Friday, September 28, 2018

Independence Lost by Kathleen DuVal

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal was first published in 2016. The author is a professor of early American history at the University of North Carolina. The subject of this work is Spain’s war with Great Britain in the Gulf of Mexico. This conflict was part of the American Revolution. Over the last couple of years, this book has gotten a lot of buzz among those who read and talk a lot about the American Revolution. DuVal has taken what is, on the surface a military history, and turned it into a study of people, culture and long term historical impact. In the end, she draws an unusual combination of conclusions. 

A little background on the situation in the Gulf of Mexico during the American Revolution helps one to understand what this book is about. The thirteen rebellious colonies that formed the young United States were not the only European colonies in the region. Over the course of decades, European colonies in the Gulf of Mexico had been traded with some frequency, as a result of war and diplomacy, between Great Britain, France and Spain.  At the time of the American War for Independence, Louisiana and Cuba were Spanish colonies. East Florida and West Florida were British colonies that did not join the rebellion against Great Britain. 

This book is about the Spanish invasion, launched from Louisiana and Cuba, into British West Florida and its aftermath. Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that the British had native American allies that played a major part in the conflict. The book also covers the years after the war. Peace saw the emergence of the new United States as well as a resurgent Spain, which controlled large parts of North America, including Florida and New Orleans. Spain attempted to set up a system of alliances with Native American tribes in an attempt to prevent the United States from further expansion. DuVal argues that this strategy actually worked until instability in Napoleonic Europe weakened the Spanish Empire. 

Though the subjects involve military and political events, this book is very much a social history. Duval focuses on individuals. Many residents of the region are put under the microscope. These include natives and immigrants from Great Britain, France and Spain, the first Cajuns who settled around New Orleans, slaves and Native Americans.  The region was a hodgepodge of these groups. Individuals and families needed to choose which side to take and how they would participate in the conflict. 

The lives of some fascinating people are explored. For instance, Amand Broussard was a settler living in Louisiana. He was an Acadian of French ancestry whose parents had been exiled from Canada and treated harshly by the British in what was known as the Great Expulsion. He and his fellow exiles thirsted for revenge against Great Britain and enthusiastically volunteered for military service with the Spanish to fight against the British. The descendants of Broussard’s people are today called Cajuns. 

Another person highlighted was Alexander McGillivray. His father was a slave-holding plantation owner in Georgia. His mother was a Creek woman from a prominent family. McGillivray grew up in both Native American and Colonial American worlds. When the American Revolution broke out, his father chose to stay loyal to Great Britain. McGillivray went on to lead the Creeks in support of Great Britain against the Spanish and later allied himself and his people with Spain against a young United States. 

Many other men and women are the subject of the narrative. DuVal points out that records and sources on women are sparse but she tries to paint a picture of some individuals. 

The author tends to focus on motivations. She argues that few people in the region were concerned with theoretical concepts of liberty and were generally not debating independence. Instead, relationships and interdependence were valued by many. She writes,

“For most, advantageous interdependence was a more logical goal. Leaders of all kinds of polities struggled to establish a balance in which they might have more control over dependent relationships. Sovereign states involved networks of dependency. Families and individuals measured their freedom according to how much less dependent they were on others than others were on them.”

Lately, I have read several books on Spain’s role in the American Revolution, including Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro. My commentary on that work is here. I have also read Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins. My commentary on that work is HERE.  These books have filled in a lot of gaps for me. For instance, over the years I have encountered many sources that acknowledged that Great Britain was very generous towards the new United States in ceding large tracts of land east of the Mississippi River after the Revolution. I always wondered why that was the case. In this book, DuVal contends that the British did so to keep the territory from being taken over by the Spanish. The British were more concerned with Spain’s empire than they were with the new United States. 

DuVal tries to make several points in this book and takes some surprising twists in her conclusions. She successfully shows the American Revolution and its effects from the point of view of groups that had in the past been neglected. That is, slaves, Native Americans and women. In recent years, many authors who write about the Revolution have begun to highlight these groups, as they have been neglected in the past.  In this spirit, this work is a very effective and interesting examination of a whole host of diverse people and groups.  

Next, DuVal tries to show that the foundation of the United States was, in the short to medium-term, harmful to women, slaves and native Americans.  She points out that the Revolution really meant liberty for white men. However, she does acknowledge that the ideals embodied and codified in the American Revolution eventually contributed to the concepts of equality and freedom for a diverse group of people. Ultimately, however, this book is highly critical of Revolutionary America and the early United States for excluding the majority of people from its concept of liberty. 

Whenever issues such as this are touched, we enter the territory of the cultural debates, or what some call culture wars, that are going on today. Up to this point, DuVal takes a course that is characteristic of a certain ideology that is popular in quarters on the left. That is, she highlights groups that in the past were unrepresented, and is negative about the young United States for being dominated by white men. However, DuVal next takes a very unusual turn. The author goes on to contend that women, nonwhites, slaves, Native Americans and other groups were better off under the imperial colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and Spain than they were under Republican America. Championing colonial powers is anathema to the historical criticism that I referred to above. Thus, I was surprised that the author made this argument. 

DuVal points out that Republican America bestowed most of its benefits on white men. It went on to virtually destroy numerous native American societies.  Furthermore, she argues that while all these societies - the United States, the Colonial Empires and Native Americans - had slaves, that the slavery in the United States was particularly brutal and did not allow slaves to buy or earn their freedom as the other systems did. She also argues that women had more rights under the colonial systems. Furthermore, the author maintains that the empires had developed an interdependent system of commerce and alliances with Native American groups that would not have involved the overrunning of these groups as the United States eventually did. 

This is an unusual mix of contentions. Duval initially takes what is a left leaning position and mixes it with what seems to be a take that is pro-colonialism. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the author, it cannot be said that she is afraid to go out of the box and take on controversial positions that do not all fall within a particular ideology. I should also note that Duval’s controversial conclusions only comprise the concluding pages of the book. The majority of the work is more or less straight history. This is not uncommon with a lot of history books. 

My take on all of this is as follows: the American Revolution was indeed centered on white men and involved a lot of hypocrisy. It goes without saying that slavery was a source of terrible injustice and misery and represented a terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the American Revolution. Many of the founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, recognized this themselves. The expansion of America was also a cataclysm for Native Americans. It is important that historians like DuVal point these wrongs out and examine these issues. For all this, the American Revolution was a vital advancement in human progress. It laid the groundwork for so much progress and liberty that eventually provided enormous benefits to many groups. DuVal does point this out. In  my opinion, while not completely dismissing them,  she does not give enough credit to these positive aspects of the Revolution. 

I also think Colonialism was morally wrong. However, as much as imperial systems were oppressive, DuVal makes a persuasive point, that the systems that the empires set up in North America, similar to the systems that were set up in India and Africa, did not involve Europeans overrunning the entire continent and this wiping out entire cultures. Thus, Native Americans of North America would likely have fared better under these colonial systems. This is a point that Fred Anderson also made in The Crucible of War.

Finally, DuVal does seem to minimize some of the terrible things that both the empires and the Native American tribes did. She downplays their systems of slavery. She ignores many violent and repressive things that the empires, especially the Spanish Empire, engaged in. This may be the biggest flaw in DuVal’s argument. 

Though its subject is fairly narrow, this is a terrific history book. The way that it focuses on individuals as well as social history, while not ignoring the political and military, makes this work a very compelling read. Whether one agrees with Duval or not, she is not afraid to challenge convention.  At the very least, she encourages her readers to think. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the American Revolution, as well as seventeenth-century history in general. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mrs. Hurtle in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now

My general commentary on Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is here.

About half of Trollope’s important characters are women. He has created many imaginative and dynamic personas in the novels that I have read. His female characters have been varied. While most are virtuous, mentally and emotionally strong, a few notable ones have exhibited questionable integrity. Lizzie Eustace of The Palliser Books was thoroughly immoral. Mrs. Proudy of The Chronicles of Barchester was a force to be reckoned with and mostly malicious as she waged social war on a large  host of characters over the course of a series of books. Yet, in the thirteen other Trollope books that I have read, no female character showed physical prowess and aggression in the way that men do and as Mrs. Hurtle does.  Though some of his female characters participated in fox hunts, which are common in Trollope books, none engaged in aggressive action the way that Mrs. Hurtle does. 

Coming from the American West, Mrs. Hurtle is described as being comfortable with both guns and knives. It is eventually revealed that she shot and killed an attempted rapist in Oregon.  She describes English women as “dolls.” At one point, she writes to Paul, who has broken off an engagement with her. The following is like nothing else I have ever read in a Trollope novel, 

"You shall suffer retribution. I desire you to come to me,— according to your promise,— and you will find me with a horsewhip in my hand. I will whip you till I have not a breath in my body. And then I will see what you will dare to do;— whether you will drag me into a court of law for the assault. Yes; come. You shall come. And now you know the welcome you shall find. I will buy the whip while this is reaching you, and you shall find that I know how to choose such a weapon. I call upon you to come. But should you be afraid and break your promise, I will come to you. I will make London too hot to hold you"

Other Trollope heroines have lamented the loss of those who they loved, but no others threatened to attack their lovers with a horsewhip!

Mrs. Hurtle is not just capable of violence. In fact, she is a mostly sympathetic character. She is complex and shows many virtues. She exhibits real pain over Paul’s rejection of her but eventually more or less forgives him. In fact, she eventually does the right thing and chooses to be truthful in a moment where she could have ruined him. She also tries to help Ruby Rubbles, a young woman who is being terribly misused by the vile Felix Carbury. In addition, the above letter seems to be a bit of venting. While it is revealed that she has used physical force in the past, it was in self-defense against violent men. 

Mrs. Hurtle displays something else that is rare in a Trollope book, that is, she is a big thinker. Like Jane Austen, Trollope tends to fashion characters who are mostly concerned with everyday life. He tends not to write about philosophical people. When his characters do share observations about life in general, it tends to be in relation to a specific life situation that they are dealing with. Mrs. Hurtle is a little different. She thinks about life itself as well as its big issues. 

At one point, she is sharing her observations about the apparently successful businessman, Augustus  Melmotte, and how great men do not necessarily need to be bound by the same code of ethics as others, 

“commerce is not noble unless it rises to great heights. To live in plenty by sticking to your counter from nine in the morning to nine at night, is not a fine life. But this man with a scratch of his pen can send out or call in millions of dollars. Do they say here that he is not honest?…Of course such a man will be abused. People have said that Napoleon was a coward, and Washington a traitor. You must take me where I shall see Melmotte. He is a man whose hand I would kiss; but I would not condescend to speak even a word of reverence to any of your Emperors."

It is clear from the plot and text that Trollope does not share the sentiments expressed above. At the same time, Mrs. Hurtle is a mostly decent character who is flawed. My point here is that this philosophizing about the nature of greatness and ethics is a rare thing for a Trollope creation to engage in. The only other Trollope character that I can think of that philosophizes like this is John Neverbend of The Fixed Period. That work of dystopian fiction is a very different Trollope book from the start. 

It is of course significant that Mrs. Hurtle is American. It seems clear that Trollope would not portray an Englishwoman in this manner. This does seem to reflect some measure of reality. There is no doubt that some Englishwoman of the time passed physical prowess and could take care of themselves in violent situations, however, Mrs. Hurtle's style is distinctly American. As such she is  freer and much less inhibited then her British counterparts. The fact that Trollope does not view all American women like Mrs. Hurtle is apparent in The Duke's Children, where he portrayed several American woman in ways that were much closer to traditional gender roles. 

Like many Trollope works, this book is full of interesting characters. I could devote a post to all of them. One thing that struck me about Mrs. Hurtle is just how different she is from the typical Trollope female protagonist. In the end, The Way We Live Now is another Trollope novel filled with intriguing and compelling people.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1875. It is a stand-alone novel in that it was not part of Trollope’s two big series. I have heard a fair number of people call this the author’s best book. Though I thought a few of his other books were better, I thought that it was excellent and one of his best.

The plot of this book is fairly complex and involves a lot of characters. One center of gravity involves Augustus Melmotte. A British citizen who has recently returned from France, Melmotte is apparently fabulously wealthy. There are rumors that he has gained his money through disreputable means. Because of that, and because he displays vulgarity, he is initially shunned socially. However, as he gains power, people begin to fall in line and even established aristocrats begin to behave obsequiously to him. 

Lady Carbury also plays a central role in the story. She is a widow entering middle age. Though she tends to be deceitful and manipulative, she has redeeming qualities. One such positive personality trait is that she is enormously self-sacrificing toward her son. She has also survived a difficult past with an abusive husband.

Marie Melmotte, Augustus’s daughter, is essentially being put up for sale by her father. He wants to marry her to a member of the aristocracy. One of her suitors is the wretched Sir Felix Carbury, Lady Carbury’s son. Felix Carbury, like most of Marie’s suitors, is only interested in her money.

Paul Montague, a flawed but complex young nobleman, is vying for the affections of Hetta Carbury, who is Lady Carbury’s daughter. His life is complicated by the reappearance of his former fiancé, the American widow, Mrs. Hurtle, as well as the fraudulent machinations of Augustus Melmotte.

A common theme that cuts through various families is the changing social situation that is going on in Great Britain at the time. The old aristocracy is for the most part broke. Family properties are mortgaged as everyone falls deeper and deeper in debt. There is a lot of new money around. The new money families have gained their wealth through commerce. Though the aristocracy formally looked down upon the new mercantile class, the older members of the old families are desperate to marry their children into this new wealth as a way to stave off insolvency. For their part, the new money families are eager to marry their children into aristocracy because it will bring aristocratic titles into the families. Amidst all this, Trollope portrays the young, aristocratic sons as spoiled, narcissistic spendthrifts whose behaviors are further burying their families into debt. 

The ultimate example of this is Sir Felix Carbury. Though he is a baronet, he has squandered the modest fortune that his father has left him. Along the way he has ruined his military career. He lives a parasitical life draining his mother of her modest income as he continues to lose money gambling. Throughout the narrative he dishonestly courts Marie Melmotte in an attempt to get his hands on her fortune while simultaneously carrying on a dalliance with the lower class Ruby Ruggles. He is initially described as follows, 

"He had given himself airs on many scores;—on the score of his money, poor fool, while it lasted; on the score of his title; on the score of his army standing till he lost it; and especially on the score of superiority in fashionable intellect.  But he had been clever enough to dress himself always with simplicity and to avoid the appearance of thought about his outward man.  As yet the little world of his associates had hardly found out how callous were his affections,—or rather how devoid he was of affection.  His airs and his appearance, joined with some cleverness, had carried him through even the viciousness of his life.  In one matter he had marred his name, and by a moment's weakness had injured his character among his friends more than he had done by the folly of three years.  There had been a quarrel between him and a brother officer, in which he had been the aggressor; and, when the moment came in which a man's heart should have produced manly conduct, he had first threatened and had then shown the white feather.  That was now a year since, and he had partly outlived the evil;—but some men still remembered that Felix Carbury had been cowed, and had cowered."

Add to this the many characters who are corrupt and greedy who populate this work, many of whom are in the orbit of the ultimate conman Augustus Melmotte. . 
All of this has led many to call this a cynical work by Trollope. I found it in many ways similar to his The Eustace Diamonds. I wrote about that novel here.  Both of these books are filled with unethical and narcissistic characters. Thus, these novels are darker than typical Trollope. However, Trollope still presents a world where good people act in contrast to the bad. Like The Eustace Diamonds, this book has a moral center of virtuous people such as Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague. In addition, at the work’s end, Lady Carberry turns away from vacuousness and narcissism when she accepts a marriage proposal from a man of decency and substance.  Though much more cynical than the usual Trollope book, I find that this virtuous core, in the end, prevents this from being a truly cynical work.

There is so much more to this novel. It is filled with fascinating characters and situations.  I will be posting at least one more blog on one particularly intriguing character. This is one of my favorite Trollope books. Though I liked Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset and Can You Forgive Her? a little better, since this book is a standalone, it would be a fine introduction to the author.