Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Autumn 1989

ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

One of the most enduring of the many stereotypes of the South is that of textile mill-hands. Their blank faces staring into the camera, their limp clothes hanging on thin bodies, their children climbing up on boxes to tend to roaring machinery—these are pictures of the South most Americans understand. It is one of the virtues of I.A. Newby’s prodigiously researched book that no one who reads it can see that South in the same way again. His chapters are filled with the testimony of the people at whom the camera was pointed, and they do not ask for our pity or deserve our contempt. Newby traces these people from the hardscrabble farms to the hardscrabble mills, measuring the gains and losses with a calm eye. Newby chronicles every facet of their lives with wonderful detail and makes a powerful contribution to Southern history.

Spain and its World, 1500—1700, by J. H. Elliott. Yale $27.50

Elliott’s contribution to our knowledge of the history of Imperial Spain (the title of one of his best-known works) is immense. He has done more than anyone else to elucidate the political and social characteristics of a country which in the 16th and 17th centuries ruled the world, fought against imminent decline, and competed with nations on the rise. The author combines solid historical research with a smooth narrative style to produce elegant essays which inform, stimulate, and frequently entertain the reader. The 12 essays in this book, published originally between 1961 and 1988, treat the different “worlds” of Spain: the American world, the European world, the world of the court, and the Spanish world in decline. Illustrated.

Victorian Things, by Asa Briggs. Chicago $29.95

The author agrees with Glynn Isaac’s observation that it is “things” that endure—not deeds or words. Completing his magisterial trilogy on the Victorians (which includes Victorian People and Victorian Cities), the author writes in copious detail about the “wonder of common things” in Victorian England. Match boxes, pins, crinolines, and postage stamps are among the “things” which are discussed here in their broader social and cultural context. Despite the print—too small to read easily, even for a reader with good eyes—this is a fascinating study, which will be essential reading for all scholars and devotees of Victorian history.

Russian Officialdom in Crisis: Autocracy and Local Self-Government, 1861—1900, by Thomas S. Pearson. Cambridge $39.50

Watching old documentary films of Nicholas II and his courtiers frolicking away the hours to 1917, one sometimes wants to scream at the screen, demand that the tsar wake up before it is too late. That impulse has been at the root of most works on the last years of old Russia, but in this new book Professor Pearson clearly demonstrates that St. Petersburg did in fact know it had some enormous problems and did its best to address them. As a piece of revisionist history this book has few equals in the recent literature on tsarist Russia.

Evangelicals and Conservatives in the Early South, 1740—1861, by Robert M. Calhoon. South Carolina $24.95

The memory strains for the title of any other recent work of Southern intellectual history as badly botched as this slender volume from a UNC-Greensboro historian. Announcing at the start a clear, if unoriginal, thesis (that political and social conservatism and evangelicalism moved from conflict to cooperation) and a seemingly clear organizational scheme, Calhoon proceeds to drag the reader through a murky swamp of hopelessly muddled analysis of the thought of individual Southern preachers, politicians, and planters. It must be said that Calhoon has insights to offer on some of these persons, but much of the time he fails even to explain the inclusion of a given figure in a particular chapter (why, that is, this politician exemplifies Southern conservatism or that clergyman exemplifies evangelicalism), leading to a breakdown in the logic of chapters and a tangling of the threads of argument that at times renders confusing even the progression from paragraph to paragraph. Calhoon seems disinclined to question other historians whose work he mentions; he appears, moreover, to be ignorant of such relevant books as David T. Bailey’s Shadow on the Church, a work which also deals with the relationship between evangelicalism and the Southern social order. In short, while Calhoon shows signs of intelligence, understanding, and erudition, he too often fails to make his points clear—or to make them at all; certainly tighter editing and better proofreading from his publishers would help.

Russian Centralism and Ukrainian Autonomy: Imperial Absorption of the Hetmanate, 1760s-1830s, by Zenon E. Kohut. Harvard $19.95

Our attention focused on Armenia and Estonia and some other areas where nationalism is rearing its head in Gorbachev’s USSR, we are likely to overlook the largest and potentially most explosive minority, the Ukrainians. Long restive under despotic, centralized rule from Moscow, the Ukrainians have never accepted Russian domination, the consolidating period of which constitutes the subject of Professor Kohut’s meticulously researched and argued monograph. This is one of the best of recent studies on Ukrainian history.

Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705—1865, by Philip J. Schwarz. Louisiana $37.50

No one has examined the history of slave crime in Virginia in greater detail than Philip Schwarz. He has gathered information on more than 4,000 criminal cases against slaves in the Commonwealth, compiled and cross-indexed these reports, and sifted the data for patterns across time and space. Specialists in Virginia history and slave crime will surely appreciate his inclusiveness. But readers seeking a bold, new interpretation of slavery will be disappointed with Twice Condemned; for its central message, that law was a strong shackle on the chain of African-Americans’ oppression, is manifestly obvious. The author’s self-conscious quantification and repetitiveness only exacerbate this defect. Schwarz’s efforts reveal the minutiae of slave prosecution, but unraveling the broader implications of Virginia’s slave criminal code for the “peculiar institution” awaits another’s hand.

Word of Honor, by Kristen B. Neuschel. Cornell $27.95

This is an interpretation of noble culture in Renaissance France focused on the mentalities of those nobles who dominated French politics during the wars of religion in the late 16th century. Neuschel argues that exclusive systems of clientage do not nearly describe the complex web of relationships in which individuals were forced to live. The key is rather competition for honor and acknowledgment of status which explains the violence and loyalties of provincial nobles.

The American Experience: The Collected Essays of J.H. Plumb, by J.H. Plumb. Georgia $30

The American essays of British historian J.H. Plumb are of two sorts: a collection of two dozen lectures and reviews on American history, divided almost equally between Plumb’s interests in the Revolutionary era and in the problems of slavery and race relations; and some more personal impressions of the United States, formed by visits made between 1945 and 1976. The historical essays offer perceptive and polished insights into their subjects. The personal reflections are, in the main, generous and admiring, though at times not entirely free from a touch of British condescension. Over time, though, Plumb became rather more critical about the problems of American society, especially during the Nixon years.

Russian Economic History: The Nineteenth Century, by Arcadius Kahan. Chicago $18.95 paper

Along with Alexander Gerschenkron, the late Arcadius Kahan was one of the West’s leading interpreters of Russian economic history. His books are of course well known, but some of his most penetrating studies were published as articles and essays, occasionally in obscure journals. The best of those pieces have now been rescued by Professor Roger Weiss in this extraordinarily useful volume, for which all students of Russian history will be grateful.

Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis, by Daniel W. Crofts. North Carolina $45

Historians have traditionally paid but perfunctory attention to the activities and ideas of upper South Unionists during the secession crisis. Rather, armed with hindsight knowledge of a united South and a struggle which eventually took on the character of a great moral crusade, they have tended to dismiss contemporary efforts to avoid war as insincere or unrealistic. Crofts provides the most valuable corrective to this view to date, analyzing in detail the efforts of Unionists in the key states of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and moderate Northern Republicans, led by William H. Seward, to forestall secession of the border states through a conciliatory Republican posture. By demonstrating that retention of the upper South within the Union was a viable possibility before Lincoln’s call for troops, he has rehabilitated Seward’s reputation and cast doubt on Lincoln’s pacific nature. Ironically, he has also affirmed the thesis of many older works by finding secession sentiment to be positively related to levels of slave holding. This is must reading for every student of the Civil War.

1914, by Lyn Macdonald. Atheneum $24.95

This book recounts the story of the British Army, those professionals who helped hold back the invading Germans while Great Britain was training the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who wanted to do their duty in the great adventure. The sword and lance figure prominently. The author manages her tale of the confused maneuvering very well, but the most appealing aspects of the book are the many sizeable quotations from interviews, journals, letters, and books of participants, both military and civilian. She has preserved the experiences of men and women who cannot be with us long. Her sense of drama often serves her well as she tells of strain and fatigue, but finally it betrays her cheap journalistic effects that seem very contrived. There is also a curiously light touch that states the losses but misses the fear and horror, even the excitement and glory. The maps are uneven, the index good.

Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775—1800, edited by Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche. California $50 cloth, $24.95 paper

The role of ideas in the making of the French Revolution is again gaining wide recognition. This book, in line with much new research, does not emphasize Voltaire, Diderot, or even Rousseau but rather images, printed songs, and forbidden books, known in publishers’ jargon as “philosophical.” Pornography played no small role, as revolutionary virility in matters sexual was opposed to aristocratic perversions or impotence. This is a valuable collection of interpretive essays and an attractive partial catalogue of an exhibition in the New York Public Library.

LITERARY STUDIES The Stanford Companion to Victorian Literature, by John Sutherland. Stanford $60

This is an extremely valuable reference work, and its publication couldn’t have come at a better time. The volume contains 878 entries on individual Victorian novelists (offering biographical data), 554 entries on Victorian novels (offering publication data and plot summaries), 47 entries on Victorian magazines and periodicals, 63 entries on major publishing houses, 38 entries on dominant schools of novel writing, and finally 26 entries on major illustrators. Given the current interest in expanding the canon, this volume will provide much needed assistance to those just trying to get some idea of what buried treasures the realm of Victorian fiction may contain. And the information on the Victorian publishing industry will prove invaluable to those interested in the new historicist approach to 19th-century fiction. One must be amazed that Sutherland undertook to carry out this project on his own, but one must also take on faith that he has done so accurately. How many of us would even know it if it turned out that among these hundreds of Victorian novels or novelists, Sutherland had—à la Borges—made one of them up? As for this reviewer, I can only say that Sutherland appears to have gotten the plot of David Copperfield right.

The Puritan Ordeal, by Andrew Delbanco. Harvard $30

This is a learned, well-researched, quotable text, delving deeply into matters of scholastic debate; yet the most interesting parts illuminate the felt experience of the earliest New Englanders: their passion for sermons, their Pauline belief in sudden transformations through grace. Far from being complacent and self-assured, they were an extremely anxiety-prone people. Delbanco emphasizes the degree to which the original impulse to avoid the corruption of an emerging capitalist bourgeois society in England was undermined by their own exile: “The Puritan movement would flourish only if it had an enemy and an agenda.” The Puritans discovered that America was the country of the isolated self. Seeking to establish a community of saints, they felt instead a collective loneliness, as the object of meditation became exclusively the self. The author points out fundamental sources of tension within Puritan culture, especially how evil as an ontological essence became dominant in New England culture, creating the conditions for hysteria. On the positive side, the book also shows the extraordinary tenacity with which Americans have clung to the belief that their lives can be radically renewed.

Along the Riverrun: Selected Essays, by Richard Ellmann. Knopf $21.95

Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Pound, James, and Freud are among the subjects of this collection conceived before the author’s death in 1987. Ellmann’s essays reveal the gifts that made him a great biographer, and they also reflect his ability to read literature closely, with an eye to the telling detail. Here he shows masterfully how Wilde and Yeats were not “aesthetes” but counter-aesthetes, and he analyzes with tact and judgment Henry James’ complex responses to aestheticism. Rewarding writings, these beautifully wrought essays are a reminder to academic literary historians that it is possible to write about their subject effectively, even brilliantly, without adapting the mask of obfuscating jargon.

Writers, Readers, and Occasions: Selected Essays on Victorian Literature and Life, by Richard D. Altick. Ohio State $30

For more than 30 years Richard Altick has been teaching us how to connect 19th-century books with their readers, vastly enriching our knowledge of both. (If modern students don’t read Altick’s English Common Reader, it’s because so many of their teachers have already done so.) This book contains 20 essays published from 1951 on, two for the first time here, on topics from specific works by Browning, Carlyle, and Dickens to the trades of publishing and printing (and being a scholar of such matters). Connoisseurs of Altick will want to turn first to a new essay, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island,” before renewing acquaintance with old favorites.

Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, edited by Ross Murfin. Martin’s $24.95

This volume is well designed to introduce readers to a variety of contemporary critical methods. Often the problem with such volumes is that the critical theories are presented in an intellectual vacuum, making reference at most to each other. But the idea behind this volume is to present different critical approaches to a single, central text. Heart of Darkness is an excellent choice to be the focus of the book: it is brief enough to be included along with the critical essays, and it also is complex enough to merit this kind of intense scrutiny. The forms of criticism represented in the volume are psychoanalysis, reader-response, feminism, deconstruction, and new historicism. Among the contributors who wrote essays for the volume are Frederick Karl, Adena Rosmarin, and J. Hillis Miller. Ross Murfin has done a good job of putting the book together, providing introductions to the Conrad work and to the various schools of criticism, together with useful bibliographies for each of the areas. This volume will prove interesting both to students of Conrad and to students of contemporary criticism. St.

What Is to Be Done?, by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Cornell $39.95 cloth, $12.95 paper

If any proof were needed of the importance of this book to the understanding of Russian history, the fact that Lenin “borrowed” its title for one of his most significant works would be sufficient. Though it cannot equal the great Russian novels of the 19th century in literary merit—works like Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, or The Brothers Karamazov—What Is to Be Done? does have a kind of raw power and gives us a sense of the tremendous forces which were gathering in the country and eventually led to the Russian Revolution. This volume offers the first complete and idiomatic translation of the novel ever to appear in English and thus fills an important gap in Slavic Studies. The translation is accompanied by a comprehensive set of notes, which help to explain many references and allusions which would otherwise remain opaque to the average reader.

Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, by William Bevis. Pittsburgh $29.95

This text is devoted to establishing a connection between Stevens’ poetry and Eastern concepts of meditation, elaborating on the fine points of Buddhist and Hindu thought and practice. Much of what the author has to say is sensible: “Stevens was more than most poets committed to thinking, and less than most poets committed to any thought”; dedicated to process, and detached from product. Yet the degree of abstraction and systematic ideas applied to Stevens in this book strains the elusive, playful nature of the poems. Bevis takes us very far afield, into the physiology of the brain; even charting the various stages of meditation corresponding to particular lines in a number of Stevens’ lyrics. Clearly the author knows his philosophy and is an enthusiastic reader of Stevens, but rather than making the poems more personal and accessible, this book mostly adds to the difficulties of interpreting and enjoying Stevens’ work.

Penfriends from Porlock, by A. N. Wilson. Norton $19.95

This collection of 40 nugatory essays, reprinted from the years 1977—1986, will provide an amusing and instructive afternoon for readers who, given to bleak thoughts about the erosion of civilized society by modern barbarians, wish to have reconfirmed the value of intelligent thought, superior craftsmanship, and well-expressed views. In these short, provocative, and quite personal forays Wilson reveals, for example, the dishonest and crude character of LBJ; he suggests that C.P. Snow was no writer; and that Cecil Beatón was no artist, and, in passing, explodes the myth that photography is art; and he sees Oswald Mosley’s failure as the result of an inability to appreciate the British character! But he also draws some striking portraits of the great and talented. There are perceptive comments on J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, Iris Murdoch, and Dean Inge. Less successful are the pieces on Tennyson, C.S. Lewis, Henry James, Ivy Compton Burnett, and on satire, which suffer from their brevity and commonplace description. Whether it was worthwhile making a book out of those disparate sketches, which vary so much in quality, is a question which the reviewer might well ask, but that the literary public will have to answer.

A Mirror for Americanists: Reflections on the Idea of American Literature, by William C. Spengemann. New England $20 cloth, $9.95 paper

Bill Spengemann will not give up. Unsure himself about the nature of American literature, he tries valiantly in these essays to upset our assumptions about it. At the end, he insists that it is that literature affected, in any way, by the new world. Oroonoko is “American”; so is Paradise Lost. Well, there he goes too far. But, generally, his reflections are useful. Americanists do need to rethink the field, and Spengemann is at least asking questions. Two problems mar the book, though: he theorizes an unworkable (not to say, unuseful) notion of the canon, and he ignores methodology. The book is intriguing but not very useful.

Stoicism in Renaissance English Literature: An Introduction, by Audrey Chew. Peter Long $41. 25

Chew has read widely and eclectically, and her book, the product of long acquaintance with its topic, is a useful trove for anyone interested in English Renaissance culture. But her style as a literary critic and intellectual historian is blandly inclusive and her bibliography oddly uncurrent. Professional scholars will find much more acute analysis and innovative research in Gilíes D. Monsarrat’s Light from the Porch (1984), which Chew does not cite.

Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion, 1640— 1660, by Nigel Smith. Clarendon $79

The explosive sectarianism of the English Civil War and interregnum is usually studied in religious, political, or sociological terms. Smith mounts the first full-scale study of sectarian tracts and devotional works from a specifically literary perspective, with a concern for genres (Prophecy, Experience, Vision), sources (Niclaes, Boehme, and others), and the general conceptions of language and selfhood operative in these works. Unlike much of his material, he is scholarly, patient, clear, and tolerant.

Coleridge and “The Friend” (1809—1810), by Deirdre Coleman. Oxford $49.95

Only a reader who has recently tried to make her way through the dense obscurity of Coleridge’s “philosophical newspaper” The Friend will fully appreciate the breathtaking ease with which Deirdre Coleman has succeeded in making crooked things straight. With disarming modesty and scant reference to the failings of lesser interpreters, Coleman sorts out Coleridge’s conservative political aims in The Friend, his debts to Hooker and Burke and attacks on Voltaire and Rousseau, while attending always to the causes and particular shaping of his obscurity—desire not to alienate old dissenting friends, to appear more balanced than Burke, problems at home. In the process, she adds crucially to our understanding of the psychological roots of Coleridge’s divided allegiance to Kant, and has brilliant analyses of Coleridge’s essentially conservative and hierarchical concept of the “active” reader. This is a book for specialists, but for them it will be indispensable.

LIVES & LETTERS The Letters of Charles Dickens: The Pilgrim Edition: Volume 6: 1850—1852. Edited by Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis. Oxford $145

Shaw once remarked that Dickens wrote “Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding letters,” concerned mostly with “sensation and things done.” There is some support for this remark to be found in this volume, which includes almost 6,000 letters— more than 600 of which have never been published before. These letters were all written in the brief space between 1850 and 1852. It was a time when Dickens was relatively unoccupied—working only on David Copperfield, Bleak House, and several hundred items for his new journal, Household Words. Yet if the letters themselves are sometimes mundane (many involve the arrangements Dickens made as editor of his journal), the scholarship and annotation are nothing short of miraculous. The Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’ letters has always been held in the highest regard, and this new volume will only add to the general acclaim.

A Divided Life, by Robert Cecil. Morrow $18.95

Based tacitly on the Abse-Pincher thesis that spying correlates with deviancy— usually erotic—this stuffy and superficial biography of Donald Maclean provides little important information not already available in other books. Such interest as it has flows from its account of postwar British diplomatic routine and social life as well as the narrator’s unintended self portrait, as a man destined by temperament and training never to understand Maclean or the forces that drove him. Before Thatcherite censorship forecloses on research that generates books about the Cambridge Gang of Six, may Donald Maclean find a biographer, like Philip Knightley, who is worthy of the task he sets himself.

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 27 (July 1-October 31, 1778), edited by Claude A. Lopez, et al. Yale $60

As an American diplomat in Paris, Franklin served his country well, but he seldom missed a chance to savor the pleasures of the French capital. Because the period covered by this volume was one of diplomatic inactivity, the letters here focus on his private life in the highest circles of French culture. Franklin found intellectual stimulation in correspondence with leading scientists, including a potato propagandist, and he sought stimulation of another sort in his wooing of the much younger Madame Brillon. Learning that he could never be more than a surrogate father to her, Franklin wrote a moving literary piece on the brevity and vanity of life, proof that if his amorous powers had declined, his pen remained powerful.

China Journal, 1889—1900, by Eva Jane Price. Scribner’s $22.50

The wonder is not that the Chinese occasionally massacred the missionaries but rather that they let so many live. Mrs. Price, the wife of a missionary from Oberlin College, despised the Chinese, whom she considered an inferior, filthy collection of scum. As she and her husband saw it, their job was to clean them up, pump the fear of an Old Testament God into them, then get back to civilization. Hers is not a pretty story, but it is extremely instructive in ways she never intended. She and her husband and daughter were massacred by the Boxers.

Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, edited by William S. Powell. North Carolina $49.95

The third volume of this series, covering North Carolinians whose names fall within the letters H to K, continues this monumental combination of biography and history. Sketches, averaging 800 words each, contain not only biographical material for the subjects but, taken together, present a rich source for the history of North Carolina and the nation. Following the methods of other biographical compilations, the articles are assigned to experts in their respective fields. The result is a series of well written, scholarly, and often fascinating sketches, many of them based on manuscript sources and providing information not readily found elsewhere. The remaining three volumes that will complete the series may be eagerly anticipated.

The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset, by Rockwell Gray. California $29.95

No longer so widely read in Spain today as he once was, Ortega is best known for The Revolt of the Masses. A brilliant essayist and prose stylist, whose influence in 20th-century Spanish cultural life was enormous, Ortega is still available to readers in English in a number of translations. Gray’s sympathetic survey deals with Ortega’s intellectual development in its larger social and political perspective and should introduce new readers to Ortega’s work. As philosopher and critic, whose writings range from politics to aesthetics, Ortega the polymath remains an exemplary figure. His finest pages still have the power to fire the imagination.

Virginia Woolf: Life and London: A Biography of Place, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Norton $18.95

The author of this competent but rather dull book is the wife of Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Cecil Woolf, and as such she has a special interest in her subject and special access to some information about it. She follows the novelist’s London path from her birthplace, 22 Hyde Park Gate, to the various houses she lived in later. There are drawings of all these houses, including those now demolished. The drawings are, like the book, rather uninteresting but commenting clearly on the similarity of so many London houses. Besides the houses, the walks through London found in the novels and other writings are mapped out, none too clearly or completely, and houses outside London are also described and illustrated: Talland House, St. Ives, Asham House, Monk’s House, and Charleston. It is hard to be enthusiastic about this book, but to someone interested in Virginia Woolf and London it could be useful and instructive.

William Lowndes and the Transition of Southern Politics, 1782—1822, by Carl J. Vipperman. North Carolina $39.95

William Lowndes was a South Carolinian who served in Congress during the administrations of Madison and Monroe. Despite a valiant effort by the author to enhance his subject’s role as a figure on the national stage, Lowndes was really a bit-part player in most of the political controversies of his day. Professor Vipperman’s task was, understandably, difficult because Lowndes destroyed most of his papers which might have given insights into his personality and career. As a result, this book leaves the reader with the sense that the biographer, as often as not, is speculating when making judgments about his subject. While Vipperman presents engaging discussions on issues such as the Second Bank of the United States and the Missouri Compromise, William Lowndes never really occupies center stage.

Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774— 1789, Vol. 15, edited by Paul H. Smith, et al. Library of Congress $37

This series has already made a major contribution to the literature of the Revolutionary War years. The current volume deals with the activities of the Continental Congress during the months April through August 1780, a time of military crisis, particularly in the southern campaign—the months that saw Benjamin Lincoln’s surrender at Charleston and Gates’ defeat at Camden. Of particular significance in this volume are the reports of the committee to visit Headquarters—documents that illuminate the severe problems in supply, military organization, and morale that devastated Washington’s army and precipitated the controversial suggestions in Congress to expand greatly the power of the commander-in-chief. In addition there is much significant material on the worsening economic situation, on attempts to secure aid abroad, and on the conditions of the treasury. As in earlier volumes in this series, the editing is crisp, informative, and unobstrusive.

From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938—1947, by Lucy Dawidowicz. Norton $21.95

Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” no longer exists, except in memory; one-third its population murdered, and its stones and bricks razed by the German and then Soviet armies. Dawidowicz, a student at the Yiddish Institute in Vilna from 1938 to 1939, left one week before the Nazi invasion of Poland. After the war, she worked in Germany for the U.S. Army, helping displaced persons and rescuing the remnants of the YIVO library from the Nazi collections of confiscated Judaica. This “Memoir,” a stirring account of those years, will help keep the memories of Yiddish Vilna alive.

Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore, by Shannon Applegate. Morrow $22.95

In 1843 three Applegate brothers and their families made their way West by the old Oregon Trail. They wintered in one place, moved further south, and eventually settled at Yoncalla, where a divided house was built that is still standing. The author, a descendant of one of the brothers, has lived there. She has gathered together everything that was saved over the years (mainly by the women of the family) and from these letters, journals, recollections, manuscripts, sketch books, and “a truly vast array of camera works” she has fashioned a vivid history of times, places, and people. It is history—but a very individual and personal history, full to overflowing with recollections and pictures.

Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale, by Edward Butscher. Georgia $34.95

This excellent biography of Conrad Aiken is not just a straightforward recountal of facts. The author remains “committed to the notion that a modern biographer cannot afford to ignore insights garnered from other disciplines, whether psychological, philosophical, or from more impressionistic realms where specialists refuse to tread.” With this in mind, the reader can pursue Conrad Aiken from his birth in 1889 through the traumatic events of his eleventh year, his college years, his first marriage, the birth of three children, his writings, to the year 1925 when, Butscher writes, “He was launched on the self’s ultimate voyage of discovery, which sails forever backward, shedding the armor of childhood’s White Knight persona in the very process of recovering childhood (and its deathless apparitions) for art and survival’s sake.” A second volume will follow Aiken to his death in 1973. Anyone interested in the title should consult Tom Brown’s School Days.

Piers Gavestan, by J. S. Hamilton. Wayne State $32.50

Subtitled “Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II,” this book is an apology for one of the less attractive figures in English History. Admittedly Gaveston was dealing with rival factions whose motives were no less self-seeking than his own, but the author’s sources have led to so much speculation that no clear picture can emerge.

FICTION John Dollar, by Marianne Wiggins. Harper & Row $17.95

Charlotte Lewes, widowed by World War I, becomes a teacher in Burma to eight young girls, in an extraordinary scene swims with dolphins, and becomes a sailor’s lover, John Dollar’s. British colonial families make a holiday expedition to a distant island. Strange natural phenomena presage disaster. One of two becalmed sailing vessels is discovered to be a ghost ship, then an earthquake and tidal wave maroons Dollar, paralyzed from the waist down, Charlotte, and the eight girls. At first, Wiggins’ children are mostly names and voices—so alike we find it difficult to tell them apart—then they take on misty shapes; we can see them move and follow them as they do things, eventually terrible things, but except for the Anglo-Indian girl, Menaka, called Monkey, who manages to retain her humanity, they never really come into complete focus. This may be a kind of blessing. Completely alive before us they would be unbearable. Comparisons with The Lord of the Flies are inevitable—girls instead of boys as island castaways, most of whom revert to the primitive in their natures. Golding himself called his story symbolic. Compared to John Dollar, it now seems more symbolic than real. John Dollar has a greater feeling of inevitability, yet Wiggins accomplishes this in language more dreamlike and poetic. In the long run her shocking adventure story may come to be considered the more powerful work.

Latecomers, by Anita Brookner. Pantheon $16.95

Latecomers, the story of two men whose friendship began in childhood when both were sent to England for safety during the Nazi period, opens when they are in their sixties. They have spent their lives as close friends and business partners. Hartmann, older and more resilient, is self-satisfied, pleased with their progress in life and with his flamboyant wife; Fibich, the wounded one, married to a quiet, selfless woman, struggles with indigestion and psychological problems. His “constant companions,” a sense of loss and regret, his heavy melancholy, permeate the book. Brookner’s style is low-paced, reflective. Long descriptive passages seem to prepare the reader for a scene. But, as in her other books, she never pulls back the curtain to let her characters take the stage, continually getting in the way of her own story. We see people sitting in rooms, but no one speaks. Long expository sections on individual characters read like a writer’s notebook. The focus of this novel is blurred by the sense that she set out to write of the two men but was swept up by their wives, those two contrasting women who reappear in Brookner’s novels, one the pampered, self-indulgent, seductive female; the other the plain, self-effacing one who serves her. Brookner’s prose is flawless, her eye for detail like that of a fine artist, capturing a character, a room, a whole city, with a sweep of her pen. Her splendid Hotel Du Lac was followed by two weak novels; then came her fine, darkly provocative A Friend from England. Despite Latecomers’ flaws, one awaits her next book.

Pack of Cards, by Penelope Lively. Grove $19.95

A splendid bargain—34 stories, more than twice as many as in most current collections—and every one a burnished, top quality treat. One learns a great deal about a wide variety of English characters and class incompatibilities, but Lively aims first of all to entertain rather than teach. One might also say she aims to illuminate rather than shock or surprise, and in this she succeeds just as admirably. Her vision is clear and informed, keenly perceptive, wise not warped. Some characters come off wickedly skewered but listen to them prattle on and you know they deserve it. In the tradition of the great British short story masters, love, loneliness and loss, ambition and selfishness, the comic and sinister, English ghosts, the horrors of boarding schools, the offhand cruelty of adults are themes that preoccupy her. Every reader will have favorites—perhaps “A Clean Death,” inspired and haunting, creating the impact of a novel in a dozen pages, or “Ghost of a Flea,” a chilling tale of a neurotic girl who fastens on to people. And then there’s George, a marvelous upper-class London bus conductor, who twits his snobbish sister-in-law with the greatest relish. This may be the perfect book to take on a long weekend visit, but the thoughtful hostess will leave a copy on the bedside table just in case.

The Devil’s Spy, by Michael Hasting. Scribner’s $17.95

For a spy novel, the label “predictable” is a death knell, and the bell tolls for The Devil’s Spy. This tale of Middle Eastern intrigue during World War I holds few surprises. Only a few pages of this Israeli author’s historical novel suffices to convince one that neither General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia, nor any other of the well-known figures from the past that figure in this work will decide Jerusalem’s fate. Rather, one knows that Ruth Mendelson and her Zionist lover Saul Donsky will, predictably, tame the desert and their passions on their way to liberating Palestine. A clever twist in the final four pages does not salvage the story. Yet the author has not failed entirely, for he has an objective besides penning a thriller; he also aims to perpetuate old stereotypes. The Turks are barbaric sadists, the Arabs are noble savages, the British are unabashed imperialists, and the Zionists are the blessed of the earth. Ding, dong.

Empire of the Senseless, by Kathy Acker. Grove $17.95

Any book which is dedicated as this is to the author’s tattooist can’t be all bad, but Kathy Acker is pushing her luck. One of the principal characters of this novel introduces himself in terms strangely reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzennegger’s first spoken words in Conan the Barbarian: “As long as I can remember wanting, I have wanted to slaughter other humans and to watch the emerging of their blood.” And this is one of the more attractive characters in the book. Kathy Acker is definitely an acquired taste or perhaps more accurately put an acquired lack of taste, and one might wonder why one would go about the acquisition. Like Acker’s previous novels, Empire of the Senseless has a kind of raw energy and a twisted sense of humor, but on the whole this novel is only for the hard-core Ackerite. And even those who have enjoyed her previous works may find that she has gone too far in this one. But if there is a brutal but charming terrorist on your Christmas list, look no further: you’ve found the appropriate stocking-stuffier.

Killshot, By Elmore Leonard. Arbor House $18.95

The author has garnered a host of rave reviews in the past few years, and this latest of his crime novels will not mar his reputation. Leonard captures the gritty cadences of working class Americans and tells stories that seem so real you’ll find yourself locking the front door before you finish the first chapter. Two outlaws, Armand Degas, a professional hit man, and Richie Nix, a stone-killer, try to shakedown a real estate firm in a small town outside Detroit. Through a case of mistaken identity, Wayne and Carmen Colson become the only people who can identify Degas and Nix as the perpetrators of a crime. Under the circumstances, the Colsons must be eliminated. The chase that follows will satisfy the most demanding reader of suspense fiction. In fact, Leonard writes so well that the sole problem with this book is forcing yourself to slow down long enough to savor it.

Juice, by Robert Campbell. Poseidon $18.95

Juice is not for the faint of heart. It is a brutal story, told in brutal terms. The plot, which brings together some of Los Angeles’ seamier set, revolves around a loan shark, Puffy Pachoulo, and his pals. Puffy insinuates himself into the “respectable” world by offering a quick cash fix to beleaguered or greedy people, among them a small time gambler, a coke-addicted beauty and her lawyer husband, and a trio of brothers who own a Porshe dealership. Juice ties them together in a brotherhood of victimization. Much to their dismay, they find that they cannot pick their way along both sides of the law without falling into a riot of violence. Even if the landscape is unalterably bleak and the language a trifle overheated, this novel is as fascinating as a visit to a snake house.

A Country of Strangers, by Susan Richards Shreve. Simon & Schuster $17.95

Two families, one white, the other black, find that peaceful coexistence in wartime Virginia requires more than good intentions, more than a desire to “walk in the company of friends.” The Fletchers’ arrival displaces Moses Bellows and his extended family from the antebellum farm house where they moved after its owner’s mysterious disappearance. Moses’s attraction to Lara Fletcher, Charley Fletcher’s innocent assumption that kindness is the basis for brotherhood, and his irrational jealousy of his lovely wife combine to make this novel as suspenseful as it is vivid. The two families connect with honest emotions only in the love-hate relationship between Lara’s daughter Kate and Moses’s niece Prudential. In graceful, assured prose, the tale moves to the inevitable conflict between the two families; in a country where mistrust is tradition, the only common language between strangers is violence.

The Watch, stories by Rick Bass. Norton $16.95

It’s the voice that strikes you first: it tells stories about animals (pet fish, alligators, pygmy bears) and men and women who act like animals with an excitement that is infectious and compelling. These are whole stories, tight but loose in their telling. An important new voice, Bass does with his work here what the best short fiction practitioners do: he creates new worlds and makes us believe that those who people them really exist—and, more importantly, matter.

Joy Ride, by Barbara Howell. Viking $17.95

A lively, witty account, given in the first person by one of the characters, of a difficult friendship between two clever, creative middle-class women, extending over a couple of decades, and involving among other things misplaced solidarity, envy, betrayal. The novel is brief (and hugely over-priced) but successful in its evocation of situations and characters.

In Pale Battalions, by Robert Goddard. Poseidon $18.95

This long and complicated story winds in and out of time and place. It is a labyrinth of love and hate, death and destruction, honor and dishonor, peopled with several generations, extending through two wars and beyond. Little by little bits of truth are revealed, but the whole truth (if there is such a thing) is not shown until near the end—and perhaps not then.

Raj, by Gita Mehta. Simon & Schuster $19.95

Set in the last 50 years of British rule in India, this story tells of how a traditional Indian princess survives political turbulance and a Westernized and decadent husband to control eventually the fate of her ancestral kingdom. The focus however is not the heroine nor any other character but historical and sociological events. This, along with a critique of British rule, is the novel’s dominant interest.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS A Turn in the South, by V. S. Naipaul. Knopf $18.95

As befits the stature of its author, this travel account of the present-day South has received enormous attention. Excerpts, interviews, and reviews have appeared in all the right places, with most of the comment being distinctly favorable. And, indeed, this is not a bad book—much worse have been written about the South. But neither is it particularly profound, novel, or penetrating. Naipaul, as he admits, knew virtually nothing about the South when he set out on his journey, and so for much of the book he is busy discovering things most of his readers already know. Sometimes he discovers only crude stereotype and condescension, as in the long definition one arrogant Southerner delivers of “redneck.” The book’s greatest strength is partly a result of this weakness, for Naipaul sees with a clear and surprised eye things to which most of us have long since become numb.

The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, by Leo Strauss. Edited by Thomas Frangle. Chicago $45 cloth, $14.95 paper

This is quite possibly the most important collection of Strauss’s essays ever assembled, which makes this an important book indeed. Most of these essays were not intended for publication, but the editor, Thomas Pangle, has done a great service in making them available. In the latter part of his career, Strauss became increasingly austere and obscure in his style, making it extremely difficult to approach his writings.

But in these essays we can see why Strauss has had such an impact on 20th-century thought: the power and passion of his mind shine through, as well as unexpected flashes of humor. Selected to provide an introduction to Strauss, the essays cover the whole range of his interests. Among the most interesting are a penetrating analysis of Heideggerian existentialism and a magisterial treatment of “The Problem of Socrates,” a distillation of Strauss’s lifelong fascination with Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. Those already familiar with Strauss will snap up this volume for providing some of the most profound and comprehensive formulations of his ideas, but those looking for an introduction to Strauss could also do no better than to begin with this book.

National Security Planning: Roosevelt through Reagan, by Michael M. Boll. Kentucky $26

Boll is a former foreign service officer and sometime member of the Pentagon’s policy planning staff. His book, published by a university press, is more objective if less sensational than a show-and-tell study on a similar subject published by a large commercial publishing house. Boll seeks to understand the assumptions that have motivated presidents and their security planners in policy decisions such as containment, Ike’s budgetary preferences among the services, Vietnam, detente, the SALT agreements, and SDI. The book provides an evaluation of successes and failures from Roosevelt through Reagan and successfully relates ideas and policies.

Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5, by Nigel West. Morrow $19.95

Trusted by MI5 insiders and by some of the moles themselves, Rupert Allason, M.P. a/k/a Nigel West has produced a fourth book touching on the notorious Ring of Five (or Six or Seven). Rather than rehash what is now common knowledge, West focuses on the gradual discovery that highly placed members of the British security service effectively thwarted its purposes and protected the Cambridge crew as well as many other Russian agents of penetration. Meticulously sifting the evidence and refusing the temptations embraced by Harry “Chapman” Pincher, West hesitates to incriminate or exonerate Roger Hollis (whom Blunt and another mole have rather too emphatically—and in exactly the same words— dismissed as “too stupid to have been one of us”). Instead, West casts suspicion on Graham Mitchell, author of the grossly deceptive White Paper on Burgess and Maclean. With the principals dead or aging and research discouraged by the Official Secrets Act and censorship legislation in draft on Margaret Thatcher’s desk, Molehunt may be the last reliable treatment of the issue. And though clarifying, it leaves the major questions unanswered.

The War against the Intellect: Episodes in the Decline of Discourse, by Peter Shaw. Iowa $22.50

Shaw makes some effective, telling points in this gathering of essays about the self-serving obfuscations of contemporary academic discourse. He is also right to observe the decline of academic standards in recent years. His arguments are vitiated, however, by an extraordinary and willful blindness to the political injustice that contributed to the situation he laments. Despite the recent assaults upon traditional canons of valuation by Shaw’s adversaries, there is no serious evidence that these academic subversives (often tedious and dull as they admittedly are) have in fact done serious or permanent damage. Some of this work has, however, been up to the author’s intellectual standards, but its contributions go unmentioned here for ideological reasons.

The Twilight of Amateur Diplomacy: The American Foreign Service and Its Senior Officers in the 1890s, by Henry E. Mattox. Kent State $21

At a time when political appointees comprise approximately 20 percent of the foreign service, this historical analysis of the 1890’s will shed light on a controversial subject: should amateurs have a place in forging and implementing U.S. foreign policy? Based on the performance of 200 citizen-statesmen in the 19th century, Mattox argues that their contribution “has been a source of strength throughout our history.” Amateurs have had and should continue to have an influence on our future, stresses Mattox. At a time when the amateur’s knowledge of both the U.S. and the world is rudimentary at best, Mattox’s prognosis does not bode well for the future.

Inside the National Security Council. The True Story of the Making and Unmaking of Reagan’s Foreign Policy, by Constantino C. Menges. Simon & Schuster $19.95

The subtitle accurately portrays the book’s content. It provides the inside story of plots and counterplots in foreign policy-making by enemies who sought to prevent “Reagan from being Reagan.” Menges, who was brought into the government by William Casey, sees the conflict between the White House and the State Department through the eyes of a group that includes Casey, William P. Clark, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and himself. He describes “what we came to call the “Reagan underground,”” namely “White House colleagues who shared my commitment to President Reagan’s foreign policy principles and from whom I often received important moral support and ideas,” including Patrick Buchanan and Faith Whittlesey. The book is more a political tract than an objective study.

The Wilson Plot, by David Leigh. Pantheon $19.95

Peter Wright has fallen on evil days. Though—thanks to Spycatcher— he is financially secure at last and a media star as well, his credibility has come into doubt. First, in The Spycatcher Affair, Wright’s early collaborator Chapman Pincher portrayed him as a greedy, vindictive coward, capable of defaming those who saved him from the poorhouse. Now, in this account of Wright’s and James Jesus Angleton’s successful campaign to unseat Harold Wilson on the fanciful suspicion that the P.M. was a Soviet mole, we discover the spy-catcher as paranoid conspirator. Based largely on Wright’s own correspondence and presumably cleared as nonlibelous by the subject himself, this story should make every English schoolboy sigh with relief that Wright never tilted to the Left.

State and Society in Soviet Thought, by Ernest Gellner. Blackwell $39.95

Marxism has clearly failed the politicians and the economists, but does it have any value for sociologists and anthropologists? This is the question Professor Gellner of Cambridge University seeks to answer in this thought-provoking book. He gives a qualified “yes” as his answer as he ponders the Soviet view of primitive societies, feudalism and nomadism, the problem of Russia’s quasi-oriental nature, and so on. As a social anthropologist Professor Gellner appears under some compulsion to write fairly dense prose, but in his case the struggle to understand that prose is worth the effort.

On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis, by James G. Blight and David A. Welch. Hill & Wang $24.95

It is odd how people who toy with the fate of civilization can


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading