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Friday, March 29, 2013

General Henry Halleck writes to General Ulysses Grant: “The North must conquer the slave oligarchy or become slaves themselves”

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series just arrived from the printer this past week and will be in bookstores on May 2.

On March 31, 1863, Henry W. Halleck wrote an “unofficial letter” to Ulysses S. Grant “as a personal friend and as a matter of friendly advice.”1 As is often the case in communications between a superior and his subordinate—Halleck was general-in-chief of the Union army, Grant the commander of the Army of Tennessee—the “friendly advice” concerned serious matters: the policy of the Lincoln administration toward slavery and emancipation, the obligation of military officers to faithfully execute government policy, and the essential nature of the war against the Confederacy.

From the beginning of the conflict slaves had sought freedom by seeking refuge with the Union army. In May 1861 General Benjamin F. Butler made the ad hoc decision to shelter fugitives who fled to Union lines from their work on Confederate fortifications. His actions received legislative endorsement in August of that year when Congress passed a confiscation act emancipating slaves being used to militarily aid the rebellion. But the confiscation act provided no guidance as to how the army should treat fugitives from the border states, or escaped slaves from the seceded states whose owners professed loyalty to the Union. In March 1862 Congress adopted a new article of war prohibiting military and naval officers from returning fugitives.

Left unresolved was the question of whether the army should actively encourage slaves to come within its lines, or to what extent the Union should embrace emancipation as a means of war. Many conservatives officers abhorred the notion of waging war against slavery. In a letter he presented to President Lincoln on July 8, 1862, George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, insisted that “the forcible abolition of slavery” should not “be contemplated for a moment,” and warned that any “declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.” The war, McClellan wrote, “should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations.”2 When Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan described it as “inaugurating servile war” in a letter to a prominent New York Democrat.3

Halleck, unlike McClellan, accepted the necessity of emancipation as a war measure, and wanted to make sure that Grant accepted it as well. Believing that his army could neither provide for nor safely transport black refugees, Grant had issued orders on February 12, 1863, prohibiting them from coming into the Union camps along the Mississippi near Vicksburg. In his “unofficial letter,” Halleck bluntly expressed what the administration now expected: “It is the policy of the Government to withdraw from the enemy as much productive labor as possible. So long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains, &c., they can employ all the whites in the field. Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is equivalent to a white man put hors de combat.” Grant was to “withdraw from the use of the enemy all the slaves you can,” and to employ them as laborers, teamsters, cooks, and, “as far as practicable,” as soldiers.4 It was Grant’s responsibility to see that administration policy was carried out, irrespective of the personal opinions of the officers under his command, and to appreciate the urgent nature of the struggle they were now engaged in:
The character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels. The Union party in the South is virtually destroyed. There can be no peace but that which is forced by the sword. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. The North must conquer the slave oligarchy or become slaves themselves—the manufacturers mere “hewers of wood and drawers of water” to Southern aristocrats.5
Grant complied with Halleck’s directives, reversing his earlier instructions excluding fugitives from the army lines and energetically assisting Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in his efforts to recruit black troops in the Mississippi Valley. Unlike McClellan, Grant increasingly understood that the Confederacy could not be defeated by a war waged purely “against armed forces and political organizations,” but only by a war aimed at the foundations of southern society.

1 Henry W. Halleck to Ulysses S. Grant, March 31, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 107.
2 George B. McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, July 7, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 307–08.
3 George B. McClellan to William H. Aspinwall, September 26, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year, 540.
4 Henry W. Halleck to Ulysses S. Grant, March 31, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 105–06.
5 Ibid., 106.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Having Roth's Cake and Eating It Too

Above is the elaborate birthday cake created for Philip Roth's 80th birthday celebration at the Newark Museum this past Tuesday.

The event was recapped by Charles McGrath in The New York Times:
On Tuesday evening, before the cake cutting, fellow writers spoke in praise of Mr. Roth in the museum auditorium. The novelist Jonathan Lethem compared a love of Mr. Roth’s work to a kind of illness, “a long readerly sickness,” and he said that all those in the auditorium were his “fellow-sanatorium inmates.” Hermione Lee, the scholar and biographer, talked about Shakespearean themes in Roth, and Alain Finkielkraut, the French philosopher spoke about the tragedy of chance and randomness in Mr. Roth’s novel Nemesis.
In time for his birthday celebration, The Library of America recently completed the definitive nine-volume edition of his works. This Saturday morning, NPR’s Weekend Edition will broadcast host Scott Simon’s interview with Philip Roth.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blake Bailey on “the versatility and breadth of achievement” of Philip Roth’s fiction and the challenge of writing his biography

Photograph by Mary Brinkmeyer
Last September Blake Bailey (the prize-winning biographer of Richard Yates and John Cheever) announced that he had agreed to write Philip Roth’s authorized biography, with unfettered access to the writer’s archives and correspondence. To commemorate the publication of the last two volumes of The Library of America’s definitive Philip Roth edition (Novels 2001–2007 and Nemeses), he spoke with us recently about Roth’s later works and how he will—and will not—approach the task of writing the biography.

Philip Roth’s career has been marked by a remarkable series of reinventions and transformations: the great breakthrough of Portnoy’s Complaint in the late 60s, the Zuckerman trilogy/epilogue in the late 70s and 80s, the masterpiece Sabbath’s Theater, the American Trilogy in the late 90s. Amazingly, at the age of sixty-eight, he then goes on in the next ten years to write the seven books published in these two Library of America volumes. What do you make of this accomplishment, and what in American or world letters would you compare with it?

In terms of versatility and breadth of achievement, I don’t think there is much to compare it with. Saul Bellow evolved in interesting ways over the course of his career, but once he hit his stride with The Adventures of Augie March, the style of his mature work was consistently, recognizably Bellovian. Cheever’s work changed remarkably—largely for the better—over the course of his long career: reading The Stories of John Cheever, Bellow remarked that he could “see the transformation taking place on the printed page.”

Then there’s Roth. Six years ago, The New York Times Book Review canvassed some two hundred “writers, critics, editors, and other literary sages,” asking them to identify the “single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years.” Six of the twenty-two books selected for the final list were written by Roth: Operation Shylock, The Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. But of course Roth’s career extends—in both directions—well beyond the twenty-five years prescribed by the Times survey, and includes arguably his two most famous (if not his best) books, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). That first book is a delightful satire about Jewish suburban life at mid-century, but one could hardly predict, reading it, that its author would go on to write such incisive and essentially tragic novels as American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and Everyman.

The Library of America volume Nemeses gathers the four short novels Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis together for the first time as a single work, as Roth conceived them. How do you see this work in relation to what comes before, for example to the Zuckerman quartet and American Trilogy?

Mostly as a tightening of the lens on Roth’s part. The first and last books of the Zuckerman quartet, The Ghost Writer and The Prague Orgy, are shorter than most of the novels in the Nemeses group, but are very much components of a larger work—a work that was always conceived with the ending in mind: namely, Zuckerman’s discovery of the plight of dissident writers in Czechoslovakia, where literature is all the more potent because it’s repressed by the state, which of course forces Zuckerman to reconsider his own travails in terms of a global perspective. The American Trilogy features non-literary protagonists who all, in different ways, run afoul of the insidious forces of postwar American life, from McCarthyism to its ironical, latter-day equivalent, political correctness, and of course the canvas of each novel is vast. The Nemeses books focus on how a particular character responds to certain aspects of his mortality; time and place are important, of course—especially in the cases of Indignation and Nemesis—but mostly serve as a framework for the hero’s solitary predicament. Oh, and some say the Nemeses books lack the usual Rothian humor, but I’m not sure I agree. The humor’s there, all right, but more quietly so.

What do you make of Roth’s surprising venture, in A Plot Against America, into “alternative history,” a genre that isn’t often the domain of literary novelists. What do you think attracted him to this genre?

Roth remembers his childhood in the Weequahic section of Newark as mostly idyllic. The neighborhood was almost entirely Jewish, all his friends lived nearby and would gather at his house, which his kindly, competent parents made a very gemütlich place to visit. Also, Weequahic High School was one of the best in the state: full of high-achieving, second-generation Jewish kids who were eager to make their doting parents proud of them. Later, as Roth became more aware of rabid anti-Semitism (not to say the insecurity it provoked in Jews of his parents’ generation), I think he appreciated all the more just how fortunate a childhood he’d had, and how tenuous it was in many ways. Charles Lindbergh was an anti-Semite who openly chided the Jews for getting America into the war; he was a national hero who was especially admired by his fellow isolationists on the right. The pervasive anti-Semitism of war-time America was a potential tinderbox that certain demagogues such as the despicable Father Coughlin, say, might have liked to ignite. So what if the match had been struck by a Lindbergh presidency? It’s an irresistible question, and we should be grateful our greatest living novelist saw fit to address it. 

Do you have a personal favorite among these late works?

I’m very partial to Everyman. A masterpiece, I think.

What do you think about Philip Roth’s announcement of his retirement?

I’m happy because I think he’s happy. As recently as five years ago, retirement would have been out of the question because he still had another two or three books he wanted to write. Now he’s finished, and he has a mountain of richly deserved laurels to rest on. He’s earned the chance to be dans le vrai, as his beloved Flaubert would have it.

As a biographer, how do you compete with a writer who has so thoroughly and brilliantly transmuted his life into his work? And how do you feel about the rather unflattering portrayal of biographer Richard Kliman in Exit Ghost? There’s a sense in that book that biographers can overstep their bounds, and that to do so is a kind of ethical offense, an outrage even. Does this make you nervous?

No, it doesn’t make me nervous at all. Whatever my other faults, I’m not the kind of biographer that Kliman is. Kliman takes hold of a rumor that he thinks will explain everything, the life and the work, and it’s a nasty little rumor—that E. I. Lonoff, Zuckerman’s revered mentor, had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. Whether this is true or not is beside the point: no human life—much less that of a great artist—can be explained with a single theory, a nasty little rumor, that becomes for people like Kliman a strand to which everything else is attached, and what can’t be attached is swept under the rug. The result is a lot of tendentious psychobabble, and Roth despises psychobabble and pat conclusions very much in general. What I try to do as a biographer is learn everything, or anyway as much as possible, and then determine what the main themes (plural) are, and how they relate (if at all) to the work and vice versa. The themes are multifarious, the contradictions are vast, and to what extent can they be resolved? That’s the good biographer’s task. As for “competing” with Roth, I’m doing nothing of the sort. It’s apples and oranges. As you say, he “transmuted” his life into the work, and if anything I’m doing the opposite.

Roth will celebrate his eightieth birthday this month in Newark, the city that may be the essential touchstone of his career. What does Newark tell us about Roth, and what does Philip Roth’s Newark tell us about America? 

Plenty, as I hope more and more readers will discover in the centuries ahead. For now, let us all pause a moment on March 19 and raise a glass to Philip Roth on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. He has gotten his work done, and the world is a better place for it.
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