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On My Desk

At the moment I have four books on my desk that are calling for my attention … for somewhat different reasons.

I’ve already mentioned my surprise upon coming across a catalog description for Mark Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction.  Normally one chuckles at what one could call publisher overstatement, although in many cases authors have more than a casual hand in framing promotional material.  In this case, I don’t think the advertising’s misrepresenting the book.  I do think the book misrepresents current scholarly understandings of the nature of the Civil War and whether it deserves to be typed a “total war.”  By offering a certain definition of “total war,” one can set up a strawman that is subject to easy dismissal.  Since the term “total war” has been tossed around rather casually in the literature, this is an easy task.  If one wishes to rest one’s claim to fame upon a rather clever dismantling of a carelessly-employed term, well, that might qualify for brilliance in a first year graduate seminar, but I think one has to do more if one is to advance understanding beyond that.  We shall see.

I’ve been asked to blurb William Marvel’s forthcoming Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862.  This suggests that I should first read what I intend to blurb.  Publishers solicit blurbs as endorsements.  That’s understandable.  Some historians love to give them.  I’m a little more hesitant.  Sometimes I’ll give a blurb, not because I agree with the book, but because I find it provocative.  That would appear to be the case in this instance.  There are spots where Marvel might have realized (or acknowledged) that he was traversing well-worn terrain, but I suspect that to do so might mute claims for the revisionist nature of the work, which I think is unfortunate.  That sort of criticism would be offered in a review: blurbs serve different purposes, although not everyone reads them with the discerning care with which I prepare mine.

I hope you’re reading, Dimitri Rotov.  :)

Also on my desk are Earl Hess’s new study on field fortifications and entrenchments during the Overland Campaign and Christopher J. Einholf’s biography of George H. Thomas.  I’m reviewing Hess’s book for the American Historical Review; I will have more to say about the Einholf biography shortly.  The author has already posted a guest column here, and was met with enthusiasm.  I’m going to be curious as to how folks are going to react to this book.  Einholf’s far more interested in dealing with how Thomas’s roots shaped him and how in turn he’s been forgotten as a Southerner (we tend to honor Lee as a great Virginian, but Thomas, it seems to me, made an equally difficult decision when it came to determining his own ultimate loyalty).  There’s much more here about Thomas on the political issues of the war and Reconstruction, which I happen to think is all to the good.  However, those readers looking forward to a rousing rehash of the Grant-Thomas and Sherman-Thomas debates will be somewhat disappointed, especially some of Thomas’s more rabid partisans.  I’m not completely satisfied with the treatment in all cases, although I hasten to add this isn’t because of his findings: I happen to think that relationships are usually two-way streets, and I have my own reservations about how both Grant and Thomas handled their relationship.  However, at times I find myself looking for the backstory that led Einhorn to offer his version of what happened, which at times strikes me as too brief.  I appreciate his distaste for the nastiness of the tone of the literature on this issue, although, again, sometimes he passes over these events rather quickly, in a narrative that’s almost too flat for my tastes.  By establishing Thomas in a different context, Einhorn may well offer us what I think is ultimately a more rewarding view of Thomas, but I’d like to see what he thinks led to these relationships.     

Comments (6) to “On My Desk”

  1. That’s three, Brooks. What is the fourth?

  2. Neely, Marvel, Hess, Einholf = 4.

    What is it about mathematics that McClellan scholars find so challenging? :)

  3. Right, Hess (which I just got done writing a review of myself); guess I missed it because you didn’t say much about it.

    And if I were doing McClellan math I would have written something more along the lines of: “That’s six . . . What is the tenth?”

  4. Brooks, is it my imagination, or does Marvel write intentionally provocative books, then protest a little too loudly when criticized?


  5. Marc–

    Let’s put it this way … when one sets out to write a deliberately provocative book, one that implicitly or explicitly challenges existing narratives, and one highlights those differences in one’s writing and the promotion of one’s book, one should expect criticism, especially from one’s targets. If one can’t weather such criticism with good grace (provided it be fairly offered), then perhaps one should not prod one’s targets with a sharp stick.

  6. Someone’s already put up a 2/5 review of Neely on Amazon: