My ninety-second podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jeffrey Stewart about his new biography of the early 20th century African American scholar and critic Alain Locke (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
Though regarded as the "dean" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain LeRoy Locke's name is not one that usually comes to mind when most people think of the movement. Yet it was the Philadelphia-born philosopher who provided much of the intellectual framework for it, most notably with his concept of the "New Negro." That Jeffrey Stewart uses the name as the title for his in-depth biography of Locke both highlights its role in defining Locke's legacy and the degree to which it was a product of Locke's own life and experiences.
The only child of middle-class parents, Locke grew up in Gilded Age Philadelphia. Stewart stresses the predominant role Locke's mother Mary played in his life, particularly in inculcating a passion for education. Graduating from Harvard, Locke became a celebrity among African Americans by becoming the nation's first black Rhodes scholar, though he was frustrated in his efforts to complete his degree there. Returning to America, he started teaching at Howard University, moving from education to philosophy after earning his doctorate at Harvard. Yet it was his work on race that would endure, particularly with his promotion of African and African-American culture in both art and literature. Though the Renaissance as a movement declined by the end of the 1920s, Locke had succeeded in redefining African American identity in ways that embraced their heritage while reaffirming its place in American life.
Locke's role in this has long deserved its due, and Stewart has provided it. His biography provides readers with a deeply perceptive study of Locke's life and achievements, one that situates them both within his time and the circumstances of his life. His is especially good at describing the central role Locke's homosexuality played in his life, which is no small achievement considering the degree to which such matters often went unspoken back then. That doing so requires a degree of supposition on Stewart's part is understandable, but his judgments are reasoned and well-argued. Together it makes for a masterful achievement, one that gives Locke the recognition he deserves for his many achievements.
The second volume of Thomas Whigham's history of the Paraguayan War picks up where his previous volume, Causes and Early Conduct, left off, with the forces of the Triple Alliance — Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay — preparing to invade Paraguay after having driven Paraguayan troops out of Argentina. Though the Paraguayans initially checked the Alliance's advance, their defeat at the battle of Tuyuti devastated their army. Yet while the leaders of the Alliance expected such a loss to result in Paraguay's surrender, the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López refused to accept terms which required him to give up his position, thus dooming Paraguay to a drawn-out and destructive defeat.
As Whigham explains, a key factor behind Paraguay's ability to endure for so long was its cohesion as a population. With their nation under attack, López was able to mobilize the population to sustain a seemingly unimaginable war effort. With Paraguay's access to the outside world cut off by an Alliance blockade, the Paraguayans were forced to undertake extraordinary expedients in order to sustain their war effort. Yet not even the total mobilization of their population could overcome the increasingly capable Alliance forces from taking the fortress of Humaitá in 1868 and capturing the Paraguayan capital in the new year. Only with López's death in March 1870, though, did the war finally come to an end, with ramifications to be felt for decades to come.
The product of years of archival labors and writing, Whigham's book is a superb account of a war too often underappreciated in the north. With a narrative that reflects the tragedy (and even absurdity) of the conflict, he captures well its epic nature while analyzing the various factors at work in the conflict, from the command structures to logistics and medical care. Together the two volumes combine to provide readers with the definitive study of the Paraguayan War we have long needed, one that nobody interested in the subject can afford to neglect.
If you ask most Americans to name the most destructive war in history, the answer you are likely to get is the World War II. A good case can be made, though, for awarding that dubious distinction to the Paraguayan War, in which the South American nation fought against the "Triple Alliance" of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, For six years the two sides waged a war that resulted in the deaths of well over half of the Paraguayan population, transforming victor and vanquished in ways that rippled outward for decades.
While the Paraguayan War has received considerable attention from historians in the region, studies of the conflict have usually been constrained by a variety of factors, from nationalist bias to the diffuse nature of the archives and the limited resources available to scholars to undertake the research necessary for a truly comprehensive account. This is one reason why Thomas Whigham's efforts are to be lauded, for he has invested years of study to provide just a work. Through his research in archives on three continents he has brought together a formidable amount of material to detail the events of the war, which he then used to provide the most detailed examination of the conflict ever attempted. He traces its origins to the post-independence politics of the region, where new countries coalesced out of the fragments of Spain and Portugal's New World empires. With boundaries undefined and national identities gestating, disagreements persisted for decades over the shape of these new countries, sowing the seeds for future disputes.
One such area was the Rio de la Plata, where Argentina and Brazil faced off for control. As early as the 1820s the two countries fought each other over the region. The inability of either side to gain the upper hand led to the formation of independent Uruguay in 1828, though this did nothing to deter conflicting Argentinian and Brazilian ambitions in the region. The brief Uruguayan War in 1864 provided an opportunity for Paraguay's ambitious leader, Francisco Solano López, to assert a greater role for his landlocked nation, as he intervened on behalf of the ruling Blanco Party in Uruguay against the Brazilian-supported Colorados. This soon led to war with Brazil, and when Argentina refused to allow Paraguayan troops to transit through their territory López expanded the war to include them as well. Invading Argentina, his forces seized territory in Corrientes and Rio Grande del Sul provinces, yet by the end of 1865 the newly-coalesced Triple Alliance succeeded in driving Paraguay out of the territory they occupied. Whigham concludes his volume with the Triple Alliance preparing for an invasion of Paraguay that, unbeknownst to them, would lead to four more years of warfare and the total occupation of the country.
By carefully detailing the events in the region, Whigham proves a masterful guide to the complex factors behind the war. His account of the early battles are no less accomplished, as he makes excellent use of the surviving accounts to reconstruct the various developments. To fill in the blanks he provides an analysis that is assured and well-informed, helping the reader to understand the reasoning behind his conclusions. All of this makes for an authoritative account of a war, one that is required reading for anyone interested in it or the larger history of post-independence South America.