On the day when two army corps may mutually annihilate each other in a second, probably all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."
The year was 1892, and Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and author of the above quote, was writing to Baroness Bertha von Suttner, founder of the European antiwar movement. She'd just returned from the fourth World's Peace Conference in Bern, which prompted Nobel to add: "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your congresses."
Nobel was wrong about what all civilized nations "probably" will do and what his arms factories "perhaps" will put an end to, but Nicholson Baker is right to open his new book with those words from Nobel. "The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization" is what Baker subtitles it. Human Smoke (Simon & Schuster) is what Baker calls it. And the end of civilization is what — after 474 pages and on the eve of America's entry into the war — it's beginning to look like. That word "smoke" is a reference to Auschwitz.
Human Smoke is itself a kind of reference work: a series of short reports — some only a paragraph long and most of them drawn from newspaper accounts, diaries, documents, letters, memoirs, memos, and public speeches, with Baker doing the assembling and providing the timeline and context. The list of "contributors" is fascinating — Joseph Goebbels, Clare Boothe, Victor Klemperer, Stefan Zweig, and Charles Lindbergh, to name a few — and the heroes of textbook history aren't what you'd think, that is, clear-cut heroes — among them, Churchill and Roosevelt. Among the unlikely heroes, though, you'll find Clarence Pickett. He and other American and British pacifists, according to Baker, "tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."
Just as Howard Zinn was right — right to study the major events of modern history from the point of view of ordinary citizens and right to compose A People's History of the United Sates, published in 1980. That book has since sold 1.7 million copies. It's required reading in high schools and colleges. And it's been translated into more than a dozen languages. Now, portions of it have been turned into "a graphic adaptation" edited by Paul Buhle, illustrated by cartoonist Mike Konopacki, and called A People's History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt).
Historian, pacifist, and activist Howard Zinn borrowed his politics from socialist Eugene Debs, and he earned his antiwar stripes aboard a bomber in World War II. But will Americans ever take a lesson from history — their own history? As Zinn shows, that history is one long lesson in politics married to the military and to big business. Guess who the losers are, both home and abroad, in this ongoing marriage of policy, power, and profits. Key word: ongoing.
It's a Long Way To Tipperary ... From Memphis
"The best poet of the younger generation, and deserving of more recognition than most of the poets in the older generation." So said James Dickey of Richard Tillinghast's first collection of poems, Sleep Watch, in 1969.
"[T]he purest, most limpid" lines he's ever written, wrote poet Linda Gregerson of Tillinghast's eighth (and latest) collection of poems, The New Life (Copper Beech Press).
But as for Tillinghast's earlier life ... After graduating from Central High School in Memphis, he studied with Robert Lowell as an undergraduate at Harvard, then he went on to teach at Harvard, Sewanee, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.
He's reviewed poetry for The New York Times, and he's written on art and architecture for The Hudson Review and The New Criterion — all this, in addition to being an essayist and travel writer and the recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships. Plus, he's a guitarist, singer, and drummer, and he's fluent in Turkish.
Today, Tillinghast's home base is County Tipperary in Ireland. But on Friday, April 25th, he's back in his hometown and at Burke's Book Store to read from and sign copies of The New Life. Welcome him at a reception from 5 to 6:30 p.m.; the reading begins at 6.