Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Booknotes: Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy

New Arrival:
Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso by Christopher Grasso (Oxford UP, 2021).

From the description: "A former Methodist preacher and Missouri schoolteacher, John R. Kelso served as a Union Army foot soldier, cavalry officer, guerrilla fighter, and spy. Kelso became driven by revenge after pro-Southern neighbors stole his property, burned down his house, and drove his family and friends from their homes."

Kelso's "Auto-Biography," the surviving part of it up to 1863, was recently edited by historian Christopher Grasso and published by Yale University Press. That book, 2017's Bloody Engagements: John R. Kelso’s Civil War, also won the following year's A.M. Pate Award. Grasso's Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy: The Civil Wars of John R. Kelso, with its le CarrĂ©-inspired title, is the first full biography of a "complex figure and passionate, contradictory, and prolific writer."

Kelso certainly had an eventful life expressed through wide-ranging interests and ideological drives. More from the description: "During Reconstruction, Kelso served in the House of Representatives and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Personal tragedy then drove him west, where he became a freethinking lecturer and author, an atheist, a spiritualist, and, before his death in 1891, an anarchist."

It seems that personal conflict of all kinds was integral to his existence. "The Civil War remained central to his life, challenging his notions of manhood and honor, his ideals of liberty and equality, and his beliefs about politics, religion, morality, and human nature. Throughout his life, too, he fought private wars--not only against former friends and alienated family members, rebellious students and disaffected church congregations, political opponents and religious critics, but also against the warring impulses in his own character."

Grasso's treatment of "Kelso's life story offers a unique vantage on dimensions of nineteenth-century American culture that are usually treated separately: religious revivalism and political anarchism; sex, divorce, and Civil War battles; freethinking and the Wild West." That's quite a combination.

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