Not Quite Beheading, But It Will Do

Guess what? Remember Resolution #3? Well, I don’t know whether this qualifies as sparkly, but I have finally at long last updated the Books section of my website! Check it out! Yahoo!

Because my goodness, if a lovely stranger in Oregon can post all my books on Wikipedia, the least I could do is list them here, too, right?  Hopefully it’s all easy to find — just scroll down and click around and there should be a little bit about each book on all the associated pages. Plus adorable cover images! Hooray! I feel much less apathetic now.

In unrelated news, I wanted to tell you about this book I’m reading right now (since finishing Steinbeck’s wackadoodle pirate story). I’ve actually held off on mentioning it as long as I can, because I’m afraid once I start talking about it I won’t be able to stop, and that could go on for weeks and weeks, since this book is HUUUUGE. I mean, I’m already pretty much retelling the whole thing to Adam. Seriously, about every five pages I’m like, “DUDE! You have to hear this!” It saves him from having to read the whole thing himself, right? 🙂

But it’s too amazing to keep it to myself any longer, so I hope you’ll be interested, too. The book is called Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it’s a biography about Abraham Lincoln and his main rivals for the presidential nomination. (I know, what? but bear with me.) It got a lot of buzz when it came out a couple of years ago, and I have to admit it was seeing the author on The Daily Show that made me decide, OK, she sounds smart and hilarious, I should read this. (That and Resolution #2!)

Let me start with a confession: I’ve always found American history REALLY FREAKING BORING. I even had an amazing AP US History teacher when I lived in the Dominican Republic (hi, Ms. Davison, if you’re out there somewhere!), and it still couldn’t keep me awake. At least British history has kings and queens and beheadings and mistresses and uprisings and ghosts in the Tower of London and Crown Jewels and Shakespeare and MUURRRRRRRDER and stuff. What does US History have to compete with this? As far as I could tell: a bunch of Supreme Court cases, men in powdered wigs making compromises, lots of very long speeches, covered wagons, pioneers, the cotton gin, and Hemingway. SNOOOZE.

Reading all the Little House books was the beginning of changing my mind about this. I certainly don’t recall being taught about PLAGUES OF GRASSHOPPERS EATING EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD, for instance; I think I might have stayed awake for that! If anything, there was probably a line in the textbook about “farmers’ difficulties in the pioneer life”, which isn’t anywhere near as gripping as Laura and her family running around trying to chase off and/or set on fire hordes and hordes and HORDES OF RAVENOUS GRASSHOPPERS.

Same thing with the Most Enormous Blizzard in the History of Ever. Laura twisting straw to burn in the stove with freezing, bleeding fingers! Starving to death! Snow piling up in the mountain gaps to block the trains! Almanzo and Cap risking their lives to go get wheat to save the whole town! Suddenly pioneers are a lot more interesting!

But I still figured the political side of it was just plain boring. That’s until I started reading this book. HOLY BANANAS.

For one thing, can I just say, if we think the country has issues now, we are SO lucky not to be living back then! It’s crazy because it seems so obvious: obviously slavery is wrong and the obvious answer is to abolish it completely right away and make everyone equals. What’s to discuss? But it was total political suicide to say that back then. You’d never get to be anyone who could make a difference by taking that position. I think there are a few issues like that today, too, and I wonder what people will look back in a hundred years and marvel at us about.

And the other interesting thing is how much despair the abolitionists must have gone through, because for such a long time the proslavery forces kept winning, especially in the 1850s with things like the Dred Scott case (this Supreme Court justice, who looks like a HUGE tool in his photograph, was basically like, “nope, they’re not men, they’re property, and so all the new territories should be allowed to have slaves, and slaves will never ever be free citizens in this country, and that’s the final word on this matter because we’re the Supreme Court so there.”). I mean, it must have been seriously depressing, but I think that’s kind of nice to know now, because each of those losses turned out not to be the end of everything after all, and maybe it’d be useful to remember that in politics today, too.

BUT I don’t want to go on and on about the historical significance; what I want to do is tell you two crazy stories from this book that never ever came up in history class, I guarantee you (at least not in mine; if you’ve already heard these, congratulations on the extreme coolness of your education).

The first one is about young Abraham Lincoln when he first moved to Springfield, Illinois, to start his law career. He didn’t know anyone at all in town and he had nowhere to stay and no money. So when he got there, he wandered into the general store, where he met the owner, another young man named Joshua Speed. Lincoln asked him how much a bed would cost, including sheets and a mattress and everything. When Speed told him (seventeen dollars!), Lincoln looked very sad and asked if he could get it on credit, hoping his law career would work out, although if it didn’t, he didn’t know when he’d ever be able to pay him back.

Speed later wrote: “I never saw a sadder face.” Awww! Poor Abraham Lincoln! He so needs a hug. But this is the wild part: Speed, who had heard Lincoln speak once but never met him before, goes: “Oh, well, if you’re worried about that, I have a better idea — I live in this room upstairs and I’ve got a double bed that I’m only using half of. Why don’t you share that with me?” And Lincoln was like WOO HOO! and moved in right away and they ended up being best friends and roommates for the next four years. !!!

ISN’T THAT BIZARRE? I mean, at the time it was common for people to share beds (Laura and her sister Mary shared their bed all through their childhood, and according to this book whenever the lawyers traveled together it was usually four men to a hotel room, two in each bed) so that part is actually sort of normal for back then…but can you imagine a stranger coming into your store and going: “I wish I could buy a bed” and your response is, “hey, I’ve got a bed! come be my roommate!” !!!!!!

Totally fascinating. I guess that’s like the early version of Craig’s List.  🙂

And the second story is from a few years later, in 1856. There was a lot of fighting going on in the Senate over some Acts and controversial decisions and votes and stuff that Doris Kearns Goodwin describes much better than I would, so if you’re interested, read the book, but the main point is, pretty much everyone was Very Angry and Extremely Riled Up, mostly about the whole slavery thing.

So this Massachusetts senator named Charles Sumner gave a speech in the Senate where he explained, as he often did, why he thought slavery was wrong and why Kansas should be a free state and so on, but then he started talking about these two particular senators, Douglas from Illinois and Andrew Butler from South Carolina, and he totally laid into them. He made fun of Butler’s speech defect and compared him to an aging, feeble Don Quixote defending his “beloved harlot, Slavery” and everyone listening was TOTALLY APPALLED because it was so personal and cruel and antagonistic and all that.

But THEN! Two days later! Butler’s cousin, a young Congressman from South Carolina named Preston Brooks, walks into the Senate chamber, goes up to where Sumner is writing at his desk, and says: “You have libeled South Carolina and my relative, and I have come to punish you.” And then he starts BLUDGEONING Senator Sumner over the head with a wooden cane! OMG! Wikipedia says Sumner tried to get away but was trapped by his desk, and when other senators tried to help him, Brooks’ friend and fellow congressman fended them off with a pistol. !!! Finally Sumner collapsed, unconscious and bleeding all over the place, and Brooks strolled on out of there feeling very pleased with himself.

Sumner was left with serious injuries to his brain and spinal cord, but he was eventually able to return to the Senate three years later (and in the meanwhile he was reelected even though he couldn’t serve yet, because his empty seat was viewed as a symbol of free speech; so sayeth Wikipedia). But the terrifying, insane thing is the completely opposite reactions this beating got in the newspapers.

All the journalists in the North were like: “Horrifying! Barbaric! A gross outrage!” and this apparently was one of the things that really made a lot of people sit up and think about slavery and where the country was going and get all mad about it. But the Southern newspapers were like: “Nice work, Brooks! We should do this to all the abolitionist senators! Thrashing is clearly the only way to deal with them! That other guy Seward should be beaten twice a day! Here, have a congratulatory walking stick to replace that one that’s all covered in blood.”

Yikes! And we thought Bill O’Reilly was bad! Well, maybe some journalists are still that scary, but I think most of them would probably agree that beating a dude until he’s bloody and unconscious because of a speech he gave is, you know, not OK.

And this was really totally historical because of how mad everyone got afterwards, but was it ever mentioned in a single one of my textbooks? I think not! Unless I slept through that part. Which is not so unlikely, as it would have come after the words “Manifest Destiny”, which knock me out every time.

Anyway, I think it’s relevant and enthralling, and I hope it didn’t put you all to sleep.  And many thanks to Doris Kearns Goodwin for all this enthrallingness; if you’d like another 900 pages of that, it’s available right here! Or you could get it from the library, like I did, but I have a feeling they’re going to want it back before I could possibly finish it. AAACK.

Or you could just listen to me talk about it for the next month! Wouldn’t that be fun? At least you’re not poor Adam, who is getting to hear almost literally every story. For you, I restrain myself. Only the most shocking bits here! And I’m only on page 225. He hasn’t even been nominated yet! We haven’t even gotten to his crazy prophetic death dreams! Oh, yes, I hear there are crazy prophetic death dreams. Also not in my textbook, by the way. Goodness, I hope textbooks are more interesting now than they used to be. (I’m guessing…no?)

Whoops; I intended for this to be a short blog, but so much for that! I promise next time we’ll get back to pictures of monkeys and temples, unless something massively fascinating happens that I have to blog about, like Live in Color dressing as vampires on America’s Best Dance Crew (in a word: AWESOME) or Abraham Lincoln becoming president or something crazy and unexpected like that. 🙂

Oh, I know what I’ll leave you with! Have you seen the promo trailer for the Complete Works of Jane Austen on Masterpiece Theatre? It is GORGEOUS. The music is Coldplay’s “Fix You” and ooooooh, it’s ridiculously romantic and perfect. If seeing this doesn’t make you want to watch the series, or run out and read all of Jane Austen, or go live in the 19th century in search of a horseback-riding Mr. Darcy of your own, well, then you’re certainly not me, anyhow. I think my favorite is still Henry Tilney, though — in this video, he’s the one reaching to brush Catherine’s cheek in the rain, right after it says “Love Heals.” Dreamy sigh! And coming soon are Emma and Sense & Sensibility. Yay!

Quote of the Day: “History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in….I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome.” — Catherine in Northanger Abbey

(P.S. I agree! That’s the problem with American history! Hardly any women at all! Not even beheaded ones, and not a Queen Elizabeth I to be seen! BORING! Rather like No Country for Old Men, incidentally, which I finally saw, and was totally right about, by the way — moustaches! violence! old men! old men grumbling! old men grumbling a lot! and barely a woman anywhere! EXTREEEEEMELY BORING and moreover pointless and moreover what? why am I watching this movie? and moreover enough of that. If you ask me, anyway. Not that I think anyone would guess that’d be my kind of movie in the first place, so really, it’s my own fault, and I probably should have known better.  Thank goodness for coming home to Jane Austen!)