Of Purchases Made and Not Made

30 10 2009

My job takes me all around the Pittsburgh area: Allegheny, Washington, Butler, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.  That means in my downtime between appointments I get to do things like visit out-of-the-way cemeteries and just about every bookstore in the area.  Today I had my Border’s Rewards 40% discount coupon with me, and stopped into the South Hills store.  As I’ve said before, I have more books than I could ever read in the time I have left, and as a book reviewer I have more coming in all the time, so I have cut way back on my purchases and never buy anything at full retail.  And with the outrageous pricing today, more often than not even 40% off is not good enough to justify buying a new book.  But I took the coupon with me just in case.

I narrowed my choice down to two new books: John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History and Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  These both seem like odd choices for me, because I really have little use anymore for comprehensive studies of the war, and good God, another Grant bio?  Who needs that, fer Chrissakes?

The Keegan book caught my interest because, believe it or not, very, very little American Civil War literature being churned out these days is written by true military historians, that is to say professionally trained and certified historians whose focus is military history.  And John Keegan is if nothing else a military historian, and one of considerable reputation.  But I haven’t been impressed with anything Keegan has written on our little war (and in the annals of military history, it was far smaller than other conflicts), because he tends not to limit himself to comparative analysis but rather delves into personality issues that I feel he examines with too little depth, and which are more old thesis than antithesis or even synthesis (see here for more on these three terms).  But what made my decision – and you need to have something to base purchasing decisions on, don’t you? – was this:  Keegan’s book is 350 pages.  For that 350 pages, he provides 3 pages of notes, and a three page bibliography.  For anyone other than Keegan, this would be viewed by just about everyone as unforgivable.  So, I passed.

Normally I wouldn’t even consider purchasing another single volume, comprehensive biography of Grant, but upon closer examination Waugh’s book is different.  In the weighting of Grant’s life alone: in the 308 pages (plus 50 pages of notes, but no bibliography at all), Grant’s military career is pretty much over by page 101, his political life over by page 153.  He’s dead by page 213.  Waugh has authored a memory study of Grant, one that promises on its jacket flap to reveal

how Grant became the embodiment of the American nation in the decades after the Civil War.  She does not paper over Grant’s image as a scandal-ridden contributor to the worst excesses of the Gilded Age.  Instead, she captures a sense of what led nineteenth-century Americans to overlook Grant’s obvious faults and hold him up as a critically important symbol of national reconciliation and unity.

I guess I’ll have to read the thing to find out if Waugh delivers.

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5 responses

30 10 2009
Tom Clemens

Our library bought Keegan’s book, I went over to look at it. I noted the same things you did, few notes, mostly secondary sources, etc. The photo captions were awful. Picture of Collos’ Zouaves labeled “14th PA” and an obvious pic ture of a British Enfield model 1853 labeled “Springfield rifle musket, ca. 1857” and pic of CS Dead in Bloody Lane labeled “Confederate dead in a ditch at Antietam, right wing.” Now I understand that he may not have written these captions, but it is his book. Scanned a few chapters and was not greatly impressed.


31 10 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Apparently McPherson has weighed in on Keegan’s book. See here:


Who’s the kettle, and who’s the pot?


1 11 2009
John Foskett

Harry: In this case the kettle has accurately fingered the pot. How about the following turkeys in Keegan’s book which McPherson doesn’t mention. (1) Second Manassas apparently consisted of the prologue (Brawner’s Farm) and the postscript (Chantilly/Ox Hill). Not a single word about the two days in between when the armies actually fought a major battle. (2) At Gaines’ Mill Fitz John Porter lost the fight because he was “distract[ed]” with protecting the two volunteer French aides. The battle ended with a stampede of “artillery horses”, causing the loss of 22 guns. There are more where these came from (such as an apparent complete lack of understanding that a discrete battle was actually fought at Franklin on November 30, 1864). And all of this in a “military” history. Frankly, even though I bought this at a substantial reduction in list price, I’m still regretting it. McPherson may actually be embarrassed that his Battle Cry of Freedom dominates Keegan’s few, sporadic endnotes. Even if Waugh’s book adds nothing, youl made the right choice.


6 11 2009
Susan Sweet

Harry I have not read Joan’s book yet but have heard her speak several times on Grant. She does an outstanding job of speaking on him. She will be our speaker in February . She will be speaking on the book . I have always enjoyed her presentations .


8 11 2009
Chris Evans

I think more on Grant could be done. I wish that Brooks Simpson would complete his 2nd Grant Volume that was going to take Grant from 1865-1885. That is a very interesting period and I think that Simpson would do a good job on it.


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