Arts & Culture

Reviews: May/June 2024

Books about an atypical Confederate general and an Enlightenment explorer.

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Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South
Elizabeth R. Varon ’93PhD
Simon & Schuster, $35
Reviewed by Alex Beam ’75

You might think it’s not the moment to be publishing a soup-to-nuts biography of a legendary Confederate general, but University of Virginia historian Elizabeth R. Varon ’93PhD proves, definitively, that General James Longstreet was a unique character in US history. Her subtitle says it all: Longstreet was “the Confederate general who defied the South.”

Best known as Robert E. Lee’s trusted “warhorse,” Longstreet was the rare Confederate who embraced the tenets of post–Civil War Reconstruction. (Varon notes that Michael Shaara’s 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, re-upped Longstreet’s fame for a new generation.) He was one of the few Southern generals who honored the conciliatory spirit of the Grant-Lee handshake at Appomattox, and he refused to embrace the myth of the Lost Cause. “We have made an honest, and I hope that I may say, a creditable fight,” Longstreet declared, “but we have lost.”

A West Point contemporary of Grant, whom he called “a lovable character, a valued friend,” the seemingly ageless Longstreet was wounded in the Mexican War in 1847—and symbolically volunteered, at age 77, to suit up for the Spanish-American War in 1898: “My services and sword are at my country’s call.” After the Civil War (1861–65), Longstreet became a jack-of-all-trades (mainly through patronage), working as a US marshal, a railroad commissioner, a port surveyor, a postmaster, and even as American minister to the Ottoman Empire in 1880. His politics were variable. While Varon writes that Longstreet generally supported African American voting rights in the postwar South, he heinously aligned himself with a brief-lived “white man’s party” in Georgia in the 1880s.

Unlike Grant, Lee, and almost every other Civil War general, Longstreet lived to see the dawn of the twentieth century; he died in 1904. His old age remained an adventure. In 1897 he married a progressive journalist 42 years his junior, and he even shilled for patent medicines with dubious names like Nervura and Peruna in his sunset years. Longstreet, Varon concludes, “has never fit the profile of a marble man whose life story could be set in stone.” Not by a long shot. But it makes for fascinating reading, expertly narrated and appreciated in Varon’s biography.

Alex Beam ’75 is the author, most recently, of Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece.


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The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook
Hampton Sides ’84
Doubleday, $35
Reviewed by James Ledbetter ’86

The European “explorers” we learned about in grade school had a variety of motivations. Some wanted to expand their empire, some sought to spread religion to the “heathen” population half a globe away, and some simply hoped to get rich.

In Hampton Sides’s telling, James Cook—who is perhaps best known for mapping the Pacific Ocean for European ships—was not especially driven by any of those factors. Sides depicts Cook as a true disciple of the Enlightenment, a skilled mapmaker intrigued by mastering the world’s contours, and possessed of an almost anthropological fascination with other cultures. “What seemed to animate him most,” Sides writes, “were the moments of pure discovery, moments when he felt called upon to study, measure, and document something entirely new.”

And yet, this book documents just how problematic and outright destructive these “explorers” could be. On many islands (such as Tahiti), Cook’s men were greeted warmly, but his ships brought damaging, enduring elements such as rats and venereal disease—unwelcome guests with unwelcome endurance.

Moreover, Cook’s longstanding reputation as a brilliant captain and informal diplomat began to erode on his final voyage. He lost his temper on board his ship and began punishing sailors for minor offenses. Worse, he brought this frenzy to some of the inhabited islands where his crew landed. Some natives had a habit of stealing things—an iron tool, a goat—from Cook’s ships, and on this final voyage Cook’s vengeance led him to order excessive flogging and even cutting off a man’s ears as retaliation. It was, Sides implies in his gripping tale, this unhinged fury that led to Cook’s demise in Hawaii in 1779.

James Ledbetter ’86 is the author of several books, most recently One Nation Under Gold.

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