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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 16, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sea Battles, Washington's Slaves, and Bookstores

The trailers for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World looked so good, I picked up the pertinent novels (i.e., Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World) by Patrick O'Brian, and read them.

Boy, was that a pointless exercise.

Because the movie preserves none of the main storylines from either book. The more you know about the books, the more frustrated you'll be trying to follow along.

But that's OK. Because it's a good movie, worth seeing for its own sake, and since it doesn't erase the books, it does no harm.

And in a way, the movie is true to the books. Certainly it isn't a Horatio Hornblower movie (though I'm looking forward to the two new installments in that epic that are coming to a television near you).

Even though the plotline of neither book is used, the characters are intact. Russell Crowe as Capt. Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin are inspired casting -- I can't think of anyone better. (But maybe the Casting Broad could! If you haven't read the funniest film writer around, check out her column at www.TheCastingBroad.com).

What the writers have done is to make up a movie plot -- Aubrey's ship is pursuing a "ghost ship" across the Atlantic and Pacific. In the book The Far Side of the World, they never actually fight the ship; but for the movie, they've combined the chase-around-the-world with the ship that is their nemesis in Master and Commander. So two realistic plots are made into one much more mythic one.

But the relationship between the captain and the doctor is intact, though I'm not sure it will mean as much to those who have seen only the movie, because so much is missing.

Indeed, the books are chancy on this. I had read them out of order, and found Stephen Maturin quite boring -- until I finally got around to reading book 2, Post Captain. That's the book that gives Maturin a real root -- makes him a noble, tragic character instead of just a foil for Jack Aubrey.

None of the things that make Maturin a great figure in the books are present in the movie; but in the movie, we have Bettany's inspired performance and maybe that makes the difference and brings it to life even for those who don't know the books.

The fact is, I'd have been a better reviewer for this film if I hadn't read the books right before seeing it. Because I'm just not sure if my enjoyment of the film sprang from what the film actually contained or from my memories of and interest in the characters and situations from the novels.

Still, I heartily recommend it, for the performances, the reality of the shipboard life, and the sheer adventure of it. And if the story is also as emotional and powerful for you as it was for me, so much the better.

*

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America is not what I feared. I thought it was likely to be a politically correct diatribe that tried to do to Washington what everyone has been merrily doing to Thomas Jefferson -- condemning him for not being as enlightened as every mindless Leftist in America today.

So I was delighted to find that author Henry Wiencek (also the author of the wonderful book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White), is the kind of historian who goes where the evidence takes him, instead of making the evidence look as if it supported the conclusions he began with.

Indeed, his exemplary method is to go back and read original documents that other historians have neglected in favor of someone else's printed version of it. Time after time, he finds that the actual evidence points somewhere unexpected.

Naturally, he deals with the claims of those whose family lore asserts that George Washington sired children on slave women. And while he can't conclusively rule it out, he does reach the rather obvious conclusion that it is highly unlikely, both from character and from possible sterility, that George Washington ever fathered a child on (or ever slept with) any of the slave women under his control.

Indeed, the picture of Washington that emerges is of a complex man who tries to live a life of perfect rectitude. The moral contradictions of slavery come clear to him quite gradually, and perhaps because of the influence of some rather radical abolitionists who served him as aides-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, and certainly because of his direct observation of the brave and effective performance of African-American troops in combat, by the end of the war he has reached the conclusion that blacks are the equals of whites in their potential as human beings, and slavery can't be justified.

And the point where Washington switches from a kind of vague approval of emancipation "someday" to a position of being determined to emancipate his own slaves seems to date from the time when two children were born, fathered on slave women by (probably) relatives of his.

This is the point in his life when Washington starts writing about the disgusting behavior of masters toward slaves, and while (following the decorum of the day) he makes no specific references to anyone's behavior in particular, the worst offense was the probably incestuous fathering of a child on Martha Washington's half-sister (who was herself the product of Martha's father's dalliance with a half-black, half-Indian slave).

Washington was also horrified at the way Martha's children (by her first marriage) sold off slaves -- deliberately breaking up families in order to sell the daughters singly. Given that Washington had just had his nose rubbed in the propensity of masters to force sex upon the slave women under their control, he can't have missed the significance of this strategy -- which included separating one four-year-old girl from her parents and selling her separately.

The surprise is not that Washington reached the conclusion that slavery could never be justified morally, but rather that he seems to be the only one among his family and acquaintances.

People today often scoff at the fact that Washington freed his slaves -- but only in his will, so he had the use of them until he had died.

What this book makes clear is that Washington regarded his first responsibility as being to the nation -- and if a sitting President emancipated his slaves, the already fragile coalition between the slave-owning South and the pro-emancipation North seemed likely to break up.

(Wiencek also points out the obvious hypocrisy of the "states' rights" South. While the slaveowners insisted that the federal government had no power to modify the right of states to permit and promote slavery, they very happily insisted on using the federal government to intrude on the right of northern states to abolish slavery within their boundaries. Thus the "states rights" South ran a system of slave catchers that used federal authority to force northern states to return runaway slaves to their masters. They loved a strong, intrusive, tyrannical federal government when it served their purposes.)

Washington's life was further complicated by his wife's moral obliviousness concerning slavery. To Martha, when one of her most trusted and intimate servant women ran away, Martha thought her "ungrateful" and kept pressuring Washington to pursue the woman and get her back. Thus at a time when Washington was actively trying to find a way to free his slaves that would not wreck the union, he was compelled (for the sake of domestic tranquility) to take action that would assert his wife's right to have her slave back.

Besides, most of the slaves at Mt. Vernon and other properties under Washington's control were not his own -- they came as "dower slaves" belonging to the Custis estate, and would pass to Martha's children when she died. Washington could not emancipate them -- and yet several slave families crossed the boundary between Custis and Washington households, so that to emancipate the Washington slaves would divide families.

The Custis children, sadly, were typical slave owners, and therefore quite heartless, as Martha was heartless, when it came to the humanity of their "property." Washington's action of emancipating the slaves that were his to control, even if it was only in his will, was a radical move at the time; and his correspondence shows that it was not a whim, but something he was passionate about doing and would have done earlier if he could have got round the politics of the new nation and the obliviousness of his wife and her family.

It's a relief to read a history that does not seek to deify or besmirch a great man, but instead uncovers the real problems he faced, and discovers his moral character in the choices that he makes. When Wiencek is speculating, he says so, plainly -- instead of the far more common practice, these days, of treating the most far-fetched speculation as fact.

(I listened to the book on CD, but I recommend you buy the book in print and read it yourself -- the reader has a sing-songy I'm-speaking-to-idiots tone that was hard to take.)

*

I'm on a book-signing tour right now, and having visited cities up and down the West Coast, I have a few conclusions:

Best location for a bookstore: Kepler's in Menlo Park, CA, which is right next door to an absolutely brilliant deli and in the midst of a cool little mini-downtown.

Best downtown, period: Portland, Oregon. With excellent urban transport, plenty of parking, a great downtown mall, and lots of shops and public spaces along the street, even in the rain there were lots of people and plenty of things to do.

Best science fiction section in a general bookstore: University Books in Seattle. The store, which is already one of the best bookstores in America, devotes more space to science fiction and fantasy than most specialty stores even have, and the buyer even brings in books from England that have not yet been (or may never be) released in America.

Best bookstore space: Joseph-Beth Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. One of the few small chains that are thriving in the face of competition from Barnes & Noble and Borders, Joseph-Beth uses the entire atrium and one-time food court from a mall as the most incredible temple of books you've ever seen.

Best era for bookstores in America: Yes, I know, the chains have driven many independents out of business, but you know what? The strongest of the independent bookstores are still in business (and learning how to compete effectively, with such programs as the online BookSense.com), and Barnes&Noble and Borders have brought great bookstores to cities and towns that never had so many titles to choose from.

Plus, in towns like Greensboro, these bookstores, by staying open past nine p.m., have created a nightlife for nondrinkers! It's a glorious era when the coolest place to be late at night, in city after city, is the local Borders or Barnes&Noble -- or the independent bookstores that have decided to compete with them as equals.


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