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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Truly, cliche lovers everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Dickens. How else could we examine duality with any semblance of grace? The full quote is even richer and I love its rhythms.

    “It was the best of times it was the worst of times it was the age of wisdom it was the age of foolishness it was the epoch of belief it was the epoch of incredulity it was the season of Light it was the season of Darkness it was the spring of hope it was the winter of despair we had everything before us we had nothing before us we were all going direct to Heaven we were all going direct the other way in short the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil in the superlative degree of comparison only.” –> from A Tale of Two Cities

Isn’t that an apt description of every age?….. Today, I want to share my reflections on two books, each describing an age of chaos:

  • Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution by Mark Puls
  • Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII by Douglas Blackmon
  • I usually have 3 or 4 books going at any one time. One that I’m reading with/to the girls; one “candy” book that romances, inspires, how-tos; one about some topic that catches my interest; and one somehow related to the “history of memory” and the reunion culture before WWII. In our travels last month, I was reading the two above at the same time. You have to understand — I tend to avoid duality. I don’t do black & white, I revel in complexities. Yet this juxtaposition created an almost inevitable urge to compare and contrast (I know, how very freshman comp).

    First, both books are incredibly well written — each by a journalist who really loves language. Finding the right word, Puls and Blackmon paint their respective histories in shades of grey complexity — Puls far less so than Blackmon.

    Right up front I need to confess — I love Henry Knox. In my opinion, he should rank as America’s greatest artillerist. So, Puls’ biography, which lacks a certain amount of critical inquiry, didn’t trouble me too terribly. Not quite a hagiography, this slim text offers a great introduction to a Founding Father who created the artillery for George Washington’s army. Henry rose from lad abandoned by his father, responsible for the care of his mother and younger brother to a hero of the Revolution, to the first Secretary of War in the new American government. But my early passions for Henry come from his career begun as that cast-off little boy when he was apprenticed to a book-seller. He learned all he could and then in his own shop, used its inventory and its clientele of British officers to learn everything he could about the conduct and execution of arms. In other words, he is the penultimate ‘citizen soldier.’ Amazingly, given Knox’s incalculable role in America’s independence there are relatively few recent treatments. In fact, prior to Puls effort the most entertaining was a children’s work called Guns for General Washington, written by Seymour Reit — which of course, just deals with his stupendous accomplishment of transporting the guns of Ticonderoga.

    If Puls leaves you cheering America’s promise, reveling in its spirit, Blackmon breaks your heart. A journalist with the Atlanta Constitution, Slavery began as an article for the paper. The overwhelming response prompted Douglas Blackmon to dig deeper into an abyss of American history little remembered and quite often ignored. In the years following the Civil War and disturbingly stretching to WWII, much of the South’s new industrial might was built on coerced labor drawn from the tenuously “free black” population. This story of systemic abuse of people and law is horrifying. I’ve studied history in one form or another for most of my life — I tell myself I’m inured to the tragedies I find. Not so much. Crying through pages of unrelenting evil, leavened only by Blackmon’s understated reporting — I’m abashed that I knew so little of this story.

    Both are so worth the effort……. each offers a slice of the historical picture; together they paint a schizophrenic childhood for America, still being played out in our current “best of times and worst of times.”

    duality music: Mama Said (Vaughn Brothers); Battle of Who Could Care Less (Ben Folds Five); Bourgeois Blues (Taj Mahal); Fake is the New Real (Alice Smith); We Didn’t Start the Fire (Billy Joel); Twenty Five to Midnight (Sting); For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield); Gonna Be Some Changes Made (Bruce Hornsby); Little Child (the Beatles); Two Brothers (the Weavers); Love in the Ruins (Animal Logic); Granddaddy (AJ Roach); Turn, Turn, Turn (Pete Seeger); Love and Broken Hearts (Wynton Marsalis); St. Augustine in Hell (Sting); This Land is Your Land (Woody Guthrie); Together We Are Strong (Sam Moore & Sam Brown); Free at Last (from the musical Big River) and The World Turned Upside Down (Mark O’Connor’s version from Liberty!)

    All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. –> Havelock Ellis

    Take care,
    Aly

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