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Vivid memories

Asking probing questions, diving into details

Vivid memories

HISTORY
CO-BOOKS OF THE YEAR

  • American History 

  • Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing 

Our Oct. 12 issue included 40 of my history book recommendations for this category (see “Pages of providence”), so here’s a brief update. Thomas Kidd’s two-volume American History continues to stand out from the crowd as an overview for college students, bright high schoolers, and general readers (homeschool parents particularly). Its excellence and usefulness make it our History co-Book of the Year, alongside Robert Caro’s Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.

Here’s more from Caro, because he has so much to teach not only about history but about how to report and write it. Watch how Caro gains the information to show what it was like working for President Lyndon Johnson. He asks, “So if I were standing next to you in this scene in the Oval Office, Joe, what would I see?” Caro says sources “never understand” what he means, so he pushes: “Was he sitting behind the desk or was he getting up to walk around?” A source might respond, “Well, he jumped up from that desk all the time because he had the wire tickers over there. He had these three wire tickers, and he’d go over to them every few minutes to look.”

To visualize this, it’s important to understand that before our 24-hour public news cycle, politicians and editors had a private news cycle, with a “wire ticker” printing out stories from the Associated Press and other agencies. Caro asked LBJ’s cronies, “What were you seeing? How would he look at the wire tickers?” One replied, “He couldn’t wait for the next lines to come, so he’d open the lid, and he’d grab the paper with two hands, as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine.” There’s a scene that tells you about a politician’s urgency.

Caro explains his method further: “You keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again. If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people. Eventually, a lot of people tell you about [Johnson’s] bad breath. And the couches.” Caro asks about the Oval Office furnishings, “What was it like sitting on those couches? And people would say something like, He’d be towering over you, leaning over you. So you keep saying, What was it like sitting there? They’d say, Oh, I remember those couches. They were so downy you thought you’d never get up. And then you realize that Johnson made the couches in the Oval Office softer so people would sink down.” 

Caro creates scenes to help a reader see the physical settings “clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the action is occurring.” He keeps pushing for specific detail and acknowledges, “I’ve had people get really angry at me. But if you ask it often enough, sometimes you make them see.”

SHORT LIST

Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth From Historical Truth

Some evangelicals go with David Barton’s contention that America’s 18th-century founders wanted an explicitly Christian nation. Others seize on Mark Noll’s skepticism. My own research—if you’re interested, see a book I wrote a quarter of a century ago, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue—leaves me somewhere in the middle of that debate, which is where Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? stands. Hall sees many founders as Christian, and others not, but the Constitution and other early documents certainly emerged from a Biblical worldview. 

Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

Elizabeth Varon’s Armies of Deliverance supplements Civil War battle accounts by focusing on how Northerners saw the war as one that would help poor Southern whites living under slaveholder domination. Meanwhile, Confederate leaders succeeded in portraying not just plantation kings but white Southerners generally as victims of Yankee aggression—and that understanding underlay the failure of Reconstruction.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism

Reconstruction’s failure led to another century of racial misery on top of the previous two-plus centuries: Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise overviews the whole sad saga. Tisby shows how even George Whitefield, the great 18th-century preacher, took time off from evangelism to advocate slavery: Without it, he said, “Georgia can never be a flourishing province.” 

I hadn’t read Tisby’s fine work before writing the Oct. 12 article about history books, so here’s more about it. He shows how racial compromise is as old as the Constitution. Although Baptist Pastor John Leland in 1790 declared slavery to be against the law of God and “inconsistent with a republican government,” Tisby accurately notes, “The nation’s political leaders used black lives as bargaining chips to preserve the union of states.” 

Tisby shows how slave owners deprived their property of not only freedom but education: South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740 decreed that slaves could not learn to write or assemble in groups without white supervision. That act gave lip service to decency: It declared cruelty to be “highly unbecoming to those who profess themselves Christians” and established fines designed to “restrain and prevent barbarity being exercised toward slaves”—but this clause was rarely enforced. 

Each generation squandered opportunities. Although some writers still point to a few humane slave owners, Tisby shows that of the 600,000-plus interstate slave sales in the decades before the Civil War, one-fourth destroyed a first marriage and half broke up a nuclear family. Enslaved women gave birth to nine children on average, which meant millions grew up fatherless. In 1865 Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reserved 7,000 square miles of land on the East Coast from Charleston to Jacksonville for freed slaves and promised each family a mule. President Andrew Johnson countermanded that order.

Inhumanity seemed always in season. More than 1,000 Mississippians gawked and cheered at the torture and lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert in 1904. In Georgia in 1918, when eight-months-pregnant Mary Turner vocally protested the lynching of her husband, a white racist lynch mob tortured her, then cut open her womb: As NAACP head Walter White put it, “The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel.” 

In 1919, East St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C., were all venues for racial conflict. Millions in the 1920s joined the Ku Klux Klan, a pseudo-Protestant order. We have much to lament—so it’s good that an increasing number of Southern museums make it less likely we’ll merely look away as old times are forgotten.

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

We should also not forget America’s most shocking day of the 21st century so far, Sept. 11, 2001. Garrett Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky makes our History short list because, like Robert Caro, Graff makes us feel what being a witness to power—in this case, clearly malign—was like. His book would be a good gift for millennials who know about the day without having any intimate knowledge of it.

Worth your time

At a time when some pundits say America is in a downward spiral, it’s worth studying ancient Israel’s tragic history. The Reformed Expository Commentary, our 2017 Series of the Year (P&R), has two new volumes out, one on Psalms 42-72 and the other on 2 Kings. In the latter, Philip Graham Ryken offers excellent insights into the inspired history book that shows both the consequences of idolatry and God’s concern for those undergoing great hardship.

Our 2019 Series of the Year is the ESV Scripture Journal (Crossway). I like the 55 thin, convenient-to-carry volumes with the English Standard Version translation on the left of each two-page spread and lightly lined blank paper on the right. Warning: For optimal usage, be in a church where the pastor preaches through books. —M.O.

This page is part of this issue’s 2019 Books of the Year section. Next: “Darwinism’s big breakdown.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.