The Decline of the Sweet Science

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Dear Readers,

Today (Sunday), I got caught up on the boxing action that I missed yesterday. I have a DAZN subscription, but with other things to do on Saturday, I could not watch the fights. And seeing as how the Canelo match didn’t start until after midnight CST, I would have probably fallen asleep anyway. So this morning, as I watched Ireland’s own Katie Taylor win a decision over Christina Linardatou of Greece, I began to ponder the history of la dolce scienza alongside the history of the country. For those who scoff at the importance of sport on a nation’s shared cultural memories, I would only state that you cannot disconnect the history of sport from the history of a people. Indeed, they are as intertwined as two lovers in a bed. Each generation has it’s own sporting events that become part of the shared history of that generation.

I am both fortunate and cursed when it comes to the sweet science. I was born just in time to remember the last big heyday of the ring as king. Though the superbouts of the 80s and early 90s are but a distant memory now, they live on within the memories of those who watched them. Ah yes, who can forget the first round of Hagler v. Hearns? Or in 2003, the epic Ward v. Gatti I? But, reader mine, I’ve also lived to watch the decline of the art of bruising as well. With the rise of MMA, UFC, and other combative sports, boxing has entered a long, slow, and unfortunately it seems, permanent decline.

But why does the sport still hold such appeal over those of us who still cling to the glory days of the past? That’s a difficult question to answer. Boxing is an urban sport, a sport of the working class, of immigrants, and of the downtrodden. Consider in the late 19th and early 20th century, boxing dominated the sporting landscape of the Irish and Italian immigrants in America’s cities. It ignited the flames of ethnic and cultural pride and superiority for the same reason that people tune in to watch the Olympics. How many Americans actually watch, for example, women’s gymnastics when it isn’t the Olympics? But every four years, tens of millions tune in and suddenly turn into gymnastic experts on social media. Why? Because in the mind of the fan, if the US wins, then it means that the US is better than whatever countries our team beat. Much the same is true of boxing. Though Irish and Italian Americans don’t seem to follow boxing as much, it is still insanely popular among Hispanic immigrants, proof that boxing is, at least in that part, still true to its roots.

I’m at the same time, a blue collar and working class kid, having grown up in a blue collar town and worked as a firefighter/arson investigator, and also an ivory tower sort, having become a history professor as a retirement job. I usually don’t mention my interest in the sweet science to faculty colleagues as in times past, when I let it slip that I was a fight fan, I was viewed with looks somewhere between disgust and dismay. Individual tastes vary, and boxing is no different. It has nowhere near the wide following that it once had, when top bouts aired free on network television. In my opinion, PPV has helped kill the sport’s popularity by taking it away from a wide audience, not to mention the cost prohibitive factor for many fans. That’s why I’m grateful for DAZN, an app which allows you to watch somewhere around 100 fights a year for the cost of one big pay per view event ($99). Maybe that is what we need to reconnect with the masses, though I fear the damage has already been done.

Truthfully, Dear Reader, I dearly wish they’d carry boxing on the radio! The UK still airs match commentary over the radio, but it isn’t done anymore in the States. In 2015, SiriusXM inked a deal with Premiere Boxing Championships to bring bouts to satellite radio, but only, to my knowledge, aired one weekend’s fight card. Oh well, at least YouTube has tons of audio coverage of bouts from the 1930s-1950s. That’s comforting to this old boxing fan.

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

 

Diaries of the Great War

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“We had traveled from the Atlantic to the Bosphorus in just a few days. The railway brought together the most distant pieces of Europe. Distance didn’t matter anymore. Anything seemed possible. All we had to do was just wish for it enough. As children, we were thrilled by the rush of speed the new technologies gave us. The future was within our grasp. It seemed so bright, but we had no idea just how shaky the foundations of that future were. Not until the summer of 1914.” (From 14: Diaries of the Great War)

Dear Readers,

105 years ago today, a sickly teenager fired two bullets on a street in Sarajevo and in doing so, changed the world. That summer, Europe found itself swept up in an enthusiastic embrace of a coming conflict, one that would usher in a new and more terrifying age. To understand the modern world, one must understand this great calamity of the early 20th Century and the peace which followed. So how does one do that? You can spend a lifetime reading, of course, and you should read as many books about the Great War as you can. You can also enjoy a splendid documentary series.

14: Diaries of the Great War is hands down the best documentary series I’ve ever seen on any subject. It is done in a docudrama style, wherein you have a narrator, but also actors who play historical roles and voice their own lines in their own languages. (It is subtitled/dubbed for the non_English parts). This is not a story about kings, prime ministers, and generals. It is the story of everyday people rather like ourselves caught up in the war. All statements attributed to them are directly from letters or diaries they left  behind. It covers the Western and Eastern Fronts and also the Russian Revolution. Sadly, the campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa are not included but that is the only criticism I can levy. Some of the characters are soldiers. Others are civilians. They range in age from children to the middle aged. This is nine hours of your life that you won’t mind spending with a documentary. I assure you that.

Now the bad news. It was on Netflix for a few years, but they pulled it a while back. It has never been released on DVD in the United States, and is unavailable on Amazon. If you have an all region DVD player as I do, you can find it on Ebay. My copy is an Australian DVD release if memory serves me. So why I am telling you about it if it is so hard to find. Well, Dear Reader, you can watch it here, though for how long I cannot say. Why not take the time to give it a watch this weekend? You’ll be spellbound, amazed even. That I can tell you.

If you prefer books to television (and honestly, who doesn’t?), many of the people quoted in this documentary can be found in what is one of my favorite World War One books, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund.

So there you have it, Dear Reader.

L.H.

 

The Photo That Launched 90,000 Words

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Dear Readers,

It is said that Helen of Troy had a face that launched 1,000 ships. My current work in progress, tentatively titled Molly’s Song was launched by a face as well. Or, to be more accurate, by a black and white photograph of a young woman. As the image is copyrighted, I cannot include the picture itself in this post, but you may visit the article here and see it for yourself. Scroll all the way to the end of the article, as it is the last photograph, though check out the others and read the article too. It’s quite interesting. Then return to my humble page and read on. Note that the photo is risque, but it is not lewd. It was taken in the 19th Century, so view it in that light.

It’s a fairly straightforward photograph. A young woman is seated in a chair (or possibly a stool) and looking at a photograph. But it is anything but simple, Dear Reader, for you see, the woman is a woman of ill repute (harlot, scarlet woman, woman of ill fame, hooker, whore, ceiling expert, fallen woman, prostitute, or whatever term people use), though today we use the word sex worker. Granted, the photo was taken about twenty-five years or so after the time period I decided to write about in my novel. (Civil War as opposed to late Gilded Age), but while looking at the photograph, I wanted to know the answers to several questions, and the answers I dreamed up formed the basis of my novel.

  1. What was her name?
  2. Where was she from originally?
  3. What color was her hair? (Red, of course!!!!)
  4. What circumstances led to her employment in a bordello?
  5. How old was she?
  6. Who is in that picture she is looking at?
  7. Who gave her the locket she wears around her neck?
  8. What does she dream of at night?
  9. What are her fears?
  10. What does she do in her down time? Does she have any?
  11. Does she ever wonder how her life might have been different?
  12. Is she comfortable with her circumstances? Or does she want out of sex work?
  13. Where is she? City? State? Country?
  14. Does she ever think of slipping off into the night and starting a new life elsewhere?
  15. If she does, will she actually do it? Or merely think about it?
  16. Is she religious?
  17. Does she have friends? Enemies? Regular customers? Customers she hates?
  18. What does she do when she gets angry? Sad? Happy?
  19. When was the last time she cried? Laughed?
  20. Has she ever been in love? When? With Who? What happened?

So there you have it, Dear Readers. I wanted to know the answers to these questions, and so I set out to figure these things out and thus I got a novel out of it. Or will have one once all the steps have been completed.

For the record, I named her Molly O’Sullivan, of County Galway, residing on Mott Street in Manhattan in the Summer and Fall of 1864.

Mightier Than the Sword: My Favorite Civil War Novels

Dear Readers,

To sort of piggyback off of yesterday’s post, today I shall endeavor to discuss my favorite works of Civil War fiction. Keep in mind, that all I am saying is that these are my favorites. I am not saying that they are the best. Whether or not a person likes a book or not is a personal thing. I’ve read bestsellers that I did not like and I’ve read obscure books with only a few hundred copies published that I think are, or should be, classics. My personal collection of books is well over 2,000 volumes and around 500 of them are Civil War specific, so I’ve read every standard work and a whole lot of non-standard works, fiction and non, on the subject. I shall endeavor to tell you a little bit about why I like each of the books described below and where I was in life when I read them, as that may have something to do with why I enjoy them so much.

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Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was the first Civil War novel I read. The winner of the 1958 Newbery Medal was published the previous year. As I remember, I read the book when I was in third grade which would put it around 1985. This is a young adult novel and the protagonist is sixteen years old. What I enjoyed about this book is that you got to meet a large cross section of people; from Union soldiers to Cherokee Confederates, to civilians caught in the middle. Since the novel involves action in and around the Indian Territory, it covers something left out of the vast body of Civil War literature which tends to focus on things further east. I can longer recall what brought me to read Rifles for Watie. I have a vague memory of doing a book report on it, but I don’t know why I selected it. If I had to guess, it was probably a combination of the cover and the fact that it was about the Civil War.

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Love and War by John Jakes. This is book two of his North and South trilogy and this is the volume that covers the actual war itself. (North and South covers the Mexican War through the Secession Crisis while Heaven and Hell covers Reconstruction.) Though to be honest, you should really read all three in order. Jakes paints on a vast canvas. Too vast, I think, for me to truly capture the essence of it. The novels provide an in depth look at the events of the day through the eyes of two families, the Hazards and the Mains. There are a few differences between the mini-series (which was good in an 80s miniseries sort of way) and the novels. But honestly, they are so significant as to detract from the story. My introduction to these books came from television. I remember when the first miniseries aired in 85 and the second in 86. My grandfather recorded them on the VCR, and I watched them quite a few times. I did not read the books until I was in high school in the early 90s. I found them at a library book sale for a quarter apiece. It was pocket change well spent. As I mentioned yesterday, this book taught me that when writing about the Civil War, try to go for the lesser told tale rather than rehashing the same things that have been written about a million times. I also learned that well written historical fiction can be as educational as it is entertaining. Finally, Jakes taught me how to write complex characters that accurately reflect the temperament and mindset of the era in which your books is set. Jakes wrote quite a few other books. I have copies of all of his historical novels and I cannot recommend them enough. He is my biggest inspiration as a writer of historical fiction.

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Look Away & Until the End by Harold Coyle tell the story of two brothers separated by war and forced onto opposite sides by circumstances largely outside their control. Coyle was an Army officer and is best known for his World War Three novel Team Yankee. I read his Civil War novels when I was in high school and identified with the main characters, largely because they were of similar age to me. One common theme you might see here is that I read a lot of books in high school. I rarely read things that were assigned for a class, preferring to find my own books instead. My teachers, thankfully, largely tolerated this since I read a whole lot more than most of my classmates. Though these books do contain the usual Civil War clichés, the action sequences are well written and the characters are believable. The situation which separates the brothers and sets them down the path to end up opposing one another in the war is plausible as well. These are not dense, heavy reads. In fact, if you are a fast reader, you could probably finish one of them in a night. I would also suggest that if there is a young person in your family who likes to read, and who you would like to get interested in the Civil War, give them both of these books. They will no doubt find them interesting. Who knows, said young person might become the next great Civil War historian or novelist.

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The Black Flower by Howard Bahr tells the tale of the Battle of Franklin and its aftermath. This was among the most horrendous engagements of the entire war, though it is largely forgotten outside of enthusiasts of the Western Theater. Bahr was an English professor, and this novel is, what I would classify, as a literary novel. It’s written in a way that I could never dream of doing myself. It won the WY Boyd Award for military fiction in 1998. The funny thing is that it came out around the same time as Cold Mountain. While Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and was eventually made into a movie, not to mention being mentioned on national television programs, The Black Flower got no major media coverage at all, despite being (in my opinion) a much better book. I will admit to a certain bias though. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had a reoccurring dream of the Battle of Franklin for most of my life and so I am pre-disposed to like ANY book written about the battle, fiction or non. Lastly, the one thing that I enjoyed the most about this book is that it manages to show both the horrific and the absurd, both present on Civil War battlefields. You can find the account of my recurring dream about the Battle of Franklin here.

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I saved the best for last. Paradise Alley (2002) by Kevin Baker is one of the finest Civil War novels ever written, though the events on the battlefield are somewhat removed from the story itself. Instead, it tells the story of the worst instance of urban unrest in American History. It has entered our lexicon as the “New York City Draft Riots” though, as I discuss here, it was really a full scale urban insurrection. To call it a mere riot does not do it justice. It seems as if the Draft Riots are known outside of Civil War circles merely because of the movie Gangs of New York. While the movie nails the setting and costumes of 1863 Manhattan, it falls flat on the history itself. Still, some knowledge is better than no knowledge. Back to the novel. Baker does an incredible job describing the environs of lower Manhattan in the summer of 1863, along with those who inhabit it. We see a cross section of people, so the reader is exposed to various viewpoints both political and social, all accurate for the time period. His descriptions of the Great Hunger in Ireland are among the best I’ve ever read in a novel. One of the ways this book inspired me is that the author goes for all of the senses. He describes how things look, feel, and smell. (Smell often gets left out of fictional descriptions.) For this reason, it my own writing, I try and make sure the nose is duly assaulted by the odors of the past. As an Irish-American, I feel that Baker does justice to both our triumphs and our tragedies. Though discriminated against themselves, the Irish in this country could be quite racist in the 19th Century, though no more so than society at large. Paradise Alley is a book I have recommended to people time and time again. I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’d like to read a post I wrote about the Draft Riots, you can do so here.

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I am aware, Dear Readers, that I have left The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind off the list. Yes, I have read them all. Yes, I own copies of them all. In fact, I have a first edition Gone With the Wind. These books are classics and I do not seek to diminish them in the slightest. They are simply not my favorite Civil War novels. As this list describes my favorites, those three do not make the cut. I’d be happy to hear what your favorites are, especially if they are lesser known titles. I’m always on the hunt for more things to read. In fact, I’m presently reading This Scorched Earth by William Gear. I’m enjoying it because one of the characters is a Civil War era doctor and during my time as a reenactor, I portrayed, among other things, a Civil War surgeon (both Army and Navy). His novel doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the war either. So add that one to your list if you enjoy Civil War fiction.

Happy Reading!

L.H.

Teaching US History Through Disasters

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My favorite restaurant after Hurricane Ike. I took my wife here on our first date and later proposed to her here. They were closed for six months after the storm.

Dear Readers,

Yet another long delay in between posts. I just finished teaching two five week summer classes this past week which took up quite a bit of my time. Also, my novel So Others May Live has gone to the editor. I realized today that I had not written a teaching related post in a long time. As it so happens, I’ve been working on creating a thematic US History course and so I decided to pen a few lines, or rather type a few lines, about it.

I’m no stranger to emergencies. With all the time I spent in public safety responding to calls as a firefighter/EMT and later as a police officer and arson investigator, I’ve built up quite the emergency resume. Fires, car accidents, hurricanes, and various and sundry medical calls still haunt the recesses of my brain. As a student and later professor of history, I’m also well aware of the role disasters have played in the American past. From the Triangle Fire to the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire to the Station Nightclub and from the 1900 Storm to the Tri-State Tornado to the Texas City Disaster, I can still recall all the photographs or videos I’ve looked at over the years. I’ve seen hurricane damage and felt the winds firsthand. Hurricane Ike was my 13th Storm to live through or work during and I experienced the eye from the front seat of my city issued SUV. We are coming up on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey which caused widespread flooding in my area, though I escaped without any significant damage.

Disasters can serve as great catalysts for change. When one considers the historical significance of disasters, we can learn social history, the history of science/technology, study human behavior, and draw lessons for the future. Since I teach at a community college, I only teach US History Survey courses. 1301 is US History to 1877 and 1302 is US History Since 1877. What I’m looking at doing is creating a thematic 1302 class where I still cover the usual items, but view it through the lens of disasters, both natural and manmade.

The first issue to tackle was which disasters. Obviously there are plenty to choose from, but I wanted a cross section of different types of disasters which struck at different times but with a focus on disasters close to home (Southeast Texas). After much internal debate, I came up with the following list:

  1. 1900 Galveston Hurricane (Galveston, TX)
  2. 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (NYC)
  3. 1935 Labor Day Hurricane (FL)
  4. 1947 Texas City Disaster (Texas City, TX)

I’m including two hurricanes since they are the most frequent disaster in our area. Plus, the Labor Day Hurricane ties in with my existing discussion of the Depression and the Bonus Army. I wanted to stay away from more modern disasters (Katrina, Ike, Harvey, etc) and I also wanted to focus on non-intentional acts (ie: not terrorism). We will discuss these disasters with an towards how they illustrate the history of science at the time, technology, race, class, labor relations, etc. I cannot assign a book on each one of these disasters, so instead I will have my students read a few articles about each one, there will be a lecture on the topic (I already do one on the Triangle Fire), and finally a discussion following the lecture. To tie it all together, I’m probably going to have them give a presentation on a disaster not covered here (as a group). I may instead assign a paper in which they trace a common theme among all four of these disasters. I’m still a bit on the fence about that one.

Have a disaster free day!

L.H.

Follow D-Day As It Happened

Dear Readers,

For those of you who are interested, I’ll be posting live updates from June 6, 1944 as they were reported by CBS radio beginning at 0250 CST on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I’ll be doing it from my Facebook page which you can find here.

They will run for the first twelve hours of so of the invasion, or until the Facebook Nazis put my page in jail for too many posts.

L.H.

A Reader’s Life

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Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.