For whatever reason, I’ve been plowing through books this fall. Perhaps that is what a great deal of time on planes and trains does for one’s reading habits. In any event, this has been my first chance to stop and reflect on these recent readings for the blog, so I’m seizing the moment.
One of the two I’ve included here is a very important work, significantly moving the scholarship forward in its field. The other is a small, family story that nonetheless captures the heart as it tells of a charming, privileged woman who struggled to live as a lesbian in the South of the jazz age. Both, now a couple of years old, are recommended.
Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist. In this ambitious work, Baptist sets out to to demonstrate, in great detail, that slavery was not the pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction with paternalistic slave-owners as claimed by so many historians and southern apologists alike. Instead, in the eight decades prior to the Civil War, slavery expanded into a continental cotton empire that “drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.” Baptist writes that “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850—one-fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.” This empire and wealth, Baptists asserts, was the reason the U.S. grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.
While some of Baptist’s techniques (such as naming chapters for different parts of the body) are not successful in and of themselves, the work as a whole is very persuasive and unsettling. He describes a system that is very efficient at sorting out slaves to get those who are most productive, and the brutality that made that efficiency possible. Not one to mince words, Baptist names the violence that led to increased productivity “the whipping machine.” When, in the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in descriptions of young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness, Baptist writes that “Slavery’s frontier was a white man’s sexual playground.” His clear writing and extensive documentation takes the reader into the many horrors of the slave system in the United States. To Baptist, this was out-and-out torture. However,
“Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term ‘torture’ to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”
Writing about the book in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize winning historian Eric Foner says,
“It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”
To understand the many challenges we face today as a nation, one could do much worse than to add Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told to your nightstand reading pile.
A much-less ambitious work, Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is nonetheless a worthy read. I learned of this book while meeting the author in her home in Louisville. (Full disclosure, I have known and worked with Emily’s mother Edie on preservation projects for decades.)
Henrietta was Emily’s great-aunt, and was born into Southern privilege at the beginning of the 20th century. As the author notes in the prologue, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.” It wasn’t until Emily and her husband named their newborn daughter for her great-aunt did family members come forward with stories of embarrassment, but also remembrances and photographs—especially of the early Henrietta—that spoke of a remarkable, unconventional, and ultimately tragic life lived by someone who dared to push the norms of Southern (certainly) and even American life.
Henrietta’s story really begins when—at age twelve—her mother dies in a horrific train and automobile accident that she witnesses. Three years later her father marries the richest woman in America, the widow of Henry M. Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and Palm Beach developer, who—as explained by the New York Times reviewer—”promptly died under murky, Michael Jacksonesque circumstances involving a shady doctor and copious narcotics. ‘Bing’ later bought The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, jump-starting the family’s media empire.”
Emily Bingham then unfolds a story of a woman of enormous wealth who “spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”
“There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers—lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men. In Henrietta’s time that took courage. Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about.”
Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Henrietta’s affairs recounted in Irrepressible, but it is clear that while she had some famous male lovers, including the producer and actor John Houseman, she loved women far more — the tennis star Helen Jacobs (described as the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s), her Smith professor Mina Kirstein, the painter Dora Carrington, and the actress Hope Williams. While she did serve, essentially, as her father’s social secretary when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom in F.D.R.’s first term, Henrietta lived quite independently and well on her father’s money.
The early flings are interesting prelude to the long affair with Jacobs. One gets the sense that in today’s world, Henrietta Bingham and Jacobs would have settled down and lived normal—for wealthy and famous individuals—lives. But that wasn’t possible in the South, especially after World War II and the coming of the repressive McCarthy era. So Henrietta turned even more to alcohol to push away the world which would not let her love the person (or people) she clearly cared for the most.
Having grown up in the South, I have seen older gays and lesbians who have struggled—with varying degrees of success—through the challenges of navigating Southern mores about sexuality, religion, family, propriety, hierarchy, judgement, and gender in an age before Civil Rights and sexual freedoms. It is a very sad story that was all too familiar for beloved professors, musicians, offspring of the town’s patriarchs, and more. So while Henrietta Bingham did not, in the end, change much in her world, the way that world ultimately changed her is a story worth hearing. When we force people to live according to our precepts, judging them to satisfy our interpretations of values, both those who are repressed and those who administer the acceptable code of conduct, suffer in the end.
More to come…