It is an open question whether history as it comes down to us, with all its political and psychological overlays, has something useful to teach us about our own affairs. What is not in dispute about history, though, is its power to entertain and inspire us with its myths and stories. In this regard, the four annals considered here are all enormously satisfying and thought-provoking—maybe even instructive.
MAKING HISTORY BY HAND
As director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor had only to look around him to find the exemplary artifacts he discusses in A History of the World in 100 Objects. The oldest is a stone chopping tool discovered in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and estimated to be between 1.8 and 2 million years old, while the newest is a solar-powered light and charger made in China in 2010. Each object is illustrated in color and explained by MacGregor in essays that manage to be both scholarly and conversational in tone. Embedded within certain of these essays are additional wise commentaries from the likes of David Attenborough, Martin Amis, Yo Yo Ma, Karen Armstrong and Seamus Heaney.
Not surprisingly, most of the objects cited are from the large civilization centers of Europe, Africa and Asia. But there are also ones from less bustling locations: a Clovis spear point from Arizona, a pestle from New Guinea, a textile fragment from Peru, a bark shield from Australia. The choices here will no doubt spur arguments about significance (was the Hawaiian feather helmet really symbolic of human development?), omissions (where is the can of Spam? the Swiss pocket knife?) and political correctness (is the Suffragette-defaced penny anything more than an oddity?). But, then, isn’t raising issues the best part of reading histories?
WHEN IN ROME
The congenitally combative art critic Robert Hughes began his long love affair with Rome on his first visit there in 1959. In Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, he undertakes the gargantuan task of chronicling more than 3,000 years of myths, battles, political intrigues, religious upheavals and, most dear to him, art in its infinite manifestations. He begins his account in the mists of prehistory and carries it forward to what he sees as Rome’s present condition—a pestilential tourist beehive in which art is viewed and checked off one’s list rather than savored.
No figure is too transient, no artifact too trivial and no political movement too bizarre to merit Hughes’ attention as he strides those city streets through the ages. His descriptions are sharp and vivid. Of the battle at Cannae between the Carthaginian Hannibal’s troops and Roman soldiers, he writes, “Roman losses in a single day at Cannae were almost as great as American combat losses (58,000) in the Vietnam War. And it all happened within about nine hours on a late-spring or early-summer day, blindingly hot, fogged with the clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of men in their relentless, terminal struggle.”
Although his prose often has a working man’s swagger to it, Hughes can become lyrical given the right stimulus. Recalling the Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in nearby Umbria, he says, “There is no town around it; it simply emerges from the earth, flooded with light inside. No mosaics, no statuary, no gilt, no marble: only strong, ideal geometrical form. To have such an interior to oneself, in the light of a spring morning, is to grasp a fleeting sense of what Dante meant—‘luce, intellettual, piena d’amore’: the light of the mind, suffused with love.”
SEEING THE CIVIL WAR ANEW
Margaret E. Wagner’s The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War is a real factual and pictorial treasure. Illustrated by more than 350 photographs, drawings, editorial cartoons, maps, handbills and manuscript reproductions (many in color), the book begins on February 4, 1861, when representatives from six secessionist states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a Confederate government, and ends on May 29, 1865, when newly elevated President Andrew Johnson grants amnesties or pardons to most of those who rebelled against the Union.
All the entries are brief, so the accounts of skirmishes and battles are necessarily summaries. But the length is perfect for anecdotes that reveal the human side of the war, such as this one from October 15, 1863: “Inventor H. L. Hunley is among eight men who die when the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sinks (for the second time; see August 29, 1863) during a practice dive in Charleston Harbor.” Or take this missive for February 10, 1864: “When flames are spotted at the president’s stables near the White House, Abraham Lincoln dashes outside, leaping over an intervening boxwood hedge ‘like a deer’ . . . and ‘with his own hands burst open the stable door.’ ” Lincoln was restrained from entering the building, and the fire killed six horses, including one that had belonged to his deceased son.
The book’s illustrations are large, fully captioned and powerfully narrative in their own right. Among the curiosities depicted are a drawing from a surgery manual showing how to amputate a leg; a printed envelope bearing the likeness of Lincoln’s reluctant general, George B. McClellan, and identifying him as “The Bag of Wind”; and a letter written by Jefferson Davis’ secretary with lines running both across and up and down the page to save precious paper. It is hard to imagine a more accessible survey of the Civil War than this one.
500 YEARS OF BLACK HISTORY
Strange as it may seem now, as recently as 50 years ago, textbooks on American history barely touched on the contributions of African Americans. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s stirring collection, Life Upon These Shores, is a chronicle of important figures and events that were long overlooked, forgotten or ignored. He begins in 1513, when Vasco Núñez de Balboa first sighted the Pacific Ocean at the Isthmus of Panama, with 30 Africans among his party. Just over 100 years later, in 1619, the first shipment of slaves to America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The terminus of Gates’ survey, naturally enough, is the election of America’s first black president.
Illustrated with more than 750 drawings, paintings and photographs, the book offers little historical vignettes much like those in an encyclopedia, except that these entries are in chronological rather than alphabetical order. The recurring themes—as Gates presents them in his measured, conversational tone—are resistance, persistence, imagination, self-help and thwarted attempts at assimilation.
Perhaps because it has been so minutely anatomized elsewhere, Gates devotes only a few pages to the Civil War proper, concentrating instead on events leading up to the war and the devastating Reconstruction period that followed. In the modern era, he pays much attention to the influence of African Americans on the arts and popular culture—from Duke Ellington and Richard Wright to Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey. He also illuminates political conflicts within the African-American community via snapshots of such volatile figures as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Farrakhan and Clarence Thomas, and summarizes the achievements of African Americans in municipal, state and national politics. One may quibble with his omissions, but Gates’ task here is truly Herculean, and he has handled it superbly.