I do not know how anyone could not love this book, or the figure of Commander Raphael Semmes, the South's greatest naval hero. The biography neatly balances the details of Semmes's curious and poignant personal life, against the vast sweep of the two-year odyssey of the commerce raider CSS Alabama.
The book admirably avoids partisanship when it comes to the War Between the States...at least till the last few chapters, when Fox briefly goes off on a quasi-Marxist rant against the Confederacy, damning Semmes for having "racist" [sic] beliefs. This sudden disgression seems forced and artificial. I'm just guessing here, but it appears this change of voice was imposed by the publishing house. Fox's editor must have been getting a little uneasy about putting out a popular history wherein the hero is a Confederate Navy commander who sinks 100 Yankee ships, while the villains are all Yankee politicians, diplomats, or (in the notable case of Clarence Yonge) money-grubbing turncoats in their employ. So Mr. Fox paid his lip-service to Political Correctness, and in due course the book was published by HarperCollins of New York and London, rather than the Dixieland Vanity Press of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Fox seems to be the first biographer to uncover the details of Semmes's unfaithful wife and her illegitimate child Anna, conceived while Semmes was off fighting the Mexican War, and delivered shortly after he returned. Semmes behaved as a true Christian gentleman in this crisis; a veritable St Joseph. Although the child was sent away to Eden Hall for some years, she was never disavowed, and is always listed as the fifth of their six children. (Fox offers a bizarre interpretation of Semmes's forbearance and charity, explaining it away as a product of Catholic leniency toward sinfulness.)
For this Audible edition, I have only one complaint about the performance. The reader does not know how to pronounce "Raphael." Here in America, and the English-speaking world in general, the archangelic name is usually "RAY-feeyul." But the narrator consistently says "ROFF-ay-el," making it weirdly exotic, as though Semmes were some sort of Mexican or Levantine. Can it be he's never heard the name before?
There are many things wrong with this book. It appears that Michael Ford did not do a real translation at all, he merely rewrote a new paraphrase based on the earlier, faulty, editions, and self-published it through a print-on-demand scheme. Nothing wrong with that if his intention was to create a readable, rationalized edition with the Murphy and Manheim errors corrected. Alas Ford doesn't even write or proofread English very well, and makes a bad situation worse. He has some bizarre and novel 'translations' of phrases that do not require translation, for example the newspaper 'Volkischer Beobächter', which he turns into 'The Race Watcher.' If you must translate a title like that, something like 'People's Observer' or 'Populist Observer' or even 'Folkish Observer' might be acceptable, but there's no excuse for 'Race Watcher.' (Prof. Randall Bytwerk has written extensively on this and other translation problems, and you should Google that name if you wish to know more.)
What is annoying about the Audible edition is that the translator's footnotes and interlineations pop up frequently and annoyingly, often giving bad information. There should be some way of turning these off, as you turn off pop-ads in a web browser.
This book is a very enjoyable listening experience. There are a number of books that hypothesize an LBJ involvement in the Kennedy Assassination, and some of them marshall the evidence quite well. Some recent books focus mostly on LBJ's political connections. Mark North concentrates mostly on the underworld of Dallas and New Orleans.
Judt was such a big name in his last years, I expected this book to be a marvel of insight and sparkling narrative. It is not, especially not in the Audible version. This vast survey-history is better enjoyed and referred to in its original text format, since it is essentially a reference book and not very useful without index and biblio apparatus.
I suspect this is a book better read than listened to. In the Audible version the choppy, repetitive, disorganized aspects are very evident. This is partly because McClellan is more concerned with emphasizing central points than with providing a smooth-flowing narrative. The choppiness may also be due to a lawyer's cautiousness. If hazarding a guess, he tells you he's offering a possible theory; if constructing a persuasive brief, he reiterates the key events and background details to refresh our memory and keep us focused.
McClellan ties his themes together with dressy literary elements (epigraphs that open and close each chapter) but these are designed to work on the printed page, not in audio, where they trip up the listener like bollards in the pavement.
The latter part of the book is pure autobiographical narrative and flows smoothly. No plausible guesswork here; it's a true recollection and the best part of the book. McClellan worked for LBJ crony Edward Aubrey Clark in the Austin law firm that bought politicians, engaged hit men, and looked to profit enormously once they had Johnson in the White House.
This memoir is not nearly as good as Vidal's 'Palimpsest,' which was a masterpiece of autobiography as well as witty social history. There were bits of exaggeration and maybe outright lies in the earlier book, but the ego is allowed poetic license.
In this volume the memories are running thin and they threaten to get maudlin. The lingering illness and death of Vidal's life-partner Howard Auster is a poignant tale, told with excellent reserve and no soppiness, but it does leave a big black cloud over the whole book.
On the other hand, we've got Gore Vidal himself reading the thing in his Mandarin drawl, and that blots out a multitude of sins. Gore revisits some of the favorites from the earlier memoir--Jack and Jackie, Tennessee Williams, his parents, Amelia Earhart--and brings them to life like Dickens giving a final-tour reading.
We've had a number of books covering this territory. Their various analyses and theories intersect like a Venn Diagram, as there is usually a decided emphasis in favor of blaming the CIA, the Cubans working with the CIA, the Mafia, the Mossad, or LBJ and his Texas cronies. Philip Nelson comes very close to giving us a Grand Unifying Superset of them all. In his version, LBJ might have been a "mastermind" of the assassination, but he he didn't plan every jot and tittle. Basically an opportunist, LBJ took advantage of grudges and political debts, and used them to his advantage.
The performance was annoying, read at half-speed. It put me in mind of Al Gore.
McPherson has many hobby-horses. He is anti-Catholic, anti-Confederate, determinedly leftist. He spouts utter tripe: the Fort Pillow massacre was a slaughter of innocent negroes, for example. The "massacre" was an invention of armchair journalists who weren't there. You won't find any serious historian endorsing this "massacre" story these days. And it's not as though the facts have changed since the 1980s.
The one saving grace of this book is that McPherson gives a good overview of the two or three decades preceding the War. It is a very biased, School of Abolition Dogma overview, but it is coherent all the same.
I am really tired of seeing this dedicated and modest man being treated as a second-rater or as laboratory contagion to be contained. He was one of the finest statesmen of the 19th century. Perhaps he was too ethereally religious, perhaps he stood too much on principle, perhaps he was, in modern parlance, a micromanager. Still, most of his contemporaries are no more than midway hucksters when they get put against Jefferson Davis.
William C. Davis really could have praised him a little more, given him his due. What he does is place him somewhere in the Pantheon between Winfield Scott and Franklin Pierce.
Nice and sympathetic. Even if you're prejudiced against the SOB. But that's all right. There's something here for everyone to like. You like birds? Winnie had a budgie named Toby, whom he lost while staying at the George Sank (George V Hotel) in Paris in the late 50s. Heartbroken. You get the ups and downs of a guy who lives almost a century and screws up more often than not. That's not too bad.
Perhaps Lynne Olson put too much into her book proposal. I liked the coverage of Robert Sherwood, and Lord Lothian, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I thought she was neglectful of some major aspects of prewar politics, e.g. the Popular Front and the Communist tergiversation. I don't even remember whether there was anything in here on Spain. Did I miss that?
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