Homeland, by Dale Maharidge. Photography by Michael Williamson. Seven Stories, July 2004. $24.95
This is a country that is afraid, angry, and divided, warns journalist Maharidge after speaking with and listening to hundreds of people in towns small and large in post-9/11 America. He reports finding two countries: one “living as if the 1990s boom would never cease” and the other “languishing as if locked in the 1930s Great Depression time warp.” Maharidge, who earned a Pulitzer in 1990 for And Their Children After Them, contends that the terror of 9/11 did not generate but rather amplified social unrest that has been building for thirty years as “an array of bankers, politicians, lawyers, and business titans gamed the system against ordinary Americans [whose rage] waited to be harvested in dark ways, by someone, something, some event.” He charges that, in post-9/11 America, this rage is being harvested and redirected by radical extremists into verbal, and sometimes physical, attacks on Arab Americans, non-Christians, immigrants, liberals, and especially anyone who speaks out against a “nationalistic” fever mounting in the U.S. Being united and patriotic, Maharidge asserts, has come to mean not talking to certain people, not challenging authority, not admitting that a lot of Americans are poor, underemployed, and uninsured—with little hope for a better future. Maharidge avows having a deep personal investment in this book; in places he expresses this as personal opinion inserted to interpret field case studies. I found these insertions to disrupt the flow of the reporting and to preempt my own concluding. Maharidge is most effective as a writer—indeed, powerful—in an emotional endnote to Homeland, in which he labels and separates his personal views. Readers’ reactions to Homeland are likely to be as divided and as polarized as the national mood depicted by the author. The listing of social and economic ills is long, and the naming of contributing agents is specific. Wherever the reader falls out on the spectrum of agree/disagree with this work, there remain those facts the author documents—e.g., 338 white nationalist groups in the Midwest and hundreds of talk radio stations nationwide fomenting hate. There are those facts and, in 38 remarkable photos, faces I kept mulling over when it would have been comfortable to close the book and turn to a lighter, happier topic.
The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Penguin, May 2004. $25.95
Although the primary aim of this book is to provide a window into the American political system for Europeans, it also provides a pretty accurate mirror for Americans who may be puzzled by their own politics, government, and foreign policies. The Europeans may be more united than Americans in their dislike for President George W. Bush, and they may think that he is an anomaly, but the authors take the view that he is more representative of America than Europeans understand.
The authors, both of whom are U.S. correspondents for the highly regarded English magazine the Economist, assert that America is socially and politically to the right of all other industrialized countries. In this sprightly, well-researched, and provocatively written combination of comparative political science and hot-off-the-press journalism, the authors assert that President Bush is not so much a temporary anomaly as he is a fair representation of the forces that have captured the House and Senate majorities as well as the presidency under the auspices of the Republican Party.
The authors extend some of the conventional thinking about a polarized, fifty-fifty, Red vs. Blue electorate in the U.S. by contrasting the downstate Illinois district of the Republican House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert with the San Francisco, Nob Hill district of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The “vertical” San Francisco vs. the “horizontal” plains presents dramatic contrast but hardly probes the attitudes toward “growth” which the authors maintain is the key element. The more probing and innovative portions of the book stem from the authors’ claim that the American Right dominates both the policy agenda and the political trench work of national politics.
Thanks to the high-level free-market and antitax propaganda emanating from Washington’s K Street conservative think tanks, and the energy and passion of religious and social conservatives across the Red states, the Right dominates the agenda and the polls. The frequently noted demise of the Democratic Party’s post–WW II winning coalition is explained by the rise of identity politics, civil rights battles, and cultural issues. The authors detect an “absence of any cogent left-wing movement,” so they forecast that the Democrats will be the nation’s second party of business.
The authors describe, without passion or malice, the internal contradictions within the Right and the clearly tenuous nature of the Right’s coalition. They conclude with some equanimity that no matter what the outcome of the 2004 election, it won’t make any real difference in the fundamental orientation of the country. The authors have a gift for analogy and color—for example, a comparison of Reagan’s and Bush’s religiosity: “Ronald Reagan supported the church like a flying buttress, from the outside, Bush, a born-again Methodist, is more like a pillar in the nave.” They may be wrong about the importance of the 2004 election, but this is secondary to their insightful analysis of American society and their energetic style.
—Richard C. Collins
Balancing Risks: Great Power Intervention in the Periphery, by Jeffrey W. Taliaferro. Cornell, May 2004. $39.95
Why do great powers initiate risky military interventions in regions of the world that do not in themselves pose a direct threat to the security of the intervening state? Why do those great powers often initiate even riskier military strategies in an effort to stem the tide of failing interventions when the probability of success is small? These two questions motivate Jeffrey W. Taliaferro’s important contribution to the scholarly international relations literature. In Balancing Risks, Taliaferro skillfully blends two lines of theorizing, defensive realism and prospect theory, to explain the conditions under which leaders of great powers are more or less likely to adopt risky foreign military policies. Defensive realism argues that when confronted with unfavorable trends in power relative to others, leaders of great powers will likely adopt belligerent strategies in an attempt to stem the tide of their decaying position. From this baseline tendency, Taliaferro incorporates the findings of prospect theory—a branch of behavioral psychology positing that individuals will become increasingly risk-acceptant when they expect future losses—to form a theory of foreign policy that is internally consistent and well supported by the qualitative case studies presented in the volume. Taliaferro’s primary contribution lies in the theoretical marriage of systemic and psychological theorizing. In so doing, the author overcomes a number of challenges that have dogged each for some time. Most noteworthy is Taliaferro’s argument pertaining to how individuals come to expect a bright or dismal future, and how this “expectation level” affects leaders’ risk tolerance and strategic choices. While the solution may not satisfy all critics, this work offers a compelling answer that must be considered. Balancing Risks is a thoroughly researched and well written addition to the literature.
—Spencer D. Bakich
Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal, by Ethan Gutmann. Encounter, April 2004. $26
Gutmann’s insights hit us at a critical time: How will the West—and in particular, the U.S.—behave with respect to China? Cravenly, hoping for consumer markets among the billion-plus? Or with some dignity, holding to principles of human treatment and demanding the same in return? I hope for the latter but fear the former—and the evidence offered here suggests that my fears are well founded. Gutmann details meticulously the essentially two-faced nature of current Chinese administration behavior: Grab what the West offers but allow not an inch of freedom internally. Incite anti-Americanism, in particular, while inviting Nike and Reebok to build their factories. China is the only country whose products I boycott—try it sometime; it’s a lot harder than you might think—and Gutmann offers us all a well-researched, thoroughly supported, impressive set of reasons for doing so. Losing the New China has my great respect and thorough admiration.
Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security, by Barry Buzan and Ole Waever. Cambridge, February 2004. $33
Regions and Powers is an ambitious book. As the title suggests, Buzan and Waever set out to fundamentally recast the manner in which international relations theory understands the interplay between global power structures and regional security processes. At the same time, the authors are careful to avoid privileging the analytical salience of one level over the other; the conceptual/theoretical framework developed in this volume offers a much-needed corrective to the self-declared dominance of any particular level of analysis by scholarly devotees. Buzan and Waever contend that regional security complexes (RSCs), territorially bounded groups of actors whose security problematiques are so interlinked that they deserve their own ontological standing, are the dominant (social) structures with which most states primarily contend. RSCs, in their various manifestations, animate the behavior of more powerful states as they interact with each other and with the states in specific regions. Buzan and Waever are not content, however, simply to adopt the traditional (neo)realist classification of global powers. They meticulously reclassify such states in terms of “superpowers” and “great powers,” and in so doing offer a means of recasting long-standing debates pertaining to Cold War and post–Cold War security dynamics (e.g., traditional realist accounts run into trouble when attempting to understand China in the Cold War). Although many will take issue with the melding of realism and constructivism, and indeed with the nature of their theoretical enterprise (which they note and attempt to answer), Regions and Powers is a work that demands attention from both general IR theorists and regional specialists.
—Spencer D. Bakich
The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan, by Ben Macintyre. FSG, April 2004. $25
The circumstances of the origin of this biography are as colorful and improbable as those of the life it depicts—that of Josiah Harlan, the Pennsylvania Quaker of many talents who entered Afghanistan in 1827, where he rose to positions of high power and extreme peril. Driven out by the British in 1839, Harlan returned to the U.S., where he wrote a book, A Memoir of India and Afghanistan (1842), in which he lambasted British colonial policy. Harlan planned to use this first book to attract a large readership for a full accounting of the roles he played in the Far East as physician, naturalist, diplomat, military commander, governor, and King of Ghor. Alarmed by the charges and revelations in Harlan’s first book, the British spared no costs in blocking publication of the second manuscript. Similar to the trend of Harlan’s declining years, this autobiography languished and presumably died with him. There they lay until a fictional rendition of perhaps the shadier part of Harlan’s character and the more audacious of his undertakings appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King (1888). In the decades that followed, a few historians published pieces on bits of Harlan’s life, but each was limited by the loss of the autobiography reported to have been destroyed in a house fire in Pennsylvania in 1929. Exotic stories, however, seem to have a life of their own. In 1975, Kipling’s “take” on the adventures of Josiah Harlan was resurrected in a film starring Sean Connery as the romantic rogue and daredevil Daniel Dravot. That might have been the end of Harlan’s life story if a young correspondent, Ben Macintyre, had not been assigned in the 1980s to cover the Soviets’ war with the Afghans. Ben Macintyre began searching for the real person, the prototype, behind fiction and film. Fate, or kismet, as the Arabs say, intervened again in the awful events of 9/11 and its aftermath, which brought Macintyre, a London Times writer, to the United States. In a tiny museum in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he found a tattered old manuscript of 390 pages, along with other authentic relics of Harlan’s life—letters, drawings, and documents. The biography that results reads like a Wild West story, where the protagonist, Josiah Harlan, rides into Afghanistan with the ideals of Thomas Jefferson in his heart and the ambition of Alexander the Great in his head. Harlan sees himself following in the footsteps of Alexander in bringing civilization to feuding wild tribes of inferior people—while enriching himself in power and wealth. Harlan encounters cruelty, hardships, and beauty beyond belief. Twelve years later the man who had been a king rides out of Afghanistan with only a golden sword at his side, but he had lived a dozen lives, gained a great respect for the Afghans, and become convinced that “To subdue and crush … a nation by military force … is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe.” In agreement with the ex-king, Macintyre points out that, over the centuries, Macedonian, Mogul, Persian, Russian, British, and Soviet have all failed in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America, by Peter J. Kastor. Yale, April 2004. $35
In 1803 the U.S. acquired the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the size of the nation. For many, the Louisiana story ends there. For Peter Kastor, assistant professor of history at Washington University, the purchase is just the beginning of an important story of how Louisiana—with its French, Spanish, slave, free black, and Native American inhabitants, its foreign code of laws, and its slave system—was incorporated into the United States. Right from the start there were conflicting ideas among Louisianians and the federal government about how to govern the territory, as well as ambivalence or downright hostility on the part of Americans to the very idea of incorporation. Louisianians were eager for all the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, while Americans feared the wholesale acceptance of European-influenced royalists and revolutionaries, Catholics, and free blacks. Examining the years between 1803 and 1821, when the Transcontinental Treaty was ratified, Kastor describes the process by which the territory, this “legal, demographic, and cultural anomaly” (226), was finally attached and connected to the U.S., or, in the words of the author, how “a foreign and potentially fractious population on the southwest periphery became one of the most steadfast and prosperous members of the American union” (14).
—David B. Mattern
Return to Base: Memoirs of a B-17 Copilot, by Jesse Richard Pitts. Howell Press, April 2004. $29.95
During World War II, the life expectancy of the American soldiers flying bombers over Axis-held Europe was estimated to be two to three months. In 1943–44 young Lieutenant Pitts flew missions for six consecutive months—surviving to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a sociologist and authority on Franco-American relations. Professor Pitts completed this memoir shortly before his death in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2003. It is the perspective of the mature Pitts, as analyst and evaluator, that makes this book so extraordinary among war books. His accounts of combat, though plentiful and poignant, are secondary to his focus on understanding the impact of combat on the psyche of the men in a B-17 Flying Fortress—individually and as a “band of brothers.” A copilot’s job, Pitts recalls, was to know the emotional state of each crewman. He was to manage the human dynamics inside the plane, freeing the first pilot to concentrate on what was happening outside the plane. The elder Pitts draws on his intimate knowledge to reveal how the death of comrades was dismissed from the mind with the plea: “Forgive us, we the lucky survivors. But allow us to bury you, for your ghosts make it more difficult for us to do our job.” And of young Lieutenant Pitts’s efforts to suppress fear in the crew of his plane, the Penny Ante, the aged Pitts, the evaluator, confesses, “I needed to kill the coward in me by killing it also in those around me.” This is a well-written and courageous book, which challenges a number of stereotypes and myths about America’s air war in Europe. “Precision bombing was a hoax,” Pitts declares in giving statistics on the great numbers of our misses. He asserts, also, that defections of American bombing crews to neutral Sweden and Switzerland were not uncommon during the slaughterhouse in the air of World War II; Allied Headquarters just didn’t reveal them, nor were the defectors classified as deserters. Some readers may challenge Pitts’s assertions, but who would question the integrity of a man who could have sat out the war but instead earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre? This book is enhanced with excellent photographs of men and planes.
A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture, by Michael Kammen. North Carolina, March 2004. $39.95
Kammen, who teaches U.S. history at Cornell and has written widely and always learnedly on the subject, has given us a book that crosses boundaries. He explores the worlds of American art, literature, and popular culture and finds a long-standing and enduring fascination with the theme of seasonal change. More particularly, it is seasonal change on the North American continent that has for so long enchanted artists of this country, and this has frequently fed into the national pastime of self-absorption. American exceptionalism may be detected even in the more cosmopolitan realms of nature worship, and Kammen is an entertaining and relentless guide. Though the book does not lack for tedious and overly academic analyses of the self-evident, it is wide-ranging to a degree that should reward any reader interested in the themes of nature in American culture, popular and “high.” It is full of information on obscure figures and should delight the curious pedant above all. From Thoreau and Bartram to Norman Rockwell and Woody Guthrie, there is an abundance of fascinating material herein.
White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900–1960, by Lisa Lindquist Dorr. North Carolina, March 2004. $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper
The standard account of interracial rape in the early 20th-century American South goes something like this: Black man assaults White woman; if not preempted by lynching, legal prosecution quickly follows; conviction and punishment are inevitable, and the perpetrator hangs from the gallows or rots in jail; the purity of White Womanhood (or the power of racism) is once again preserved. In this wonderfully detailed and painstakingly researched study of black-on-white rape trials and their aftermath, Lisa Lindquist Dorr has turned that formulaic narrative inside out. Using primary records ranging from original court transcripts discovered in Virginia courthouses, to the parole and clemency files of Virginia governors, to the legal strategy notes of the NAACP legal defense corps, Dorr uncovers a different story. Often, she notes, the freedom of black men convicted of rape was won by the comments of the same prosecutors or sheriffs who had sent them to prison. After the fact, those men were willing to admit that the prosecution’s case may have been based on the word of a none-too-credible woman, one whose social familiarity with her purported assailant or her behavior otherwise inappropriate to her gender made her complicit in his guilt. Pardon or early release of convicted men, argues Dorr, often sent a mixed message to white women. Their claims of chastity would be sustained in support of the general white-over-black racial hierarchy at trial, while those they accused might very well reenter the community prematurely (and to the women’s shame) if social taboos had been violated.
—Paul A. Lombardo
Facing America: Iconography and the Civil War, by Shirley Samuels. Oxford, March 2004. $49.95
This short but densely packed study offers both the investigative range and the headaches one usually associates with longer books. Samuels sets out to examine shifting understandings and representations of racial, gender, and national identities in the years surrounding the American Civil War. To do so, she draws on a diverse array of sources ranging from obscure novels and political cartoons to photographs, presidential speeches, and a multivolume study of Civil War disease and treatment published by the Army Medical Museum in 1867. Her readings of these sources suggest that the anxieties felt by some Americans over miscegenation, gender roles, and national disunion spilled over into one another and at times were strengthened through a process of displacement that Samuels calls “substitution panic.” Northern lithographs of the war effort, for example, depicted Confederate leaders dressed as women and visually linked secession with a range of African American figures. Driving the shift from prewar representations of America as the authoritative, mythical female figure Columbia to postwar images of martyred manhood (in the anonymous masses of Civil War dead and the slain body of Abraham Lincoln) was the collision of new representational technologies, especially photography, with an extraordinarily bloody civil war and continuing anxieties over racial matters. Unfortunately, Samuels frequently presents her complicated analysis in prose so lacking in clarity and laden with jargon as to render her ideas inaccessible to all but the most initiated of readers. Indeed, for a book that spends so much time in the first person, Facing America contains a surprisingly muddy and ill-defined central argument. In addition to greater clarity of expression, one might wish for more attention to the role of religious belief in forming and reorienting American ideas about racial, gender, and national identities, and a much more sustained discussion of the ways in which contemporary Americans themselves interpreted and were influenced by the images and written sources discussed in this book. Samuels often seems to be the only tie binding her varied sources together. She rarely provides context on the conventions governing their production or the responses surrounding their reception, focusing instead on her own idiosyncratic readings of them. As a result, one feels upon finishing this learned and intriguing study as if one has spent as much time facing Shirley Samuels as facing America.
The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942, by Christopher R. Browning. Nebraska, March 2004. $39.95
The first fruits of an enormously ambitious “Comprehensive History of the Holocaust” and the harvest of the labor of decades, this book studies the first two and a half years of the war with an eye to asking one fundamental question: How precisely was the mass genocide policy of the “Final Solution” enacted? Answering this question helps to answer another, superficially far more controversial question: Did the Nazis intend the total annihilation of the Jewish people from the beginning? Browning, a highly respected historian of the Holocaust, argues that they did not: the decision to enact the Final Solution was taken after a series of baby steps, from identification through concentration to a hypothetical mass expulsion of European Jewry (to Madagascar, of all places). The decision to murder millions of men, women, and children seems something the Nazis partially “backed into,” rather than deliberately intended from the beginning. (The contingency and accidental nature of the decision process may seem to weaken culpability or guilt; but such appearance is due to a misunderstanding of the nature of responsibility, as thinkers from Hannah Arendt forward have made clear.) What was crucial, it turns out, was the total war begun on June 22, 1941, against the Soviet Union—a war far more absolute and merciless (on both sides) than any other in human history. (The closest analogy would be the U.S.-Japanese war in the Pacific during World War II; but that was carried out largely far from major civilian populations, with the horrific exceptions of the Philippines and Okinawa.) The Nazis were not demonic geniuses but bureaucrats and ideologues who, drunk with their own early successes in Russia, never allowed themselves to see how far they had come or what they were doing. Thus the Nazi-Soviet war was the context in which the Nazis first legitimated widespread practices of mass killing and the wholesale extermination of populations in conquered territories and prisoners in camps; from there it became easier for them to retroactively include the already conquered populations of Central Europe. And thenceforward the Holocaust moved, like the sun, from east to west. Browning’s narrative is factual rather than moralistic, dealing with Hemingway-esque restraint with the names of places, rivers, and roads, and the dates; and it is the far more effective and powerful thereby. Not a cheerful book, but one of the most profound meditations, however indirect, on the character of human wickedness in the 20th century. Read it and weep.
—Charles T. Mathewes
Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer. Oxford, February 2004. $35
Part of a series called “Pivotal Moments in American History,” Washington’s Crossing is the story of the Continental army’s nine-day Trenton and Princeton campaign that blunted the British juggernaut and saved the American Revolution from collapse. After crushing defeats at Long Island and New York, and with his army about to disappear through desertion, defeatism, and the end of soldiers’ enlistments, Washington’s audacious attacks provided the impetus to fight on and gave spirit to American resistance. This is not military history, in the old sense, though the battles are described with force and clarity. Fischer takes time to set the scene, placing the campaign in the context of the overall political situation and describing the composition of the armies that opposed each other. His chapter on the Hessians, for example, uses new sources and dispenses with old myths. The author manages to do this without letting the narrative bog down in endless historiographical debates of little interest to the general reader. These are consigned to the notes, which are a delight in themselves. The book includes 24 appendices, treating such subjects as casualty lists, orders of battle, weather records, and ice conditions on the Delaware River. It also includes a wonderful historiographical essay on the interpretation of the campaign over the past two hundred years. This is engaging narrative history, emphasizing the contingency of history, written with verve and with an eye to the telling detail, fully deserving to be read and appreciated by professional historian and general reader alike.
—David B. Mattern
Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century, by Benjamin Valentino. Cornell, February 2004. $29.95
Valentino sets out to diminish the role that ethnicist ideologies and other social dysfunctions play in explanations of genocides. He instead traces these terrible outcomes to small sets of committed rulers, for whom mass murder is an instrumental means to such ends as regime security from suspect or threatening minority groups. As such, his thesis touches directly on the question of whether such regimes require the active support of at least important segments of the general population in order to carry out genocides. In arguing they do not, he categorizes most citizens of afflicted societies as bystanders and frontally challenges Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s claim that a committed regime and an “eliminationist” culture are both necessary conditions for a genocidal outcome. Valentino tests his thesis against an array of evidence that is admirable in two ways. First, including Maoist China and military-ruled Guatemala retrieves often-overlooked cases for our consideration. Second, adding China, the USSR, and Soviet-occupied Afghanistan may remind readers—too many of whom need reminding—just how many innocents were slaughtered by Communist regimes. For its many virtues, the analysis disappoints in two key ways. First, the study does not really identify the origins of rulers’ beliefs about the threats they face. This matters because if he cannot explain in rationalist terms why Nazis believed they had to kill Jewish grandmothers in Poland, then Valentino risks inviting ideational explanations for genocides in through the back door, preserving the form of an instrumentalist account but not its content. Second, he ultimately does not explain why rulers resorted to genocide to deal with threats as opposed to other options. For example, why did the U.S. decide to withdraw from Vietnam rather than slaughter the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan?
The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents, by James Pfiffner. Texas A&M, February 2004. $40
This is, frankly, a pathetic book: attempting to clothe itself in the impartial fabric of academia, but in reality failing even to adequately conceal the partisanship that produced this vehicle for attack on Bill Clinton. The stated premise—that commonalities to the character of U.S. presidents are worthy of examination—is an interesting and likely valid one; too much worse, then, that much of what we are given here is shallow and tainted with bias. There are interesting anecdotes throughout, and the material has clearly taken some effort to collect, to give Pfiffer his due credit. But it is no surprise that the jacket bears no significant endorsements or praise, alas. Reading this is not only not worthwhile, it is actively negative, as the contempt for both Clinton and the reader spills over.
American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, by Jonah Raskin. California, April 2004. $24.95 cloth, $16.95 paper
By the time of Allen Ginsberg’s death in 1997, Howl, perhaps the major protest poem of the fifties and sixties, had sold 800,000 copies and been translated into twenty-four languages. In the process of promoting his work, which he did as tirelessly as Walt Whitman promoted his, Ginsberg found himself enslaved by a fictional Ginsberg. The poem was not the undisciplined outburst claimed by critics such as Lionel Trilling, Ginsberg’s former mentor at Columbia, a position which pitted the East Coast against the “nonintellectualism” of the West Coast. Despite Ginsberg’s close friendship with Jack Kerouac and Kerouac’s consistent urging that he never revise his work, the poem was meticulously and intentionally crafted, its strategies leading to Cynthia Ozick’s description of it as “the single poem most representative of the break with Eliot.” In addition, Jonah Raskin places the poem culturally, arguing that the poem owed to the leftist climate of San Francisco, which defied the Cold War’s climate of fear, and that it was only in the city’s liberating literary atmosphere that it could have been written.
The Resistance to Poetry, by James Longenbach. Chicago, April 2004. $25
Ordinary genres, like movies and novels, occupy a wide middle ground, targeting low- or high-brow audiences and varying in quality from skipable to life-changing. But poetry in 20th-century America is esoteric; what can be read easily must not be worth reading. Positioning himself against those working to expand the genre’s audience, James Longenbach revels in poetry’s difficulty. He claims that “[poetry’s] audience has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry’s inwardness” (6). Longenbach does not substantiate the claim that poetry loses through dissemination, but, like all good poetry critics, he does prove that those willing to follow it thoughtfully will be well rewarded.
Longenbach’s chapters are formed around a series of dichotomies, some quite familiar, others less so, and all pursued through surprising avenues. “The End of the Line” contrasts a “parsing” line that follows syntax to an “annotating” line that works against it, and starts and ends its discussion of enjambment with modernist poems, enfolding the more usual Miltonic lines within; “Forms of Disjunction” uses poetry’s gaps to distinguish poems that evoke the human voice from those dedicated to a more impersonal pedagogy; “Song and Story” takes on the form/content divide around the axis of sound; “Untidy Activity” examines how poems work with the proliferation of meaning inherent to language; “The Spokenness of Poetry” treats the construction of the speaker; “The Other Hand” wonderfully dwells on the poetic functions of “or”; and “Leaving Things Out” is about what poems omit and the use of figurative language. Each chapter considers classic questions about poetry slant.
The most disappointing aspect of the book is the relentlessly deconstructionist end to every chapter which wraps up the preceding issues uniformly with a “both/and” conclusion. The chapters’ watery endings don’t diminish the fantastic work of elucidation that occurs in the process of coming to that conclusion, as Longenbach’s treatment of individual poems is nuanced, thoughtful, and pursued under a hermeneutics of recovery. The Resistance to Poetry will not convert anyone who is genuinely resistant to poetry, nor does it seem written for that purpose, although I, for one, was misled to expect that from its title. The book is written to benefit those already attracted to the mystique of difficulty, already conversant with poetic language, and willing to follow an explication that matches the poems’ own intricacies.
When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature, edited by Bradford K. Mudge. Oxford, April 2004. $74 cloth, $24.95 paper
As we learned from the recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (“Dangerous Liaisons”), 18th-century Europe (particularly, but not exclusively, France and Britain) fairly roiled with sexual tension and encoded eroticism. Robert Darnton’s astonishing books, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769–1789, and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (both 1995), brought to our attention some of those texts that Rousseau hilariously claimed should be “read with one hand.” Now Bradford Mudge makes available a selection of what he calls “pre-pornographic” texts which entertained and scandalized early 18th-century Britain. The pieces, originally published in English or in French, are amusing, but they are also instructive in that very curious way in which the 18th century insisted on knowing everything about everything. Selections from nine texts from the period 1680 (The School of Venus) to 1746 (The Female Husband) are published here, with a brief scholarly introduction, helpful notes, a bibliography and index, and several eye-popping illustrations.
—David T. Gies
The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, by Judith Farr with Louise Carter. Harvard, April 2004. $26.95
Judith Farr’s recent book tackles a subject that has been a commonplace among Dickinson scholars, yet until now never explored comprehensively: the strong influence of Dickinson’s interest in gardens and activity as a gardener on her literary imagination. A book about flowers could not be less than lovely itself, and the designers do not disappoint. Likewise, Farr makes extensive use of color reproductions of contemporary painting and botanical illustrations, making this a luxurious reading experience sure to attract a general readership as well as an academic one. Indeed, the DIY section in Louise Carter’s chapter, an historical reconstruction of Dickinson’s gardens and detailed instructions for recreating them, seems to aim at just that sort of cross section of fan/devotee which the study of authors like Dickinson often includes. The argument, however, deals in just these sorts of particularities: Farr asserts that while the importance of flowers to Dickinson is generally acknowledged, knowledge of horticultural specifics allows a much deeper (and more accurate) engagement with Dickinson’s use of botanical language and ideas. Farr’s chapters follow a spatial organization, ranging from the outdoor garden and the social contexts of gardening to the “enclosed garden” of Dickinson’s conservatory, which, displaying favored woodland cuttings alongside cultivated exotics, provides us with a fresh metaphor for the significance of Dickinson’s life of retirement and physical limitation. “The Woodland Garden” foregrounds Dickinson’s appreciation of wildflowers, lining her up with and showing her careful deviations from Ruskinian aesthetics and Wordsworthian nature-worship. The penultimate chapter, “The ‘Garden in the Brain’ ” allows Farr to explore the wide-ranging symbolisms of flowers in Dickinson’s poetry. The epilogue deals in the familiar territory of the “Gardener in Her Seasons,” effectively reasserting the scholarly tone on the subjects of mortality and the seasonal cycle after (what will seem to some nongardeners) the gardening digression. This book collects together many of the disparate references made over the years to Dickinson’s floral imagination and gardening practices, making it valuable as a resource to Dickinson scholarship as well as offering a number of its own serious contributions on this front.
A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, edited by Vivian R. Pollak. Oxford, April 2004. $19.95
This recent collection of original essays will be helpful for the student or researcher new to Dickinson studies, as well as reminding veterans of important scholarship both past and present. The editor’s introduction provides the case for historicizing Dickinson, long a darling of both spurious biographical readings and New Critical orthodoxy. Pollak and Marianne Noble provide a biographical sketch, including multiple viewpoints on issues that have been hotly debated. The ensuing five essays outline how the poet’s lifetime and writing intersected with various social and historical phenomena, including challenges to revivals of religious faith (Jane Donahue Eberwein), the Civil War (Shira Wolosky), local and national politics (Betsy Erkkila), the prominence of other American women writers (Cheryl Walker), and American culture’s general shift from aurality to visuality in the experience of poetry (Cristanne Miller). The volume is capped off by an illustrated chronology and a bibliographic essay (Jonathan Morse) providing further grist for the mill of any willing Dickinson student.
The Places of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, by Alex Owen. Chicago, April 2004. $30
The years between 1880 and 1914 are frequently held up as “hinge years,” a time separating the brave new world we know today from its drab, sepia-toned 19th-century past. These were the years, scholars like to tell us, during which the children of the Victorians grew up, put aside the toys and trappings of their 19th-century childhoods, and began declaring themselves as “we moderns.” The earnestness with which so many young moderns of the fin de siècle declared their break with things past should not go without remark. Alex Owen puts her focus on another contradiction common to this generation. Her important new study asks, Why, during the very moment in which they were loudly espousing the arrival of the “new,” did writers and artists increasingly turn their attention back to “ancient mysteries” and “lost knowledge”? Owen’s investigation into the moderns’ dabbling in magic and the occult does not stop at cataloging the usual figures, such as W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, and others associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Pressing further, Owen directs her attention to detailing the ways in which modern occultism closely allied itself with the “new sciences” of comparative religion, anthropology, and psychology, valuably highlighting an unacknowledged interplay between the occultists’ interest in “astral projections” and new theories of consciousness and subjectivity. Even more important is Owen’s inquiry into the special role played by women in the fin de siècle revival of magic. Again, Owen recovers less-than-obvious figures, looking beyond the shades of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant in order to reveal the occult aspirations of women from a variety of social backgrounds and professions, contributing a valuable study to ongoing discussions of gender and modernism.
A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854–1967, by Rachel Cohen. Random House, March 2004. $24.95
Cohen can flat write: there can be no doubt about that. The short chapters that make up this book are jewels of wit and precision. Each chapter stands alone as a small piece on the relationship between two American artists: Howell and Twain, Hart Crane and Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. The “intertwined” nature of the text stems from the regular overlap of friendships: there are chapters as well on Howell and Henry James, Hart Crane and Katherine Anne Porter, Marianne Moore and Norman Mailer, and so forth. Cohen has the rare and most pleasing gift for choosing quotes. I had to tramp upstairs to find my wife to read her the funny, poignant exchanges between Howell and Twain: she gratified me, as I thought she would, by laughing aloud and then puddling up. Cohen’s selection from forty years’ worth of correspondence between the two men was perfect.
Each chapter in the book reads as something closer to fiction than to essay, what she calls “imaginative nonfiction,” and this feature of the book leads to my one caveat. In a brief introduction she notes: “I wanted to offer the reader the pleasure of moving back and forth between what is known to us and what can only be imagined, and I also wanted to be very clear about the distinction… . I have written ‘perhaps’ and ‘could’ to indicate the change in register.” Which is clear enough, except then the reader finds, again and again, passages such as this, from “W. E. B. Du Bois and Henry James,” as they ride in a carriage back from a visit to see Helen Keller: “James might have said that Helen Keller, even without being able to see or hear them, had taken their measure quite quickly. I often think, Du Bois might have replied, of language to be read, as something seen, and of it being heard, but it being in our hands is quite as critical, don’t you think? Mm, James would have answered, still looking out the window, yes, turning to look at Du Bois, yes, of course that’s true.” Well, yes, maybe, but maybe they just scratched or snoozed or talked of the weather. Whether such passages are intriguing, innocuous, or annoying is a judgment each reader of this book will have to make.
The Spacious Word: Cartography, Literature, and Empire in Early Modern Spain, by Ricardo Padrón. Chicago, March 2004. $35
Well-researched and engagingly written, this major account of mapmaking and cultural discourse in Early Modern Spain is worth reading not just for professional Hispanicists but for anyone interested in the positives and negatives of Renaissance New World expansion or in the genesis of Early Modern intellectual schemas, cartographic and noncartographic alike. Recently many non-Spanish studies have focused on the paradoxes of Renaissance colonialist discourse in both Spanish and non-Spanish inflections; Padrón’s book is especially notable for the deft way it mediates between Spanish and non-Spanish accounts of el Descubrimiento, leaving out a few valuable recent non-Spanish studies but engaging perhaps the most generative findings in this recent spate. Since the contest between various mapping conventions in Early Modern Europe is so clearly akin to the clash of world systems or Kuhnian paradigms, Padrón’s book is remarkable for doing justice to the “fits-and-starts” bricolage character of the representations and texts he interprets; it may suit a Foucault to assert sudden shifts between dominant notions, but replacement itself, as the English term hints, always seems to involve a transacted resettling of some sort, however conflicted or stark.
Becoming Black, by Michelle M. Wright. Duke, March 2004. $79.95 cloth, $22.95 paper
With a focused eye on the Anglophone, Francophone, and Germanophone populations of the African diaspora, Wright effectively delves into three fields of study: while ably challenging assumptions in postcolonial and poststructuralist discourse, Wright weaves diasporic diversity into this study. The inclusion of works by black female theorists enriches the study, adding depth and much-needed flavor to the patriarchal canon. Each chapter holds a gendered analysis which is further threaded throughout the text, providing multilayered theories about the black female body. Her solid introduction and epilogue frame five chapters of grounded research and thinking about the ways in which identity is a constantly shifting field of multiple negotiations.
Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations, by Cheryl J. Fish. Florida, March 2004. $59.95
In a well-researched and tightly focused study Fish covers a big subject when she explores the meanings behind the travel narratives of three women who published during the 1840s and ’50s. National expansion fueled by steamboat and locomotive travel enabled more women to travel than ever before. Nancy Prince’s, Mary Seacole’s, and Margaret Fuller’s travel accounts were part of a genre that gained popularity among both men and women. What connects these three subjects is their transnational grounding, their benevolent work, the process of self-examination, and the creation and publication of narrative experience. Fish uses the historiography of 19th-century travel adroitly, bolstering her argument that these publications are fertile ground for unearthing the formation of identity, particularly for working women who step outside of familiar terrain, both literally and figuratively, during the era of manifest destiny. Her bibliography is thorough, as is her index. Four illustrations are included, though more would have provided a visual dimension that would further strengthen her rigorous study.
The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon, April 2004. $19.95
It is hard to account for the popularity of the series of books featuring the “traditionally built” Mma Ramotswe, head of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, in these hard-charging times. Nothing much happens in the way of detection. The stories are full of digressions, asides, and commentaries on the way things were in the good old days, unfolding in a kind of lazy, gentle trickle of consciousness. Yet a page or two into one, and the reader finds himself wholly absorbed in the doings of Mma Ramotswe and her life. What the stories lack in action they more than make up for in sharply drawn characters and humor, moral dilemmas and the universal themes surrounding human conflict. Mma Ramotswe is observant and clever, yes, but over and above that, she is wise. Perhaps after all it is her wisdom that makes the books so attractive to so many.
—David B. Mattern
I Dream of Microwaves, by Imad Rahman. FSG, April 2004. $23
The author’s “one-way bus ticket from Eileen, an old girlfriend, who announces she’s ‘through with big dicks and henceforth thinking constantly of you,’” is a great opening setup, and the story lines maintain interest throughout this collection of linked stories. Rahman clearly finds humor to be endemic to life, and that’s both reassuring and occasionally a little startling. The plot lines verge on the overly weird, but the level of acid and joy keeps the reader on the right side of the edge. By the end we—as well as said girlfriend—are perhaps a little tired of the author and protagonist, but the sum is still positive—if not close to being masterful. Above-average beach reading but with too many irritations rasping at the enjoyment.
Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. St. Martin’s, March 2004. $24.95
An acclaimed novelist still in full command of enviable storytelling powers introduces us to thirty-something Americans struggling to make sense of life in the suburbs. In an apt send-up of contemporary American parents, children are objects of obsession. In a curious play on the title, we are left to wonder who behaves more like little children—the toddlers basking in their parents’ solicitousness or the parents themselves. Again and again we read of young parents regressing to their own childhoods. As children and teenagers, the world had seemed to hold limitless possibilities; as young parents, life seems strangely like a prison sentence. The harried parents come to understand “that sometimes you needed to do something crazy.” This absorbing, entertaining, astutely drawn, and sometimes hilarious novel deserves much praise. The adulterous protagonists Todd and Sarah come to life effortlessly. The former cop, Larry, however, remains a problem. His homoerotic attraction to the blond and beautiful Todd is never resolved nor explained. Nor, for that matter, does Perrotta weave Larry’s baffling obsession with a convicted child molester into the narrative in the way he manages to with so many other details along the way to one of the most elegant endings I’ve come across in contemporary fiction.
Why She Went Home, by Lucinda Rosenfeld. Random House, March 2004. $23.95
This young author has churned out another novel, having just recently published what amounts to Part 1 of this novel. Our heroine, Phoebe, has lived the high life in Manhattan—to the extent an attractive young woman with a low-paying job can—and has had enough. Now on the verge of turning 30, she moves back to her parents’ house in suburban New Jersey, where her mother is dying of breast cancer and her feckless father can barely make ends meet. A musical family, the Fines are nominally Jewish and altogether appealing. The writing is crisp and uncluttered, although this is hardly the sort of novel to remain in anyone’s mind for long. We find Phoebe concerned about her wardrobe, her small breasts, and, especially, the human capacity for fidelity. “She was missing out on the great party that was life. Its location was unclear.” Philosophically, Phoebe also muses on the lack of body equality in the world. Rosenfeld has written a consistently entertaining novel, and she deserves credit especially for drawing attention to life after college. Such a lot is written these days about how hard it is to get into college that we Americans seem unaware of how very difficult it can be to finish college and adapt to the real world.
M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, by A. Van Jordan. Norton, July 2004. $23.95
Let me be upfront: I love book-length narrative sequences of poems. American poets have used this technique to amazing effect. Robert Penn Warren’ s Audubon: A Vision, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, William Kloefkorn’s Alvin Turner as Farmer, and Joe Survant’s Anne & Alpheus remain favorites, but African American poets have explored this form to its fullest effect. The lineage is staggering: Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen, Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, just to name a few. And younger poets have exploited the form equally well: Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, and now A. Van Jordan. The poems in Jordan’s first collection, Rise, especially “The Journey of Henry Box Brown,” hint at the force we find wholly realized in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. Here his subject is more recent and more heartbreaking: MacNolia Cox, winner of the Akron District Spelling Bee and the first African American in the final round of the national competition in 1936. MacNolia lost in Washington, because—it is believed—the Southern judges gave her a word not on the official list. Appropriately, the word was “nemesis.” Jordan opens this story on MacNolia’s deathbed and slowly reels us back through this first and subsequent disappointments, but his gift for the lyric moment continually lifts this from mere narrative. Multivoiced, collaged, and sometimes experimental in form (as the dictionary definitions MacNolia studied from or the entries from diaries or the moviescript-style camera directions), these poems surprise us with their range and approach. Jordan never loses his focus or disappears into his gimmicks; they always work in service of a narrative that breaks your heart with an intimacy most poets writing about their own lives could only dream to achieve.
Mercy, by Lucille Clifton. Boa, September 2004. $22
Lucille Clifton has been producing lyrics of celebration and heartbreak since 1969 when she published her first book, Good Times. Her lean, spare, and agile lyrics, her use of lowercase letters, and her characteristic quotidian diction loosely based on the iambic trimeter line both reject and speak to the Eurocentric poetry tradition. Her twelfth collection of poems, Mercy, follows Blessings the Boats: Selected and New Poems, 1989–2000, which won the National Book Award, and this latest collection maintains her distinctive style. Mercy takes on the same dark subject matter as many of her earlier poems, such as the abuse of the speaker by the speaker’s father, the death of the speaker’s mother, the mistreatment of African Americans by white America, and surviving cancer. The title poem embodies one of Clifton’s greatest achievements: simultaneously combining an acknowledgment of tragedy with a spirit of celebration. It’s a nearly impossible task that Clifton manages to accomplish without sentimentality or melodrama. These are poems where great restraint mingles with disarming primal imagery to convey poems which hold tremendous emotional weight—not only does Clifton address the sorrow and anger associated with the above mentioned tragedies, but she takes on new griefs in this book: the unbearable pain of a mother who has lost two of her adult children and a vast and complicated sadness in response to the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Clifton struggles with mourning and rage in these terse lyrics without self-pity, and the seeming simplicity of the verse masks psychological complexity and moral depth. A theme that has endured throughout her career comes to a head here: how to remain human in the midst of loss and violation. In many ways, this is Clifton’s most mature book of poems. While her earliest work shines with an embrace of life in all of its paradoxes, and the work at the middle of her career explores those paradoxes, Mercy reveals an astute awareness of mortality, and the poems may be her most spiritual. Many of the poems speak of the dead as a part of daily life—the lines that call out to or from lost children, siblings, parents, friends weave in and out of the book. The presence of these lines glimmers in the midst of poems that are rich with the colors of life’s vibrancies, and their glimmering suggests an awareness of an unseen world beside the physical one.
The Face: A Novella in Verse, by David St. John. HarperCollins, April 2004. $24.95
The voice in these poems is urgent and audacious, offhand and dead serious. Possibly because of the weave of long sentences across long lines, intricacies of figurative language submerge in a proselike flow. It is the voice that dominates, sweeping the reader along the Dantesque narrative journey through scenes realistic and surreal. The central image of the poem is the making of a film of the poet’s life, and the poems exploit movement and visual variations of darkness and light. As the voice gathers emotional and figurative momentum, the scenes flicker and yield with the quicksilver effect of film. Autobiography and fiction mingle. The poet, like an actor, is a man of masks, without fixed identity. He acknowledges Eliot of the Four Quartets as well as other poets for their fluency in this lingua franca of poets—the articulation of the play of memory and time, the slipperiness of self. This is the poet’s subject and maybe the only response to despair. “That’s all any of us can talk about, this unholy union / Of time future and time past (miserable Eliot) woven in the fabric of / This, our present. The time is the source & backbeat of poetry. As poetry / Is one woman or one man singing A Blues to Lover Time. As, wildly, they fuck.”
The Poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young. FSG, April 2004. $30
David Young offers a translation of the complete songbook of Petrarch, containing the famous sonnets to Laura, the subject of his passionate, obsessive, unrequited love. Young’s translation is fresh: the sonnets are clear and unstilted. He sticks to regular, agreeable iambics, without trying to match in En-glish the ready rhymes available to Petrarch in the original Italian. This compromise of sorts is probably wise, and certainly preferable to presenting Petrarch in free verse.
The courtly, self-negating passion of the poems, what Yeats called “the old high way of love,” comes across almost alarmingly well in Young’s rendition. Such puling lovesickness can be a bit hard to take in our ironic, post-postmodern age, and there’s quite a big dollop in these pages. It’s hard, from time to time, not to sit back and say, Petrarch, buddy, get a life. But individually, of course, the sonnets can be lovely, poignant, exquisitely tender.
Petrarch wrote, revised, and added to the sequence over forty-seven years, and perhaps that slow, rich development is what comes across best in Young’s translation. We see what seems a lovesick teenager mature into a reflective, somber man, as Laura herself, after her death, becomes transfigured into Mary, waiting for Petrarch in heaven. In this way, the songbook became a more complex document for me. I had read a handful of the sonnets before in anthologies and recognized them largely as precursors of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but now I see Petrarch’s life work as being an analogue as well to Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” or, with rather a more narrow focus, to Montaigne’s essays: we see a modern mind, exploring its relation to the world and to itself through love.
The Cuckoo, by Peter Streckfus. Yale, March 2004. $25 cloth, $13 paper
By happy accident, Peter Streckfus may find his book subjected to closer scrutiny than most; The Cuckoo is Louise Glück’s first selection in her tenure as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and many readers may look to Streckfus for some indication of the direction the prestigious award may take. The Cuckoo is simultaneously satisfying and maddening, in that its poems seem wildly inconsistent in tone and authorial intent. They range from a (very successful) dramatic monologue from the perspective of a dung pile (it addresses and describes the birds who forage among its many remnant seeds) to blatant obscurantism (“Effectually, we sat upon our saddles with faces of the ut- / (most sullenness, while the water dripped from the visors.)”). The former suggests a poet of formidable prowess, able to imagine and articulate manifold and various selves and voices; the latter appears intentional and abstruse and misleads the reader with false gesture. But the pleasures in The Cuckoo are many; Streckfus’s sense of humor is quite fetching, as are his social awareness (an imagined episode leading to Ronald Reagan’s personal mythology, and repeated references to Native American culture and history) and the warmth of his more personal lyrics (“Blue,” “Note from the Plagiarist,” “The Celery-Cutter’s Song”). The book’s poems revolve around a hyper-extended metaphor of travel; many juxtapose a 7th-century Buddhist monk’s fifteen-year journey from China to India and back against Francis Parkman’s 1846 story of life on the Oregon Trail. Streckfus is, like his book’s namesake, an inveterate and indiscriminate borrower of (metaphorical, narrative) homes. This promising debut collection offers its readers the benefit of an authorial presence that revels in headlong leaps from the available to the obscure, the real to the imagined, from his Carroll-like “nonsense” into synthesis.
—John Casteen IV
Statius, Volume 2: Thebaid, Books 1–7, and Statius, Volume 3: Thebaid, Books 8–12, and Achilleid, by Publius Statius, edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Harvard, February 2004. $21.50 each
Statius devoted twelve years to the composition of his Thebaid, the epic account of the struggle of Oedipus’ sons for the Theban kingship. The work was greatly appreciated in the Middle Ages and profoundly influenced Boccaccio, Chaucer, and especially Dante—who regarded this “sweet poet” as a proto-Christian. The Thebaid is a very colorful epic, filled wi