By Bob Holladay
This pandemic stopped being fun when they deemed Tallahassee’s bookstores “non-essential” and closed their doors. It’s not just the economics of it, which (cross myself) could severely damage my favorite places in town; it is what it says about us that a liquor store is essential but a bookstore is not. Tallahassee has three bookstores that I frequent, usually several times a week, due to the fact that I have, until the Great Shutdown, driven past them everyday on way to and from the TCC campus: Midtown Reader and the Goodwill Bookstore on Thomasville Road, and My Favorite Books on Market Street. I also frequent the other Goodwill Bookstore on Mahan, and The Bookshelf in Thomasville, but it’s a little harder to get to them as often as I would like. Midtown Reader will deliver a book to you that you’ve bought through them—which is wonderful—but as far as the essential reason for a brick-and-mortar store, the ability to browse and find what you were not looking for, all of them are closed. (It is worth noting that Books a Million has managed to stay open by serving food. Sneaky.) This could be the end of western civilization.
I’ve got a lot of books from all of these stores. I swear, when they see me coming, the folks who run them rub their hands in glee: “Another sucker!” Well, yes. That’s the whole point. I’ll never read all the books I have from them, but I’ll die trying. Non-essential?
In between pressure washing my driveway, and sealing my back deck, among long-deferred chores around the house, I have had more time to read several of these books. It’s been hard to choose from among them; they are stacked in every room of the house. My wife is afraid to go into some of them for fear she might breathe wrong and be buried by a cascade. I’ve never been able to read one book at a time. I have about 12 on my bedside table, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on three, because each is so good and informative. So I thought I would give you a thumbnail on each one, along with the store where I bought it. I didn’t go in looking for any of these, but I am very glad I found them. Being a history teacher, it should not surprise you that all of them are history books.
1. J.D. Dickey: American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism (2020; Pegasus Books, $29.95). Midtown Reader
I’ll be honest: when I saw the title of this book and read the dustjacket flap, I thought it was just another attack on Donald Trump and the evangelicals who support him so fervently. I was wrong; this is a history of the First Great Awakening, the evangelical religious revival that took place in the American colonies from roughly 1730 to 1756, and the first book that I know to make the claim that the revivals aimed primarily at the Church of England and its power as the official state religion, cannot be separated from the political (and ultimately military) independence movement against Great Britain in the 1770s. Dickey’s use of the word “demagogue” is misleading here: his definition—someone who appeals to our emotions by emotional language—applies less to Trump (though Dickey does try to make the argument) than it does to those who hate him. Where the book really surprised me, though, was Dickey’s defense of demagoguery. He clearly likes the British Presbyterian George Whitfield, whose several trips to the colonies set off a firestorm, or Gilbert Tenant, one of family of evangelical preachers in the mid-Atlantic colonies, whose preaching often off street demonstrations, or Jonathan Edwards, whose “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” remains, possibly the most famous sermon ever preached in North America, or the opponents of the evangelical revivals, Charles Chauncey and George Mayhew, among others, who found themselves on the same side as the evangelicals as the independence movement heated up. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
While the Great Awakening may primarily be viewed as a religious movement, this movement empowered many individuals who before had been largely powerless – indentured servants, women, slaves, and those who were not land owners – to believe that they could act on their own and did not require an intermediary to interact with God or other higher authorities. It also taught them to defy and denounce anyone who stood in the way of what was right. As Dickey says, “The driving faith of such radicals allowed them to violate whatever rules they saw as sinful. For even Jesus broke the law when he overturned the money-changers’ tables – proving that disobedience could be holy and just, and rebellion divinely inspired.”
2. Bruce Cumings: Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power (2009; Yale University Press). Goodwill Bookstore
It is amazing how much of American history is centered around China and our desire to open its commercial markets. From Columbus through its latest export, coronavirus, China has been the dream of governments, and big business, and now the nightmare of the medical profession. Bruce Cumings’ wonderful, and wonderfully written book, published just as Barack Obama was coming into the White House, makes the compelling argument that the true source of American hegemony and empire came not with its relationship to Europe (“Atlanticist”) but with its relationship to the Pacific world (“Pacificism”). Cumings, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, takes us on a step-by-step exploration of that relationship, from James K. Polk and “Manifest Destiny” (the true purpose of which was to take advantage of the Pacific coast ports-of-call, which would propel American ships across the Pacific), through Frederick Jackson’s Turner’s frontier thesis, which he argues was a call for empire, through the acquisition of Pacific colonies like the Phillipines, and through World War II and the Cold War. All of this had the result of creating a permanent American military presence around the world, and as a result of the Cold War military spending in California and West Coast, making that area the true economic driver of the country, and leading, almost inevitably to the technological breakthroughs of Silicon Valley. Cuming’s book is a history, really, of how the military industrial complex took over the country. As for China, his conclusion—written ten years ago—is somewhat dated, before the realization that we have farmed out the production of our most basic products, including medicines, to that country, before the Hong Kong demonstrations, before coronavirus. “Bejing is saying that it wants a partnership with the hegemonic power to shape its own development and to slowly incorporate it into a world system managed by Washington and its allies. This is analogous to the British-American approach to the rising power of the United States a century ago, creating a partnership that lasted through two world wars and finally (in the late 1940s) led to a peaceful transfer of hegemonic responsibilities.”
We shall see.
3. William C. Davis: The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America (Caliber Books, 2019; $32.00). Midtown Reader.
My great, great, great grandfather enlisted in General William Carroll’s Tennessee militia in November 1814, floated on flatboats from Nashville down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, in time to take the brunt of the British attack at New Orleans on January 8, 1815. As a result, I have visited the Chalmette battlefield several times, and have, surely, every book written about it.
I love William C. Davis and his books. He has written or edited more than 40 of them, including groundbreaking studies of the interconnecting destinies of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis, and what brought them to the Alamo, Rogue Republic, a history of West Florida and its revolt against Spain in 1810, biographies of Jean Lafitte, John C. Breckinridge, William Barnwell Rhett, and dozens of others. In between, he taught history at Virginia Tech University, and appeared frequently on the History Channel when it really did deal with history and not truck pulls. I can imagine that being one of his graduate students, and helping with the research, would have been just wonderful.
Your take on the Battle of New Orleans probably has something to do with how you feel about Andrew Jackson. If you like him, you consider it one of the two or three most important military engagements in U.S. history. If you dislike him, you consider it a waste of time and manpower, fought after the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. Davis adopts the former view, and he’s right. His book, with its richness of detail, his use of primary sources (let’s hear it for a historian who still uses footnotes!) and its evenhandedness makes this the best book about the battle that I have ever read. And an eye- opening one, too.
The myth about New Orleans has always been that the Americans were vastly outnumbered and outgunned and that only the stupidity of charging across an open field against a well-entrenched enemy as the British did, saved the city. While it is true that there were more British soldiers on the field, the Americans were superior where it really counted—in heavy artillery—and once the battle started, the British never had a chance. In fact, what really makes Davis’s book so interesting is that the British commanders, with a few exceptions, never really thought they could take the city, and just wanted to find a way to extract themselves honorably from a situation that was problematic at best. The Americans, on the other hand, judging from the letters that went back from the front, were confident that they could hold the city. Both sides fought with honor, but the Americans won a decisive victory.
For much of the 19th century, January 8 was second only to July 4 as an American patriotic holiday. The battle made Jackson President 13 years later. Only after the Civil War did it begin to fade in public memory. When New Orleans celebrated the bicentennial of the battle in 2015, it was little noticed outside of the city. Too bad. Davis is right. It really was the Rebirth of America.
Well, I have grabbed three more from my backroom stack, and am just getting into them. In the meantime, reopen the bookstores! Now.