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Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard

April 25, 2017 14 comments

Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard (2014) Original French title: Tristesse de la terre.

I read Sorrow of the Earth by Eric Vuillard in January and I’m trying to catch up with billets that are long overdue. I’m going to be bit lazy here and quote the Goodreads summary of this non-fiction book about Buffalo Bill and the end of the Indian wars in the US.

Buffalo Bill was the prince of show business. His spectacular Wild West shows were performed to packed houses across the world, holding audiences spellbound with their grand re-enactments of tales from the American frontier. For Bill gave the crowds something they’d never seen before: real-life Indians.

This astonishing work of historical re-imagining tells the little-known story of the Native Americans swallowed up by Buffalo Bill’s great entertainment machine. Of chief Sitting Bull, paraded in theatres to boos and catcalls for fifty dollars a week. Of a baby Lakota girl, found under her mother’s frozen body, adopted and displayed on the stage. Of the last few survivors of Wounded Knee, hired to act out the horrific massacre of their tribe as entertainment. And of Buffalo Bill Cody himself, hamming it to the last, even as it consumed him.

Told with beauty, compassion and anger, Sorrow of the Earth shows us tragedy turned into a circus act, history into sham, truth into a spectacle more powerful than reality itself. Could any of us turn away?

Well, I really have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I liked its line of thoughts. Vuillard explains how Buffalo Bill exploited the vanquished Indians in his Wild West shows and how his rise was concomitant to the last massacres of Native Americans. He depicts how these shows became history and how this entertainment became the grounds of our collective memory of the American West. It created the imagery that would prepare the grounds for westerns. Vuillard tells how Buffalo Bill’s vision of history supplanted historical accuracy and became our reference.

This is a line of thought I find valuable and it’s a question worth exploring, especially this year. Entertainment penetrates so far in brains that there is no more room for accuracy or science.

On the other hand, I have a problem Vuillard’s book due to its tone and its style. He gives a passionate retelling of Buffalo Bill’s life and broadens his topic with a more general analysis of the consequences of Buffalo Bill’s shows. He doesn’t demonstrate his point of view or remains analytical. His style is not objective and it bothered me. I wondered whether everything was accurate or not, where his sources came from. He puts in perspective the birth of the entertainment industry but also questions the forces that make humans from all social classes enjoy this kind of entertainment. It’s an intriguing topic and I thought he didn’t go far enough in his analysis.

As the blurb mentions it, it’s told with compassion and anger. Are these feelings compatible with analytical thinking that is, in my opinion, required in historical non-fiction books? I don’t think so. What’s your opinion? Vuillard’s book was published in English by Pushkin Press in August 2016. Did you read it? If yes, what did you think about it? Did you read other books like this one that have historical content but are not exactly essays?

In the end, I found this book interesting but I wondered (and still wonder) if it was reliable.

The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel

November 9, 2016 15 comments

The Great Depression. American. 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. Original French title: La Crise.

Disclaimer: This is a billet (a chronicle) not an academic paper and I’m not an economist, just a reader.

As mentioned in my previous post about American paintings in the 1930s and literature, I bought a non-fiction book entitled La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel.

claudel_la_criseClaudel (1868-1955) is known as a poet, a playwright. He was also a fervent Catholic and even tried to be a monk. He was the man who put his sister Camille in an asylum because she did not quite fit the image he had of what his sister should be. He didn’t want other people to know his sister had psychiatric issues. She spent 30 years there and he only came to visit a dozen times. How Christian of him. I love Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I’m not overly fond of Catholic thinking. I tried to give Claudel a chance by attending one of his plays, Partage de Midi and it’s one of my most painful memories in a theatre. I was bored to death. So, Paul Claudel as a man and as a writer doesn’t interest me much. But this book is by Claudel the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1933 and it’s an excerpt of the letters he sent to Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time.

In these memos, Claudel analyses the economic and political situation of the USA. Lots of memos are centered on economic issues. Some report political speeches by the president of the USA or decode the trends in America’s politics. Some memos were prepared by his staff, the economist E. Monick. Claudel was in Washington at the end of the Coolidge administration (1923-1929) and during the Hoover administration. The book ends in December 1932, before the administration of FD Roosevelt.

Claudel describes the economic growth of the years 1925-1928 and explains that the signs of the Great Depression were already there but masked by a general euphoria and a raise in speculation on the financial markets. I know that comparing is not reasoning but it’s difficult to put aside thoughts of the 2008 crisis and the last 7 years when you read Claudel’s notes.

These years are the beginning of a new era. More machines in factories mean mass production and high investment of advertising to sell all the products made in these factories. To facilitate consumption, instalment selling is widely promoted. At the time, there is no word in French for what we now call crédit à la consommation and Claudel uses the English word instalment. New industries thrive at the time, like the car industry and new products turn old markets upside down. Claudel writes that the fridge killed the old ice industry. The artificial silk for pantyhose disturbs the market of cotton stockings. It’s not called disruption but it looks like it.

Many jobs in factories disappear because machines replace workers. Claudel refers to this as technological unemployment. He explains how these blue collars start working in the service industry, mostly in services around cars (selling and maintaining) or in restaurants and hotels. But not all of them manage their reconversion in something else and Claudel muses that the adaptation of the workers to the new economy is at stake and not easy to tackle.

The rationalisation of production opens the road to the rationalisation of distribution. It’s the beginning of chain stores, started to gain on buying power and to decrease distribution costs.

After the Black Friday, Claudel dissects the reasons of the crash and the madness around borrowing money to buy securities in the hope to sell them with capital gain. The value of shares quoted on the market had nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the company they belonged to. The financial markets went crazy and Claudel depicts the beginning of investment trusts that seem to be the ancestors of investment funds. Claudel deplores the power of banks in the economy but states that Bankers are at the heart of the modern economic system. (Le banquier est la pièce centrale du système économique moderne)

At the beginning the Great Depression, Claudel repeatedly points out that Hoover remains unwisely optimistic about the consequences of the crisis. He sounds too mild and unable to rule the country.

The Hoover administration invests massively in the Farm Board to pilot the prices of wheat and other agricultural products. It doesn’t have the desired effects but the administration persists. I always wonder why prices of agricultural products are structurally too low for farmers to live upon their land.

Il n’en reste pas moins vrai que l’aide aux fermiers demeure l’un des problèmes les plus urgents que la nouvelle administration devra s’efforcer de régler.  (18 janvier 1929) It is perfectly clear that helping the farmers remains one of the most urgent matters that the new administration will have to sort out. (January 18th, 1929)

Today, the EU subsidizes agriculture. What does it mean for our civilization that we are ready to pay a lot of money for phones but won’t pay the people who grow our food a decent price for their production?

Claudel also describes a natural tendency of America to retreat and close their borders.

L’Américain moyen n’aime pas les aventures à l’étranger, il en a une horreur instinctive. Le 9 octobre 1928 (p41) The average American doesn’t like adventures abroad. They hate them instinctively. (October 9, 1928)

Claudel explains how the Tariff ie the customs duty implemented by the American administration to protect their economy is actually detrimental to their business. And this statement still rings true.

La situation est en effet celle-ci. Un peuple dont la population est six pour cent de la planète, détient cinquante-deux pour cent des ressources de la terre. Or ce peuple a pour idéal de fermer ses portes au reste de l’univers, de tout lui vendre et de ne rien lui acheter. C’est un défi à toutes les règles économiques, c’est aussi une contradiction presque grotesque à toutes les protestations pacifiques, à toutes les déclarations de goodwill que ses hommes d’Etat vont porter aux quatre coins des continents. (2 juin 1929). p91 Here’s the situation. A people whose population represent six percent of the planet own fifty two percent of the earth’s resources. And this people’s ideal is to close their borders to the rest of the universe and to sell them everything without buying anything from them. It’s against all economic laws and it’s also in grotesque contradiction with all the pacific protestations, with all the declarations of goodwill that their representatives are carrying at all corners of all the continents. (June 2nd, 1929)

Thought provoking, eh?

Claudel also describes the way of making politics. Lobbying was born in the lobby of the capitol building. In October 1929, the old lobbyist Joe Grundy brags about financing the last presidential election with his $500 000 dollar donation. That’s a huge sum for the time. Sounds like financing politics is not a new hobby for businessmen.

Again, comparing is not reasoning. I’m not saying that the current state of the world is similar to that time. I’m just saying that we always think that what we’re living is unique. Turning back to history gives us some perspective. I found this book eye-opening even if some sections with numbers about growths and full of production figures were a little dry at times. I would have liked more memos about the effect of the Great Depression on the American people.

I’ll end this post with this last quote because it brings hope and we’re going to need a lot of hope to turn the page of 2016.

Je crois que l’esprit est comme l’air et la lumière, il n’y en aura jamais trop. Je crois que l’esprit n’est pas un de ces germes malfaisants dont tous les moyens sont bons pour arrêter la contagion. Je crois qu’un pays a finalement intérêt à laisser des choses belles et agréables éveiller la sensibilité et l’intelligence du plus grand nombre d’hommes et de femmes possibles et les provoquer non pas à une imitation servile mais à une émulation bienfaisante. 2 février 1929. p79/80 I think that intelligence is like air and light, there can never be too much of it. I think that intelligence is not one of those evil germs that we must stop at any cost. I think that a country always ought to let beautiful and agreeable things to awaken the sensitivity and the intelligence of the largest number of men and women possible and to lead them, not to a servile imitation, but to a beneficial emulation. February 2nd, 1929.

That’s something the 44th president of the United States could have quoted.

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

How gold caused his ruin

November 20, 2014 20 comments

Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars (1925) French title: L’or.

CendrarsI started L’or by Blaise Cendrars because I wanted to read it before seeing its theatre version. More about that later. As the English title suggests, Cendrars’s famous novel is about the rise and fall of Johann August Suter. (1803-1880). I suppose American readers all know about him. Other readers may not.

Suter was German, living near the Swiss border. In 1834, indebted, he left his wife and children behind and ran away from home to America. He boarded on a ship that led him to New York, spent time in Saint-Louis and then reached Fort Vancouver via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.

He wanted to go to California but couldn’t go straight away. He first boarded a boat headed to Honolulu and another one going back to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. California belonged to Mexico then and Suter managed to secure the property of land in Northern California. He got 48 827 acres on the banks of the Sacramento River. His dream was to be a rich landowner. He started building an estate named the New Helvetia and founded Fort Suter where Sacramento will be. His estate was growing and money was coming in. Everything looked good and he was on the verge of fulfilling his dream when one of his employees, James W Marshall discovered gold on the property in 1848.

The Gold Rush started there and then and thousands of gold diggers swooped down on New Helvetia like a swarm of locusts on an African field. Suter was ruined. He later on initiated a law suit to regain the property of his estate and be compensated for his losses. In vain.

The novel relates his story but also the history of California and they are closely linked. It explains the politics there, the growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush and the madness of the Gold Rush. It pictures the Wild West as we imagine it, full of reckless people and where only the law of the strongest was enforced. The pictures are vivid and we need to remember that Cendrars wrote only 45 years after Suter died.

Cendrars writes about Suter in a series of short vignettes and chapters, describing the extraordinary destiny of this man. Not all the details are historically correct but it was well done. He spoke English, Spanish, French and German. He was adventurous. He left his home country, wasn’t afraid to die during the journey to California. He was driven, ambitious and a bit reckless. He was brilliant, dedicated and a hard worker. You needed guts and faith in yourself to be a pioneer in California in the 1840s. He also lived in troubled times: he had three different nationalities, German, Spanish and then American. He saw big and wasn’t afraid to go after what he wanted. Absolutely fascinating. And yet, something surprised me.

In a sense, Suter is a traditional man, almost a man of the past. For him, being successful and wealthy meant owning a large estate and farms. His ambition was to be like the aristocracy in Europe. He had the intelligence to run a large estate and build a rich farm out of the land he got from the Mexican governor. He had all the skills to succeed in this field but totally failed to adjust to the Gold Rush. He could have turned into a mine owner or exploit the gold vein on his property. He could have created retail stores to meet the needs of the gold diggers. They needed everything, he would have been successful. He could have founded a bank to trade and keep all that gold safe. But no, he was a peasant-soul and he couldn’t let go of his dream, of his image of success. And that was being the landlord of a large farm, have people working on his land and grow cereals, produce wine and own herds.

Keep that in mind for my next billet about Run River by Joan Didion, set on a ranch on the Sacramento River less than a hundred years after the foundation of the New Helvetia.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this billet, I saw a theatre version of the novel and it was extremely well done. The text was close to the book and Cendrars words were there on stage, not a rewriting of the novel. An actor was relating Suter’s story while a musician provided musical bridges between scenes/chapters. He only had a harmonica and played traditional cowboy tunes to let our imagination carry us to this place in California. Powerful. The narrator was excellent, living the text on scene, almost chanting some parts. It sounded like traditional stories told by the fire.

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