05 April 2012

The Civil War and the Trojan War

Sometimes the books you read talk to each other. Something you read about the Civil War reminds you of the Trojan War which in turn makes you think of something in the mystery novel that kept you up until – gasp – 5 o'clock this morning.

A kind salesperson sent me an advance copy of Song of Achilles by scholar and first-time novelist Madeline Miller. I dove into the old story made new. How Achilles was raised in a castle in Phthia, "set in a northern crook of land between the ridges of Mount Othrys and the sea," how the exiled prince Patroclus came to live there and how Achilles and Patroclus became lifelong friends and lovers, through war and the inevitable tragic ending.

The gods are alive in Song of Achilles and they are dangerous. The reader rushes to the end. My friend would have forgotten to exit her airplane had the flight attendant not tapped her on the shoulder and said it's time to get your bag down, honey.

1861, The Civil War Awakening by historian Adam Goodheart at first glance couldn't be more different than this novel about the Trojan War. At second glance the books have a lot in common. There is the run up to wars that changed history and civilization itself. Zeitgeist evolving. Events that raise some up and drop others over a cliff. Gods and demi-gods messing up and messing things up. Things in common.

In 1861 Goodheart pries open with astounding scholarship and depth of feeling the largely overlooked months before the American Civil War broke out.

"...the last New Year's levee of the Buchanan administration was a sadly diminished affair... The White House... wallpaper was greasy in places where visitors had brushed against it with sweaty hands or pomaded hair; its carpets were worn down by muddy boots and stained with tobacco juice."

We meet the aging and ineffective Buchanan, but we also follow his splendid self-made rise from poverty to "one of the best-qualified men ever to win the presidency." We meet poet Walt Whitman, writer Henry Adams, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and on the train a young pregnant woman being conveyed back into slavery. Unforgettable people and vivid moments.

The ante-bellum Midwest – places such as Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Kalamazoo – was a place of "imaginary canals and railroads," Goodheart writes. "Conjectural towns, utopian communities – that might vanish in a puff or, more remarkably, take shape out of nothing, just as the glorious statehouse arose on what had recently been a manure-covered pasture. Such a world required every person in it to be nimble, ambitious, adaptable, and free."

If the post-war American myth is forming in the Midwest, in Song of Achilles the stories are embodied in immortal gods with unfathomable power and all the faults of humans.

"'Thetis!' I screamed it into the snatching wind, my face towards the sea. 'Thetis!' The sun was high now... I drew a third breath.
 "'Do not speak my name again.'
"I whirled to face her and lost my balance... her skin was paler even than usual, the first winter's ice. Her lips were drawn back, to show her teeth. 'You are a fool,' she said. 'Get down. Your halfwit death will not save him.'"

Don't mess with Thetis, son.

Achilles as a boy chooses Patroclus to be his Therapon – "brother-in-arms sworn to a prince by oaths and love. In war, these men were his honor guard; in peace his closest advisors. It was a place of highest esteem." Their bond is lifelong and intimate. In the end it is the death of Patroclus that drives glorious Achilles to his death before the walls of Troy.

In antebellum America educated men knew the Greek stories. Some wrote and read in ancient Greek. For this and for other, less easily divined reasons "The idea of the brotherhood of man was more than an abstraction," Goodheart writes. "Not only did... friends address one another as 'Brother' ... they also felt intense emotional – at times also physical – bonds with one another... Young men in the mid-nineteenth century could be passionate in ways that some readers today find disorienting... They found nothing unorthodox in strolling arm in arm, addressing letters to 'my dearest' or 'lovely boy,' and sharing fond embraces in a common bed."

These books, set thousands of years apart, one a history and the other a novel, speak to the reader in related images. Love, hate, war. Reading them together in the same week created newly connected worlds to ponder.


The mystery mentioned in the first paragraph is Stardust by Joseph Kanon. Washington Square Press paperback $15. ISBN 9781439156322. Kanon is a first rate writer. Do not read this book in bed unless you don't value sleep.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. HarperCollins hard cover $24.99 ISBN 9780062060617.

1861, The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. Vintage paperback $16. ISBN 9781400032198.

Not from the book, but fascinating: General Grant and the Jewish Question

One of many Civil War timelines

New information on the number of deaths in the Civil War -- more than we supposed.

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