What book should colleges require their incoming freshmen to read? If the goal were combatting young Americans’ historical ignorance, the book to replace current frontrunners by race hustlers Ibram Kendi, Robin di Angelo, and Michelle Alexander would have to be Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
But let’s say you enjoyed blowing up ant colonies and gopher holes as a child and now aspire to something more dramatic. In that case, your choice would have to be Flashman (Herbert Jenkins, 1969) by the Scotsman George MacDonald Fraser. The resulting explosions of censorious young crania would be visible from outer space. Today’s college students, especially the neurasthenic females, might never recover from Fraser’s exuberant shredding of progressive taboos. The sane world would offer thanks.
Flashman is the first in a series of historical novels set during the zenith of Britain’s imperial power. Be grateful for its release date (not all that long ago, really), since it could not be published today. The title character is one of literature’s greatest bounders—a hypocrite, cynic, coward, poseur, social-climber, and yes, a sexist, racist, and abuser of transport animals. He also possesses a disarmingly charming narrative voice, as unblinkered toward his own moral failings as toward those of his compatriots and enemies. Flashman takes place during Britain’s First Anglo-Afghan war, as our anti-hero strives to see as little action as possible, while bedding as many British and native women as opportunity allows. He ends up, however, through no military or diplomatic competence on his part (except a gift for languages), as a go-between in that war. He crosses wits with wily Afghan chieftains, is captured and tortured, and does his own share of disemboweling and decapitating. (For a female reader, the battle scenes admittedly grow wearisome.) He casually throws the N-word around to refer to the Indian and Afghan natives. He treats women as sex objects. He is also ruthlessly critical of the pompous occupying forces and their incompetent retreat from Kabul in 1842. (Some things never change.)
The ending is breathtakingly corrosive of traditional heroic virtues. One wonders what is left standing afterwards. Fortunately, Flashman still is. In later installments, he unwittingly involves himself in every major 19th-century foreign crisis—from the Crimean War to the American Civil War—and even ends up on Little Big Horn. In the third book, Flash for Freedom!, Flashman is a slave trader. On second thought, maybe that is the book to assign incoming college freshmen.
(I listened to Flashman on Audible. The narrator, David Case, is superb—notwithstanding a Some Like It Hot falsetto for the female characters.)
Reading older literature, even written as recently as the 1950s, makes me melancholy. Earlier authors possessed powers of observation regarding the natural world that are unthinkable among today’s phone-attached youth. Gerald Durrell was by contrast obsessed with nature from the earliest age, above all with all things arthropod (i.e., bugs). When he was 10, his family—an all-suffering widowed mother and three older siblings—fled Britain’s gloom for the light-drenched brilliance of Corfu. My Family and Other Animals (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956) is Durrell’s condensed chronicle of their five years in an unspoiled paradise blazing with color and surrounded by an even more flamboyantly chromatic underwater Eden.
Durrell spends his days exploring the countryside, unlocking the secrets of insect mating practices (revolting to a reader not possessed of Durrell’s zoologic zeal), and bringing home as many animals as he can capture—tortoises, water snakes, scorpions, a baby owl, baby magpies, a baby pigeon, and toads, who all seem possessed of strong personalities.
Durrell’s language is as gorgeous as the idyllic world he inhabits: “The island dozed below us…grey-green olives; black cypresses, multicolored rocks of the sea-coast; the sea smooth and opalescent, kingfisher blue, jade green, with here and there a pleat or two in its sleek surface where it curved round a rocky, olive tangled promontory.” One particularly magical scene features porpoises leaping at night through phosphorescent water and fireflies.
Gerald’s better-known brother Lawrence, who comes off as a prig here, would go on to write The Alexandria Quartet. Corfu has undoubtedly modernized and improved its inhabitants’ standard of living since the 1930s, but one can’t help but rue the cost.
For all that the 1619 Project distorts the present (and mangles the founding), conservative accounts of America’s racial history often strike me as a whitewash of the past. They jump too quickly from the sacrifices of the Civil War to the triumphs of the Civil Rights era, leaving out the shocking details of America’s centuries-long project of humiliating and subjugating blacks. That history is now behind us, contrary to America’s self-destructive elites and the proponents of white privilege theory. Black, not white, privilege is the order of the day. But I struggle with how best to process that earlier history.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Oxford University Press, 1955), by the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, is a corrective for the Manichean simplicities of conservative triumphalism. The antebellum North was as eager to disenfranchise and marginalize blacks as the South; race animosity was stronger in the free states than in the slave states, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before Woodward.
The central thesis of Strange Career, however, concerns Southern postbellum segregation. The psychotic separatist measures that spread like wildfire throughout the South starting in the late 19th century were a relative innovation in race relations, Woodward argues. Before the Civil War and during its immediate aftermath, blacks and whites mingled more freely than they would be allowed to do under Jim Crow. The South, therefore, could draw on its own past to try to overcome the law-based hysteria that now gripped it.
Such distinctions between the pre-Jim Crow and full-blown Jim Crow regimes are historically of great interest and importance. But on a gut level, they seem relatively insignificant. Whites’ gratuitous nastiness towards blacks was bad enough, even before obsessive-compulsive laws banned the storage of white and black school textbooks in the same box, forbad interracial checkers games, and outlawed use of the term “brother” among members of fraternal lodges if used to address someone of a different race.
The second half of Strange History reads like a thriller. It chronicles the quickening pace of the 20th-century civil rights battles, when the federal judiciary reversed its political positions during Reconstruction and became a leading force for legal equality, when presidents took conflicting stands on the authority of the federal government to force social change, and another constitutional crisis loomed. We have Southern intransigence to thank in part for the destructive growth in Washington’s power during the last century and for the anointing of federal judges as unelected legislators.
Subsequent editions of Strange Career update the narrative through the 1960s and 1970s race riots and through the growth of militant black nationalism. Woodward notes, but only in passing, the cultural breakdown among urban blacks. It is that breakdown, not “systemic racism,” that continues to make any hope of attaining racial equality thoroughly quixotic. It is long past time for whites to stop blaming their current selves for the lack of proportional racial representation in mainstream institutions. The intellectual tools with which the Left bashes the West in the name of equality and tolerance are exclusively the province of Western thinkers. The outlawing of slavery was a Western innovation.
And yet, when one thinks of those howling faces at school and college doors in the 1950s and of those centuries of humiliation and violence, phrases like the following from conservative thought leaders seem too pat:
“Consider the 1950s, a time of [the] wide embrace of…public civility;”
“American culture has always been at once strongly libertarian, individualist and pluralist, yet also strongly communitarian, moralist and religious. Our spirit of rugged individualism has been conjoined with, and often a source of, our spirit of common destiny and moral obligation and our talent for association and community.”
Much, if not most, American history has nothing to do with race. But finding the fairest and most honest way to incorporate our racial past in our self-accounts remains an incomplete project.
This piece originally appeared on Claremont Review of Books
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of The War on Cops.
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