Civilizations and their mounds

Two large earthen mounds in a landscape of brown grass lawn and leafless trees.
Mississippian mounds

Somewhere not far from Cahokia Mounds Historic Site there is a landfill. You could see it from the interstate and from the top of Monk’s Mound, the largest earthen mound at Cahokia. Monk’s Mound is 100 feet tall. Monk’s Mound was easily the tallest man-made thing in North America when it was built hundreds of years ago. The landfill— merely one pile of refuse from one middling city in a vastly more advanced civilization— dwarfs Monk’s Mound.

The exhibits at Cahokia emphasize the (relative) sophistication of the city. Which is true, for North America of the time, but in the big picture Cahokia was a good seven thousand years behind Old World civilizations. The Cahokians built and maintained their city and trade network without: the wheel, metal tools, masonry, draft animals, a system of writing, or currency. The causes of Cahokia’s decline and demise are not known, only that they were gradual and not catastrophic, but I’m not too terribly surprised that Cahokia declined and vanished. I’m more impressed that it lasted as long as it did.

Alternate history

Though I’ve neglected writing my “book reports,” I’ve been through plenty of books this year, part of an effort to be a little more well-read. Lately I’ve been exploring classic science fiction and one of its sub genres, alternate history. The alternate histories I read this summer and fall are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel, and Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Along with Fatherland by Robert Harris (which I reported on a few years ago) these stories encompassed a formidable spread of approaches to the genre of alternate history.

The Man in the High Castle is set in a United States that lost the Second World War and is divided into puppet states dominated by Germany and Japan. The book’s historical divergence is pretty plausible. The assassination attempt on President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 is successful. The weak and incompetent presidents of the next decade leave the United States unprepared for the coming world war.

The book deals indirectly with how Americans might be disposed toward such an outcome. The Nazis are still bastards, of course, responsible for a monumental holocaust across Africa. Jews and blacks have largely disappeared from the United States, but most of the characters have accommodated themselves to their occupiers. In fact, many Americans express gratitude for the Axis’ extinguishing of world communism. It’s a good reminder that, if not for certain geopolitical calculations, we could have easily ended up on the other side of either world war. The most interesting turn of the plot is the emergence of a popular but subversive alternate history novel that hypothesizes an American and British victory over the Germans and Japanese.

The Years of Rice and Salt is both deep and sprawling . The historical divergence isn’t really plausible— the Black Death of the 14th century wipes out the entire population of Europe (as in, literally, the land between the Urals, Caucuses, Mediterranean, and Atlantic, as if diseases could confine themselves to artificially conceived geographic designations). The characters don’t dwell much on this puzzle; the mysterious plague is simply a handy device for imagining several centuries where Islamic and Chinese civilizations dominate the world.

Robinson’s stories are pretty erudite, steeped in science and philosophy along with history. This can make his books a little know-it-allish and tedious to read, but he constructs a sturdy fictional world for his characters to inhabit. The plot threads its way down the centuries through main characters reincarnated into different periods of world history. The most enjoyable chapter takes place in 17th century Samarkand and chronicles a Muslim gunpowder manufacturer who, under the patronage of the local khan, develops the scientific method as he investigates various natural mysteries.

For Want of Nail is in some ways the most remarkable of the three books. Rather than relate the alternate history through the plot of novel, the book is the alternate history, presented as an academic work, complete with footnotes, bibliography, even a critique by a dissenting historian. The subtitle, “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” is the only evidence of its self-awareness as a work of fiction. The academic conceit of the book makes it a bit of a slog to read through, but I felt it paid off to stick with it.

The historical divergence of For Want of a Nail, as the subtitle suggests, is the British victory in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1778. Which is pretty plausible; there was more than a little luck involved in the War of Independence, which the author wryly illustrates through his pro-loyalist persona. George Washington’s tactical blunders, the fractiousness of the colonies, the unpreparedness of the Continental Army to take on the world mightiest power—  the Revolution seems an ill-conceived adventure in a parallel universe, doesn’t it?

The war lost, moderates in Congress negotiate a settlement with London which reconstitutes the colonies as part of the empire in a Commonwealth-style association, the Confederation of North America, or CNA (the 13 colonies plus the Canadian colonies and the Old Northwest). The surviving rebels and their fellow travelers decamp to the frontier lands of New Spain (paralleling the flight of loyalists to Canada), where they set up their own republic called Jefferson (our Texas). Their leaders co-opt the Mexican Revolution and establish the United States of Mexico, or USM (comprising the territories of Mexico as they were before the Mexican-American War, including California and Arizona).

Some of the early characters are familiar, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Burgoyne, John C. Calhoun, and most importantly Andrew Jackson. But as the timeline progresses, familiar names and events disappear. There is no French Revolution of 1789, no American Civil War, no Second World War; no Napoleon, no Lincoln, no Hitler

The most peculiar development in For Want of a Nail is the rise of a huge multinational corporation, Kramer Associates, which from the California gold rush to dominate Mexico as an vertical industrial monopoly and becomes a world power as a non-state actor, even being the first to develop atomic weapons.

As the CNA and the USM square off in North America, Sobel uses them to play out the dual personality of the United States. The CNA is progressive, egalitarian, peaceful and isolationist, broadly industrialized and prone to quixotic social reforms. The USM is conservative, racially and economically stratified, militaristic, and expansionist. Slavery persists there well into the 20th century, and occasional draconian measures accompany a devolution into authoritarianism and dictatorship.

I also read this summer, as part of a collection of short alternate history stories, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, about life in the United States after Confederate victory at Gettysburg.  By the early 20th century the United States is decrepit and impoverished, at the mercy of predatory foreign interests, including the Confederate States. The main character, an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg, takes his academic investigations to extraordinary.  I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I wish you would read it, along with some of these other stories.

West Branch Cemetery

Two gravestones in the shade of a tree in a cemetery.
The graves of Jesse and Hulda Hoover, parents of the 31st President

I was in West Branch this morning to meet friends from work for lunch. It was a nice day so before I went home I walked up to the West Branch Municipal Cemetery, where President Hoover’s parents and other relatives are buried. I don’t think I had ever visited there before.

The Hoovers are in a little Hoover section where about a dozen family members are buried. They had never lived in  Engraved in stone all around the cemetery are other familiar names from my reading of the town’s and the historic site’s history: Leech, Stratton, Fawcett, Rummells, Enlow. I don’t know why I was so surprised to see them there.

Our visit to Tippecanoe Battlefield

We made a quick stop at Tippecanoe Battlefield near Lafayette, Indiana. There was a museum we didn’t have time for this visit, and the battlefield included an obelisk monument with a statue of William Henry Harrison. A wrought-iron fence enclosed the battlefield. The gate was unlocked, and we could go in and out. More mysterious were the steps that led up an over the fence. We had a good laugh at it, and even made a video.


My brother looked it up later, and the steps are called a “stile,” as in “turnstile”— something that allows passage while maintaining the barrier. It’s purpose at this battlefield is still a mystery, though.

President’s Day

I was working yesterday, a typically slow February day in the park, when a visitor remarked that the place must be really busy on President’s Day. How charming that this gentleman thought Americans dash out to the nearest museum or national park to learn about presidents on President’s Day. But if all the people with their kids at the mall today were any indication, President’s Day is still a great day for shopping deals.

At Scheels, a right-wing sporting goods store, they have these bronze statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in front of the store entrance. Accompanying the statues are distorted, out of context quotations that make the founders appear to have favored a Christian theocracy as our form of government. Yet even Scheel’s was open for business on President’s Day. Apparently they would rather their employees and customers spend the day buying Under Armor products than reflecting on the founders’ legacy.

Having Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays rolled into one President’s Day guts it of any meeting. Its name sounds like it’s honoring all presidents, even one-month wonder William Henry Harrison and our own little-beloved Herbert Hoover. We already have two patriotic holidays glorifying our wars plus Independence Day. I don’t expect Americans, who don’t get very many days off, to turn into presidential scholars for a day. I give credit to the boosters of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, who have been trying to turn that holiday into a day of service (“a day on, not a day off”).

Harpers Ferry

I was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for another training this week. Even though I’ve been there before, I don’t usually have time during the day to explore the historical park, but this time I had part of Friday afternoon, so I visited some of the historic buildings in the Lower Town. Each one, more or less, is a museum with exhibits of the park’s many themes: John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, arms manufacturing, and so on. Though the exhibits were a little busy-looking and cluttered for my visual tastes (especially after a week of hard concentration), the one on John Brown’s raid was pretty provocative. One of the videos, without going into too much graphic detail, was frank about the violence of the raid and the counter-raid, as if it was an omen of the great war to come. It raised some interesting questions about violence in the name of righteousness.

It’s too bad this sort of thoughtful reflection appears in a public exhibit about a radical antislavery action, but not in our numerous war museums and memorials. It is as if violence should only give us pause when it is not perpetrated by the state. Or perhaps fear of inflaming Southern sensitivities prompted the National Park Service to be particularly introspective when planning this exhibit.

On lighter note, one evening some of us went on a “ghost tour” of the Lower Town. Despite its rich and exciting past, Lower Town is pretty deserted on Monday evenings. I can see why ghost stories are popular there. I noticed a little extra zeal in the local businesses for Halloween decorations.

Zinn fanned hell

Just who are “the people” in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”? One’s claim on membership, it seems, is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering at the hands of others, who in turn are somewhere in the gradient of minions and victims of “the Establishment,” a term Zinn takes care to capitalize. Zinn’s sympathies are with Marxists and anarchists, and for all the people’s history this book contains (at times it reads like a long catalog of revolts, insurrections, uprisings, riots, strikes, and protests), he doesn’t have a high opinion of “the people”, as they are forever being duped into submission by the elites.

I studied American history in college but I never read Zinn’s “A People’s History” (though I now recognize Zinn’s interpretations in some of my professors’ lectures). I’ve just finished with a copy of the 2003 edition which ends with the 2001 terrorist attacks. I’m not sure what made me pick it up all of sudden; maybe the feeling that democracy is starting to slip from our grasp.

But Zinn might have said it was never really in our grasp. According to his book the rich and powerful subvert democracy by tilting the law in their favor and then insisting we all abide by its rule. For example, he writes of our revered Bill of Rights:

The Constitution became even more acceptable to the public at large after the first Congress, responding to criticism, passed a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people’s liberties: to speak, to publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official intrusion. It was, therefore, perfectly designed to build popular backing for the new government. what was not made clear— it was a time when language of freedom was new and its reality untested— was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.

Zinn argues that the system is not just inherently flawed, that it’s set up this way on purpose; for all its guarantees of individual freedoms and liberties, constitutional government is still in the hands of “the Establishment”— the fox guarding the hen house. But whatever the motives were behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and whatever the failures to live up to its principles, intent, or promises, does it not represent the popular will? Are “the people’s” wishes illegitimate when they align with those of “the Establishment?”

I’m not sure I buy Zinn’s thesis that American constitutional democracy is “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” I’m also not sure what kind of system he would replace it with. Perhaps a committee of pinko university professors who distribute collective rights and privileges after assessing their grievances.

I understand his point that elites use racism, nationalism, imperialism, and materialism– to divide the larger population against each other. Even before reading this book, I thought a lot about the darker aspects of American history and the only way I can reconcile our national ideals with our record of genocide, imperialism, slavery, and discrimination was an unofficial ideology of white supremacy. That unofficial ideology is now out of fashion, to the degree that even racists try to hide that they are so, a great contrast to the defenders of slavery, Indian removal, overseas expansion, and Jim Crow. An ideology of prosperity seems to have replaced it; we worship growth and security more than we worship democracy.

The greatest value in Zinn’s book is his skepticism and his refusal to follow the usual nationalist narrative about how we got so great. Another perspective, backed up by legitimate scholarship, is always refreshing. Now that we’re not so great, it’s worth taking a look at how we got this way too.

What if?

If you’re looking for a detailed description of how Pharaoh Amenhotep LXXVII might have responded to the attacks on the Twin Pyramids in New Memphis by fanatical followers of the jealous Judean war-god on September 11, 2001, the essays in “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley might seem a little unimaginative. The essayists, who include Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan, David McCullough, and James McPherson, are not fiction writers but serious historians.

The above writers’ names, which are featured on the cover, suggest that the book is mostly about American military history but it covers a good stretch of Western civilization. The first essay, about if an outbreak of plague had not caused the Assyrians to lift their siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, is a little lame. It suggests only that had Jerusalem capitulated, Christianity and Islam, and therefore Western civilization might not have happened. That seems pretty obvious but it illustrates the great difficulty in writing counterfactual history: the farther back in history you start the greater the changes that are wrought. It would be a long essay indeed if the writer had to imagine Assyrian chariots rolling ashore in North America  2,000 years later.

The essays focus mostly on identifying the precarious pivotal moments in history and what didn’t happen; like after the recall of the Mongol army from frontiers of central Europe upon the death of their emperor the Mongols didn’t snuff out the embryonic centers of commerce and learning in medieval Europe. The American Revolution gets a lot of attention, as it was loaded with accidents and near misses which, had they not happened, the War of Independence might have been lost several times over. And we’d be the serfs of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II instead of Goldman Sachs.

I might pick up “What If? 2” later, but there is also a book called “For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga” by Robert Sobel which I would like to get a hold of. And if you’re looking for an enjoyable fictional alternate history, try “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, about Nazi Germany in 1964.

George Washington

Since I’ve seen Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait of George Washington a million times in books, I wanted see it in person. We hustled up to Cedar Rapids because Its exhibition at the Museum of Art ends next weekend. Cedar Rapids, as is usual on a winter Sunday afternoon, was deserted and so was the museum, so we had George to ourselves for a little while. The iconic nature of this portrait is largely due its subject, but I’m willing to give Peale more credit for that now that I’ve seen it up close. If I looked him in the eyes, I could sense Washington’s legendary presence and the brass buttons appeared to practically pop off his blue uniform coat.

A man poses in front of a famous portrait of George Washington.
Washington meets history geek

The portrait was in a big room by itself with some interpretive panels about Washington, Peale, John Hancock (who commissioned the portrait perhaps to flatter the general and ensure Boston and Hancock’s wealth stayed out of British hands), and—since this is Cedar Rapids—Grant Wood, who included themes from the Revolution in several of his paintings and illustrations.


This indicates some of my cynicism about “The Greatest Generation”. My brother and I wrote this to the Long Island newspaper in response to another nonsensical letter to the editor. The original writer (J.P.B.) was responding to a run on groceries caused by sensational media forecasts of a blizzard that never materialized. I wonder how he reacted to the terrorist attacks six months later. I’m sure he didn’t advocate torture or anything like that.

March 8, 2001

J.P.B. wrote correctly in his March 8, 2001 letter that his (or her) generation did not panic when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They only locked all the Japanese-Americans away in desert concentration camps until the war ended.

J.P.B also suggests that the younger generation should not panic in the face of snowstorms, but should get angry and retaliate. Why would we get angry at the weather? And against whom shall we retaliate?

God bless J.P.B.’s generation! They made the most out of a fourth grade education.