THE LINCOLN BOYS – JOSHUA ZEITZ

This is not an easy book to write. In its telling this book suffers from sets of styles (different voices) imposed by the text. There is biography (A. Lincoln, John Hay, John Nicolay, Robert Lincoln).

Next comes autobiography. Maintaining the voice of Hay and Nicolay in the third person, the text becomes a memoir. What was it for each of them to write a biography? How do either of them write? How did either of them write differently? In short texts most writers ignore these personal voices when writing or they incorporate them into the text, and no one knows better. However, the author here tried at the beginning to keep everything separated.

There is a shift from biography when writers put together the story of the documents, events, people involved and other biographers. It becomes more so evident when the text becomes historical. In a short passage Our Ideal Hero Chapter, Zeitz efficiently tells of literary and social efforts to return the South to the United States. He adroitly puts together many of the same facts Mark Twain viewed before writing Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.

Keeping everything distinguishable, clear and fluid was a challenge for this author. I read hoping everything would be in place. Other than for money I do not know why Nicolay and Hay wrote the Lincoln biography. The writing process for both Hay and Nicolay (the autobiography) was shortchanged.

Why write a ten volume biography of Lincoln? Trying to establish the image of Abraham Lincoln for posterity – was a public relations campaign needed? It might be argued that Lincoln could never be buried. The future of the man was set in stone when he was assassinated: Leader – President who took us through the War – Counseled moderation and a warm embrace to the South without slavery. And next, survivors and posterity discovered speeches to chisel into stone, incredible words. The Gettysburg Address may be the best speech of the century, unless it is superseded by an Inaugural Address.

Without the ten volume biography what might Lincoln’s image have become? Frivolous, goofball and irrelevant as some writers treat it today: Lincoln was a quiet lady’s man, manic-depressive, cold and some say, gay. It is likely that Americans will let these quacks polish their views as much as they can. But Lincoln tells Americans more about themselves, to a human being, than any one has communicated to the country and its people since his death.

ANNOYED

ELIHU ROOT – Philip C. Jessup, Dodd Meade, 1938

This biography (two volumes; 1050 pages) should not have been published. Elihu Root was an eminent New York City lawyer, an excellent Secretary of War, a fabulous Secretary of State (under Theodore Roosevelt) and a Senator from New York.

The writer did not know how to write this story; the organization is sloppy. When Root was appointed Secretary of War (President McKinley), the author spends ten (10) pages on the appointment and wraps up with paragraphs about people who did not want Root to accept the appointment. Note there is no background or telling of the affect on Root: What was the effect on his law practice? Just get up and go and leave clients to their own devices? What was the effect on his family – what did they think? What was the effect on local government government matters he was working on when Root went to Washington? None of these questions are explained.

For his personal life and his law business [which Root loved, liked or had grown tired of], the book provides insignificant background: By example a local matter describes competing transit companies in New York City, but did does not explain the transit market, competitive forces and the personalities being affected by the sage lawyer.

There is more to writing a biography than stringing together quotes from letters, some of which cover a page and a few go a few pages. This biography puts Root in the middle of a crisis or a situation, and based upon that placement of Root the reader is supposed to understand the crisis or the situation. When the Spanish left Cuba (1898), there was no sanitation, an illiterate population (96 percent), no institutions, no education, no law enforcement and no economy. There was the church. Note as Secretary of War Root was in charge of Cuba reconstruction because the U.S. Army was the agency capable of performing. According to this biographer the Cuba situation, circumstances and crisis were handled by exchanges of letters, actions and decisions made by Root, Theodore Roosevelt in Washington D.C. and Leonard Wood in Cuba.

I don’t know what the U.S. Army was doing in Cuba or why. In lieu of reading more about those Washington D.C. actions for 100 pages, I stopped reading at page 320. The remainder of the biography would get no better.

two pages.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT – Carleton Putnam

This is the best and most complete biography of Theodore Roosevelt (TR) 1858-1886. It is a life and times book, the times include New York politics in the early 1880s (who knew they could be interesting), academic life at Harvard and the life of a mid-continent (Bad Lands) rancher. In the end TR’s energy seems inexhaustible. He has written three non-fiction books; he has been in the New York legislature fighting for reform and immersing himself in local and state politics; he has begun friendships with prominent men in other states. He is no bully himself, but he takes no gruff from anyone, fellow legislators, other ranchers and outlaws.

None of these activities are told in isolation. The book is chronological and detailed, much more so than later-published prize-winning TR biographies. Take one activity – hunting. He would travel 500-1000 miles, and each step seems conveyed to the reader in the grind of stalking and chase. TR always had an experienced man with him who was a dead shot; he himself always carried hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Tales of TR and Man of Experience (written 40 years later) make for informative, comparative reading. It is easy to imagine TR being a poor shot, shooting and missing, chasing and reloading and repaying the process while the experienced man accompanies. They go after grizzlies. TR presents his stories; the experienced man others. The biographer favors TR, but there is enough in the biography to judge the experienced man is correct.

[It turns out that hunting stories are like fishing stories, especially the size of the fish and the fight involved.]

Through out the activities, TR marries. He is in the New York legislature getting multiple pieces of legislation passed. He succeeds on most, but TR’s work is interrupted by a telegraph. He rushes from Albany to New York City. His wife has just given birth to his daughter but is in bad shape. Hs mother is also ill. TR arrives home, sees his wife but must rush to his mother who dies in his presence.  He returns to his wife who dies in his presence the next day. The short chapter of seven pages telling of the trip from Albany, of the deaths and of the funerals is the finest piece of fiction or non-fiction on this subject I have read: Emotions, grief, loss, despair, absence emerge forcefully.

In the 1880s Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, publicly supported a candidate. Roosevelt went after both the candidate and Davis, who took offense. Davis was an old man ready to die. He had never regretted anything he had done: Slaveholder, promoter and defender of slavery, being part of the Southern Civil War leadership, The biographer explains and jumps in taking the side of Jefferson Davis. Davis had no qualities except hate, bigotry and resentment.

In the end the biographer took those traits from Davis. The book was published in 1958 near the beginning of the well-known Civil Rights Movement activities. The biographer was a founder-executive of Delta Airlines in Atlanta. He sided with the country club set, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen trying to preserve Anglo-Saxon society. That society had already been polluted and degraded mostly by Irish and Scots-Irish, all born enemies of the Anglo-Saxons. But blacks were anathema to whites in the South. The author spoke against the Civil Rights movement.

There was no market for a volume two of TR’s biography from this author. Every word he wrote on matters of race had to gag him. [Black Jack Pershing either did or did not lead black troops during the Spanish-American War; they fought well.] The author could not accept TR’s primary position – former slaves and their decedents should advance economically.

These circumstances are unfortunate because this book reveals a talented artist who slid to the dark side and by accepting hate, bigotry and resentment, he lost the ability to be original and creative.

DESTINY – FATE

In Joachim Fest’s biography, Speer, the biographer in the final chapter concludes about his subject: “Speer admitted that he would also have placed himself at the disposal of a ruler of a completely different ideological orientation, if he had offered him similar opportunities.” (343)

If that state of mind of a man like Speer is not absurd consider what comes next: “…when asked whether he would have behaved differently after all he had since learned about Hitler and the system created by him, [Speer] replied, after an astonished pause, ‘I don’t think so.'” (348)

Don’t learn from mistakes; don’t learn from experience; have no intelligence; forget free will; I did nothing wrong; I have no personal responsibility; everyone else was doing what I was doing. Speer is a guy who was born to be abused because life could teach him nothing. He would participate with the same group of thugs and criminals in the 1930s and 1940s, groups which have plagued human society since history began recording events. 

But Speer was supposed to be different; he was more intelligent. He figured he had spent 20 years in prison for the 12 years he participated in the Third Reich and afterward he expected to be relieved. According to his biographer, Speer did not understand why he wasn’t relieved after prison; he didn’t know why he felt more comfortable in prison-like settings. That answer is he never left prison. Speer never made the connection that his participation in the Third Reich was not destiny – it was not his fate. He had talent – architect and intelligence. Those abilities did not direct him to the Nazis. A point made in the biography was Speer took the Nazi road because it was easy. He did not have to think, consider or judge: JUST DO.

Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Albert Speer lived an unexamined life. The first obligation any human being has is to understand he is a human being. He is not defined by being part of a social, political or religious group. What sort of human being was Speer? Pathetic, living and struggling through existence and never realizing who he was or how he should act to achieve happiness. He, not others, should make decisions about his life; he should make no choices; others directed him toward opportunities. Human beings should understand that taking the easy way may be more perilous than taking the hard way. The biography described what Speer did to survive, but not why he was incapable of being his own man.

Taking “the road less traveled” [from Robert Frost] is more difficult but frequently more fulfilling, provided one has made the choice and realizes the hazards, avoiding them, before the pot of goodies.

Since learning of Socrates’ axiom, I’ve stride to live an examined life, and it is often troubling. I remember a lot – never feelings, but people, places, dates, times, who said what when. I know that my current state of existence is derived from choices and deliberate actions based upon experience and learning. Nothing comes from destiny. I am not Mozart. My production comes from effort – intelligence, judgment, memory, understanding, intuition, experience, learning and what wisdom is there. I have eight books – six novels, a history and one of essays and stories on the iBookstore. I can post more if prudence warrants that.

But the fact that I am a writer is not destiny or fate. Except for mediocre law school grades, I would have been happy being an antitrust attorney where I was talented, motivated and driven. My initial medium in which to be original was music except I injured a hand early on.

I’ve asked myself why I made certain choices. I’ve come to the realization that I always make similar choices. My choices may be a mistake, or they my be natural. I remember, though, as a teenager I had the conception that I did not want to work for anyone; I didn’t want to exploit anyone. I wanted to take stuff from me and present it to the world. Good or bad that thought has been a significant influence in all my decisions when making choices. I have learned that some choices will force me into activities and actions that will reduce me to unhappiness. I don’t need that. I avoid those situations and activities that will disturb and disrupt my ability to fulfill my ease and comfort.

As for Albert Speer, living through his years and being compelled to act, looking back and he doesn’t think that he would have behaved or acted differently – Speer is properly destined for the hellish oblivion he lived in his entire life. 

As for myself making choices and going off road, I hope to make myself rich and famous. I can stop walking and buy a vehicle – a Honda Civic, a Ford Focus or anything to make my journey on the road less traveled easy.

SPEER – A FINAL VERDICT, Joachim Fest

The last chapter of this book, the conclusion, is a masterpiece. What is Albert Speer’s life worth apart from being Adolph Hitler’s architect and munitions minister? Not much, unless Speer can be used as a model of an early twentieth century German boy, man, adult to explain why the Germans, each of them lemmings, ran off the cliff again, after the horrible tragedy of World War One. This biography gives suggestions but does not provide a thorough analysis.

The book reveals little about the Nazis, although one anecdote is noteworthy. On April 24, 1945 Speer met Heinrich Himmler, SS honcho, who believes wrongly he is to become Hitler’s successor. After saying good-bye to Hitler, Speer has just left  Berlin, now under assault by the Russians. Himmler dresses down Speer, telling him he won’t be part of the new German government and since no building will be done in the foreseeable future [bombed out Germany in April 1945], Speer’s services as an architect won’t be needed. Knowing that Himmler is an abject coward, Speer offers him his plane so Himmler can visit Hitler one last time and say good-bye. Himmler refuses the offer.

There is a sense in the biography that Speer’s IQ ran ten points higher than anyone he dealt with, until May 1945. There is no confirmation in the biography. An elevated IQ will cause restlessness in a young man as thoroughly as wine, women, drugs and mental illness. Was there recognition that the boy, Albert, was bright other than excelling at school, and everything he did came to him easy?

Apparently not. It is not part of the biography. To give a sense of Speer and the society he grew into as an adult, one must write a Life and Times book – sociology, cultural affairs, religious matters, academic successes plus biography. A boy usually gets his initial bearings from his family, but Speer’s parents were distant and not affectionate. A boy is exposed to society though institutions – schools, social organizations and churches. Speer was never religious, but what of the other institutional influences? The book suggests that Speer had no anchor and no safe harbor, despite being married, until 1931 when he heard Hitler speak: First speech – reasonable; Speer joins party. Second speech – distasteful; Speer didn’t like it. Third speech – offensive; Speer remains in party. The party was someplace to be.

There is the statement that joining the Nazis and accepting architectural commissions was the easy way. Nature had made life and society easy for Speer, someone who did not know how to work through problems: Solutions came to him easily. When life comes to an individual easily there is a human tendency to claim self-righteousness and being right, all the time. Yet, Speer’s problem was after April 1945 when life, events and circumstances, and his psychology was not easy to handle or deal with, and for a long time about many issues Speer was lost forever. 

The problem with the biography and in German history with the rise of the Nazis becomes 50 million lemmings ran Germany off the cliff – a highly cultural, highly educated, a sophisticated, intellectual people could not see the the Nazi danger, avoided observing what was going wrong and continued to follow until foreign armies had crushed the country. If it were one person who had gone off the cliff, that would amount to nothing. If it is 50 million, that is a story that needs telling in full.