Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Captain Francis Austen, Royal Navy, commanding the HMS St. Albans, sailed to Canton at one point in the years leading up to the Opium War. The Chinese government obliquely sought his assistance against the pirate queen of the Pacific, but in the end the British sailed away again without helping. Francis, who would eventually rise to the rank of fleet admiral, had a little sister by the name of Jane. That’s right, Jane Austen. Her novel Persuasion, about a naval captain coming home after years at sea, comes to mind.
Jane Austen’s big brother is just one on a long roster of fascinating figures that populate the portrait that the historian Stephen Platt paints of the Opium War. His new book, Imperial Twilight, is terrific reading for anyone interested in this episode in history.
Platt’s central thesis is that the Opium War was a highly contingent event that didn’t need to happen at all and certainly didn’t need to happen in the way that it did. Had the former prostitute Shi Yang, known to history as Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sau (“wife of elder brother Zheng”), not rise to become a pirate queen commanding 70,000 men, the British might not have been impressed with how weak Chinese naval defenses were. Had Captain Austen understood that it was official policy in Beijing not to seek foreign help in dealing with the pirates, so that the governor in Canton could not openly meet with him, he might not have returned home to report on what he thought was insolent treatment by the Chinese.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a Fascist politician’s rise to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here, are now bestsellers. Indeed, Amazon has sold out of both.
But another book ought to be on your reading list as well: The Confidence Game by the science journalist Maria Konnikova.
A study of the art of the con artist and the psychology that leads victims to fall for scams, the book was written and published before most of us thought Trump had any chance of victory, and it was not meant to be political. Yet it reads like a history of his rise.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."