Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Capitol Men

It's strange, but I started 2011 off by reading historical nonfiction. And, even weirder, I liked it.

I read Capitol Men - the story of America's Reconstruction after the Civil War told by focusing on the first African American congressmen - due to a rave review from a stranger at a bus stop.

The closest I usually get to reading about history is through historical fiction, so this was a departure from the norm for me. I get why people read about history. Flipping pages I could feel myself becoming more concretely knowledgeable. With fiction, learning from the text is much more personal, much more about peeling back layers of the human condition. With nonfiction it is like: facts! Look at these facts!

I liked that Philip Dray interspersed the many facts with - sometimes fun, sometimes tragic - anecdotes. There is a crazy tale told of a governor and lieutenant governor racing back to Louisiana to try to enact legislation while the other is away. That was Pinchback. He could be quite grand and imposing at times. In 1867 he said, "There is a sense of security displayed by our people...They seem to think that all is done, the Great Battle has been fought and the victory won...The Great Contest has just begun."

Then there is the story of a wife of a supreme court judge whipping out the inkwell used in writing the Dred Scott decision - which she had hidden when people wanted to take it - to inspire her husband's words of dissent.

And just when I was beginning to get really perturbed about all of this talk about civil rights for men and nothing of WOmen, Dray brings up women's suffrage. Women's suffrage and civil rights used to be linked back in the day until "One of the saddest divorces in American history" due to short-sided and intemperate comments by both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

First Susan said some crap about why should poor uneducated black men have the vote before educated white women. Then Freddy came back and inferred that women should shut their mouths because since they aren't being murdered they have nothing to complain about. Basically neither was thinking of the feelings of the other. No one was empathizing. And no one was rethinking their words before pressing PUBLISH.

Speaking of Freddy, he kind of gets the short end of the stick in the book. Douglass, usually hoisted up on a pedestal as a paragon of excellence in high school history classes, is quite humanly depicted. Including getting crotchety as he got old (and Reconstruction was basically torn down). At the low point, he chastised African Americans in the deep south for escaping certain death and moving to Kansas to try their luck. He said they should stay and fight. Unfortunately for him (who escaped slavery by heading and staying north), his words had the bitter taste of hypocrisy.

But there were great parts too. One of my favorites is Robert Brown Elliott, who was ridiculously eloquent in 1870 when he told congress: "The rights contended for in this bill are among the sacred rights of mankind, which are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records; they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature...and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

Then there was Robert Smalls who successfully stole a confederate ship during the war and then became an important figure in South Carolinian politics. Oh, and he purchased the house his once master owned. And then, when the senile matriarch of the family returned to the house one day, he let her live there thinking it was still the antebellum days.

Of the raucous and bipolar roller coaster times, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote (alluding to Shakespeare): "Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and others lived during the Reconstruction period."

Capitol Men does have a downside, however: its construction. At first, I blamed myself, as if my problem was not being used to reading historical nonfiction.

Now, I completely understand that attempting to cover a time period between two book covers accurately and in depth is like herding cats. But can a girl get a linear timeline? In one chapter Charles Sumner dies and in the next chapter he is alive and kicking missing important senatorial meetings. That just makes me feel CRAZY.

Also, if the framing of the tale of Reconstruction is African American congressmen, can the chapters deal a figure at a time? No? Because since they didn't and since the timeline of the book is all malleable, I have now finished the book and can't name all the men on the front cover. That doesn't seem right.

On the other hand, there were plenty of pictures and illustrations and engravings in the book. Something I think fiction should take note of.

All in all I feel smart and crazy having read Capitol Men. So basically, nothing has changed.

"The 'moral debt' to black Americans created by that conflict was simply 'found to be beyond the country's capacity to pay, given the undeveloped state of its moral resources at the time'."
Capitol Men

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