When times are dark, we need moral ancestors, and I hope the pieces here will be reminders that others have fought and won battles against injustice in the past, including some against racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and more. The Trumps and Putins of those eras have gotten the ignominy they deserve.
Journalist, public historian and author of several much-beloved historical nonfiction titles Adam Hochschild released this compilation of previously published essays in response to the Trump presidency. The above quote, from the introduction, sets the tone for what to expect in these selections. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and guiding the way there have always been brave, dedicated, principled, even heroic figures who have stood up to power, oppression and discrimination. Hope resonates throughout these pieces.
Hochschild uses his historical writing and journalistic experience, including a campaign trip with Nelson Mandela, to relate what he’s learned, and what contemporary history can teach us about persistence, resilience, and taking action in the face of tyranny. Structured geographically, he begins with the “surveillance state”, moves through coverage of situations and stories from Africa, India, Europe and America before ending with “the continent of words” – pieces focused on the importance of stories and the power of words.
The issues addressed echo current events, including a particularly excellent piece with a reminder that we’ve come through times of aggressive anti-immigrant sentiment and intolerance before:
In strikingly Trumpian fashion, [Woodrow] Wilson himself helped sow suspicion of dissenters and hidden enemies. He had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “he kept us out war,” but he was already quietly feeling out congressional leaders about joining the conflict, and he also knew American public opinion was strongly anti-German. Well before the declaration of war, he had ominously warned that “there are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags…who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life…Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
In addition to well known examples like Mandela, Hochschild highlights some who aren’t household names. In “The Listening House”, he profiles the life and work of Rebecca Masika Katsuva, a rape survivor in the Democratic Republic of Congo who runs a house providing aid to thousands of women raped in the course of civil war. It’s a harrowing, haunting piece.
And in “Our Night With its Stars Askew” he writes about the experience of author and Russian revolutionary Viktor Serge: “In the Soviet Union’s first decade and a half, despite arrests, ostracism, theft of his manuscripts, and the near starvation he faced for a time, he bore witness.”
Hochschild’s writing contains political undercurrents even when that’s not expressly the topic at hand – his books and reporting focus often on racism, imperialism, colonialism, and war among other heavy issues. So politics is always a thread running through it, but coupled with his attention to detail, which can be both brilliant and slowing, these feel quite heavy. I loved the message overall – it was inspiring and well taken, but I did find some of the pieces more difficult to wade through than others.
It’s not all as heavy-handed as it may sound. I loved one essay, “Practicing History without a License”, about his preferred niche of writing “popular” history – that is, history books to be read and understood by the general public instead of geared towards academics and historians. In addition to being a worthwhile endeavor (and judging by the popularity of his books like King Leopold’s Ghost, a successful and appreciated one) he reveals a teensy pedantic streak after my own heart:
From time to time I get letters or emails telling me how much someone has enjoyed my novel. When I answer, I have to prune out the exclamation marks. “No!!!” I want to say. “There are more than eight hundred source notes! Look at the bibliography! I didn’t invent anything!”
A pet peeve of mine too – novels are fiction. Telling a single story does not a novel make. “Novel” is not a catch-all synonym for “book”. “Nonfiction novel” gets tossed around thanks to Truman Capote and In Cold Blood and is a loosely defined genre so I’ll have to let those be, but fundamentally there are differences between novels and books identified as nonfiction. Rant over, but I fell a little in love with him there.
Also because of this, which now has me noticing how true it seems:
If historians wrote for the public only on subjects with a strong record of popular interest, 90 percent of all history books would be about the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, or the Second World War […] Looking just now at the selections available on the History Book Club website, I note a total of 166 volumes on the Big Three subjects, compared to a mere 19 for all of Africa and the Middle East.
…The torrent of books on the Big Three find so many readers because they are reassuring: the Founding Fathers were brilliantly farsighted; the Civil War was tragic, but the country reunited; the good guys of the Greatest Generation won the war against the Nazis.
Hochschild makes excellent arguments for examining history outside of popular, familiar boundaries and the lessons that can be mined from his work underscore that brilliantly.
In “Prison Madness”, while attending a book festival in Finland, he declined an invitation to visit medieval churches at the organizer’s suggestion, instead opting to visit local prisons. He was curious about Finland’s comparatively liberal prison culture and the “dramatic gap” between incarceration rates compared with the US.
How did we get to the point where a nineteen-year-old who has done nothing violent can be put away for almost as long as he has lived, where prisons break up millions of families, and where we have a larger proportion of our people incarcerated than almost any other country in the world, even Putin’s Russia?
In another essay, thoughtfully putting the Congo’s instability into context, he observes: “A country with a lavish array of natural riches and a dysfunctional government is like a child heiress without a guardian: Everyone schemes for a piece of what she’s got.” It’s lines like these that emphasize his special distillation of history and current events for the lay reader.
“Pilot on the Great River”, about Mark Twain’s nonfiction, was possibly my favorite piece. He has this smooth way of contextualizing history with a modern twist:
Rambling from one corner of his life to another, free-associating, embroidering stories he had once written, mixing fanciful anecdotes, personal experience, and pungent opinions with news items and half-finished sketches, Twain’s dictated eruptions most resemble a genre that would not be named for nearly another century: blog posts.
There was a line in the Mark Twain piece that especially appealed based on my reading of this collection:
One word of warning for anyone picking up Life on the Mississippi for the first time: don’t read the whole thing. Encountering many a work by Twain is like exploring a new city: some sights are to be savored, other neighborhoods skipped entirely.
As insightful, compelling and hopeful as I found the messages in these pieces, I didn’t connect with every single one. Sometimes the writing felt dense, or the wealth of detail distracted instead of enhanced, or I just had a hard time grasping the topic. I did skim a bit here and there, but it seems like even Hochschild himself would understand.
A timely, deeply thoughtful and reflective look at bad times overcome. If not always the most readable, it bears a quiet message of hope and strength and their reassuring historical precedence.
Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays
by Adam Hochschild
published October 12, 2018 by University of California Press