All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Russell Duncan)

I suspect that very few people under forty know who Robert Gould Shaw was. Those older may remember the 1989 film Glory, which told his story. That movie could never be made today (and will probably soon be disappeared, as has been 1964’s Zulu). After all, Shaw’s is an out-and-out “white savior” story, and now that everyone has been educated that the African reality is actually Wakanda, we realize that black people don’t need, and have never needed, a man such as Shaw. Yet even though the Left has racialized all of American life and shrieks ever louder for a race war (something I failed to predict, silly me), I will only touch lightly on race in this review, and will focus on heroism, the traditional center of Shaw’s story. To race, we will return another day.

Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World (Alexander Rose)

Nothing is accomplished by our society today. That little which seems like accomplishment is merely the sating of useless consumerist desires and the serving up of mental frippery and degradation. Apple is valued at trillions of dollars; that fact says all you need to know. Even something that could be thought an accomplishment, such as the rapid creation of vaccines to help counter the modest damage directly inflicted by the Wuhan Plague, is of dubious real value, and is moreover lost in wholly justified suspicion of our rulers. We have collectively marched, or been marched, into the dead end of a box canyon, and we hear the water rushing toward us. Not so long ago, however, as this book shows, the West was a civilization on the arc to glory. Maybe we can be again.

Salazar (Tom Gallagher)

What will be the political system of the future, in the lands that are still optimistically, or naively, viewed as containing one American nation? Certainly, the current system is doomed, which necessarily means that an alternative will rise. Some replacements are flashy, full of promise mixed with danger, such as an American Augustus, Michael Anton’s Red Caesar. But other replacements have lower amplitude, and the quiet authoritarian corporatism exemplified by the Portugal of António de Oliveira Salazar is one such. As it happens, I think it would be a bad alternative for America. Nonetheless, Salazar’s creation, which was undoubtedly good for Portugal, deserves to be better known than it is, and to be understood, for the lessons it teaches us.

Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist (Niall Ferguson)

Did you know that Henry Kissinger is still alive? I didn’t, until I looked it up. (He’s ninety-seven years old.) Is he forgotten? I suspect so, by most people. Was he important to American history? I hate to break it to the Baby Boomers, but no, he wasn’t. He was important to them in their youth, as a condensed symbol of their hatred of decent America, and he seemed important to most at that time, but as with so many men who seem crucial in the moment, history will not judge Kissinger as good or bad, just irrelevant. Nonetheless, Niall Ferguson, a great admirer of Kissinger (as is evident from some of his other books), offers his wide readership this massive biography. But I can’t recommend it except to those with a particular interest in the person or the time.

Always with Honor: The Memoirs of General Wrangel (Pyotr Wrangel)

I recently wrote of the Finnish Civil War, where the Whites defeated the Reds. In the twentieth century, that pattern was unfortunately the exception, with the more common result being seen in the Russian Civil War of 1918–20, where the Russian Reds defeated the Russian Whites. That struggle, though not as forgotten as the Finnish Civil War, does not loom large in modern consciousness, and books on it are rare. This volume, the recently-reprinted war memoir of Pyotr Wrangel, probably the most successful and certainly the most charismatic of the White generals, addresses that gap. It also carries many lessons, including about what might occur in a twenty-first-century ideological civil war in a large country.

The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny (Daisy Dunn)

The Roman Empire gets a bad rap. This is particularly true of the members of its ruling class, who get the worse of the obvious comparison with Republican virtue, and are often viewed as placeholders and strivers orbiting around one emperor or another, offering nothing to the rest of mankind. No doubt many such existed. But we should not forget that the Empire was a very successful endeavor, especially in its early years, and success would not have been possible without at least some competent and virtuous men in the ruling class. Daisy Dunn’s The Shadow of Vesuvius profiles two such men: Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus; A.D. 23–79) and his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (A.D. 61–c. 113). The two men were very different, yet each strove to benefit and serve Rome, as well as to achieve great things himself, in a way our own ruling class has long since abandoned.

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (Peter Cozzens)

I have always been aware of the great Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh. I grew up within walking distance of the site of his confederacy’s defeat, by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and often visited the battlefield as a child. Tecumseh himself wasn’t at the battle; he was far away, trying to raise Indian allies. The battle was instead lost by his inconstant brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, with whom Tecumseh had a fraught, but close, relationship. In this book, Peter Cozzens expertly and evocatively traces the lives of these once-famous brothers, the last of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America to mount an effective challenge to the expanding United States.

The Outlaws (Ernst von Salomon)

The Outlaws is advertised to modern readers as a memoir of the post-World War I struggles between the armed German Left and Right, between the Communists and the Freikorps. But it’s not. The Freikorps appear some; the Communists little, and often when they do, as quasi-friends of some on the Right. Rather, this is a personal memoir of Ernst von Salomon’s growing up in the 1920s, and follows his life, of which Freikorps conflict inside Germany was a small part. The book instead narrates his participation in postwar government-sponsored Freikorps fighting defending the Baltic Germans; his involvement in the assassination of Walther Rathenau, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic; and his resulting time in prison. All of these are surrounded by the introspective reflections of a right-wing German of 1930, which is what makes them interesting.

Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Barry Strauss)

The Roman Empire, or at least the western Roman Empire, is a history of decline, as we all know. But not linear decline, and that matters. Ten Caesars, the latest offering from the always-excellent Barry Strauss, profiles the ten most consequential Roman emperors, narrating the ups and downs of the empire they ruled. Strauss’s book is capsule history, a chapter-by-chapter summary of the profiled emperors, offering facts without many larger explicit conclusions, so there is little new here for anyone with even passing knowledge of the Empire. Think of it, then, as a refresher course.

Lord of All the Dead (Javier Cercas)

Years ago, I lived in Budapest with an elderly Hungarian relative, my grandfather’s cousin. She had lived through World War II as a young woman. One day, as we were eating lunch, she reminisced about the Russian invasion and conquest of Hungary in 1945, which she survived. She looked at me and said (in Hungarian), “Always remember, when you are grown and are a powerful man, that war is a terrible thing.” We all know this, but it is easy to forget the personal impact of war—both on soldiers and on everyone else in a society. This uneven book is a reminder of those costs, and an opportunity to ponder when they are worth paying, as civil war slouches ever closer to us.