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Book Notes


ISSUE:  Summer 2005

EDITOR’S PICK

An Unexpected Life, by Joseph Blotner. LSU, March 2005. $29.95
Joseph Blotner will be remembered as a giant of American literary scholarship. His editions of William Faulkner’s works, especially the Uncollected Stories and Selected Letters, remain the standard, and his biographies of Robert Penn Warren and Faulkner are landmarks. The latter especially is unsurpassed; not only is it the best Faulkner biography, but it is the finest biography I have ever read. Lucky for us, Blotner is equally adept at telling his own story in his brisk and engaging memoir. His early years are surprisingly compelling, as Blotner wisely focuses on his time during World War II as the bombardier of a Flying Fortress, being shot down just shy of No Man’s Land, and experiences as a POW. But it was the description of his famous friendship with Faulkner at the University of Virginia that I really looked forward to—and Blotner does not disappoint. Who could not delight in the intimate details?—how Faulkner almost wasn’t invited (when UVA’s President Colgate W. Darden bristled at Floyd Stovall’s argument that Faulkner “would add prestige” to the University), how Faulkner “radiated power” like “great tenors and bullfighters” do, or how—upon discovering that Blotner and fellow professor Fred Gwynn had been pilots as Faulkner had during WWI—Faulkner hosted a dinner for the “hangar-flying squadron,” appointing himself Chief. The friendship is beautifully illuminated and resonates throughout the remainder of this fast-paced memoir—Blotner’s unfortunate departure from the University of Virginia, the publication of his biographies, his travels, and his eventual return to Charlottesville. The book ends appropriately with Blotner’s realization that he didn’t feel as Yeats had, “that I would be content to live it all again, but telling part of it might not be a bad way to spend some of what was left.” How fortunate we are that he did.

 

CURRENT EVENTS

Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology, by Peter Viereck. Transaction, February 2005. $24.95
Peter Viereck may have won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in 1949, but his most lasting impression may be as an advocate of the culturalist and somewhat communitarian—and hence highly disgruntled and typically pessimistic—strand of modern conservative thought. Viereck complements thinkers like Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, and Michael Oakeshott and emphasizes themes such as the risks of rupture, the need for moral whole-ness and engagement, and the virtue of virtues. In the 1949 study that lies at the center of this volume, Viereck uses the choices of a decidedly unpopular conservative figure from a century earlier—Prince Metternich—to investigate not only many features of the conservative thinking of the mid-19th century but also the strategic choices made at what Viereck considers to have been a (to use an anachronistic term) critical juncture in modern left/right history, when the conservatives and (classical) liberals of that era failed to join together in defeating the nationalism that later, in his view, spawned fascism. Viereck’s definition of conservatism is obviously what Americans would today consider a “European” version, more culturalist, periodically skeptical of free markets, quick to reach for the word “crisis” even amidst the materially booming post-1945 years, and pessimistic about the social and cultural trends that have often left modern liberals and libertarians unconcerned. This slender essay is joined by one in which Viereck considers the dire postwar conditions of his brand of conservatism in America, as well as substantial appendices and a particularly interesting interpretive essay by the prominent political theorist.
—Gerard Alexander

State of the World, 2005, by the Worldwatch Institute, Norton, January 2005. $18.95
The Worldwatch Institute has published an annual State of the World Report since 1984. The 22nd edition issued in 2005 upholds the Worldwatch Institute’s reputation for generating readable and provocative, if often depressing, accounts of the planet’s health and welfare. The 2005 edition is dedicated to “Redefining Global Security.” Unfortunately, this topic has a particularly pressing urgency because of the horrendous risks associated with traditional security. The U.S., dependence upon foreign oil, particularly from the OPEC nations in the Middle East, including Iraq, has made apparent the often artfully hidden costs of oil—in blood and treasure—expended to attain “oil security” by military means. Even with U.S. defense spending estimated at $500 billion per year, which is more than the total spent for that purpose by the next 25 nations combined, the U.S. military has been worrying publicly about their capacity to provide “security.”

But the critical thesis that Worldwatch pursues in this edition is that even as “traditional” security concerns related to weapons of mass destruction, civil wars, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation are increasing, the growing insecurity of the world is expanding in frightful sectors related to ecological and social concerns that are seldom recognized as “security” issues. But there is hope: the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize in October 2004 to an African environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, who as the Worldwatch Report indicates, was “known for planting trees rather than signing treaties.” The Nobel peace-link may seem tenuous to many, but the 22nd edition of State of the World, persuasively argues that the Nobel committee has been prescient.
—Richard C. Collins

The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi’i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran, by Kamran Scot Aghaie. Washington, January 2005. $24.95
For those concerned with the political currency of religious ritual and symbolism among the Shi’ites of Iran, take heed of Kamran Scot Aghaie’s Martyrs of Karbala. In an age when American foreign policy threatens Iran, and American soldiers literally live among Shi’ites in Iraq, an adequate appreciation of the importance of Moharram rituals and symbols and their suppression or manipulation by the state, remains essential to understanding the power of the Karbala narrative in its Shi’ite context. By examining the history of Moharram rituals in three successive Iranian regimes—the Qajars, Pahlavis, and the Islamic Republic—Aghaie shows how these rituals have been manipulated to a variety of political ends: in bolstering legitimacy, as a threat to legitimacy, or as a revolutionary paradigm for action against the state. This is an essential study for our leaders and general readers alike.
—Adam Gaiser

 

HISTORY

Fitz Lee: A Military Biography of Major General Fitzhugh Lee, C.S.A., by Edward G. Longacre. DaCapo, December 2004. $30
As a youth, the grandson of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and nephew of Robert E. Lee, Fitzhugh Lee, or “Fitz” as he was known throughout his life, was a happy-go-lucky type who could act, sing, dance, and drink with the best of them—so much so that his famous uncle’s biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, called him “The Laughing Cavalier.” Indeed, his merriment and shenanigans at West Point almost got him thrown out on several occasions before his graduation in 1856. Throughout his life, whether in war or peace, he was “unfailingly jovial, convivial, and outgoing,” but he suddenly matured into a serious army officer when war broke out between the states in 1861. As Longacre shows, Fitz Lee became a “precise and punctilious soldier, with great regard for all the etiquette of the profession.”

Fitz Lee was also brave. He personally led “numerous patrols across enemy-infested environs of Washington and Alexandria, exchanging pistol shots and saber blows with the few Yankees who dared cross his path.” He was a good tutor, extremely patient with raw recruits, and led his men by example, making him very popular with them. Likewise, his superiors soon recognized his gallantry and ability and his contributions to his regiment’s morale, rewarded by commendations and promotions. Public accolades followed after Lee’s cavalry under Stuart’s command made a sensational 100-mile circuit behind McClellan’s union army, raiding as it went, in 1862. He served under Stuart with distinction for much of the war, and became Stuart’s replacement when he was killed at Cold Harbor in 1864. Told in the context of the war and its battles, with detailed attention to the units and men that Lee served with, Longacre succinctly paints pictures of various characters as they come and go—J.E.B. Stuart, William Edmondson “Grumble” Jones, the “Gray Ghost” John Singleton Mosby, Wade Hampton, III.

Lee’s postwar life—his charge by the government with treason, his career as a farmer, his marriage to Ellen Bernard “Nellie” Fowle, his participation in the Lost Cause debates regarding the responsibilities for Confederate failures, his numerous public speaking engagements, his initial forays into politics, and his biography of his uncle, General Lee (New York, 1894)—is covered in the first of two final two chapters; the last covers his term as governor of Virginia, his appointment by President Cleveland to the posts of collector of internal revenue for the western district of Virginia, his service as U.S. consul general in Havana, Cuba, and his command of the VII Army Corps, the latter an appointment hailed all across the nation. Fitz Lee’s final appointment was to the presidency of the Jamestown Exposition Company, organized to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.

This is an interesting, well-written, and important biography of one of the more fascinating members of Virginia’s most distinguished family.
—Frank Grizzard

Stealing God’s Thunder, Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, by Philip Dray. Random House, August 2005. $25.95
Imagine a time when houses lacked electricity. Easy, break out the candles. Now try to imagine a time when no one knew what electricity was or that electric sparks on earth (stroke your cat) were the same thing as lightning. Now imagine Benjamin Franklin, dressed as the quintessential Quaker, recklessly and stupidly flying a kite in a storm and somehow not getting himself electrocuted. Now you’ve reached one of the major turning points in human history and science, in an eighteenth century where Franklin emerged as the premier world authority on electricity, long before he became one of our Founding Fathers.

Philip Dray focuses on this scientific aspect of Franklin, weaving around it a history of the theories and discovery of electricity, the Newtonian shift in scientific method, the emergence of the idea of political science, and inevitably, the religious opposition. After Franklin invented the lightning rod and installed a few, religious leaders accused him of stealing one of God’s prerogatives: blasting human beings with thunderbolts. Some secular opponents objected that “Franklin’s rods,” as they were called, attracted damaging lightning strikes from the clouds. Pamphlet warfare ensued. Dray describes all this with expertise, wit, and balance. After you read his book, you’ll know a new Ben, and you’ll never again take your light switches for granted.
—Don Fry

The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History, by Carl R. Lounsbury. Virginia, March 2005. $65
This is a handsome, richly illustrated social history. Lounsbury quite rightly extends the notion of architecture to include not just the physical structure but also the use of the building and sites of these early community centers, so this study emerges as a broad history of the legal, political, economic, and social roles of the buildings that were the natural focal points of sprawling rural communities.

From their quite humble beginnings, often as earthfast wooden buildings of little to no distinction, Lounsbury traces the development of the courthouse as a source of local pride, becoming ever grander and more impressive structures to reflect the wealth and importance of the social elite. Lounsbury documents how the buildings were designed, funded, and constructed, with comparisons to practices in Maryland, North Carolina, and England, and paralleling influences in church and domestic architecture.

While the social elite, of course, largely controlled the legal process, court days brought citizens of all walks of life to the market ground that would spring up around the courthouse to peddle wares, entertain, gossip, and, by the bye, take part in or watch or hear reports of the legal proceedings. The courthouse grounds extended, then, to include clerks offices, taverns, jails, and other support structures. The volume abounds with small stories of life around the courthouses, reports of the conditions of the prisons, squabbles among the clerks, the nature of the local taverns.

The book itself is quite well made, printed on heavy paper, a delight to hold, with photos and sketches on almost every page. Lounsbury’s prose is clear and lively. There is a lengthy listing the public buildings in early Virginia, followed by extensive notes that reflect the depth and rigor of this historical study. It is a tribute to Lounsbury that such impressively scholarly work is also such an engaging and fascinating book to read.
—Peter Walpole

No Taint of Compromise: Crusaders in American Politics, by Frederick J. Blue. LSU, January 2005. $54.95
Blue has written a book that should interest not only the academic but also the general reader who seeks to understand the passions that led to the American Civil War. Focusing on eleven lesser-known antislavery activists/politicians, the author makes use of an approach that will please those who like biography and lament its long absence from historical studies even as it may strike others as old-fashioned. Though those he profiles are hardly obscure, they are distinctly of a second rank in terms of fame. William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Elijah Lovejoy are mentioned in passing, of course, but it is precisely the choice to look deeper that gives this book its richness. The debates over the Fugitive Slave Act that made up part of the Compromise of 1850, “containment” or abolition of slavery, and purity or pragmatism all appear here. As the Liberty Party was succeeded by the more flexible Free Soilers and then by the brand-new Republican Party, one is taken through the passionate events that tore the still young country apart. The cast of characters is nothing if not varied. Quakers like John Greenleaf Whittier, free blacks like Charles Langston, spirited women such as Jessie Benton Fremont, and dissenting Democrats like David Wilmot receive close attention. By examining the lives and inner debates of figures like these, Blue gives his readers a sense of why, to them at least, it was indeed an “irreconcilable conflict.”
—Lou Tanner

The Languages of Political Islam: India 1200–1800, by Muzaffar Alam. Chicago, January 2005. $25
Muzaffar Alam’s latest contribution to the history of medieval South Asia presents a refreshing view of the politics of language in the subcontinent. It also engages the history of political Islam as fundamentally shaped by historical and cultural interactions. Long before debates about Hindi, Urdu, religion, identity, and the nation-state began to be used to draw bloody borders, Persian (Farsi) rose and fell as the language of government and of elite discussion in what is now India. Alam draws attention to the role of language in relations between Muslim rulers of Central Asian origin and a largely non-Muslim populace. He argues that the triumph of Persian as the elite lingua franca had lasting significance for relations between the ruler and the ruled. Through the medium of Persian, Sufis and rulers in India, who actively sought to come to terms with established religious practices of the subcontinent in relation to their practice of Islam, introduced new debates in the eastern Islamic world about right faith and right practice. Alam’s account paints a picture of Muslims engaged in a struggle to maintain power and promote their faith by engaging the local as a challenge to their worldview. Alam’s deployment of Persian sources makes The Languages of Political Islam a fascinating window into one of South Asia’s most creative historical periods.
—Holly Donahue

Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, by Isabel V. Hull. Cornell, January 2005. $45
Military culture—a phrase defined by Isabel Hull as “the unexamined assumptions and institutional habits of the military [that explain] why an army acts the way it does in war”—is shaped by an army’s historical experiences, access to resources, societal standing, and the task of “exercising violence.” Hull finds the origins of German military culture in the wars against Austria in 1866 and France in 1870–71 (although neither gets much coverage), but the destruction of the Herero people of Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) in 1904–1907 serves as the template. There, the eschewing of strategy for tactics, the singular focus on battles of annihilation, and an emphasis on the will to victory while ignoring the tyranny of logistics, intertwined to propel the army toward “dysfunctional extremes of violence.” German military culture found its exemplification in World War I. Self-isolated from outside influences (the Reichstag, public opinion) that might have led it to rethink assumptions or consider alternatives, the army focused on things it could control: detailed planning (the Schlieffen Plan of 1914) and tactical innovations (stormtroop tactics of 1918) that would somehow overcome inadequate resources and failed strategy. Defeat was seemingly preordained. Hull deftly integrates organizational theory, military history, and sociological insights to show clearly why German soldiers’ actions appeared rational even as they undermined the ostensible goals for which they were fighting. Hull does not push her argument much beyond the chronological parameters of the 2nd Reich, but its contemporary relevance is nevertheless suggestive and deliberate.
—Richard Meixsel

The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733–1748, edited by Edith B. Gelles. Yale, January 2005. $35.
This book is to all intents and purposes a reprint of the Letters of the Franks Family, edited by Leo Hershkowitz and Isidore S. Meyer, published in 1968 by the American Jewish Historical Society. Gelles has punctuated the letters and edited and eliminated some of the extensive annotation, but otherwise, the transcriptions (and even the editorial method) remain the same. Gelles’s main contribution is a new introduction, which places Abigaill Franks in the context of colonial New York society and the tiny Jewish community of New York City. Franks, the wife of a merchant, straddled two worlds. She traveled in the circle of elite New Yorkers, the governor and his court as well as the great merchant families, and she and her husband were members of the small but vibrant Jewish community. These thirty-five letters, written to her son Naphtali in London, offer a unique perspective on that world. Her unpretentious, irreverent, and outspoken views on people and politics in these letters are a delight for the reader. And, as Gelles points out, some of Franks’s concerns have a distinctly modern ring, especially her grief at the marriage of her daughter, Phila, out of the faith. Read as a window into colonial life or as the timeless concerns of an affectionate mother, these letters will never lose their ability to charm and to educate.
—David B. Mattern

The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism, by Thomas S. Kidd. Yale, January 2005. $40
The Protestant Interest is a genealogy of American Puritanism, and it seeks to answer the question: How did the Puritanism of seventeenth-century New England—which was isolationist, specifically English, yet distrustful of transatlantic connections with Britain, and focused primarily inwardly on building its holy commonwealth—become eighteenth century New England Evangelicalism—which was internationalist in outlook and revivalist in character, focused on its missionary enterprise of converting the lost? Kidd sees the answer in something he identifies as the “Protestant interest”—a growing worldview which bridges the gap between Puritanism and Evangelicalism in New England, and was the outgrowth, as he explains, of a complex of factors: “The political and military necessities after 1869, the sense of participating in an ongoing war for the fate of Christianity with Catholic foes, and the ways that print allowed elite New Englanders to imagine themselves part of an international Protestant community all led to an identification with the Protestant interest, a beleaguered but faithful world community of Christians reformed from the corruptions of Catholicism.” Kidd fleshes out this summary by examining a variety of subjects in British and American politics, literary culture, and New England’s theological development to argue his case. While not inspiring, his arguments are cogent and persuasive, and help to explain a transitional stage in the theological culture in New England.
—Alex Kish

Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison, by Richard N. Côté. Corinthian Books, January 2005. $29.95
This biography is a testament to both the assiduous scholarship of the author and the research and archiving accomplishments of the University of Virginia’s James Madison Project. Through the University, Côté had access to some two thousand letters, both to and from Dolley Madison—material not previously available to many authors who have written about this most memorable of America’s First Ladies. These letters have enabled Côté to present a detailed and intimate portrait of Dolley Payne Todd Madison’s private life and personal relationships. Much has been written about Dolley’s public life as the supportive wife of America’s fourth president, and of her public image as an exceptional hostess, fashion-setting socialite, and heroine of the War of 1812. Now, Côté integrates the private and public aspects of Dolley’s life into an engaging portrayal of a highly intelligent and adaptive woman whose capability for achievement was founded not on her marriage to James Madison, Jr., but rather on her Quaker heritage and natural talents. Côté asserts: “The classless structure of Quaker society permitted Dolley to gain the social self-confidence that would become a cornerstone of her personality.” Her self-confidence and zest for life seldom wavered, even as she dealt with a siege of sudden deaths of kin, ill health, war, slander, incessant demands on personal time and resources, financial ruin, and the ingratitude—in her old age—of many who had partaken of her hospitality and generosity when she was the most acclaimed and best loved woman in America. Côté’s narrative is rich in descriptions of the food, dress, housing and furnishings, society, and political machinations of Dolley’s time. But I found the intimacy of Dolley’s letters, the personal confidences she expresses to relatives and friends, to be most informative and entreating. A story of distress runs parallel with the dazzle of an exciting life. This is a must-read book for those who would know the private Dolley Madison who has been hidden behind the public iconic figure.
—Ed Imhoff

Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy, edited by Benedetto Fontana, Cary Nederman and Gary Remer. Penn State, December 2004. $55
First a disclaimer: I’m not a specialist in political theory and had to work my way fairly slowly through many of the essays in this book. The introduction provides a helpful overview of theories of democracy and legitimacy, ending with a discussion of two contemporary bodies of thought: “civic republicanism” and “deliberative democracy.” The essays in the volume engage the latter, bringing classical works of political theory, written by a range of (generally well-known) theorists—Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Cicero, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu, J. S. Mill, among a few lesser-known—to bear on the question of democratic “deliberation.” Most of the essays in this book contend that theorists of deliberative democracy have not thought carefully enough about the process of deliberation. The “talking” in the title is somewhat misleading since the essays are as much about analyzing the thinking and motivations of citizens engaged in democratic practice as they are about the communication itself. Many of the writers try to recuperate a concept of “rhetoric” as best suited to the messy realities of actual democracies in which persuasion and deliberation, feeling and thought shade into one another. Some of the essays seemed largely of interest to a specialist because the works of the theorists seemed relatively remote from contemporary concerns; other essays were more convincing to the uninitiated in proving how theoretical concepts might illuminate contemporary democratic practices.
—Heather Morton

Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction, by Michele Mitchell. North Carolina, December 2004. $59.95
The final decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth were among the most harrowing in the history of the black experience in America. Beset by virulent new forms of racism, threatened with physical violence and political disfranchisement, and alarmed by reports about black infant mortality and declining fertility, African Americans on every rung of the socio-economic ladder searched for ways to improve their lives and ensure the “survival of the race” (in their terms). Michele Mitchell’s insightful and humane new book creatively explores these efforts, both those which looked outward and those which concentrated on improving the race from within. Mitchell’s first chapters examine the outward impulses of emigration and imperialism (particularly emigration to the African nation of Liberia), which seemed to many blacks like excellent strategies for improving their lives and certifying the “manhood” of their race. By drawing on letters to the American Colonization Society seeking assistance in relocating to Africa, Mitchell gives poignant voice to the otherwise forgotten hopes and fears of many poor African Americans. Her chapter on “the black man’s burden” shows how some black men participated in the spirit and the projects of American imperialism in order to refute racist claims about their inferior manhood. The remainder of the book continues this close focus on gender and sexuality even as it turns to the persistent and varied efforts of a black “aspiring class” to improve their race from within and thereby safeguard it from evolutionary annihilation. Mitchell describes campaigns to improve housing, regulate home life and sexual activity, and popularize black dolls. She also shows that such campaigns sometimes produced class tensions within the black community, as people disagreed over proper behaviors and how to improve the fortunes of the race. Though Mitchell is most interested in the drive for racial self-improvement, this is very much a book about the social construction of race as well. Mitchell shows how elite, post-emancipation African Americans borrowed the concept of “racial destiny,” developed by white thinkers during the antebellum years, and used it to talk about the common fate of black people and vitalize their struggle for mutual support and racial uplift. This understanding of race differed from contemporary scientific claims about the permanent biological inferiority of African-descended peoples. Many blacks viewed themselves as a collective not only with respect to their past but also to their future, and they struggled against the destructive hierarchies which we now see were inherent in the idea of race itself. Beautifully written and entering sympathetically into the painful quandaries and dilemmas of its subjects, this is an admirable and important book.
—Andrew Witmer

Scandal at Bizarre, by Cynthia A. Kierner. Palgrave, December 2004. $26.95
When a lovely woman stoops to folly and fails to heed Oliver Goldsmith’s suggestion to die, what does become of her? In one eighteenth-century Virginia case, she goes on to marry a wealthy and prominent New Yorker and live reasonably happily ever after. In this history of an incident that took place not at Bizarre but at Glentivar in Cumberland County, Kierner examines one of Virginia’s most shocking scandals, involving members of many of Virginia’s prominent families, first and foremost the Randolphs, the multitudinous and dysfunctional clan to which most of the participants belonged.

In 1792, Richard Randolph, his wife Judith, his brother Theodorick, and Theodorick’s fiancée Nancy Randolph, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, were living together at Bizarre plantation in southern Cumberland County, Virginia. The women were sisters, the daughters of Thomas Mann Randolph, Martha Jefferson Randolph’s father-in-law. After Theodorick’s death in February 1792, Nancy appeared to be pregnant, an unfortunate position for an elite young lady without a fiancé to rescue her from public disgrace. In October 1792 the surviving trio and Richard’s younger brother John, later the Republican Congressman, visited Glentivar, the home of their cousins, Randolph and Mary Harrison. During the night, screams rang out, feet tramped up and down stairs, much activity occurred and none of the white residents seemed aware of anything more untoward than Nancy’s cramps and “cholic.” The slaves, however, told a different tale, one involving a dead infant abandoned on a wooden shingle, one which led to Richard Randolph’s trial for murder in April 1793, to an estrangement between the sisters, and to Nancy’s eventual flight from Virginia to New York. While the world at large saw Richard as the villain in the piece, even after his acquittal by the court, after Richard’s death in 1796, John blamed Nancy for it all and pursued her like an avenging fury, going so far as to write in 1814 to her husband Gouverneur Morris to suggest that Nancy had poisoned Richard, slept with a slave, and lived by prostituting herself in Richmond, all of which Morris ignored. On his death he named her executor of his estate and guardian of their young son. As her Virginia connections sank into genteel poverty and decay, Nancy thrived as a wealthy and respectable widow and a devoted mother. While Kierner has not solved the mystery of exactly what happened that night at Glentivar, a perhaps impossible task, she has produced an intensely researched and eminently readable book describing a very juicy scandal, analyzing the culture and society in which it took place, and exploring why a story told by slaves had such an impact on elite society.
—Mary Hackett

Juan Soldado: Rapist, Murderer, Martyr, Saint, by Paul J. Vanderwood. Duke, December 2004. $22.95
In a number of books and articles written over the course of three decades, historian Paul Vanderwood has narrated and analyzed the causes and consequences of violence in Mexico. In his latest work he turns to the case of Juan Castillo Morales, who after execution in Tijuana in 1938 for the rape-murder of eight-year-old Olga Camacho, almost immediately became a folk saint known as Juan Soldado. Vanderwood’s purpose is to examine the processes by which a rapist-murderer became a martyred saint. To do so he works through the changing circumstances and the repertory of beliefs of those along the border who chose to venerate the folk saint. Vanderwood treats the subject with respect, both for the parents of the little girl who continue to bear the brunt of her loss and despair at her murderer’s conversion into a religious icon, and for the faithful who find themselves praying to Juan Soldado as they struggle with life along the U.S.-Mexico border. The case of Juan Soldado proves that the border should not be dismissed simply because it sits between two nation-states. Rather, it has its own history, traditions, and peculiarities, which must be examined if they are to be understood. The rich material yielded by analyzing Castillo Morales’ iconization and Vanderwood’s own felicitous prose combine to produce a compelling twentieth-century history of the U.S.–Mexican border.
—Patrick Timmons

 

LITERARY STUDIES

The Correspondence of William James, Volume 12: April 1908–August 1910, edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. Virginia, January 2005. $95
The study of philosophy occupied the last quarter of William James’s sixty-eight years. Plagued with illness in his first three decades, he embraced art, then in succession chemistry, physiology, and medicine. Appointments in medicine then natural history at Harvard were quickly abandoned in favor of European tours before he finally married and settled into a thirty year academic career, the first half of which was devoted to the development of psychology, the second to nourishing his other great intellectual offspring, pragmatism. Completing the splendidly edited 31 volumes of James’s works and letters, the correspondence in this volume covers the final twenty-eight months of his life, excluding the abundant previously published letters exchange with brother Henry. These final months were complicated by angina and progressive heart failure but were far from unproductive. A large portion of the most interesting correspondence in this volume concerns James’s A Pluralist Universe. The greater or lesser luminaries who participate show a remarkable lack of consensus concerning the meaning and importance of this final work. James’s return letters provide considerable clarification of his views on what has often been the final foray of philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists, human consciousness and its relationship to perception, thought, logic, and “truth.” With his correspondents he argues the relationship of reality to ideas, experience to logic, perception to thought and “truth.” In other letters we learn a considerable amount about James’s working habits and response to chronic debilitating pain and his own (and brother Henry’s) approaching mortality. We also learn of his various charities, white lies, and reformist approach to mental health. In this period he had his famous meeting with Freud and Jung at Worcester and we learn of his rejection of the Freudian concepts James viewed as unhelpful “fixed ideas.” He also spars with Henry Adams over the nature of historical determinism and with Bertrand Russell over the nature of truth. James displays a taxing expenditure of energy in support of Julius Goldstein’s efforts to emasculate the rising cult of racialism. William James has not occupied a place among the first, or even the second tier of great philosophers, although his ranking has enjoyed a steady rise in the last few decades. These 31 superb volumes now constitute the major exhibit for the defense at the bar of history’s determination of the importance of this restless polymath in the history of ideas. They also constitute a fascinating opportunity to study at close range a remarkable man, his work, family, colleagues and causes, friends and enemies. Many interesting souls are laid bare in these remarkable letters.
—Robert S. Rust

Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form, by David Caplan. Oxford, December 2004. $35
Poetic discourse in the century past was taken up disproportionately by what David Caplan, in this excellent book, calls “the prosody wars.” Confronting the evident fragmentation and violence of modern life, a certain body of poets, editors, and critics came to believe that to write verse in formal structures was so conservative, so reactionary even, as to be poetically beyond the pale. At the same time, there remained in the minds and hearts of many the belief that verse written within the traditions of meter and rhyme was still a viable, indeed a compelling, creative option; further, there was the suspicion that free verse was simply too easy, somehow “playing tennis without a net,” in Robert Frost’s famous observation. Certainly (and now I am entering the fray) it seems that bad formal verse is rather easier to spot, with the result that a certain large amount of dreadful free verse has been foisted upon the reading public over the decades.

Caplan has the eminently reasonable idea of seeing what it is that poets are actually doing with poetic form. In Questions of Possibility he explores how poets, within the unavoidable environment of the prosody wars, have been drawn to the richness of traditional verse forms in order to explore particular themes and issues. Writing on the sestina, the ghazal, the love sonnet, the heroic couplet, and the ballad, Caplan offers a contemporary history of form and readings of individual poems that shows the potential for vibrancy and simple functional use that many working poets find in conventional forms. His best example of the kinds of twists and turns that a formal poem can take comes early when he discusses the history of Claude McKay’s powerful sonnet “If We Must Die.” Written in 1919 in response to race riots, the poem “expressed black rage forcefully enough for government officials to denounce it. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. read it into the Congressional Record as a dangerous example of what he called ‘Negro extremism.’” A generation later, Winston Churchill used MacKay’s poem as a rallying cry for British resolve during World War II; millions of school children memorized it. A generation later, prisoners in Attica, leading up to the largest prison rebellion in American history, circulated it along with banned books by Malcolm X. All this from a sonnet—a verse form that T.S. Eliot, Caplan notes, deemed a dying form at the very time “If We Must Die” was composed. Drawing from the works of Adrienne Rich, Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney, among others, Caplan has written a book that working poets and serious readers of poetry alike will find of great value.
—Peter Walpole

On Literature, by Umberto Eco. Translated by Martin McLaughlin. Harcourt, December 2004. $26
Umberto Eco remains one of our most provocative writers, and the more you know about the subjects he writes on, the more you glimpse how deeply playful he can be. His only rival in our time would be Borges, who influenced him profoundly. This collection of reprinted but rewritten essays belies the title of the book, for the content transcends literature. Unfortunately for Americans, much of the literature he does discuss will prove unfamiliar, but he writes with such lucidity and charm that even obscure essays have veins of profit in them. In the central essay, “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” he distinguishes types of influencing in general and on himself, and concludes: “Compared with Borges’s divine melodies, so instantly singable (even when they are atonal), memorable, and exemplary, I feel as if I blow into an ocarina.” Notice how that sentence keeps stretching and then delivers its modesty topos with a wink. The final essay, and the most interesting, “How I Write,” tells just that. Eco steps us through his own composition process, mostly through the novels. We learn that his fiction is not left-handed work by a master essayist and theorist, but explorations of narrative from the inside. Surprisingly, he does extensive research, using drawing as a tool for his visual imagination. I wrote that way too, and other writers will share my shock at learning that our cranky ways were not unique.
—Don Fry

Seekers of Scenery: Travel Writings from Southern Appalachia, 1840–1900, edited by Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth. Tennessee, December 2004. $42
This fascinating little collection of travel literature from the late nineteenth century is a welcome addition to the library of works on Appalachia. Unlike many books about the Southern mountains, it focuses primarily on those sections that lie within North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Though industrialization does play a significant role in some of the offerings, it does not play the dominant role it does in works dealing with the coal mining and lumbering booms further north in Kentucky and West Virginia. The selections are gentler, preferring to depict the picturesque ways of the inhabitants, those anthropological curiosities America was then in the process of rediscovering. Magazines like Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly fed and thereby further stimulated a seemingly insatiable appetite for local stories about the quaint “natives.” Babbitry, condescension, and missionary zeal can be found in several of these excerpts. This is most definitely not a study “from the ground up.” Nevertheless, for anyone who enjoys the frequently dated perceptions to be found in works written in earlier times, this is precisely the appeal of such collections. Nature lovers, botanists, early hiking enthusiasts, and devotees of the Christian “uplift movement” found what they wanted to find. Beautiful mountain scenery, nobly savage but also kindly inhabitants, moonshiners, and enough human shortcomings to give improvers plenty of room for hope were in abundance. More revealing, however, is what these writings say about the authors themselves and the times in which they lived and wrote. The book is wonderfully illustrated with countless engravings from the era. A very good read for anyone who loves Appalachia, real or imagined.
—Lou Tanner

The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, edited by Robin Lane Fox. Yale, December 2004. $45
Robin Fox has performed an important service in focusing the considerations of a dozen leading scholars (including himself) on a wide range of interesting aspects of Xenophon’s famous work. These include the social, political, and geographic run-up to the disaster at Cunaxa, the route and timing of the ensuing “Long March,” and the social and political aspects of the Achmaenid Empire and other regions and peoples encountered by the ten thousand. Close consideration is given to the reasons that Xenophon wrote this work. Comparison with the sad remains of other contemporary sources (and their echoes in later works) shows us what he chose to say, what he omitted and what he may have distorted. Particularly interesting chapters consider what can be learned in Xenophon about Greek politics during and after the time of the march, as well as to religion and piety, and Greek ideas concerning gender, sexual appetites and practices. The Ten Thousand receive a careful inspection as a fighting force and as a moving polis. The sociopolitical evolution of Greece and Grecians during this critical epoch, from internecine war to pan-Hellenism, is frequently touched upon. Scarcely any available source has been overlooked, from ancient times to the present, including post Xenophontic travel writers down to modern times, even the novelist Rose Macauley. Botanists, and their valuable insight into what may be learned concerning the famous “poison honey” encountered by Xenophon and his men are not neglected. Each chapter has a splendid flavor, particularly the personal and wide-ranging appreciations provided by the distinguished scholars George Cawkwell and Thomas Braun. Differing points of view abound, although there is a considerable degree of consensus. None of these experts are fooled by Xenophon’s graceful, comparatively easy, and accessible prose, nor are they dismissive of the great importance of this work. It becomes clear that, as with Caesar’s Gallic War, the excellences of Xenophon’s long march may be thrown away as a learning tool for beginning students of classical languages—unless of course teachers succeed in inspiring appreciation and love for this work as did those who taught Cawkwell or Braun half a century ago. In addition to what may be learned about the history and the sometimes deceptive art of the historian, there are timeless lessons here concerning the individuals and their societies: ambitions, sense of identity, rules of engagement, and behavior during times of adversity. Not so much dust has settled on these pages after two and a half millennia.
—Robert S. Rust

 

FICTION

Ask Me Anything, by Francesca Delbanco. Norton, February 2005. $13.95
“It goes without saying that stories like this end in a different place than they begin,” acknowledges Rosalie Preston, twenty-something heroine of Francesca Delbanco’s debut novel, Ask Me Anything, “If I’d only paid more attention to that horrid Education of Henry Adams book I was forced to read twice in college, I would have known that mine was the self-assurance of someone whose education had yet to begin.” Set in the concrete paradise of New York City, Ask Me Anything is a kind of metropolitan bildungsroman, a coming-of-age chronicle for the post-baccalaureate generation experiencing the anxieties that accompany adulthood. Surrounded by her urban family, a band of aspiring bards known as the First Born Company, Rosalie, a reluctant advice columnist by day and struggling stage actress by night, walks a tightrope of recklessness and responsibility: to atone for her clandestine affair with the affluent father of her friend and First Born’s patron diva, she reads the classics at a center for senior citizens several times a week. Delbanco’s candid, often spicy prose imagines a heroine—think Elizabeth Bennett with a dash of Carrie Bradshaw—poised to conquer her brave, post-Harvard world: “Think of all the brave people, thousands of them throughout history, who set sail for Virginia without knowing what to expect. The promise of freedom and independence was enough to make them turn their backs on home and embrace what amounted to an uncharted wilderness. If they could do it, and on those fragile storm-tossed ships, I could do, too.” Deliciously entertaining and astute, this education of Rosalie Preston merits a spot on any reader’s syllabus.
—Tiffany N. Gilbert

The Complete History of New Mexico: Stories, by Kevin McIlvoy. Graywolf, January 2005. $15
This collection of stories is more aptly a novel told in stories, rather than a collection of separate pieces. While all the stories are coherent as individual units, characters and themes weave in and out of the discreet narratives. Each new story develops a character whose narrative we thought was complete, or at least as complete as we were going to see it. The reticent son from “The Rhino in the Barn” comes back to tell his tale in the next story, “Maraschinos.” Not only are stories linked through characters, but also thematically: the narrator from “Been So Good to Me” tells his story through the lyrics that are playing on the tape deck as he is driving his friend to El Paso International Airport, at the end of their friendship. Then, in the next story, “Make it sound like a train,” a guitar teacher tries to teach his female student the blues. All the stories do have an overriding, unifying theme: love.

While adventurous, the arrangement of the stories works very well for McIlvoy. McIlvoy’s clear style that obscures details from the reader, not through lack of clarity, but through precise control of language that invokes the characters’ limited perspectives, enlivens this whole collection. The reader is drawn along on the rapidly flowing prose. This collection is well worth the read, both for McIlvoy’s style, and his was of piecing together a global narrative from individual interconnecting narratives.
—Neal Barber

Loop Group, by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster, December 2004. $25
Larry McMurtry won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove. That fact alone gave me high hopes for his new novel Loop Group. However, this book disappoints in many ways. Maggie and Connie, the two main characters in the story, are nothing like any flesh and blood women I’ve ever met. Are there women in their sixties who are so crass, appearance-oriented, sex-driven, and drug and alcohol-dependent? Okay, the novel is set in Hollywood, so maybe I’m naïve. Even so, if people like these two do exist, I’m loathe to spend two hundred and forty pages with them.

McMurtry also attempts to adopt a colloquial style by using phrases like “kind of” and “sort of.” The result is not a familiar tone, but instead clunky and tedious prose. And the plot? Let’s just say that if this book were a movie, I’d have been looking for an excuse to leave in the middle. Much of the novel is the description of a road trip to Aunt Cooney’s chicken farm in Electric, Texas. The only spark of excitement is the appearance of Old Pinto (a.k.a. Jiminy), a Native American car thief. Even that fizzles. The geezer attempts to make off with Maggie’s van, only to be captured instantly by the police. The scene ends anticlimactically, with Old Pinto’s daughter-in-law on her way to pick him up.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Maggie filled with despair and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Not much changes. By the end of the story, McMurtry describes Maggie as spiraling out of control, flying apart and descending into panic all in one paragraph. Maggie covers a lot of miles on her journey. But, the truth is, neither she nor the reader gets very far.
—Deborah M. Prum

 

POETRY

Fallen from a Chariot, by Kevin Prufer. Carnegie Mellon, April 2005. $24.95 cloth, $13.95 paper
The Sack of Rome might be taking place in Lower Manhattan, and Kevin Prufer applies the fall of that empire to the reader’s world. His subject is wreckage, whether of automobiles or urban life. When past and present conflate, the resonance is painful. Is it possible any longer to use the image of a burning city in a poem without calling up September 11? Exactness, rightness of image, phrase, word, and line inform the lyric voice at the heart of poems such as “Claudius Adrift,” where a protean contemporary speaker, shifting into the emperor’s voice, says, “And one by one, the windows / grinned into flame. The library swayed on its pillars, groaned / as the roof fell through into glitter and cloud. / / I have always loved the grand moment, / the great, abstracted / dying off, when the city collapses and trees blaze.” The book’s themes accrue, concluding with a stunning and image that unmistakably refers to the present: “People kept leaping out of windows. / / The air was full of businessmen, / their red ties streaming behind their necks.”
—Karen Kevorkian

Overlord: Poems, by Jorie Graham. Ecco, March 2005. $22.95
This is a difficult, fragmented set of poems from a brilliant, sensitive, searching mind. Graham is struggling with questions of war, suffering, death, and history, writing from the beach in Normandy, wrestling with the history of Operation Overlord, the military’s code name for the D-Day invasion. What fascinates me most in these poems is how the voice and tone of the poems shifts as Graham moves from her own struggles with finding a workable sense of self grounded in the present, to the intense clarity of the poems that express the lives of the soldiers of Normandy. Here are some lines from “Upon Emergence”: “ Have I that to which to devote my / self? Have I devotion? The shoes, the / clothes? The drowning of appetites, as the chariots / were drowned?” and then: “We live in time. It is a / holiday. All around it timelessness which will begin again, / yet still, for now, sticks to one time like remnant rain.” Located so precariously in time, she records various attempts to pray, as in “Praying (Attempt of May 9, ’03)”: “I don’t know where to start. I don’t think my face / in my hands is right. . . . I know I know nothing. I know I / can’t use you like this. It feels better if I’m on my knees . . . Please show me mercy. No please show / a way.” Again and again her voice shifts, her confidence seeming all but non-existent, pleading, searching, suggesting ideas and rejecting them outright. As she writes in “Praying (Attempt of Feb 6 ’04)” “Whom I stand-in for is not clear.”

Then, in a three poem sequence, each entitled “Spoken from the Hedgerows,” Graham, working from histories of the D-Day invasion, gives voice to the individual soldiers of the Normandy invasion. Everything slows down, becomes direct, precise, brutally lucid: “Gliding. Miles of silence. More. / Unknown to us release point / turns out to be directly over enemy strongpoint. / The tow alone takes 600 rounds. / We have neither darkness nor surprise to help us. / Shrapnel lacerates the canvas skins. / Equipment tears into bodies. / If a man jumps to the aid of his fellow / he unbalances the already wobbly craft.” For those who lived through the day (and of course, by extension, for those who did not) there was no greater certainty than the unity of the soldiers: “At its heart comradeship is an ecstasy. / You will die for an other. You will not consider it a personal / loss. . . . a man literally insists / on going hungry for another. A man insists on dying for / an other. . . . A last piece / of bread. And gladly. You must understand what is meant by / gladly.” Perhaps the key to this collection of poems is the distinction between Graham’s restless, relentless search for meaning, and the powerful, devastating certainty of the word “gladly” in “Spoken from the Hedgerows.”
—Peter Walpole

Campo Santo, by W. G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell. Random House, March 2005. $24.95
Although a posthumous collection of previously published essays and reviews, these are not scraps from the master’s table. In writing about Kafka, Nabokov, Bruce Chatwin, and postwar German writers familiar and unfamiliar, Sebald lucidly sets forth his esthetic preoccupations and their integration with his moral perception. As in his uniquely conceived novels, he explores how the topography of destruction calls for a prose that is free of estheticized elements, is dispassionate, and passes on objective information. In the review of Nabokov he writes that in well-chosen detail the past is evoked, “attended by that claritas which . . . has always been the sign of a true epiphany.” “To set something so beautiful in motion . . . no gaudy show is necessary, only a tiny spiritual movement which releases the ideas that are shut inside our heads . . . letting them out into a universe where, as in a good sentence, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.”

The morality of this act of scrutiny is that it admits the past into the present, allows the risk of remembering and its attendant responsibility. Finally, “Nothing is left but looking, an obsession in which real time is suspended while, as we sometimes feel in dreams, the dead, the living, and the still unborn come together on the same plane.”
—Karen Kevorkian

Two and Two, by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh, March 2005. $12.95
The instability of language provides the content for much of Duhamel’s work. She revels in the effects of language’s misapplications and the funk emanating from our often odd encounters with it. Most of her poems are substantial acts of incorporation, from, for example, e-mails exchanged the day the Twin Towers fell, the mistranslation of subtitles for Hong Kong films, and a dictionary of American slang. Continuing the contemporary poetic project of fragmentation and disassociation, her poems often have an accessible playfulness. She gestures toward the discredited subjectivity of the eighties in a long poem of 1001 numbered sentiments (excerpted), each line beginning with “I feel.” Its lines veer from the silly (“I feel open to making a Play-Doh Garcia Lorca”) to the witty (“I feel open to the t-shirt in Miami promoting the Pope’s visit. Instead of ‘I saw the Pope’ (el Papa), the shirt read ‘I saw the Potato (la papa)’”). While she can be arch, more often she pleases with her distinctive appreciation of language as theatrical spectacle, where meaning is ever conflating, slipping away, and contingent. She’s smart enough to be positioned with those for whom a poem is more linguistic act than lyric, knowing that in the end it’s her pleasures in the text that seduce.
—Karen Kevorkian

Drunken Sailor, by John Montague. Wake Forest, January 2005. $11.95
I confess I did not know John Montague’s work. I opened Drunken Sailor randomly, to the poem “Clabber: the Poet at Three Years.” “‘That’s clabber! Clutching clabber / sucks caddies down,’ said my father harshly / while I was stomping happily / in the ditch on the side of the road.” The good, rich music, the internal rhymes, the strong regional flavor, both distant and immediate, won my heart. The book is, quite simply, magnificent.

Montague was born in Brooklyn but raised in Ulster. Montague is in his seventies now: Drunken Sailor is a love song to the rocky Irish coastal villages of his youth, and a meditation on approaching death. It is difficult to do justice to the breadth, the texture, the pure language of these poems in a short review. The poems are mostly in free verse, but Montague moves on the edge of formal verse, employing rhymes just enough to give the poems a quality of longing. He recounts old stories, memories from childhood in poems like “The Hag’s Cove” and “The Absent Limb,” along with more contemporary reflections to give the collection its deep sense of moving across time. Always though it is the beauty of Montague’s language that makes his themes so powerful. From the opening of “Letter Valley”: “The gate scringes upon its hollowed stone. / I feel I have stumbled back into my own: / old men brooding before a metal hearth, / women bustling between pantry and oilcloth, / a moon-faced wall clock and display of delph, / the girlish gravitas of the Virgin on her shelf. / A long way round to curve near home again.”

The poems here express a religious longing as well, seen from a slight distance of time or culture. In “West Cork Annunciation,” which may be Montague at his very best, the narrator is visiting an old couple, watching television, when “the Angelus sounds through the room. / Silently responding to its measured boom / Mary Kate interrupts our rambling talk / to bless herself, while Jackie doffs the big cap.” The poet reflects how “their world will have gone before they do,” as the television glows with images from the modern, outside world. The prayers done, “. . . Mary Kate sighs, / thinking of something she can do for others, / tea to wet or a whiskey glass to proffer; / She creaks across the room like a sailing ship. / And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

Montague writes poems of healing, and yet he does so in part by writing about death and decay with a clear eye and a surprisingly open heart. The drunken sailor of the title comes from the early poem “Hag’s Cove,” and tells of a captain of ship who, drunk, drove his vessel onto rocks, where it was ““slowly smashed into smithereens.” Montague goes on: “To allow oneself to be swallowed again, / repossessed by nature’s thick sweetness / . . . to be smashed on the rocks, / broken down and built again / clutching at the intimate softness / of tough reed, brave flower, / swaying at the cliff’s edge, / like the mind on its fraying tether; what shall we do with this drunken sailor / early in the morning?”

There are overt echoes of Yeats in Montague’s work, and echoes of Seamus Heaney as well, as their subject matter occasionally overlaps. Montague’s work clearly needs to be read and considered as the equal of Heaney in power, richness, and craft.
—Peter Walpole

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Charles Martin. Norton, January 2005. $17.95
Though often obscured by the shadows of “greater” classical epics like Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, there can be no denying the grand pomp and circumstance of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Indeed, the epic poem is a veritable Who’sWho of Greek mythology: the gorgon Medusa with her serpentine locks, King Midas with his powerful (and damning) touch of gold, and the oral operas of Orpheus to name just a few. The poet Charles Martin’s engrossing new translation of Metamorphoses displays the epic of origins as a fast-flowing river of stories that interconnect or branch off into numerous tributaries and creeks. As with any modern translation of a classical text, Mr. Martin allows himself some breathing room for polite experimentation: the song of the Pierides in Book V is intended to be read in “the diction and meter of contemporary rap” and each chapter contains subtitles that, while informative, subtly interrupt the constant stream of storytelling. Casual and curious readers might embrace these modern flirtations more than staunch classical scholars. The numerous transformations and titular metamorphoses throughout the poem become the Hollywood-esque spectacles they are no doubt intended to be, while the cheating and backstabbing gods come to illustrate the primal flaws of human emotion. More than that is the level of brute violence that surfaces in Mr.

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