Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari – Book

From a Google Image Search – Penguin Books Australia

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari begins by lifting us up as humans and ends with our obsolescence as a species. Harari argues that we humans have almost conquered poverty and disease and that our newest goals will no longer be humanistic ones such as individuality and progress and success. He says, “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum.” (pg. 43) He talks about the ‘new peace’ brought about by the existence of nuclear warfare which threatened man’s actual existence. The implications are so dire that powerful nations have backed off from all-out war. Humanism has replaced the Industrial Age and now even humanism is being replaced by a quest for immortality and happiness.

Harari believes that humans were once just one more animal living as hunter-gatherers like all of the other animals. He bemoans how far we have wandered from our natural state and he does this by making it clear that the way we treat the animals who provide our food is unacceptable. He talks about the cages pigs are placed in where they can barely turn around, and he describes how they are impregnated again and again but not allowed to raise their babies. His descriptions of our food industries’ inhumane way of treating animals, such as chickens, pigs and cows, ignores the science which tells us that animals experience psychological and physical agonies from our treatment of them. It sets the reader to imagining ways that we could change this dynamic, treat our animals as biological entities, or perhaps even become vegetarians. Harari is, of course, right that treating living entities like parts on an assembly line belies what science has taught us about our biological similarities.

Then Harari predicts that we are entering a new religious era. Mr. Harari believes that all of our religions are myths; myths that allowed humans to live together in ever larger groups (caves, villages, towns, cities, nations). He believes we now worship data and he names this new religion “Dataism.” According to Harari we are trying to create the Internet-of-all-Things (the Singularity). But, he warns, if we are able to do that we may create artificial intelligence that will make humans obsolete, unnecessary. His predictions about what our love of data could do to us reminds me of that old saying, “don’t ask for what you want because you might get it.” 

Harari’s Dataism also reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s last book “The Fall” in which the world actually does end up empty of all humans when they choose to be stored as data after they die. Eventually there is no one left alive to reproduce and humans no longer have a biological presence, although there is an afterlife of sorts. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be a trending topic of discussion for some time. Can we look far enough ahead as we see the ramifications of our passion for information and data to understand if what we are doing will threaten our very existence? Human pride in accomplishing our objectives makes it difficult to step back despite apprehending the outcomes. Will the Internet-of-all -Things become like the nuclear bomb. Once we go there we will suddenly understand David Foster Wallace’s dedication of being a Luddite. Back away and live; succeed and become extinct. Is Homo Deus too far out? Perhaps not.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – Book

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is right up my alley, in my wheelhouse, or any other cliché that means Mr. Harari and I like to think about the same things. We like to think about earth and mankind’s place on earth. We like to think about human societies or cultures if you prefer, how they developed, how we got to this particular overcrowded, possibly existential state we currently find ourselves in, and if and how we can find our way back from the precipice. He begins at the beginning when there are two species of humanoids on the planet at the same time, Neanderthals and homo sapiens.

Humans began as just another species of animals. They had the same needs for food and shelter, communal cooperation and reproduction. There are no other animal species that we know of that left drawings on caves though, and that may be the key difference that started the entire chain of human history. In our early days we did nothing that disturbed the natural balance of the planet. We hunted and gathered but animals and plants were plentiful and all living things flourished or experienced hardships together. If life became difficult in one location people simply moved to a new location. Life was ‘a moveable feast’. 

Harari explains that people usually think that it was agriculture that changed the human equation. Of course it did. But, he reasons, what really separated people from other animals was the human facility with storytelling. Animals didn’t name constellations or make up families of capricious gods. But once humans did create these ‘stories’ which Harari calls ‘myths’ humans who shared the same myths began to join together in communities. They could not have done this without learning how to plant seeds and keep a stable food supply nearby. At first these myths might be small and local and they varied from place to place. People fought wars over them. One myth got absorbed into another.

The point at which readers may have difficulty accepting Harari’s ‘myth’ thesis is when we get to modern religions: Christianity, Judaism, Muslims, Buddhism, Hinduism. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, all of these religions, to Harari, are myths. They are myths that separate us and keep us apart, set back a global future we can hardly avoid unless some disaster drastically lowers the human population or some other life-changing event occurs. Will we ever give up our myths or adopt one worldwide myth?

Yuval shows how far we have gotten from the balance of nature into which mankind was born. So many animals are extinct. Men and women no longer collect in caves and live off the land without radically changing the planet. He discusses the role of imperialism and capitalism, the economic idea of perpetual growth which occupies the thinking of so many of us. Can the exponential growth of the Industrial Revolution continue? Can Capitalism get reined in enough to restore some of the natural balance we need. This is not a book about climate change. This is a book that suggests that we “left the garden” when we built towns and cities and empires and our moves have thrown the planet out of balance. Harari explores economics and even the way we treat cattle and chickens. (We really do need to find a new way to treat our food. We know that this is inhumane because it makes no nod to the equal circumstances in which we all began and it weighs on our spirits.) He discusses globalization and the future of mankind but tells us he will offer more in a second book.

In all, it is a sprawling book and it inspires thoughts while immersed in the author’s ideas and long after. It’s a book I will remember, and I go to sleep some nights going over what Harari had to say, some of which is hard to take, but for the most part is not anything we haven’t heard in the corners of our culture where such things are contemplated. Exercise that brain with thoughtful books and perhaps you will solve the riddle of civilization at the same time. Or we will go to space, take our myths with us and do the whole thing all over again because it’s a pattern we like, or we can’t change, or our myths are now too imbedded and we are too committed.

Dirt by Bill Buford – Book

From a Google Image Search – foodandwine.com

So many people mentioned that they were reading Dirt by Bill Buford that I succumbed to peer pressure and downloaded the book. I’m not really a foodie, except for an unhealthy addiction to sweets, which I am trying to break. But I am a Francophile of sorts because some of my ancestors were French, so I enjoyed Buford’s adventures in Lyon. Mr. Buford is not a chef, he’s a writer, most recently for The New Yorker, but he had done some stints in Italian kitchens and he met Michel Richard, a French chef in Washington, DC.

Although he and his wife Jessica had newborn twin boys, he commuted on weekdays to Washington DC from New York City and was only available to help out with those twins on weekends. If I were Jessica, I think I might have shown him a few creative uses for pots and pans, or, even better, rolling pins, but Jessica is not faint-of-heart. She handles challenges with grace, occasionally requires better spousal behavior and shares her husband’s sense of adventure.

The two had hoped to move to Paris but ended up in Lyon because Chef Richard had connections there. With twins, now toddlers (moving to Lyon is complicated) the family decamped to Lyon. Bill worked for a while with the boulanger (bread maker) downstairs from their apartment who made bread for restaurants and people all over Lyon. Buford wondered why Bob’s bread was so much better than most bread. His search led him into the Dombes, marshes in the foothills of the French Alps and it led to the essential role “dirt” plays in the quality of food.

Buford did not pick up languages easily but fortunately Jessica did. The boys were in preschool in Lyon and also picked up French quite naturally. Bill took some time. He attended an Institute of French Cooking and did some “stages” at restaurants in Lyon. He did pick up in-depth knowledge of Lyonnaise cooking.

Bill kept wanting to find a connection between Italian cooking and Lyonnaise cooking with Italian cooking at the roots of the French cooking and he did form some interesting theories through his researches. He must have been a very charming guy because he got away with this in the chauvinistic city of Lyon. But he also learned not to speak of these theories to anyone in Lyon.

It turns out that much of the cooking in Lyon came from a few famous “meres” (mothers) whose food was so legendary that it formed the basis of a “mere” restaurant. Some “meres” left handwritten cookbooks for their offspring. Often these “mere” kitchens are now just about the exclusive domain of men.

Dirt by Bill Buford is about food and also about the historical roots of food, and about making friends in a place where newcomers are regarded with suspicion and are snubbed. Informative and enjoyable; sometimes giving in to peer pressure is a good thing. I enjoyed the book every much.

Arguing with Zombies by Paul Krugman – Book

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Paul Krugman is an expert in Economics. He defies the economic analyses favored by Conservatives. In Arguing with Zombies Krugman  resents that “zombie” economic ideas keep being disproved (dying) and that they keep “shambling along” like the zombie ideas they are because they match up with right-wing ideologies.

Of course, he mentions the origins of these ideas, names like Keynes and Friedman, but Krugman sets out to make the rather arcane, rather subjective field of economics clear to all of us who come down with fuzzy brain syndrome whenever the term economics pops up in conversation.

I always read Krugman’s columns in the New York Times , but I must have missed more than a few because, although this book is a hand-picked collection of his columns, he managed to include ones I had not read. If he can explain economics so I can understand it then he’s very talented indeed.

His topics in this book include: saving social security, the road to Obamacare, attack on Obamacare, bubble or bust, crisis management, the Euro, fiscal phonies, tax cuts, trade wars, inequality, Conservatives, Socialism, climate, Trump and the media. On each topic he contrasts his views with those held by Republicans. 

Krugman makes me nod “yes, yes” as I read. If you find yourself nodding “no, no,” then Mr. Krugman is not the economist for you. But I swear he is right. If you read Krugman’s book you can judge if my “Spidey sense” is correct as events in America unfold. Only the last chapter is a bit dense and academic. I appreciate Paul Krugman for his clarity and his ability to come down from the “Ivory Tower” inhabited by most economists.

Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence by Harlow Giles Unger – Book

From a Google Image Search – Forbes

Can you be a committed activist born at a moment of radical change and have a personal life that fulfills all the social goals. Thomas Paine’s life story as told by Harlow Giles Unger in his book Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence teaches me the details of a life that I knew only as a heading lost in a textbook chapter. 

Thomas Paine was born in England but he argued that royalty was an elitist and bad form of government which kept citizens as subjects. The power of the King was backed by “divine right.” In other words, the King was chosen by God, so crimes against the King were sins against God and any person who slandered the King (in this case George III) was a traitor who could be burned at the stake, disemboweled, hung, or any two of the aforementioned horrific ways to die. Was it brave or foolish to argue against royalty as a viable form of government in 18 th century England?

Thomas Paine had to get out of town. He ended up in the American colonies just as the colonists were rebelling against the taxes levied by George III, the troops being quartered in their homes. This was a rebellion that Paine understood. This was a historical moment ripe for Paine’s ideas. He published an inflammatory pamphlet which opened with this famous line; “These are the times that try men’s souls” and he signed himself by the pseudonym ‘Common Sense.’ As the war ran into difficulties with recruitment he published more articles, also signed Common Sense. He knew George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other founders. He was a Quaker, nonviolent, but he picked up a rifle and joined the fight. We know who won the Revolutionary War but I did not know how many setbacks Washington had on the way. Victory was a near thing until France got involved and that was in response to entreaties from Thomas Paine.

Sadly Thomas Paine was very poor and had to depend on kindnesses from friends. In his years in America he was considered good company. He was eventually given some properties. But Paine did not stay in America. He returned to England to try to see his mother before she died, but he was too late. He was still a wanted man in England and had to go to France. Not everyone knew he was ‘Common Sense,’ but important people did. Paine arrived in Paris in time for the beginnings of the French Revolution which , of course, he championed. But after being greeted as a hero his life went off track in France. While in a French prison he finished a new treatise, The Age of Reason, in which he managed to alienate almost everyone. I have to leave you something to uncover for yourselves, so I will end with Paine ill and imprisoned, but that is not the end of his life or the book. I will say that if people had talked about such a thing as work/life balance during Paine’s lifetime that might have been a message he needed to hear. He was a great man with ideas ahead of his times but apparently life is not always a lark just because you are famous. Activism has consequences.

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Oklahoman

I kept hearing about what a good writer Patti Smith is but I just had not gotten around to reading any of her books. It may have been kismet, or serendipity, because The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is almost as surreal as living in isolation to avoid contracting novel coronavirus. Would I have loved this book as much in less apocalyptic times? I will never know. Patti Smith is only one year younger than me but our lives couldn’t be more different, even if you don’t count all the famous men she worked with, partnered with and married. I was a child of Woodstock, she was a punk rocker. I did not keep up with developments in music or, alas, in poetry. My excuse is that I was busy teaching school and living my own life. But I wish now that I had some of Patti Smith tucked away in a schema deep in my brain.

In The Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith checks into the Dream Hotel in California and falls asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rest of the book could be a dream that followed her through the year she turned 70, the Chinese Year of the Monkey. In the morning she goes to eat breakfast at a lonely diner on a long pier, called Wow, where she meets the enigmatic Earnest who pops up from time to time in true surreal fashion. Patti Smith is lost in a year of losses, deaths, illnesses, friends and lovers who are dead or dying.

I wish I could write like this. It’s atmospheric and incandescent at the same time and scattered throughout with some of Smith’s famous Polaroid camera shots. But I was not named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture either.(Wikipedia)

“Get in, said Earnest. We’ll drive through the desert. There’s a place I know that has the best huevos rancheros, and coffee that you can actually drink with pleasure. Then you can judge whether I’m a hologram or not. 

There was a rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror. It felt familiar driving with Earnest in the middle of the unexplained; dream or no dream, we had already crisscrossed some curious territory. 

“Earnest did most of the talking. Metaphysical geometry, in his low, meditative style, as if he was drawing words from a secret compartment.” Pg. 47

Sam Shepard, the Sam Shepard is dying in the Year of the Monkey, probably of ALS. These two are co-writers, maybe more, but now Sam can no longer write, he speaks and Patti writes. She covers a lot of territory in this year of the monkey. 

“ We’ve become a Beckett play, Sam says good naturedly.

I imagine us rooted in our place at the kitchen table, each of us dwelling in a barrel with a tin lid, we wake up and poke out our heads and sit before our coffee and peanut butter toast waiting until the sun rises, plotting as if we are alone, not alone together, but each alone, not disturbing the aura of the other’s aloneness.” Pg. 79

Turns out the motel was never called the Dream Motel. It is the Dream Inn. Patti Smith, I loved your book and the glimpses you gave us of your feelings about the important people in your life.

It’s been surreal.

From a Google Image Search – The Guardian

Blowout by Rachel Maddow – Book

Never would I have imagined that I would, by choice, read a book about oil and gas, but I found Blowout by Rachel Maddow both readable and sort of gripping. Except for a brief visit with Putin, as the title telegraphs the book begins with the BP Deep Water Horizon blowout and the oil leak which made it clear that while the industry has plenty of tools for drilling, it has almost none for clean-up. Rachel expresses incredulity that even now, in 2020, we still have only giant paper towels, dish detergent, and booms.

Once the Deep Water Horizon gusher is finally capped, Maddow has us shuttling back and forth between Putin’s Russia and Oklahoma City, In Russia Exxon Mobil under the leadership of Rex Tillerson signs a deal with Putin to drill using horizontal drilling techniques (fracking) in the Arctic releasing billions of gallons of oil and gas trapped in the ancient shale under the Arctic Ocean. 

In Oklahoma we follow the rather excessively risky Aubrey McClendon in his quest to frack every inch of Oklahoma and put Oklahoma City on the map. It is hard to say if Aubrey loves oil or Oklahoma City most, but he loves money over both. He is a wildcatter who somehow talks banks into allowing him to carry enormous debts, and he talks with government officials and the powers that be at Oklahoma University to hush up the emerging evidence of a connection between fracking and the numerous earthquakes rocking Oklahoma.

There are so many good oil and gas stories (all true) in Maddow’s book that I can’t begin to tell them all. The Russia saga alone has so much corruption and thuggery that it reads like a thriller, but it is not a thriller. It’s an actual chunk of world history that reveals how chasing oil and gas resources and profits is destroying our democracy every bit as much as the Republicans, the Fundamentalists, and Trump. 

Oil and gas are so tied to money and power that it becomes clear that the power people around the globe never had any plans to stop using fossil fuels. In fact nations were competing to tap oil reserves far under earth in difficult to reach places and either control the global flow of petroleum or have an independent long term supply. Putin even has dreams of getting Exxon Mobil to use their technical drilling knowledge to tap enough Russian oil and gas that Putin can become the sole supplier of oil and gas to the EU and thus be able to pull strings in as many EU countries as desired. He seems to dream of a mighty Russia, with imperialistic expansion back to the old boundaries of the Soviet Union (or even beyond) on his mind. Fascinating and frightening.

And we learn how money and powerful oil companies bought the Republican Party and turned them into the climate deniers they are, and why any attempts to bring alternative energies to the forefront and turn America into an engine of production in the emerging alternative energy markets were facing enough headwinds to keep them very small indeed. The book ends with notes on attributions for the information contained in each chapter. Blowout by Rachel Maddow is a very informative nonfiction offering by an Oxford scholar who also hosts an hour of news each night on MSNBC.

Acid for Children by Flea – Book

From a Google Image Search – Radio X

Acid for Children by Flea – Book

Rock stars, punk stars, even hip hop stars are being pressured to write memoirs. Patti Smith has sort of taken the literary world by storm – she’s next on my list, but Flea’s book called to me first because it was on the reader that didn’t need to be charged. Ridiculous way to pick reading priorities and likely to make you feel like your brain has experienced whiplash, but I can no longer cart around heavy piles of books, and library waiting lists are long. Besides writers make their living when we buy their books, so I like to buy books to show my respect for writers.

Michael Balzary, the bassist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote Acid for Children. His fans know him as Flea. He’s actually quite a good writer whose words do not get in the way of his story. It seemed like I was sitting in a circle of his friends on an adjoining mattress on the floor of the Wilton Hilton as he told the story of his early years, before he became famous. He told the most distressing things as if they were normal events, although he was aware that his childhood was anything but normal. It began in a fairly normal way in Australia, living with mom, Patricia, and Dad, Mick, sister Karyn. In Australia Michael’s pleasures involved enjoying the riches offered by nature in Australia; a boy and his dog. When he was about eight his Dad was offered a great job in the US and the family moved to an upscale suburban home.

Michael’s mother rebelled. She left to live with Walter, a musician/artist who knew many jazz greats and jammed with them, but who could not make a living. He had a substance abuse problem and what was probably a mental illness. He was though, when sober, a far more affectionate person than Michael’s birth father, and when not sober he raged and became abusive and fought with Michael’s mom, driving Michael out of the house. Michael’s birth father and his sister went back to Australia.

Patricia and Walter had no house rules. Michael was free to run and became basically a wild young kid, shoplifting what he wanted or needed, making friends with other young men who liked to take crazy risks, all the while feeling unloved, and sometimes unlovable. Michael and his friends tried every drug, swam in every beckoning empty pool, and partied constantly. I do not know how Michael stayed out of jail or why he didn’t have a long rap sheet of petty crimes. He seemed to make it through a very tumultuous coming-of-age and to arrive safely in adulthood, still somewhat messed up, but with a career as a famous musician right ahead of him. 

Michael became Flea when he became the bassist for Fear. He finished high school thanks to a love of music he had learned from the jazz he loved and all the fine jazz musicians he met at Walter’s shabby house. Michael played the trumpet in high school and his love of music kept him in school long enough to graduate. Michael and his friends lived in Hollywood which might explain how they stayed under the radar of law enforcement as they used the city as their acid-fueled playground. Eventually Flea learned to play the bass, and it became his ticket into fame and fortune.

Balzary is quite honest in telling his story; he does not hide the chaos of his early years and he obviously enjoyed much of the chaos, which suited something untamed within him. Looking back he counsels that children should not do any of the drugs he did, that it does damage to young brains. He explains that he eventually became enlightened enough to not try so hard to constantly self-soothe. Readers may find Michael Balzary’s young life too profane for their tastes. While appreciating the honesty Flea offers and his easy style of writing, I agree with his adult self, that children can be neglected by self-absorbed adults when they need oversight the most. Is a chaotic youth necessary to mold a creative spirit? Perhaps creative development does not require quite this level of free range parenting.  

999 by Heather Dune Macadam – Book

goodread.com

999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

If you decide to read 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Transport to Auschwitzby Heather Dune Macadam, read it with a whole box of tissues handy. This is not because, as in fiction, authors know how to engage our emotions; this is a nonfiction book and the tears will be real. Despite all the times authors have written about the Holocaust, this story still has the power to horrify us, to remind us of the heroic efforts it took to survive this unimaginable cruelty and brutality, to make us wonder if we would have been a survivor, and to force us to accept that the right set of circumstances could possibly turn any one of us into a monster.

Macadam was studying the first transports to Auschwitz in 1942. She learned that a notice went out in Slovakia that spring requiring 999 young teen girls to pack a bag and report for a physical exam. The notice said that they were going to be employed somewhere just outside Slovakia and would return home in 3 months. A few parents tried to hide their daughters because they could not understand why the government was taking girls. But in the end 997 girls were collected and parted from their parents and from all they knew. Macadam made extensive use of the USC Shoah Archive and the official records in Israel to track down the girls who survived this first transport. Although rumor had it that the girls were going to a shoe factory, they actually were taken to occupy the first buildings at Auschwitz. Their small suitcases were confiscated and they were given the uniforms of dead soldiers to wear and some were given black and white striped dresses. On their feet they had homemade clumsy sandals which they called clackers. 

Some of the survivors could not talk about their experiences, some could not remember the details because their minds had blocked them, but there were survivors who felt it was important to tell people what had happened in those camps. How anyone survived I cannot say. The treatment of these girls was insane and inexplicable, apparently only possible because the Nazi’s were convinced that Jewish people were less than human. But they did what they did under conditions of great secrecy, so clearly they knew well how the world would judge them. After these girls, transport after transport of young Jewish women were delivered to Auschwitz, and they, in fact, cleared the ground for the entire concentration camp by hand, without coats in winter, in those awful homemade sandals, and thousands died. 

This is the most authentic book I have read so far about Auschwitz and the ‘Final Solution’ given that Macadam spoke with people who had lived there and experienced that nightmare. The slightest small misstep, a bout of illness, an injury could result in death. Eventually the girls with the lowest numbers were given indoor work in Canada, which was the name given to the buildings where confiscated Jewish belongings were sorted. This decision may have been the only reason some of these girls survived. The thing that saved their lives put them right next to the crematoriums which had now been built and operated day and night when transports arrived, eventually leaving people off almost at the entrance to the ovens. The girls could see their relatives and neighbors lined up to be killed. The ashes of other Jews filled the air they breathed. Even the comfort of an indoor job held horror.

When I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, I was skeptical of the things the author recounted. I also tended to see Jewish people in the camps who had light duty as possible collaborators. The girls who survived have a lot of guilt about things they did in the camps, but most of them offered a kindness when they could without putting their own life or their own survival in jeopardy. There were girls who were given power as a building supervisor, and some of these girls were dangerous and mean, but the things the girls on this first transport out of Slovakia felt guilty about were unavoidable. Now I believe that Heather Morris was just recounting a story that a survivor told her and that it was most likely as trustworthy as memories of such trauma can be. I read books about the Holocaust because it is the least I can do to honor those who lived through those inhuman camps. But also, so I will always remember that if one deranged human could decide to commit mass murder based on hate or jealousy, or some pathological construct, then it could happen again. 

Frederick Douglass by David Blight – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Federalist

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight has had me in thrall since December of last year. The author’s style is not to blame for the length of time I spent with Douglass. His style is not obscure, linguistically dense, or pedantic. Frederick Douglass’s life, however, was lived with a passionate density and a dedication to freedom and equality for all Americans of African Descent. It was a life richly lived and in no way ordinary. 

How did Douglass make his way from slavery to national fame, treasured by many and hated by some. He believed in the value of hard work and telling an important story, at even the cost of his own health sometimes. In the days before there were radios, getting out a message took more effort, more arduous travel, often by rail, in all kinds of weather, than we can even imagine. How did Frederick Douglass learn to read and speak to crowds? It was illegal to teach slaves to read. It was said that once a slave could read he became useless as a slave. These masters, who liked to argue that the Negro race was inferior in intelligence, were afraid to teach a slave to read and write, to make a hash of their white supremacy claims, which, as Blight admits, linger stubbornly to this day. 

Douglass, with some help from his master’s son’s wife, Sophie Auld in Baltimore, the Bible, some friendly white boys in Baltimore, and a book he poured over called The Columbian Orator, taught himself to read and speak, as an orator speaks, with power and effective rhetoric while he was still a slave. Eventually Douglass (born Fred Bailey) escaped north and fell into the helpful hands of some very active abolitionists, who dedicated themselves to speaking and writing against using any humans as slaves. He renamed himself after Clan Douglas from Walter Scott’s poem Lady of the Lake, because he liked their strength, and added an ‘s’ to make the name his own, says Blight. Late in the slave days of Douglass his master died and his estate was broken up. Since slaves were considered property all the master’s slaves were put on display and examined by other slave owners, purchased and hauled away like furniture, or tillers. While Douglass already understood that slavery was wrong, this atrocity imprinted graphically on his mind, along with a memory of being allowed in to visit his mother before she died. Frederick Douglass never knew his birth day and when slavery was done he went to see the Aulds who remained, but no one could enlighten him.

I will not tell you all the names of every abolitionist Douglass met because he knew all of his contemporaries. He was in demand as an orator who used Biblical cadences and even humor to insist that no man should be owned by any other man, that only freedom for all would suit the idealism of the American republic. There were often disputes among abolitionists about whether to advocate peaceful protest or a more robust activism so friends were made and lost and even Douglass changed his views on this, but, even so, Douglass’s focus on freedom and equality for all of the people being held as slaves propelled him through the next 6o years, with time out for a few jobs in the government after the Civil War. Douglass traveled and spoke constantly, first widely in the North and Midwest sections of America, passed from church to church and abolitionist to abolitionist for his own safety, in England, and Ireland, and Scotland (where slavery was already illegal), and again in America.

He spoke up before the Civil War, all throughout the Civil War when he also fought to have black soldiers who would fight for their own emancipation, and he could not rest in the disheartening aftermath of emancipation. He became owner/publisher/writer of a newspaper which included articles from most of the other activists in the anti-slavery movement. He wrote books, autobiographical in content, still in print today and still popular. He struggled constantly to support himself and his family. His wife Anna (Murray), who was born free, and his young children kept a home base that Douglass rarely got to enjoy. He was propelled by his mission and could not sit and rusticate. 

Many wealthy abolitionists contributed to keeping Douglass’s newspaper alive and in that way helped support his family. Eventually he moved his family to Rochester, NY. Anna’s garden in Rochester was extensive, productive, and apparently lovely. Some of Douglass’s best friends in the cause and financial supporters were female activists. At least two of these women spent time staying at the Douglass home in Rochester. Ottilie Assing a well-educated German woman, seemed to have been enamored of Douglass and spent summers at the Douglass homes in both Rochester and later in the family home near Washington, DC. Blight found no descriptions of any untoward intimacies that survived, although it is possible to imagine that there may have been some, perhaps when Douglass went to stay at times with Ottilie and her circle. Anna Douglass left no clues about how she felt about these visitors, but Ottilie sometimes complained about Anna.

There is such a wealth of detail in Blight’s biography that if you really want to know Frederick Douglass you need to read Blight’s well-documented book. I will say that I became very nervous about what would happen when Reconstruction was undermined by the assassination of Lincoln (who Douglass knew personally and who he was able to influence and educate about the true conditions of slavery) and the rapid acceptance of former slave states back into the Union. I knew what atrocities ensued and I dreaded watching Douglass’s heart break when emancipation became violent racism. But Douglass was a man of his times and more pragmatic than me. He hated the violence, but he tried to keep the nation on a path to granting equality to freed slaves. He celebrated the 15 th Amendment with a Jubilee even as he grieved the bloodshed, the terrorism, and the lynching that turned the South into a death trap for black folks who tried to exercise their new right to vote. So many battles still to be fought.

But in his final years, even as Frederick Douglass traveled and spoke as often as his health would allow, even as he faced the disapproval from both citizens and family when he married (after the death of Anna) a younger white woman, Helen Pitts, who he had worked with in Washington, even as he represented the federal government in Haiti, – he won the fame and reverence that he had earned in a lifetime of dedication to fighting for the freedom he did not have, for both himself and every black man. Douglass knew women who fought for the rights of women. He knew Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but he was not distracted. The needs of slaves were more pressing in his mind and I don’t think most of us would argue with this focus. When Douglass died in 1895, “the Hutchinson Family Singers, who had many times appeared with Douglass, sang ‘Dirge for a Soldier’: ‘Lay him low, lay him low/Under the grasses or under the snow: /What cares he? He cannot know./Lay him low, lay him low.” – page 753.

I will say that I did not actually read this book; I studied it. The author’s words were so compelling and so impelling that I could not think of rephrasing them. The way the story is told is just as essential to understanding Frederick Douglass as the facts themselves are. It was a pleasure to spend these many hours with Mr. Douglass and the travails and joys of his life. I was told he was a great man, now I know why he was considered a great man. Frederick Douglass would possibly understand the refresher course we are experiencing in racism in America because it has never really been put to rest. But he was enough of an optimist to hope that this might be the last hurrah for white supremacy.