icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Quite the World, Isn't It?

On labor rights, civil liberties, and violence

Part of the interesting and engaged crowd at the La Veta Public Library. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I’m midway through a week of speaking engagements in Colorado, and as is usual with such things, I’m probably getting more out of the audiences than they are getting from me.

In two talks so far (one at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the other at the La Veta Public Library) we wandered down a new avenue: What was the role of the easy availability of weapons in the escalation of the violence here in southern Colorado 100 years ago? Was the ability of the striking coal miners to amass rifles and use them against the corrupted National Guard an example for the pro-gun lobby’s argument that the Second Amendment enables citizens to defend themselves against a tyrannical government? Or was easy access to the weapons the reason so many people – at least 75 – died in the conflict?

I think the second is the answer. For those not familiar, in September 1913 thousands of southern Colorado coal miners walked out on strike after coal operators refused to negotiate over a list of workers’ demands, topped by recognizing the United Mine Workers as the miners’ union. In that era, the coal operators wielded incredible political and economic power in the state, and as the strike evolved the coal operators and the government seemed, from the perspective of the strikers, to have merged into one force arrayed against them (the local courts were corrupt; constitutional protections against search and seizure and other basic liberties were usurped; state laws governing mine safety and wages were ignored, etc.).

So the miners walked out, a strike that began in an atmosphere of violence (one union organizer was killed before the strike even began) that surged and ebbed until the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre, in which eleven children and two mothers died in a fire that swept through the Ludlow tent colony. Those deaths launched ten days of revenge by rampaging union supporters who attained control of most of the Front Range from the New Mexico border to near Denver. The miners and their supporters didn’t stand down until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the U.S. army as a peacekeeping force, and the irredeemably compromised National Guard retreated from the field.

In my view (which I argue in my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West), the miners were freedom fighters standing up against the corrupt political and economic system. But as we've been discussing this week, in the end the violence achieved no tangible gains. Life in the mines continued, and the strike concluded with a whimper in December without achieving the main goal: Union recognition. Ultimately, the state court ended the corruption in Huerfano County, one of two centers of the worst of the strike violence, and voters ousted the incompetent governor who had lost control of the National Guard and the state, in an election that shifted the base of political power away from the coal operators.

So it was democracy, not the availability of guns, that ultimately prevailed.

And that was only one slice of the discussions we’ve been having. The Colorado Springs Independent posted/published a Q&A with me about Ludlow, which also lists the rest of the week’s talks. If you’re in Colorado, come join us. Read More 
Post a comment

My favorite day to open the mail

When the newest book comes in from my publisher.

Copies of The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones should start shipping to stores and online retailers soon, ahead of the official May 1 publication date. Click over to the events page for details on a couple of D.C.-area events coming up in mid May, one at Politics & Prose, and the other at the Annapolis Bookstore.

Also, for you Coloradoans, I'll be in the state in a couple of weeks for a series of events marking the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion. I'm hoping to see a lot of old friends and acquaintances on both trips - and, of course, to sell a few books. Read More 
Be the first to comment

On Bob Mould's 25-year-old "Workbook"

The Post Office was good to me twice this week (I already posted about the box of paperbacks): The 25th anniversary remaster of Bob Mould’s “Workbook” album, with a second disk of a live recording of the album and some other songs, as well.

Music comes and goes, especially pop and rock, but this is one of those albums that has stuck with me over the years. I was a middling fan of Husker Du, Mould’s first band, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the sheer mass of noise they created. Maybe not repelled – challenged is a better word. It was music that took work to listen to, to find the threads of melody through the controlled chaos and remarkably dense sound created by a three-man band. Cathartic, yes, but catharsis is never easy now, is it?

Then Husker Du broke up – atomized, really – and Mould disappeared for a few months and suddenly “Workbook” was out. I remember tossing the album on the turntable and hearing the first few notes of acoustic guitar on the opening track, ”Sunspots,” repeat and build at the same time into a mesmerizing solo display that Mould never would have done with Husker Du. This was new, and different, and he was clearly making a musical break from the past. It was transition as statement.

Then came the other tracks, harder-edged, plugged-in, driving and evocative at the same time. And intimate, as in “I See A Little Light,” which her performs in the video below:

As I said, pop and rock music fades quickly. But not this album. It remains as strong and fresh as when Mould first recorded it, and is still on my high rotation” list. It should be on your, too. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Detroit: A Biography out in paperback with a new Afterword

So I arrived home yesterday after the long slog on the train from Los Angeles and found a box delivered to the house. Part of the contents is pictured at left.

Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.

The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.

Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.

As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.


October 2013

Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.

This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ...  Read More 
Be the first to comment

On John Hay's peculiar history, and a book review

In writing The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, I got to spend some research time on the life of John Hay, who was the U.S. secretary of state when Ambassador Horace Porter, the main focus of the book, finally recovered the naval hero's body. I was already familiar with Hay, and was glad to learn more about his remarkable life, which included friendships with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, three of our four assasssinated presidents.

So I jumped at the chance to review Joshua Zeitz's fine new book, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image, a review that just went live on the Los Angeles Times website and should be in the print edition this Sunday. From the review:
Sometimes political careers are born of chance.

John Nicolay and John Hay were two young men working in Springfield, Ill., when they became involved with the political life of Abraham Lincoln before his 1860 U.S. presidential campaign. Tireless and smart, the friends, still in their 20s, proved themselves indispensable to Lincoln, who brought them along with him to the White House as his personal secretaries — in effect, the president's gatekeepers.

In his new book, "Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," author Joshua Zeitz skillfully recounts what were heady days for Nicolay and Hay, even as they were tragic days for the nation. The friends lived in the White House and wielded considerable power as advisors and conduits of Lincoln's orders. Over the four years of the Lincoln presidency, they had as good a view of the unfolding Civil War battles — both military and political — as Lincoln himself.

And after the assassination, the friends tasked themselves with chronicling Lincoln's life, leading to publication of the 10-volume"Lincoln: A History." The series and the related "Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works" co-edited by the two men remain part of the foundation for how modern Americans view the nation's 16th president. Or, as Zeitz phrases it, the creation of the "Lincoln Memorial Lincoln."
It's a fascinating work, a hybrid of traditional biography and historical storytelling. And with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death coming up in 2015, there will be a lot more books on that era popping up in bookstores.

Including one by me. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First let's get The Admiral and the Ambassador launched in May ... Read More 
Be the first to comment

A review, and a new gig

The text you type here will appear directly below the image
This weekend's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Greg Grandin's very good new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which builds off the story of a single repressed slave revolt into a thoughtful revisitation to the spread of slavery in South America. The review runs in the Sunday paper (already available online here).

The timing is coincidental, but it's fun that the review appears in the newspaper the day before I start my new job as an editorial writer for the LA Times, returning to the paper and full-time work for the first time since 2008. More about that momentarily.

Grandin's book, I note in the review, is more than a simple history:
He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"


At one point, Grandin compares Melville's Ahab from "Moby-Dick" with Delano. Where Ahab has become "synonymous with ruin" in the pursuit of obsession, Delano "represents a more common form of modern authority." As the captain of a seal ship that can find no seals (they'd been hunted to near-extinction), Delano struggles in a rapidly changing market under pressure from creditors and financiers to turn a profit. Abandoned by its captain, the Tryal is a prize to capture and sell — ship, stock and slave cargo included.

"Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism … happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them."

The review is the last I've done as a freelance writer, though I expect to continue reviewing after I start back at the LA Times, a move that I'm looking forward to. As much as I enjoy the freelance life - particularly the control over my own time and projects - I'm drawn to this fresh challenge of writing editorials. It is one of the few things in newspapers I haven't tried yet, and after working in near-solitude for so long it will be an interesting change of pace to become part of an editorial board, and join in the give-and-take of coming to a consensus on some of the key issues of the day.

And I also expect to keep writing books, though at a slower pace. My The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones comes out in May, and I'm coming up on the midway point of another book I'm keeping under wraps for the moment, which will come out in 2015. When it does, that will make five books of history published in a span of eight years. So expect a gap after the fifth book comes out.

Meanwhile, I hope to announce in a few weeks book tour plans for Th Admiral and the Ambassador come May, a story I'm very excited to have written about. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Happy Holidays!

The annual Holiday video ....
Post a comment

Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks ....

Thank you.

That's about as succinct as I can get. Over the past six years I've published three books - the fourth will be out in the Spring and I'm working on a fifth - and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful that I'm able to do this work. ... Well, some days I'm more thankful than others (when the words are plopping lifelessly on the page, not so much). But it is a very satisfying way to live, and for that freedom I'm thankful to my wife, Margaret, and, of course, to you readers, without whom these books would just be trees falling in the forest.

And I'm also thankful for my agent, Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich, and the editors and production staffs at Chicago Review Press, my current publisher, and Rutgers University Press, which brought out my first two books.

And archivists. And librarians. And bookstore owners and clerks.

And critics (well, most of them). So let me finish with a very pleasing snippet from a "year in books" article this week in Detroit's alternative weekly, the Metro Times:
But judging by this year’s Detroitica, publishing has brought out a line of books trading off Detroit’s unchallenged status as poster child for the Rust Belt. Call it literary ruin porn, call it paratrooper journalism, call it what you will, but all the book deals have landed on doorsteps outside the city proper. And unlike yesteryear’s chroniclers of the Detroit experience — with their limited talents but warm fondess for the city — these authors seem more opportunistic.

If so, that’s because Detroit is vested suddenly with what ad men call “branding power.” Already a contested territory, this new “Detroit” is more up for grabs than ever. Now it’s besieged by media folks hoping to make a buck off it. All year, we’ve seen accounts of Detroit by carpetbagging feature writers, TV clowns, drive-by documentarians and so many other hucksters that it makes you long for the days when journalists only flew in for the Detroit Auto Show.

The only truly insightful book of the last year, based on decades of experience here, was Scott Martelle’s achievement Detroit: A Biography, which should be required reading for all earnest people trying to understand the Detroit of today. Published last year, it accurately tells the story of how Detroit pivoted from the glorious model city of the (mostly white) working class into a hellhole of largely black poverty. For too many metro Detroiters, this is an uncomfortable topic, which is likely why it has been so ignored hereabouts. And Martelle knows what he’s writing about. He worked for a Detroit daily paper for years until his participation in the Detroit newspaper strike and wound up working elsewhere. No doubt today’s dailies would rather happily burble on about books by writers who crossed the picket line that Martelle walked.
Now, go watch some football and eat some turkey....  Read More 
Be the first to comment

On page proofs, and unbridled excitement

There are many stages in the book writing process that carry twinges of excitement, but only a few that really make the heart race. The biggest moment for me is when I open up that box from the publisher and find a stack of the newest book inside. There the abstract - the idea behind the book - finally becomes concrete.

It's there, as a physical thing.

The next closest stage to that is getting the page proofs, and the set for The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, arrived by UPS delivery late yesterday. I'd seen a mockup of the cover, which I posted about a few weeks ago, but pulling that stack of paper out of the shipping box was the first time I had seen the design for the book. And I like it very much. It's clean, no gimmicks or frills, easy on the eye, and fitting for the subject matter.

Now to dive in and double-check the final proofs. Since I've been immersed in another project (details soon, I promise), this process is something akin to reading the book with fresh eyes. I finished the manuscript back in April, and except for quick-reading to answer copy-editor queries, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the book.

I started on the first few pages late last night, and I'm still happy with it, which is nice (Lord help me if I looked at it and thought, yechh). As soon as I shake this head cold, I'll dive into it fully.

You get to dive in sometime in mid-April (pre-orders are already being taken at Amazon, though it's better if you order it through your local independent bookseller). Read More 
Be the first to comment

On Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Bully Pulpit

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.

The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.

While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.
I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right. Read More 
Post a comment