I just finished a book on John Hay, All the Great Prizes. I don't like negging on someone's work, but to call the book long and tiresome would understate it. It did make me think, though, about how histories work best if they contain some sort of lesson in them.
All the Great Prizes is a biography of the life of John Hay. The book caught my interest because John Hay is one of those bizarre individuals who bridges historical eras. Like some others, they aren't the main cast of the history you hear about. But you recognize the name if you know who the cast at different times were.
John Hay served as one of Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries during his presidency. Later, he served as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt- right up to his death. A man who lived the gilded age. So a book on him certainly would catch my interest. Hay was there at the birth of the Republican Party and the birth of the twentieth century.
All the Great Prizes fell short for me. Rather, it fell long. I don't might long drawn-out histories. Long stuff with lots of minute details isn't bad. A Song of Ice and Fire shows that one could cover hundreds of pages on details and never move the story forward. All the Great Prizes I can't recommend. There are long chunks of it that I couldn't get through, not because they were long.
Writing can be long. That isn't bad. But long and boring? Ack.
All the Great Prizes...The book covers John Hay's life from his writing, from his letters to his poetry, etc. Which isn't bad on its own. Citing texts doesn't bug me. But almost none of the citations meant much. A long focus of the book was Hay's extramarital relationships. Even then, though, this is Victorian Era poetry and letters.
Circumstantial speculations on affairs take up a good chunk of the middle of All the Great Prizes. Boring speculations. Boring speculations that didn't carry any sort of meaning to them either.
History falls flat when it lacks a message. Which smacks of presentism (thinking with a modern mindset). But I still stand by that thought. Histories would a lot better when it carries a message in it. It has to tell you a story- and often it's how something worked or didn't work out for someone. Mysteries happen, sure.
The best histories are those that show mysteries as side plots. with their own potential subtexts. The history of Lincoln is about political cunning and maneuvering. Abraham Lincoln managed to win a political convention to be the presidential candidate. He did that by being everyone's second choice. He outmaneuvered McCellan's run against him in 1864. The Civil War itself was a tragedy, something that no one won. The Union survived it.
Roosevelt's Presidency was the result of luck. Vibrant energy and bold action defined him. He didn't balk at taking illegal actions if he thought them right. Bold action and the consequences of taking such action are what one can learn from Theodore Roosevelt's life. Sometimes it worked. Other times, one can see how wrong it was in hindsight.
Through the Looking-Glass...History comes to us distorted. It's easy to see it one way. I look to histories to give me other angles through the odd shapes of the glass.
When histories fail to present some sort of narrative to me, it feels like a miss to me. John Hay's extramarital affairs in All the Great Prizes are misses. There are spans of his life that don't mean much to me. They don't amount to anything that helps you understand his life. If anything, Hay's understated, humble life felt a little too perfect to me.
I think the gilded age is getting more and more important to look to these days. That era had to end somehow. The disproportion of it didn't last. It mirrors our current state of affairs more than most realize. We don't remember the blue collar folks of the gilded age. Wealth grew more and more centralized. People fought for their rights in illegal unions. The world rolled closer and closer to a war that would redefine it.
That history interests me today. Things tend to repeat themselves. That's why you look back to history. One is trying to see how others got off the left-handed path. Sometimes you feel like you can never tell which one is which.