Tag Archives: history

Lighthouses & Keepers

Lighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its LegacyLighthouses and Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy by Dennis L. Noble

Something about lighthouses captured our family’s fancy this past summer, and we found ourselves visiting as many as we could along the western coast of Lake Michigan. Their appeal is aesthetic, certainly, the romance of the shoreline and a lost time passed. But the amount of history—of commerce, technology, transportation—they represent is also significant, and I remembered a colleague who, in the early days of my PhD program, suggested that the history of the US Lighthouse Board would be a good topic for a dissertation, one on which there was still a great deal to be done. After spending some time this summer exploring lighthouses, I figured it might be time to revisit this idea, so I started looking for material. And it turns out the only recent book-length treatment on the topic is Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis Noble, a survey of the history of the US Lighthouse Service. The book provides an outline of the contours of this history that any more detailed study would be built upon.

Basically, the narrative of lighthouses in the United States goes something like this: the construction of lighthouses in Colonial times and the early days of the republic was haphazard and poorly managed. Their construction and supervision was linked with the collection of customs, and supervision of the lighthouses (or “aids to navigation”) was under the fifth auditor of the US Treasury, a man by the name of Stephen Pleasanton, who would control lighthouses for over thirty years, beginning in the early 1800s. The problem was that besides having no maritime experience, Pleasanton was primarily focused on keeping his political bailiwick as economically lean as possible. Noble claims that Pleasanton, along with his primary contractor, was responsible for retarding the development of lighthouses even as they proliferated on both coasts and the Great Lakes. This growing crisis, which Noble talks about briefly in terms of rising cost to life and commerce because of poor aids to navigation, precipitated the founding of the US Lighthouse Board in 1852.

This is where a detailed study could really sink some teeth into the narrative and provide context. What was the popular, contemporary feeling regarding lighthouses, or were there particular incidents that swung public and government opinion toward founding the Board to address the issue? Noble credits the Board with transforming lighthouse management in a manner of years from “a service of political appointees, with haphazard accomplishment” to a professional government service. How exactly was this accomplished? Part of the explanation, according to Noble, was the composition of the Board, which included civilian scientific representatives (like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) as well as army and navy officers. Part was also the fact that the Board issued detailed instructions for keepers, standardizing equipment and procedures. Part of this was technical innovation as well, with Noble treats briefly in discussions of oil and Fresnel lenses. But all of this discussion in Lighthouses & Keepers is generally superficial, simply one chapter in a longer overview of the Lighthouse Service, which came into being at the Board’s recommendations.

Noble has chapters on all aspects of the Service, not just lighthouses. He discusses lightships (which had a unique history on the Great Lakes), buoys, fog signals, and tenderships (ships that provided service and supplies). All of this provides a snapshot of aspects of the work of the Service, before it was disbanded in 1939— or rather, merged with the US Coast Guard, which again would be an interesting period to examine because, as Noble discusses, Coast Guard were enlisted officers whereas keepers were almost entirely civilian, so the merger of the two organizations inevitably led to some friction. Lighthouses, perhaps more than any other iconic structures, seem to embody history, and Noble’s book is an excellent (and perhaps really the only) way to access the institutional history behind them.

One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

At some point, Bill Bryson apparently became interested in something that happened during the summer of 1927, probably in relation to baseball, so he did what any good writer would do and went to the library to begin reading newspapers from that period. He quickly realized that apart from Babe Ruth’s amazing season, there were lots of other incredible things happening, not least of which was Lindberg’s first solo transatlantic flight.

You can see Bryson in action as a reader himself, as he drops hints about his methodology throughout the book: he alludes to headlines and how many pages were devoted to specific stories at specific times. When characters (known or unknown today) appear, he delves into the secondary literature to place them in context.

And we are persuaded. There is no doubt about it, crazy and amazing things were happening in the summer of 1927, and Bryson’s verve and prose make this popcorn history at its best. It’s accessible, fun, engaging, and at times genuinely insightful. And it even does something important: it gives a new perspective of a different time in our nation’s history.

Of course, with any historical snapshot like this the problem is that stories keep wandering out of the frame. We get, for instance, exposes of Coolidge and Hoover and their respective administrations, as well as clues and forecasts leading up to the stock market crash, but of course most of that action and context happens off screen, as it were. When it comes down to it, the only things that are firmly within the summer appear to be baseball and the immediate aftermath of Lindberg’s flight.

Some of the things Bryson covers consists of primarily context (like the advent of talking pictures and its influence) without any conclusion (like what happened with Ford’s Model A, which Ford had shut down all production in that summer in order to create). But all of that is fine, because Bryon’s not writing a historical treatise. He’s writing a story. A story about a single summer with tons of information, tons of fantastic characters, and his familiar vantage of being pleasantly delighted and bemused with everything he’s discovering.

The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.

Victoria: the Queen

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I remember an evening class session my first semester as a history PhD student at Notre Dame held in the living room of a professor who has since passed away in which this incredibly erudite historian made a case for empire. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the crux was a contrast between the relative peace that prevailed between various peoples who saw themselves as part of a single empire against the contemporary strife of nationalism among the ashes of collapsed empires. I remember that many of us were still young enough to find this idea shocking, distasteful, and certainly heretical to our American ideals of democracy. The democratic, in-fighting cities of Greece were the good guys, after all. The absolutist, domineering emperor of Persia was the singular Bad Guy.

Because that’s the problem with empire, isn’t it? You need an emperor. It never seems to work to unify a disparate collection of nations or peoples under the authority of an elected body. (Or at least, it didn’t work for the Romans for long, and one could argue whether the United States is in some respects simply a relatively young experiment in democratic empire-building.) It doesn’t work because an empire doesn’t really want all its constituent pieces represented. It just wants them unified, and the best way to do that is to place them all under the authority—perhaps only a symbolic authority, though sometimes that’s the strongest authority of all—of an emperor.

We’ve forgotten what a Christian idea this is. Christianity was not born in democracy, nor does it tend toward it. Every day, Christians around the world pray for the coming of a kingdom, an empire with a benevolent Prince of Peace as the ultimate, un-democratic authority. This was an ideal I was first introduced to in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, when the ghost of Severian’s tutor walks his pupil through what Severian assumes are progressively higher and more developed forms of government until the tutor asks in what relation Severian stands with most loyal, obedient companion. Democracy, Wolfe seemed to be saying, does not have a monopoly on virtue and loyalty. Indeed, these might flourish more easily in an empire ruled by a worthy leader. (And much of the plot of this five-volume epic is the story of Severian becoming a worthy emperor.) Famously atheistic Terry Pratchett makes a similar argument in the character of Lord Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of the Discworld’s most fabulous city.

This isn’t an argument against democracy, or even an argument that one form of government is better or worse than another. But it is an argument that to understand other peoples and periods (and maybe even our own theology) we need to at least consider giving up the notion that democracy is inherently and without question the best or the natural progression of all states. When we do, we might be in a position to understand the life and significance of someone like Queen Victoria.

As Julia Baird sets out in this sweeping biography of the life of the queen (and empress), Victoria reigned over an empire that during her lifetime grew to encompass a quarter of the world’s inhabited landmass and hundreds of millions of subjects—arguably the largest empire in history. Yet her life and reign (second in British history only to the currently-reigning queen) spanned the industrialization of her empire and a growing tide of liberal reforms. Under her rule (though not always with her support), Reform Bills expanded the voting franchise, and new laws began modernizing women’s rights and protection of children and workers and even animals (through anti-cruelty laws). Throughout a reign lasting from 1837 to 1876 (she came to the throne at the age of only eighteen), Victoria balanced being a figurehead and yet a real, forceful symbol of devotion to empire with the exercise of true political power.

Baird does a tremendous job mining primary sources and balancing her treatment of Victoria as a person with the context of the political and social world that was being transformed around her. From her stormy relationship with her mother to her adoration of husband Prince Albert and her veneration of his memory after his death decades before her own, to stubborn battles of will with the various Prime Ministers she outlasted and outlived, to her (previously often censored) relationship with her Highlands servant John Brown, Baird shines the light on Victoria the woman—often stubborn, selfish, and self-interested, but just as often stubborn, indomitable, and compassionate. Throughout, Baird highlights what it meant, for men and women, to have a woman as sovereign in a period when the rights of women in Britain were still developing.

This treatment of her personal character is balanced with enough context to help the reader place Victoria and her family in the center of shifting European politics and historical developments. Her children and grandchildren were scattered across the royal families of Europe, with repercussions up to the time of First World War. The ultimate fate of her granddaughter, wife of the doomed Tsar, in the Russian Revolution is well-known, but I had not realized the intricacies of what the rise of Prussia in the late 1800s (eventually ruled by Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm) implied for family loyalties even before the Great War. Baird does a good job giving an overview of these complexities (and among the German kingdoms this could easily become dizzying) without getting lost in the details.

Finally, Baird finds a balance between the civilizing aspects of empire and the brutal realities this often entailed—usually for subject peoples. She doesn’t shirk from outlining the forgotten wars that played out on the fringes of the empire, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that she says cost millions of lives. At the end of Victoria’s reign, the Boer War in South Africa was pitting British imperialism against descendants of Dutch settlers in a conflict that put to rest ideals of empire as a benevolent force in light of the realities of forced relocation, concentration camps, and a naked bid for mineral wealth. Tangentially, Baird’s account outlines the true magnitude of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which colonial powers carved the continent between them and laid the groundwork for conflicts that would explode across Europe in the First World War. It made me wonder whether a more nuanced exploration of the conflicts that have shaken Europe might usefully recast them in light of the consequences of exploitation on the edge of empire, which historical treatments have often kept off the primary stage of history.

In my own fiction, empire often functions as a monolithic background in my fantasy. Empire is an easy background for epic. Allegiance to a distant, aging, perhaps half-forgotten emperor has something of romance, and I’ve looked at what loyalty to a larger ideal embodied in the person of an individual in a few of my published stories—”The Glorious Revolution” and my Wizard’s House sequence. I’ve also explored what the character of an empress forced into power might be like, in “Deathspeaker,” which is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. But all fiction is only a mirror, and it is only as rich as the history that informs it. I’m coming to realize that books like Baird’s and the characters like Victoria who return to life through them are essential for literature and that the interplay between history and fiction– even fantasy– might be closer than I realize.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireByzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated with Byzantium for years, ever since I found a copy of Colin Wells’ Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World on the shelf at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, years ago. Wells’ book was in the tone of most popular work on Byzantium, balancing the empire’s relative obscurity in history with its neglected importance. Since then I’ve read 1453, Roger Crowley’s account of the final siege of Constantinople that reads like the story of the Alamo times a thousand, as well as several other recent popular works on the city itself or the empire or their role in the Crusades. After that it was time to dive into the older, classic works by Steven Runciman and John Julian Norwich. Eventually all this reading inspired some fiction, a historical fantasy called “The Gunsmith of Byzantium,” which I’ve been shopping around for years, so far to no avail.

Byzantium represents both continuity and transition, something at once central to the heritage and transmission of classical learning but also largely peripheral to Western histories. It is the enduring Eastern half of the Roman Empire, lasting for well over a thousand years, from Emperor Constantine’s transferal of the imperial capital to the city on the banks of the Bosphorus to its ultimate conquest by Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire is not a straightforward history or a narrative on this huge topic. You won’t find the same dramatic scope as you would, for instance, in Crowley’s book or in Norwich’s sweeping chronological treatments. Rather, Herrin offers a synthetic survey, roughly chronological, distilling the various threads of Byzantine history and culture and drawing them into the light for a wide audience. Throughout the work, the author’s obvious enthusiasm and expertise in the subject vies with a small amount of tediousness as Herrin works to balance being thorough and comprehensive with being straightforward and engaging.

You’ll find out, for instance, both about the practices of taxation in Asia Minor as well as the epic poetry composed along this frontier, the splendor of the imperial court and the role and history of eunuchs within it. Herrin offers surveys of theological disputations that divided the empire, the role of women in propping up emperors and supporting the arts, the role of language and literature, the changing political fortunes of the empire, and the impact of the Crusades. The vast scope of issues she needs to discuss and angles to explore to be comprehensive is necessary for a complete treatment of an empire that endured for over a thousand years, but it makes the overall narrative structure slim. Throughout though, Herrin does a good job drawing connections with contemporary issues and the enduring legacy of Byzantium.

For the casual student of Byzantium, Herrin’s treatment doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s a good overview of Byzantine life and culture by a recognized scholar in the field. For someone who has heard of Byzantium though and is looking for a good place to start (and wants something a bit more synthetic and less sensational then Crowley’s 1453), Herrin provides an ideal entrance to this largely neglected world.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson tries to do everything, and it totally pisses me off. It wouldn’t bother me so much if I could dismiss him, if what he did didn’t really matter very much or if he did it badly. But he does it with a certain curmudgeonly panache that makes it all the more irritating when he succeeds. He gets to travel to interesting places and write about how they make him cranky, which is pretty much the height of achievement for a writer. But when he takes on something like the entirety of the physical world itself in A Brief History of Nearly Everything and comes across even more genuine and reflective, I want to either give him a huge high-five or push him off a cliff.

The thing about this book, Bryson’s first work of natural history, is that it retains most of the best parts of his writing style and drops the most irritating aspects. That is, in Bryson’s travel writings I’m always annoyed at the way his cranky “get off my lawn” disposition stands in tension with a clear-eyed excitement and wonder about the places he’s going and the things he learns there. Much of this, at least in his UK work, is because he’s seen these places before, has spent much of his career trying to preserve them, and is embittered about the way they’re changing. In A Brief History, the subject matter precludes some of this personal irritation but retains his wonder about the nature of reality itself and the story of man’s investigation of it, and this to great effect.

Bryson is a writer who can pretty much—it seems—do whatever he wants. So when he came to the realization that he didn’t know much about the natural history of the planet he’s spend a career traveling around on, no one told him that he didn’t have the training or the background to write a compelling treatment. He just started reading books and talking to specialists, and A Brief History is what we got. Despite my expectations returning to the book after nearly a decade and a PhD later, I think he largely succeeds.

Now, of course there are errors and misrepresentations. Any specialist reading a book in which Bryson tries to cover so much ground is going to find one or two. At one point, for instance, Bryson causally mentions a distance to Betelgeuse that I think is off by an order of magnitude. But in general terms, he does a remarkably good job of taking a non-specialist on a tour of the physical world, through space and time but focusing primarily on our own planet and our own (sometimes misguided) attempts to understand it, highlighting all the while just how amazing it all is. And, of course, because it’s Bryson, all the weirdness and randomness and strange stories involved in the (largely male) folks who figured this stuff out figure prominently.

Of course, that approach lends itself to certain pitfalls in writing historical treatments of science, and Bryson doesn’t avoid these. The entire work is suffused with Whiggism. That is, Bryson is interested in explaining how we “got to” our (assumedly correct) modern understanding of things. In fairness, he recognizes how much uncertainty and conjecture there is in discussion of, for instance, our early history and origins as a species. But largely, his story is a narrative of how different scientists “got it right” or “almost got it right.” What they did is interpreted with the final modern synthesis in sight. He’s not interested in understanding the context in which someone like Isaac Newton was working or evaluating his theories by their own terms and historical context; he holds them up as a modernist looking through interesting oddities, pulling old things from a drawer and laughing at how quaint certain aspects appear.

But I can forgive a lot in this work, because there are so many interesting things to bring to light and Bryson still does such a great job of unearthing them. He admits that his work is in no way a standardized, authoritative, or comprehensive treatment. It’s not a textbook, and a different writer would have pulled out different interesting bits. Rather, as with Bryson’s other books, it’s a meander. But here we don’t get vignettes of Bryson falling asleep on a bus only to wake and berate the fate of a random seaside village; here we get instead a lot of genuine wonder and accessible prose leading us along into this big wide world and our long and tangled explorations of it.

The Last Tsar

The Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas IIThe Last Tsar the Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wrote in an earlier review about the apocalypse that the Russian revolution must have been to Christians who lived through it, those who had come of age in a self-consciously, imperially Christian nation finding themselves citizens of an atheistic regime in active and open revolt against the structures of the faith. But what about the ruling family themselves, the Romanovs? This book is a portrait of the life of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, focusing on the tragedy of his final months and his ultimate execution, along with his family, at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Radzinsky is apparently one of Russia’s most well-known playwrights and has written multiple volumes of popular history, of which this is one. He has given the book a strange format: we get glimpses of the author working through the archives of the royal family and various local Soviet archives (many recently declassified) as he pieces together his story. We also see old soldiers or Soviet officials coming out as glasnost takes hold, sharing with the author their recollections or letters of what happened in those final days. Overlaid on this background is the historical narrative itself, episodic to the point of being fragmentary and dramatized by the playwright’s eye. Knowing how the story ends, everything is foreshadowed by the conclusion, and ominous forebodings are read backward into the first days of the Tsar’s reign and even further, into his courtship and childhood. Radzinsky also often adds his speculations and reflections to the documentary material as the story is being told, giving a view of matters that if accurate still seems sensationalized.

The events of the book though are dramatic enough on their own, and my primary frustration was not the author’s style so much as the book’s lack of scope. It was apparently written for those who already knew Soviet history and who were trying to fill a very specific hole: what exactly happened to the Tsar, his wife, their daughters, and the heir in those chaotic last days. It was written for a Russian audience during a time in which new information was coming to light, but it meant much of the background was assumed.

This was especially apparent in the book’s first half, before the scope collapsed down to the Tsar’s family in their last house of imprisonment. Before this, documenting the last days of the Tsar’s reign, the casual Western reader is faced with a farrago of names unfamiliar and events for which he or she doesn’t have the context. I was still left clueless as to how exactly the Russian forces dissolved along the German front during the First World War and how Russian society turned up-side-down so quickly that the autocrat and commander in chief became a criminal and prisoner in his own palace. The Bolshevik Revolution was a tide that swept him and his family– and an entire social structure– away, and though we are treated to the surreal reversals (the disappearing guards, the palace that becomes a prison) through the eyes of the Tsar’s journals, the broader context is never outlined. For a reader already familiar with Russian history, the tight focus would be fine. For me, it meant I was as lost as Nicholas for much of the work.

The second half, once the old world had been swept away, was an easier read in this respect, and the foreboding and foreshadowing language the author used at times to the point of distraction during his survey of the Tsar’s reign now falls away as Radzinsky can focus on the grim details of their final imprisonment. He has the preoccupations of a playwright here as well: outlining their final setting like a stage, fussing with getting the characters of the final assassins outlined and pinned down, spinning out speculations and motives in the final political maneuverings before the royal family’s deaths. He is deeply sympathetic to the Romanovs, presenting their final attitudes as ones of stoic, Christian resolution and even– especially in the case of Nicholas– self-sacrifice and martyrdom for the greater good of his nation.

My fear was that with the sensationalism of earlier portions of the work, Radzinsky would focus too much on the grisly detail of their execution, but here he takes a circumspect, investigative approach. This was especially interesting in his exploration of events following the execution, as he works with records and clues to reconstruct their burial and reports on subsequent investigations regarding the recovery of the bodies. He lingers as well on the legends that sprang up regarding the possible survival of one of the daughters and the heir, Alexei Romanov, himself. The legends are easy to entertain (though they’ve since been disproven), because the entire story is told through the long, shadowy lens of decades of secrecy and Soviet rule. In some ways, this may be the most effective aspect of the book: illustrating not simply the nature of the regicide itself but the effort it took to piece together the details so long after the fact.