As we enter a year of national political decision, we can find context for what lies ahead in reading several current books as well as some published long ago.
I can recommend a number of worthwhile works.
Janny Scott's A Singular Woman, published in 2011, is a well-researched biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, President Barack Obama's mother, who spent her teenage years on Mercer Island. The book got only scant notice at publication but provides greater insights into Obama's personality and character than are offered by his own autobiographical books. In fact, it corrects minor errors in the president's books — for instance, the birthplace of his mother.
Ann Dunham, as she came to be known, was a distinguished anthropological scholar who lived an ascetic life among the peoples she studied. She was ambitious for her son, who barely knew his African father, but it was not the overweaning, monstrous kind of ambition that sometimes is associated with mothers of famous men. Obama, for his part, saw his mother as a typical Peace Corps, do-good type out of the New Frontier and Great Society.
He was mainly raised by his Anglo maternal grandparents, in Hawaii, and never was consciously close to his mother from his teen years onward. He was not present at her bedside when she died at 52, although his half-sister was. Yet there is more of Ann Dunham in Barack Obama than the son might admit. You can draw your own conclusions upon reading.
Midnight Rising, also published in 2011, is an account by Tony Horwitz of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virgina, and its aftermath, before the Civil War. But it also covers Brown's earlier time in Kansas and traces the issue of slavery as it evolved into the central issue of the war. I've read many volumes of Civil War history but was surprised to find new material in the Horwitz book.
Among other things, I had not been aware of the degree to which Brown, idealistic but deranged and grandiose, was adopted and supported before the Harpers Ferry raid by prominent New England abolitionists. In parlors, salons, and personal meetings, he got the same kind of support that current-day cause and political figures extract from well-off sideline sitters eager to participate in grand movements and campaigns.
The Harpers Ferry raid, of course, was destined from its outset to end in death and tragedy for all involved. Yet it stirred strong emotions, both North and South, and probably hastened the onset of general war and, then, the end of slavery. John Brown was probably crazy but he nonetheless was a more important figure in our history than is commonly thought.
I wrote briefly several months ago about Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars, the story of British and European dissent before and during World War I but, also, of the tides of elite and majority opinion that led the United Kingdom and Germany, in particular, into a bloody, stalemated conflict, which those countries' national leaders thought would be resolved in short order. World War II, of course, was a bloodier and more hateful continuation of World War I. In his 2011 book, Hochschild tells of the UK's brutal conduct of the Boer War against European settlers in southern Africa sitting atop valuable gold and other deposits and the establishment of concentration camps — forerunners of those in World War II — lacking sanitation and medical care, in which hundreds of thousands of Boer women and children were interned and many died.
British leaders of the time, notably including Winston Churchill, thought the Boer War an appropriate warm-up for a more ambitious war for domination of the European continent. German leaders had similar ideas. Their mutual folly helped set in motion unintended consequences, including the end of Empire, the establishment of a Bolshevist Soviet Union, the mass murder of millions of troops and civilians, a Cold War, the development and use of nuclear weapons, and an entire 20th Century soaked in blood.
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