Monday, June 1, 2009

Recent Reading - Human Smoke

After taking a vacation hiatus (I decided it was too heavy to take along - in weight, though perhaps also in content), I recently finished Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker's book on the run-up to and early days of WWII. The book is provocative in the best way, challenging accepted notions about the specific period in question and the conventions and assumptions of history writing in general.

The initial press I'd read on Human Smoke seemed to focus equally on the controversial content and Baker's method of presenting it. The format is unconventional, but at the same time simple and effective - an accumulation of brief, chronologically ordered episodes, 2 or 3 to a page, taken from journals, letters or newspaper accounts, narrate the story of how much of the supposedly civilized world was drawn into a vortex of death and destruction. Every reader knows how the story turns out, but the facts and details Baker presents are constantly surprising. It is the way that these facts resonate with the foreknowledge of the terrible events to come (the account ends shortly after Pearl Harbor, with the worst carnage still ahead) that gives the book much of its power. To read about Jewish would-be refugees being denied entry to country after country when there was still time to save them is sickening (in particular, the failure of the Wagner-Rogers Act has to count as one of the more shameful votes in the history of the US Congress) . Human Smoke is full of such ugly facts, footnotes that have been hidden in plain sight behind the more familiar, more comforting (while no less true) narrative of heroism, fortitude and victory.

Though his own authorial comments in the text are limited (though subtly pointed), Baker is clearly constructing an argument and presenting a point-of-view via the historical materials he has selected from the vast wealth of available source material about the war and its prelude. This point-of-view is one that questions, merely through the calm presentation of historical evidence, such near-sacred truths as the heroism and brilliant leadership of Churchill and Roosevelt and the inevitability of war with Hitler. Rather than overturning these truths, or effectively proving them untrue, Baker's skillful presentation introduces uncomfortable notes of doubt, adds complexity to the familiar narrative, and forces the reader to readjust and attempt to synthesize new and sometimes conflicting information.

For most of us, knowledge of WWII's roots is limited to scattered names and phrases: Versailles, Weimar, the Beer Hall Putsch, Munich, Chamberlain. Wars, full of battles and generals, sell books and are easy to teach and remember. The periods leading up to and following them are more difficult to understand. There are more threads to follow, the cause-and-effect relationships are often unclear or controversial, and these periods don't lend themselves to easy summaries or straightforward timelines. The pre-Civil War period and Reconstruction, for example, may be two of the most understudied and misunderstood, yet most important, periods in American history. Human Smoke makes a strong case that those wishing to prevent wars, or at least understand why they happen, should devote some serious study to the machinations, missed opportunities and disastrous choices of the 1930s.

In an afterword, Baker explicitly states his sympathy with the pacifists who sought to prevent the war, but after reading the body of the book the reader is already well aware of where, and with whom, he stands. It is not necessary to subscribe to the thesis that war is never justified to entertain the heretical notion that WWII, to use the title phrase from Pat Buchanan's book, was an "Unnecessary War". Buchanan's book, released within months of Baker's, apparently taps many of the same sources, though I would assume that his sympathies lie more with the isolationists than with the pacifists.

One of the most appealing aspects of Human Smoke is that amidst the parade of inhumanity and error, it pauses over many acts of compassion and personal courage performed by relative unknowns in the most trying circumstances. It upends expectations again and again, not only showing the darker facets of some 20th century icons, but also forcing the reader to reconsider figures that have been neglected or vilified. Perhaps most fascinating in this regard is the portrayal of ex-president Herbert Hoover, a man known today as the heartless villain of the Great Depression and viewed favorably only by a few hardcore fiscal conservatives and perhaps a small, proud faction of his fellow Iowans. The Hoover seen in Human Smoke is the Quaker humanitarian, the man that first rose to international prominence by organizing relief efforts for the victims of WWI. Before the US entry into WWII, Hoover wanted to organize a similar effort to feed the starving of Europe and give shelter on US soil to (at least some) refugees, efforts that were mostly rebuffed in deference to Churchill's blockade strategy (Roosevelt's petty - and mutual - hatred of Hoover probably didn't help, either). Though finally appointed by Truman as head of post-war humanitarian efforts, Hoover's earlier, perhaps timelier, efforts to aid Hitler's victims should not be forgotten as part of his complex legacy.

Even if you're not convinced by the implicit thesis of Human Smoke, it will at least add to your understanding of the 20th century and suggest plenty of possible avenues for further reading. Baker himself has said that "I didn't want to convince, but only to add enriching complication," which seems like a fine goal for someone setting out to write about any aspect of the past. History and historical figures, especially very familiar figures and episodes, tend to become richer and more complicated the more we learn about them. There seems to be no limit, no end point, to this enriching process, as demonstrated by the publishing industries that have grown up around Shakespeare, Lincoln, and indeed WWII. Amid the ever-flowing river of ink spilled on the subject, Nicholson Baker has contributed something relevant, resonant, and worthwhile.

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