Friday, May 4, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 7


As you may recall, Aarti and I have been reading Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West for the past couple of weeks, delving into the history of key individuals who played a big role in America’s expansion out west. We hope that you’ll join in the discussion on the complexities and contradictions that have built this country’s history.

You can also catch up on our previous discussions:

Chapter 1: Thomas Jefferson
Chapter 2: Andrew Jackson
Chapter 3: John Chapman
Chapter 4: David Crockett
Chapter 5: Sam Houston
Chapter 6: James K. Polk

Winfield Scott: Old Fuss and Feathers Goes to the Mountain

Kari: Winfield Scott is a person I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about before reading this chapter. And thankfully, I enjoyed this chapter more than the last, probably because we learned more about Scott as a human and not just achievements in politics or on the battlefield. In fact, I was actually interested in the descriptions of war battles and strategy. The way Morgan described Winfield Scott and his strengths made me realize that there is actually a lot of strategy surrounding war. It’s not just charge and destroy; to Scott, it was an art, and one at which he excelled.

Aarti: Yes, I liked learning about Scott, too, because he sounds FASCINATING. I loved learning just how complicated he was. One theme throughout this book is that so many of the characters in it made up tall tales and stories about themselves, and I think Scott is totally one of those people who fell in love with his own stories. But he did what he loved, and he was good at what he loved.

Kari: This was also a chapter that made me dislike Polk even more. Where Polk can be described as a certain kind of jerk, Scott should be described as a certain kind of saint in comparison. This chapter on Scott relates a person that possesses that special something that makes him a man of this era of western expansion. He had the ingenuity, forethought, and dedication to actually train an army because he knew it would be beneficial to his country’s future. He continued to fight for his cause despite personal conflict with his superiors (Polk)—enough conflict to drive most men away from frustrations.

Mostly the difference between him and the leaders of his time was his humane mentality on war. He treated a battle as a match of wits where the most skill and ingenuity would prevail. He didn’t attack with a vendetta; he wasn’t trying to fuel his ego; he wasn’t out to kill. It’s like war was a game to him, and he treated the “losers” with respect, not like he was better than them. He was constantly applauded by enemies for his compassion, and at one point, Morgan notes that Scott has been called one of the “most capable soldiers this country has ever produced.” With such regards bestowed upon this one man from such a popular era of history, I am surprised I have never known nor heard much about him.

Aarti: Yes, there was so much here that was surprising about an army general! That said, though, I can only take what Morgan says with a grain of salt. As we have discussed before, Morgan seems to really show people in either one light or another. He very clearly dislikes Polk a great deal, and he obviously adores Winfield Scott and thinks Scott deserves much more notice in history than he has received. I wish Morgan would just not insert himself into the biographies so much and make so clear his feelings about everyone he talks about because I can’t help but think we are only getting one side of the story. So I guess that means I’ve just added Winfield Scott to my list of people to learn more about!

Kari: Ha, you’re totally right, and though we’ve been talking about Morgan’s bias the entire time, I didn’t even think of it in this case! Looks like I am quick to judge people right off the bat on whether they sound likable or not. I think this point is the most important thing to remember while reading this book—grain of salt!

Aarti: As to why we have never known or heard about him, that really interested me, too. I found the theory presented as interesting and viable:
“Howe speculates that Americans have paid little attention to the extraordinary accomplishments of the Mexican campaign because they believe the annexation of the West was somehow a natural, inevitable process. To recognize the glory of Kearny’s, Taylor’s, and Scott’s actions would lessen the sense of ordained, unfolding destiny.”

Considering that no one ever learns about the War of 1812 or the Mexican War in history class, this makes a lot of sense to me. I think we basically jump directly from the Revolutionary War to the Monroe Doctrine to the Civil War, and miss so many of those points in between. If that’s because we don’t like to present ourselves as aggressive conquerors, then it makes sense.

Kari: Ooh, really good point! I think it’s the Columbus Effect that this country is so guilty of in education. We learn about the good and try to blur the bad.

The passage about Polk’s qualities that I referenced earlier actually popped up in this chapter without me realizing it. In regards to Polk’s boorish attitude towards Scott: “That he would even consider taking command out of the hands of one of the ablest generals in modern history, for fear he might run for president and hand it over to a politician with little if any military experience suggests a small man, frightened by the truth and dedicated to politics and not to his country…Perhaps we should just say Polk was blinded by political ambition and leave it at that.” Clearly Morgan doesn’t think too highly of Polk, either!

Aarti: I know! It’s just too much for me- Polk is lambasted in every single chapter going forward, and I wish Morgan would be a bit more… discreet? I don’t know. I like the honesty in some ways, but in others, it just seems unprofessional.


zibilee said…

I also find it odd that the author inserts himself into the narrative so much, and seems to have such strong likes and dislikes when it comes to the people he is writing about. Aarti is right, it seems unprofessional, and I can imagine that if I was reading this book, it would annoy me. It seems he has hero worship for some, and full on hate for others. For a book like this to really work, the author has to be fully impartial, and it seems like Morgan is nothing of the kind. Very astute musings today. I enjoyed reading them. 

Kari said…

This is one of the reasons I am glad I'm reading it alongside someone else and we can discuss. Because, to be honest, when it starts to drag at times, I'd probably just start to take it at face value and forget to consider the author's voice in telling the story—which is something that you always need to do when reading nonfiction, and especially history!