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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Fall 2009

HISTORY

John Brown’s War against Slavery, by Robert E. McGlone. Cambridge, June 2009. $35
The paradoxical John Brown has made a compelling if baffling subject for historians ever since the raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that turned him into a mid-nineteenth-century international media star. As McGlone recognizes, attempts to understand what inspired this farmer, tanner, and businessman to wage war on slavery have been mired in debates over the morality of Brown’s actions. Equally crippling has been a dependence on the memories of Brown contemporaries, often recalled decades after the raid, and Brown’s own autobiographical musings written in the six weeks between the raid and his execution. In the greatest strength of the book, McGlone relies on the wealth of Brown family correspondence, particularly between Brown and his father, to argue that complex, inter-generational family exchanges explain Brown’s arrival in Kansas and his leadership role in the Pottawatomie Massacre of 1856—events that transformed Brown and inspired his raid at Harpers Ferry. When his sons appealed for help in fighting proslavery settlers in Kansas, Brown found both a means to win the approval of his pious father and become an example for his children through his allegiance to a righteous cause. Important questions are raised here, particularly ones about Brown’s mental health and business acumen. While the abundance of information often overwhelms the guiding hand of the author, that hand nevertheless succeeds in creating an admirably human portrayal of the controversial abolitionist, a figure fully shaped by his times, and a man both deliberate and inconsistent in his actions.
—Philip Mills Herrington

A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War, by Daniel E. Sutherland. North Carolina, June 2009. $35
Sutherland’s synthesis of local studies investigating the roots and effects of guerilla warfare and his own archival research conclusively demonstrate the importance of studying partisan warfare during the Civil War. He contends that Confederate authorities ultimately undermined their ability to fight the war by relying on partisans in the early days as a way to mobilize quickly. Later, they attempted to stifle the growing numbers of guerillas, both because guerilla warfare unleashed a cycle of escalation and retaliation between Confederates and Unionists in the South and because service as a guerilla curtailed enlistment in the regular Confederate army. Thus guerillas decisively contributed to Confederate defeat because units kept men out of the army and provoked Union authorities to devastate large swaths of the South. Sutherland’s work will surely invigorate discussion of guerilla conflict in the Civil War. He confines himself almost entirely to the war years themselves, but his study raises questions about warfare in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. By consolidating previous research with his own primary research, Sutherland has set the stage for further considerations on the place of guerilla warfare within American society.
—Peter Luebke

The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, by R. B. Bernstein. Oxford, May 2009. $17.95
Even in the wake of innumerable learned commentaries on the subject, Bernstein manages to shed new light on the work of the men who framed the Constitution. He argues that they were creatures of a particular moment in human history—the Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Europe with its trans-Atlantic quarrels that molded the minds of that age—and he makes them simultaneously less Olympian and more earthbound even as he is enthralled by their handiwork. Beyond that, however, he immerses the reader in the process of revolution and its aftermath, the laborious task of drawing up a document that could serve to guide future efforts to create a cohesive nation out of thirteen unruly colonies. Bernstein has praise in particular for the constitutional conventions and the insistence of ordinary citizens that they too would have a say in how they would be governed—or rather govern themselves. His discussion of the issues they wrangled over—federalism, taxation, representation, and slavery are but a few—is both sure-footed and extraordinarily lucid. The brief sketches of the various framers are likewise masterful and, Bernstein’s focus on how their disagreements continued to play out in constitutional showdowns for decades to come—indeed down to the present—lends depth often lacking in treatments of the era.
—Lou Tanner

Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, by William H. Goetzmann. Basic Books, February 2009. $35
In this study of the contours of national thought between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Goetzmann emphasizes that American thinkers were always cosmopolitan. The Founding Fathers drew on classical writers, Enlightenment philosophers, English Whig pamphleteers, Newtonian scientific principles, and Calvinist traditions to give shape to the Revolution. Ordinary Americans combined new ideas about natural philosophy, capitalism, and evangelical religion to craft a distinct nationalism in the early nineteenth century. In the second quarter of the century, scientists and romantic writers emphasized the peculiarities of the American continent in service of improving world civilization. Southerners, utopian communities, African Americans, and women all tapped into transatlantic currents of thought to attempt to muster into being particular visions of the nation. Even amid the rise of nationalism and nativism, Goetzmann argues, Americans continued to participate in international exchanges of ideas and to see themselves as part of a global network of civilizations. Though the material after 1860 seems thin and rushed, Goetzmann presents an excellent summary of American thought before the Civil War. It is sure to engage readers interested not only in the history of ideas but also in the history of the early nation.
—Whitney A. Martinko

LITERARY STUDIES

A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Harvard, September 2009. $49.95
The first essay in this collection, which spans five centuries and fills more than a thousand pages, centers on a moment in 1507, when two German cartographers named a portion of modern-day Brazil after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer—thus putting “America” on the map for the first time. An able and diverse group of contributors—academics, novelists, and visual artists, among others—use a “literary lens” to reexamine American history since that event. They focus on “points in time and imagination where something changed: when a new idea or a new form came into being, when new questions were raised, when what before seemed impossible came to seem necessary or inevitable.” Several selections are particularly wonderful: Walter Mosley on the modern detective story; Douglas Wolk, on Superman; and Sean Wilentz on shape-note singing. With enthusiasm, each contributor conveys the cultural significance of his subject, be it a person, such as Henry James; a play, such as Death of a Salesman; or a sculpture, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment. Inevitably, some readers will quibble with what the book’s editors chose to include and omit. They’re at peace with that, it seems: “There is no attempt to give every name its due, to visit every state or the era of every presidency, only the hope that the essays gathered here might be so suggestive as to invite the reader to think of countless other moments in the American story that could be addressed as this book tries to speak to its subjects.”
—David Gura

Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II, by V. Kolve. Stanford, April 2009. $65
Erwin Panofsky supposedly said that “the man with the most photographs wins.” Verdel Kolve, the most brilliant Chaucerian of our time, not only has more pictures but also the visual imagination to wield them to illuminate hard texts. Panofsky interpreted symbols he found hidden in artworks using obscure texts, whereas Kolve, continuing the 1984 volume of the same title, opens up Chaucer’s works with doctrine, experiences, stories, and visual images that fourteenth-century audiences would have known. He generally selects one “governing image” from each work, and explores how it might have controlled the original readers’ interpretations, and could shape ours. He transcends the usual reductive “sources and analogues” approach by recognizing how human beings think using bits and pieces of information. He draws his examples from materials before and after Chaucer’s death, even into the sixteenth century, because they can illustrate what was in the air before 1400. His final and most challenging chapter, “God-Denying Fools,” deals with the unlikely topic of atheism, both of modern Chaucer scholars and figures of “medieval non-believers.” He promises to expand this chapter in his next book. All medievalists will profit from the humane and original and incisive thinking in anything Kolve writes.
—Don Fry

Notes on Sontag, by Phillip Lopate. Princeton, March 2009. $19.95
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Slim, pocket-sized, with a design both stylish and classic, the cover of this study reflects the beautifully crafted and memorable vignettes inside. A passing acquaintance of Sontag’s since he encountered her at Columbia while an undergraduate, Lopate mixes insightful readings of Sontag’s major essays and books with reminiscences of their many meetings (including some embarrassing moments of literary fandom gone bad). Though he claims to offer “no single governing thesis,” certain themes recur: Sontag’s mastery of essay and aphorism; the weakness of her novels; her simultaneous attraction to radicalism and high culture; her artful play with mask and persona. Lopate situates her within the historical moment of the American sixties and the European modernist lineage she claimed. She was a bridge, writes Lopate, but one sometimes difficult to cross, for Sontag was both “a popularizer and an obscurantist.” It is these contradictions that fascinate Lopate, and he carefully untangles the skeins of Sontag’s writing. His exploration of Sontag is also an exploration of writing itself, for Lopate is keenly attuned to Sontag’s development as a writer, her sometimes conflicting literary, political, and intellectual ambitions, and the effect of fame upon her craft. A reflection on both Sontag’s specific oeuvre and literary life in general, Notes on Sontag will reward both those who know Sontag’s work well and those only beginning to make her acquaintance.
—Jennifer Burns

FICTION

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, October 2009. $27.95
Lethem’s latest is peopled by an eclectic coterie of Manhattanites: Georgina Hawkmanaji, a long-limbed dowager; Richard Abneg, her hirsute lover; Oona Laszlo, a prolific ghostwriter; Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed cultural critic; and Chase Insteadman, an actor “riding the exhaust of [his] former and vanishing celebrity, the smoky half-life of a child star.” All five live on an island rendered by Lethem as both familiar and vaguely exotic, a Chronic City alive with its own incandescent glow. Whales swim into the East River, tempted by a fungus that lines the river floor. A mechanical tiger stalks the bodegas of the Village. Eagles flock to the high-rises of the Upper East Side, sweeping like untethered kites across the horizon. And higher in the night sky, knocked calamitously out of orbit, Chase’s astronaut fiancée is trapped in a field of Chinese space mines. Her letters to Chase, both funny and elegiac—“As I drift, you anchor me in reality”—regularly appear on the front page of the New York Times. In this unpleasant way, Chase, stuck on earth, finds himself back in the public eye. But Lethem’s real star is Manhattan itself, a place where one is “persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire . . . We only pretend to live on something so orderly as a grid.” Near the beginning of this messy, radiant novel, Abneg finds himself thinking, “To whom does New York City belong?” The answer, which arrives definitively in the book’s final chapters, is both no one and everyone—the kids, the criminals, the robbers, the heroes, and the malcontents. New York belongs to you.
—Matthew Shaer

Amateur Barbarians, by Robert Cohen. Scribner, July 2009. $27
At fifty-three, Teddy Hastings has reached the age when a man usually “shifts his focus, from the romance of building to the hard facts of maintaining” a life. But Teddy is more builder than maintainer, and, rather than tend the familiar ground of his marriage and his career as a middle school principal, he embarks on a journey for meaning that turns him into an inadvertent pornographer and sends him to East Africa in search of his daughter and direction. Meanwhile, Oren Pierce, a man who has “made a mark, or left a smudge anyway” on a number of cities and careers, arrives in Teddy’s town. Despite his early promise, Oren can’t seem to live his own life: he maintains another man’s house, takes on another man’s job, has a relationship with another man’s wife. Though he tries on others’ suburban lives, he is unable to or uncertain that he wants to forge one of his own. As one character accuses him, he has “the constitution of a hummingbird”; he hovers and hovers but will he ever land? Cohen’s portrait of these interwoven lives in crisis avoids the potential for angsty clichés thanks to its precise prose, good humor, and brisk pacing. In its skilled portrayal of a particular phase of life, Amateur Barbarians captures middle age with the same precision that The Catcher in the Rye captures the teenage years.
—Anna Sheaffer

POETRY

The Ginkgo Light, by Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon, June 2009. $15 paper
With his ninth collection, this master of the matter-of-fact fulfills the lyric poet’s fundamental task of combining varied earthly phenomena into compact forms. Mixing an inventory of objects both natural and not—mosquito larvae, a garden hose, a 1,300 year-old lotus seed—with settings quotidian and peculiar—a convenience store, Himalayan monasteries, Atitlán—Sze re-presents the disparate parts of the world with devastating lucidity. “The continuous bifurcates into the segmented / as the broken extends. Someone steals / a newspaper while we doze,” he writes. Clarity is ever-present, and the poems possess striking, if subdued, emotional backbones. In “The Gingko Light” sequence, for instance, the description of a person catching staph infection in a hospital after collapsing on their driveway while shoveling snow, and another who will “within/ a decade…unload a slug into her mouth” creates a sufficient layer of pathos. And yet, Sze maintains the idea that human subjectivity is only a modest portion of the earthly reality. “When I still / my eyes, the moment dilates,” he declares, and in reading The Ginkgo Light, one is made increasingly aware of the possibility of seemingly limitless expansion with every poem.
—Steve Barbaro

Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008, by Eleanor Ross Taylor. LSU, May 2009. $21.95 paper
New and selected poetry volumes are a risky business. They can expose a career marked by repetition, the outmoded style of a generation, or a rut of aesthetic propensity. The best are exhilarating, offering a retrospective of a writer’s progress and the thrill of recent work. Captive Voices, eloquently introduced by Ellen Bryant Voigt, gathers poems from Eleanor Ross Taylor’s five collections (including a wonderful meta-chapter of poems from an earlier New and Selected), beginning with Wilderness of Ladies (1960) and ending with Late Leisure (1999), followed by an impressive coda of new poems. The book captures work from Taylor’s remarkably long, dedicated poetic life and captivates the reader with its polyphony of voices. Considered by Randall Jarrell, Adrienne Rich, and others to be a poet of daring “genius” and originality, Taylor has, by temperament and, perhaps, exigency, ridden for decades below the hyperbolic radar of self-promotion that blights today’s “poetry-biz” culture. She has, instead, committed herself to a discerning, empathetic capacity for listening, watching. Taylor evokes the voices of ancestors, overheard strangers, and historical, mythic, and literary figures (the various conjurings of captivity narratives are masterpieces) with keen perception and wry humor. Haunting the poems is the humble, ardent spirit of the poet: “Here are the rubbed dust wallows, / the burrow coiling to the labyrinth. / Still traveling, abiding, I descend / and muse, a muse of sorts, / in my own plot.” Taylor, with her “love for the white-hot page,” deserves our grateful, amazed attention.
—Lisa Russ Spaar

Self-Portrait with Crayon, by Allison Benis White. Cleveland State, May 2009. $15.95 paper
White’s poems are meditations on beauty, specifically the beauty of paintings by Degas, from which they take their titles. But they are less about aesthetic rapture than raw fear, attempts to the escape the harsh realities of separation and death through the “enchanted order” of art: “I want my life stilled inside a frame.” With its opaque autobiography, prose form, and occasionally abrupt shifts of direction, White’s book may draw superficial comparisons to Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. But unlike Hejinian, White is more interested in psychological realism than in linguistic fragmentation. At times, the book suffers from a timid aestheticism, rarely venturing beyond a familiar poetic elegance. But at its best, that studied elegance becomes a hauntingly depersonalized lyricism that captures the elusive, third-person quality of memory: “Just as a house appears in his mind out of nowhere, late at night, lit from inside, trying to remember itself, room by room, as it burns.”
—Morgan Myers

GENERAL NONFICTION

Why Architecture Matters, by Paul Goldberger. Yale, November 2009. $26
A building provides shelter, of course, but for Goldberger, the New Yorker architecture critic, it matters only when it also “begins to say something about the world—when it begins to take on the qualities of art.” In his terms, a building must not only give comfort, but also challenge. He emphasizes the importance of such syntheses throughout this engaging, accessible guide to understanding and appreciating architecture. He is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of “aesthetic ambition” and “social purpose,” exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter. This generously illustrated volume anchors its speculations in brief discussions of buildings (mainly Western, as Goldberger readily admits) that manage this hard-won equilibrium, from Francesco Borromini’s San Carlo chapel in Rome to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia campus to Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. Goldberger liberally deploys terms coined by architectural historians and theorists—Karsten Harries, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Nikolaus Pevsner—and quotations about the practice from architects themselves. A welcome deviation from the explanatory tone arrives in the final chapters, when Goldberger delves first into autobiography, as he recounts formative experiences with architecture during his New Jersey childhood and his college years at Yale, then into gentle polemic, as he discusses preservation battles and argues for the importance of the “antiquated, almost quaint” sense of place in an increasingly segregated and virtualized world.
—Brian Sholis

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, by Michael Chabon. Harper, October 2009. $25.99
Somewhere inside Michael Chabon lives a great book of essays that will astound and delight as much as his quicksilver fiction does. Regretfully his newest is not remotely that book. This breezy and loosely themed package of family-centric ruminations drifts precariously far from Chabon’s proven fictional territory of heartbreak and adventure, falling quite short of last year’s captivating collection of writings on literature, Maps & Legends. Whether bemoaning his generation’s suffocating overprotection of children or debating whether or not to circumcise his son (prompting a snortingly funny but quite apt comparison to the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs), Chabon’s ease with Technicolorizing the quotidian is formidable and reminiscent of Stephen King. The book delivers a sharply rendered vision of the author’s Berkeley household, where Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman (whose widely publicized bipolar troubles get a thoughtful consideration) appear to be raising their children in an agreeably messy and certainly geek-friendly environment. But there is more than a hint here of the deadline columnist, with Chabon slipping too easily into the well-worn role of adoring but fuzzy-headed dad (possibly a consequence of many pieces having been previously published in Details). Only when considering seemingly trivial matters like comic-book Amazonian demi-goddesses does Chabon’s prose truly leap to life in a manner that does his talent justice.
—Chris Barsanti

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, September 2009. $25
Part philosophical primer, part blueprint for “a politics of moral engagement,” Justice establishes how political philosophy can “give shape to the arguments we have, and bring moral clarity to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens.” Of the three approaches to justice in our society—welfare (or the common good), individual freedom, and virtue—people seem least comfortable with arguments about virtue. Sandel argues that a “more robust and engaged civic life” requires that citizens recognize how deeply and persistently their assumptions about virtue influence attempts to establish what is just. But arriving at a shared understanding of justice requires knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of political and social disagreements—a fact often ignored or misunderstood. Embracing the tension and confusion created by challenges to our moral certitude can clarify why we think the good is good—or how and why we need to amend our ideas. Sandel elucidates the assumptions, merits, and limitations of political philosophers’ conceptions of justice. And as he explains the positions that inform contemporary debates about economics, medical ethics, and national security, he endows abstraction with the clarity of common sense—in the hope that such sense might indeed become common.
—Thomas March

When the Rivers Ran Red, by Vivienne Sosnowski. Palgrave Macmillan, June 2009. $26.95
American wine is defined by the vintages of Northern California. Yet despite the international recognition these wines now receive, there was a time when it seemed that the fledgling American wine industry would not survive. When immigrant families first started planting grapes and tending vineyards in the soil of the Napa Valley and Sonoma County in the late ninteenth century, no one imagined the day in 1919 when Prohibition would be signed into law. In the years that followed, it would take every ounce of determination and creativity they had to avoid financial ruin, dodge the inspections of federal agents, and keep the vineyards alive. Sosnowski creates a window into this world—the saga of the Foppianos, the Sebastianis, and the Beringers as they struggle to survive the dry decade of the 1920s—and brings to life an oft forgotten era. More than a simple retelling of events, this seamless narrative weaves together the stories of individuals with the forces that shaped American politics and society early in the twentieth century. With a home in Sonoma County, Sosnowski’s writing is clearly shaped by her love of the land; at times her prose reads like evocative travel writing. Yet this personal perspective makes the writing vivid and in turn brings the story to life. Part history and part drama, When the Rivers Ran Red manages to both entertain and inform.
—Amanda Redig

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