George III: America’s Last King, by Jeremy Black. Yale, December 2006. $35
Perhaps more famous for his loss of the American colonies and, later, his sanity than for any other aspect of his reign, King George III often elicits either knee-jerk scorn or pity. In evaluating the British monarch exclusively through these two events, one neglects a sense of continuity in the development of his thought as well as in his actions. As Exeter University historian Jeremy Black tells us in his splendid biography, George III “was always led by a commitment to restore and maintain the moral order of society, a position that greatly influenced his attitude towards disaffection in the American colonies.” By highlighting the ways in which George accepted a limited constitutional monarchy, even while insisting upon royal prerogative, Black presents the king as responsive to ideas of governmental reform during the European Enlightenment. The first half of the book is devoted to his views on everything from family to religion. After establishing the cultural foundations for George’s policies, Black then turns to how George’s character shaped his ability to deal with the many crises in his reign, whether in America, Ireland, or France. Far from the weak and vacillating ruler portrayed by some, the king emerges in this book as a forceful and resolute individual who could engage in political intrigue to defeat his opponents. In the end, though, Black notes how George’s “habitual self-righteousness brought him no solace.” With the world continuing to suffer from wars borne of intolerance, perhaps we might all learn from the example of George III and the Age of Revolutions.
Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700, by Jose Cañizares-Esguerra. Stanford, December 2006. $60 cloth, $24.95 paper
At first glance, the histories of Protestant New England and Catholic New Spain do not appear to have much in common with each other. Not so, argues historian Jose Cañizares-Esguerra in this insightful work. He maintains that Puritan settlers and Spanish conquistadores shared a common belief in demonology, according to which the devil created discord in the natural world through the possession of native “savages” and through strange drugs such as tobacco. Therefore, the conversion of the natives to Christianity served, for both groups of Europeans, an impulse to rid the New World of demons. Relying on travel accounts, conversion narratives, and contemporary drawings, Cañizares-Esguerra has demonstrated a mastery of the sources across New Spain, New England, and Europe. Perhaps the most impressive section of the book lies at the end, where the author tries to advance a new type of history, which goes beyond studies of the rise of the nation-state to embrace the complex interactions between Latin America and the rest of the Atlantic world.
Modern Republican: Arthur Larson and the Eisenhower Years, by David L. Stebenne. Indiana, November 2006. $35
When presidential hopeful George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” the term struck many political observers as an essentially novel effort to reshape American conservatism to appeal to independent-minded voters. Historian David L. Stebenne, however, tries to trace the origins of compassionate conservatism all the way back to the Eisenhower administration, and more particularly to the principles outlined by Arthur Larson, who was in turn Under Secretary of Labor and speechwriter for President Eisenhower. In doing so, Stebenne wishes the reader to understand the continuing tensions between this form of “big-government conservatism” and the more libertarian conservatism of the Reagan Administration. Larson’s early life as both a Rhodes Scholar and member of the Office of Price Administration’s legal staff pointed to his later role as Eisenhower’s chief intellectual spokesman for the administration’s own “Dynamic Conservatism.” Striking a balance between the Old Guard Republicans and the liberal Democratic opposition, Larson’s message represented a moderate conservatism that accepted the need for maintaining a strong welfare state while advocating the responsibility of individual states to help solve pressing social problems. While Stebenne offers a good case for Larson’s influence on the intellectual foundations of the Eisenhower-era GOP, he does not fully acknowledge how closely Larson’s ideas foreshadowed those of contemporary neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol. Also, Stebenne might have investigated how well his subject symbolized the plight of other “moderately conservative” Republicans who increasingly felt left behind with the rightward shift of their party. These minor criticisms aside, Stebenne has provided a readable and insightful look into the reasons for the recent successes and failures of compassionate conservatism.
Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, by Matthew Mason. North Carolina, October 2006. $45
The more traditional view holds that slavery became a polarizing issue in US political life as late as 1819, during the debates over the admission of Missouri to the Union, debates that sounded to Jefferson “like a firebell in the night.” Mason, in a tightly reasoned and well-written exploration of the period, provides ample evidence that the issue of slavery had ever been a topic about which Americans argued. Though it did not always dominate the national discussion, as it did from the early 1830s on, there never was a time during which it was not a handy weapon of politicians and editors for discrediting whichever opposing party. It was especially prominent during the fierce politicking over the War of 1812, when antiwar Federalists from New England used it unsparingly to denigrate their Republican counterparts who enthusiastically supported the war. The latter, whose base was in the slaveholding states of the South and whose leaders for twenty-four consecutive years hailed from Virginia (the much reviled Virginia dynasty), refused to let anyone forget the Federalists’ treachery at the ill-timed Hartford Convention. Slavery was never the sole source of North-South or Federalist-Republican disagreements. Nor, however, was it ever far removed, and its baleful influence, as embodied in the infamous three-fifths compromise in the US Constitution, would remain an irritant in interparty and interregional relations. Mason’s book is a useful reminder that what has been called “the serpent under the table at the Constitutional Convention,” was lively enough throughout its long career.
Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North, by Jennifer L. Weber. Oxford, October 2006. $28
The definition of what constitutes legitimate dissent in wartime has proven a rather vexing issue for Americans throughout their nation’s history, including the current Iraq war. Offering timely historical insight into this contemporary debate, Weber tries to recreate for the reader the divisions within the Civil War North, revealing the presence of a sizable and vocal antiwar minority there. In treating the words and actions of the so-called Peace or Copperhead Democrats, Weber’s work invites comparison with a standard of the subject: Frank Klement’s The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960). Unfortunately for specialists anticipating a major revision of Klement’s work, Professor Weber’s treatment of the Copperheads falls short in at least two notable ways. First, she considers the Copperheads largely in exclusion from their prowar Democratic and pro-Union Republican rivals. Certainly, her work could have probed more thoroughly the interactions between these three groups and the Copperheads’ impressions of their opponents and vice versa. Finally, this reviewer wishes that Weber had more fully addressed important recent arguments by scholars Mark Neely and Adam I. P. Smith, which question whether dissent and two-party politics actually aided the Union war effort. These shortcomings aside, Weber’s account offers an excellent starting point for specialists and nonspecialists alike who want to understand the very real challenges to the Lincoln administration.
Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, by Peniel E. Joseph. Holt, July 2006. $27.50
Joseph’s ambitious new study is the most visible example of an explosion of literature on black power and black self-defense during the civil rights era. Challenging received wisdom and, especially, traditional civil rights periodization, Joseph presents the fullest treatment to date of the black power movement. Tracing it back to the 1950s and the rise of the Nation of Islam as embodied in Malcolm X, often perceived as the radical foil to Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph shows how the nascent black power movement preached self-empowerment rather than integration, demanded pride rather than brotherhood, and called for rigorous defense rather than nonviolence. Joseph shows how the fiercely independent Stokely Carmichael was among the first leaders from within the traditional movement to bring about a more radical focus to black demands for freedom. It was Carmichael who instigated the first “Black Power” chants, to the dismay of King and much of the movement, during a 1966 march in Mississippi. Joseph shows how within just a few years “Black Power” went from a slogan in search of a movement to a dominant, if misunderstood, strain of black political activism. Joseph’s book will not provide the last word on Black Power, but it is arguably the most vital contribution to date on what is still one of the most misunderstood phenomena in American history.
Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875–2002, by Marco Palacios, translated by Richard Stoller. Duke, May 2006. $22.95 paper
This recent addition to the Latin America in Translation series is a panoramic chronicle of Colombia’s “long twentieth century,” reaching back to the civil conflicts of the 1800s and forward to a present sadly marred by drug wars. Such a sweeping and comprehensive history engenders a sympathetic, or at the least more insightful, understanding of the nation’s present difficulties, in a manner comprehensible to the general reader and with a richness and detail that may make it the best available single-volume history of the country. Of particular interest will be the balanced account of the questionable emergence of Panama as an independent nation in the canal-building era of Teddy Roosevelt. Economic, religious, and cultural dimensions of Colombian life both past and present provide a context for the chronological narrative of political history. Problematic relations with the US are examined, and parallels and contrasts made to other Latin American countries further enrich the perspective. Contemporary headlines from Colombia may occasion continued dismay, but Palacios’s present work offers at least elements of faint hope for a more optimistic future.
Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. Norton, February 2006. $35
Just as many historians were dropping political historiography for social and cultural historiography, the opening of the Soviet-bloc archives—whose opening remains partial but ongoing—made possible dramatic advancements in the field of Cold War history. Fursenko, a prominent Russian historian, and Naftali, a Kremlinologist and director of the Richard Nixon presidential library (and its Cold War–era archive) have used these sources to produce the best available study of Khrushchev’s dramatic and pivotal time in power. During his tenure, the Hungarian revolt was crushed, most of France’s and Britain’s colonies became independent countries, and the Cold War escalated with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In many ways, in other words, it was under Khrushchev that the early, Stalin-tinged Cold War became the mature Cold War that most of us remember firsthand. Fursenko and Naftali use newly released documents to argue that Khrushchev was even more tempestuous than was traditionally thought, and periodically needed to be restrained by other members of the Soviet Union’s post-Stalinist collective leadership. While some of their interpretations of specific events will surely be debated, their exhaustive use of once-untouchable sources will make this volume indispensable for some time.
Surprised in Translation, by Mary Ann Caws. Chicago, September 2006. $25
Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, takes a moment to look back over her career as scholar and translator of surrealist poetry and to discuss some of the “surprises” she encountered along the way. Each chapter centers on a particular author (Mallarmé, Woolf, Pound, Beckett, Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats) and his or her relationship to the art of translation, of either their own work or the poetry of others. This art, the mimetic attempt to cross the boundary between langues, often one word at a time, highlights the intermediary space of negotiation. It has the ability to open up and explode entire realms of thought and shed odd and intriguing light upon the poetic practice of the author. While examining these transmutations, Caws celebrates her discovery of particular “slippages” that occur between languages: additions, omissions, intentional ambiguities, translations of gender. She discovers in herself and in the works of others that the translation of poetry is more than just the act of a single moment. The translator must wiggle his or her way into the intermediary space, learn to dwell in it and recognize its “inner shape,” before carrying it into a target language. Yet even this statement makes the process of translation appear to be something permanent, something “done.” Rather, as the author emphasizes, one must be attuned to the importance of reflection, return, and renegotiation, which span a lifetime of learning the translator’s art; for it is as much an art of learning how to read as it is an art of knowing how to write. Caws shuns the literal translation of poetry and celebrates the ambiguity a writer can create through various translational acts. For, in her own words, “we as poets, translators, readers—recognize in the rendering of a single word the explanation of an entire thought, poem, way of being, world.” As translators, we must recognize the perils and joys of our ability to ascribe meaning to the words of others, either indefinite or definitive. This book is a delightfully satisfying read for anyone who has tiptoed this fragile terrain.
—John M. Jackson
The Essential Wayne Booth, edited by Walter Jost. Chicago, July 2006. $35
A leading literary critic of the twentieth century, Wayne C. Booth meticulously explored rhetoric and its control over our reading (and daily) experience. This collection of previously published essays (compiled by the University of Virginia’s Walter Jost) captures the broad range of Booth’s subjects, from ethics, popular culture, and teaching, to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Mikhail Bakhtin. His invigorating and earnestly joyful style of writing matches his intense depth and breadth of reading. Suspicious of jargon, Booth is always searching for real understanding instead of the perfect multi-syllabic hyphenated adjective; his essays excite us because he so lucidly takes us along on his explorations. Take his essay on irony—a beaten path if ever there was one, and yet one that he regenerates with deceptive ease. First, with a combination of impatient frustration and puckish glee, he lists possible alternatives for the overused term ironic, offering a delicious and yet disarmingly useful menu of seventy-eight choices, such as cabalistic, deceptive, hoodwinking, puzzling, and yes, puckish. But Booth is not so taken by his own superior usus loquendi as to be content with just a tirade, however functional it may be. Instead he uses this array of definitions to get at the heart of why the term is so misused. Here he truly dazzles, calling up years of diverse and seemingly unrelated reading to convincingly argue for the relationship of irony to our human love for play, our craving for friendship, and what he reveals as our unremitting dependence on the idea of an organized and benevolent universe. Booth, who died in 2005, composed a paragraph of commentary for each piece; they give us a newer perspective on his conclusions and complement the sense of active pursuit in each essay, presenting the entire text as part of a continuing venture in a life of reading.
Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories, by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos. Arcade Publishing, November 2006. $24
Kadare, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2005, here explores the astonishingly cruel and inhuman permutations of power. The title novella infuses a portrait of modern history with interwoven doses of mythology and folktale. The story is set in 1980s Albania, under the shadow of a political regime that is unpredictable, morally indifferent, and absurdly serious, concisely described at one point as “a truly diabolically mechanism.” The stark prose, presented through the dark perspective of a nameless narrator, creates an complex tale of lost love, sinister politics, and psychological disorientation. The atmosphere of suspicion, secrecy, and cynicism is so oppressive that it causes the narrator to question not only his government and his fellow citizens but even his language and knowledge itself. The narrator’s paranoia and delusion overwhelm his most basic modes of perception and interpretation, and neither he nor the reader can distinguish between what is real, what exists only in his imagination, and what is a facade erected by the state by means of a fog of rumors. Revelations come slowly and with resistance, as though the narrator is withholding information from himself in the same way that Kadare withholds it from his readers.
Crafted in the same vein of political trepidation and communal uncertainty, “The Blinding Order” explores questions of ethics and power within the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. The story centers on the illogical and superstitious application of justice and punishment. The unfortunate people found guilty of being “carriers of the evil eye” are subject to “disoculation,” or, “the forcible putting out of eyes.” The inexorable forces of power are obeyed almost reflexively, with denunciations of the innocent taking place under the coercion of fear, panic, and the impulse towards self-preservation. The absurdity of the belief that evil could be concentrated in something as arbitrary as an eye, as well as Kadare’s matter-of-fact tone, make the horrific events of the story seem that much more inhuman and disturbing.
In “The Great Wall,” the impending attack of China by the nomadic conqueror Tamerlane is narrated by the dual voices of one of his soldiers and a Chinese military inspector. The latter is bewildered concerning the strange events taking place, which he sees as a “puzzle” with “perfectly illogical elements.” Posted on the outliers of the political machine, informed only by occasional messengers and his own fertile imagination, he is the victim of a sudden and violent overthrowing of perspective, left to contemplate “the hundreds of misleading images this world provides us with, which can only ever be seen in hindsight.” The nomadic soldier, on the other hand, projects his own rage and confusion through a crass indifference toward suffering, both of others and his own. A particularly unnerving moment occurs when he refers to inconceivable acts of torture with the wistful phrase, “Oh! those were the good times.” Meanwhile, the Great Wall itself emerges as a silent and dignified third voice, who alternately protects, oppresses, or fills one with foreboding.
—Britt R. Johnson
Spit Baths: Stories, by Greg Downs. Georgia, October 2006. $24.95
Downs’s collection of short stories is about men beleaguered by an America still tarnished by racial and sexual prejudice even after the so-called successes of feminism and the civil rights movement. Personal and collective history are conflated for men and boys deformed by their own entitlement; Downs’s protagonists are often earnest yet ultimately impotent in their desire for love. In “Freedom Rider,” a teacher accompanies his eighth-grade students through ill-conceived reenactments of the civil rights movement, while utterly distracted by his lust for another teacher. In “Snack Cakes,” a boy newly initiated to sexuality is forced to join his cad of a grandfather as he visits each of his ex-wives, living and dead. In “Adam’s Curse,” an extended family of women discard their men with the exception of a single son, certain that he in turn will be rejected by any woman he loves. The story’s protagonist says that America is “not a single thing, good or bad. It’s big enough to be worth arguing about, to be worth keeping together.” This collection reflects a similar notion that America deserves scrutiny, in all its beauty and ugliness. While Downs explores the failure of affection among a doomed masculinity, he also creates a strong and generous femininity. His prose is evocative and finely tuned to his gritty material, and his narratives illuminate his characters and their concerns while acknowledging that the social forces that inform both are impossible to explicate, not because they are too far outside the reader’s experience but, rather, because they are too close.
Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems, edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer. Illinois, December 2006. $19.95 paper
The idea behind Dark Horses started as a conversation among five poets about “wonderful, obscure poems we’d come across over the years.” After musing on the topic and sending poems back and forth for a couple of months, two of the poets, Katz and Prufer, decided to send out invitations to a hundred poets, asking them for an “unknown or underappreciated poem written by anyone, in any language, from any era.” What ensues here are seventy-six poets who responded and the poem each chose, followed by a brief essay about the poem. Dark Horses reintroduces readers to both obscured poets and obscured poems by well-known poets. “Guide to Marine Mammals and Sentence Structure,” by Adam Hammer, chosen by Jim Daniels, is likened to “Walt Whitman on acid” with lines like “The Teeth-Mammal was sad, and cried real teargas, and was naked at last.” Richard Foerster reacquaints us with the Dickinson gem “This Word is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond — / Invisible, as Music — / But positive, as Sound —.” And C. K. Williams gives a touching and generous response to Chase Twichell’s “The Ruiner of Lives,” writing, “A poem of the intensities of the mind, of our astounding ability to trans-figure matter to spirit, yet, because humans never sufficiently appreciate the responsibilities which the gift of consciousness entails, also of our dreadful capacity to destroy both.” As a testament to the bond between reader and poem, the anthology gives us the personal stories of many poets who took this project on as a way to reveal how they first came to love poetry—Lucia Perillo writes of John Logan’s “Three Moves:” “I’ve always been a tad afraid that my enthusiasm for this poem springs from the fact that my first hearing of it was an inaugurating moment in my life as a poet. But, as always when I revisit this poem, I am amazed.”
Incomplete Knowledge, by Jeffrey Harrison. Four Way Books, October 2006. $14.95 paper
“If it is true what Buber says, that no encoun-ter / lacks a spiritual significance” (to borrow a pair of lines from Harrison’s Pushcart Prize–winning “God’s Penis”), then perhaps the project of any poet who works predominantly in personal narrative is to uncover that significance and, if unable to name it specifically (due to those limitations on human knowledge), at least gesture toward its location and place it in a more approachable context. To this end, the poems in Harrison’s fourth collection range from the richly detailed, often humorous, suburban dramas that have characterized his earlier work to an intense elegiac series exploring the suicide of an older brother. While Harrison maintains his knack for parsing that “spiritual significance” from contemporary American life, this book’s ultimate success might owe more to his seemingly effortless access to both desperate sorrow and a certain joyous and musical gusto—somewhat paradoxical attitudes Harrison often convincingly achieves within the space of a few lines. Here are poems that fondly remember the simplicities and surprises of childhood and adolescence while remaining aware that the life of the father and husband, even in the midst of trauma, discovers its own sufficient and sustaining pleasures, albeit rarely where we have been looking for them. It’s that understanding, however incomplete, that allows Harrison to comment as he does on the task of moving a pile of loam, in “Saturday, Late April”: “our chore done, shivering / with chill and contentment, our sweatshirts / back on as the sun goes down behind the leafless trees / like a glowing, slow-motion home run.”
—George David Clark
Horse Latitudes, by Paul Muldoon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2006. $22
Horse Latitudes, released concurrently with Muldoon’s Oxford Lectures (The End of the Poem), is as smart as it is witty, as referential to popular culture as it is to the poetry of his forebears, and as “formal” as it is “free,” smashing apart the distinction often made by the neoformalists and their opposites. The title of the book refers to “those areas thirty degrees north and south of the equator where sailing ships tend to stand becalmed in mid-ocean, where stasis (if not stagnation) is the order of the day, and where sailors, in the days when Spanish vessels transported horses to the West Indies, would throw their live cargo overboard to lighten the load and conserve food and water.” Muldoon takes this image of stasis and attaches it to subjects of intense debate that have become stagnant, in an attempt to make them, through densely compressed narrative and lyric, revitalized and current again. Muldoon’s tenth book of poetry is the work of a master and marks him as one of the most interesting and important poets writing in English today.
The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1975–2005. California, October 2006. $49.95
A lot of poets I know remember where they were when they first encountered Robert Creeley’s poetry, in the way a jazz musician might remember the first time he heard a Charlie Parker record. First encounters with Creeley’s poetry are arresting as the work of few other American writers of his generation can be: “For love—I would / split open your head and put / a candle in / behind the eyes,” begins the first stanza of “The Warning,” one of his most anthologized. Creeley was involved with the publication of this volume before his death in 2005, and the feeling of his hand in the making of this volume is evident. It is good to reacquaint oneself with some of his lesser-known poems and to discover four unpublished poems: “Yeats walking / and wondered if perhaps he was composing a poem or else / in some way significantly thinking” (“Poets”). This collection is essential reading for all contemporary poets, and anyone interested in twentieth-century American poetry. Each poem comes back to this: “be only here as and forever / each and every thing is,” as Creeley writes in “Earth.”
Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems, by Robert Wrigley. Penguin, October 2006. $20 paper
This collection begins with nineteen new poems that show the breadth of Wrigley’s poetics. They do not shy away from such big topics as war, nature, love, 9/11, or religion; but they never sink into triteness or cutesy aphorisms to make their lines succeed. In “For One Who Prays for Me” Wrigley admits, “I do not wish to hurt her, who loves me . . . still I believe / the afterlife is dirt, but sweet, and heaven’s coming back / in the lewd, bewhiskered tongue of an iris.” This level of detail and rhythm is consistent throughout Wrigley’s body of work but truly comes to apex in this selection of new poems. The book is a gorgeous culling of Wrigley’s oeuvre, from his first book, The Sinking of Clay City (1979), to Lives of the Animals (2003). The book’s title poem serves as a good example of the musicality found throughout the book: “Plum and umber, dumb phlox spilling / from the canyon walls, its blue pinks deepened / each successive frost. An ancient rose, / a crone, sweet meat after meat for the bees.”
American Religious Poems: An Anthology, edited by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba. Library of America, October 2006. $40
Arranged chronologically, this anthology spans four centuries, beginning with the Bay Psalm Book of 1640 and extending through the early twenty-first century. It contains as well two final sections of American Indian songs and black spirituals. The sheer range of poets and religions represented is extraordinary. Bloom and Zuba offer the reader many familiar names (Emerson, Longfellow, Plath, Kinnell), but they have selected wonderful poems from lesser-known poets, including New York Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Kashmiri-American Muslim Agha Shahid Ali, and Anna Hempstead Branch. A great reward of this anthology is in discovering the fine work of such unfamiliar poets, and the eclectic selections are a testament to the extraordinary diversity of America’s spiritual life. In his introduction, Bloom explains what is intended by the term “American religion,” a religion that he believes is “so implicit and universal . . . that some of its poets can be unaware that they incarnate and celebrate it.” He identifies common threads of disparate poets and religions represented in this volume in the work of Whitman, whom he refers to as “our prime shaman.” Like Whitman’s grand vision, the spirituality of America contains multitudes, and this anthology proves an inspiring tribute to the unique religious character of America. It is an essential volume that any reader, American or otherwise, will surely enjoy.
—Amber M. Jenkins
Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer. Library of America, September 2006. $40
Despite Crane’s tortured personal life, the intellectual optimism that drove his masterpieces, White Buildings and The Bridge (along with many of his finest individual poems, such as “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”), will forever mark him as a romantic visionary. Though even the great successes of Crane’s comparatively short poetic oeuvre (only 144 of this edition’s 850 pages) were not unqualified, he remains among the greatest of the twentieth-century poets. Neither Pound nor Eliot could sustain the emotional intensity and linguistic fusillade Crane displayed in The Bridge, and neither Stevens nor Williams attempted projects of comparable, Whitmanesque scope and ambition. This new edition in some sense replaces the 1966 edition compiled by Brom Weber, not by the inclusion of more poems (although a few new fragments do surface), but by a significantly improved selection of the poet’s correspondence and assorted prose, along with useful editorial contributions. The letters offer not only a rather detailed form of autobiography but also present Crane’s perceptions as a reader (commentary on other writers, from Li Po to Joyce), detail his philosophical and political leanings, and illustrate his complicated personality. Fourteen of Crane’s short essays and reviews have also been included to round out those prose offerings with insight into his aesthetic and his conception of himself as an artist. Perhaps the most compelling additions to this collection are Langdon Hammer’s own contributions: a helpful chronology, biographical data and relevant information on Crane’s companions (as well as referenced writers and critics), and a singularly valuable index to the letters themselves. This edition, notable for both its comprehensiveness and approachability, complicates our understanding of Crane both as a poet and as a personality haunted by ambition and excess.
—George David Clark
A Trick of Sunlight, by Dick Davis. Swallow Press, June 2006. $14.95 paper
Davis’s poems exemplify Auden’s definition of the art as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” With a sly, self-deprecating wit, a wisdom that spurns bombast, they are charming, as well as intelligent, so clear and deftly controlled than an inattentive reader might overlook the “mixed feelings” that they express, the disquiet and passionate ambiva-lence. The typical speaker of Davis’s poems is a good-natured curmudgeon trying to make sense of his life. Figures from literature, music, and history offer him points of comparison, hints for insight. In “Chèvrefeuille,” Davis borrows a motif from the twelfth-century poet Marie de France, comparing two lovers to intertwined honeysuckle and sapling vines. In trimeter couplets that show considerable technical skill, the poem introduces a five-line hypothetical, a counter-life, “Love’s leaves and limbs conspire / As if unsaid desire / could intimately tether / Their substances together / And none could separate / Their growth’s complicit state.” Like the gracefully self-contained verse, the medieval reference retains a certain impersonality, a remoteness across time and cultures. This distance, though, invites intimacy. The reader witnesses how the speaker projects the lovers’ dilemma onto whatever he considers, how the confident couplets and the lush metaphor express a need for understanding, a layered urgency.
In a characteristic move for Davis, “Happiness” explores the subject’s absence. The speaker quizzically regards the emotion, puzzled because he has experienced it only distantly, if it all. The more he analyzes it, the stranger it grows. At first he defines “happiness” as a linguistic riddle, “The weirdest entry in our lexicon, / The word whose referent we never know.” Loneliness isolates, but Davis’s lines subtly evoke a community, “we” who also “never know.” After posing a few other options, the poem concludes, “Or once, to someone walking by the Loire, / A trick of sunlight on a summer’s day / Revealed the Virgin in rococo clouds / The peasants in the field bent down to pray.” A rewriting of “The Oxen” (Davis claims Hardy and Auden as two of his masters), “Happiness” maintains a sensible tone, even while it develops fanciful tropes that the speaker disbelieves. Instead of Hardy’s oxen kneeling on Christmas Eve, Davis treats happiness like a folk myth he hopes “might be so.” If, as in the phrase that gives this fine collection its title, happiness relies on “a trick of sunlight,” Davis illuminates the tricks we needfully play on ourselves.
Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, by Rob Sheffield. Crown, January 2007. $22.95
Before he became a successful music journalist, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and a talking head on MTV and VH1, Rob Sheffield was a “shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston” attending graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia. There he met and married Renée Crist, a “cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl” working on an MFA in fiction. They had nothing in common except their love of music. But there was a lot of music. It was the nineties: “The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.” He and Renée freelanced as rock critics; they deejayed at the college radio station; they went to hear every band that came to town; they made hundreds of mix tapes. After Renée died suddenly at thirty-one of a pulmonary embolism, it was music that helped him hold on to her, mourn her, and finally start living without her. In this memoir of a short but happy marriage, Sheffield writes with energy and humor about his lifelong relationship with music, about the art of the mix tape, about grief and loss, and about the “bizarre ways that music brings people together.” In the end, Sheffield’s nostalgia for nineties pop culture is not merely personal. He argues for that decade as a feminist high point the country has fallen away from, a time when women were “making noise in public ways that seem distant now.”
Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, by Matt Wray. Duke, November 2006. $21.95 paper
“America became white . . . because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.” So wrote James Baldwin in an article for Essence magazine in 1984. Not Quite White problematizes, without negating, Baldwin’s statement about the structural superiority of whiteness. By showing how the creation of whiteness had as much to do with black subjugation as it did intraracial class dynamics, Wray reveals how one of the US’s strangest slurs was invented—and the consequences thereof. By drawing on literary texts, diaries, and scientific journals as his data, Wray applies an analytic lens drawn from cultural sociology to consider how social and symbolic boundaries shape our perceptions of the world. Through this combination of historical and sociological analysis, Wray demonstrates the power of social categories and boundaries to shape relationships, institutions, policies, and even to invent groups like “white trash.” Such people who were caught under the disparagement of this term, Wray argues, navigated a strange space in which they were able to exploit people of color while simultaneously being subjugated by elite whites. Wray’s conclusions have particular implications for a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to the study of the sociological construction of emotions.
—Matthew W. Hughey
The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, by Laura Kipnis.
Pantheon, October 2006. $23.95
Since Freud, we have been alert to the prominence of ambivalence in emotional life. In this slim follow-up to the highly successful Against Love: A Polemic (2003), Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern, sensitizes us to the difficulty of setting right the plight of women in the contemporary West. We have, for example, taken enormous steps toward criminalizing rape, but the cost has been increasing the fear of well-educated women about interactions with men. This fear reinforces the very difference between the sexes that first- and second-wave feminism sought to eradicate. Kipnis writes with a caustic, often hilarious wit that ranks her, with Caitlin Flanagan and Barbara Ehrenreich, among the most readable “feminists” today. Alas, the current volume has sacrificed some of the scholarly heft of Against Love. In that earlier book, Kipnis wrote, “We’re born needy, these needs will never be entirely met, yet we love nothing more than our needs.” In The Female Thing, we see in earnest detail the intransigent difficulty of moving beyond sexual and professional needs.
The Robert Bellah Reader, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Steven M. Tipton. Duke, October 2006. $27.95 paper
Calling Robert Bellah a sociologist is like calling Louis Armstrong a trumpet player. The Bellah Reader demonstrates what a serious scholar can accomplish when he perceives a disciplinary identity as secondary to the pursuits of knowledge and of understanding one’s culture and society. Bellah credits Professor Talcott Parsons for igniting his propensity to diligently search for social understanding—conventional disciplinary methodologies and boundaries be damned. He also acknowledges his debt to leading sociological thinkers such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. But reading these essays, one gains a sense of how Bellah’s thinking flows from a scholarly legacy and a personality that transcend former professors or classical writers in modern sociology. Bellah comes to sociology after anthropological studies of non-Western cultures and languages, non-Christian religions, and premodern societies. A surprising revelation that argues for Bellah’s distinctive sociology is that he felt the need to take a “crash course” in American studies after the publication of his influential 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” That power of that essay, which made him an academic celebrity, emerged not from a background in American history but from a deep appreciation of the importance of religio-political structures in premodern societies. His concept of “civil religion” in the US arose from his understanding of the deeply significant role of religion in all societies and not from a study of American political rhetoric. Although this collection does not include material from any of his well-known books (such as Habits of the Heart), only published articles and lectures, one still gains a full sense of the man and his work. Bellah’s writing has had a major influence on contemporary politics and provides one foundation for a critique of contemporary liberalism within American political and social thought. As Bellah observes, his ideas may arise from a “sociology of religion,” but they always explore the ongoing tension “between utilitarian individualism and concern for the common good.”
—Richard C. Collins
Picasso and American Art, by Michael FitzGerald. Yale, October 2006. $65
Of course we knew that Picasso had a profound impact on contemporary art, that two generations of painters have looked to him for inspiration, and that he is considered to be the central figure in the art of the twentieth century. What we did not know, or at least in large part what we failed to notice, was the direct and overwhelming influence—both conscious and unconscious—he exerted on artists not normally associated with him. To cite just two examples, neither Roy Lichtenstein nor Jackson Pollock jump to mind as painters in thrall to Picasso, yet this book demonstrates exactly how indebted these two masters of modern painting are to him. Was Picasso’s work known in the US? From what year? Through what venues? Who paid attention? These and other questions are answered in FitzGerald’s text and Julia May Boddewyn’s chronology of exhibitions, collections, and publications. The juxtapositions are telling: Stuart Davis’s “Colonial Cubism” (1954) looks very much like “Three Musicians” (1921), Arshile Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother” (1926–36) reminds us of “The Bathers” (1920), David Smith’s “Untitled (Billiard Players)” (1936) echoes “Guernica” (1936). Other connections are made with a force that is impossible to deny: Max Weber, Man Ray, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Red Grooms. Few artists escaped Picasso’s artistic life-force, even if they wanted to. And so to Pollock, whose “Masqued Image” (1938–1941) replicates, in Pollock’s unique way, the master’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932) and Lichtenstein, whose “Paintings: Picasso Head” (1984) needs little comment. This book, companion to an eye-opening exhibition mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the fall of 2006, is an important record of a series of marriages (inseminations?) that marked the twentieth-century American art scene deeply.
The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy, by Douglas Biow.
Cornell, September 2006. $35
Italian Renaissance theorists tried to idealize everything, even as they lived in a world of sin, plague, and filth. No matter how elevated your dinner conversation, sooner or later you had to excrete that dinner. Douglas Biow, professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, sees Renaissance “cleanliness as a creative and pleasurable principle of order, a positive searching impulse to craft a vision of the world that is integral, complete, and well structured, and a powerful, dynamic rage for making sense out of chaos.” He ranges over social manuals, literature, and the visual arts, with three focuses: purifying behavior, soap and washerwomen, and latrine cleaners. Sound unlikely? Actually that last part mostly deals with the Inferno, which Dante pictured as a cesspool. Biow discusses da Vinci, Boccaccio, Alberti, Tasso, Bruni, Aretino, among many, as they try to purify language, literature, and mores, while parodying human pretensions and class divisions. Purity and filth meet in carnival, that irreverent spirit always lurking just beneath us, in the toilet, so to speak. Biow addresses one hard topic for the writers—how to write about filth without offending decorum, noting that the authors tended to enjoy writing vividly about low life. Biow himself writes engaging and straightforward prose, laced with dirty language and puns. Don’t miss the vigorously smutty “Song of the Latrine-Cleaners” on pages 178–179.
Motorcycle: Evolution, Design, Passion, by Mick Walker. Johns Hopkins, August 2006. $35
From Gottlieb Daimler’s two-wheeled “bone-shaker” in 1885 to the latest high-performance, high-style machines, the motorcycle has claimed a unique place in the history and lore of open road. Walker’s lavishly illustrated guide to the evolution of the motorcycle is a testament to the intersection of industrial design and the human capacity to imagine ever more elegant ways to go fast on two wheels. Walker presents a marvelous tale, ranging from early motorcycle design and development in France, Germany, and Belgium through technological and stylistic innovations that emerged from England and the United States to the ascent of Japanese manufacturing and marketing successes. The marques are all here—from BMW, Ducati, and Triumph, to Harley-Davidson, Honda, and Moto Guzzi—richly set into contexts that explain not only their commercial success but also passion they evoke among aficionados of style and speed.
Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age, by Donna M. Lucey. Crown, June 2006. $25.95
This captivating dual biography of John Armstrong Chanler and Amélie Rives should command respect in any age. Their love was mutual and tempestuous, if star-crossed; the madness (his) was court certified. Their Gilded Age was enlivened by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stanford White. An heir to the Astor fortune, Chanler was immensely wealthy, handsome, daring, eccentric, and exceedingly charitable. Rives was of an old and meritorious Virginia family, a goddaughter of Robert E. Lee, and a celebrated, and some thought scandalous, author who never hesitated to employ her charm and beauty to further literary or social ambitions. Long before the similarly unfortunate F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Archie and Amélie oscillated among extremes of fame, celebrity, notoriety, addiction, and dissolution, and Donna Lucey has succeeded admirably in telling their largely forgotten story, bringing alive the tale of their achievements, strivings, and failings with the charming balance of style, wit, insight, and sympathy that her subjects most certainly deserve. The story would strain credibility were it not so meticulously documented, yet the flawless scholarship never burdens the moving narrative of the principals’ amazing and ultimately disappointing lives. Love, of a sort, did endure (if not conquer) all. Making their acquaintance is indeed time well spent, and Lucey not only graciously executes the introductions but also sees you through until the headlines end and the colors of these two remarkable lives finally fade.
UVA FACULTY BOOKS
Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration, edited by Edward L. Ayers, Gary W. Gallagher, and Andrew J. Torget. Virginia, September 2006. $35
This small collection of essays seeks to redress an odd omission. Editor Torget notes that despite Virginia’s leading role during the Civil War, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the transformations that the Old Dominion underwent as a result of that cataclysm. The articles contained herein cover such topics as intrastate sectional differences, race and religion, the still-vital slave trade carried on during the war, the first postbellum organized efforts to commemorate the Glorious Cause, and the agonized mind of Robert E. Lee as he pondered the disintegration of the Union and wondered where lay his duty. Though the scale is indeed microcosmic, this is at the same time a wide-ranging work: political, social, economic, and intellectual histories are explored in well-written essays (though a dearth of illustrations is a drawback). This slender book will reward those who take the time to consider its wealth of topics.
Scar Tissue: Poems, by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2006. $22
Readers of Charles Wright know that he was born, as he writes in “A Short History of My Life,” with “the shadows of twilight in my heart.” A self-proclaimed “God-fearing agnostic,” Wright has for decades, with mojo and incandescent lyricism, been slip-stepping and gliding in his acolyte’s robe down the via negativa. His music is distinctive and inimitable, an atonal polyphony of rue, weather, god hunger, beauty, pop-cultural savvy, and negatively capable nostalgia, with a descant part of philosophical and hagiographic musing. In his most recent book, he deepens the registers of the Wrightean Southern Cross, Blue Ridge book-of-hours, Locust Avenue mode, making of the Montana high country and environs an ecstatic precinct, as in “North”: “The north is not the memory of north but its repeat / And cadences, St. Augustine in blackface, and hand to mouth: / The north is where we go when there’s no place left to go. / It’s where our altered selves are, / Resplendent and unrepentant and wholly unrecognizable.” All great journeyers must face these polar extremes of the heart’s palimpsestic, scarified turf—the infinite negative space of our lost past and the conclusive abyss of our mortality—and we can only be grateful to inhabit these poems, “a major ride,” for the trip. Humbly courting the shadow life, ever seeking out the “subjective correlative” of the spirit, Wright is still very much at the wheel: “No light on leaf, / No wind in the evergreens, no bow in the still-blonde grasses. / The world in its dark grace. I have tried to record it.”
—Lisa Russ Spaar