Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I bought Lincoln's Wrath on a whim on the way down to Florida last month. I'm kind of regretting that impulse buy, and not only because I paid retail for something Amazon's selling at over a 30% discount. It looked interesting because I've not read as much about Civil War civilian politics as I would like, and the book's emphasis on the interaction of newspapers and politics in the Civil War and the antebellum really grabbed my attention, despite the rabble-rousing histrionics of its subtitle, "Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels, and a President's Mission to Destroy the Press".

It's been a tough slog. I've started the book twice so far. The book covers a lot of angles which are novel to me - the exact nature of the publishing contracts which represented the financial connection between the era's publishers and their client-politicians, the economics of the printing trade, some of the alliances between politicians and publishers other than Seward and Weed - and that's all fine and great, and highly welcome. What's not so welcome is the quality of the prose, or rather, the appalling lack thereof.

I'm not sure whether years of exposure to the rather minimal writing abilities of the small-town editors and publishers who produced their research material have stunted the authors' sensibilities, or whether the authors' inherent indifference to the rhetorical proprieties rendered them more likely to survive a long term of exposure to the subject matter and emerge on the other side of the ordeal with the raw material for a book-length treatment. One rather fancifully imagines the project beginning with one writer, driven mad and incoherent by his extended exposure to the non-Websterian horrors of small-town Democratic partisan prose, and a much-put-upon publisher attempting to salvage the project by inserting a (presumably) sane collaborator to shape the mess into a publishable manuscript, only to have that academic ringer driven mad in turn by his secondary exposure to the figurative necronomicon of the commonwealth's own mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, John Hodgson and his Jeffersonian.

I guess I'll keep cracking away at it, but this is history in a rawer form than I'm really comfortable with.

No comments: