Saturday, October 16, 2004

Historical Fancies, or A Case of the Vapors

Murdering Mr. Lincoln, by Charles Higham, Read by Dan Cashman, New Milennium Audio, 2004

Unless you belong to that very odd group of people generally referred to as Civil War buffs, I couldn’t more heartily steer you away from this work if I came at you with bayonet affixed to my musket.

I’ve noted in this space before the unsuitability of certain works for the audio format due to a vaporously cerebral writing styles and qualities. You can add another category to the list: the wide-ranging, anecdotal, cast of thousands approach to history that Charles Higham unleashed with this murky, confusing, intriguing yet ultimately unsatisfying mishmash conglomerate.

Higham is very, very bad at drawing characters in any way that allows them to stand out in this nomenclature pile up. He introduces every single possible side actor and ambassador's serving man in a welter of appellatives without follow up that leaves the listener soon bewildered. A map or chart listing every character in this phantasmagoric dream chronicle would certainly be enlightening, though I understand that is missing even in the print edition.

It is apparently necessary to bulk up the book's slender thesis — that more than one person was involved in Lincoln’s assassination (already a tacitly accepted fact) and the truth has been suppressed for too long, too long I say! Higham fleshes this out by introducing every Confederate citizen who hated Abraham Lincoln (a somewhat sizable sum total, as you can guess) and by describing in great detail a number of plots that took place during the Civil War that are very, very, very tangentially connected to John Wilkes Booth. By demonstrating this widespread hatred, Higham provides himself with a self-fulfilling story: by the fact that so many despised Lincoln and wanted him dead, Higham’s particular conspiracy is a self-confirming fact. By adding tales of hijacked ferries, plans to burn New York City’s hotels to the ground, and sundry bank robberies committed by Confederate spies, Higham adds some entertaining but not illuminating heft to his volume.

All this production sets a wide stage, but not a particularly deep one. When we are told that British North America (Canada), and England in general, supported the South over the North, we are given no explanation for why this should be so. Why should a country that outlawed slavery long before our own nation prefer the trade of a secessionist nation angrily supportive of slavery? Why should Canada, where so many travelers on the Underground Railroad ended up, be portrayed as such a hotbed of southern sympathies? Higham never explains this, though if he had spent more time on the Union's blockade of southern cotton shipping and the economic benefits to Europe and Canada in breaking this, and less time pointing out that certain people had weaknesses for billiards and fancy clothes, it might make more sense. There also seems to be an overbearing tendency to describe many in this multitude of bit players as having "liquid eyes." I'm desperately glad to have Higham solicit this information so thoroughly from the daguerreotypes of the day. My history lesson is so complete now. It's a desperately impoverishing oversight that Higham introduces us to Admiral Burnsides, yet neglects to lavish his descriptive powers on the man's sideburns. Alas.

I also suspect that Higham makes far too much of southern love of mint juleps. Yes, you read that right. Higham seems to think that the idea of going to Canada to be a spy was repellant to so many young southern gentlemen largely on the grounds that no one up there in that wilderness society would be able to make a decent julep. Can this be a creditable take on reticence? My experience with southerners is fortunately limited to a few I’ve met in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, and they’ve suggested to me that the southern passion for mint juleps is a marketing creation bearing no resemblance to reality. While it may be the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, it is not the kind of thing people are quaffing on an hourly or even nightly basis. Whatever the truth of that, Higham mentions the availability of juleps no less than four times in the book’s course.

The early description of George N. Sanders, one of the key protagonists in the assassination plot, is where the book does get somewhat fascinating. Higham stops the story's forward momentum to give us a deep and curious portrait of the man. His proto-fascist organization, Young America, is a frightening example from the family tree of racist hate group. It is through this man that the phrase "Manifest Destiny" got its biggest boost and spread. The power he held over Franklin Pierce’s Administration, the President in shocked grief over his young son’s death, holds particularly frightening salience today.

When the Civil War finally starts, though, you'd never know it happened in the flow of the story. Suddenly it just is. Higham talks about the various plots pre-war to kill Lincoln, discusses Lincoln's inauguration, ending with the statement war was definitely coming. We follow Sanders up and down the continent, then next thing we are told is that Davis is moving the Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond. What? When did this all happen? Did I miss a disc? I went back to look through and found that the gap wasn't in my memory. War was just suddenly upon us.

Because Higham has a weakness for conspiracy theories, he makes constant and frequent references to the Rothschild family, implying sinister intent without ever providing a shred of evidence to make it credible. It's not that powerful money families (like the Rothschilds) don't intrigue against various politicians they dislike. That’s common enough. It's just that when a book brings up both the Rothschilds (describing them as manipulative and insidious, typical anti-semitic slurs against them) as well as the sinister, secretive world of the Jesuits, the tinfoil hat starts vibrating on my head, letting me know that we're treading close to loopiness. I pledged that if the Illuminati were brought into the story, I'd just stop, stop listening and shift to Top 40 Radio.

Dan Cashman, the reader, is a gruff old bird who sometimes sounds as if passing kidney stones while engaged in the reading. His sentences are punctuated by awkward pauses and airy moments of grunted phrasing. Perhaps this was his dramatization of punctuation. I can’t say for certain. Crusty superannuated voices lend a certain smoked porkchop flavor to southern books, but in this instance, I’d have preferred a smoother, more bourbon enhanced take on this fabulist tale. Perhaps something featuring shaved ice, bourbon, sugar, and mint.

No comments: