Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Autumn 1991


ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

It still comes as a surprise to realize that the great strides made in medieval archaelogy in England have occurred only in the last 40 years with the refined use of aerial photography, methodological field surveys, and a new appreciation of the historical context. In the course of these investigations some 3,000 medieval villages have been catalogued, villages which were later abandoned in whole or in part for various reasons by the 16th century. Of these, Wharram Percy, in Yorkshire, and its neighboring settlements, have become particularly well known largely through the efforts of Beresford and Hurst who have excavated the site and brought to light the existence of some three dozen peasant dwellings and two manor houses spaced along the street of a planned village. The personal record of the work of reconstruction is set out in this illustrated volume. While there is little discussion of the more vexing historical problems raised by such an undertaking, the authors manage to convey the excitement, as well as the frustrations, of the field work, and to demonstrate to the general reader the modern technique of “history on the ground.”

Paris on the Eve: 1900—1914, by Vincent Cronin. St. Martins $24.95

Those expecting a rehash of Roger Shattuck’s Banquet Years are in for a pleasant surprise. True, both books cover much of the same ground: fin de siècle-to-First World War French art, music, literature, . and spectacle, understood in their social context. But while Shattuck develops a partisan doctrine of dissident creativity, Cronin aims for a skeptical mosaic of dominant attitudes and values. Accordingly, The Banquet Years focuses adoringly on avant-garde artist-heroes and their rarefied milieus, while Paris on the Eve more fully (and ironically) encompasses the period’s mores, material life, politics, and culture— high-, middle-, and low-brow. One would be hard put to choose between these books, each so fully complements the other. In short, this is required reading.

Race and Schooling in the South, 1880— 1920: An Economic History, by Robert A. Margo. Chicago $24.95

The legacy slavery and its aftermath bequeathed to the United States included generations of educational discrimination. This book, an intensely quantitative study, sets out to measure the timing, degree, and effects of discrimination against blacks in the South. The book reveals the complicated history behind the numbers, the twists and turns along the way. Despite the coolness of the prose and the tables, it is a harrowing story, one of chances denied, one of an undying desire to learn.

Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, edited by Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West. Princeton $59.50 cloth, $16.95 paper

In an absolute, divine-right monarchy, who are the “people”? The tsars used that term to describe the peasantry, and few observers in Russia or abroad thought to include the educated classes in any definition of the word. But there was a buffer class, or classes, and in this collection of nearly two dozen essays, many of high quality indeed, the editors have done much to elucidate its position in Russian society.

The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol. IIl: The United States, 1830—1846, edited by C. Peter Ripley. North Carolina $50

This work is part of a project begun in 1976 to make available a record of black involvement in the American antislavery movement. Five volumes of representative documents are to be published. The first two volumes looked at black abolitionist activities in the British Isles and Canada. Volume III is the first of three volumes dealing with the United States. This volume has an excellent introduction which puts the documents into historical perspective. The headnotes and footnotes for each item are thorough, and a comprehensive index makes working with the volume easy. The mix of documents is good; however, there is one noticeable gap. Because his papers are being done elsewhere, no material from Frederick Douglass is included. Still, this is an essential volume for anyone interested in early 19th-century African American history.

Episcopal Power and Florentine Society, 1000—1320, by George W. Dameron. Harvard $45

The double life of the medieval Roman church as an institution which officially despised the world, yet based its power on worldly involvement and enhanced it by the sacramental authority of the priesthood, is clearly brought out in this detailed study of the Florentine episcopate. The author has made use of a variety of sources including, in particular, the surviving 14th-century register of documents (the Bullettone) relating to the property of the see, to illustrate the growth of episcopal lordship through increased economic control. While there was resistance to this expansion not only by communities in the contado, but from within the Florentine commune itself, as well as from the papacy, the bishops managed to preserve their independence of civic domination because of a close association with aristocratic families and a firmly established fiscal base. The link between opposition to episcopal lordship and the heresy of the Cathars, the inadequacy of the older notion of feudal fief-holding and vassalage to describe Tuscan institutions, and a revision of the traditional insistence, by Davidsohn and others, on the antagonism between city and countryside as the motor for political development, are other interesting themes identified and discussed in this important monograph.

Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth-Century America, by Samuel H. Preston and Michael Haines. Princeton $37.50

The United States was one of the richest societies in the world at the end of the 19th century. Yet, almost 20 per cent of its children died before they reached the age of five. Why? Using data from the 1900 Census of Population previously unavailable, this volume investigates the proximate and underlying causes of high child mortality. The authors convincingly argue that a failure to understand the morphology of disease was ultimately responsible and reason that it was improvements in medical technology and health sciences in the 20th century rather than increasing affluence that generated an atmosphere conducive to long and healthful life.

Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, by Jack A. Goldstone. California $34.95

An impressively bold and thoroughly researched attempt to construct a theory of major breakdowns of the political order in large-scale societies, encompassing, besides relatively familiar instances (the English and the French revolutions), also rather unfamiliar ones, such as those affecting the Ottoman and the Chinese empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, and emphasizing the impact of demographic change not only on the livelihood of the lower strata but also on the aspirations of elite groups and on the viability of political regimes. Undoubtedly a work of major scope and significance, destined to make a considerable impact on the burgeoning field of comparative-historical sociology.

Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770—1810, by Shane White. Georgia $35

This study by an Australian scholar is a valuable addition to the historiography of emancipation in the Northern states. Concentrating on New York City and its surrounding communities, where slaves amounted to 20 per cent of the population, the author’s conclusions contain some interesting surprises: that slave ownership was more widespread than had been suspected; and that the slave economy did not so much “decline” as become peripheral as New York experienced rapid and extensive economic change. White supplements his statistical data on slave numbers and occupations with chapters on popular attitudes to race and slavery and on the emergence of some distinctively black styles of dressing and grooming. His general conclusion—that New York’s newly freed blacks had rather more opportunities to shape their destinies than had been supposed—is sound as far as it goes, but perhaps it does not go far enough. Had White extended his study into the 1820’s, he could have discussed the marginalization of blacks in the changing New York economy more fully than he does. His conclusions, too, might have been somewhat more pessimistic.

Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Ritual in a Carolina Community, by Stuart A. Marks. Princeton $24.95

The values of hunting and the values of the academy have little in common. Perhaps for that reason, the hunt, of central importance to American history, has been neglected until recent years. Stuart Marks, author of studies of hunting in Africa, has bridged the gap. Drawing on the latest anthropological theory, statistical sources, extensive interviews, and historical research, he has crafted a multifaceted account of Southern hunting. Relations of race, property, gender, and region appear in fresh guises in this innovative and intriguing study. The portrayal of the contemporary state of hunting is especially interesting, revealing both the continuities with the past and the new pressures on the sport.

To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775—1991, by Stephen Howarth. Random House $25

In a year when a spate of books on the U.S. Navy have appeared, this is a standout in terms of size, production values, and readability. Whether it tells us something new is another story. While the author has done some digging in the archives, and interviewed a number of former chiefs of naval operations, this is a work of synthesis, chronicling the “rise, and fall, and rise again of the U.S. Navy.” It is a dramatic and engaging story, beautifully illustrated, and sure to appeal to the general reader.

At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861—1915, by William Cohen. Louisiana $42.50

The territory covered by this book includes some of the most disturbing images of the South: chain gangs, crop liens, lynchings, sadistic sheriffs, fabricated vagrancy charges. William Cohen contrasts these parts of the Southern past with the surprisingly widespread black movement over distances both long and short. While other historians are content to focus on only one or the other, Cohen looks for the way they interacted. The result is a model of its kind, a careful assessment of laws, their effects, and their limits.

Industrial Relations and Politics in Britain, 1880—1989, by John Sheldrake. Columbia $75

This slim volume provides a succinct, largely neutral account of the complex and contentious relationship between unions, management and the state in modern Britain. A useful starting point for anyone interested in the background to the bitter frustrations felt by both government and labor in the traumatic era of postindustrial decline.

When I Can Read My Title Clear: Literacy, Slavery and Religion in the Antebellum South, by Janet Duitsman Cornelius. South Carolina $29.95

This poignant and notable study examines not only why antebellum blacks so valued literacy, but how literacy played a central role in both the black church and in political resistance. Ms. Cornelius—adjunct professor of history at Eastern Illinois University—points out that while the legal restrictions against teaching slaves to read were less extensive than commonly thought, sanctions were quite harsh. Despite the threat of grisly punishments, enslaved blacks persevered and did learn to read. This volume tells their story. Ten photographs.

LITERARY STUDIESMacropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, edited by Johnathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo. Pennsylvania $34.95

If you are wondering what in the world macropolitics is, this book offers a succinct explanation: “In contrast to Foucault’s micropolitics, macropolitics emphasizes that political transformations at the level of the state have great importance for many major developments in nineteenth-century writing.” In other words, “macropolitics” is what used to be called “politics” in an earlier, less sophisticated age. It is indeed a sad commentary on the current intellectual climate that the above truism can be proclaimed as a new revelation and touted “as a rapidly emerging focus for cultural enquiry.” But this situation is typical of how the academic world operates: now that literary scholars have spent over a decade milking the insights of Foucault and French historians for all they are worth, they can appear to be doing something radically new by returning to a traditional notion of politics, one that Aristotle worked out more than 2,000 years ago (though one wishes that the authors in this book had as sophisticated an understanding of the realities of politics as Aristotle did). Even if these essays are not as original as they claim to be, nor as important, there are several interesting contributions to this volume; ranging from Marlon Ross’s discussion of nationalism and the 19th-century romance to a number of treatments of the issues of orientalism and imperialism in literature.

The Rhetoric of Sexuality and the Literature of the French Renaissance, by Lawrence D. Kritzman. Cambridge $44.50

Largely discredited as an explanatory model or therapeutic modality, psychoanalysis lives on in literary hermeneutics. The text, which serves as a proxy for the speaking subject, can’t, of course, talk back. No harm done, however—at least when French Freud belabors the obvious. Two examples chosen at random prove the point: “sexuality functions as a rhetorical trope through which desire is represented” (emphasis added); and, from Montaigne’s essay on paternal affection, “emerges the representation of an exemplary bond of nurturance which functions as a reparative gesture in terms of the dynamics of the “family romance”.” Less than obvious is the following pronouncement (which also seems against nature): Scève’s “dream of love [is] inextricably linked to a scenario whose principle [sic] motivator is the figure of the phallic mother.” Whatever its meaning, this sentence (along with the others just cited) proves that, sexual or not, effective rhetoric may depend on a competent, even high-handed copy-editor.

Shakespeare’s Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage, by Donald G. Watson. Georgia $30

In reconstructing the plots of the three parts of Henry VI, of Richard III, and of King John, the author touches on much that is familiar, on the character of Henry as a simple man who was ill-advised, on the theatrical quality of Richard III as a personification of the old morality play, and on the parody of rulership, accidental, vulnerable, and self-defeating, in King John. On the other hand, there are aspects of the study which might have been developed further with useful results, such as performance practices in Shakespeare’s time, other writers’ opinions of the monarchy, Shakespeare’s use of his sources, and the unstable social framework of 16th-century England which affected the drama. But more important, perhaps, is the lesson to be learned from the scholarly analysis about the ambivalent view of the nature of kingship through Shakespeare’s exploration of character and motive, and from the suggestion that Elizabethan politics were no less staged performances than the plays themselves.

The World of Samuel Beckett, edited by Joseph H. Smith. Johns Hopkins $42.50 cloth, $14.95 paper

When Samuel Beckett died in December 1989, the world lost its only clear claimant to “greatest living author” (though one always sensed Beckett shaking his head somewhere: “You call this living?”). This volume grows out of a Smithsonian Institution Symposium devoted to Beckett, which was held in March 1989 and thus soon provided the basis for memorializing him after his death. Among the many tributes to Beckett that have been published, this is one of the better volumes. The contributors include long-time students of Beckett’s work, such as Martin Esslin and Herbert Blau. Given Joseph Smith’s participation in the project, a number of the essays take a fresh look at Beckett from a psychoanalytic perspective. Some of the contributors take up the issue of Beckett’s relation to postmodernism; several of the most valuable of the essays deal with the question of Beckett’s relation to the modern media, most notably Jon Erickson’s “Self-objectification and Preservation in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.”

A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Southern Illinois $29.95 cloth, $14.95 paper

It is oddly appropriate that Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini (each) have more pages in the index than most of the American poets discussed here. It was those fellows, together with their lineally descendant Politically Correct Persons, who first realized the key to controlling the present and shaping the future lies in revising and reshaping the past (history) to fit overt goals and guidelines and a covert agenda. From the introduction, “Recircuiting the American Past,” by scholar Ed Folsom through the nine chronological essays by a lineup of poet-teachers, this book, proclaimed by its editors to be “an eclectic, comprehensive, and humanistic overview to American poetry,” is more important for what it leaves out than what it puts in. Disingenuous or sinister (more likely the former), the overall impression is of a trendy, distorted, limited picture of the range and diversity of American poetry in this century, seriously weakened by serious omissions. Some sense of this is evidenced by (again) the index which offers five references to Daniel Halpern, four to Richard Howard, and one each to Brendan Galvin and John Ciardi. The list of poets of three generations who are ignored and unmentioned is shocking. Not without merit or interest, this Profile is at best a slovenly history.

Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. Stanford $14.95

This book is a culminating step in the authors’ long-term project of rescuing Bakhtin’s criticism. What can a critical theory be rescued from—or for? In Bakhtin’s diverse and dynamic case, argue Morson and Emerson, the clear and present dangers are three: disregard of his system’s evolution, conversion of his subtle, protean terminology into crude, fixed cant, and the “canonization” of texts which Bakhtin almost certainly did not write. Accordingly, the authors carefully establish the range of Bakhtin’s key terms and distinctions as he modified them over decades of intellectual growth and tireless reconsideration—but only in those works whose authorship is beyond dispute. Morson and Emerson’s purpose is to recuperate, revitalize, and encourage proper use of ideas and methods that have been travestied in countless essays and books by misguided disciples. If this book enjoys the wide influence it deserves, students and specialists stand to gain real insight at last into the workings of literary polyphony, textual loopholes, and—above all—the carnivalesque.

Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, by James Shapiro. Columbia $35

Working freely in and around the notions of Harold Bloom and “the anxiety of influence,” Thomas M. Greene (The Light in Troy) and his concept of “dialectical imitation,” and especially with suggestions found in Linda Hutcheon (A Theory of Parody) and her “theory of intertextuality,” Columbia University’s James Shapiro boldly and successfully attacks the “complex collaborative encounters” whereby Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare at once deeply influenced and liberated each other to create what we now take to be in the canon of English Renaissance drama. Wide ranging, authoritative, often subtle in both his perceptions and aperçus, the author treats the “complex configuration of literary, personal, commerical, and historical relations” among the three great poet-dramatists, arriving at an earned and worthy conclusion: “Marlowe did not create a school, but the pressure of his influence continues to be consequential. Jonson, who did everything in his power to establish a tribe of Ben, failed to realign English drama in his footsteps. Shakespeare, who neither resisted imitation nor sought to establish a literary dynasty, became the most influential, and yet peculiarly inimitable of the three.” Adventurous and accessible scholarship.

What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy, by Christoper Norris. Johns Hopkins $42.50 cloth, $13.95 paper

Christopher Norris reads modern and postmodern criticism differently. Derrida is for him not the ally of Fish, Rorty, and De Man but actually sits closer to Habermas and his criticism of French deconstruction. Derrida is actually a thinker inspired by the Enlightenment and upholding reason to a large degree over-against the playful (and unsystematic) destructions of various French and especially American colleagues. Of course Norris is British, and a certain disdain for American shortcuts and oversimplifications of complex issues a la Fish and Rorty can be understood from the viewpoint of a more conservative scholarship. But this is more than British aristocratic mockery over French and American scholars run wild in the Funhouse of their own demolition of literature. This book not only raises the questions of what is wrong with postmodernism, but it also shows ways of how legitimate enlightenment interests of reason and structure can be fruitfully reintroduced into a field of studies ruled by chaos at the moment. One of these strategies is the already mentioned alignment of Derrida with Habermas against deconstruction. The other avenues are an in-depth analysis of Fish and a reevaluation of Heidegger and De Man. This book will hopefully rock the boat of contemporary postmodernism and force the movement to engage in a critical self analysis and de/ reconstruction of their theories.

Richards on Rhetoric: I. A. Richards: Selected Essays (1929—1974), edited by Ann E. Berthoff. Oxford $35 cloth, $16.95 paper

Ann Berthoff presents this collection of essays by Richards because, though “his theory and practice were important to New Criticism,” “he is virtually unread today.” Richards published more than 20 books in his lifetime, among them the classic Coleridge on Imagination, but this is the first the thematic selection on rhetoric. Berthoff presents his essays under four main rubrics: I. Practical Criticism, II. Philosophy of Rhetoric, III. The Meanings of Meaning, and IV. Design for Escape. A wide range of topics is presented, ranging from “Towards a Technique for Comparative Studies,” “A Study of Misunderstanding,” “Powers and Limits of Signs” to “General Education in the Humanities.” The selection presents Richards as indeed a thinker who deserves to be taken seriously in his contribution to rhetoric and who deserves to be read. BerthofFs book is a good means to this end.

Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay, and the Theory of Genre, by John Snyder. Kentucky $29

Snyder wants to give the concept of genre a prominence again that it has not occupied since the time of Romanticism. Postmodernism especially tried to discredit genre as an untenable concept—its boundaries could not be established, and its usefulness for literary analysis is negligible. Snyder focuses on the genres of tragedy, satire, and the essay and argues that they have crucial functions of empowerment for their respective subject matters and contents. This book is highly technical in its vocabulary, and the subject matter, while significant for literary studies, is presented in such a highly specialized way that this book may not find a wide readership.

Zeigeist in Babel: The Post-Modernist Controversy, edited by Ingeborg Hoesterey. Indiana $12.95

Generally associated with fragmentation, discontinuity, and pluralism, the postmodern has been variously treated: as a new decadence or as an overdue deliverance from the clichés of modernism. In these essays, pro and con, by Eco, Derrida, Greenberg, Rorty, and others, the issue is explored—appropriately—from numerous angles, largely incommensurable with one another. Untendentious and highly informative as a whole, the collection offers curious, throughtful readers an opportunity to survey the issues, problems, and arguments, unpressured by any rhetorical demand to make a final, binding single coded determination—in a phrase, to be unpostmodern.

The Art of Poetry, by Peter Levi. Yale $35

This volume collects 15 lectures delivered by Levi during his tenure of the Oxford Chair of Poetry, 1984—1989. Many of the lectures are personal in nature; and while Levi ranges widely from the Bible to Philip Larkin, his accounts of classical poetry ring with particular authority. The general reader will appreciate the reprinting of long passages of poetry read aloud by Levi during his lectures, because many of the texts are otherwise hard to locate. Never stumbling into poetical or political extremes, Levi fulfills the promise of the title not in a comprehensive treatise but in representative examples.

LIVES & LETTERSThe Southern Connection, by Robert Bechtold Heilman. Louisiana $29.95

In the fall of 1935 young Robert Heilman, fresh out of Harvard, took up his post as instructor of English at Louisiana State University. Within a few weeks he had witnessed the assassination of Huey Long (Heilman and his wife happened to be touring the capitol on the fateful day) and the birth of the Southern Review, edited by his young colleagues Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. This odd initiation into the complexity of Southern life— brutality and high culture, side by side— may explain this Pennsylvanian’s lifelong fascination with the region: a fascination witnessed eloquently by the essays gathered here. The Southern Connection begins as a quite engaging memoir of Heilman’s tenure at LSU and broadens out at last into a shrewd meditation on modern Southern literature, most of whose principal actors eventually wandered through Baton Rouge and into the pages of its influential quarterly. Though Heilman long ago left the South for a distinguished career at the University of Washington, we can be grateful that he has elected to visit it again in this valuable and likable book.

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin. Knopf $25

The most interesting fact about Nelly Ternan was that she was Dickens’ mistress when he was at the height of his fame. How the well-loved novelist managed to dump his wife, with whom he’d had ten children, and to conceal his secret life for 13 years, was “documented” by Dickens himself. Inadvertently he had failed to destroy his 1867 appointment diary. The chapter decoding his cryptic entries, and describing his masterful evasions, serves as a manual for those planning a clandestine affair: the use of aliases, coded telegrams, disembarking from trains at the wrong station, etc. Nelly, who was half his age, remained in the shadows, and Tomalin’s careful research hasn’t made her more visible than Dickens intended. Early chapters describe her theatrical family and the trials of early 19th-century women in the theatre. Final chapters tell how, after Dickens’s death in 1870, Nelly, at age 36, buried her past, reduced her age by 14 years, married, and had two children with a husband who never learned her secret. Dickens was obsessed by Nelly, who enjoyed the flattery and financial support. How she felt about him may be inferred from the most revealing sentence in the book: “Long after his death she said she loathed the memory of his attentions.”

A Life of Her Own: A Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France, by Emilie Carles. Translated by Avriel Goldberger. Rutgers $19.95

In A Fragile Glory, Richard Bernstein wrote affectingly of “la France profonde,” where, far from the center of culture and political power, peasants obscurely wage a low-tech battle to survive, season to season, day to day. Despite official piety for égalité and fraternité, these citoyens are almost voiceless beyond their own mountain and valleys. When they are heard in the national forum, moreover, they almost invariably become figures of urban fun. Not so Emilie Carles, whose memoir was a publishing sensation in 1977 precisely because commitment to the region where she farmed, and taught for almost 80 years was equalled by a near-Parisian lucidity, articulateness, and sophistication. A feminist, pacifist, and independent socialist, she provides a unique perspective on grim conditions in rural France as well its deeply rooted (and self-defeating) resistance to constructive change. This is essential reading for anyone who thinks France begins and ends with the Champs Elysées, the chateau circuit, and the topless beaches of Antibes.

You Always Think of Home: A Portrait of Clay County, Alabama, edited by Pamela Grundy. Georgia $29.95

The various oral histories that make up this book are as rich and varied as the barren hill country of Clay County is to farm. Many are eloquent testimonies to the trials and tribulations of living in such a place, and they are the real strength of the book. Others, like that of a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon give notice that some things haven’t changed at all. Ken Elkins’ excellent photographs add faces to the stories. While Clay County isn’t the only small rural community beset with problems, its story is worth listening to in order to understand, firsthand, the plight of a mostly silent segment of America.

A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters, edited and introduced by Nancy F. Cott. Yale $35

Historian, social critic, political activist, and reformer, Mary Ritter Beard founded the field of women’s history and wrote or edited seven volumes of women’s history, but she achieved greater prominence as collaborator with her husband, Charles A. Beard. Together they wrote the multi-volume work, The Rise of American Civilization, 1927—1942, which shaped the thinking of generations of Americans and is probably still among the most popular works in 20th-century American History. Mary Ritter Beard spent most of her life trying to demonstrate that history was not whole without women’s story in it. Her most famous work, Women as Force in History, published in 1946, asserted her lifelong theme: women have always been a very real, although neglected force in history and culture. Her goal was to reach women, by writing books, making speeches, establishing libraries and archives, and creating syllabi for what would become Women’s Studies courses, to persuade them of the power of their pasts and therefore the strength of their futures. Although the Beards destroyed their papers and letters, Nancy Cott, Yale historian, has succeeded in locating several hundred of Mary Beard’s letters. This excellent collection of 141 letters, edited and introduced by Cott, creates, in effect, a splendid and significant intellectual biography.

W. J. Cash: A Life, by Bruce Clayton. Louisiana $24.95

Historian-biographer Bruce Clayton begins and ends his book about W.J. Cash and The Mind of the South at the Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina, where the 41-year old journalist and author was laid to rest after his tragic death by suicide in 1941. In that grove of granite silence, Clayton finds an image and a comparison that sagely assays the worth of the writer and his book. Across the way, says Clayton, a splendid tombstone inscribed to the “most distinguished son of his generation” marks the grave of another of Shelby’s native sons, Thomas Dixon, the flamboyantly racist lawyer and minister whose best-selling novels extolling Old South white supremacy are now forgotten literary antiques. And then there is the grave of Wilbur Joseph Cash, a quiet and uncelebrated man in life, lying now under a small, flat stone almost obscured by summer grass—but a man remembered, because he “fashioned a lasting memorial in his monumental book,” and because “in his attempt to portray his people’s past realistically and honestly, [he] courageously faced up to the South’s troubled history.”

First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789—1961, by Carl Sferrazza Anthony. Morrow $29,95

Belatedly, Americans are coming to recognize the role and influence of presidents’ wives. Whatever history’s judgment, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter have focused the public’s attention on the First Lady, and Barbara Bush depicts “a kinder and gentler” version. Anthony, a Nancy Reagan speechwriter, journalist, biographer, and playwright, profiles women from Martha Washington to Jacqueline Kennedy who are part of the great events in American history. Some became spokesmen for issues as diverse as workers’ rights and feminism. Others advised their husbands on large issues of policy while still others set standards for culture and fashion. This popular account opens the door at least part way to the mysteries of their role in governance.

I’ve Been Marching All The Time: An Autobiography, by Xernona Clayton with Hal Gulliver. Longstreet $17.95

Raised in a middle-class Oklahoma home in the 1940’s, Clayton first went to work as an “under-cover agent” exposing job discrimination for the Urban League. Eventually, she became the first black host of a television program in the South. She presently is a corporate executive for the Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta. Besides chronicling Clayton’s productive and inspiring life, this engaging autobiography offers us an unblinking look at both Ted Turner and Martin Luther King.

The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution, by Richard Breitman. Knopf $23

The century’s most notorious missing “smoking gun” is the document or documents that authorized the extermination of Europe’s Jews. The Nazis were too clever to commit anything like that to paper and so smug that they believed they could get away with mass murder. Heinrich Himmler was the chief executioner, of course, but no sane person doubts that he carried out Hitler’s orders—with relish, to be sure, but he himself was much too limited a man to be entrusted with anything more than the actual dirty work. His biography makes for dismal reading, but we ignore it at our peril.

Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin: The Intelligentsia and Power, by Philip Pomper. Columbia $16.50 paper

Not since Bertam Wolfe’s Cold War classic, Three Who Made a Revolution, has there been a book quite like this one.

Professor Pomper, who teaches at Wesleyan University, treads rather familiar ground here, but he brings to it the perspective of several schools of psychology and in so doing elucidates some provocative analysis.

A. A. Milne: The Man behind Winnie-the-Pooh, by Ann Thwaite. Random House $29.95

An author does not always get the biographer he deserves, but A.A. Milne was lucky. Ann Thwaite is intelligent and perceptive, sympathetic but not uncritical. She starts at the beginning of Milne’s life and goes steadily and unflinchingly through to the end. The full-length portrait of Milne that emerges may surprise someone who knows only Pooh and will not please a sentimentalist, but surely would have pleased the subject, though perhaps he might not have acknowledged that.

Ezra Pound in London and Paris (1908—1925), by J. Wilhelm. Pennsylvania State $32.50

This book is full of an extraordinary number of facts and fancies concerning Ezra Pound, his family and his loves, his friends and foes, his poetry and other accomplishments. Every page is crammed with them, more or less helter-skelter. This makes it difficult to get a clear, incisive picture, though easy to get a kaleidoscopic one. Everything you might want to know about Pound is here, even beyond 1925, but you will have to dig for it.

Daniel Webster “The Completest Man,” edited by Kenneth E. Shewmaker. New England $30

This volume represents the culmination of the New Hampshire series of the Papers of Daniel Webster. It is a fitting capstone to the project. The book is divided into four sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of Webster’s many-faceted contribution to 19th-century America—as politician, as writer and orator, as lawyer, as diplomatist. Each section comprises a brief introduction (all of them lucid and incisive) to samples of Webster’s writings and speeches. The whole is a first-rate introduction to the brilliance of Webster’s mind, and a continuous reminder of the importance of the man to the evolution of so much that is distinctly American about our government, politics, and law.

The House of Barrymore, by Margot Peters. Knopf $29.95

From Mrs. John Drew to Drew Barrymore, five generations of the Barrymores have fed Americans’ insatiable appetite for extravagance and flair. Equally at home on stage and in the gossip column, they have entered the ranks of legend, tinged only faintly by reality. In Margot Peters’ dissection of the famous family, the “Great Profile” (Jack) is revealed as a presence without substance, his career destroyed by alcohol and abusiveness; Lionel as a crank, obsessed by right-wing political causes, addicted to alcohol and cocaine, yet a better actor than his more famous brother; Ethel as a woman of rather forbidding nature; and the younger generation haunted by the ghosts of the past. Yet something is missing in this collective biography—-the sense of the Barrymores as a family rather than as just another American dynasty.

FICTIONThe Eighth Continent: Tales of the Foreign Service, by Philip Gould. Algonquin $17.95

A floating and barely perceptible island of sophisticated innocents abroad, the eighth continent is not entirely unknown in other fictions or in films. There, its topography is rendered in broad strokes of primary color; but in this narrative Philip Gould provides some key nuances, both chromatic and structural. Even more than his first novel, Kitty Collins, The Eighth Continent draws strength from Gould’s sure sense of place, his sensitivity to fragile and ambiguous situations, as well as his ear for the stress points and lacunae of speech between characters of radically different disposition and culture. A witty, poignant, eminently readable book.

Gospel Hour, by T. R. Pearson. Morrow $19.95

On the back jacket of Gospel Hour T.R. Pearson’s fiction is compared several times to William Faulkner’s. The two writers are not as similar as the publishers would like to think. What they do have in common, however, besides a marked lack of commas, is that both have created a totally new voice, a unique style, and an inimitable language in American literature. Gospel Hour tells the rise and fall (or fall and rise) of young Donnie Huff, who finds himself come back to life after having drowned in a logging accident. With a little prompting from his mother-in-law, Opal, Donnie realizes that his accident was no ordinary resuscitation, but that he has been touched by the hand of God. In southwestern Virginia this meeting excites no little attention, and Donnie soon finds himself at the head of an adoring congregation. Donnie and religion make strange bedfellows, and he soon is asking whether being touched by God is worth praying for or not. Pearson performs contortionists’ tricks with words—he twists and turns them with amazing dexterity. The result can be wordy, but it’s always light—and always hilarious. Best of all, Pearson is never too busy with the verbal gymnastics to lose sight of his very important subject— religion in modern America and its many effects. He knows the subject and the characters so well that every word is authentic. In today’s new fiction, this is high praise indeed and makes Gospel Hour a book not to be missed.

The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing. Algonquin $17.95

This is, as the title suggests, a strange story and not the usual mystery fare. An excerpt from John Winthrop’s journal for 1648 described the discovery of a dead woman in a river north of Boston whose body showed that “she had been much abused.” This scrap of information and a few court records led the author to recreate the circumstances of the crime and to offer a persuasive solution. The slow pace and attention to historical detail will put off most mystery buffs, but those who enjoy historical fiction will appreciate this lean and supple tale of Puritan New England.

Cyrus Cyrus, by Adam Zameenzad. Viking $19.95

If one had any lingering doubts that Adam Zameenzad has been influenced by Salman Rushdie, one need only turn to Part V of Cyrus Cyrus and a chapter called “Satanic Purses and the Fundamentalists.” Indeed the highest compliment one can pay this, the fourth of Zameenzad’s novels, is that it does invite comparison with the best of Rushdie’s work. Cyrus Cyrus is composed on a scale that rivals Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, and has the same magical realist quality. Like Rushdie, Zameenzad blends Hindu mythology with popular culture, and he shapes a plot that ranges from continent to continent, giving a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of the contemporary world in an era of cultural migration. Cyrus Cyrus even shows signs of having been influenced by Rushdie’s prose style, although Zameenzad does not have quite as wide a range of verbal skills. The one area in which Zameenzad exceeds Rushdie is in the portrayal of sex and violence in his novel, as he carries Rushdie’s fascination with these subjects to extremes which many readers may find ugly, if not repellant. If on balance Zameenzad cannot be said to equal Rushdie’s achievement, his latest novel, along with the work of writers such as Amitav Ghosh, suggests that a new and powerful literary tradition is now emerging out of the cross-fertilization produced by the cultural encounter of Great Britain and its former colonies in the Indian subcontinent.

Tucker’s Last Stand, by William F. Buckley, Jr. Random House $19.95

What does a political pundit, concert harpsichordist, transatlantic sailor, syndicated columnist, published essayist, periodical editor, and TV commentator do in his spare time? He writes successful spy stories that are as subtle as they are sophisticated, featuring the unflappable Yalie, Blackford Oakes, who is a CIA agent. This one, set in Saigon in the 6O’s, is one of his best. A good evening’s respite from the tube.

Entering Ephesus, by Daphne Athas. Second Chance $24.95

There is not a mundane sentence nor a stale idea to be found in this novel which, when first published by Viking in 1971, made Time’s 10-Best list and won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. Entering Ephesus begins with migration of the Bishop family—mother, father, three distinct teen-aged daughters—from a patrician existence north of Boston to a down South town of swept dirt yards, flat stores and a fat Baptist church with Doric columns made from tin cans. The truth of the tin can columns eludes the Bishop girls only a little longer than the larger, similarly hollow truths of this town, which is known as the “oasis of the state” because of its university and respected as a “last outpost of Jeffersonian simplicity and Greek humanism.” Entering Ephesus focuses mostly on the middle daughter, Urie, but the sensibilities of each sister develop unpredietably, in response to always provocative stimuli: among them the time and the place (a mostly undisguised Chapel Hill, N.C. in the wartime Forties); the influences of their mother, who comes from fallen Yankee aristocracy and weathers their new pennilessness with an inscrutable grace known as “Bishopry”; and their father, an inconoclastic Greek immigrant whose intellectual fervor infects the novel, and the reader, with an unsettling curiosity. This is a big-breathed novel which takes big risks, and the dizzying synthesis of idea and emotion it exhales is present in the shape and sonorousness of each of its sentences.

Stories by Iranian Women since the Revolution, translated by Soraya Sullivan with introduction by Farzaneh Milani. Texas $8.95

Collected here are 13 short stories written by Iranian women in the past decade; each is prefaced with a useful biographical sketch of the author. Gracefully translated, the stories are compelling, vivid, and richly revealing of the myriad voices and experiences of Iranian women during a period of rapid social change. The fine introduction by F. Milani greatly enhances the collection. Dr. Milani’s erudite yet elegant literary and historical overview of women’s relationship to literature in the Persian/ Iranian tradition is a tour de force. This volume is a must.

The Sunflower Plot, by John Sherwood. Scribner’s $18.95

To Celia Grant, struggling to hold on to her greenhouse business, Victor Stratton, seems too good to be true. Victor is a rich eccentric with grandiose plans for an Elizabethan garden to set offhis country estate. Just as she begins the garden’s design, however, a murder takes place at the house, and she is dragooned into playing cat’s paw for the Regional Crime Squad who suspect the Stratton menage with drug smuggling. Celia, as one might suspect, does not take all this lying down. She worms her Way into the house and strips away the false fronts that camouflage the family’s real relationships, solving the murder(s) and saving her business at the same time. Fans of the smart, intrepid, and feisty take note.

The End of the Dream, by John G. Neihardt. Nebraska $19.95

Readers of Black Elk Speaks and A Cycle of the West will not be surprised to learn that long before the Native American realism of Dances with Wolves found its way to the wide screen, John Neihardt portrayed Indian life in clear, direct, and surprisingly accurate images. In dramatic contrast to the Buffalo Bill, Wild-West view of tribal life regularly purveyed by contemporary colleagues, Neihardt’s writing was not merely an attempt to weave adventures on the frontier but was informed by direct experience as a neighbor to the Omaha nation. The nine stories collected in this volume were first published in the Overland Monthly, venue for many less perceptive, more fantastic tales of Anglo-Indian relations between 1901 and 1905. Though he neither stoops to condescension nor courts melodrama, Neihardt’s simple prose captures the soul of the prairie-men.

Money Burns, by A. E. Maxwell. Random House $18

Fiora is an exquisitely beautiful, petite blonde with a razor-sharp mind. Fiddler is a hunk who solves problems with extreme prejudice. Together they are the yin and yang of crime fiction, patrolling the California of computers, faxes, and cellular phones much as Ross McDonald’s solitary gumshoe explored the orange groves and burgeoning suburbs 40 years ago. This is another drug story, involving big money, fast cars, lovely women, and corruption. It includes the requisite charming villain for whom killing is no more strenuous, or morally engaging, than a game of racquetball. If the themes are old, this is still a perfectly competent mystery, with lots of action, spills, and thrills. It’s just that, by the end of the book, you know why Fiora and Fiddler got a divorce.

White People, by Allan Gurganus. Knopf $21.95

From the author of the critically acclaimed first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, this collection of nine short stories and two novellas shows Gurganus at his best, a lone talker surrounded by a circle of rapt listeners. The tales collected here all work because Gurganus has been the best of listeners— which is, after all, a prerequisite for any good storyteller. This volume’s strengths lie in its remarkable range of subject matter, as Gurganus moves effortlessly from the intricacies of familial relations to the mysterious appearance of an angel in an old woman’s back yard. Gurganus is a craftsman to be studied, a voice to be enjoyed.

A Kind of Redemption, by Stephen Hathaway. Louisiana State $17.95

No civilian can ever fully understand the obscenity of war. This is especially true for Viet Nam, where a child in Saigon in black trousers who waved to you from across the street might be lofting a grenade to tear out your insides. This collection of a dozen short stories by an American professor of English who is a veteran of the Indo-Chinese conflict is a frightening insight into the horrors of waiting to kill someone who is waiting to kill you. No wonder so many emotional cripples returned home.

The Fireman’s Fair, by Josephine Humphreys. Viking $21.95

Shortly after Hurricane Hugo, Rob Wyatt—a divorced, 32-year-old Charleston attorney—takes note not only of the ruins within the city, but within his own life, as well. Discouraged by what he sees, he quits his job and allows the chips to fall where they may. His spirits are renewed, however, when he is asked to help a penniless (though captivating) 19-year-old Billie Poe out of an unconventional marriage. Though a number of characters are undeveloped and a handful of scenes are downright mawkish, the author’s details of the social, physical, and architectural intricacies of Charleston and its surroundings are exemplary.

Day of Atonement, by Faye Kellerman. Morrow $20

Sure, let me get this straight. Peter Decker, a L.A. police detective has just married Rina Lazarus, his gorgeous Orthodox Jewish sidekick from three previous mysteries. And for their honeymoon, they’re spending the high holidays with her relatives in Brooklyn. Right. From this unlikely premise, and some shaky coincidences, however, comes a pretty decent story. Noam Levine, a troubled teenager, goes missing from his secure, if stifling, home. Decker is a foreigner to Brooklyn and the Orthodox community but succeeds in tracking the boy to the detective’s home turf in Los Angeles. From there, Decker gleans clues from a number of grotesque killings until he comes face to face with the boy and his bizarre companion. Kellerman combines explanations of Jewish law and gruesome violence in an odd mix that might put readers off. But her depiction of the Orthodox world rings true, as does the criminal underworld so foreign to it.

Never Die, by Harry Hannah. Houghton Mifflin/Lawrence $18.95

Hannah, author of such Southern classics as Ray and Geronimo Rex, focuses upon the American West in this latest work. Set in 1810 in a town called Nitburg, the novel tells of the offbeat adventures of gunfighter Fernando Mure, who wants—among other things—to burn the town to the ground (not only is it corrupt, but—to the gunfighter’s dismay—the Chinese have moved in). Though bereft of the ironies and nuances of Hannah’s previous fictions, Never Die is a hilarious and irresistible tale.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSIn His Steps: Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique, by Paul R. Henggeler. Ivan R. Dee $27.50

In His Steps is a political biography by a young Bowling Green University historian. Lyndon B. Johnson lived in the shadow of the Kennedys. Johnson was not alone in being compared unfavorably with JFK. Tom Wicker describes the shadow as “the Ghost of Jack Kennedy.” The Kennedy mystique provided a standard to which some aspired with negative repercussions: Joseph Biden and Gary Hart. In one way or another, it was a factor for George McGovern who selected Sargent Shriver as a running mate, Michael Dukakis, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and even Ronald Reagan. With Johnson the Kennedys became an obsession especially as “the good Kennedy”—JFK—was supplanted by “the bad Kennedy”—Robert Kennedy. Johnson’s massive insecurities and his memory of an education and political career that sharply contrasted with Kennedy’s left an image he could never overcome. The Caro multi-volume biography promises to reinforce the picture. The tragic element is the obscuring of a superior legislative record by a President who could not forget he was not Camelot.

Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years, by Haynes Johnson. Norton $24.95

Haynes Johnson unashamedly offers a strong liberal critique of the 1980’s and the Reagan years. Given the powers of “the Great Communicator” who told the story his way, Johnson’s book is a necessary corrective of an era he maintains was “nurtured by greed.” Sleepwalking provides explanations of all the things that were wrong or went wrong in the 1980’s: Iran-Contra, fraud in HUD, televangelism and the New Right, homelessness and poverty, the price of deregulation and America’s fall from dominance to struggling debtor nation. A procession of leading characters move across its pages: Ivan Boesky, Oliver North, Manuel Norriega, William Casey, Willie Horton, and Arthur Laffer of the “Laffer curve.” But is it objective and even-handed history that measures mistakes against accomplishments? Probably Johnson himself would not make such a claim. Interestingly, Gorbachev merits only two entries in the book. This fact is a commentary on the neglect of one of the broad areas of policy on which Reagan ultimately will be judged.

My France: Politics, Culture, Myth, by Eugen Weber. Harvard $24.95

Author of Peasants into Frenchmen and France: Fin de S

0 Comments

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

Recommended Reading