Just The Warts: American Rule (How a nation conquered the world but failed its people), by Jared Yates Sexton
There was a sense that capitalism had all but conquered the United States, a feeling that the wealthy had gained unalterable control. The market they had constructed served their interests and functioned as the nation's circulatory system, and the government had been bought and sold many times over. And it wasn't as if the infection lay in one party alone. Working Americans were well aware that both the Democratic and Republican parties were servants of the wealthy, especially members of the Senate, which followed the design of the framers by being totally and openly in the pocket of the country's elites.
There's a trend on the left these days to ask MAGA people (or God-and-country liberals, or pretty much anyone else who identifies as patriotic, "When was America ever great?" no matter what you answer, they're prepared to shoot it down.
The Constitution? nope, just a bunch of rich, self-serving, landowning white guys making sure the government would work for rich, self-serving, landowning white guys, and propping up slavery. Washington bought the presidency by bribing the electors with lakes of alcohol, Ben Franklin sired a lot of bastards (giving a nuanced meaning to all the commemorative public houses that claim he slept there), and Jefferson raped his slave.
Ending slavery? Nope, Eleven states tried to leave the union and went to war to preserve it, and the states that stopped them didn't give a rip about POC. Lincoln himself declared that he'd free all of the slaves or none of them, or halfsies, whichever it took to preserve the union. Southern states lie when they say they didn't secede over slavery, and northern states lie when they claim to have fought the war to end it. And then, having won the war, the north shit the bed, put the losers back in charge, and even let them write the history (the US Civil war being maybe the only war ever where the losers got to write the history).
Winning World war II? what a horrible moment for Uncle Sham! DID YOU KNOW??---there were no "Allies" in WWII, and the Soviet Union beat Hitler all by itself! The USA were Nazis themselves, and were on the verge of letting President Charles Lindbergh join with the Axis until those silly Japanese put the kibosh on that in December 1941.
(I am only slightly exaggerating the arguments here. Sure, Stalingrad and all that. but also--supplies pipelines via Murmansk and Azkaban and all that. Normandy and all that. they really couldn't have done it alone)
Don't even bother with the 1950s--widely cited as America's "golden age" when the rich were taxed at a fair rate and unions and middle class worth soared--that was just for white men. The rest of us had Mccarthyism, Jim crow's dead cat bounce, and a surge in misogyny as returning WWII/Korea vets seized the jobs women had obtained during the wars.
And I trust none of you who are MY friends are so foolish as to bring up those hideous, disgraced former 'heroes" Andy Jackson, General Custer, Woody Wilson or WJ Bryan, right?
I maintain that the 1970s were America's zenith, and that it all began to fall with Ronald Reagan and his crackdowns on the middle class, unions, culture and ethics. But there are objections to that too, usually involving disco. after a couple of years of this, I've largely given up and have taken to saying America was "great" when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 world series, or when Simon and Garfunkel played in Central Park.
All of this is by way of mentioning that if you believe America has always been a toxic cesspool, then American Rule is the book for you. Nothing but 250 years of unbroken American evil, oppression and cruelty. and i have yet to find anything in it that isn't true.
As I write this, the howler monkeys on the right are screeching that the left hates America, and are descending on school boards across America to do to them what they failed to do to the US Capitol, demanding that no history be taught, on the grounds that real true american history would demoralize the children. If Republicans read books be non-conservatives, they might find this one and make it Exhibit One. but that would miss the point.
The point, as Sexton says in the epilogue, is not that America has been an Evil nation now and then and forever. the point is that we have to know what our mistakes have been, in order to correct them, and to make America GOOD. that part I quoted at the top is not a description of America in 2020. It's America in 1892, the year Andrew Carnegie, in a year of record profits, slashed his employees' wages below starvation level, and employed Pinkertons to shoot American workers in the street like rabid dogs during the ensuing strike. All of what we are going through today happened before, 130 years ago, and the American people put a stop to it then, and it can be stopped once more.
Remember, and fight, and love America. warts and all. Because we aren't just warts, no matter what we're told.
Larceny and Old Lace: Bunner Sisters, by Edith Wharton
When Mr. Ramy drew the pipe from his mouth and became, in his turn, confidential, the acuteness of their sympathy grew almost painful to the sisters. With passionate participation, they listened to the story of his early struggles in Germany, and of the long illness which had been the cause of his misfortunes.
Edith Wharton is one of the most depressing novelists I can think of, and the short novel about the Bunner sisters is no more uplifting than her better known works. The Bunners own a cozy little shop in downtown NYC, and the impression is that they're no longer young right at the beginning. since the action takes place over the course of many years, they must be ancient af by the time it ends.
And they get hurt by their environment over the course of it. Their life savings taken, their hearts broken, their health ruined. and other than perhaps being overly trusting and believing in human goodness, nothing that happens to them can fairly be considered their fault. My heart broke right along with the Bunners.
If you're like many Americans these days, your heart has been breaking too, and you may or may not be aware that you're not alone, that capitalism is crushing every one of us, all the more ruthlessly now that some of us are feeling our potential power to free ourselves, and the rich are desperate, desperate to crush us into submission so thoroughly that we will not even try.
This may be the right book at the wrong time. I grasped it because i'm going through post-WWI works in general. You might want to look to it some other time, when you're feeling better.
Journeys into Hell: Inferno & Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse
And now I am looking at her. The evening gently removes the ugliness, wipes away the poverty and the horror, and, in spite of me, changes the dust into a shadow, like a curse into a blessing. Nothing is left of her but a color, a mist, a shape, not even that; a shiver and the beating of her heart. Of her, there is nothing left but herself.
It is because she is alone. By some astonishing, almost divine chance, she is really alone. She is in that innocence, that perfect purity, solitude.
I am violating her solitude with my eyes, but she knows nothing about it, and she isn't violated.
The book jacket of Inferno boldly says that Barbusse (whom I'd not heard of before. Had you?), and not Proust, or Gide, or Maupassant, or Anatole France, was THE definitive voice of Paris in the early 20th Century. I was skeptical.
Maybe it was range. The short books (each took me an hour on the treadmill to get through), while both very French, deal with different subjects in a similar way. In Inferno, an ordinary colorless Everyman type finds a hole in his boarding house bedroom wall, and manages to waste even MORE of his own existence than before by becoming a full time voyeur and watching the people in the next room, who, unlike him, have the capacity for intense feelings. They converse, have passionate love, face approaching death...and the narrator suffers.
He doesn't suffer as much as the Western Front WWI conscripts of Under Fire, which is very similar to the much more famous All Quiet on the Western Front. After a brief prologue of wealthy old men in the club, chuckling over the news that war has been declared and predicting it will be over in time for the seaside season, we see the young men fighting to keep those rich men in the lifestyles to which they are accustomed, slogging through endless mud and blood and barbed wire and corpses and unexploded shells and festive things like that, growing increasingly numb and disoriented and descending into madness, and then most of them get deaded and the war continues.
Heart of Lightness: The voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf
“You have beauty,” he said. The ship lurched. Rachel fell slightly forward. Richard took her in his arms and kissed her. Holding her tight, he kissed her passionately, so that she felt the hardness of his body and the roughness of his cheek printed upon hers. She fell back in her chair, with tremendous beats of the heart, each of which sent black waves across her eyes. He clasped his forehead in his hands.
“You tempt me,” he said. The tone of his voice was terrifying. He seemed choked in fright. They were both trembling. Rachel stood up and went. Her head was cold, her knees shaking, and the physical pain of the emotion was so great that she could only keep herself moving above the great leaps of her heart. She leant upon the rail of the ship, and gradually ceased to feel, for a chill of body and mind crept over her. Far out between the waves little black and white sea-birds were riding. Rising and falling with smooth and graceful movements in the hollows of the waves they seemed singularly detached and unconcerned.
I find Virginia Woolf difficult. I am not her intended audience, and that's fine. I'm told she was a woman writing for and about women, and that her "female writing style" is ineffable and mysterious to men. I am skeptical. I read plenty of female writers, many of whom are straight forward and more enjoyable and educational to me than a lot of stuff by men. I enter Ms. Woolf's worlds, with permission, in an effort to understand.
The story is about a boat trip to the edges of civilization. I compare and contrast with Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's male account of a boat trip to the edge of civilization. Conrad wrote of central Africa unleashing the Beast Within; Woolf wrote about going to the shores of South America and finding freedom from the stultifying limits of Edwardian England.
Edwardians are silly. They are so very formal and mannered in their sexual harassment.
Woolf's South America is as surreal as Conrad's Congo, but more gentle and soothing, possibly because the heroine Rachel Vinrace does not travel there seeking conquest and fortune, but relaxation. Peace happens. actual love stories happen. Santa Maria is more authentic and protecting than England, not less. possibly this is the difference between imposing masculine v. feminine values and outlooks on places far from European "civilization." Recommended.