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review 2017-02-20 16:34
Fighting for peace
American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Politics and Culture in Modern America) - Leilah Danielson

Though Abraham Johannes Muste is best remembered today as one of the leading activists against America's involvement in Vietnam, this was merely the culmination of a long career fighting for causes defined by the events of the century. An intellectually precocious young man who emigrated with his family to America from the Netherlands while still a child, he was a successful minister until America's entry into the First World War led him to focus on activism rather than his pastorate. After the war he shifted his attention towards labor organization and education, culminating in a failed attempt to establish a working-class party during the Great Depression. Returning to his pacifist roots on the eve of the Second World War, he broadened his activism after the conflict to include anti-nuclear protests and civil rights advocacy before he spent his final years campaigning against the Vietnam War, inspiring a new generation of activists in the process.


Muste spent much of his life not just fighting for his beliefs but writing about them as well. This is best reflected in Leilah Danielson's excellent biography of him, which at its core is a study of his ideas about activism and how they motivated his campaigns. This allows her to chart the development of his views, from those of a young Dutch Reformed minister to his subsequent embrace of Christian Socialism, his flirtation with Marxism-Leninism, and his constant commitment to pacifism. In doing so, Danielson places Muste with the context of the developing ideas of his time, showing how he was influenced by Gandhian concepts of nonviolence and how, in turn, he sought to pass along those ideas in adapted form to both the antiwar movement at home and to the national liberation movements in Africa. While acknowledging the limits of Muste's influence, she nonetheless shows how he was at the forefront of radical change throughout his lifetime. For anyone who wishes to understand his role in these movements and his legacy for us today, this is the book to read.

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review 2017-02-15 22:09
The Secret History of Wonder Woman
The Secret History of Wonder Woman - Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is an interesting read - it has great ideas about the history of American feminism, and why it's been grinding gears since the 1970s in many ways, but what it does do, and do well, is take a look at "First Wave" feminism, and at William Moulton Marston.


And who was he? 


He was the creator of Wonder Woman.


And he was a very strange man.  And his most famous creation reflects him in many ways.


William Moulton Marston headed off to Harvard just as the battle for woman suffrage was getting very heated in the US.  Ironically, the women voters in those states which allowed it re-elected Woodrow Wilson in the exceptionally tight presidential election of 1916.  (Without the female vote in a handful of states, America elects Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes instead.)  Margaret Sanger and her sister, Edith Byrne, found the organization that would become Planned Parenthood.  Alice Paul's American suffragettes are chaining themselves to the White House gates. NAWSA is leading the charge for the 20th Amendment - the woman suffrage amendment.


While a Harvard undergraduate, studying psychology, he invented a lie detector (based on blood pressure readings), but failed to patent it.  He married the girl down the street, Elizabeth Holloway, and they both went to law school (he at Harvard, she at Boston University - because "those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn't take women"). After law school, he also got a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard, and went off to the academic world, where he taught psychology at places like Columbia and Tufts.  (Elizabeth Holloway, who got the M.A., but may have done most of the work for Marston's Ph.D, went to work for companies like Encyclopedia Britannica, McCalls magazine, or Metropolitan Life Insurance.) 


At Tufts he met Margaret Sanger's niece, Olive Byrne, and after she graduated, gave his wife an ultimatum: either they all three lived together as a threesome, or he would leave her.


She chose to stay.


Marston, who truly did think of himself as a feminist, certainly did not live in a matriarchy.  One wife, Elizabeth, worked twelve hours a day in Manhattan, supporting the entire family.  The other, Olive Byrne (they explained her presence as "their widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Richard"), raised the four children the women had by Marston.  When she was not writing puff pieces about Marston in Family Circle.  Marston, meanwhile, hung around the house, mostly in his underwear, only dressing up for the occasional client visit.  (He had been blacklisted from academics, for a combination of his very esoteric psychological theories and the rumors about his sex life, and had then failed to make a success of himself in Hollywood.)  His attempts to get the FBI interested in his lie detector only succeeded in getting J. Edgar Hoover to open a file on him.


And then, as the 30s turned into the 40s, he noticed that Americans were reading an insane number of comic books, and saw his opportunity.


And he created Wonder Woman.


The first female superhero.  A feminist role model.  And also a reflection of some of Marston's other interests - she's almost as interested in detecting lies as he was, for one thing.  She's kind of kinky.  (He got a ton of interesting fan letters.)  And she was an enormous success.


She hit hard times, however, when Marston died in 1947.  She was given to writers who either didn't know or didn't care what her backstory was, and were certainly not feminists.  The strip's "Wonder Women of History" segment was abruptly cancelled.


By the late 1960s, she had been remodeled into a shadow of Emma Peel, and lost her superpowers.


And then she was reclaimed by "Second Wave" feminists, like Gloria Steinem.  ABC television came calling.


Meanwhile, American feminism splintered, and 1972, and the launch of Ms. magazine, with Wonder Woman on the cover, was the high ground never to be recovered.


And, Lepore claims, that's all Wonder Woman's fault.  Having set out to prove that Wonder Woman was molded by American feminism, and, I would say, having done so, she fails to prove (and doesn't really try) to prove that Wonder Woman then molded American feminism in her own image. 


Like I said, she makes the argument, but presents no evidence that I would call substantial.  Ms. debuted with Wonder Woman on the cover, yes.  But that doesn't mean that American feminism was now being modeled on Wonder Woman.  Frankly, Wonder Woman is a strong image (what American doesn't recognize her?), and that's what a magazine always wants for its cover - a punchy graphic that makes a statement.


Lepore provides almost fulsome detail about anything connected with Marston.  He led a fascinating life.  The material on Wonder Woman, and on American feminism, after Marston's death is almost perfunctory.


Lepore got access from DC Comics, as well as permission to use, copious numbers of illustrations from 1940s Wonder Woman strips.  They make fascinating viewing.

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review 2017-02-11 14:24
William Henry Harrison and his place in American history
William Henry Harrison and the Conquest of the Ohio Country: Frontier Fighting in the War of 1812 - David Curtis Skaggs

William Henry Harrison is unusual among American presidents in that his career before becoming president was far more important to history than his presidency. While the abbreviated tenure in the office (a mere 31 days) was undoubtedly a factor in this, it would have been difficult for him to have improved on his pre-presidential achievements even if he had served a full term in the White House. For as David Curtis Skaggs demonstrates in his study of Harrison's military career, it is thanks to him that the United States did not lose the territory of the upper Midwest to after the War of 1812.


As Skaggs reveals, this was merely the culmination of a distinguished period under arms. The third son of a Tidewater aristocrat, Harrison deferred to his father's wishes and initially pursued a medical career. The elder Harrison's death freed William to abandon his studies and join the United States Army. After a period of service on the frontier under the command of General Anthony Wayne, Harrison transitioned into politics, serving as the governor of Indiana Territory for over a decade. In this position he was at the forefront of the government's efforts to deal with the Native Americans, with Harrison's victory over the confederation at the battle of Tippecanoe breaking the back of independent native resistance to American settlement.


Yet it was Harrison's victory over British forces in the War of 1812 that would prove more important. Early successes by British forces gave them dominance in much of the Great Lakes region, jeopardizing American claims to the territory. Though the British aspired to create a  Native American "buffer state" in the region between the United States and Canada, successive American victories culminating in the defeat of retreating British troops and their Native American allies at the battle of the Thames effectively ended such plans. Here Skaggs emphasizes the importance of the unusual partnership between Harrison and Oliver Hazard Perry, which he argues was an unusual example of Army-Navy cooperation and a critical factor in the success of American arms in the region.


Extensively researched and convincingly argued, Skaggs's book is an excellent study of Harrison's often underappreciated military career. It benefits greatly from the expansiveness of Skaggs's analysis, which highlights the scope of Harrison's achievements by setting them within the context of the era. By explaining such matters as the debates over Indian policy, the politics of command, and the logistical challenges of frontier warfare, he emphasizes the many challenges Harrison overcame in achieving his successes. Anyone seeking to better understand Harrison and his role in the War of 1812 would do well to start with this book, which gives the general his due as a successful commander and a pivotal figure in American history.

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review 2017-02-06 15:38
My thirty-fourth podcast is up!
The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane (The Oklahoma Western Biographies) - Richard W. Etulain

My thirty-fourth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Richard Etulain about his biography (which I reviewed here) of the Wild West celebrity Calamity Jane Enjoy!

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review 2017-02-03 15:37
New warships for a new era
American Battleships, 1886-1923: Predreadnought Design and Construction - John C. Reilly Jr.

In the 1880s the United States Navy embarked upon a new course, as decades of strategy were abandoned in favor of a new approach. Increasingly the traditional strategy of a navy based on commerce raiding and defense was abandoned in favor of one that followed the European focus on a battle fleet designed to win and maintain control of the seas. At the heart of this strategy was the battleship, which was undergoing a radical transformation of its own as new technologies outdated existing designs at an almost dizzying pace.


John Reilly and Robert Scheina's book charts the interaction and impact of these twin changes on the designs of battleships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Staring with the stand-alone classes of the Maine (which was classified as an armored cruiser) and Texas (the first true battleship), they describe the development of the various battleships built prior to the introduction of the revolutionary Dreadnought design that effectively rendered these ships obsolete -- in some cases even prior to their commissioning. In the process, they explain the evolution of design orthodoxy, the adaptations made with each successive class, and the elements in the ships that proved successful or were regarded as failures.


Carefully detailed and generously supplemented with a wealth of blueprints, schematics, and photographs, Reilly and Scheina's book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the subject. It is a book that is rewarding reading not just for naval history buffs but for anyone interested in an important aspect of the evolution of America's role in the world, as the authors address not just the technical elements but the changing missions for the ships and the adaptations that those demands made upon their designs. For those who want to learn about how America began embracing its potential as a world power, this is a book that cannot be overlooked.

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