Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, by Michael Reid. Yale, January 2008. $30
Reid, who has covered Latin America for twenty-five years for the BBC, the Guardian, and now the Economist, has written an overview of a part of the world that he believes has been neglected because it is neither as prone to catastrophe as Africa nor as successful (see China and India) as Asia. He knows his territory well. With a detailed grasp of the region’s colonial background, its literature, and its turbulent past, he holds a mirror to the face of a continent whose prospects seem more promising now than at any time in the last quarter-century. At the same time, with assertive new leaders like Hugo Chávez, there have been more government-level challenges to the power and influence of the US. Reid is sure-footed in his approach to various attempts to explain Latin America’s relative lack of political and economic success. While critical at times of US policy toward the region—which he sees as generally either neglectful or heavy-handed and paternalistic if not outright interventionist—neither does he accept the explanations of those politicians, novelists, and academics who have reflexively blamed El Norte for the ills of the region. Believing that economic and political development must proceed hand-in-hand, Reid chastises the region for too often resorting to the quick fixes of Peronist-style populism or Castroite Marxism even as he holds no brief for a neo-liberal approach that neglects those at the bottom of the economic pile. He calls above all for Latin American solutions to Latin American problems. Forgotten Continent is longer on economics and graphs than on literature and history. If this does not always make for easy reading, few could question the author’s mastery of and enthusiasm for his subject.
Privacy at Risk: The New Government Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment, by Christopher Slobogin. Chicago, October 2007. $37.50
This timely study of surveillance law begins by asking readers to imagine a police department using the latest technology to track a suspected gang: neighborhood cameras recording nightly from phone poles and buildings, helicopters flying by with night scopes and thermal imaging, cars and cell phones tracked by GPS, pedestrians searched at checkpoints, and satellites photographing from overhead. In the post-9/11 world, this scenario has become increasingly likely, while its possibilities for the deterrence of crime and terrorism, but also the infringements of rights, have multiplied accordingly. Slobogin questions the ways in which current laws enable surveillance—including the monitoring of financial and medical information—to critically infringe on Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures. By applying this important constitutional lens, Slobogin thoroughly and convincingly analyzes the legal evidence and suggests methods for legislatures to pass better protections for individuals, while at the same time ensuring effective law enforcement. His work is a vital contribution to current discussions that affect not only the legal field, but political and cultural arenas as well.
In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by Theodore Dalrymple. Encounter, September 2007. $20
Anthony Daniels, a now-retired British psychiatrist and prison doctor who writes under the name Theodore Dalrymple, has emerged in recent years as a prominent conservative writer, primarily in the magazines City Journal and the London Spectator. His work there and the volume of essays Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass echo traditional neo-conservative themes concerning individual responsibility, the therapeutic value of a cohesive and coherent culture, the necessity of traditional values, and the counter-productive effect of social elites who disparage traditional values while portraying the downtrodden as agency-less victims. That book provided an interesting counterpoint to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed,, which had low-income Americans struggling to survive against harsh odds imposed entirely from without, and which received far more critical attention and circulation. In his new set of small essays, Dalrymple makes a case against the prejudice against prejudice. He argues that preconceived notions and values are indispensable in several senses: we need them as guides in a world too complex to be mastered by constant computations; children need them to navigate safely and wisely before their judgment is fully developed; and they are necessary to a society of manners and mutual decency. He argues, again on familiar terrain, that unbridled questioning of mores and social and moral authority is more likely to lead to authoritarianism than either satisfaction or social improvement.
A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, by Vladislav M. Zubok. North Carolina, August 2007. $39.95
This challenging account is perhaps the most complete and compelling yet written of the Soviet side of the Cold War. Fresh archival evidence allows Zubok to elaborate on the “revolutionary-imperial paradigm” that he and Constantine Pleshakov first posited in their landmark book Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War. In both works, one finds Soviet leaders driven as much by the calamities of Russian history as by the central tenets of Marx and Lenin. Zubok’s account is challenging because it refutes previous assumptions about key figures as well as critical moments in the Cold War. He argues that the staggering losses the Soviets endured in World War II—upward of thirty million dead and two million crippled—seen through the lens of the revolutionary-imperial paradigm, meant there would have been a cold war even if Stalin had expired in 1946. Moreover, Leonid Brezhnev, a figure bereft of admirers among historians (but increasingly popular in Russia today), is transformed here into a shrewd statesman whose charm proved well suited to an era of détente, but whose exhaustive efforts to negotiate from a position of strength enervated both himself and the empire he served.
—James Graham Wilson
Republic.com 2.0, by Cass R. Sunstein. Princeton, August 2007. $24.95
In the first edition of this book (Republic.com), Sunstein proposed that the health of a state is determined by its citizens’ engagement with public affairs, and he worried that the Internet’s new technologies, left unregulated, make it too easy for us to avoid fellow citizens who do not already share our views. He is honest enough as a scholar and a citizen to acknowledge that evidence suggests the Internet so far has had a positive effect on public engagement. But beyond a concern about the potential decline of public discourse, Sunstein wants us to be more reflective about “the preconditions for maintaining a republic.” Though he never directly says so, the book is actually a piece of moral philosophy analyzing a struggle between two rival conceptions of human freedom. One, a consumerist conception, is fixated on maximizing choice (or rather removing constraints on choice) in the service of meeting whatever preferences people may have. The other view, more properly “republican” (not the political party, but the philosophical position of the Founders), is committed to genuine autonomy and institutions that provide all with “the chance to have preferences and beliefs formed under decent conditions.” Sunstein prefers the second, and so should we, though how to determine “decent conditions” is left a tad murky. This preference matters, for pluralistic republics like the US are defined in crucial part by disputes over what is “decent” and what is not. This book, now in a substantially revised edition, remains the most effective public work depicting this debate and urging on us this proper vision of a reasonable freedom.
Roll-Call to Destiny: The Soldier’s Eye View of Civil War Battles, by Brent Nosworthy. Basic Books, March 2008. $27.95
Building on his vast knowledge of nineteenth-century warfare, historian Nosworthy promises a “soldier’s eye view” of the Civil War. Unlike many studies that focus on a rather abstract, universalized account of soldier experience, Roll-Call to Destiny offers a series of vignettes that detail various aspects of combat: infantry charges, the effect of artillery, and the intricacies of fights between cavalry. Based on copious research in primary sources, these ground-level accounts present a series of “tactical observations.” For instance, Nosworthy argues that the increased killing range of the rifle-musket was just a theory, and bayonet charges remained a vital component of battle because of their effect on morale rather than any expectation of actual hand-to-hand combat. The string of vignettes, in some ways, proves the weakest part of the book. Though well written, these accounts provide discrete instances where preexisting conclusions about battles should be revised. But as Nosworthy himself points out, his analysis does not provide “sweeping generalizations.” The book’s specific illuminations stand by themselves admirably, but they fail to engage with accounts with wider explanatory power. His reliance on primary sources sometimes limits the utility of his book; his discussion of the reasons and uses of field fortifications would benefit from references to the works of Earl J. Hess, to cite one example. The result is a book that prods one to think more deeply about long-held assumptions but does little to point the way toward broader conclusions.
Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, by Jason Phillips. Georgia, November 2007. $34.95
With this book, Phillips attempts to explain what motivated Confederate soldiers to keep fighting during the last two years of the Civil War. After the twin defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863, it’s hard to understand why they believed they could still win their independence. Phillips explains their tenacity with what he calls a “culture of invincibility.” He finds that most Confederate soldiers genuinely believed that God was on their side; He bestowed victories on the faithful, and defeats indicated a test of faith. Beyond this belief, increasing animosity towards the invading Yankees sustained Confederate soldiers. Rapacious Northern hordes threatened the white Southern way of life, and the evolving Union policy of a hard war confirmed Confederate hatred of Northerners. These discoveries seem rather obvious and commonsensical; what society at war does not believe God is on its side, or refrains from demonizing the enemy? And yet, herein lies the importance of Phillips’s book: it powerfully reminds us that the Civil War was like any other war. It was most assuredly not a friendly fraternal scrap, and did not end with a cheery “Hail, fellow! Well met!” The Civil War created very real hatreds and animosities that shaped white Southern behavior well into the postwar period, and to forget this distorts our perception of American history.
George Thomas: Virginian for the Union, by Christopher J. Einolf. Oklahoma, November 2007. $29.95
When the Civil War broke out, George H. Thomas, a slaveholding army officer from Virginia, sided with the Union. Largely forgotten today, Thomas received great accolades during the war for his performance at several critical battles, most notably Chickamauga. Einolf argues that Thomas’s notions of honor prevented him from violating his oath to protect the United States. While Thomas remained loyal to the US, this choice harmed his career. He was reluctant to engage in politics during the war and initially refused command of the Army of the Cumberland out of concern that it would appear that he had schemed for the position. When Thomas finally did receive command, his deliberate nature convinced General Ulysses S. Grant that Thomas was too slow and cautious. Beyond discussing Thomas’s military activities, Einolf investigates how the war changed his racial attitudes. He was untroubled by slavery at the war’s start, but his racism crumbled after he saw the service of African Americans in the US Army. Following the Civil War, he used his powers as far as possible to protect African Americans. Einolf has crafted a brilliant biography that goes beyond the military activities of an important general to examine the attitudes of the man. Devoting ample space to his pre- and post-war career, Einolf paints a complete, compelling, and evenhanded portrait of George Thomas.
Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, by Milton C. Sernett. Duke, October 2007. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper
This volume offers a careful study of how Harriet Tubman has become central to current versions of American history. Tubman has been an exceedingly malleable symbol: in the 1860s, she was known as the leader of the Underground Railroad and a Union army nurse and scout; by the 1890s, she was seen as a supporter of women’s suffrage in upstate New York; by the middle of the twentieth century, she was barely known; but since the 1960s, she has become an icon of liberation in children’s stories and public commemorations. A more rigorously chronological account could have accentuated these variations over time while avoiding the repetition into which this thematically organized book occasionally falls. Sernett’s strength is found in the exquisite care with which he evaluates the sources of our knowledge of Tubman. He devotes nearly a third of the book to Tubman’s relatively few biographers. In doing so, he focuses on the tension between Tubman the myth and Tubman the historical actor. But extracting history from myth has proven difficult. Modern biographers have added detail to our knowledge but have left untouched the symbol of Tubman, the heroine of the antislavery movement. The great value of this account lies in showing just how closely national history aligns with national myth.
A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign, by Timothy D. Johnson. Kansas, September 2007. $39.95
Closely following developments from England, the Duke of Wellington praised General Winfield Scott’s Mexico City campaign as an event “unsurpassed in military annals.” While other historians have largely concurred with the victor of Waterloo’s sentiment, there has never been a book-length study of the campaign itself until this excellent work. Lasting from March to September 1847, the Mexico City campaign saw Scott and his 11,000 regulars and volunteers traverse nearly 250 miles into the heart of Mexico. Johnson combines a top-down study of operational and strategic considerations with “the perspective of the lower ranks” to give a rich account of the invading US forces. He particularly notes how Scott employed his Army Corps of Engineers to wage a “scientific” form of warfare that allowed him to besiege the port city of Veracruz through well-positioned artillery and carefully coordinated beach landings. More importantly, the author credits Scott with a plan to pacify Mexican citizens by respecting civilian and church property. The masterful discussion of the interplay between President James Polk, his commanding general, and Polk’s military appointees serves to reveal how politicized the military command structure had become during the war. Interspersed within the narrative are details on the often unfavorable perceptions by US soldiers of the Mexican people and the sometimes bitter rivalries between regular officers and the less-experienced volunteers. Although Johnson previously has written a biography of Winfield Scott, his judgments concerning the general are balanced and well considered, especially when noting the Virginian’s vanity and prickly temperament. Johnson is clearly right that Ulysses Grant, among others, received their schooling in Mexico; the lesson of severing one’s supply line that Grant learned during the Mexico City campaign was later adapted to the Vicksburg Campaign. Scholars and enthusiasts of military history alike will want to own this volume.
Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz. Princeton,
September 2007. $29.95
There is no shortage of books—scholarly or otherwise—on the tragically short-lived experiment with democracy that was Weimar. While most have focused primarily on the political or diplomatic happenings of the period, Weitz has lavished attention on the culture of Weimar. This is hardly a novel approach, but the amount of coverage he gives to the radically different departures in the arts—in particular film, photography, and architecture—makes this an especially original contribution to the field. Popular culture, the changing role of women, innovations in the still new fields of photography and moviemaking, and the advent of mass entertainment all receive ample attention. Weimar Germany is strikingly illustrated with numerous photographs, posters, and reproductions of paintings supplemented by text that is both well-written and captivating in its use of imagery. The author’s interest in the period shows through as does his sense of foreboding, given the aftermath of this fiery burst of creativity.
Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith. Vintage, January 2008. $13.95 paper
In the 1970s and 1980s, short-story writers razed a grove of old-growth literature and erected some desolate, ominous, comic, poignant suburban tracts. Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Bobbie Ann Mason, and many others used denuded language to describe empty lives, creating moods more memorable than characters. Employing the minimalists’ techniques, this debut collection by Montreal writer Neil Smith, brings exuberance to the genre, often rendering banality psychedelic. Bang Crunch explores alcoholism, homosexual coming-of-age, school shootings, and life after tumors, but the sensational content provides the premise rather than the point. Within this frame, Smith wields good metaphors and funny one-liners. His powers of invention run the same risk as the minimalists’ moody compression: that too little of humanity will survive the treatment to be worth caring about. Bang Crunch’s final story, “Jaybirds,” dares to be sentimental and dwells on characters at length. It proves that the volume is worth reading not only for its immediate dazzle but also as a portent of things to come—hopefully things with more interiority and heart.
When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, by Frank X Walker. Kentucky, January 2008. $15.00 paper
When Winter Come is Walker’s sequel to Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004), a volume of historical fiction in poetic form about York, the personal slave and companion of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Buffalo Dance, based on the expedition’s journals, was written entirely from the point of view of York. The sequel relies on other voyagers’ journals, Native American oral histories, and African cultural traditions and belief systems. The poems in When Winter Come are written from a variety of perspectives, and include the female voices, especially that of York’s wife, that surround and fuel York’s passions, voices which were absent in the first collection. York, like other members of the expedition, discovered wildlife, rode horses, and had geological features named after him. Unlike the other participants, however, York received no land or payment for his time and efforts. In fact, upon returning to St. Louis, Clark forbade York from visiting his wife who was owned by another master in Louisville. While little is known about York’s life after the expedition, Walker gives voice to this overlooked historical figure. Walker’s hope is that telling this story will counteract negative media about young African American men, giving them a genuine hero. As a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, Walker’s newest collection is rooted in the aesthetic of that group, which he describes as “making the invisible visible.”
A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond, by Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel, adapted
by Fanny Howe. California, October 2007. $16.95 paper
Sisters Ilona and Henia Karmel were seventeen and twenty years old when they were sent to the Nazi labor camps from the Kraków ghetto. On worksheets stolen from the factories where they worked by day, they wrote these poems of resistance, struggle, and longing, and sewed them into their clothing. During the forced death marches of April 1945, Henia and Ilona were crushed by Germans in tanks and, still living, shoved into a mass grave. In her introduction, Fanny Howe writes, “Shortly thereafter another group of prisoners passed by, one of whom was a cousin of the Karmels. In the chaos Henia was able to tear open her clothes and hand her cousin all of the poems. She repeated her husband’s name to her cousin and begged her to get the poems to him in Kraków if he was still alive.” Henia’s husband, Leon, received the poems, and Henia and Ilona were rescued by a farmer and taken to a nearby hospital. The poems often betray the writers’ youth, but, as Henia wrote in 1947, “these poems are real, not just scribblings.[they] came about when I was still creating myself, experiencing the pain of separation. How I could have survived, you might ask? If so, sir, you know nothing of life. It lasted, that’s all.” Or, as Henia put it defiantly in “Snapshots,” “My name is Number 906. / And guess what? I still write verse.” This book is of great historical significance, but as Fanny Howe writes in her notes, “The two sisters were not creating documents for scholars to use in studying the effects of forced labor. They wanted to make poems.” These poems nearly shake with defiance: “Listen! That’s our blood pulsing— / purple, wild, red— / foaming like the power of fire / that can’t be contained.”
One Big Self: An Investigation, by C. D. Wright. Copper Canyon, February 2007. $15 paper
In this book-length poem, C. D. Wright documents the naked interrelation of poverty, illiteracy, substance and physical abuse, mental illness, race, and gender in our prison system. Representations of inmates fill the poem, taking in, along with their violence, their bravado and poverty of imagination. Passionate and humorous, mostly free of the dramatic narrative that makes conclusions possible, the work is never free of specific looking and listening. Though Wright says she “balked” at “the resistance of poetry to the conventions of evidentiary writing,” her work can be seen in the context of innovative women’s writing and its stance against domination. It also is part of that tradition in its use of formal elements of fragmentation, parataxis, and interruption. Pastiches of talk, signage, quotations, and lyric description compose the sections. The poems themselves maintain a non-judging and unsentimental emotional focus that never strays from what has been done to people and what they in turn do to others. Wright’s aesthetic tonal pitch keeps the fragments and lyric patches in the air, concluding (not resolving) each section with resonant but understated images. The book may elude on first read, but images and themes gather force with rereading. Understatement and poetics may keep the reader on edge, but the poem never lacks the observational juice that can be the genesis of empathy.
Joyce’s Misbelief, by Roy Gottfried. Florida, January 2008. $59.95
Although many critics have analyzed James Joyce’s purported religious disbelief, Gottfriend forges a new perspective by exploring Joyce’s “misbelief,” the ways in which he is simultaneously invested in, yet critical of, Catholicism. Employing the resonant, multifaceted concepts of schisms and “epicleti”—Joyce’s use of a contested religious term to describe Dubliners—Gottfried persuasively details the means by which Joyce draws upon subtle references to Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, rather than Catholic, texts to subvert his childhood religion and thus his Irish heritage. In the process, Gottfried argues, Joyce demonstrates the complex ways in which “heresy” against a religion inherently suggests rebellion against the political systems, nationalism, language, and morality intertwined with that dominant ideology. Ultimately, Gottfried suggests that Joyce defines his status as an iconoclast who rejects all dogma, religious and political, in order to create a space for individual freedom and a self-defined artistic aesthetic. Such a response to a world that often fuses religious and political identities—especially as analyzed here with such careful research and depth—has relevance for Joyce and his time, as well as for our own.
Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina, by Thomas Neff. Missouri, December 2007. $29.95
Following the initial deluge of news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, more analytical treatments of the disaster have come forth. Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, among the best known of these, passionately articulate the outrage of the suffering masses and levy blame for the inadequate official response to the disaster. Neff, a professor of art at Louisiana State University, takes a different tack here, focusing neither on the immediacy of the horror nor the impulse to seek answers from the larger forces of politics, economics, or environment. Instead, Neff’s photographs provide a series of intimate glimpses into the private lives of those displaced by Katrina, and hold out both the promise of raw human connection and the lingering sense of untold grief. There is none of the cathartic cacophony of Lee’s film here, none of Brinkley’s investigative networking; Neff’s community of survivors (and a few who, after he and his camera moved on, did not long survive) possesses a surprisingly quiet, slow-burning urgency, stoicism, and fortitude. Some images, like that of Annette K-Doe, surrounded by cleaning supplies as she sits on the bar at her memento-encrusted Mother-in-Law Lounge, or those of Tommie Elton Mabry, who kept journal entries of each day’s happenings on his public-housing walls, contain vast worlds of experience and memory. This book’s beauty is hard won, its faces grooved like so many stones beneath a persistent stream.
Remodeling the Nation: The Architecture of American Identity, 1776–1858, by Duncan Faherty. New England, December 2007, $50
Faherty joins the lively scholarly discussion about identity formation by examining the way nineteenth-century Americans saw the house as a metaphor for the nation. He argues that, by altering the design and meaning of domestic architecture, Americans constructed their visions for cultural development, social order, and national history in the face of industrialization, expansion, and sectional conflict. Only the renovation of a house could create a place that encouraged geographic stability and manifested the past in a rapidly changing society. While engaging a few material and visual sources, Faherty draws his strongest evidence from textual analysis of American literary works: fiction by James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and historical texts by Thomas Jefferson, William Bartram, and Abraham Lincoln. Faherty’s close readings provide fresh perspective on familiar works and offer creative interpretations of the significance of domestic imagery in popular texts. He uses a number of studies to strengthen his interpretations, but the references to these works sometimes obscure his voice and distract from his own conclusions. Often it is left to the reader to synthesize the content of each chapter into a broader narrative of changing domestic imagery. Nevertheless, this study calls much needed attention to the ways that post-Revolutionary Americans tried to reconcile the seemingly contradictory ideas of preservation and development, past and future, conservatism and progressivism, and local and national. Remodeling the Nation is sure to prompt scholars from many disciplines to reconsider the ways that Americans manipulated space to negotiate identity in nineteenth-century society.
—Whitney A. Martinko
The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, by Owen Flanagan. MIT, November 2007. $27.95
In writing about eudaimonics, the science of happiness, Flanagan casts a wide net, including a consideration of the great-wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism, as he discusses how one might live a meaningful life in a material world. “The important thing,” Flanagan writes, “is that eudaimonics is empirical, or, better, epistemologically responsible—all claims about the nature, causes, and conditions of flourishing are to be based on reasoning about the evidence, historical and contemporary, about what flourishing is.” The emphasis on empirical inquiry is fine, if it did not categorically rule out anything which Flanagan considers “spooky,” those aspects of thriving that are not empirically verifiable. Flanagan’s treatment of Buddhism is positive and respectful, if a bit reductionist: it is, he says, “a noble path to wisdom, virtue, and happiness.” But traditional theism does not come off so well. Traditional expressions of western theism are “immature, epistemically and emotionally irresponsible.” Flanagan, who has many good and interesting things to say about the search for happiness, cuts too narrow a swath through the material at hand and may leave cold a broad section of readers. Like it or not, the sacred is spooky.
In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists, by Todd Hignite. Yale, November 2007. $19.95 paper
Between 2002 and 2005, Hignite conducted interviews with nine prominent comic cartoonists, from elders such as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman to younger artists such as Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti. A comics scholar and the editor of Comic Art magazine, Hignite is particularly interested in the delightfully bewildering history of the various art forms that have come together as, or impinged upon, comics and graphic novels. The nine visits documented here offer commentary by each of the artists on their own work as well as particular comic art that inspired them. The section devoted to Robert Crumb alone is worth the price of admission, as we have his reflections on various artists and images from, for example, Mad magazine and an illustrated discussion of his current project, a comic version of the book of Genesis. Crumb notes that in the 1940s comics, Picture Stories from the Bible, God is represented only as a voice from on high; whereas Crumb’s reading of Genesis teaches him that God must be drawn as an embodied actor among the other characters of the story. “And I had this problem for a long time: ‘How am I going to draw God?’” Readers who love comics will enjoy these glimpses over the shoulders of great comic artists looking at work that inspires them.
Driftless: Photographs from Iowa, by Danny Wilcox Frazier. Duke, October 2007. $39.95
A large part of photography’s power comes from its ability to capture precisely everything visible to the camera’s lens at the moment of exposure. This exactness is not what interests Frazier. His photographs, instead, embrace one of photography’s more elusive qualities. Before they do anything else, they evoke a mood. There is a restlessness in his gritty black and white images of rural Iowa and a weariness as well. Frazier’s people live in trailers, migrant workers’ camps, and farmhouses with drafty windows. Their jobs are in slaughterhouses and factories. They haven’t been defeated, as Frazier makes clear, but they’re struggling to come to terms with an economy that is crumbling under their feet. Pleasure comes in the form of deer hunting and pool halls, cigarettes, beer, and love. The coarse, sand-in-your-teeth grain of Frazier’s photographs reflects his subjects’ exhaustion. His use of stark contrast—lots of blacks, lots of whites, not much in between—points toward their endurance. Another photographer might have treated this blue-collar world with condescension or disdain; that’s not the case here. The intimacy of the photographs suggests that Frazier has been a part of this world; he conveys its essential dignity without a trace of sentimentality.
—John Edwin Mason
Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life, by Rene Weis. Henry Holt, October 2007. $32.50
At the shallow end of Shakespearean scholarship are the cocktail party arguments concerning his/her identity. At the deep end are the plays and poems themselves, the source of infinite richness of experience, thought, and speculation as to the Bard’s often elusive meaning. Four centuries of devoted study and interpretation have failed to exhaust the richness of the Shakespearean journey through a world populated with an extraordinary range of personalities, events, thoughts, emotions, and problems. The journey does not require knowing particularities of who Shakespeare was or of what his private life consisted. As with any journey, however, other particularities—linguistic, historical, cultural, or moral—may greatly enhance enjoyment and understanding. With his splendid new Shakespeare biography, Weis equips the reader with the very best kind of guidebook. His exhaustive knowledge of the plays and poems reconstructs for modern readers the context—historical, moral, cultural, artistic, and linguistic—that permitted Shakespeare’s contemporaries to more readily understand and enjoy his art. In the process he provides richly documented answers to nagging questions concerning the life of the Bard himself, not to mention the dark lady, the rival poet, and other mysterious personalities of the sonnets. He is not intent on providing a police lineup wherein the perpetrator of the plays and his accomplices are identified. His goal is to heighten our attention and sharpen our judgment as to what the great poet may have been thinking as he wrote—what made him tick. Weis makes a persuasive case that the “true author” of the works of Shakespeare could have been none other than a birth-lamed Warwickshire country boy, glover’s son, and sometime Arden forest poacher who experienced the same sorts of loves and hopes, adventures and disappointments as the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, he employed his humble and commonplace experiences to fashion immortal work. Though nothing about these experiences explains the miracle required to transform them, the elixir was not privileged birth, lordly title, a better classical education, or erudition in science. Many have had these advantages before, during, and since, and none has duplicated his feat. Even after reading Weis’s splendid book the miracle remains a mystery. But Weis is a marvelous guide to the understanding and appreciation of so much else that we want to know concerning Shakespeare, his times, and especially his works.
—Robert S. Rust
Nineteenth-Century American Authors
Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Philip McFarland. Grove Press, November 2007. $26
Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln famously declared, “So you’re the little woman that started this great war!” But McFarland’s eloquent narrative chronicles not only her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also her subsequent books, setting the composition of each firmly in time and place. It also discusses in colorful detail her accusing Byron of incest in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869 and the subsequent damage to her literary reputation, as well as the blowback when her brother, the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher, stood trial for adultery in 1875. Through Stowe’s devotion to her father, husband, several siblings (all ministers and her “loves”), we also get a unique view of the impact of American Protestantism both in nineteenth-century New England and on the western frontier, where Lyman Beecher, the novelist’s father, founded the Second Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati and became the first president of Lane Theological Seminary, dedicated to preparing ministers for success in nourishing the less religious pioneers in the West. Philip McFarland has written an intriguing biography that will appeal equally to literary scholars and historians.
Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews, ed. Gary Scharnhorst. Alabama, November 2006. $75
It is risky to call anything “complete” these days—with the letters, manuscripts, and forgotten interviews of major American authors like Mark Twain surfacing almost monthly on the internet or emerging from research collections. (An unpublished Twain fragment, which I co-edited with Ed Folsom, appeared in these pages barely a year ago.) Still, Gary Scharnhorst’s impeccably edited collection gives us an insight into Twain’s public life that is available nowhere else. Most of the 258 newspaper interviews were conducted between 1895 and 1910, the last fifteen years of his life. Therefore, they especially enlighten the details of his lecture tour in 1895 and 1896 that led to Following the Equator (1897) and helped him pay off the debts of his bankrupt publishing company. During that period he also talks about his favorite work (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and for the first time publicly airs his disgust with Bret Harte, who had nourished him in his early California days but lost his friendship in the ensuing years of his protégé’s fame and Twain’s own literary decline. Whether this collection ultimately proves complete or not is beside the point; Scharnhorst has performed a valuable editorial and scholarly service.