Dear Carol Bundy: What Was Left Out

Dimitri seems unimpressed with the recent biography of Charles Russell Lowell by Carol Bundy. I am about half-way through the book and although I was going to wait until I finished it now seems to be an opportune moment to make a few points. I agree with Dimitri and other reviewers that a big problem with this book are the factual errors. No surprise that Dimitri honed in on the errors related to McClellan. Other mistakes include the reference to Mobile, Alabama as the site where the Confederate Constitution was written, and no doubt the military historians out there didn’t fail to notice Bundy’s inability to distinguish between a company and regiment. That said, I don’t think it is fair to judge this study entirely by the factual mistakes unless they sufficiently hamper the broader interpretive points that are being made. (Note to Dimitri: There is more here than simply a relationship with George McClellan.) In this case much can be salvaged that is worth considering.
First, Bundy’s objective is not to write a detailed military history of another Civil War colonel. She is focused more on how Lowell’s social, political, and economic background shaped his view of the war and what he came to believe it was about. The first few chapters do a wonderful job of capturing the conflict in the Lowell house between on the one hand a family steeped in tradition and reputation and the consequences of a failed business deal by Lowell’s father. Lowell’s mother emerges as an important intellectual influence on her son during the time she operated a school out of their home to make ends meet. The author does an excellent job connecting the younger Lowell to the elite circles of Boston’s high society and the influences of the transcendentalists and a Harvard education. The reader learns a great deal about Boston society and a generation of young men who came of age just as the political debates over slavery in the 1850’s were heating up. Though Lowell did not serve with the unit, this biography is a nice compliment to Richard Miller’s recent study of the “Harvard Regiment.”
Again, I agree that the factual errors contained in this book are troubling. Bundy and/or the editor should have sent the manuscript to someone qualified who could have pointed them out; a quick glance in the acknowledgments section suggests that this did not happen. What is most impressive, however, is that this is her first attempt at writing history. All in all not bad. Given that the author is descended from Lowell one might have expected a less serious and more heroic tale. Instead the author really does make an effort to better understand Lowell and his close-knit community.

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