Book Notes: The “Great Migration”; Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”

Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America(1991)
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010)

     A while ago, I posted a review of two works that I wish I had read while teaching the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement course, during my previous life as a “prep school” History instructor. The present two volumes obviously might seem to merit that same rubric, but I think I actually read Lemann’s book when it first came out. Anyway, Lemann’s work and Wilkerson’s nicely complement each other in assessing the impact of the “Great Migration,” the flight (not to put too fine a point on it) of nearly six million African-Americans from the South that occurred over much of the twentieth century. Like the exodus of East Germans through West Berlin that forced the Soviets to erect the Berlin Wall, this vast outmigration from the Jim Crow South gave the lie to its defenders’ claims that the whole population flourished under, and of course was content with, a brutal system designed to maintain a cruel status quo.

     Chronologically, Wilkerson paints on a broader canvas, dating the Migration from 1915 to 1970, while Lemann focuses on the latter stages, 1940 to 1970. Lemann’s book, which served as the basis for a documentary television series in the 1990s, has a slightly narrower human focus as well, mainly emphasizing a group of black Mississippians who escaped from Clarksdale to Chicago. Wilkerson, on the other hand, provides thorough treatments of three African-Americans over the whole course of their lives, analyzing why they left the South, how they managed that feat, and what their lives were like in the “Promised Land.” One of those Wilkerson followed, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, and her sharecropper husband George, like the leading characters in Lemann’s drama, uprooted themselves from Mississippi and made their way to Chicago. Her other two main characters were from quite different backgrounds than the Gladneys and found refuge in other “gateway” cities of the Migration: George Swanson Starling, a laborer and organizer in Florida orange groves, headed for Harlem, where he spent the rest of his life as a railroad baggage handler on trains traveling up and down the east coast; Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his way from Monroe, La., to Los Angeles, seeking–and, to some extent finding–a world where his skills as a physician would be appreciated and where he could live the sort of life he had always dreamed of.

     One thing Lemann’s book has that Wilkerson’s lacks is a detailed look at how the ramifications of the Great Migration played out in the Nation’s Capital and in national politics. While Wilkerson does not ignore this wider context, her concern throughout is for how these developments affected her three main characters. Lemann’s treatment of national politics in the wake of the Great Migration is interesting and important, but his 114 page detour in that direction means that the reader does not learn nearly as much about the individuals he studies as they do about political and bureaucratic infighting. On the other hand, Wilkerson’s more richly textured portraits, though of a far smaller sample, allow the reader really to know the three people she focuses on, while at the same time suggesting that, although not completely irrelevant, national forces had less to do with the lives her trio made for themselves outside the South than their own grit, determination, and, sometimes, luck.

     I’m not sure which of these books I would have assigned in the Civil Rights course. Wilkerson’s biographical approach would have better complemented the two autobiographies I used in the course, one by a black author and one by a white, about growing up in the Jim Crow South. Still, I also showed excerpts from the video series based on Lemann’s book in the Civil Rights course, and using sections of his book to supplement the documentary images might also have worked well. Both books definitely merit close attention from anyone interested in the tremendous impact of the economic, demographic, and political tidal wave that was the Great Migration.

Gore Vidal, Lincoln (1984)

     David, my younger son, sent this novel to me.  As was true of the Lemann book cited above, however, I’m virtually certain that I read Vidal’s Lincoln when it first appeared.  It would have been surprising if I had not done so, because his earlier historical novel, Burr, was–and remains–one of my favorite books, and I even used it in my Advanced Placement American History course for several years.  Moreover, I also recall reading the second volume in Vidal’s so-called “American Trilogy,” 1876. (Interestingly, Lincoln is not one of the books in this trilogy; the concluding volume, Washington, D.C., is set in the period between the New Deal and the post-World War II “Red Scare.”)

     In addition, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War staring us in the face, I figured it might be fun to see whether Vidal’s take on “the War’s” pivotal figure still resonates.  I believe it does, largely because the author’s complex, measured, and sardonic approach to American political history hits the nail on the head more often than not.  Oh, there are a few too many examples of the Rail Splitter’s penchant for telling stories to drive home a point or lighten a tense situation, but Vidal’s deft portraits of Lincoln and his wife Mary; Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate;  Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; generals George B. McClellan and U.S. Grant;  conspirators John Wilkes Booth and David Herold; and, especially, the President’s youthful secretary, John Hay, all ring true.  (And, for someone like me who enjoyed Burr, Vidal provides a bonus by bringing back two characters from that book, the insidious William de la Touche Clancey [Vidal’s pointed homage to William F. Buckley, Jr., I think] and Charlie Schuyler, for brief cameo appearances.)

     Vidal tells his story mainly through conversations; this is not a Civil War book where much happens on the battlefield.  Instead, the scenes are set mainly in offices and studies, living rooms, dining rooms, and barrooms, even an occasional house of ill repute, where characters talk–and talk–and talk.  To Vidal’s credit, this talk is always entertaining, and his main characters come across, even in conversation, as distinct, recognizable individuals, well-rounded personalities with strengths and weaknesses, dreams and ambitions.  There are many transitions within each chapter, and the author handles them very well.  One thing his skill in moving from one part of his stage to another enables Vidal to do is to skip over the “drums and trumpets” aspects of Civil War history and look instead at a group of ambitious, contentious individuals caught up in the political cockpit of the nation during its defining moment. In short, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a remarkable achievement, and one that I expect will be re-released at some point during our current commemoration of the Civil War.

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
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2 Responses to Book Notes: The “Great Migration”; Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln”

  1. David G.Lamplugh says:

    Dad,
    As I read the line “this vast outmigration from the Jim Crow South gave the lie to its defenders’ claims that the whole population flourished under, and of course was content with, a brutal system designed to maintain a cruel status quo.”, I was reminded of a book that my co-worker Tres Hoyt has been reading. It is called “Lies my teacher told me”, by James W.Loewen, and it is basically a survey of 12 high school level history textbooks in common use today, and a few out of print. One section is about slavery, and it’s centrality in the american unconcious before the civil war. One of Loewen’s main points in the chapter is that slavery pervaded realms not commonly thought of or highlighted in history texts, even up to the recent present. One of these areas is foreign policy. A particularly good example, according to loewen, are the Seminole wars in Florida , a conflict not whose intial causes are not easily understood through most high school history texts because of their uniform lack of reality when it comes to discussing slavery. The Seminoles were harboring escaped slaves and tremendous pressure was brought to bear on the leadership in Washington by powerful slave holding factions to stop this easy escape route from their system. Loewen brings up the interesting point that the word Seminole is actually a looser association that it’s classic definition as a grouping of indigenous people. The seminoles were rather accepting of the slaves that escaped into their midst. Going far beyond common cause, and many slaves were made full members of the tribe. This was a very dangerous thing on the edge of a slavocracy and southern whites used all of their power to effect the larger U.S foreign policy to stem it’s spread. Loewen also cites the foreign policy toward Haiti, and it’s whiplash progression through the revolutionary period till the Jacksonian age, as another hopelessly muddled bit of scholastic history. A very interesting book, and a call for sanity amongst the ever raging war over textbook content. Unlike may conflicts that rage over the centuries, this conflict is bound to get bloodier, especially in lieu of new streams of politicization from the far right, that currently have a stranglehold one of the main textbook markets (and thereby control the content within that market).

    • Dave,
      Yes, I know about the Loewen book, though I haven’t read it. My current research in Georgia history has taken me into the realm of the Seminole wars. I never cease to be amazed at the way my Georgians discuss slavery and related topics in the newspapers. Of course, thanks to the reaction of Georgia whites against Abolitionists beginning in the 1830s, all the comments about slaves, slavery, and Seminoles in the state press is “johnny-one-note” proslavery drivel, and, probably for that reason, it continues to rankle.

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