Monday, June 27, 2011

1812: Why we Fought

Last week I promised to fill you in on some of the more bizarre details of this strange conflict. The most bizarre thing about the War of 1812, as near as I can determine, was that it was the American government who declared it.

Why start a war with the strongest naval power on the planet? Well, we were mad at them. Free Trade and Sailor's Rights was the rallying cry at the time, and that had to do with arrogant British sea power interfering with American commerce and impressing American seamen to serve on British warships. But there were other issues.

In the West (which is to say, places like Ohio and Kentucky) the American settlers were solidly behind any war that would get rid of the Indians, who allied themselves with the British. The Americans wanted the Indians' land. They moved onto it in droves. In response the Indians became the first anti-American terrorists. Mutilated corpses make for a lot of bad feeling; the Indians were hated and feared.

Population pressures drove a lot of pro-war sentiment. In that agrarian society the average American family needed enough fertile land to grow food. Not only Indian land looked good to them but Canadian land as well (and eventually, Mexican land, but that's another story). The conquest of Canada, as Thomas Jefferson once famously remarked, was a mere matter of marching. Resistance to Yankee forces was not expected.

After all, the British were busy fighting the French. How much trouble could a few Canadian farmers possibly be? So with a tiny standing army, a few inadequate forts, an ill-trained and skittish militia, and a navy consisting of six huge frigates and a number of lesser vessels, the United States of America went to war.

Not everyone liked the idea. The day after war was declared a Baltimore newspaperman published an issue of his paper denouncing the war. Outraged Baltimoreans converged on his newspaper office, broke up his presses, and pulled the building down. Then they attacked his supporters, killing some and wounding others.

Next: New England.

Monday, June 20, 2011

1812 Revisited – War with Britain!

In scarcely a year it will be the two hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the War of 1812, a war that was pretty much fought to a draw between the United States and Britain. What do you know about this conflict? Not much, I'm willing to bet. Even the hard core followers of the British Navy in the old days of sail, and there are plenty of those people, aren't aware of some of the battles that were fought on the Niagara frontier, or the role of the woodland Indians, or the fact that the New England states were so adamantly opposed to fighting the British that they were ready to secede from the union.

There is much interesting scandal to be known about the War of 1812. It ain't just dates and battles, folks. I came across stuff that you won't believe while I was researching background material for Bucker Dudley. There was treachery, cowardice, drooling incompetence, illicit sex, and raving madness. And that was just what went on in James Madison's Washington. I've decided to tear the veil from this little-appreciated conflict and tell you all. But it will take time. Watch this space for news of what happened two hundred years ago.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Prejudice, Pride, and V. S. Naipaul

Back in the old days, when a lot of the great ripping yarns were written, they were written for a very narrow audience, by writers of very narrow experience.

Case in point: Beau Geste (1924), by Percival Christopher Wren. The thrilling story of life in the French Foreign Legion and the fall of Fort Zinderneuf is marred by a scene in which the Beau stops on his way out of England to visit a pawnshop, where the writer pauses to invent and then insult a stereotypical Jewish pawnbroker. All of the readers were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, you see, and if they weren't, they wanted to be, and if they didn't want to be, well, they ought to. So let's bash the Jews.

Nowadays when nearly everybody who reads either has Jewish friends or is Jewish (What! You don't know any Jews?) the scene stands out for the piece of offensive tripe it is. Jewish people aren't like that, if they're like anything in particular. But now that I see that the book came out in 1924, a mere decade before the rise of Hitler, who had lots of admirers in England, I'm thinking that something much more sinister was at work here than simple ignorance.

But what about V.S. Naipaul? He's the one I sat down to write about. He said last week that no woman has ever been his equal in the field of writing. Their heads are full of sentimental feminine tosh, he said.

Nonsense like that would have been accepted without a murmur fifty years ago, the same as slurs against ethnic groups. Today it is greeted with a huge public outcry. My writer friends are mad at him. I'm not mad at him. I feel a vague unease, as if a passing rabbit were taking a crap on my grave. There are men everywhere who want to belittle us and stuff us back in the kitchen. Even now some antifeminist Hitler figure is rising from the bowels of the Tea Party, coming to take away our shoes and strew tacks in the yard.

Is Naipaul the greatest writer since Shakespeare? I couldn't say. I've never read him. Nor have I tried to write manly literary fiction. We in the whodunit game are out to entertain people, not stun them with the size of our packages, though I wouldn't turn down a Nobel prize in the unlikely event that somebody showed up at the door and offered it to me.

Men who do nothing in this world but put words on paper have to puff themselves up somehow. I'm sure he's a better writer than I am; otherwise, why does he keep getting prizes? Still I think you'll agree that people will be reading Jane Austen and Toni Morrison when the name of V.S. Naipaul is forgotten. I've forgotten already what the initials stand for.