Tag Archives: Nonfiction


By Francine Marie Tolf

I found out what happened to Eugene Vukelich one bright December day in 1969 when my sister Gwen told Mom and me about it over lunch. Gwen was in eighth grade and I in sixth. It was the week before Christmas vacation started. Nothing of substance ever got done at St. Patrick’s Grammar School during this pre-vacation week. Classes held parties and rehearsed for the Christmas play (in which I was an angel and got to wear a white gown and halo). Instead of grammar lessons, we had spelling bees.

I wish I could remember that lunch hour more clearly. Its heft sank into my consciousness and never left, but particulars are vague. I am sure only of what I learned: Gwen’s class had presented Eugene, a slight boy with a shy smile, with a festively wrapped present. Inside were giant containers of mouthwash and deodorant. Accompanying these gifts was a card signed by nearly every one of his classmates as well as the lay teacher, Mr. Gleason.

Eugene burst into tears after opening the present. He fled the classroom. This joke was only the most recent act of cruelty towards him – more elaborate, but entirely in keeping with the way kids tortured Eugene Vukelich daily. Basketball stars blocked him in the hall and dared him to pass. Girls in the popular clique performed a song about him on the playground. They sang about his “BO,” how he picked his nose and was scared of being beat up by their boyfriends.

Gwen decided during that lunch hour that when she returned to school, she would address her class about what happened. Our mother had nothing to do with this. As I knelt under the Christmas tree trying to guess what was inside various presents, my sister must have discussed her milestone decision with Mom, adult to adult. The braveness of it still stuns me. Gwen was herself the target of teasing. My sister was the tallest, smartest girl in her class – and she stammered.

I loved Gwen but I was grateful I wasn’t tall like her, didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses. I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and knew how to fit in. Now I look at a photograph of my sister when she was in eighth grade and think, Wow. She is all legs, the face behind those glasses is lovely and fresh, and her thick blond hair hangs half-way down her back. Strangers would linger over that snapshot in a way they would never linger over a picture of me at thirteen.

Those long legs of hers must have trembled when she walked to the front of her classroom later that day and met a sea of indifferent or defiant faces. Gwen’s class was brutal. It had chewed up and spit out three teachers in the past two years. It had cowed its current one into behaving deplorably in the hopes of gaining acceptance.

My sister was one of the few students who had not signed Eugene’s Christmas card. Yet when she spoke to her classmates, she did something rhetorically brilliant: she included herself in the blame. We should all be ashamed of ourselves, she began, looking straight into the eyes of cheerleaders and athletes. (How do I know what my sister said when I wasn’t there? How do I know that her class actually listened? Gossip, the grapevine, perhaps asking Gwen myself. I don’t remember how I know, but I know.)

I can imagine Mr. Gleason’s crimson-splotched face as he watched a girl half his age school him in courage. Decades after the incident, I cannot bring myself to feel sorry for this man – dismissed by our principal, Sister Leo Margaret, that afternoon – yet I understand why in a moment of weakness he did what he did. He must have entered his classroom every day sick over what awaited him: boys with shoulders broader than his purposefully ignoring his pleas for quiet, girls applying eye shadow as they imitated his warnings.

And then one morning unexpected camaraderie as the ringleaders of his class approached him. “Hey, Mr. Gleason, you’re a cool guy. We’re planning a little joke on Eugene Vukelich, just a Christmas thing, and we want you in on it.”

Mr. Gleason might first have objected after hearing the details. “I don’t know, guys,” (guys, he heard himself saying, just like a popular teacher would). “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”

“Mr. Gleason, everyone’s signed the card except you. C’mon, it’s just a joke.”

“Pleeeaaase, Mr. Gleason.” This from the prettiest of the girls who tormented Eugene on the playground with her clique’s song. “Pleeeaase?”

So he signed the card and broke a boy’s heart. It’s entirely possible that Ronald Gleason taught grammar school to avoid being drafted, for in 1969 America wasn’t yet sending teachers of children to Viet Nam. His immunity ended that day.

If Gwen and I were closer, I would ask her what she remembered about those moments she stood in front of her class. Was she terrified, did students talk to her about it afterwards, did kids in the popular clique treat her differently? But I think my older sister – now happily married, by the way, with three spectacular kids and a lifestyle several tax brackets above mine – would dismiss the incident and appear puzzled at my immense admiration for what she did. Gwen once claimed she had no interest in recalling her years at St. Patrick’s. They were dead to her, she had moved on.

How many victims of bullying can do this? How difficult it must be to lift yourself from a childhood of hurt and humiliation and walk into the future with an open heart. The irony is that bullies might be even less likely to experience such a future. Children capable of inflicting cruelty on a daily basis can’t imagine how it feels to be the other. And without this leap of faith, how can compassion, or wonder, or joy, take root in their hearts? When I consider this, I almost feel sorry for the students who tortured Eugene. If you have no imagination by the age of thirteen or fourteen, it’s difficult to develop one. You’re trapped under the dome of your own limited perspective with no window, not even a chink, revealing blue air beyond.

I hope Eugene breathed that blue air. His parents removed him from St. Patrick’s that day, but more than forty years later, my memory of this boy I barely knew survives. He was small, with freckles and a shy smile. His red hair was always neatly combed. His brown eyes were meant to be merry.


Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and a number of poetry chapbooks including Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan by Redbird Chapbooks of Minnesota. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming/Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine recently won First Place in the 2013 Outrider Press/TallGrass Poetry Contest. She lives and works in Minneapolis.

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Ribbons: Commitment Ceremony (a.k.a Gay Wedding)

By Dennis Milam Bensie

Breaking the Code was a play about British mathematician Alan Turing, who was a key player in the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II. The play thematically links Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

I was doing hair and wigs for a production of the play at Alice B. Theater in Seattle when my friends Matt and Scot first met. Matt was the Assistant Stage Manager and Scot was playing a young street hustler. It was delightful to watch their relationship blossom over the next several months.

Gay activism got even more personal for me when the two of them announced that they were going to make their relationship official and have a commitment ceremony. This would be my first gay wedding, and I was thrilled.

Both sets of parents supported the union and planned to come to town for the event. I was jealous. I doubted that my parents would ever come to a commitment ceremony of mine. They had never even come to Seattle for a visit.

I realized as I watched the guys plan their wedding in detail that there were no established traditions for gay weddings. They could pick and choose what they wanted to do and make the event special for them. Their friends and guests were sure to be open minded enough to love anything they did.

The ceremony was to take place at Aha! Theater, a Seattle fringe theater the couple was involved with. Their invitations paid some homage to tradition, but with their own twist. A friend and aspiring baker agreed to make their wedding cake—a three tier pink triangle cake with two grooms on top. Care was given to make sure the grooms looked like Matt and Scot. They planned a festive reception in the same space with a rented karaoke machine and gay door prizes for the guests.

I was honored to be asked to help the boys select new outfits for ceremony. We had serious discussions about what would work best. Since the wedding wasn’t being held in a church and they wanted to be comfortable, they decided to go with dressy, casual looks. We spent a Saturday shopping downtown and came up with ensembles that looked sharp, but didn’t match or say “wedding.”

I still felt that the boys needed some element of a bride (or at least a bride doll) at the event: a wink at tradition. In 1977, Mattel created a Super Size Barbie that was eighteen inches tall rather than the tradition eleven and one half. In 1992, they introduced My Size Barbie, which stood three feet tall and was sold with a stretchy outfit that, ideally, the doll’s owner would be able to wear and share. Mattel hadn’t planned on a twenty-eight-year-old gay man buying the doll.

I bought a My Size Barbie for myself when she came out on the market. I decided Matt and Scot?s wedding was the perfect opportunity to indulge my never-ending interest in wedding dresses. I made the My Size Barbie a beautiful wedding dress fit for a queen. The guys loved the doll and the dress and decided the enormous bride doll would look perfect presiding over their gift table at the reception. She was much bigger than my cousin Libby?s bride doll, who had presiding over the gift table of her wedding years before. I was touched beyond belief. I was, after all, making a white wedding dress for a gay wedding. Ladyman Dennis would have been proud.

As the big day grew closer, the grooms had plenty of jitters. Jitters turned to deep sadness when a fellow thespian friend named Vinny died of AIDS only a few days before the ceremony. It was a shock that such a sweet and vibrant man, only twenty-five years old, would vanish on the eve of such an uplifting celebration of life and love.

Emotions ran high as Matt and Scot’s wedding day finally dawned. The black box theater space was decorated with gay pride paraphernalia. They had decided to do a variation of the traditional European ritual called Handfasting, symbolizing “tying the knot.” Guests were all given a mysterious piece of ribbon about two feet long (in one of the six colors of a gay pride flag) as they entered and signed the guest book. They were all warned not to lose their piece of ribbon. A round platform about two feet tall had been erected in the middle of the space. People walked around the platform without realizing its purpose. All would be revealed later during the event.

There was a lot of hugging and tears: an odd mix of happiness and sadness. The day had become both a gay wedding and a memorial for our friend Vinny. The timing seemed unreal and unfair. However, as people filed into the theater, I saw that the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Vinny was with us; he was a reminder of how important gay people are. We would never forget Vinny.

I couldn’t help thinking about the play where Matt and Scot met. In Breaking the Code, Alan Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing allegedly committed suicide before his 42nd birthday. It seemed appropriate that Matt and Scot met working on a play inspired by his story. In many ways, their ceremony was breaking the code, too.

The handfasting ceremony began. Matt and Scot and their parents all got up on the platform in the middle of the room. Close to seventy-five of their friends and loved ones surrounded the platform in a complete circle. Each guest was told to tie his or her ribbon to another guest’s ribbons. The mothers of the grooms tied one end of their ribbons to the guests’ chain. Matt?s mom then tied her ribbon to Scot?s ribbon, while Scot?s mom tied hers to Matt?s. The men each held one end of the trail of ribbon not yet joined.

There was no one officiating the ceremony. My friend Ruth was in charge of sound. On cue, she put a cassette tape in a portable cassette player. A beautiful song, “Stay for the Ride,” underscored the ceremony. The song was by a local lesbian singer, Lisa Koch, from her album Colorblind Blues. Lisa’s song was the perfect accent to the occasion: hauntingly romantic and sincere. Matt spoke first of the difficult week that had begun with the death of Vinny. He began sobbing.

“Today is dedicated to Vinny,” Matt said as the two men tearfully exchanged vows they had written themselves. When the vows were completed, the two grooms tied their end of the ribbon to each other, uniting the room in gay pride colors. The gesture was special and I knew I would never forget the special day as long as I lived.

Finally I understood weddings. I had witnessed what I wanted to see my whole life—two men in love coming together in pride. The dress wasn’t important. Walking down the aisle wasn’t important. Matt and Scot indulged a tradition and no one could convince me they were wrong.

I wished there was a bouquet to toss, one that I could have caught. I loved Matt and Scot so much, but it was hard to contain my jealousy. Two distinct images of gay life: the happy couple and the boy dead of AIDS. I was very scared.

Was I going to die of AIDS that I had caught at a bathhouse while looking for true love?

Matt and Scot kept the yards and yards of tied ribbon from their ceremony in Seattle.

I gave them the My Size Barbie wedding dress to keep as a memento.


Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the international gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011.” The author’s short stories have been published by Bay LaurelEveryday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Life, and he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs. You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt. To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit http://worldofinknetwork.com.

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How to Read an Old Book

By Susan Brown

First you must get the book. Find a book made before the birth of the most elderly person you ever met was born. Find one written before there were computers or astronauts or Hitlers, before there were airplanes, cars, central heating, or electric lights. Find a book that crossed the Atlantic in a ship with sails, and was hauled from the wharves to the booksellers by horse. Find a book that hasn’t been opened in a hundred years. Choose one written under a kerosene lamp with a fountain pen, or by candlelight with feathers. Study the books you inherited, the books curated by eight generations of your family.

Buy a spinster’s estate and find books in her attic. Go downstairs to the basement of the University’s library. Sign in at Special Collections. Place all your belongings in the locker. Fill out the request form with the call letters of an old old book, then sit at the table under watchful eyes and cameras, and wait. Spend your weekends searching garage sales, thrift stores, antique shops. Wreck your budget buying books at auction.

When you have become the custodian of an old book hold it in your hands. Feel the covers. Are they crumbling and cracking? The book might fall apart as you read, however carefully you turn the pages. Is the cover embossed and gilt? Is it linen or leather? Is it battered and faded? Has it ever been repaired? Notice the scent. Does this book smell of wood smoke, tobacco, perfume, old hide and glue, or mildew? Where has it been? Do the pages have decorative edges? Are they deckled? If they are smooth and marbled, or gilt, the book was likely meant to lie flat on its shelf.

Open the cover of an old book. You are an historian, an archaeologist. Be alert for inscriptions and artifacts. Look for penciled prices, library stamps, bookplates, signatures, gift inscriptions, childish scribbles, doodles, handwritten notes and comments. Keep the loose pages, but resist the urge to erase and fix. Leave the names and the children’s drawings. Use no tape or glue, but search for inclusions and remove damaging items. Things that leave shadows on paper hasten its crumbling to dust. You might find bits of tape from failed repairs, old newspaper clippings, pressed flowers, feathers, butterfly wings, calling cards, colorful ribbons and embroidery thread, letters, prescriptions, drawings, handwritten recipes, or grains of cinnamon and sugar. Throw the destructive bits, the shadow-makers, away. Keep the rest.


Susan Brown is currently living near Seattle and working on her MFA at the Creative Writing and Poetics program at the University of Washington. In 1999, she attended the Writer’s Workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her previous publications include visual art that recently appeared in Breakwater Review, Mayo Review, Inscape 2010, Chaffey Review, and 322 Review. In 2007, San Diego University’s Pacific Review published her short fiction, “The Clues,” under the pen name Alice Indigo.

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Galsworthy: Novelists and Craft

 By Carol Smallwood

As writers we wonder about others who’ve influenced and shaped our favorite novelist’s apprenticeship and craft, want to know they’ve struggled and didn’t spring full-grown like Athena. In my case, I’m curious who John Galsworthy read and regarded the most highly–who helped this Nobel Prize winner become such a widely read, prolific writer of novels, plays, essays, short stories, and poems. After The Forsyte Saga began airing in 1969, the series became so popular that Masterpiece Theatre was created to meet the demand for great literary adaptations.

My own Galsworthy favorite, The Patrician, has been the novel I’ve savored since high school for its lyric beauty, how every one of its words builds an inevitability rivaling a Greek classic. Each time I read it, I learn something of style, characterization, narration, point of view, mood, tone, irony, theme, dialogue, satire, imagery: it never fails to satisfy, to bring a feeling of regret for leaving its world after the last chapter of Part II. And for weeks after find myself wondering what Miltoun, Barbara, Lady Casterley, Courtier, might be doing, sniffing the orange-flower water of Gustard’s, the dried rose-leaves of Mrs. Benton–wishing for a sequel but knowing none could match it. That to wish for any other ending would be to deny its very theme: Character is Fate. I’ve read his other novels several times but The Patrician continues to have no rival–although I do wish there had been more novels written featuring that most engaging character Dinny Cherrell than just the trilogy, End of the Chapter.

In his address, “Six Novelists in Profile,” Galsworthy places Charles Dickens first among English novelists because of his ability to convey human nature so vividly. Looking at the novel, Galsworthy notes, “Under Jane Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Scott, Dumas, Thackeray and Hugo, the novel attained a certain relation of part to whole; but it was left for one of more poetic feeling and greater sensibility than any of these to perfect its proportions, and introduce the principle of selection, until there was that complete relation of part to whole which goes to the making of what we call a work of art.” Galsworthy regarded Ivan Turgenev as writing “in terms of atmosphere rather than in terms of fact,” his poetry less poetic than his sketches and novels. I read some of Turgenev he mentions trying to catch the poetic moods Galsworthy admired without success—then realized I’d missed the obvious: writers borrow and transform, make it into their own and in the process lies the inevitable sea change.

Of Guy de Maupassant, Galsworthy writes, “The vigour of his vision, and his thought, the economy and clarity of the expression in which he clothed them, have not yet been surpassed. Better than any other writer, he has taught us what to leave out; better than any illustrated for us Flaubert’s maxim: ‘Study an object till its essential difference from every other is perceived and can be rendered in words.’” Galsworthy regarded him as a supreme craftsman who hated prejudice and stupidity capable of displaying deep emotion.

Galsworthy saw Leo Tolstoi’s wide canvas opposite of Turgenev’s, his mind more concerned with what he wanted to convey than the manner in which he did. Style according to Galsworthy, is “the power in a writer to remove all barriers between himself and the reader—the triumph of style is the creation of intimacy,” and Tolstoi the master of creating the feeling of actual life, War and Peace the greatest novel.

Joseph Conrad he credited with having more than other novelists with a “cosmic sense” in which fate plays the important role. Galsworthy considers him supreme in “word-painting,” of folding stories over and over giving “subtlety, richness, and depth” and placing Nature first, Man second. Every time I read Conrad I cannot believe English was not his native language.

Anatole France is described by Galsworthy as having a style that was “the poetry of pure reason” and credits him with influencing modern thought, perforating “prejudice and punctured idolatry so adroitly that the ventilation holes were scarcely visible, and the victims felt draughts without knowing why.”

Galsworthy observes that the novel “has always been the subject of a ‘tug-of-war’ between two schools of thought—the school that demands of it a revelation or criticism of life, and the school that asks of it nothing but pleasure-giving invention,” but contends art must have the quality of life: “a sufficient relation of part to whole, and a sufficient flavouring of the artist’s temperament. For only these elements give to a piece of work the essential novelty of a living thing.”

In this essay written in 1923, Galsworthy, concludes that the novelist needs to see widely, feel deeply and “mould what he has seen or felt into that which has a new and significant life of its own.” He compares the novelist with Manet equating painting with jumping into the sea without knowing how to swim.

“Four More Novelists in Profile,” Galsworthy relates that he began reading Dumas when he was twenty-five when crossing the Indian Ocean and read him for the next four years. Galsworthy notes, “At his best he had no peer at sustaining the interest of a tale. He generally had a number of plots, and drove them four-in-hand at a sharp and steady pace and with a fine evenness of motion.”  That Dumas was mostly interested in entertaining and offered no criticism of life.

Galsworthy considers Tchehov as revealing the “very soul” of the Russian people through “intuitive knowledge of human emotions” that gives his work a spiritual form in atmosphere and mood. His characters “are either too true to life or perhaps merely too Russian to be remembered by name.”

Robert Louis Stevenson is characterized by Galsworthy as living in the moment and not “the type which psychologises and worries about why and wherefores,” easy to read, and superior to Dumas and Dickens “in dexterity and swiftness” and an eternally youthful romanticist.

In W.H. Hudson there was “something of primitive man, something even of the beasts and birds he loved.” Galsworthy regarded Green Mansions as so unique that he didn’t catch its beauty till reading it again ten years later. “Rima, the bird girl of the forest, embodies at once the spell of Nature, and the yearning of the human soul for that intimacy with Nature which through self-consciousness—or shall we say town-life—we have lost.”

As to the future of the novel, Galsworthy concludes, “Art that can stand up above the waters of life, or that can smile apart, or that can do both, is rooted in deep and quiet things, in private and fervent feelings.” Written in 1928, it is interesting to note that he saw how hard it was to “call our souls our own.” And, applying his own definition that books not having “life” in them will be blown away by time, I cannot see that happening to Galsworthy.

In “Reminiscences of Conrad,” Galsworthy goes back to 1893 when he first met Conrad when sailing on the Torrens. Conrad was the experienced chief mate of the sailing ship and was convalescing from Congo fever. Galsworthy relates Conrad read “prodigiously,” and for the thirty-one years he knew him that he struggled with his health and although, “Conrad was critically accepted from the very start,” it was twenty years before his work generated many sales. Galsworthy noted that Conrad wrote “with blood and tears and needed seclusion for it,” that he “stared life very much in the face, and distrusted those who didn’t,” and credited him with having a huge memory for impressions, people, and detail.

In “Creation of Character in Literature,” Galsworthy regards Shakespeare’s as being first of all a poet who in character creation was more of a novelist. He notes that if he hadn’t been connected with acting that he might have held Cervantes’s place in realistic novelists; he regards Falstaff and Hamlet as characters created through the subconscious mind.

Galsworthy notes that Turgenev created one of his characters, Bazarov, from meeting a young doctor on the train. After the journey, Turgenev thought about what the young man’s way of life must be like in a diary he kept for months until he was familiar with the character, coining the term, nihilist. The sense that this was a new type, a modern character, provided the theme for Turgenev’s, Fathers and Children.

In a personal classic account of the creative process in “Creation of Character in Literature” Galsworthy wrote: “I sink into my morning chair, a blotter on my knee, the last words or deed of some character in ink before my eyes, a pen in my hand, a pipe in my mouth, and nothing in my head. I sit. I don’t intend; I don’t expect; I don’t even hope. I read over the last pages. Gradually my mind seems to leave the chair, and be where my character is acting or speaking, leg raised, waiting to come down, lips opened ready to say something. Suddenly, my pen jots down a movement or remark, another, another, and goes on doing this, haltingly, perhaps, for an hour or two. When the result is read through it surprises one by seeming to come out of what went before, and by ministering to some sort of possible future. Those pages, adding tissue to character, have been supplied from the store-cupboard of the subconscious, in response to the appeal of one’s conscious directive sense, and in service to the saving grace of one’s theme, using that word in the widest sense. The creation of character, however untrammelled and unconscious, thus has ever the guidance of what, perhaps, may best be called ‘the homing instinct.’”

So I shall continue to look with awe upon the reproduction of the handwritten first page of the manuscript of The Patrician I keep near my computer, marvel how few crossed out words there are in the first and beginning of the second paragraph, and try to decipher the words crossed out. Perhaps some day I’ll even see some of Galsworthy’s manuscripts and letters at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, Harvard University’s Houghton Library, or Oxford University’s Bodleian Library but till then can treasure his signed books.


Carol Smallwood co-edited Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012) on the list of Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers Magazine; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) received a Pushcart nomination. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.


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The Hollywood Antagonist: How the Studio System is Reshaping the Movie Industry in the 21st Century

By Blake Kennedy

 By the beginning of the twenty-first century, creative filmmaking was reaching a new pivotal point in expressionism. Independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarentino, Steven Soderbergh, and Robert Rodriguez (to name a few) had changed the approach to expressionism in Hollywood, and paved the way for a new batch of Hollywood filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan. The auteurs had broken through the barriers of the monotonous Hollywood routine within the film industry, making artistically enticing masterpieces. Lost in Translation (Coppola, 2003) represents two central characters that are displaced by their atmosphere, Tokyo, and how they both become lost within each other. Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999) is a twisted feature about the downward path of an obsessed man whose main objective is to live the life of a celebrated figure. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004) takes the audience on a journey into the psyche of a man trying to stop the woman of his dreams from being erased forever. Each film represented the style of the director and gave hope to the possibilities of an existing cinematic transition into future of filmmaking. The sky was the limit when it came to originality and experimentation; however, somewhere along the way, the massive power of the Hollywood system regained its stronghold over the industry, beating the independents to a bloody pulp. This system made it seem as if the stylish films that personified the era were simply a fad.

Throughout the noughts, Hollywood fought back against the expressionistic new ideas floating around the West coast, with the rise of the franchise film and the rebirth of the horror genre. The idea of mass-producing trendy money-makers is the key to the modern Hollywood era, but it is not all fun and games. The emergence of online piracy has made it hard for the distributors to profit from their films, forcing some to speculate if the industry is on a downward spiral. The lack of originality in current cinema is present for the most part because the franchise code is forcing some stars to make long-term contracts with studios. In turn, the actors have a very limited range with the characters they portray, which allows them no room to shine. With the release of these large blockbusters, the younger generation no longer frequent to the movies to see their favorite stars perform, they now go for the vast array of special effects. Distributors such as Warner Bros. and Paramount are re-emerging as the entity in charge, not the actors and their agents. The same could be said during Hollywood’s “silent” and “golden” eras when they controlled the lives of their stars. In order to understand the full spectrum of this problem, one needs to begin with the recent trend of pirated media and updated technology.

Since the early twenty-first century, piracy of films has been an ongoing struggle that has yet to be conquered. Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), saw the growing trend of illegally downloaded pictures as an unlawful act against the industry. He believed that if movies continued to be recorded in theaters and downloaded off the Internet, the industry would lose profitable earnings.[1] Over the duration of 2011, the number of times the ten most downloaded films were transferred reached almost 80 million, turning out to be about 219,000 times a day that a movie was illegally pirated.[2] With digital media technology on the rise, one can only speculate the numbers for 2012 will be much higher.

With technology allowing audiences to view their favorite films and television shows on computers, iPads, and iPhones, there is no longer a need to drive to the local movie theater and spend the money on a ticket. Theaters, in competition with alternative media outlets, are losing money. This is forcing them to release more films in three-dimension, or on an IMAX screen, to attract audiences, while raising the price of tickets and concessions. Digital media has also given audiences the opportunity to view films in their homes whenever they want, using such services as Netflix and Video on Demand. This has hurt the local video store to a point that most do not exist anymore, and within the next few years they may all be obsolete.

So how is Hollywood still grossing billions at the box office annually? The industry has regenerated the Hollywood studio system, pumping it full of metaphorical steroids. They have figured out what makes a hit in today’s world, and are pouring out action-packed franchise films each year, keeping up with the currents trends. Additionally, the box-office numbers of smash hits continue to rise higher. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) peaked at over 2.5 billion dollars worldwide; while Marvel’s The Avengers reached just over 1.5 billion worldwide. These comic book films became the recent trend-setters due to their attachment to special effects. Comic book films have been around for decades, but only recently they have been given the green screen affect, which added significantly to their target audiences. No longer are the guys who grew up reading the comics the only ones seeing these films. The trend changed with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). In 2000, X-Men grossed over 150 million dollars in the United States, and gave birth to the modern franchise era. Big-budget box-office films, which usually are released in the summer months, have become the backbone of the industry, making it apparent that these flicks are not going away anytime soon. Now, with franchises grossing hundreds of millions of dollars, the idea is to reboot – a reset, if you will, of the idea. When a studio has come to a point where it cannot make another sequel, it simply waits a few years, then remake the original with a new cast and crew. In 2002, Columbia Pictures released Spider-Man, with Tobey Maguire. The franchise made two more films, turning it into a trilogy. Earlier in 2012, an updated version was made with a young Andrew Garfield in the lead role.

What is even worse, the franchise idea no longer sticks strictly with action blockbusters. The horror genre has been revamped to lure young moviegoers to see chilling and demented unrealistic depictions of life. The best examples of this are the current Paranormal Activity films and the Saw torture-porn flicks. The producers of the latter made six sequels before calling it quits. The first installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise became such a sensation because of its over-the-top shock, playing on the fears of the human mind. Shot in the style of a 35mm, it shows the weeks leading up to a couples’ demise as they are plagued by the hauntings of a demon. Katie, the female lead, is visited by a presence that has been with her since childhood. Micah, her boyfriend, is fascinated by the idea of documenting the unknown and taunts the demon. They are told by a psychic that this will lead to harm, but Micah proceeds. In the end Katie is fully possessed and takes the life of Micah. The film was originally released in 2007 with lackluster results. Then, two years later, with a new amped-up ending, the film broke barriers of shock value and set the bar for amateur-looking Hollywood home movies. What these films really do is heighten the viewer’s sensibility, making it quite easy to jump at the most simple fright. The viewer forgets they are watching a movie and becomes entranced in an altered reality where anything is possible.

Fear is an emotion easy to be tapped into. Horror films have been on the rise during this transitional period in Hollywood because people love to be scared. What people do not realize is that there is a connection with this obsession of fear and the War on Terrorism. The era after the September 11th attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the media, have put the entire country in a constant state of fear. Images of terrorism and “what if” scenarios are shown on television with shows like 24 and Homeland, the Internet, where anyone can add content to scare someone, described on the radio by “shockjocks” whose primal reason is to ensure fear into their audience for ratings. The horror of life is all around us, yet instead of Hollywood making patriotic films like it did after Pearl Harbor, it has chosen the opposite path in order to publicize and promote cultural fears and anxieties with movies like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and The Devil’s Rejects (2005), where perverted people capture and torture helpless victims for their own pleasure. This is not the first time this motive has been used by Hollywood. In the 1970s, civil unrest and an ongoing war in Vietnam, caused a change in the style of the horror film.[3] The monster from outer space had been replaced by an actual human being, attacking and murdering their prey in such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Halloween.[4] One can argue this reverberating effect is the acceptance of a harsher, more realistic society, which has transcended into today’s world.

The concept of being attacked in a horror movie may only be a fear that lives in the mind of the paranoid and disillusioned, but there is a real fear, in the identity of the studio system. The franchise films are the perfect genre to battle the fears of society as the plot revolves around terrorism. The studios are revolving their movies around the young talented actors in a way that makes them less appealing to audiences that enjoy great performances. By paying actors large sums of money, they are contractually binding these actors and directors to a franchise, and limiting the options that each particular person might have. If a star like Shia LaBeouf plays a clean-cut kid from the suburbs in the Transformers films, Paramount will do what it takes to keep him from making an experimental film that may jeopardize the image he has as the face of the franchise, and potentially single out viewers, bringing in less revenue than expected. Recently, LaBeouf attacked Paramount, the franchise marketing tool, and even Steven Spielberg, whom he worked with on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), because he feels there is no room for an actor to shine and must be used only as a seller of the product.[5]

All major stars in Hollywood seem to be attached to large franchises. Daniel Radcliffe is example of an actor not showing his potential throughout his career. After playing Harry Potter in eight films, Radcliffe has become the face of the franchise, not being able to let go of his type-case image. Radcliffe has done a few projects since, but has not received the accreditations like before. He seems to be the type of actor that will live on only as Harry Potter.  Elijah Wood is another example of this. In this case, he will forever be remembered as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings films. His work, too, has suffered in the past decade due to his large presence in the reprising role. These actors seem to be doomed to never live down, or move past their presence in the franchise system.

The studio system is clearly in control as power seems to be shifting away from the talent agencies. When the industry began around the turn of the twentieth century, the studios produced their films, using a stock company of actors. For fifty years these studios chose prominent roles for their leading players based on their popularity and image. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Twentieth-Century Fox, Universal, and others dominated during the golden age of cinema, but that all changed after a decisive blow by the Supreme Court. In 1948, the courts decided that studios could no longer hold a monopoly over theater chains, and from there actors and crew members became independent of the system.[6] From that moment, people in the industry needed a form of representation, which brought about talent agencies. Today, there are many agencies around the world, involving some extremely large companies in Hollywood. The four companies that seem to have a hold on Hollywood are Creative Artists Agency (CAA), William Morris Endeavor (WME), ICM Partners, and United Talent Agency (UTA). These companies represent some the most popular actors, directors, producers, and writers in the industry and have some free reign dealing negotiations and projects for their clients. These companies could be seen as a threat to the film industry because, in a way, they monopolize the greater half of Hollywood. However, with the studios gaining more ground, the power may be shifting again.

In the wake of the independent revolution of the 1990s and early-2000s, filmmaking has gone back into the hands of the studio. Small films still exist, but on a lesser scale; the impact they have on the industry and the audience is long gone. Steven Soderbergh said it best: “…I think the movie business in the next five years will change a lot… On the independent side, something is going to have to change… the independent as we knew it ten years ago has disappeared… and they’re going to have to do something to survive.”[7] Soderbergh knew this was a problem that needed to be fixed, but was unable to make an impact. In 2005, he released Bubble, the first movie that went to theaters and straight to DVD on the same day, trying to revolutionize the business. It was a failure because his new idea to stay on top of the crisis within the industry was not embraced by anyone else with such an impactful presence. His latest release, Magic Mike, tells exactly where he is among the business–working for the system he once fought against. From a visionary who made a name for himself among the independent prestige with sex, lies, and videotape, to now making Hollywood eye-candy. He has become one the best examples of an auteur crumbling to the system. Some of the iconic auteurs are still out there, making the films they love to make. Some are still receiving credibility, like Alexander Payne and his successful The Descendants, that went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenwriting, and multiple other nominations. For the most part, Hollywood has struck back against the creative ones, with the insulting “franchise” and the horror flicks. It is now common to see the largest stars in these types of pictures, ultimately taking away their ability to branch out as a visionary actor. The piracy issue may never be conquered, but Hollywood is using it to their advantage. So in the end, the industry looks gloom for the talented few, as they watch their dreams and aspirations fade away due to the massive corporation that is the Hollywood system.


Blake Kennedy is a recent graduate of Aurora University, with a B.A. in History. His writing explores 21st Century cinema and the independent film industry. His essays have appeared widely.

[1] Jon Lewis. ““If You Can’t Protect What You Own, You Don’t Own Anything”: Piracy, Privacy, and Public Relations in 21st Century Hollywood.” Cinema Journal, vol. 46, no. 2, Winter 2007, pg. 145.

[2] TorrentFreak, “Top Ten Most Pirated Films of 2011,” http://torrentfreak.com/top-10-most-pirated-movies-of-2011-111223/ (accessed October 28, 2012).

[3] Thomas Riegler. JGCinema.com: Cinema and Globalization. “The Connection Between Real and Reel Horror.” http://jgcinema.com/single.php?sl=real-horror (accessed October 29, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arienne Thompson. USA Today, “Shia LaBeouf Blasts Hollywood Studios.” http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2012/08/labeouf-blasts-hollywood-studios-/1 (accessed October 29, 2012).

[6] Hollywood Renegades Archive. “The Independent Producers and the ParamountCase, 1938-1949: Part 6: The Supreme Court Verdict That Brought an End to the Hollywood Studio System, 1948. http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/paramountcase_6supreme1948.htm (accessed October 29, 2012).

[7] James Mottram. The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood. (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2006), 438.

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Critique of Young Adult Historical Fiction

By Shel Sweeney

Absolute truth, a ‘one true account’ of any event, of history, does not exist. The process of recording history is that of representation, and the act of such is never objective, rather it is a product of the context within which it is written. While historical fiction may be underpinned by historical fact, it is nonetheless a re-versioning of an already subjective representation. While historical fictions can be chronologically distanced from the history they convey, it is through subjectivity, through the evocative and imaginative rendering of history, that historical facts are rebirthed into the present. The re-creations constructed in historical fictions (as long as they are based on accurate evidence) can shed light on history in such a way that the facts themselves never could. Historical fiction can give adolescent readers safe access into conflicts and ways of being that can prove more than merely escapism but can shed light on their own pathway to adulthood.

There is no such thing as a universal truth untainted by opinion and societal codes of thoughts and behavior; so too any history, rather than being a neutral presentation of the facts, is but a ‘representation’, another version of the truth. Both historical text and historical fiction are tools, not just of recording information and stories, but of providing lessons in cause and effect, and of what any given society views as normal conduct and ideology within that society. What once may have been portrayed as patriotism and idealism can be in later times seen as “…coercion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and betrayal…” (MacLeod, 1988, p. 27). What constitutes a ‘correct’ set of ideologies changes throughout time, and with it, history is rewritten according to current tastes. Where once it was heroes and battles, now it is in flavor to write domestic histories. Histories, like art, politics, music and stories, are not recorded in isolation, rather in context to the time and place in which they are constructed and are therefore subject to the ideologies of such. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concern was of a “…belief in nationalism…” (Phillpott, 2011). Deeds of heroism were espoused as writers made choices about what to write and what to omit. MacLeod (1988) takes this a step further stating, “Not only will the loser’s version of the war never match the winner’s, but historical interpretations of what happened, and why, are subject to endless revision over time.” The carefully selected and subjective original account, therefore, becomes more corrupt in the process of fictionalisation. History is a version of the truth created from a collection of selected and omitted past facts, to create a particular meaning presented through a researcher/writer’s own point of view carefully masked in objective language. The language used in historical texts, usually makes clear where one thing is known fact and another inference, and so the reader easily assumes that universal truth exists. The language of historical fiction is more assertive, stating how things are or were, making illusions to truth. In Mary Hoffman’s David, the protagonist, David (the boy who modeled for Michelangelo’s statue of the same name) speaks with the same certainty and clarity about Fra Paolo (an invented character) as he does Fra Girolamo Savonarola (the historical ruler of Florence from 1494-1498). “Fra Paolo was the only one there who has known Savonarola personally…” (2011, Chapter 4, sect. 2, para. 3). In historical fictions, a bridge between fact and fiction is often built through the use of a prologue or appendix. Along with a list of historical and fictional characters and a glossary of Italian terms, Hoffman incudes a section entitled ‘Historical Note’ at the end of her book, in which she states what is history and what is invention or alteration. “The historical leader of the compagnacci was the bulgingly named Doffo Spini, but I have made it Antonello de’ Altobiondi because of the storyline I wanted to create for him.” (2011, Historical Note, para. 3). Marie-Louise Jensen also includes a brief ‘Historical Note’ in The Lady in the Tower in which she states, “Where research failed to provide information, I improvised freely.” (2009, Historical Note, para. 1). This “…habit of authorial paratextual commentary upon the process and development of work [that] has continued to the present day, and most historical fiction will have introductions and disavowals…” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 14). Whereas in Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve (2007) calls his final section ‘Author’s Note’, he includes historical notes as well as a thank you paragraph offering insight into his interest in the subject matter, perhaps this is due to a lack of ‘fact’ surrounding King Arthur and a reliance therefore on myth and legend for source material. While history leaves many unknowns, in historical fiction there is freedom to re-create the missing pieces.

Historical fiction stands on the foundation of sound historical research to bring the past to life in ways that academic histories cannot. “…from the beginning of the twentieth century the historical novel began to be theorised as something educational…and as a form which in some ways was in dialogue with history…” (de Groot, 2012, Chapter 2, sect. 8 para. 7). Historical fiction, therefore, can be seen as a version of history – if it stands on known facts, on the foundation of historical research. Hoffman’s David, is based on a wealth of historical evidence that forms the structure in which the story takes place, and in her ‘Acknowledgments’ Hoffman lists a number of books and articles that formed part of her research. However, the language within the novel doesn’t make it clear where fact ends and fiction begins. This is one of the tools that novelists use to bring life to the past, to pull the past into the present. Even in Here Lies Arthur, based on a little fact and much myth, Reeve is able to bring new life to this well-known story in such a way that the reader believes this version could have been a possibility. When explaining why stories were told to make Arthur look nobler than his actions belied, the novel’s character Myrddin (a version of Merlin) tells protagonist, Gwyna, “It had to be done…Arthur’s our hope, Gwyna. He’s the hope of Britain.” (2007, Chapter XLV, sect. 4, para. 6). Reeve mixes myth and legend with factual knowledge of the era and a modern understanding of how the media and branding work.  It is amongst and between what is known that all possibilities live, but invention alone does not make historical fiction. Author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir (2007, p. 2) talks of the difficulty of navigating between the fact and fiction, “Because of the nature of the source material for the reign, nearly all of which has a political or religious bias, a writer could come up with very different assessments of each of them, all of which might be equally valid. But this would be abdicating some of the responsibilities of an historian, whose function is to piece together the surviving evidence and arrive at a workable conclusion.” It is clearly important to adhere to known facts and rely on historians as experts. While histories are versions of the truth presented from the context in which they were created and subject to the ideologies and perspective of their creator, historical fictions are recreations of the past based on historical research and evidence. Where both require a deep historical knowledge and an ability to see connections and infer meaning, historical fiction also requires the application of fiction writing strategies to breathe life into the dead.

What distinguishes successful historical fiction? Is it historical accuracy, a well-crafted story, poetic writing, engaging characters; is it the ability to capture a certain period in time, the uncovering of little known facts, or a different perspective on a well-known event? Does ‘good’ historical fiction do nothing more than borrow from history to create an engaging tale? Phillpott (2011) says, “The complications of postmodernism and structuralism have blurred somewhat the distinction between academic and fictional histories and have posed the question (explored in both forms of writing) of whether one is very different from the other…”  We know that both academic histories and historical fictions are representation and interpretations as historians and novelists alike select and omit certain things, and present their story, their findings in a particular perspective. So what does make an historical fiction ‘good’, successful? Does historical fiction simply imitate reality or does it invent elements in the name of interest, and if so, is there a line where this invention becomes no longer successful? James Forrester (2010) indicates that the historical novelist walks a fine line between fact (that can get in the way of the story) and fiction (which he states are ‘lies’). Clarifying what he believes those ‘lies’ to be, he says, “A clear distinction needs to be made here between telling lies and making mistakes. A lie is intentional and purposeful; a mistake is accidental and sometimes unforgivable.” An elaboration of facts in historical fiction therefore, is not problematic if there is a level of accuracy. Brown and St. Clair (2006) point to this challenge faced by writers as, “Their desire to create an emotionally engaging and credible fictional work may come at the expense of historical accuracy.” Going the other way then, at what point is factual evidence in a historical fiction, too much? Hoffman’s David (2011), is lavishly sprinkled with facts about the political history of Florence and as a result, it is can be easy for readers to lose interest in the story in the effort to keep track of the various political factions and names of key figures. In the first few pages of chapter eight, Hoffman discusses the de’ Medici, Fra Savonarola, Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander, the French king, and Vitellozzo Vitelli, along with their allegiances to each other and the various political factions of the day; and this is just a taste of the detail that is throughout the whole book. While the story of the ‘real life’ albeit fictional sculpture’s model is a fascinating one, the reader can struggle to remain engaged at times under the weight of factual detail. Writers of historical fiction do not merely fill gaps, but re-create those spaces that have been lost to history. “Historical novelists take the bare ones of ‘history’, some facts, some atmosphere, some vocabulary, some evidence and weave a story within the gaps.” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 16). Historical fiction goes one step further than history, it is makes use not only of research, facts and inference but also, as Champ indicates, of imagination “…convincingly recreating an entire world that you have not lived in is as much a feat of imagination as of research…” Champ goes on to say, “…even for the most confident writer, the craft of the historical novelist consists of delicately juggling the uncertainties of the past. The first uncertainty: the physical past. The second: the psychological past. And the third uncertainty? Working out how much of them the reader actually wants to know.” (Champ, 2010).

Historical fiction for young adults holds an attraction for juvenile readers because it presents rites of passage as undertaken throughout history; it introduces external conflict and internal upheaval with the safe distance of time separating reader from events; and it can present extremes of thought and behaviour, prevalent in past eras, that can resonate with the chaos and dis-ease of adolescence. “…the formula of YA realism… The basic pattern…is the rite of passage from childhood to maturity.” (Ross, 1985, p. 177). As a result, historical fiction can be therapeutic, educative and entertaining. In Jensen’s The Lady in the Tower, it is only through a journey of facing danger, surviving her treasonous father and saving her mother that protagonist, Eleanor, matures and discovers her love for the man she was promised to. “…when you came to Farleigh, I disliked you very much…I was angry and desperate. I had been ordered to marry you against my will. I was surrounded by spies…I thought you were one.” (2009, Chapter 31, sect. 4, para. 105). Eleanor shows that maturity springs from overcoming and reflecting upon experience. Within historical fiction, adolescents can discover life’s extremes, their cause and effect, their outcomes as experienced by others. Eleanor’s journey is one of such extremes: her once loving father becomes a person she fears, she finds spies in those she thought were friends, and love in those she thought enemies. “This juxtaposition of comfort and anxiety recapitulates the ‘antithetical impulses’ of adolescence…” (Sturm and Michel, 2009, p. 43). Eleanor expresses the rawness of her confusion and fear in encountering her father, “I realized my hands were shaking.” She goes on to reveal, “My father locked the door behind him…The father I had once loved was long gone. In his place stood a wild animal.” Though he had once been a source of comfort for her, her father, “…took hold of a handful of my hair and twisted it so that I cried out and was forced to my knees.” (2009, Chapter 5). Readers can experience the emotions and fears from the safety of the modern day, and can apply their own knowledge and logic to books they read. “There is certainly a titillation in this that gives adolescents a voyeuristic pleasure, and they are safely distanced from it by the pages…” (Sturm and Michel, 2009, p. 43). The protagonist in Here Lies Arthur, Gwyna, is a listener of stories without the safety of distance, “That’s the trouble with a story-spinner. You never know what’s real and what’s made up. Even when they’re telling the truth, they can’t stop themselves from spinning it into something better; something prettier, with more pattern to it.” (2007, Chapter XLVII, para. 2). In the character of Gwyna, the reader experiences confusion as she struggles with the concept of truth amid rumour, story and myth. Gwyna requires the kind of critical thinking skills also needed by teens in today’s media rich world. By learning about the lives of others, the reader learns about themselves; they try out different ways of thinking and seeing and this gives the reader a greater sense of perspective in their own lives. De Groot asserts that historical fiction “…demands an unusual response from its audience: an active response…and a sense of otherness and difference when writing.” Going on to say, “…the virtue of historical fiction as something which enforces on the reader a sense of historicised ‘difference’…and as a mode which has an effect on the normative experience of the everyday and the contemporary world.” (de Groot, 2012, Introduction, para. 5). By voyeuristically taking a rite of passage along with the main characters, the reader is better equipped to deal with the present. “Author Thomas Mallon…[describes] the past as ‘more familiar, cherishable than the future,’ Mallon maintains that the known past provides a comfort not available from the unknown future.” (Brown and St. Clair, 2006, p. 19).

In the absence of absolute historical truth, readers can immerse themselves in others’ versions of history through factual evidence and historical fictions. In this way, the past becomes relevant to the present as writers of historical fiction bundle partial histories into story form. The past lives, it tells the reader of what has been, of where they have come from, and out of this confusion of facts, in the finding of threads of story, the reader navigates pathways through their own often fragmented and confusing lives. “The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole.” (Winterson, 1987, pp. 62).


Booksprung 2012, ‘How to Cite a Kindle Ebook’, Booksprung, retrieved 14 April 2012, <http://booksprung.com/how-to-cite-a-kindle-ebook>.

Brown, J & St. Clair N 2006, ?The rise and rise of YA historical fiction?, Chapter 2 in The distant mirror: Reflections on young adult historical fiction, Scarecrow Press, Latham, Maryland and Oxford, pp. 18-31.

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Phillpott, M 2011, ‘Novel Approaches: Histories of Historical Fiction’ [parts one and two], IHR Digital: Online services at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, retrieved 29 March 2012, < http://ihr-history.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/novel-approaches-15-histories-of.html>.

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Winterson, J 1987, Sexing the Cherry, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, London, England.


Shel Sweeney was born in England but raised in Australia. She has worked in cafes, publishing houses, schools and, most recently, for the London Olympics. Shel writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Southerly: The Journal of the English Association and Vintage Script, with upcoming works in Splinterswerve and Perceptions: Magazine of the Arts. She is currently working as a freelance writer and proofreader, and occasionally runs writing workshops. Shel can be found at shelsweeney.com.

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The Wandering Alchemist

By Melinda Giordano

I’ve always felt an affinity to alchemy, but not for the practice or the ingredients or its somewhat doubtful practitioners. Rather, I’ve always appreciated what it represented: the path that it chose between magic and science for thousands of years. It paused between the two arts – borrowing from each one, twisting logic, assembling the mathematics of dreaming.

I could imagine the alchemist in his undefined hospice, surrounded by plates of dragons’ scales – their fires caught in jars, burning like imprisoned galaxies. Flowers harvested from hidden countrysides hung from the rafters, their scent only a dusky memory, their colors confused and in transition. Charts of odd symbols and obscure equations covered the walls, creating an endless map of nonsense and wishful thinking.

But in the 18th century, science put its fist down, frightening its whimsical intruder into hiding – clouds of powdered bones and jewels rising from its trembling shoulders. Science, bearing a quiver of rationale and common sense, made its presence known with such authority that this era became its own, and was called the Age of Reason.

The laboratories of scientists and chemists were as thrilling as those of the alchemists’. Sinewy arms of smoke embraced those small rooms: from the furnaces and fire-places used to burn elements down to their fundamental DNA, from the crucibles and Balneum Mariaes filled with metals reduced to lava. They reeked with the brimstone smell of flowers of sulphur and hartshorn – the rutting scent of the deer’s antlers and hooves melted into a dark oil. Ceramic gallipots populated the shelves, full of medicines and chemicals powdered into the consistency of deserts. A network of glass tubing circulated around the scientist’s dank offices, creating an anatomy of desire and discovery.

The laboratory of Richard Siddall, at the Golden Head in Panton Street, near the Haymarket in London contained even more wonders.  Hanging from the ceiling and braced against walls was a zoological garden of taxidermy: a crocodile, the head of an elephant and of a rhinoceros; there were fish and shells – their glow of ocean life long lost. Stoves and instruments, jars and clocks cluttered this sanctum of discovery – elements were boiled and split, their physical coil pulled apart and rebraided. And overseeing this chemical mischief was a bust of Galen, surgeon to gladiators, vivisector, dissector, theorist, anatomist, philosopher – antiquity’s greatist physician and herald to a new type of scientific thought.

Buoyed by natural law and Galen’s benign profile, Mr. Siddall could make his claim, “Makes and sells all manner of chymical and Galenical medicines, with all sorts of druggs; wholesale & retail, at very reasonable rates. N.B. the elixir for the asthma, as also for the gout and rheumatism.”

And alchemy’s defeat seemed absolute. But during a century littered with the corpses of myth, a legend lived.

The Count of St. Germain was born in the early 18th century. Descriptions of him were curious and tempting: courtier, adventurer, charlatan, inventor, alchemist, musician, composer. His mind was confused and courageous, buzzing into mysticism, occultism, secret societies and conspiracies like a foolish bee. European society was charmed with this charming new toy, and gave him many titles: Wonderman, The Wandering Jew, The Wandering Alchemist.

Details about the Count are scarce. Some said he was the son of the Prince of Transylvania, or of Sultan Mustapha II – others claimed he was the illegitimate son of the widow of Charles II of Spain. There were other theories too, storied vines twisting around a family tree that had long become obscured.

Horace Walpole was wryly impressed: “he sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible”. The peeress Lady Jemima Yorke with a flutter of fingertips and diamonds, was fascinated by this “Odd Creature… I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in All kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some”. Casanova dined with him and wrote at length about “This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of the Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds… I thought him an astonishing man as he was always astonishing me.”  Voltaire described him as a “man who never dies, and who knows everything”. He himself didn’t believe the Count…yet he knew that many did.

Salons – bored and rarefied – purred with gossip about his fabulous stories: and wished that every word was true. For this was as much the time of Cagliostro and Muchausen as it was of Rousseau and Schiller. The Count had gained the favour of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV. Their jaded approval found him a suite of rooms in Chambord château, the many-faceted jewel of the Loire Valley. A laboratory was constructed for him, where – it was said – he invented dyes of new, subtle colors, melted and created jewels, and was seen to convert “iron into a metal as beautiful as gold”. Within the depths of chemistry, the dreams of alchemy re-asserted themselves as he continued the search for eternal life and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Count de St. Germain dared to make many claims: he spoke many languages and possessed several identities. He also asserted that he had lived many lives. And the aristocracy devoured his proof – that life spanned for centuries and that for hundreds of years he had wandered across the sky, gathering histories; holding them like stars in his hands. He said he was part of the legend of the Wandering Jew, a Christian tale first printed in 1223. He had met Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba. He had anecdotes of life at the Valois court, the 16th century pit of politics and despair. He had known Jesus Christ.

The Count of St. Germain died on February 27, 1784. He was buried in a private grave. There were no jewels left behind, or gold, or gallipots full of fabulous color. There were no manuscripts or letters. Perhaps they never existed. Perhaps he took them with him, on another journey.

Yet he might have left something after all, an odd kind of hope – a faith in wonder. He had once confided to Madame de Pompadour, “Sometimes I amuse myself, not by making people believe, but by letting them believe, that I have lived in the most remote period”. Anything could have happened… it is just up to us to believe.


Melinda Giordano is a native of Los Angeles, California.  Her written pieces have appeared in publications such as Lake Effect Magazine, dansemacabreonline, Scheherazade’s Bequest, mirrordancefantasy.blogspot.com and batteredsuitcase.com among others. She writes flash fiction that speculates on the possibility of remarkable things.  She is interested in many histories – art, fashion, social (everything has a past) – and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley.

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An Indomitable Will: Hannibal Barca and the Start of a World War

By Michael Elias Shammas

“I will either find a way or make one.”

                                                —Hannibal Barca

In 218 BC, arrayed on the banks of the Ebro River like a gigantic bow, Hannibal Barca’s army stood poised to start antiquity’s greatest war. It was a heterogeneous force—composed of Carthaginians, Iberians, Balcaric Islanders, Libyan spearmen, and Numidians. Yet Hannibal’s approximately 80,000 soldiers were all animated by a single purpose: to defeat Rome (Fournie 34). About ten years earlier, Rome’s senate had explicitly forbidden Carthage to cross that river on pain of war; now, Hannibal was preparing to do just that (Briscoe 44). In his mad quest, he would bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men while demonstrating unparalleled tactical genius.

That Carthage’s government allowed things to progress to this point is striking. At the time it was still reeling from the First Punic War, which had resulted in the loss of its navy as well as three important islands—Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily (Briscoe 45-46). Its treasury was lacking, its people tired, and its institutions in dire need of reform. Aware of this reality, in the years leading up to the Second Punic War many of its most influential politicians were content to merely consolidate the city-state’s recent gains in Iberia (Reid 188). Yet, to a degree that is rare in world history, this war was not a collective decision. This was Hannibal’s war. Almost entirely on his own initiative, a young man in his twenties decided how and when to start a world war. Although he eventually received limited approval to strike at Rome, it was largely because of his siege of Saguntum that Carthage had to declare war in the first place (Briscoe 45). The Second Punic War thus demonstrates the tremendous role individual initiative can play in starting conflict—and the terrible consequences that so often accompany this. In doing so, it confounds the realist perspective while promoting a sort of constructivist view, one that stresses clashing ideas and cultures over clashing materials (Wendt 1). Hannibal crossed the Alps because Carthage had no other way to invade Italy (Salmon 132); but more importantly, the general’s epic march across the Pyrenees, through Gaul, and to Rome’s steps was motivated by his moral views and aspirations. His desire for glory and his family’s ethical qualms about Rome—exemplified so well by an oath he took as a child—would permit nothing less. And, as Daniel Fournie puts it, “even the Alps could not defeat his will” (42).

Background and Context: What Drove Hannibal?

For years, scholars have been trying to identify what drove Hannibal to take on Rome in such a spectacular manner. What, they ask, gave the man such an incredibly indomitable will? The answer is not simple, for he was probably motivated by a variety of things, but history suggests that two things especially were responsible for his legendary drive. These things are love of family and love of country, and together they go a long way in explaining his hatred of Rome; for in the First Punic War, Romans had humiliated both his father and city.

Indeed, Hannibal’s father Hamilcar figured prominently into the First Punic War. In the years leading up to 241 BC, Hamilcar had been forced to fight unconventionally in the Sicilian theater, relegated to guerilla-style tactics due to a lack of money and men (Fournie 34). This style of fighting—though necessary—seemed like little more than cowardice to the ancient psyche (Gabriel 71). The experience scarred Hamilcar, and though he left Sicily with Carthage’s approval, his sense of honor never quite recovered (Lazenby 100). Although he had defeated the Romans numerous times over the course of the first war and—later on—subjugated half of Iberia after merely eight years, this was not enough. He felt as if his family’s character had been smeared. This resentment simmered in his heart and that of his sons for years. Even if Hamilcar did not feel dishonored, his patriotism meant that he still “would not have been prepared to accept the outcome of the First Punic War as definitive” (Briscoe 44). Alas, Hamilcar drowned in battle before he could finish conquering Iberia, and Hannibal’s brother-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded him as supreme commander in the region. It was he who signed the notorious treaty of 226 BC with the Romans, whereby they agreed to recognize all of Iberia south of the River Ebro as Carthaginian territory in return for Carthage’s explicit promise not to expand north of that river (Livius lvi). Yet though Hasdrubal may have been content with this treaty, Hannibal was not; having been raised and taught by his father, he wished to expand on Hamilcar’s legacy.

In addition to family, patriotism also drove Hannibal to fight the Romans. As has already been noted, Carthage suffered greatly after the First Punic War. The harsh treaty imposed on it—like the Treaty of Versailles after World War I—fostered a resentment that would help trigger the Second Punic War. This treaty—the Treaty of Lutatius—was designed almost solely by the Romans. As such, it placed the blame for the war exclusively on Carthage. According to its terms, Carthage was to evacuate Sicily and the islands west of it, return its prisoners of war free of charge while paying a heavy ransom to receive the safe passage of its own troops, transfer the Aeolian and Ustica Islands to Rome, and vacate all other islands between Italy and North Africa (Lazenby 158). In addition, the city was to pay Rome an indemnity of 30 tons of silver immediately, to be followed by ten separate payments of 66 tons of silver over the course of ten years.

Amazingly, the Romans seemed to think this treaty was generous. Scipio, meeting Hannibal before the battle of Zama, even asserted it was something the Carthaginians had “desired,” and called Hannibal’s invasion “an action of the grossest perfidy” (Polybius 307, The General History). Needless to say, the Carthaginians did not see things in the same light. To compound the treaty’s formal humiliation, the city’s navy had been utterly decimated during the First Punic War. While Carthage had once controlled the entire Mediterranean, it now found itself relegated to the extreme western portion of the sea, its boats doing little more than shipping troops back and forth across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar (Salmon 132). Although Carthage had been leveled—utterly decimated, in fact—it would not be held down for long. As E.T. Salmon writes, history “provides numerous examples of great powers thirsting for revenge after defeat” (131). Carthage was such a power.

Thus, perceived or actual wrongs committed against family and country went a long way in shaping Hannibal’s hatred for Rome; but there was another factor. Long before the Second Punic War, Hannibal Barca—barely nine years of age—took a solemn oath that would bind him for the rest of his life. According to ancient scholars, on the eve of Hamilcar’s departure to Iberia his son came to him and begged to be allowed to fight. In the story—which most modern historians accept as fact—Hannibal’s father agreed to take Hannibal to Iberia on the condition that he take a vow. Perplexed, the young Hannibal followed his father into a temple’s sacrificial chamber. There, clutching Hannibal over an open fire, Hamilcar told his son to swear that for as long as he lived, he would never be a friend of Rome. Hannibal, ever eager to surpass expectation, swore even more than this; he is reported to have said that, “I swear so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome” (Polybius 243, The Histories). Silius Italicus puts it more eloquently, recording Hannibal as swearing that he would “enact the doom of Troy” on Rome, despite “the treaty that bars the sword,” “the Alps,” or even “the gods” (verses 113-121). Very nearly, he did just that.

Saguntum and a Legal Pretext for War

Although initially it seemed as if the Ebro treaty had finally accomplished the impossible—forged a long-lasting peace in the Iberian Peninsula—this proved to be a false hope. For the treaty was incredibly flawed. It had been concluded without adequate consideration of circumstances and events that had occurred before 226 BC, and one massive oversight in particular soon became a source of great tension. As John Briscoe writes, “[the treaty’s] terms were flatly inconsistent with the Roman alliance with Saguntum, concluded several years before the Ebro treaty” (Briscoe 44). This oversight would finally give Hannibal a reason to launch his long-desired war. It was in this manner that Saguntum—a relatively isolated and internationally unimportant city—became the crux of the world’s first true world war.

The problem with Saguntum was that, though it was a Roman ally, it was built on land south of the Ebro River—and therefore, according to the treaty, it clearly lay in the Carthaginian sphere of influence. While Rome claimed that its alliance overrode the Ebro treaty, the Carthaginians were inclined to see things differently (Briscoe 44). Despite this, for years it seemed that Saguntum would remain little more than an inconsistency. Indeed, Hasdrubal appeared content to continue the decade-old Carthaginian strategy of consolidating Iberia. This would all change dramatically when Hannibal succeeded his brother-in-law as supreme commander in 221 BC (Livius lvi).

Before continuing, it is important to note that the Saguntines were only too aware of the problems inherent in the Ebro treaty and—as a result—had asked Rome for help numerous times in the years leading up to Hannibal’s siege of the city (Briscoe 44). While Hasdrubal was in command, the Romans doubted an attack would occur and told the Saguntines as much. But on the eve of Hannibal’s accession, they changed their tune. Whether on a whim or because even then they knew something of Hannibal’s nature, in 220 BC the Senate sent messengers to Spain (Briscoe 45). Presciently, they not only asked Hannibal to discard any thoughts of aggression against Saguntum; they also reminded him that crossing the Ebro River would be a violation of the treaty established by his brother-in-law.

Hannibal’s reply was characteristically curt and well-argued (Miles 232-233). The twenty-six year old told the Roman messengers that—on the basis of the Ebro treaty—Saguntum was part of the Carthaginian sphere of influence. This implied that Carthage had a right to take the city, by force if necessary. He added that, because Saguntum was south of the Ebro, Rome had absolutely no right to interfere in an internal Saguntine affair (Briscoe 45). The Roman response to this is unknown, but if any of them believed they had persuaded Hannibal, they were vastly mistaken. In the spring of 219 BC, acting almost entirely on his own, Hannibal—again citing Carthage’s legal right to Saguntum—besieged the beleaguered city, which surrendered eight months later (Livius lvi). Significantly, the city’s fall would reflect the horrific nature of the developing conflict; its women were raped, its men murdered, and its children sold into slavery.

One question that has perplexed scholars for years is whether Hannibal and his Carthaginian confidants thought this attack would be an isolated incident or, on the other hand, if even then they had already planned for a greater war with the Romans. Though Carthage’s government may not have foreseen a larger conflict with Rome, it seems naïve to assume that Hannibal himself didn’t. As John Briscoe maintains, historical evidence suggests that “Hannibal was looking for a reason to reopen the conflict with Rome” (45). Saguntum gave him this reason. What’s more, his own father had been convinced by the Roman annexation of Sardinia that Carthage “would never know peace as long as Roman power remained unchecked” (Fournie 34). Hannibal probably shared this assumption. Further evidence for Hannibal’s eagerness is betrayed by the very swiftness with which he took action; he attacked Saguntum almost immediately after securing the southern half of Iberia (Fournie 34). Clearly, Hannibal was looking for conflict.

Saguntum’s Lessons

The way Hannibal handled Saguntum has three important implications. First, treaties can have unforeseen consequences, especially when they advantage one side at the expense of another. Like the Treaty of Versailles, the Treaty of Lutatius was completely inequitable. It punished Carthage, accusing it of aggression, while excusing Rome of all wrongdoing (Lazenby 158). As in the case of World War I, then, the concluding treaty of the First Punic War resulted in a deep resentment that helped trigger another—even larger—war. And in the same way the Treaty of Versailles angered Germans, granting Hitler support for aggression, the Treaty of Lutatius caused Carthaginians to more readily accept Hannibal’s aggression. Moreover, the injustice likely gave Hannibal even more fuel for his anger.

Second, Saguntum implies that one small incident can trigger a series of crises that escalate into all-out war. In this case, the Romans could have acquiesced, letting Carthage absorb Saguntum (which was, after all, not incredibly important). But they didn’t. In fact, the delegation they sent to Carthage afterwards made demands that were unlikely to result in anything but war, such as even more “restitution” and the hand-over of Hannibal and other key generals (Fournie 35). In this implication, the Second Punic War is not alone. The series of events that led up to World War I and the way the war emerged from a cycling series of conflicts reflects this contention that—whether due to pride or hatred—actors are often unwilling to back down after a crisis has emerged.

Third, the siege of Saguntum implies that war does not have to be a collective decision. One person in a position of power can seize the initiative and shape things in such a way that conflict is all but inevitable. When Hannibal attacked Saguntum, he did so without the explicit approval of the Carthaginian Senate. In other words, he effectively started the Second Punic War entirely on his own initiative (Reid 176). This would have dire implications for Hannibal’s future campaign, as the hasty manner in which he was perceived to have made the decision to attack made existing enemies in Carthage’s government even more resentful of him. This bitterness is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that even when Hannibal was on the verge of absolute victory—a mere five miles away from the city of Rome—Carthaginian politicians such as Hanno the Great refused to grant him material support (Polybius 150, The Histories).

Whatever the case, at this point Hannibal finally had the war he had wanted since he was a child; his siege of Saguntum marked the effective beginning of the Second Punic War (Livius liv). He had started this war, for better or worse, almost entirely through his own actions. It was a war that would result in Carthage’s absolute destruction while at the same time engraining Hannibal’s name in the history books forever. From the above discussion, it seems probable that Hannibal had been planning this war for years—that Saguntum was in effect the means to an end, the legal pretext that paved the way for his idealistic clash with an empire he saw as corrupt and immoral (Reid 183). Although Hannibal could have taken other actions—diplomacy or bribing Saguntum’s leaders, for example—he chose the path that he knew would yield war. That Hannibal besieged Saguntum in the first place surprised both many Carthaginian politicians and, of course, the Romans; what he did next would make his siege of Saguntum pale in comparison.

Why Hannibal Chose a Land Invasion

After the Carthaginian Senate grudgingly came out in support of Hannibal—Roman demands that Carthage surrender not only Hannibal but also numerous other generals left them little choice—the Romans planned to fight the Carthaginians in Iberia. Indeed, though E.T. Salmon maintains that the Romans “must have realized long before the war began that the Carthaginian attack, when it came, would take the form of an invasion by land across the Western Alps,” there is very little evidence to support this view (139). The worst-case scenario most Romans envisioned seems to have been that Carthage might scrape up enough ships to land an army in Sicily or Sardinia. Certainly they did not imagine that Hannibal could be so determined—so mad, some might say—as to march a thousand-man army across the Pyrenees, through hostile territory (the Gauls would harass Hannibal every step of his way to Italy), and over the wall of ice and snow that was the Alps. Ancient scholars such as Livy and Polybius as well as numerous modern scholars all agree on this point: “the Senate clearly did not envisage Hannibal moving outside of Spain” (Briscoe 45).

Roman war strategy further undermines Salmon’s argument. For the Roman Senate’s own plans suggest that, even after Saguntum’s fall triggered the war, Rome was still unaware of Hannibal’s plans for a land invasion. Indeed, the Roman Senate initially decided to send two armies outside of Italy—one, led by the famous Scipio Africanus’ father, would go to Iberia, and the other to Africa (Fournie 36). No great preparations were made to defend the passes leading through the Alps (Salmon 139). But just as the Romans were fine-tuning this plan, Hannibal forced a change in strategy by crossing the Ebro River, making it evident that he did indeed plan on attempting the impossible. One question must be asked—why? Why did Hannibal decide to embark on such a risky journey to Italy? The answer is not simple, and mere patriotism, family loyalty, or even his oath to his father cannot sufficiently explain his decision.

Although John Briscoe and others maintain that scholars “can do no more than speculate on the plans that Hannibal had when he began his march,” it seems clear that Hannibal chose the land invasion for sound—if daunting—strategic reasons (46). Although he was confident in his tactical mastery and in his ability to smash any Roman army that met him, this would serve little purpose unless Rome capitulated. There were effectively two ways to accomplish this. Hannibal immediately discounted the first strategy—which would have entailed the siege of Rome. Transporting siege equipment hundreds of miles over rivers and mountains—necessary to level Rome’s formidable walls—would have been simply impossible. In other words, to bring siege equipment all the way to Italy was not “physically feasible” (Salmon 136). As such, Hannibal opted for the second option. This strategy entailed slowly working his way through Italy, defeating Rome’s armies in the field, and eventually encircling the city, cutting it off from other Italian city-states. After a time, Hannibal hoped he would have made so many Italian allies that Rome would be forced to capitulate (Salmon 138).

Ultimately, Hannibal miscalculated by relying on the strategy of isolation. In the same way that the Romans underestimated him, he underestimated the Romans. He misjudged their determination to fight, while also underestimating the loyalty of some key Italian city-states to Rome. His conception of war was “Hellenistic,” and because of this he expected the Romans to negotiate their surrender after he had attained a certain number of victories (Gabriel 71). In the face of the resounding defeats he dealt the Romans at Trebbia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae—in which “three consuls and a master of horse were” defeated while “tens of thousands of Romans were slain”—their determination astounded him (Fournie 42). What’s more, the implications of Hannibal’s single-minded decision to go to war caught up with him only a few years after the conflict’s beginning when politicians—resentful of what they perceived to be a rash, unilateral decision to plunge Carthage into war and perhaps a tad envious—withdrew much support at the most critical moment, after the famous Battle of Cannae (Miles 240-250). In fact, his greatest enemy in the Carthaginian Senate and the peace party’s leader Hanno the Great convinced Carthage to effectively abandon Hannibal for nearly 10 years, sending neither military aid nor money. This frustrated Hannibal beyond measure. His long-sought victory—so incredibly close, if only Carthage would send siege weapons by ship to the parts of Italy Hannibal controlled (after securing Italy’s coast, the first option was viable)—slipped away because of bickering of old men. Thus, though siege weapons may have allowed Hannibal to attempt an attack on Rome itself, political gridlock in the Senate defeated him. For all intents and purposes, Hannibal’s army during the latter part of the Second Punic War could do little more than roam the Italian countryside. And as time dragged on, resilient Rome built the armies that—led by Scipio Africanus—would defeat Hannibal on the plains of Zama.

Finding the Reasons for Conflict: Constructivism versus Realism

To some degree, the realist view of international relations can explain why Rome and Carthage fought the Second Punic War. Largely, realism purports that states are inherently competitive. As such, competition drives international relations (Donnelly 62). This was certainly true in the 3rd century BC, as Rome and Carthage—the two giants of a bipolar system of international relations as Greece declined in relevance—competed over everything from natural minerals to timber (Reid 178). The competitive aspect is especially notable when one examines the struggle over Mediterranean islands. Indeed, the First Punic War was largely fought over the control of several key islands in the Mediterranean (Lazenby 130-145). What’s more, both actors probably viewed the struggle over islands as a zero-sum game; there were a limited number of islands, and the more islands one actor controlled, the less the other possessed. Correspondingly, throughout this period Carthage and Rome were constantly engaged in a naval tug-of-war, competing for both influence and resources in places like Sicily and, when necessary, using force.

Despite the above, to view conflict between Rome and Carthage from an exclusively realist perspective would be mistaken. This was especially true during the Second Punic War. Indeed, many modern realists would not have predicted Hannibal’s actions, for though realism implies competition, it also implies that states hope to survive. In other words, risk is not taken lightly. “Success is the ultimate test of policy, and success is defined as preserving and strengthening the state” (Donnelly 7). According to realists like Waltz, states will therefore not “risk much to push for hegemony” (Donnelly 114). This is because there is little point in gaining land if, to do so, one loses an equivalent or greater amount of equally valuable land. Thus, though Rome’s fall would have no doubt strengthened Carthage, the risks Hannibal took seem counterintuitive to realism. His invasion of Italy was a huge gamble. To do it, he had to take valuable manpower and resources out of Iberia. A substantial number of soldiers remained, but these troops were generally less trained, less patriotic, and less armed than those who traveled with Hannibal. What’s more, many of the soldiers Hannibal left behind were Iberian, and as such their loyalty did not clearly belong to Carthage (Fournie 37). As a result of this, Carthage lost much of the land that Hamilcar had gained during the Second Punic War; for to prevent reinforcements from being sent to Hannibal, the Romans undertook a successful campaign in Iberia that ultimately drove “the Carthaginians right out of” the peninsula (Briscoe 56). Hannibal must have known that this was a possibility, and his willingness to take such a risk by invading Italy—combined with the cultural, social, and moral qualms both he and his soldiers shared about Rome—suggests that realism cannot fully explain the conflict.

Rather than solely emphasizing competition, state survival, or material power, the constructivist approach to international relations explains war largely by stressing a clash between social or moral ideals. As Alexander Wendt points out, there are two basic tenants of this approach. First, the “structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces”; second, “the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature” (1). This viewpoint seems especially relevant to the Second Punic War because—to most of the towering personalities in the war, from Hannibal Barca to Scipio Africanus—the conflict was not simply a material war; it was much more than that. Yes, Rome was fighting for its survival. Yes, Hannibal was partly motivated to attack Rome because of a possible material gain. But the clash of ideals in this war was tremendous, and different worldviews and loyalties played a large role in starting the conflict. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Rape of Sardinia, Carthaginians everywhere “lived for der Tag” (Salmon 131). For many Carthaginians, it was not a matter of if Carthage would fight Rome, but when. Thus, clashing ideas overshadowed the interplay between power and materials, and it was this clash—highlighted by bitterness and resentment—that instilled so much passion and tragedy into the conflict.

Numerous social and moral conceptions, it is important to point out, were clashing before and during the Second Punic War. Though they were both located on the Mediterranean, Rome and Carthage represented vastly different cultures (Salmon 132-134). Largely, Romans were more cohesive and patriotic than Carthaginians; though its society was fragmented, Carthage’s was even more divided. Indeed, there were effectively two spheres in Carthage—the rich and the poor—and there was very little middle ground. Also, Carthaginian territory was much more heterogeneous than Roman lands. As such, its army was made up of “soldiers from many peoples and cultures,” many of whom harbored some resentment for Rome (Fournie 34). This was in stark contrast to the Romans, whose army—with few exceptions—was homogenous. One clash, then, was generally between two different models of society; it was a clash between Europe and Africa. The second clash involved patriotism and different conceptions of war. This motivated both Carthage and Rome; more specifically, it drove Hannibal Barca and his famous rival, Scipio Africanus, to fight until the bitter end.

Indeed, unlike realism, constructivism points out a fundamental difference in the worldviews of the Romans and Carthaginians that would help decide the conflict’s outcome. To Scipio and his Roman counterparts, the reasons for the Second Punic War were simple. Carthage threatened Rome with an existential crisis, and as such, Rome had no option but to resist. It had to resist not only because it needed to survive, but also because it was a civilizing force in a world of barbarism. The Romans saw Hannibal’s “Hellenistic” view of warfare as flawed, the “Hellenes” as “soft and corrupt,” and as such they decided to fight to the end (Gabriel 70). Needless to say, Hannibal saw things differently. He did not understand that the Romans did not view negotiation to be the main way to end a war. And, as Richard Gabriel points out, his failure to understand his enemy’s ideals was why he lost the war despite winning battle after battle (71). The different worldviews of these two men is perhaps best exemplified by Polybius’ account of the parley they held before Hannibal’s defeat at the Battle of Zama. Entreating Scipio not to fight him, Hannibal stressed that he had already achieved victory by any sane measure of the term. “I am that Annibal, who after the battle of Cannae was master of almost the whole of Italy,” he told his young enemy (Polybius 304, The General History). Like his counterparts, however, Scipio rejected the Hellenistic conception of victory and replied that Hannibal had made a mistake: he did not seize victory when he had the chance (Polybius 305-307, The General History).

Thus, constructivism points out that ideas played a huge role in motivating Hannibal throughout the war. To Hannibal, this conflict was one that would benefit not only Carthage, but the entire world. Rome—an emerging superpower—represented a force of subjugation and corruption. It was a culture of greed, a culture that would stop at nothing to impose its specific worldview on the rest of the world. Indeed, Hannibal believed so strongly that others shared his view of Romans that he assumed the Gauls would join him rather than hinder him on his journey. Notably, his view of the Romans as inherently oppressive may also explain why he misjudged the willingness of Italian city-states to help him. In another win for constructivism, these city-states largely remained with the Romans because their culture and ideals were more similar to the Romans than to the North African “barbarians” (Briscoe 75-77). Put another way, despite the power struggles that had throughout history been fought between these states and Rome, the Italian city-states opted to stick with the power they felt more closely resembled their way of life. They had complaints, but they were unwilling to “believe that [Hannibal] was the man to redress their grievances” simply because he was so different from them (Salmon 139).


Few conflicts are as fascinating—or as prescient—as the Second Punic War. The war provides numerous episodes that entertain while also teaching certain lessons about conflict. It stresses that conflict can be started by a single vibrant personality rather than by an entire state, that the personal histories of leaders often shape how they conduct a war, that hatred and passion can dictate strategy as much as—if not more than—sound reason, and that conflicts often have a heavy idealistic component to them. Moreover, it shows that when ideas rather than materials clash, war gets more intense and more heated. Hannibal’s indomitable will, motivated by his love of country and family and his resultant hatred for the Romans, was what started the Second Punic War. While it would almost certainly have been safer and less risky for him to fight a war in Iberia, this conflict conforms more to a constructivist approach than a realist one; his personal ideals and his forceful personality meant that he could do nothing but take the fight to Italy. The next time resentment over a treaty, bitterness, one driven leader, and clashing ideals would cause such a large-scale conflict would not occur until World War II.


Works Cited

Briscoe, John. “The Second Punic War.” Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 B.C. Vol. 8.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 45-80. Print.

Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Fournie, Daniel A. “Over the Alps to Rome’s Gates.” Military History 22.1 (2005): 35-42. Print.

Gabriel, Richard A. “Hannibal’s Big Mistake.” Military History 28.4 (2011): 64-71. Print.

Italicus, Silius. Punica. Trans. J. D. Duff. New York: Loeb Classical Library, 1934. Print.

Lazenby, John Francis. The First Punic War: a Military History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996. Print.

Livius, Titus, and William Wolfe Capes. Livy: Books XXI and XXII; Hannibal’s First Campaign in Italy. London: Macmillan, 1884. Print.

Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: the Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

Polybius. The General History of Polybius. 4th ed. Vol. 3. Weybridge: S. Hamilton, 1809. Print.

Polybius, and W. R. Paton. The Histories: Polybius. London: Heinemann, 1926. Print.

Reid, J. S. “Problems of the Second Punic War.” The Journal of Roman Studies 2nd ser. 3 (1913): 175-96. Print.

Salmon, E. T. “The Strategy of the Second Punic War.” Cambridge University Press: Greece and Rome 2nd ser. 7.2 (1960): 131-42. Print.

Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.


Michael Elias Shammas is currently a college senior majoring in political science and English. In his spare time he enjoys studying history, reading, writing, and playing the guitar.

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Jefferson Street Bridge

By Francine Marie Tolf

First a bell clanged, then a siren screamed, then fifty-year-old steel moaned as guard rails lowered and Jefferson Street Bridge split open.  People in cars that were backed up on either side of the canal watched their half of the bridge loom perpendicular to sky as a barge slid past underneath.

How this terrified me as a child!  I was sure our station wagon would one day be trapped on the bridge when the bell began its urgent clanging.  My mother promised me this could not happen.  “That’s the gatekeeper’s job, Honey.  He makes sure no one’s on the bridge before he presses the switch that divides it.”  Her assurances didn’t prevent nightmares in which I clutched a railing that rose higher and higher above black water.

That water never froze in the winter and always stank.  Long ago, it had been clean.  But in 1871, the flow of the Chicago River – by then an open sewer for over 180,000 Chicagoans –  was reversed in order to keep it from contaminating Lake Michigan.  City engineers backed the sewage-laden water into the Illinois and Michigan Canal (originally the Des Plaines River).  A good length of the ninety-six mile waterway turned dark over night.  Residents of canal towns like Joliet muttered that the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred in October of that year, was Chicago’s just punishment.

My older sisters used to tell me there was one rotten plank on the bridge.  If you stepped on it, you fell right into the polluted water.  They enjoyed reminding me of this on Saturday afternoons as we walked across Jefferson Street Bridge to go downtown.  Only the lure of a strawberry ice cream soda purchased in the basement cafeteria of the Boston Store kept me putting one gingerly foot in front of the other.

The gate keeper my mother mentioned spent his day in a cement turret attached to the side of the bridge.  I never glimpsed anyone gazing out of the turret’s narrow windows.  Was my mother mistaken?  By the 1960s, were bridges in Joliet operated remotely?  No matter.  The gate keeper exists in my imagination, a bony fellow in overalls, more cheerful than you’d expect a man with such a solitary occupation to be, kidding easily with waitresses at the Peter Pan Restaurant on Clinton Street where he treated himself to an open faced turkey and mashed potato sandwich every Friday.

A bridge is built to join, but in my hometown, it divided.  Blacks lived on the East Side of the canal.  Whites lived west of it.  The night of Martin Luther King’s death, there were riots on the East Side of Joliet.  White families feared a mob of blacks would march across Jefferson Street Bridge to burn and loot.  Mayor Berlinsky raised it to prevent this from happening.  I was nine years old.  I remember my parents sitting in the kitchen listening to WJOL, the local radio station, as rumors flew via phone calls from house to house.  I heard that the Honiotos brothers, who owned a grocery store on West Jefferson Street, had mounted machine guns on their store’s roof to protect against looting.  I felt some fear and a lot of excitement.  It didn’t bother me that I lived in a town where a polluted canal separated black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods.  That’s just the way it was.

I didn’t know that only ten years before, black children were forbidden to swim in Nowell Pool, Joliet’s largest community pool, except from 9:00 a.m. to noon on Mondays.  Employees then drained and cleaned the pool before whites used it for the remainder of the week.  How did frightened parents on the West Side feel about that?  Had any one of them protested?

For years after I moved away from my hometown, I dreamt about Jefferson Street Bridge.  Sometimes I sped in a car as it split apart and I flew over the edge.  Sometimes my shoes stuck in grid work as black water rose.  The bridge was my personal symbol for terror, part of an industrial landscape that literally and figuratively hovered at the edges of my childhood.  Yet again and again, I gathered the courage to cross it so I could enter downtown, that tawdry but attractive kingdom that held the Bamboo Pet Shop and the Rialto Theater, where in velvet darkness I watched The Castaways or Five Weeks in a Balloon.

It wasn’t until the movie was over and I stepped into the dull heat of an overcast summer afternoon that the real world came back, filling me with something stranger and more indefinable than sadness.  Candy wrappers littered the curb.  One block away the Princess Theater was showing B movies the nuns from St. Patrick’s Grade School said it was a sin to watch.  The day’s magic was gone.  I would have to cross Jefferson Street Bridge all over again to get home.


Francine Marie Tolf is the author of Rain, Lilies, Luck, her first full-length collection of poetry, and Joliet Girl, a memoir, both from North Star Press of St. Cloud (2010).  Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Water-Stone, Rattle, Spoon River, Poetry East, Under the Sun, and Southern Humanities ReviewProdigal, her second full length collection of poems, was published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012 and she has a prose chapbook forthcoming from Greenfuse Press in 2013.

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Colonel Rickett’s Cottage

By Steve Prusky

The cottage belongs to me now.  My mother’s death deigns it.  A faded handwritten tea paper document decreed it.

In his unique prose, President Lincoln awarded sixty virgin wooded acres of Michigan White Pine wilderness to Colonel Rickett, my great, great grandfather, on April 10,1865; the day after General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, the same day the  Colonel’s cavalry regiment secured the same area, five days before Lincoln’s assassination.  Lincoln commanded the Colonel own the land tax-free as gratitude for his “… courage, loyalty, unquestioning service to the preservation and sanctity of our Union.” The Colonel served from the first to the last day of the Civil War.  It was Lincoln’s intent the land be held in perpetuity by the Colonel and his seed for as many generations as his bloodline lasts.  The plot is located at the northern tip of Old Mission Peninsula: an eighteen-mile long shriveled arthritic ring finger that juts into the Monet colored Royal Blue Grand Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan.  The land and the cottage Colonel Rickett built on it passed to his son after his death, then his son’s daughter; my grandmother.  It stayed with her until she passed.  It belonged to my mother until she died.  I buried Mother last week.  I am her only child.  I am sixty-two years old, unmarried, fatherless, last of my generation, the last of my great grandfather’s lineage.  The cottage is mine.

The Colonel built the cottage himself.  He had cut and hand hewn two acres of the tall Pines from the surrounding woods given him and erected the original white washed board and slat shell of the cottage in 1869.  To support his wife and son after his discharge from the Army, the Colonel distilled a reliable supply 101 proof sour mash whiskey harvested from certain crops he purchased from the neighboring farmers.  He labeled his product “O Be Joyful.”  He

successfully marketed it throughout Leelanau County.  He and his whiskey were revered through out the Peninsula.  No deaths were ever recorded from the consumption of it.  The Colonel always kept a special blend of the liquor on hand for himself and his closest friends.  He was a friendly neighbor; never handled a gun after the war; helped rebuild the abandoned old Catholic mission the Peninsula was named after; never attended church.  I’m certain the Colonel had faults, although lengthy genealogies tend to diminish foibles of family legends.  All three-hundred residents of Old Mission Peninsula attended his funeral on June 29 of 1887.

The Nineteenth Century flavor of the structure remains, though it has morphed somewhat over time. Each succeeding generation added their own touch to the place as if, at their deaths, they meant to convey their distinctly iconoclastic memorial of the Colonel to their inheritors.  Each new heir took over the cottage as if it was his or her turn to modify the torch of the Colonel’s legacy for the next in line to interpret, reevaluate, revise, relight.  Electricity arrived during the Great Depression; pull chains still operate the ceiling lights.  Where the spider-infested outhouse once sat a bright colored rose bush thrives unattended.  The hand pump over the kitchen sink remains intact and functional. The well that feeds has never gone dry.  The manual pump was the only in house source of water until Mother had the shower and flush toilet placed in an addition to the cottage sometime in the 1960’s.  A toxic kerosene furnace sets in the middle of the living room (Nope, no basement). The brown metal behemoth is an obstinate obstacle to get past rather than a supplement to the more functional field stone fireplace that warms the house during the Peninsula’s brutal winters.  No previous member of my lineage ever admitted to its ill planned installation.

The most important pieces of my cottage remain.  The Colonel’s scarred 1860 chromium army issue Light Cavalry Saber hovers above the fireplace hearth.  If seen at the proper angle, its bright finish is a blinding lightning bolt when struck by the afternoon Sun beaming through the living room window.  Since I was a child, I have heard tales of the Colonel waving the weapon above his head, the blade reflecting a glint of bright dawn light from behind him as he led a victorious cavalry raid down the Shenandoah Valley in spring of 1864.  Below the sword two single shot sixty-nine caliber model 1799 North and Cheney horse pistols are firmly mounted opposite each other undusted, untouched, unoiled,unused for over one-hundred fifty years.

Now, I own the past. It is not yet lost to the industrial parade GM, Ford, cybernetics, antiseptic wars and Stealth march to.  The cottage still exists as raw as the surrounding wilderness it was cut from.  It is as solid as Lincoln’s order it remain a perpetual gift to my family seed.  It is as immune to time as the embellished tales of the man that built it one-hundred forty-three years ago.  Gratitude was more substantial then.  There was more at stake, more to give.  Back then, an untamed patch of land was ample reward for the Colonel’s faith in a threatened principle he volunteered to defend.  The gift stands, not as reward to a man who luckily survived a kiss or two from the lips of death, rather, it is an equitable trade for his belligerent belief in an abstract value he was determined must endure, at least ‘till his bloodline ends.


Steve Prusky’s work has appeared in Eunoia Review, Foundling Review, Orion headless, Assisi Online Journal, The Legendary, Whistling fire, and others.


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