Everyone knows the monumental flag that flapped through the rockets’ red glare over Fort McHenry, which is on permanent display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But the conflict that surrounded it seems as obscure as the Star-Spangled Banner is famous. In fact, the War of 1812 was the Korean War of the 19th century, and without Francis Scott Key’s song, we might have trouble remembering it at all. As we were putting together our June issue celebrating the broad stripes and bright stars, I realized I didn’t know as much as I should about the causes and meaning of the war. So I called up Amanda Foreman, the award-winning British-American historian, to give us a fresh perspective. Fittingly, the relic pictured on the opening page of her essay (“America on Fire”) is one of the American History Museum’s unsung treasures, a piece of timber from the original White House, which the British burned along with other sites in Washington on August 24, two hundred years ago.
World War I began a century ago, on June 28, and gave rise to one of the most singular figures in military history, Lawrence of Arabia, a brilliant Oxford archaeologist who rose from his studies and climbed on camelback to lead a ragtag army of Arab rebels to epic victories against the Turkish Army and against the interests of his own country. The sandstorm of controversy he stirred up has swirled for years. The playwright George Bernard Shaw hailed Lawrence as one of the “persons who have reached the human limit of literary genius and...who have packed into the forepart of their lives an adventure of epic bulk and intensity.” The historian Hugh Trevor Roper called him “one of the least attractive” of the century’s “charlatans, frauds, and fantasists.” Scott Anderson, who published an acclaimed biography of Lawrence last year, visits “Lawrence’s Arabia” to track the diminutive lieutenant colonel’s footsteps and windblown legacy.
The Civil War was a ghostly presence in the trip through the American South that Paul Theroux took with renowned photographer Steve McCurry (“Soul of the South”). The story of their journey, which appears a half-century after the Freedom Summer of 1964, led the pair down many backroads, crossroads and lanes full of memories. Theroux’s prose has echoes of Studs Terkel and James Agee in it, and the colors in McCurry’s pictures remind me of the great Southern photographer William Eggleston.
This is also, in a surreptitious way, our summer movie issue. We have a triple feature: Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz (“Over the Rainbow,” by Gregory Maguire) and the Sound of Music (actually, the sequel). And we haven’t forgotten what summer is truly about: The theme of this month’s Phenomenon section is “play.”
Enjoy your summer reading,
Editor in Chief