I recently completed two biographies of great Americans, set roughly two hundred years apart. Both books tell stories of oppression, resistance, and the struggle for freedom. Both are great books, in very different ways. I’ll offer a few quick thoughts on each, but in short: read them!
American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll
by Bradley J. Birzer
American Cicero tells the story of the bastard son of a wealthy colonist who is sent abroad for a Jesuit education, is formally named his father’s heir, and returns home to Maryland to become one of the early advocates for independence from Britain and one of the foremost shapers of the fledgling American republic. If you aren’t a history buff, you may not know (and if you aren’t a Roman Catholic, you may be surprised to learn) that in his day, Charles Carroll was well educated and capable (not to mention from the wealthiest family in the colonies) and could neither vote nor serve in public office — because of his “papist”tendencies and “Romish” influences. He is also portrayed as a devout Englishman who nevertheless saw independence as a necessary fresh start for the English constitution and English law, which were being usurped and corrupted by the government elected to uphold them.
Carroll initially took the public stage by writing under a pen name in the newspapers of his home colony of Maryland (the most anti-Catholic of the lot in his day), earned the trust and admiration of Washington, Franklin, and others among the founders, and outlived them all — and relatively few have heard his name. Here is a man who, with all his money, couldn’t buy a vote (and would never have tried); who advocated against democracy and in favor of a republic based on his reading of history and the times; and who drew on the ancient Greeks and Romans and his own faith tradition, as well as contemporary thinkers, to propose limits on the power of both the government and the “mob” in order to preserve those rights. In my review of Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, I asked if the author’s apparent preference for the monarchies of old was personal, or somehow tied to the Church — I think you can begin to see a sensible philosophical connection here, in Carroll’s dismay at the more populist, democratic leanings of some of his contemporaries. (This is not your high school’s American history!)
The author is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Professor of History and Director of the Hillsdale College Program in American Studies, and is also the author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth. Birzer tells the story as much as possible though Carroll’s own public writings and private letters, and this is an academic history, so it is not a breezy read. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this relatively unsung Founding Father. I enjoyed Birzer’s ability to connect Carroll’s thinking to his education and core values. This book is well worth the effort!
For additional perspective on the book and the author, check out this interview with Ignatius Insight.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand
This is a true-life tale of Gumpian proportions: a young misfit from a working-class Italian family (complete with a doting mother and an impeccable older brother) graduates from thieving prankster to Olympic track star and meets Hitler in the 1936 Olympics. A gifted athlete (on track to be the first man to break the four-minute mile) has his athletic career cut short by World War II and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater, surviving a temperamental plane, numerous missions, and long odds while enjoying the celebrity of being both an athlete and an airman. A World War II veteran endures weeks adrift in a life raft with two wounded comrades, battling starvation and dehydration, sharks, madness, and occasional strafing, only to come ashore in Japanese territory and become a prisoner of war. A POW is singled out by the Japanese for his celebrity and made to endure physical, mental, and emotional tortures for more than two years of captivity. A survivor of Japanese prison camps returns home and marries a vibrant, blue-blooded beauty despite warning signs that the war has taken a psychological toll.
Any one of these story lines could make a novel or a movie in itself — the fact that all of them really happened to one man is almost too much to be believed. Louis “Louie” Zamperini is still alive, 96 years old and active decades after he should have been dead so many times. He comes from an earlier time when track stars and airmen were celebrities, and, like Norman Borlaug, is an unsung Great American who should help us redefine “hero.”
This is not a book for the young or faint of heart — the treatment of POWs by the Japanese is brutal and horrifying, and the book includes scenes of inhumanity you may not soon forget. In this respect, it called to mind two other books I wrote about not long ago — James Clavell’s Shogun and Shusako Endo’s Silence. I recall past conversations with previous generations about how veterans of the World Wars came home and went about their lives, but veterans of later wars began to report emotional scars and psychological impacts. The implication, in some of these conversations, was that men have softened — but Unbroken makes a distinction, based on historical data, between the mental health of POWs in the European theater and POWs in the Pacific theater. This led me to ponder whether, in wars with Eastern cultures, Westerners are encounter philosophies with such different rules (or no rules at all) that we are, in fact, ill-equipped to deal with them.
The author, Laura Hillenbrand, does great work writing a biography you can’t put down, with a level of historic detail that does not diminish the readability of the book, but lets you know that she did her homework. Internet evidence suggests Louie Zamperini’s story may soon become a movie. Don’t wait for the movie — you’ll miss the chance for a fresh read of an exceptional book.