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Friday, May 31, 2013

Daniel Okrent on Red Smith’s “mastery of anecdote and vividness of expression”

Daniel Okrent, author of several books (most recently, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition), spoke with us about American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, published in May by The Library of America.

What do you admire most about Red Smith as a journalist? as a writer?

His absolute lack of pretension. Smith wrote cleanly, plainly, and directly, in natural language that never relied on flashy effects or inflated syntax. He had the same affect in his reporting: he asked direct questions, which just happened to produce direct answers. And his eye for detail was as acute as a painter’s.

Hemingway paid famous tribute to Red Smith’s writing in “Across the River and Into the Trees,” and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed Smith “the Shakespeare of the press box.” What is it about Smith’s writing that has spoken to other writers and readers through and across so many decades?

More than anything, that it looked so easy. He managed to sound as relaxed and comfortable as an old friend—an old friend whose mastery of anecdote and vividness of expression just happened to be unmatched. I suppose what’s most remarkable is that writing was exceedingly difficult for him, and that what looked so easy was often as not the product of hours of false starts and other discarded efforts.

By taking sports as his subject, did Smith limit his possibilities as a writer?

As a writer, no; I’ll put the quality of his prose up against anybody’s. But as an enduring cultural presence, perhaps—not because he wrote about sports, but because he never wrote a book.

Why do you think the 750-word column was such a congenial form for Smith?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say it worked for him because of fear, two kinds. First, fear of the ever-approaching deadline, which is made even more terrifying by the old dictum, “I don’t have enough time to write short.” Getting everything he had to say into the limited space of a column before running into an unmovable deadline concentrated his mind the way that, oh, a date with a firing squad might. The second form of fear was, I believe, a fear of longer forms. Specifically, the book. He said he never wanted to write one, but I have to believe that, at least in part, he was afraid to venture into new territory.

Why do you think Smith was such a great obituary writer?

Simple: he knew everybody, and he liked most of them.

Smith balked at the prospect of writing an autobiography, and yet his writing imparts such a strong sense of his personality—warm, wry, humane. What were your encounters/interactions like? What do you remember about him?

I knew him slightly, and briefly, late in his life, when I commissioned him to write an essay for a book I edited, The Ultimate Baseball Book. The eight other writers I commissioned were literary figures—Mordecai Richler, John Leonard, George V. Higgins, Wilfrid Sheed, etc. Red was a joy to work with, and he was absolutely giddy about being the only pure sportswriter in a volume of literary heavyweights. Needless to say, they were all thrilled to be associated with him.

One difference: Smith was the only one of the bunch to deliver on time.

Smith wrote about boxing, horse racing, and fishing, among other American sports and pastimes, but he’s most closely associated with baseball. How would you describe Smith’s special connection to baseball? What players and managers were most important to him?

Both baseball and boxing (his two favorites) had that most treasured of attributes for any writer: a clear, unfolding story line. But remember, as well, that when Smith was rising in the sportswriting world, those were the nation’s two biggest games. He seemed to grow attached to football in his late years, but it never approached baseball, especially, in the richness of its milieu, its susceptibility to detailed examination, and its sheer dailiness, that long, slow, everyday-another-game march toward the off-season.

Your most surprising discovery in the course of working on the book?

Just how good he was so early in his career. I started reading Smith in the mid-60s, when he had already been the nation’s number one sportswriter for nearly two decades. What I had never realized is that the rhythms of his prose, the sharpness of his eye, the uncanny ability to come up with an unlikely image to capture a moment or a person—all that was already in place when he was not yet thirty.

Do you have a favorite column/piece in the collection?

Don’t ask me to choose among my hero’s children.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Grant lays siege to Vicksburg: “For nobody else believed in it!”

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State 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 was published earlier this month.

It had been a long and difficult winter for Ulysses S. Grant. For months his army had struggled in the bayous and swamps around Vicksburg, Mississippi, looking for some way to attack the Confederate citadel that blocked Union control of the Mississippi River. He had come under heavy criticism from many quarters, including some of his own subordinates. One of his corps commanders, the politically connected former congressman John A. McClernand, was busily intriguing to replace him by writing to President Lincoln about his shortcomings. Rumors circulated that Grant was drunk, stupid, or both. Newspaper reporters and editors freely abused him, and the authorities at Washington had dispatched several emissaries whose mission included finding out exactly what was going on in the Army of the Tennessee.

With the coming of spring, however, the roads and the levees began to dry, allowing Grant to make the move he had wanted to undertake since his arrival opposite Vicksburg at the end of January. Once Union gunboats and transports ran pass the batteries defending Vicksburg, Grant would move south, cross the Mississippi, and secure a foothold on dry land that would finally allow him to advance against the enemy citadel. He was aware that much depended upon the success of this maneuver. “I am doing my best and am full of hope for complete success,” he wrote to his father. Although he was aware of the criticism directed at him, “I have no idea of being driven to do a desperate or foolish act by the howlings of the press.” If he was to be removed from command, so be it; until then, he would continue to try “to put down the rebellion in the shortest possible time without expecting or desiring any other recognition than a quiet approval of my course.”1

The course Grant took over the next month won him more than quiet approval: his campaign against Vicksburg is hailed today as a military masterpiece. Crossing the Mississippi on April 30, the lead elements of Grant’s command defeated a Confederate force at Port Gibson, Mississippi, the following day. As Iowa soldier Taylor Peirce recalled in a letter home, “when the victory was complete you ought to have heard the shout that rung out on the evening air. It was enough to pay us for all our fatigues and dangers.”2 Two weeks later Grant entered the state capital at Jackson and drove off the Confederate forces gathering there before turning to face John C. Pemberton’s army east of Vicksburg. At Champion Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17 Union forces scored decisive triumphs, driving Pemberton’s men back into the city. After two attempts to take Vicksburg by assault failed, Grant settled down on May 22 to lay siege to the city and its 30,000 defenders.

Within three weeks in May Grant had won five battles. Outnumbered at the outset of the campaign, he had beaten back two Confederate forces as they had attempted to converge on his army and annihilate it. His men lived off the land as they marched through the Mississippi countryside, while a flustered foe flailed away in an effort to sever non-existent supply lines (Grant had wagon convoys move his army’s medical supplies and munitions). Now he had Vicksburg and its defenders by the throat. William T. Sherman, who earlier had expressed his doubts about the operation, greeted his commander warmly as blue-clad soldiers crossed the Big Black River, declaring, “General Grant, I want to congratulate you on the success of your great plan. And it is ‘your plan,’ too, by heaven, and nobody else’s. For nobody else believed in it!”3

Back in Washington, Grant received an even more important seal of approval. “Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg, his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world,” Abraham Lincoln wrote to an Illinois congressman who had been critical of his military appointments.4 A few weeks later, the President declared that if Grant succeeded in opening the Mississippi, “why, Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war!”

Little did Lincoln know when he thus spoke that Ulysses S. Grant had entered Vicksburg the previous day, July 4, 1863. Grant had bagged an entire Confederate army for the second time in the war. The President had found his general.

1 Ulysses S. Grant to Jesse Root Grant, April 21, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 152.
2 Taylor Peirce to Catharine Peirce, May 4, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year, 187.
3 James F. Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (1899), 140.
4 Abraham Lincoln to Isaac N. Arnold, May 26, 1863, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865 (The Library of America, 1989), 449.
5 James F. Rusling, ibid., 17.

(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

Monday, May 20, 2013

Historian Donald R. Hickey discusses how America’s “forgotten” war shaped our young nation

Donald R. Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, spoke with us about the recent publication of the latest Library of America volume, The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence.

In your introduction you call the War of 1812 America’s “most obscure war.” Why is this?

This war has long been a forgotten conflict for several reasons. The causes don’t resonate with people today because nations no longer go to war over neutral rights. Who today understands the finer points of the British Orders-in-Council (which barred American trade with the European Continent, then dominated by Napoleon) or impressment (which was the Royal Navy’s practice of conscripting men from American merchant ships)? The outcome is also in dispute. The war ended in a draw on the battlefield, but scholars are still debating who really won. Beyond that, we don’t have a great president associated with the war. James Madison was shy and retiring, not the sort of person to fire the nation’s imagination in time of war. It is ironic that this war gets lost in the public memory because it left a huge legacy that shaped the nation. It gave us Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, the national anthem and Uncle Sam, the Kentucky Rifle and “Old Ironsides,” a new respect for the national flag, and enduring sayings like “Don’t give up the ship!” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

What can a reader glean from reading these contemporary, firsthand accounts that a narrative history of the war doesn’t convey?

You get a real sense of immediacy, a sense that whatever is being described has just happened. Timing was important in this war. Unbeknownst to Congress, as it was voting to declare war—for the first time in U.S. history, no less—the British government was preparing to suspend the Orders-in-Council, which had established the very trade regulations that so offended Americans. But because it usually took six or eight weeks for news to cross the Atlantic, Americans had no inkling of this critical change in British policy. Similarly, at the war’s end, word arrived almost simultaneously of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the report of the Hartford Convention (a major statement of Federalist discontent with the war), and the signing of the peace treaty. The effect of this remarkable convergence of news was to burnish the notion that the U.S. had won the war and dictated the peace and to forever discredit the opposition party. By putting us in the thick of things as the news breaks, this book reminds us that history is often shaped by accident, chance, and even mistakes.

Reading the documents also helps us appreciate how effective certain leaders were. Jackson, for example, got a lot more out of the nation’s independent-minded frontier volunteer militia than anyone else could because, quite simply, they feared him more than the enemy. And with good reason, for on more than one occasion he threatened to personally shoot anyone who left camp because his term of service appeared to be up, and he did not hesitate to execute recalcitrant militia (see pp. 406–8). Likewise, we see young John C. Calhoun effectively marshal the arguments for war in his report from the House Committee on Foreign Relations recommending a declaration of war (pp. 10–22).

How do you think this collection might affect a reader’s views of such famous historical figures as James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, the Duke of Wellington?

The book gives readers deep insight into their characters. Tecumseh has such a commanding presence that even his arch-enemy, William Henry Harrison, called him “one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” and when we read the great Shawnee leader’s speeches we see why (pp. 27–29, 323–24). Dolley Madison sacrifices her personal property to save vital government papers (p. 506). And Wellington has the wisdom to tell the British to end the American war (pp. 602–5).

The collection opens with vehement opposition and bloody rioting provoked by news of the U.S. declaration of war. Why was the War of 1812 so controversial?

It’s worth remembering that World War II, when just about everyone rallied around the flag, is the exception in our history, not the rule. Almost every other war, from the Revolution to the recent wars in the Middle East, has generated considerable opposition. That makes them a lot tougher to win, but that’s the price we pay for democracy. In the case of the War of 1812, Americans were not yet sure that opposing a war was really legitimate. That’s why Republicans in the summer of 1812 tried to silence Federalist opponents of the conflict with violence or threats of violence. But this was counter-productive in that it only hardened Federalist opposition to the war. Most Federalists considered the war unjust (why target innocent Canada and why go to war against a European nation that was fighting to uphold western civilization against Napoleonic tyranny?) and unwise (why seek concessions on maritime issues that the British would never make?).

There are a number of pieces by and about Indians. How significant was their role in the conflict?

Very. Most of the Indians in the Old Northwest sided with the British, and they played a crucial role in helping the British beat back American invasions early in the war. They were great scouts, trackers, and skirmishers, and their mere presence on the battlefield could panic an enemy force. They were not, however, always a dependable force. They were especially averse to casualties and could disappear in a New York minute if they sensed the battle was going badly or even before it began if they thought it might go badly. This was in many ways an important turning point for the Indians, the last time they played such an important role in any war, the last time they could count on a European ally. Scholars may dispute who won the war, but just about everyone agrees that the Indians were the greatest losers.

Do you think this book will be viewed differently in Canada than it is in the United States?

Yes. Canadians have a much better public memory of this war because, whether they admit it or not, it was their war of independence. If they had lost, Canada might have been swallowed up by the United States. Plus, they don’t have as many other big wars as we have and thus their heroes from this war loom much larger in their history. For Americans, the War of 1812 is one of many wars, overshadowed in the public memory by both the American Revolution and Civil War.

Most astonishing facts about the War of 1812?

The persistent and intense opposition of the Federalists, who laid out their case in a public document issued at the beginning of the war and then again in the report of the Hartford Convention near the end (pp. 46–53, 648–65). No less astonishing is the number of deaths that we can attribute to the conflict. U.S. battle casualties were light, around 2,300 killed in combat. But if you add in all those serving (especially in the militia or on privateers) who died of disease, as many as 20,000 Americans lost their lives as a direct result of this war. Relative to our population today, that would be over 800,000 deaths.

Most important discovery you made in course of assembling the book.

Probably how much material there was to choose from. It’s only when you try to assemble a collection like this that you realize the staggering number of documents that have survived. You also get a real sense for how difficult it was to move men and material through the wilderness, which is why offensive operations usually failed in this war. It was much easier to defend a fortified position near your supply lines than to overrun an enemy post at the other end of a crude or non-existent wilderness road.

Document you think readers will find most surprising.

I think readers might be surprised to learn that at the beginning of the war Jefferson suggested to Madison that Federalist opponents might have to be kept in check with tar and feathers or perhaps even lynch law and how the federal government needed to allow trade with the enemy to keep the war popular (pp. 44–45).

Personal favorites among the selections or writers in the book.

Whenever Federalists criticized the war, I find it compelling because, it seems to me, they were so often on the mark. They had a better sense of how difficult, probably impossible, it was for the United States to force the British to give up maritime practices, especially impressment, that were considered vital to maintaining their naval power and their war effort against France. I also like the handbill publicizing Francis Scott Key’s lyrics commemorating the defense of Fort McHenry. It was initially entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” rather than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the headnote has a lot of detail about how the lyrics came to be written (pp. 544–46). Also among my favorites are Thomas Boyle’s proclamation of a mock blockade of the British Isles (pp. 533–34), and the arresting descriptions of the carnage at Horseshoe Bend, Lundy’s Lane, and New Orleans (pp. 409–11, 457–64, 666–78).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Library of America’s Best-Selling Titles (2013 update)

Two years ago we listed The Library of America’s all-time best-selling titles, and we thought readers might enjoy seeing an update. Below are our current Top 15 titles, based on the total number of copies sold through all channels (including retail stores, book club sales, and our mail-order subscription program) since the first volume appeared in 1982.

LOA All-Time Best-Selling Titles
  1. Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984]
  2. Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982]
  3. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches & Writings 1832-1865 [two volumes, 1989]
  4. Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982]
  5. Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod [1985]
  6. The Debate on the Constitution [two volumes, 1993]
  7. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays [1995]
  8. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters [1990]
  9. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983]
  10. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988]
  11. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales [1984]
  12. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings [1995]
  13. Jack London: Novels & Stories [1982]
  14. William Faulkner: Novels 1930–1935 [1985]
  15. Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman [1990]
Readers comparing the old with the new chart will notice there hasn’t been much movement in the rankings—except for a noteworthy surge two years ago in sales of the Ulysses S. Grant biography. (In the new list, the two-volume Lincoln and Debate on the Constitution sets take up only one slot, since both were released at about the same time—and each volume in the set has sold similar quantities.)

Of course, the methodology of the above list favors titles that have been out longer; the most “recent” title in the top 15 was published in 1995. Readers might be interested seeing which “backlist titles” (i.e., volumes published prior to 2011) sold the most copies last year, in 2012. Here are the Top 15 titles:

LOA 2012 Backlist Best-Sellers
  1. The Philip K. Dick Collection [three volumes, 2007–2009]
  2. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau [2008]
  3. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988]
  4. Raymond Carver: Collected Stories [2009]
  5. H. P. Lovecraft: Tales [2005]
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America [2004]
  7. Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957–1960 [2007]
  8. Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels [1999]
  9. American Noir: 11 Classic Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s [two volumes, 1997]
  10. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings [1995]
  11. The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams [two volumes, 2000]
  12. Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984]
  13. John Muir: Nature Writings [1997]
  14. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters [1990]
  15. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose and Plays [1995]
All told, the 241 titles in the Library of America series now have 8.7 million copies in print.
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