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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Destiny of the Republic


Last Monday, my book group met to discuss Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.  I originally read, reviewed, and loved this nonfiction title back in January of 2012.  You can click here for that full review by me, but in the interest of keeping all of my book discussion reports as similar in structure as possible, here is the publisher review courtesy of Lit Lovers:

James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back.
But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his con­dition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet. 
Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic will stand alongside The Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman as a classic of narrative history.
Lit Lovers also has original questions posted here which I used as a guide to our discussion. Speaking of, here are the notes of what we talked about:
  • Well the votes went down unanimously this time.  I had a smaller crowd of 12 but all voted for Liked It!  One even said WOW!  People who couldn’t make it called or emailed in that they loved it too.  I get worried when this happens because book discussions go better when there is dissension, but the good news for our discussion was that people liked different aspects of the book, so that made for a varied discussion.  Here are some of the initial comments from the start of the discussion:
    • Who knew how interesting Garfield was?  Not me.
    • I knew it would be sad since it is no shock that he dies, but I didn’t expect to be heartbroken for what our country lost when he died.
    • I suggested it to a friend for his book club
    • I found it crazy that after Lincoln there was still no Secret Service
    • Millard is a good historian but she also writes in a way that is fun to read.  This is how to write Nonfiction!
    • I too was impressed with the scholarship here.  I also really liked her acknowledgements.
    • My favorite part was all of the medical history I learned.
    • That part infuriated me. So frustrating that there was a time when Lister’s idea of a sterile environment for surgery was NOT considered correct.
    • I found hopefulness in this book.  The country was so divisive, yet Garfield brought us together in his death.  It also gave me perspective that although things are VERY divisive now, it was much worse then and we got through that.
    • As surprised as I was about what a great leader Garfield was, I was equally impressed and gained new respect for Chester Arthur.  His change in response to Garfield’s death was impressive. That too was lost to history.
  • Question: Before you started this book, how much did you know about Garfield? Is her case for his potential and forgotten greatness convincing?
    • I never knew he was such a great guy.
    • At first, I was worried because I felt like Millard was too pro-Grafield.  She was not impartial enough.  But I liked the book even if it was not balanced.
    • As a “recovering academic” (this got giggles), I questioned how little Millard went into Lucretia and Garfield’s student-teacher relationship as they started courting.  I sought out more on that on my own. [See the very end of this post for a link to a CSPAN video on Lucretia.]
    • We read Millard before in book club, she seems to take the underdogs in history and elevates them.  So yes, she does write from a biased perspective of the protagonist (underdog) as good with clear bad guys in opposition.
  • Question: What was with the crazy Republican Convention where Garfield somehow went from nominator to nominee? Let’s make comparisons to the political process today.
    • First of all, Garfield didn’t want to be President.  He almost turned the nomination down.  I can't even imagine someone so involved in politics today NOT wanting to be President.
    • That convention had drama.  It is nothing like the controlled, staged event that happens now.
    • It would have been like that year Obama was just a speaker, and he wowed the crowd, trumping the actual nominee and being nominated 4 years earlier than he was.
    • Maybe it was good that it was so divisive and crazy because as a result, the civil service system was established and it helped to stop some of the madness of political appointments.
    • Patronage systems that fueled those problems are now illegal.  They still happen, but not as practice since they are technically illegal.
    • The patronage system egged on a single sicko-- Guiteau-- to assassinate the President.
    • Today’s professionalized Civil Service and more national and global awareness work together to keep politicians in-line.
    • Leaders Note: This line of questioning started off slowly but began to build very nicely.  If you discuss this book, give this question time to build. I was patient and it paid off.
  • Question: Guiteau.  I feel like he doesn’t deserve our respect to spend time talking about him, but how can we not even bring it up a little. Let’s just say what we want about him and then move on.
    • psychotic
    • I was so mad that he survives the boat accident that Millard opens her book with.  I know she manipulated my emotions on purpose, but still so mad.  He should have been one of the people who died!  Even worse than the fact that he survived, he thought his survival was a sign from God that he was meant for great things. Yuck.
    • He had to be executed because the country needed to see him die in order to heal over the national tragedy that was Garfield’s death, but at the same time, it was tragic because he really was mentally ill and needed help.
    • I don’t think anyone at that time could have helped him.  Medicine was not advanced enough to not kill Garfield.  Guiteau’s mental illness was too biologically complicated to be treated at the time too.
    • I liked how she explained that around this time (end of 19th Century) the insanity defense was still new.  Many people at the time still thought it was a way for murderers to lie.  I think they were right to try NOT to allow it to be used in his defense.
    • One participant shared a personal story about a co-worker whose husband was killed by an insane person.  This widow actively fought for him NOT to use the insanity defense because if he were convicted that way, there was a chance he could one day be released.  She knew he was insane, but couldn’t bare to know he would be out of jail one day.
    • Back to Guiteau.  We appreciated that they government worked very hard to keep Guiteau alive for his day in court so he could tell his (crazy) story, be convicted, and be publicly executed.  This made us think about all of the pain and conspiracy theories we still have over JFK because Oswald was killed before he had his day in court.
    • This book also made me think about how much we still need to learn about mental illness.
    • I was struck by Millard pointing out that both men were involved in a serious boating accident and how different the outcomes were because of this accident.  Guiteau thought it meant he was chosen by God and Garfield’s made him redirect himself to family and scholarship.  Excellent job by her as a historian to find that connection and as a writer to work it into the book subtly.
  • Question: What did you think about the descriptions and information about the medical establishment at the time, and Dr. Bliss’ fault in Garfield’s death?
    • I was so frustrated to learnt hat Dr. Lister’s methods of a sterile environment was already accepted and used in much of Europe but not accepted here.  Sometimes Americans have the mentality that we always know best, when it is obvious that this is not true.
    • Bliss had ambition and wanted to create a name for himself, maybe more than he cared about his patient. This ambition hurt Garfield’s chances at survival.
    • I thought it was interesting that while they knew some Civil War Vets had been living just fine with bullets still lodged inside of them, since they didn’t know how or why this was the case, and this was the President, they wanted to do everything they could to save him.  To them it made sense to remove the bullet at all costs, except, this insistence is probably what killed him.
    • What happened to Garfield after he was shot was BARBAROUS (her emphasis).
    • We decided that Bliss was not all bad. He did truly want to save Garfield, he just cared about his career more than Garfield’s health.
    • Interestingly, Millard included (for comparison) a description of the female doctor who cured Lucretia, actually nursed her back from the brink of death, with much less invasive procedures.
    • The diet Garfield was given to cure him actually made hime sicker.  He had known dietary problems and was very careful to only eat things that agreed with him.  Why did they force him to eat things that were established as upsetting to his body as part of his treatment? Again, they did not understand food intolerances then.
    • All of this medical stuff was very frustrating to me because it seemed like common sense.
    • Ahhh, but it is 21st Century common sense.  This was the late 19th Century.
    • The expression, “Ignorance is Bliss” came from an older poem but this shortened version of the statement became popularized by the media after Garfield’s death.  The fact that it has hung around as a colloquial expression is because of Dr. Bliss and his bad treatment of Garfield.
    • This reminded us of when we read Manhunt by James Swanson and we learned that saying someone’s “ name is Mud,” comes from a figure in the chase to capture James Wilkes Booth.  That also made me comment  that we might have an assassination fetish as  a group because we also read Assassination Vacation as a group too [see readalike info below for details].
  • Question: Let’s discuss the entire plot arc with Alexander Graham Bell.
    • I knew Bell was important, but now I think of him as AMAZING (her emphasis)
    • He was a true scientists and obsessed inventor.
    • His mind was so active and creative.
    • He was like a Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance man.
    • I really liked how his commitment to the deaf was woven into the narrative by Millard.  This was interesting, informative, and completely new to me. It increased my enjoyment of the book as a reader.
    • I never knew the extent of how much Bell invented.  We hear about Edison more, but Bell was less of a self promoter.
    • This book made me want to read more about Bell. [Click here for an award winning option]
    • It’s amazing how much 1 person can change our entire world--this is what the info on Bell made me think about him.
  • Question: Now that we have read both of Millard’s books, even though they are different, what do you think of her as a writer?
    • I love how she captures history.
    • I like that she gives the longview approach.  She looks at different areas surrounding the situation at the center and puts what happened into a larger context.
    • 20 years later, she tells us, Garfield would have lived, but it had to end with his death in order to force the medical community in America to change.
    • How she connects all of these disparate details seems effortless.  I know it is hard to do though.
    • Yes, like how she introduces us to Garfield as he walks through the Worlds Fair when he was a Congressman.  He is looking at Bell’s inventions.  To the reader it seems like a weird place to start, yet as the book continues, it makes sense, and even more so, it seems brilliant in retrospect. Since Bell was introduce in a seemingly random way at the start, it is less jarring when he shows up later.
    • I also loved how she included Garfield’s own words from his journals throughout. She even included longer excerpts in the notes (which are also very entertaining and readable on their own). She laid the foundation of  Garfield’s story with his own words, but it did make me want to read even more of his journals.
    • The same facts laid out in a different way would have made a boring book.
    • This made me ask a question follow up: Does history have to made more interesting to be worth reading?
      • It doesn’t hurt
      • I think this is like when you have a great teacher. He or she may teach you the same things as another teacher would, but they can also make it all better and more memorable by their style.
      • A book like this gives you a way of looking at history and ask what the stories are.  And that is what makes history, all of the stories woven together.
      • Yes, but this is harder to do with recent history as we are too close to it.
  • Question: What else do you want to say before we wrap up? [Leader Note: this is always a good idea so everyone leaves feeling like they got to say everything they wanted to say.]
    • Garfield was ahead of his times.
    • His death united a country, much as he foretold when he said, at the Republican Convention when nominating someone else for President, that this election held the "Destiny of the Republic” in the country’s hands.
    • I liked learning about his secretary, Brown, and what a hero he was.
    • Yuck, the awful shape of the White House.  Rats, smells, swamp!
    • The pictures were a nice edition
  • Ending as usually with words or phrases to sum it all up:
    • heartbreaking
    • united
    • eye-opening
    • history’s stories
    • riveting
    • the longview
    • interconnected details
    • consequences of actions
    • humility over hubris
    • critical thinking over “being right”
    • triumph of the thinking man
Readalikes: Here is what I suggested in January 2012:
Although the tone is completely different, I kept thinking of Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. In this book, Vowell uses her trademark geeky humor to delve further into the ways in which the assassination of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were played out in a cultural context.  In the process of reading Vowell's book I learned quite a bit about Guiteau, and I knew the weirdness of Robert Todd Lincoln's presence at the assassination (and McKinley's later), but Vowell's book did not have any of the details about Lister, Bell and/or Bliss that I found so interesting.  Together these books make a nice pair.
A search on NoveList revealed a few good nonfiction readalikes: Ira Rutkow's James A. Garfield (a biography), Kenneth Ackerman'sDark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield (as much about the era as the assassination), and Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz (similar writing style; about the post-Civil War era).
For those interested in the subsequent McKinley assassination (which finally got the President some armed guards wherever he went), Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is widely considered to best the best narrative nonfiction on the topic.
As an author, Millard's richly detailed, yet not bogged down style, her engaging voice, and compelling plotting remind me of a few other authors:
If you have a reader who liked Destiny of the Republic but wants a fiction suggestion, I would try The March by E.L. Doctorow for its American History, multiple points of view, engaging voice and compelling plot.  Just like Destiny of the Republic, we know what is going to happen but we are still compelled to see how it turns out.
To this extensive list I would add Carol J. Baxter's The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison, and Pursuit. Both are histories that read like novels filled with memorable characters, suspense, and lots of research.

Finally, a participant highly suggested this video about Lucretia Garfield on CSPAN from their series on first ladies.  You can watch it for free online.  She said it provided another perspective on Garfield, and added in many details of interest to those who want to know more. It is free to view online.

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