Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Really Bad Book!

I posted this review of MR. GATLING'S TERRIBLE MARVEL on Amazon, where I figure it has about a 10% chance of actually showing up on the site. Dave Kopel told me the book would liss me off, and indeed it did:
This is a profoundly flawed book on a number of levels, not the least of which is Ms. Keller's relentless antigun stance, a view that only a resident of the "gun-free paradise" of Chicago — where crooked politicians are a protected species and murder the local equivalent of an evening playing bridge — could hold. Let me give you a quick example from Page 201:

"Colt was much more like what you'd expect a gunmaker to be: ruthless, blunt, profane..."

From Page 25: "To speak of a weapon's aesthetic qualities might seem rather perverse, even preposterous..."

To whom, one wonders? She seems amazed and somewhat repulsed that in the mid-1800s "Curiosity about guns was perfectly acceptable and gunmaking a thoroughly respectable profession..." {Page 29].

Here's a real shocker for Ms. Keller: Curiosity about guns is STILL perfectly acceptable, and gunmaking is STILL a thoroughly respectable profession...even in Hartford, where Colt and Gatling labored. Unlike Ms. Keller, I have interviewed and even had cordial social dinners with the top American (and many of the foreign) gunmakers, and not a single one of them belched, farted, scratched themselves in an untoward manner or in any way acted other than the professional people they are. Heck, most of them are even members of their respective Chambers of Commerce! Shocking, one supposes, to a resident of Chicago.

I have also spent much time with the renegade innovators and inventors — much like Richard Gatling — who still drive arms development...a group that Ms. Keller insists vanished with the Gilded Age.

More importantly, Ms. Keller's fundamental thesis...that the Gatling Gun redefined not only warfare but American society...doesn't necessarily hold up to scrutiny. Many of the changes in the nature of warfare, and society, described by Ms. Keller can be traced back to the rise of repeating firearms (Colt's revolver; Henry's lever-action rifle) as much as the Gatling. Ms. Keller's naive views on the nature of warfare, particularly the great charnel house of the Civil War, are views that could only be held by someone who hold's the self-described self-important position of "culture critic." Yes, the machine gun utterly changed warfare, but that is the nature of warfare. Ms. Keller freely mixes in the trenches in World War 1 to make her point (a point better made, BTW, in the far superior book MACHINE GUN by Anthony Smith) that the Allied generals, especially the British, were obtusely slow to respond to the changing battlefield, and hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers paid for that stupidity with their lives.

Ironically, what one DOESN'T learn about in this book ostensibly about the Gatling gun is much about the Gatling gun itself. Ms. Keller slaughters basic weapons terminology, for instance using "bullet" as a synonym for "cartridge," which might be acceptable when critiquing popular culture, but not in a book that purports to be the last word on a piece of hardware and its inventor. While her lurid descriptions of the evil, wicked, mean and nasty aspect of the Gatling do justice to the fervid dreams of antigunners everywhere, she clearly doesn't understand much about the gun and is even less interested. I doubt she's ever fired a vintage Gatling...I have fired several, as well as worked with experts on the gun, and shooting the gun told me more about the gun and its creator than Ms. Keller's endlessly repetitive book.

Finally, in speaking of the slaughter in the trenches in World War 1, Ms. Keller makes the following observation: "Honor and glory. Such words would be swept away in this war, along with eight and a half million lives and so much else...but words matter, too. The abstractions. The revelation that the concepts such as honor and glory were dead, as dead as a good chunk of Europe's young manhood. Had those concepts not been so persistently believed in, had they been recognized at the outset as empty words, the course of the conflict — one in which machine guns changed everything — might have been quite different."

Surely Ms. Keller is correct that the Elizabethan concept of "glory" as evidenced by the Allied generals in that war was the great sin and folly of pride. But to lump the term "honor" into the same sentence reveals the modern urban liberal's ultimate conceit. As a former newspaper reporter myself — who did indeed at one point in my career freelance for the Chicago Tribune, Ms. Keller's home — I know that in a newsroom, the concept of "personal honor" is the punchline from a dirty joke. Honor is indeed dead and, by extension, there is nothing worth dying for. Soldiers of any war are simply victims, too uneducated or unintelligent to understand that for which they really fight.

MR. GATLING'S TERRIBLE MARVEL is more a sad commentary on Ms. Keller's shallowness than Richard's Gatling's invention. Too bad...


Anonymous said...

"Honor is indeed dead and, by extension, there is nothing worth dying for. Soldiers of any war are simply victims, too uneducated or unintelligent to understand that for which they really fight."

MB - could you expand on these two lines from your review. I would say that it is unexpected from you. Are you attributing this to Keller and her cohorts? Have I misinterpreted?

Anonymous said...

But Michael--tell us how your really feel about the book!! dmd

Michael Bane said...


I don't believe that AT ALL, but EVERY REPORTER I've ever met does — as does Keller. Probably should have explained that a little better.

When I was in the newsroom in the Back When, there was HUGE peer pressure to believe those very phrases...they were articles of faith for MSM journalists.

It's why the MSM are dying...


Anonymous said...

Bear in mind that Keller is the product of an American higher education system that in the last 30 years prides itself on confusing facts and value judgments. While it is true facts have a grounding in particular biases, the degree to which Keller's generation of English majors with Ph.D.s take this issue amounts to propaganda that would make Joseph Goebbels proud. I make this assetion as someone who is close to Keller's age; I too have earned a Ph.D. in English from a major midwestern university. I know her type well, and it is why I have fled academe. They are so smart they are dumb. Leave it to them to butcher history.

Sebastian said...

The Gatling gun killed honor in war? I doubt soldiers in previous wars who took hits from a .71 caliber lead musket ball fired from a Brown Bess would agree the gaping hole that made to be any more glorious.

We also seemed to do a pretty effective job of turning places like Antietam and Gettysburg into slaughter houses with .58 caliber mini balls fired from 1861 Springfield rifle muskets.

Let's not even get into what canister shot fired from a 12 pound napoleon can do to an advancing line of soldiers.

I would agree that Ms. Keller has a poor understanding of guns, and military history. If carnage is what destroys honor in war, then there has never been honor in war.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Gatling gun "changed everything". It was an important step, but the Maxim gun beats it out for that title.

Anonymous said...

The best treatment I have read on the impact of the machine gun is "Social History of the Machine Gun" by John Ellis (John Hopkins University Press, 1975), In addition to WW I, Ellis covers the oft-neglected role of the machine gun in the conquest and colonization of Africa. It's a great read and I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Whet the HELL would anyone of Ms Keller's ilk know about glory amd honor anyway ? the mushroom

Anonymous said...

Yep kept in the dark and fed manure.

Anonymous said...

Or the TRUTH !!! the mushroom