The good, the bad, and the really good

After that post where I talked about levels of trust in histories, I've given some thought to a few modern examples that illustrate the point.  After a lot of thought, I'd like to list three modern books that are unambiguously one way or the other.

Athenian Homicide Law is a brilliant history book written only a few years ago, on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder.  It's really well written, it quotes original sources, it states clearly not only what's known, but also what's not known, and best of all, it does not impose a single modern view on how they did things back then.   Highly recommended.

The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, by Eva C. Keuls.  I'm afraid this goes into the bad basket.  Ms Keuls doesn't like Athenian men.  From her tone, I strongly suspect she doesn't like men of any sort, from any time, from any place, for any reason.  She clearly knows her Greek pottery, which she uses to make her point, while avoiding any evidence that might contradict her apparent position that all men are slime.  Of course, she'd probably argue that I'm only saying that because I'm a man.  Oh well.  I bought this book two years ago at the Getty Villa, so it's getting some airplay in reputable surroundings.  

Both of these are modern histories by professionals, talking about the past.  Are there any real equivalents to Herodotus and Thucydides?  Men on the ground who knew, to the best of their ability, what was going on?  In fact there are quite a few, of varying levels of self-serving motive.  The one that to me stands head and shoulders above the rest is:

The Rommel Papers, by none other than Erwin Rommel, edited by the British military strategist Liddell Hart.  Rommel, as you surely know, was forced to take poison after he was implicated in a plot against Hitler.  What is less well know is that Rommel was an established author.  After WW1, in which he served as a junior officer, he wrote a textbook on infantry tactics called Infanterie greift an (Infantry in Attack).  He planned to do a similar book after WW2, but of course didn't live to write it.  He did however keep copious notes for his book even as he fought the war, plus he wrote to his wife, virtually every day throughout, sometimes twice a day, including piles of war details that really shouldn't have got past the censor.  His family hid his notes from the Gestapo and years later they asked Hart to turn the notes into a book.  Hart did it by touching the material as little as possible, presenting letters as letters and notes as notes, so that you get a perfect feel for what was happening.  There's a mind-blowing amount of information in that book, from what German high command was thinking about strategy, down to minute details about actions and people.  It was all written by someone in an astoundingly good position to know the facts, but written with no axe to grind.  (If you don't count his utter contempt for Italian organization, the Luftwaffe, and a few of his fellow Generals.  But that's part of the fascination).   Xenophon and Rommel would have made terrific co-authors.


Sarah W said...

So, two for my reading list, then.

I've read a few articles by Keuls, and, speaking as a woman, she does occasionally appear to have a Newberry knife to grind.

Happy New Year, Gary!

Susanna Fraser said...

I skimmed The Reign of the Phallus, having run across it at the University of Washington library. The illustrations were...fascinating, to say the least. But it occurred to me what she was doing wasn't entirely unlike judging my own culture and its men via porn. Which undoubtedly would shed interesting light on the psychology and sexual obsessions of a certain large subset of 21st century Americans, but is hardly the whole truth of our culture.

Gary Corby said...

That's a very good point, Susanna. That's indeed what she's done.

Sarah, The Rommel Papers is still in print, almost 60 years after it was published. I had to look up Newberry knife. How terribly apposite!