, alas, were not as well known as generals. Still, some political generals with a modest degree of success as generals have still endured as important historical figures for various reasons. For example, James Shields was not a very successful Union General, best known for being one of several generals who were defeated by Stonewall Jackson in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign. If his military glory had been the ticket being remembered, he would have fared no better in that than he did for being a U.S. Senator in both Illinois and Missouri (where he went after the war). Lew Wallace did two interesting things in the Civil War, getting lost thanks to ambiguous directions from Grant, which prompted him to make appeals for years to try to avoid being blamed for the issue, and his delaying action at Monocacy in 1864 to delay Early’s raid on Washington, DC, which helped prompt the victorious 1864-1865 campaign by Sheridan to eventually destroy Early’s army. Shields is remembered mostly for his abortive duel with Abraham Lincoln over some particularly fierce political satire and Lew Wallace is remembered mostly as the author of Ben Hur. Still, it is good to be remembered at all.

It is worthwhile to consider a third way in which political generals can be easily remembered. One of these ways is for a victorious general to turn the glory into political success, something that has repeatedly happened in American history. Not only have leading generals sought to turn military victories into political campaigns, including both successful (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower) and unsuccessful (Winfield Scott) campaigns, but military service has been an important aspect of numerous campaigns. Unsurprisingly, quite a few successful Civil War generals and even lesser officers parlayed their service into political office. This is going about being a political general in a backwards way, but it makes sense that someone could use their success in leading men in war as a means of gaining political power in peace, since successful leadership and heroism are viewed as qualities that carry over from one field to another. Whether or not this has always been the case, it is certainly something that has happened throughout American history.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Fighting Politician: Major General N.P. Banks

Fighting Politician: Major General N.P. Banks, by Fred Harvey Harrington

This book is an interesting and not particularly sympathetic biography of Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who is largely remembered only by students of Civil War history, although Banks had a lengthy career as a successful professional politician in the Bay State besides his memorable turn as a political general during the Civil War. The author makes an interesting point about Banks and his career that helps us to better contrast his own career with that of someone like Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant, who are the two figures who are implicitly compared to the subject by the author. In both comparisons, Banks falls short, and this leads the author to reflect upon what it is that allows someone to make a powerful mark in history. Lincoln was only a single-term member of the US House of Representatives, while Banks served ten terms, yet Lincoln’s character and principles allowed him to rise to the challenge of his times with genuine moral courage. Similarly, if Grant was by no means a skilled politician, he has reached immortality both for his capacity for growth as well as his profound military skill and sense of humanity. Banks was a successful enough politician to win and hold office, but he failed to reach the highest level of achievement because his focus was on staying in office rather than maintaining a consistent approach or character.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages of written material divided into eighteen chapters. About half of the chapters cover Banks’ Civil War career and about half of them cover his prewar and postwar career. The first few chapters of the book cover Banks’ life as a bobbin bow whose focus on self-education and self-improvement allowed him first to become a state politician in Massachusetts and then a free soil populist who stayed in power through adroit and opportunistic political maneuvers to appeal to a variety of different constituencies, including the Know-Nothings. The middle chapters then look at Banks’ efforts at recruiting troops, leading him to an early promotion to major general that led him to outrank notable generals like Grant for most of the war and Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and others for the entire conflict. This military service, including his service in Louisiana and his abortive efforts to take Sabine Pass and Galveston and the Red River at Shreveport, and his efforts to attain cotton and deal with the French as well as with southerners. The rest of the book then looks at the postwar career of Banks, which included more time spent in the House of Representatives.

Whether or not the reader will appreciate this book depends on their feelings about Banks. The author spends a lot of time talking about Banks’ political shenanigans both as a politician as well as a general. If the author has much to say about Banks’ efforts in the Shenandoah Valley as well as Louisiana, he has even more to say about Banks’ efforts to rise above his humble origins and serve as a populist leader first among the Democrats, then among the coalition between Democrats and Free-Soilers, then as a moderate Republican with strong imperialist interests. Throughout this period he sought to find winning issues that would allow him to stay in power, because he did not have the money to keep himself in suitable style apart from political power, which eventually included a certain amount of bribery from lobbyists during the Gilded Age. Banks ends up looking like an unsavory politician of the modern mold of grifters and corrupt officeholders, and not the sort of moral hero that one would expect. And if Banks reminds the reader of politicians of the present day who like things named after them and who seek high office without containing noble and high character, for that reason the author finds enough fault that the reader might be inclined to agree with his severe judgment.

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Book Review: Campaigning With Banks In Louisiana, ’63 And ’64, And With Sheridan In The Shenandoah Valley In ’64 And ’65

Campaigning With Banks In Louisiana, ’63 And ’64, And With Sheridan In The Shenandoah Valley In ’64 And ’65, by Frank M. Flinn

One of the more interesting aspects of this book to me as a reader is that the author proves to be a fan of the leadership of Nathaniel Banks, who is one of the less well-regarded political generals of the Civil War. During the Civil War, both the Confederacy and especially the Union had politically important generals it was necessary to placate and to place in responsible positions despite the fact that these people were not very successful generals in a strictly military sense. Nathaniel Banks is known as one of these generals (along with Benjamin Butler), and this book covers one of the more lamentable failures of Banks as a military leader, and that is his effort to seize Texas through an invasion of the Red River valley. While this campaign did not cover Banks with glory, the author does make a compelling case that the real difficulties of the campaign in terms of logistics, the collapse of levels of the Red River that endangered the necessary Union flotilla under Porter, and the squabbles between subordinates were not entirely Banks’ fault, thus creating an account that is a compelling eyewitness account and also one that speaks in favor of someone who has gotten a rough verdict from military historians as a whole.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it is divided into thirty chapters and two parts. The first part, talking about the author’s campaigns with Banks in the Red River, takes up twenty chapters, and the account of the Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 with Sheridan takes up the remaining ten chapters. The author begins with a discussion of the Louisiana campaign as a forgotten one, his own travel from Massachusetts to Baltimore, and his experience of Butler’s Napoleonic farewell address when he was transferred out of Louisiana thanks to political complaints. The author comments that Banks sought to be gentle but found himself having to be harsh because of the disloyalty and disrespect of many people in Louisiana to the Union. A great deal of time is spent talking about the marching and fighting of the Red River campaign, as well as the poisoned atmosphere of the Union army, which managed to preserve itself despite its logistical difficulties in terrible country. After that the author moves to talk about his transfer with the 19th corps to Washington and his fighting and marching in the Shenandoah, including attention being paid to subordinate officers as well as especially the fighting at Cedar Creek.

Besides the author’s pro-Banks perspective, one of the notable aspects of this book is the fact that the author was able to move from his time in Louisiana to fighting in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. It is sometimes hard to understand the flexibility of the Union in moving troops all around from one area to another, and those soldiers who fought on peripheral fronts of the war do not often appear to be discussed in any great detail. In this book we have a very interesting account of very worthwhile war experience to detail. If the writer himself is not famous in history, his account tells a perspective that allows the reader to see how it is that soldiers from less glorious fronts of the war could find themselves influencing the Civil War in notable and positive ways. One can say that Flinn’s unit must have been at least somewhat worthwhile to be brought from an area of low priority in the Gulf to a higher priority in Virginia. This is lucky for the author, as it gives him something glorious to report on in victories that helped to win the war, rather than service in forgotten sideshows remembered for their futility.

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It’s Headcanon For A Reason

One of the phenomena that I find particularly interesting is the way that people create canons in their head that are based on existing intellectual properties but are not official and confirmed by those who create those properties. It is common these days for creative people to combine their creativity into the same universe. So it is, for example, that we have a Marvel Cinematic Universe that contains a huge number of films, whose popularity is helped by the fact that the movies have built in fans who want to see how each individual character fits into the larger universe and in films with other characters. When it is done well, it offers a compelling example of worldbuilding. It is not always done well. When someone does the extended universe in their head, it is called headcanon, and it can often lead to interesting results.

Let us take, for example, the television shows of one Dan Schneider. Dan Schneider was, for many years, a successful showrunner for Nickelodeon, and in that role he produced numerous successful shows for the network, many of which that featured a small group of actors and actresses who played in show after show. As one might imagine when someone was responsible to making numerous shows for the same network, there were crossover episodes that combined some of those shows together. So, for example, an episode of iCarly featured the cast of Victorious as part of it, and a later show paired one of the characters from each of those shows, and still other shows made reference to or shared a universe with other shows of his, even though some actors played multiple roles within different shows, all of which leads to questions about the role that some shows play in others and that some characters play to their obvious dopplegangers.

Sometimes, as is the case in the example I just mentioned, headcanon helps us sort out some of the inconsistencies that exist in universes that have been sloppily put together by others. So, for example, some people think that the show Drake & Josh is in fact a reality television show, even though the show itself contains numerous actors and at least one character who appear on other shows within the Schneiderverse. At other times, though, headcanon can help create new works by putting together the independent works of an author together. So, for example, one may assume in one’s headcanon that all of the Jane Austen novels are part of the same shared universe even though this indication is not given, all of which allows the possibility, for example, that some of the characters might be able to interact with each other and perhaps even be friends with each other. One could ponder, for example, on the thoughts of the naval party of the Crawfords with the naval party of the Crofts and Wentworths, with their very different moral standards despite their similar profession, or one might ponder what it was like when Sir Thomas Bertram discuss matters in Parliament with Mr. Darcy, or to see Mr. Gardiner engage in trade with the Mr. Coles of the world.

This too may be headcanon, and a great many stories may be created through the imagination of the interaction of other characters who have already been well-described and plotted out by another. Whether Jane Austen would have created novels where previously written characters interacted with each other or whether further events in the lives of her popularity characters would have been delineated is, unfortunately, not something we have the chance to know for sure, for Jane Austen’s novels were only released over a period of a few years while she was in her late 30’s and early 40’s, with two novels being published after her death, with at least two more substantial novels never being finished at all in the Watsons and Sanditon, both of which and numerous other stories which would have further showed her growth as a writer and her sensitivity to the changing conditions of her time. In the two centuries since her death, though, Austen’s own novels have been combined together as part of a shared universe in the headcanon of a great many readers, myself included. Who would not rejoice in an Elinor Ferrars being friends with an Anne Wentworth, or Elizabeth Darcy being a guide to many a future generation of young woman whether in London or at Pemberley? Let such pleasant thoughts animate us in adding to the greatness of works by placing them together in a shared universe where they may interact with each other.

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Book Review: The Food Of A Younger Land

The Food Of A Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky

This book is immensely disappointing on a variety of levels. Most of the book’s problems result from the agenda of the writer, who seeks to find in the abortive federal project to collect local recipes some sort of lost innocence before the days of rapid travel and food techniques created a more homogenous American foodway. This would be well and good if the author was a genuine food historian whose interest was in obscure recipes and cuisines from various parts of the United States, but alas, the author has plenty of other less friendly agendas that derail the efforts. For one, the author is most fascinated by leftist politics, praising various socialist and communist efforts and neglecting the food in order to praise the grifters who were involved in this project and their careers. Unfortunately, a great many people got paid salaries to do little other than try to grouse about their job and work on getting their works published in other venues to allow themselves to no longer need to work for the government in a spot that most of them could see was a dead-end, just like this book. As a result, the author’s work on the disorganized notes from the WPA project mostly remind the reader there is a reason why these documents are forgotten and neglected.

This book is nearly 400 pages long and it is divided by region, the same way that the Federal Writers Project was divided. The author begins with a short introduction and then moves on to discuss the food of the Northeast, which includes plenty of reference to New York and New England’s culture as well as things like rabbit stew, lots of clam chowders, and baked beans. The author then talks about the South’s eating habits, with things like African-American food, backwoods barbecues, and possum recipes as well as chitlins and a controversy over mint julep. This is followed by the foodways of the Midwest–not including Illinois–including popcorn, pork cake, lamb and pig fries, pheasants, and persimmon pudding. This is then followed by a look at the eating habits of the far west, including salmon feasts, geoduck clams, beaver tail, wild duck, and some unwarranted hostility to mashed potatoes by some Oregon wacko. This is then followed by some recipes from the Southwest, including tacos, prairie oysters, and a story of how John Walton became governor of Oklahoma. The book then ends with a brie and informal bibliography, acknowledgements, suggested reading, and an index.

Much of this would be easy enough to forgive if the food included was actually worthwhile, but that is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book is that it even fails the modest test of a cookbook in providing tasty and worthwhile recipes that someone might want to cook for themselves. It should not need to be said that the obvious purpose of trying to study relic foodways is to bring them back into existence through recording and writing recipes and techniques. This book does not have that in any great amount. The vast majority of the food included here is food that is biblically unclean to eat and thus unworthy of being brought back into existence. The author, as a Jew (whatever his practice of it), should have been aware of that fact, but deliberately chooses to write about foods that should not be eaten as a way of justifying the political interests of the author, which are, if anything, just as improper as the foodways that he manages to discuss from time to time. Unless you have a fondness for studying the ways that governments can waste taxpayer money by employing leftist writers to study areas outside of their competence to minimal result, this is a book that is best skipped.

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Book Review: Chicken Soup For The Soul Cookbook

Chicken Soup For The Soul Cookbook, edited by jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Diana von Welanetz Wentworth

It is difficult to take a book like this entirely seriously. One of the editors of this book claims, risibly, that this book and the lengthy series it is a part of were not written in order to make money and that there was some ambivalence about making this book in the first place. By the time they were releasing books like Chicken Soup For The Middle-Aged Bachelor Soul, I imagine such quibbles and qualms were long gone, though. This book is by no means a bad one, but it is a strange book that does not quite do what one would expect out of a cookbook, although it certainly follows the hokey advice of the series in its paeans to homegrown wisdom. If you are not fond of the Chicken Soup series in general, this book will likely not improve your feelings, but if you’re looking for a cookbook full of random recipes with personal importance to the people the authors think of as celebrities there is at least something to enjoy here. Whether or not that is enough to justify reading the stories in addition to the recipes is a matter that must be left up to each reader to decide for oneself.

This book is more than 400 pages long to cover 101 recipes, which is a sign that the stories go on far longer than the recipes do. These recipes and stories are then divided into twelve thematic chapters. After acknowledgements each of the editors gets their own introduction. After that comes some recipes from mom’s kitchen (1), including some down-home chicken noodles, Swedish cooking, doomsday cookies, fruitcake, Maryland crab, chicken and potatoes, and so on. Then comes some recipes related to various childhood memories (2), including spicy chicken and peanut brittle, as well as food from one’s grandparents (3), such as Bohemian bread, raisin nut cake, and some Utah pioneer scones. There is food from other family members (4), including carrot cake and mashed potatoes relating to Abraham Lincoln. Other dishes include holiday traditions (5), like tamales, yams, and spice cake, and even a chapter about men in the kitchen (6) that includes beer bread, sesame chicken, and chicken cacciatore. A short chapter on recipes from fronts (7), including quiche and Elvis pie, is followed by a much longer chapter on inspiration and insights (8), including starving student chicken, pheasant, waffles, Chilean quinoa tabouleh, and apple-kiwi pie. A short chapter on love, romance, and marriage (9), with vegetarian moussaka is followed by a long chapter which is a love story told with recipes (10) as well as food for the fun of it (11) (including rum cake), and parties with a purpose (12). The book then ends with some suggestions to read future books, a talk on soup kitchens, and information about the editors and contributors, as well as permissions and a recipe index.

There are definitely some themes as far as these recipes are concerned. A great many of the dishes have family connections to the people who select them, and there are often looks back to the dishes from childhood experiences in the Great Depression or ancestral connections to frontier or foreign cuisine experiences. To be sure, these make for interesting things to read, at times. The authors seem to think that their personal stories are more interesting than they are. In one of the more entertaining examples, one of the authors talks about a marriage of one of their children or grandchildren or something of that nature to someone else who shared the same frontier Utah personal history, making it possible that there was a shared family recipe due to endogamy, but the author did not appear to want to dwell on that point, although it would have made that chapter at least a lot funnier: “The newlyweds had the same family recipes because they married relatives.” That said, if this book is not nearly as funny as it could be and takes itself a bit seriously, there are at least a few foods here that are worth trying and that is good enough to appreciate in a cookbook.

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You Don’t Have A View Of The Truth Through Your Overton Window

Our pastor gave a fiery sermon this past Sabbath about the importance of truth and its elusiveness in contemporary society. The truth is often elusive, not least because there are a great many people who have an active interest in preventing people from knowing the truth, because that truth is inconvenient and unpleasant to them, and has repercussions that are impossible for people to accept. The capacity for humanity for self-deception is immense, and a great deal of the discourse that has always existed has been between false dilemmas that form false pictures and that reject the truth. While the specific frame of the window of acceptable discourse has always varied, the truth has always been outside of that window because it has always made unpalatable demands on people and thus has never been active option for humanity, even if there are different aspects of facets of the truth that are always attractive as a means of making us feel better than previous generations that have failed in one or another area where we happen to do well in our own eyes.

It sometimes amuses me to talk about political philosophy with other people, in large part because the view of so many people is so narrow. One of the many divides between the United States and Europe, despite our common ancestry, is the fact that the political culture in both areas made a serious divergence in the 1700’s that placed and removed different options in different places. Different generations have sought to add options to the acceptable list that are reprehensible for one reason or another, and have sought to remove different options from what can be discussed in polite conversation. Even driving around town, for example, I witness people whose political beliefs are without a doubt immensely foolish and of the wrong spirit because they view matters of life and death as being mere theology seeking to dictate biology, which is an indication that someone is not prepared to deal with the truth of their existence and the reality of divine judgment.

There are a great many ways that people can try to keep away the truth. A few ways are so obvious and so effective at this task that they have been used over and over again. For one, we may use the standards of our time to judge ourselves. We may fancy ourselves to meet or excel the usual standard of our times and think that this is good enough, not realizing that the standards of our time may (frequently) fall so far beneath what is proper and acceptable that it is nowhere remotely near anything approaching truth and goodness. Similarly, we may judge what we know of the truth by the standards of our time and may fancy ourselves to be the judges of what is true rather than subject to it, which certainly prevents us from finding the truth because we think ourselves to already be in possession of it. Whether we seek the truth in our times or in ourselves or in other beings as flawed as we ourselves are, we will not encounter the truth. Indeed, there are so many ways to go wrong that to get right requires assistance from another place.

And sometimes we prevent ourselves from receiving that help. It is distressing to see how this is the case. We can easily be far more attracted to speculation or to the thrill of private interpretations that distinguish us from our fellows to accept plain and mundane truths that are not difficult to understand. We can find some aspects of the truth to be quite hostile to our own feelings about ourselves or others, or make too many demands upon our behavior that we are unwilling to accept. We may find that the truth is too strange compared to the custom of the times and of the positions we find comfortable among those whose interests in the truth is extremely limited at best. There are a great many barriers to our encountering and accepting what is true, and every age heaps up its own to that which already exists.

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Book Review: Voices From The World Of Jane Austen

Voices From The World Of Jane Austen, by Malcolm Day

This is an interesting book that will obviously appeal to those who are fond of Jane Austen. To be sure, there are other ways that a book like this could be labeled or marketed. It could be labeled as a source that discusses the life and thinking and experience of people in the Georgian or Regency period, but this book does a good job at showing how it is that the writings and life of Jane Austen manage to be a worthwhile and interesting entrance into her times, not least because Jane Austen herself and her family were involved in so many interesting parts of the world of her time, even if Austen herself never married and was not particularly wealthy. It all goes to show, if one is inclined to pay attention to it, just how small the elite world of Jane Austen was when you ponder that her aunt faced the threat of transportation to Australia, two of her uncles ended up admirals in the navy, one of her brothers attended an exclusive party hosted by the Prince of Wales (who himself “requested” a dedication in Austen’s novel Emma through one of his courtiers), and one of her nieces married a member of parliament while one of her brothers served a high sheriff in his county, to give but a few examples of how few degrees separated a lady spinster from the highest elites of her place and time.

This book is a sizable one at about 300 pages of material, divided thematically into various chapters that discuss different aspects of the world of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The book begins with an introduction before discussing Jane Austen’s family tree. The book begins, naturally enough, with questions of marriage, wealth, and breeding that were at the basis of both Austen’s life and writing in their presence and absence. After that comes a chapter that looks at work and social rank, and how those were closely connected in terms of the sorts of jobs that gave class of a kind. This is followed by a chapter on education and upbringing that discussed both schools and more informal learning. This is followed by chapters on both domestic life as well as the way that people behaved in public. There are then chapters about the rhythm of the year and matters of fashion and etiquette. The last two chapters of the book then tackle interesting matters of politics, war, and industry as well as questions of health and illness. The book then ends with a bibliography, chronology, gazetteer, a map of Jane Austen’s England, sources, an index, acknowledgements, and picture credits.

One of the aspects of a book like this is that its approach allows one to find out a lot about Jane Austen and her world. All of that is remarkable because for all of Jane Austen’s importance in our own world, she had no real relationships with other writers, which is very unusual for writers. Fortunately, this book is able to collect a diverse group of people whose written testimony on a wide variety of mostly English cultural matters is interesting both to those who want to read about Jane Austen’s time and place and those who are interested in writing about it as well. One of the more fascinating aspects of that time is just how small of a world it was, and this book conveys that rather accurately. Still, there were a lot of different experiences to be found, and not everyone lived the life of a Jane Austen novel, although a great many people find her realistic fiction about her time a bit on the austere side and want to explore the fantasy life of those who lived even better than her heroes and heroines, who were, after all, people she might have met and danced with and observed, which is lamentably not the case for us today.

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Book Review: Jane Austen: A Beginner’s Guide

Jane Austen: A Beginner’s Guide, by Rob Abbott

I am by no means a beginner to Jane Austen, having read her books and books about them starting in high school and continuing since then. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to see a book like this, as it demonstrates the clear way that Austen has been viewed as a great author and her texts as among the most important novels of the English literature tradition and how this can be a bit intimidating to many readers who need to be reassured sometimes about their worth as readers in taking on such works for enjoyment. This book is short but certainly worthwhile in expressing opinions and judgments not only about Austen’s writing but also about some of the writing about Austen that has proliferated in the last few decades. We who are fans of her literature can all consider it rather providential that her novels made the cut when the English great books were being listed, as it is quite possible that they may have been far more obscure had they awaited the much later and much more troublesome discovery of feminist theorists as was the case for many other women writers of her age.

This book is a bit less than 100 pages and is divided into nine chapters. The book begins with instructions on how to use the book in beginning to read the author in question and handle difficult texts as well as unfamiliar critical language. After that comes the author’s justifications for reading Austen, namely her relevance, her humor, and the enjoyment her books bring (1). This is followed by some advice on how to approach Austen’s irony, use of free indirect discourse, and satire (2). After this comes a brief biography of Austen’s life from her elusive existence to her childhood, time in Bath, offer of marriage, and her life in Chawton and death in Winchester (3). The next chapter then details the social scene of Austen’s novels (4), including matters of class, marriage, and the Napoleonic Wars. Then comes two chapters that deal with Austen’s early novels (Northanger Abbey, Pride & Prejudice, and Sense & Sensibility) (5) and then her later complete novels (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion) (6). Two more chapters then look at early critical approaches (7) to her novels as well as modern critical approaches (8). The book then ends with an encouragement to read even more Jane Austen (always a good thing) (9) as well as visit websites and go to various places, after which there is is a glossary, chronology, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

One of the things that beginners would do well to remember about Jane Austen is that her novels are perfectly acceptable to enjoy. Austen’s writings–as is the case with any genuinely great literature–are capable of being enjoyed and are designed to be enjoyed on a variety of levels. The more levels that one can enjoy as a reader, the better equipped one is to respect and appreciate Austen as a writer. And this is a lesson that is easy to transfer to other writings that we may encounter as well. Those writers who provide depth and layers of understanding that require careful understanding and interpretation but who provide surface level writing capable of great enjoyment and pleasure do us a great favor in demonstrating the worth of that which we are familiar with but have not yet exhausted in terms of its worth. When we see that some books are worth reading over and over again, we may better understand what makes them so much better than other books that are not worth reading at all, and also to note what makes books about such books (as is the case here) worth reading and appreciating at least once as well. That this book points the reader not only to Austen’s own works, including her letters and juvenilia, but also to notable works about Austen’s works suggests that this book is a useful resource for those who are beginning their enjoyment and study of Austen’s novels.

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When You Fail So Much They Don’t Even Remember You

One of the more interesting things about paying attention to international news is that one hears stories that one never would hear from one’s own national news sources with their parochial interests. Among the news stories that I find to be interesting and also somewhat depressing includes a discussion of the forgotten de jure capital of the Ivory Coast and its problem with aggressive alligators who roughly equal the number of people who live in a city that was founded by a longtime dictator and largely neglected after his death. It is a familiar story. Dictators are constantly building cities to glorify themselves to show others they have made it, turning their hometowns and villages into expensive demonstrations of their power, only to have those cities turn into ruins when they are gone. Such is, for example, the fate of Gbadolite, a town near the border of the Central African Republic that was the place of the places of Mobutu before he was overthrown from power and his expensive marble and mahogany palace was turned into ruins, all that splendor turned into waste, in a forgotten town that has memories of greatness but no electricity these days.

But one need not be dealing with palatial capitals whose glory days departed as soon as their animating spirit did in order to see failure that is so complete as to be forgotten. Let us consider the fate of the Central African Republic, a nation whose government has very little power outside of the capital of Bangui, and which has a complex group of military groups that have various agendas and various backgrounds. It is thought by some, at least those who think about the country, that the hostility between majority Christians (who make up something around 80% of the country’s population) and Muslims (who make up somewhere around 10% of the population but have been notable in the country’s military and paramilitary groups) has led to a rise in confessional violence, and the fear that the endemic civil wars of the country will ramp up further in violence. And yet it is a violence that the rest of the world hardly knows about, much less cares about.

Nor does one need to be in Africa, a place whose suffering the world knows well, if it knows anything about Africa, to look at suffering and trouble that has failed to reach the attention of the outside world. Let us take the example of St. Vincent, a small island nation in the Caribbean that I happen to have visited myself [1]. The volcano that sits in the middle of the island has begun to erupt, leading tens of thousands of people to sensibly try to flee the volcanic ash that is covering the beautiful island. Unfortunately, due to the stupidity of public health efforts, so far refugees are only being accepted from the island if they have covid vaccines, thus potentially putting tens of thousands of people in harm’s way over a disease that is a far less deadly threat to the island’s people than the volcano is. And yet because hardly anyone has heard of St. Vincent, hardly anyone is upset about the disastrous nature of the island’s current volcanic crisis.

Failure is by no means a difficult matter. It is easy to fail, and there are many reasons why people do not succeed. There are some of us, myself included, who find a melancholy and reflective time visiting ruins of past civilizations and see how their hopes and dreams for lasting places were abandoned and often forgotten. It does not take too melancholy of a turn to see that our own hopes for lasting and permanent monuments to our civilization and our way of life are not any more likely to endure than those of the past or those of our forgotten contemporaries. To the extent that we can remember how others live and die in forgotten obscurity, we can hope that perhaps we will be remembered ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

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