Monday, July 14, 2014

Legacy ("Fierce Patriot" by Robert L. O'Connell)

In the afterword to Fierce Patriot, his book on William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert O’Connell acknowledges a necessity at the heart of writing nonfiction: to research a subject is to devote years to them, rearrange your life around them, and become obsessed with their every decision. Sometimes this requirement comes to define a writer’s entire career. Shelby Foote spent more than twenty years researching and writing about the Civil War, and the resulting trilogy spanned nearly 3000 tightly-knit pages. Robert Caro has spent almost twice as much time completing a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which has won him two Pulitzer Prizes but also meant he’s been able to publish little else; in other words, his legacy will forever be intertwined with that of his subject. In both instances, Foote and Caro’s devotion resulted in critically acclaimed, interesting, and lasting histories. Sometimes, however, the devotion isn’t reflected in the final product, and strangely enough, the proof of this is O’Connell’s own book.

Fierce Patriot is really three books in one. The first, which spans the first 200 pages, is a biography of Sherman himself, complete with a rundown of his involvement in the Civil War and special emphasis on how our modern characterizations of him do not match the reality. The second, which is a comparatively short fifty-some pages, concerns the men who made up Sherman's famous--and infamous--army during the Civil War, which was responsible for the burning of Atlanta along its 600-mile march through the South, which has itself become distorted in the decades since. And the final seventy pages concern Sherman's private life, especially his dalliances with other women, and the miserable existence of his wife. By definition, a biography of any historical military figure would touch on a multitude of topics; the difference between the definition and Fierce Patriot is that O'Connell seems eager to "untangle" all three facets of Sherman's life for closer study, which makes the entire endeavor seem hurried and incomplete, as though it were rushed to print before O'Connell could reintegrate the latter two portions into the overall narrative.

Because it is that overall narrative--that first part of the book--that is by far its best, as O'Connell works to demystify not only Sherman but his legendary march through the South. The great irony is that this one event, for which Sherman is most known and most infamous, was one of the most peaceful events of his entire career. His men were stripped extraneous possessions, including most of their firearms, and were strictly warned away from the marauding ways associated with military invaders. Instead, they harassed those who supported the South's secession, burned down buildings that were representative of the Confederacy and its fighting power--railroad tracks, gun manufacturing plants, stashes of ammunition--but never killed unless in self-defense. They established order in the small towns and large cities they occupied, and they even amassed a large and loyal following of freed slaves--a sizable group that also helped Sherman navigate the wild and otherworldly landscape of the South with veritable ease. (As O'Connell lays out, freedmen were also vital to the North's military progress, providing valuable information about troop location and backcountry pathways without being recognized as potential spies by their owners--a resource that went unappreciated then and have been largely forgotten since.) One of the most nonviolent decision Sherman made in his life, to lead tens of thousands of men across 600 miles of his enemy's backyard, has since become a symbol of the Civil War's brutality and aggression--a version of history that, while inconsistent with what actually occurred, is pretty consistent with Sherman's personality.

Within every volume of American history there is at least one chapter written in blood:  the blood of those who were subjugated, slaughtered, sacrificed, or outright killed. But rarely can we find a chapter written almost entirely by a single person. This is the truth of Sherman beyond his exploits during the Civil War. After the peace agreements were signed and politicos began debating Reconstruction--a tumultuous and long-lasting problem on its own, especially after Lincoln's assassination--Sherman accepted a largely symbolic post with the federal government, then departed for the West to oversee the construction of a transcontinental railroad, which would connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time in the nation's history. It was a monumental task for any one person to undertake, and Sherman embraced the task with gusto--a decision that would paradoxically advance the nation's expansion while also devastating its indigenous people, landscape, and wildlife. This, not his march through the South, is Sherman's true legacy:  a multi-year, multi-state project that leveled valuable landscapes, led the exploitation of natural resources, displaced thousands of Native American and their tribes, instigated wars, and almost caused the American buffalo to go extinct. (Even today, more than a century later, the buffalo has yet to recover.) And throughout it all, Sherman remained keenly aware of the devastation he was causing, even encouraging much of the conflict with displaced tribes and the elimination of wildlife, because he lived his life devoted to The Cause, whatever that happened to be at the moment, and he ran down anything--or anyone--that stood in his way.

O'Connell closes his afterword with a strange commentary on his subject's "tangled" lives and how we as readers perceive them:  "I think my time with [Sherman] was well spent. I liked him, he was never dull, and he grew into a make-believe friend, sitting in a recliner in his rumpled uniform, watching me compose, accompanying me on long walks--but never saying a word. That's the past for you: a pale echo of what actually happened, a bunch of factual remains of what were once human lives, and for that reason always subject to reinterpretation. So if you don't like this Sherman, wait a while, there's bound to be another. He's too important to forget." This personification of Sherman as the author's quiet companion is admittedly cute, and probably not that far from reality when taken at its most basic figurative sense, but it's demonstrative of the problem with O'Connell's book, not to mention his attitude towards history itself. It's perfectly fine to believe a subject's life requires more than one volume, or "interpretation," because history is complicated and always revealing more of itself; but to essentially admit that your own history is incomplete is to betray the contract with your readers, who come into a book looking for answers...and answers can only come when an author knows their subject, seeks out the truth, and presents it to us without opinion. By splitting Sherman's life into parts, you're saying you don't understand how it all fits together, regardless of how much clearer it becomes when partitioned out. It means that, in trying to "untangle" the life and experiences of one man, you find yourself unable to see how all the pieces connected in the first place, and all you have to present to your readers are pieces to a puzzle you're unable--or unwilling--to put back together.