...continued from page 2
But maize cannot be made into bread using the same methods. So the Irish, who would have had no trouble baking with the grain they called "corn" would indeed be baffled by the grain we call corn. What was missing was any notion that Sherman understood the difference.
I realized that this book was irredeemably ignorant and/or imprecise with this series of statements: "The churches offered little hope since the Church of Ireland was entitled to collect taxes from tenants regardless of their religion. Indeed, the Catholic Church increased its ownership of property in Ireland during the famine. The Church was vehemently on the side of the absentee English landlords ..." (P. 26).
This statement is stupid in so many ways. The author seems to think that the Church of Ireland was the Catholic Church. But it was not – it was the Irish version of the protestant Anglican Church, imposed on the Catholic majority by England.
So it is hard to believe that the Catholic Church, which was powerless in Ireland during this era, could have increased its property holdings; only the Church of Ireland was in a position to do so. Certainly the Catholic Church was not "vehemently on the side of the absentee English landlords" – Catholics and the Catholic Church hated the English landlords.
If a writer is so ignorant of history that he thinks the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church are the same organization – which Sherman clearly seems to say – then how can any other statements he makes be relied upon?
It seems clear to me (though I'm making assumptions here), that this is a thrown-together book. Sherman is no historian. He decided on his title, and then did sketchy research to cobble together an incoherent narrative that actually reduces the reader's reliable knowledge of the past.
This is bad history. But if I had not already known something about Irish history, would I have spotted these problems?
However, any reader would notice the incoherence of the narrative line, the way thoughts jump around and thoughts are not pursued to their conclusions. It is impossible to follow the story lines, and time after time I think that any reader would be baffled by the non sequiturs.
This is actually a good thing – the book's bad writing and nonexistent thinking will make it so the misinformation will not be effectively transmitted to the reader.
But the best course of action is not to read the book at all. Which is what I will do with the remaining chapters. When I finished quoting from the book while writing this column, I left it on the plane.
How can you guess, before reading a history book, whether it is any good or not?
One way is to look at what you know of the author. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for instance, was so closely tied to the Kennedys and to liberal causes, that he (and his disciples) were ridiculously biased in their judgment of dead presidents. The much-publicized "ratings of presidents by historians" invariably quote the conclusions of this group. How surprising is it, then, that conservatives generally get short shrift, and liberals are extravagantly overpraised?
Other historians, though they have their own political opinions, have earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads. Such a historian was the late William Manchester. I first encountered his work as a teenager, when I read The Arms of Krupp.
His account of the German arms-making family was fascinating to me, and while it was clear that Manchester disapproved of weapons of long-range destruction in general, he was scrupulously fair in his assessment of the Krupps themselves, and even-handed in his portrayal of German culture and politics, even though he was writing at a time when the memory of World Wars I and II was still fresh.
Thus I had no trouble trusting Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. This three-volume work, published over decades, was incomplete when Manchester died. It has now been finished by other hands and will soon be released.
In preparation for the final volume, I downloaded the first two volumes of The Last Lion from Audible.com and am nearly finished with the first one. It is such a pleasure to be in Manchester's capable hands. He shows his work, but never tediously; you always get every view of Churchill.
Yet Manchester also makes his judgments, and he does not "split the difference." Recognizing that he is dealing with a controversial figure, he nevertheless makes clear judgments, distinguishing between politically-motivated attacks, self-serving dismissals and actual evidence.
Thus, though Manchester's own politics were probably closer to those of the Liberal and, later, the Labor parties in England, he nevertheless dismisses their attacks on Churchill's behavior in World War I, particularly in the battle for Antwerp and the Gallipoli campaign, and also in Churchill's promotion of aviation and sponsorship of the tank against great opposition.
Manchester shows that Churchill's behavior in all these matters was exemplary, often prescient and, despite mistakes here and there, quite correct, while his critics are often exposed as petty, motivated by blind malice or political cowardice.
Yet he does not hesitate to show when Churchill was flat wrong, or when his behavior bordered on the idiotic or politically suicidal. His critics were often stupider men who resented Churchill's superiority; they yearned to believe, and therefore often claimed, that he only prevailed because he outtalked everyone else.
They also charge him with motives identical with their own – a common, if usually unconscious, practice – so that Churchillian projects that were clearly in England's best interest, especially when viewed with historical hindsight, were dismissed or attacked as evidence of Churchillian "megalomania" or his desire to control every ministry instead of sticking to his own bureaucratic niche.
It's true that Churchill's interests were wide-ranging and he often strayed out of his territory. But that's what people with their country's true interests at heart will always do – nations are not well-served when their leaders mind only their own business.
Churchill's "land battleship" – the tank – if used when and how he intended, could have ended World War I much earlier, and without the needless slaughter of trench warfare, which he constantly campaigned against. His plan for the Gallipoli campaign is universally agreed to have been excellent and, had it been carried out with mere competence, let alone courage and vigor, would almost certainly have ended World War I after less than two years, saving the lives of millions.
One of the real delights of Manchester's biography of Churchill is not really Manchester's fault. A usual flaw in most biographies is the paucity of information about the famous person's childhood and adolescence. Nobody keeps adequate records of their lives until their adult achievements start to leave a significant paper trail....continued on page 4