Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Well, the inevitable happened and the drama of life got in the way of keeping on schedule with my reading and blog-posting, as well as a disappointing book choice for North Carolina that I struggled through to about the halfway point before giving up. Nevertheless I intend very soon to pick up where I left off with a new book for the state. Watch this space...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Mid-Atlantic States - A Summary

Time for another summary. I'm now around a week behind schedule (at least, I need to check!). Hopefully I'll stumble upon some nice short books soon. So unlikely I'll be picking Gone With the Wind for Georgia...

Week 7

The State: New York

The Book: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)

Week 8

The State: New Jersey

The Book: American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Week 9

The State: Pennsylvania

The Book: Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Week 10

The State: Delaware

The Book: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Week 11

The State: Maryland

The Book: A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (1998)

Week 12

The State: West Virginia

The Book: Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Week 13

The State: Virginia

The Book: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

Virginia and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)

The Battle of Chancellorsville, the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign, was the fifth costliest battle of the American Civil War. 17,197 Union and 13,303 Confederate casualties were counted in the fighting which lasted from April 30 to May 6, 1863 (May 3 was the second bloodiest day of the Civil War). The campaign was the most unevenly balanced of the war, and is known as Confederate General Robert E. Lee's "perfect battle" for his victory against a Union army better supplied, better rested and twice their size (60,892 against Maj. Gen Joseph Hooker's army of 133,868). Although the result was a victory for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia he lost some 22% of his force in the campaign, and just as seriously, he lost his most aggressive field commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, to friendly fire, a loss that Lee likened to "losing my right arm." In reaction to the Union defeat President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "My God! My God! What will the country say?" Although Stephen Crane was born six years after the end of the Civil War he surprised critics with his realistic portrayal of the battlefield in Red Badge of Courage, and it is widely believed that he based the battle on that of Chancellorsville, possibly taking inspiration from war stories told by members of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the Orange Blossoms), who first saw battle at Chancellorsville, in the town square of Port Jervis, New York where he resided. An overnight success at the age of 24, Crane died in 1900 following a severe hemorrhage of the lungs, aged just 28.

Red Badge of Courage was adapted into a 1951 film by director John Huston. Huston felt the film was his best to date but MGM were troubled by poor audience test results and what they felt was an anti-war tone to the film, and cut 19 minutes from the film. The Battle of Chancellorsville was also depicted in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name. In the novel of Red Badge of Courage though, there are no references to the time and place of the action, and in a sense they are not important, as the novel is a study of the psychological fear felt by the soldier. In fact, because it follows a battle from one soldier's pespective it is (intentionally so) hard to follow what is happening on the larger scale, or even who is winning the battle (at times the private can barely see beyond ten feet for all the smoke on the battlefield), and it's to its credit that it effectively places the reader in the thick of the battle. At the time Red Badge of Courage was praised as a modern work and it still holds up as one of the most vivid fictional accounts of war on the front-line written.

Next: North Carolina...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Week 13: State - Virginia

Virginia (named perhaps for the "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I) is internationally reknowned as the site of the first English colony in the United States, Jamestown, founded in 1607 following a previous 1584 expedition by Water Raleigh to the "New World". One of those first settlers was John Smith, who in December of 1607 was captured by a Powhatan hunting party and, somewhat disputably, later claimed he was spared from execution due to the intervention of the chief's daughter, Pocahontas. Pocahontas later became famous when she converted to Christianity and married the English settler John Rolfe with whom she travelled to London in the last year of her life. Jamestown was the capital of the colony for 83 years (from 1616 until 1699) but today exists only as an archaeological site. Williamsburg became the colonial capital in 1699, but during the American Revolutionary War the capital was moved to Richmond at the urging of Governor Thomas Jefferson (due to Williamsburg's vulnerable location). Virginia was also the site of the Siege of Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, in 1781. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" (due to its historic title "Dominion" given by Charles II in remaining loyal to the Crown during the English Civil War) and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there (including four of the first five - George Washington (who also commanded Virginia's forces in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War), Thomas Jefferson (who also founded the University of Virginia, a world heritage site, and designed The Virginia State Capitol, home to the Virginia General Assembly), James Madison, and James Monroe). African workers were first imported in 1619, and by 1860, almost half a million people, roughly 31% of the total population of Virginia, were enslaved, a division which contributed to the start of the American Civil War. During the war Virginia joined the Confederate States of America, while 48 counties in the northwest separated to form the new state of West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union. General Robert E. Lee, born in the state, was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and during the war more battles were fought in Virginia than anywhere else. Today the largest ancestry group in Virginia is African (19.6%), mostly descendants of enslaved Africans who worked on plantations, and in the 20th century Virginia played a key role in the civil rights movement, most notably in 1951 when Barbara Rose Johns, an African American rights activist, campaigned at the age of 16 for integration at her school in Farmville. In 1989 Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected as governor in the United States. Virginia has the highest concentration of technology workers of any state, and computer chips became the state's highest-grossing export in 2006. The Department of Defense is headquartered in Arlington at The Pentagon, the world's largest office building, and Virginia has the highest defense spending of any state per capita, providing the state with around 900,000 jobs.

Several films about Pocahontas have been made, including Walt Disney's 1995 animated feature, and Terrence Malick's 2005 The New World, both of which presented a fictional love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith. Three versions of John Fox Jr's novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, set in the Appalachian Mountains at the turn of the 20th century, have been filmed (the most recent in 1936), whilst numerous films set during the American Civil War have featured Virginia due to its prominent role in the war, including the 1965 James Stewart film Shenandoah and more recently Gods and Generals, which depicts the battles of First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) was also the basis for my choice of book for Virginia: Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, first published in 1895.

This may be considered cheating, as the setting of Red Badge of Courage is never revealed (the book is a psychological examination of a single soldier during his first combat experiences in the Civil War), but historians have generally agreed that the battle depicted is that of Chancellorsville, and Crane also wrote a follow-up short story featuring the same protagonist who apparently explicitly states the setting of the novel. Plus I've fallen behind schedule and need something short to read!

Review to follow this week...