Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pairs ("This Land That I Love" by John Shaw)

Drawing connections between two historical figures, especially two who never met, is a dubious act on the part of any writer, regardless of how similar their lives or legacies may be. Earlier this year, Lynne Olson attempted to conflate a relationship between Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Roosevelt in order to personify the United States' conflicting emotions over isolationism; instead, she managed to write a book that was interesting in its own right but one that ultimately failed to link the primary men to each other in any substantial way. Similarly, the last few years have seen books hoping to contrast Truman and Eisenhower, Nixon and Eisenhower, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, Douglas and Lincoln, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, James Madison and James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, not to mention James F. Simon's trilogy on conflicts between presidents and chief justices. And while these latter examples are much more understandable, given that the subjects actually knew one another on a professional if not personal level, the fact remains that contrasting two historical figures for the sake of a common narrative--one that needs to be painted into history rather than wrung from it--is disingenuous.

So ridiculous has this trend become that book subtitles have begun to follow the same tedious format, almost like a publishing-house MadLibs:  an interesting, attention-getting title is followed by "[Person 1], [Person 2], and [Conflated Historical Narrative]." Simply choosing two important figures who were alive at the same time and tagging on a connection that is knee-deep in lofty sociological importance, one that is both impressive in its surface weight but vague and unmeasurable beneath the surface, seems now like the go-to formula for historical nonfiction, as evidenced by some of the lengthy, comma-heavy titles that have appeared in the last few years.*

One of these is John Shaw's This Land That I Love, which is subtitled "Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems." On the surface, Shaw's premise seems perfectly fine:  Berlin and Guthrie were two musicians who were alive at the same time--though one man would end up living almost twice as long as the other--and wrote music that captured specific eras and moods. The two anthems of Shaw's subtitle--"God Bless America" by Berlin, "This Land is Your Land" by Guthrie--have there roots in dark moments in American history, written to celebrate the United States amid the horrors of war, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. Beneath the surface, however, we begin to find flaws in Shaw's arrangement. It doesn't seem to matter that Berlin and Guthrie never met, or that there's very little evidence that either man even knew of each other's existences other than a parody of "God Bless America" written by Guthrie himself. Suddenly, these seemingly compatible historical figures seem somewhat less complementary. 

Even more, the entire narrative Shaw is attempting to construct--that Berlin and Guthrie, the authors of two unofficial American anthems, were more similar than their styles and music let on--is never actually followed through. Much of Shaw's book is devoted to elements of music history that are only loosely connected to Berlin and Guthrie's music: blackface, ragtime, minstrel shows, Teddy Roosevelt, tenement poverty in New York City, the Civil War, the error of "folk" music, Marian Anderson, Tin Pan Alley, and so on. Sure, each is important in its own way to understanding the men, their lives, their inspirations, and the styles of music they embraced throughout their lives...but in that case, the focus should be primarily on the men rather than historical divergences. The title and subtitle tell us this is the story of two men and two songs; Shaw seems intent on writing about anything besides those topics.

Furthermore, Shaw's book takes this disturbing trend even further than his compatriots by introducing himself into the narrative. On the surface, this doesn't seem like much of a problem; after all, he's the writer and researcher, so it's only natural that he will sometimes find himself dead-center in the action, especially when he's uncovering previously unpublished lyrics to the subjects' most famous songs. (A little personal reflection at this point would be understandable, even forgivable, if also a little pointless.) However, Shaw crosses a sacred boundary in historical writing by introducing his own opinion into the narrative, almost as though it were evidence of something much greater. Discussing the musical lineage of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Shaw begins a new paragraph by saying,

I love "The Star-Spangled Banner." I share the eighteenth century's assessment of John Stafford Smith's melody--it's great. The story behind Key's lyric is stirring, and I love its celebration of freedom and courage. Being a fan of Robert Herrick, rock and roll, and Woody Guthrie's party songs, I enjoy the celebration of sex and alcohol in the Anacreontic Society's theme song as well. (Shaw 77)

Shaw's fanboy gushing is beyond embarrassing, and it contributes not at all to our understanding of the two men, their music, or their connections to one another. Had this been the only instance of Shaw breaking away from his responsibilities as a historian--and an impartial one, as writing such as this requires--it could have been overlooked, but This Land That I Love is littered with instances like these in which Shaw cannot restrain himself from letting his readers know just how important all of this is to him.

Which is great--a writer should love what they're writing about, and Shaw clearly--obviously--does. But he loves it in the same way an annoying cinephile loves movies, a bibliophile loves books, or a patron loves a specific artist and their work:  a passion that makes him or her feel instantly superior. Shaw cannot keep himself from telling us just how much better he is than us, simply because he knows "The Star-Spangled Banner" better than we do, that it means more to him than it does to us. It's an attitude that gives him permission to interrupt history with his own meaningless interjections and asides, as though this retelling of history will be made all the better with his additions. In the process, however, we see that his book is little more than a sketch. There is very little story here, very few ideas that haven't been presented elsewhere, and anything new--a new lyric, a revision, an interpretation--is nothing more than scaffolding for a house that will never be built.

*A small sampling:  Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War; America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union; Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World; What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States; Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation; The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism; and so on, on and on. Not to bemoan historical connections--after all, history is little more than millions of these intersections of people, placed, events, ideas, and so on--but this sort of thing seems incredibly lazy on the part of book editors and publishers.