Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Autumn 2003

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

With this volume, the 18-year-old Presidential Series of the estimable George Washington Papers reaches its majority (one 650-page volume every 20 months is truly an amazing pace!). Volume 11’s 450 documents are ably edited and annotated by the series’ fifth editor, who has wisely reintroduced the use of maps, which, in this case, enable readers to keep track of place-names in the Northwest and Southwest Territories, high-priority areas for the Washington administration. The volume’s 52-page analytical index makes information on such subjects as agriculture, disease, Native Americans, religion, and slavery easily retrievable. The bulk of the volume deals with the official concerns of the executive branch of the federal government, primarily General Anthony Wayne’s expedition against hostile Indian nations in the Old Northwest; relations with Spain and the native peoples of the Old Southwest; diplomatic consequences of the abolition of the French monarchy; and the establishment of the Federal City on the Potomac. But Washington’s private affairs also loom large, particularly operations at Mount Vernon, as described in correspondence with his farm manager Anthony Whitting. Most significant historically, however, is the hostile reaction of the backcountry to the new excise tax on distilled spirits and its exacerbation of the split between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Their open break led to the creation of America’s first political parties, which president Washington tried to avert by agreeing to serve a second term. That decision guaranteed that another dozen or so excellent volumes of this series are to be expected from the capable editors at the University of Virginia.

Voyages of Delusion. The Quest for the Northwest Passage, by Glyn Williams. Yale $29.95

The search for a sea route through America, a Northwest Passage, had enticed seamen as early as the 16th century. By the 18th century, with improvements in instruments and charts, expeditions to find the Northwest Passage multiplied. The first explorers focused on the Hudson Bay area, pushing up rivers and bays in search of a fabled sea which would them lead to the Pacific Ocean and the fabled riches of the Orient. Williams has written a marvelous tale of wildly optimistic seamen who froze, starved, endured storms and often died in the vain search for a fantasy—a Northwest Passage. Late in the 18th century, sea captains attempted to locate a passage from the Pacific side of the continent. After exploring the Pacific coast, Captain George Vancouver concluded that there was no Northwest Passage—it was a hoax. In this well researched history of courageous seamen, Williams has written a gripping tale of valiant men who were out on a fool’s errand. Readers can only admire their courage.

Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History, by James A. Morone. Yale $35

A remarkably intelligent and ambitious study of how various forms of “morality politics” have been at the center of American history from the Puritans until today. From its beginnings, America has been interested in its moral standing— before God and in the sight of the world—and it has undertaken crusade after crusade, typically couched in moral terms, in order to form a more perfect union. Against laissez-faire liberals who decry the grim Puritanism of this, and those warm-hearted (and firebrand-wielding) communitarians who trumpet its fine earnestness, Morone shows the good and the bad of this tradition—its ability to mobilize powerful energies for good, as well as its tendency to demonize some poor “them” in morally scrutinizing the democratic “us.” Much as in his earlier The Democratic Wish, Morone does not aim to expunge morality politics; he wisely recognizes that this pattern of moral politics is inescapable, even to the extent that a jeremiad against it would simply fall back into the same pattern it excoriated. While this book has some real reflectiveness, it is more a chronicle whose provocations emerge from its recounting of history, even unto the last words: “We remain Puritans all.” Nonetheless, it is a great boon: while no one book will dislodge the captivity of academic political scientists to a secularizing narrative of American history, one defoliated of moral concerns, this book adds substantially to the indictment against them.

Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848—82, by Najia Aarim-Hariot. Illinois $39.95

The foundational components of white supremacy lurk in the background of Aarim-Hariot’s history of legal Chinese exclusion and African American repression in the second half of the 19th century. Not only were African Americans and Chinese immigrants forced into racially stratified labor markets by financial and extralegal (frequently violent) means, they were also conflated in political discourse as “servile and degraded” races, set in opposition to the white men of American free labor ideology. Thus both Chinese immigrants and African Americans were scorned for their supposed threat to white male workers’ wages and their putative inability to participate in representative government. Aarim-Hariot argues that black/white relations structured Chinese/white relations until 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act provided a model not just for black exclusion, but also for the subsequent racialization of European immigrants. Indeed, she argues, the 1924 Immigration Act reflected the “Asianization” of European sojourners. Her project of comparative racialization is provocative and the argument over the conflation of the “Negro Problem” with the “Chinese Question” during Reconstruction is compelling, but Aarim-Hariot might have done more to demonstrate the differential racializations of these two subordinated populations. While white supremacy was the key element linking (and dividing) the triad black/white/ Chinese in the congressional debates she cites, her retention of white supremacy as the analytical fulcrum necessitated the reconstitution of a white versus non-white racial binary. This binary is undoubtedly a prime component of American racism and its expressions in political discourse. By emphasizing state-mediated tactics of white supremacy, Aarim-Hariot articulates its tenets of reducing heterogeneity to a white/non-white dyad; one wonders if other sources, perhaps those of black and Chinese oppositional cultures, may have allowed her to complicate the dyad and show the different processes of racialization, as well as the anxieties that produced them.

The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, edited by Christian Smith. California $24.95

A fascinating series of case studies, paired with an ambitious and generally successful attempt to rethink the sociological theory of “secularization,” of how American public life came to be vacant of, and often hostile to, religious contributions. Smith’s aim in gathering the scholars together for this is twofold. First, he wants to rethink the theory of secularization, which is largely discredited in contemporary sociology, by refraining the study in terms of the sociology of revolutions and power struggles between interest groups in society. Second, Smith wants to map the history of this revolution, insisting on the agency of particular actors and interest groups at particular times, thus stripping away the patina of “inevitability” that necessarily adheres to received accounts of secularization, which seem more like plate tectonics than things humans have done. On this view, secularization was the outcome of a struggle between the emerging “knowledge class” required by industrial capitalism and institutionalized in research universities in the late 19th century, and the declining liberal-Protestant clerisy whose reign was already fractured and tottering by the 1870s, and which responded to the challenge with disastrous strategies. Smith and his collaborators achieve both aims, albeit with different levels of success. Certainly the (almost 100-page) introduction’s analysis, critique, and theoretical revision of secularization theory is worth the price of the book itself, for those interested in sociology or secularization. The historical case studies are of varying quality, and all of them could have made better use of Smith’s revised theory than they do. Indeed they almost seem to have been written first, and then the theory emerged from them; it is a pity that they were not revised in light of Smith’s theoretical articulation of their historical evidence. Nonetheless, this is one of the most important books on the general topic of religion and American public life, and about American public life in general, and perhaps also in sociology of culture, to come over the transom in a long time. Very highly recommended.

Seduced by the West, by Laurie Winn Carlson. Ivan R. Dee $26

Just when our national party commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was getting in full swing—with politicians and authors vying to be master of praise for the explorers and President Jefferson—along comes Carlson to interrupt the party with cries of “conspiracy.” Digging up doubts voiced by past authors, she argues that Mr. Jefferson, a dedicated expansionist, may well have dangled the expedition as “bait” to lure Spain into a war with the United States. Further, she finds the alleged suicide of Lewis highly suspicious, explaining: “Lewis was likable, but to Jefferson, he could have been expendable, as were many who crossed his [Jefferson’s] path.” Carlson attempts to fortify her conspiracy theory by restating such old attacks on Jefferson’s character as: a “cold and calculating” man; a hypocritical, lying man who fathered a child by a slave woman. Though such disparagements make for a colorful storyline, I found them to detract from Carlson’s believable account of the international intrigue and dirty politics of Jefferson’s time. If indeed Jefferson conspired, he comes across as a rank amateur, compared to the likes of James Wilkinson and other conspirators the author has lurking on the scene as the innocents, Lewis & Clark, head upriver. One wonders if and in what manner Jeffersonian scholars will respond to this book.

Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787—1861, by Joshua D. Rothman. North Carolina $49.95, $19.95 paper

As the first colony in British North America to define race into law, Virginia’s role as a model shaped all subsequent race relations in America. Rothman’s study focuses on the intimate lives of blacks and whites who defied law and oftentimes the social stigma attached to interracial relationships. By 1861 more people of African descent lived in Virginia than any other state. As the legal system and judicial decisions defined Virginia’s race relations, customs and attitudes also shaped the realm of intimate race relations. Rothman focuses tightly on interracial liaisons in Virginia during the early national and antebellum years. The larger implication of the case studies Rothman has chosen to investigate, however, illuminates the myriad types of relationships “across the color line” that took place throughout Southern society. Using “place” as a marker, Rothman first examines plantation society through the much-publicized relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In addition, he explores the reasons why journalist James Callender exposed their sexual liaison. Moving beyond plantation society, Rothman next examines a larger interracial community in the town of Charlottesville. Chapter three teases out attitudes about interracial sex and illuminates change over time by looking at legislative actions in the urban environment of Richmond. Specific instances of resistance by enslaved people who fought against sexual brutality are discussed. An interesting twist is an examination of divorce cases where race was a factor. Finally, Rothman addresses the ambiguity surrounding persons of mixed parentage, those deemed as “mulattoes,” “mixed bloods,” and “white Negroes.” Rothman’s study illuminates Virginia’s role as a model that perpetuated social practices and shaped legislative actions beyond its borders.

The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Henry Holt $27.50

Wolfgang Schivelbusch is one of the greatest of all living cultural historians. His histories of the modern railway, of modern lighting, and of spices are engaging, fascinating, and beautifully told stories of important subjects. His book on the culture of defeat is comparably absorbing, as he probes the complexities of a delicate subject. The author’s three case studies are the American South after the Civil War, France, and Germany. Whether he is discussing the legend of the plantation after the defeat of the Confederacy or the modern cult of Joan of Arc after France was defeated, the author has striking things to say about the ways in which all peoples recover from defeat.

Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, by Daniel Baraz. Cornell $35

Cruelty, as a value judgment, is always relative and subjective. An act or word that seems cruel to some people today, may not be considered cruel by others; what is “cruel” in the West may not be “cruel” in the East; what the law says is cruel in the 21st century, was not cruel in the 12th, or, for that matter, even in the 19th. If nothing else, this chronological survey of references to cruelty in the literature from the first century to the 16th makes clear that the word admits of no precise definition, that there never was any single notion of cruelty, and that a history of the concept in any period is bound to be tentative and, to a certain extent, disappointing. This is not to say that Baraz, aside from a few stylistic errors, does not maintain a satisfactory scholarly standard. His discussion of the subject shows that there was little interest in using the term in the early Middle Ages, but from the 11th century on it was applied for political, economic and social reasons to outsiders like the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Jews, as well as to insiders who, like the murderers of Thomas Becket, or the peasants in revolt, needed to be condemned by a common adjective. The ambiguity of cruelty, whereby it might be used both to excoriate the torturer and glorify the martyr, to demonize the criminal and justify the law, or to explain why the English were superior to the French, is also nicely brought out. Here, then, is a useful lesson in the immense difficulties, as well as in the valuable rewards that come from asking the right questions, in dealing with the elusive history of ideas.

LITERARY STUDIES National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England, by Jennifer Schacker. Pennsylvania $39.95

Schacker examines four prominent collections of fairy tales—Edgar Taylor’s German Popular Stories, T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, Edward W. Lane’s Arabian Nights, and George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse—which circulated in England between 1820 and 1860, a “crucial period” according to Schacker in terms of development of nationalism and the modern English state. Not surprisingly, the author relates the rise in popularity of stories marked as foreign and primitive with those political developments. Schacker’s method itself deserves comment—it is commendable that she draws attention to the way actual editions were produced, marketed, and consumed. Those physical objects, the books themselves, contain the best evidence of their own histories, and how literature took part in cultural life.

Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity, by Barbara Fuchs. Illinois $32.50

Early modern Spain saw the advent of numerous laws that intended to homogenize the Spanish identity, but Cervantes’ characters consistently challenge this emerging identity’s boundaries in the guise of others. Barbara Fuchs analyzes the notion of “passing,” or dressing as others, in Cervantes’ works as a subversive force that undermines both empire and genre. The act of a man dressing as a woman, a Christian dressing as a moor, or a slave dressing as a ruler shows the fluidity of the gender, religious, ethnic, class, or literary categories that the proposed national identity meant to define. Fuchs makes a convincing case for Cervantes’ questioning the fixity of Spain’s physical and ideological borders. She looks closely at Don Quixote and the ways in which passing influences the concepts of gender and race. She also deals with more marginal works (“Las dos doncellas,” “El amante liberal,” La gran sultana, “La española inglesa,” and the Persiles) and discusses their influence on cultural, political, and literary categories of the time. In all, Fuchs’ book is a persuasive reason for considering Cervantes’ fictions within the social context of their time. She adeptly demonstrates that Cervantes uses the cross-dressing conventional to the literature of the time to achieve social commentary that has been virtually overlooked by critics until now.

All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s, by Daniel Kane. California $65 cloth, $27.50 paper

This book concerns a “poetic community” that developed in coffeehouses and other communal spaces on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. The community in question consists of John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Ann Waldman, and many others; its institutional centers are a succession of poets’ coffeehouses and the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Daniel Kane sees the Lower East Side poets’ scene as a literary subculture operating in opposition to the literary mainstream and academic establishment. In order to make this case, he describes the literary strategies that were used to constitute this “alternative” poetics, analyzes the poets’ community as a sociological formation, studies the little magazines that supported the poets’ work, and subtly recovers the atmosphere in the venues where the Lower East Side poetry readings occurred. Kane’s book is a valuable contribution to the history of the mid-century literary avant-garde. It is perhaps most remarkable as an effort to retrieve something quite ephemeral: the distinctive oral and performative strategies used by the Lower East Side poets. That effort is enhanced by an accompanying compact disc, which contains 34 recordings of poets at work.

Classic African American Women’s Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews. Oxford $24.95

As editor, William Andrews has pulled together a welcome collection of black women’s narratives. He has reprinted a collection of seven texts based on first editions. Introducing each text is a biographical sketch with suggested readings for further study. Editorial intrusions are kept to a minimum as Andrews has attempted to remain as faithful as possible to the text. Fiction, speeches, journals, short stories and biographical renderings make this collection a documentary smorgasbord. They reveal the interior world of a group who has been on the periphery of America’s literary stage. The evocative offerings of these women are another, though less well known, aspect of literacy in America from 1831 to 1865. This addition to the growing pantheon of literary studies will be an excellent resource for students across many disciplines.

Rousseau as Author: Consecrating One’s Life to the Truth, by Christopher Kelly. Chicago $19

Although post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes long ago proclaimed the “death of the author,” authorship itself has in the past several years become an increasingly generative topic for literary scholars and philosophers alike. This latest entry into the field is also one of the most useful to date. Its author, Christopher Kelly, presents a distinctly new portrait of one of the Enlightenment’s leading philosophers of the individual self—Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the intersection of public and private, Rousseau—as author—actualizes the individual’s precepts of truth, agency, and moral responsibility. Such notions continue to press on contemporary society, and Kelly’s insights—well researched, convincingly argued, and, quite frankly, eye-opening—serve as a reminder that we remain children of the Enlightenment, and its radiant offshoot, Romanticism. Not only for specialists, Rousseau as Author opens new avenues for philosophical, critical, and cultural studies.

Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic, by Ramona A. Naddaff. Chicago $27.50

Most modern readers have a knee-jerk liberal response to Socrates’ proposal to censor the poets in Plato’s Republic—they reject the ancient philosopher as a Puritan or a totalitarian, or some kind of hideous combination of the two. But Ramona Naddaff gives Plato the benefit of the doubt, and looks for what we might learn from the discussion of censorship in the Republic. For starters, she shows that Socrates’ argument for censoring poetry means that at least he takes it seriously and believes that it has an important role to play in the community. In a careful and subtle reading of the Republic, which respects its dialogic form, Naddaff goes on to develop a sophisticated interpretation of Plato’s intentions. In analyzing what Plato presents as “the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” she shows how he looks forward to transforming the nature of poetry, and the nature of philosophy as well. Above all, she argues that Plato’s discussion of censorship, far from reflecting dogmatism on his part, is actually linked to his understanding of philosophy as an open-ended and dialectical process. This book constitutes an important contribution to the growing body of interpretations of Plato that respect the literary character of his dialogues and thereby reveal that his thought is far more complex than the Anglo-American philosophic tradition has long naively assumed.

Shakespeare, Co-Author, by Brian Vickers. Oxford $95

An enormous body of information has accumulated concerning the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. Leaving aside the nonsensical exclusions of Shakespeare as their author, one is left with a large and responsible consideration of which of the plays were co-authored. Vickers provides a marvelous review of standard Elizabethan stage practices, particularly the considerable degree of collaborative work, a practice that would persist in theater into the Caroline era. Equally interesting is his review of another potentially dry subject, the history of critical approaches to the assignation of authorship employed by literary critics for the last few centuries. In the second half of this work Vickers considers the case for collaboration in five Shakespeare plays—Titus, Timon, Pericles, Henry VIII, and Noble Kinsmen. The intelligence and marvelous erudition of this fine book are complemented by a fine and clear prose style. Four centuries of interesting ideas are subsumed under this heading. Scholarly fussiness, argumentation, and technical preoccupation could have rendered such a book less engaging. But such is fortunately not the case with this exceptionally scholarly work. This rich monograph is a pleasure to read and ponder, from beginning to end.

LIVES & LETTERS Do I Owe You Something? A Memoir of the Literary Life, by Michael Mewshaw. LSU $29.95

From watching James Dickey proposition his girlfriend to having Paul Bowles serve him a kind of hashish candy, Michael Mewshaw seems to have seen it all during his writing life. An excellent writer of novels and essays, Mewshaw now turns his hand to his Me-Mores (as his friend Gore Vidal calls them). Not surprisingly, he reveals himself to be an adept collector of stories and a generous illustrator of the literary life in all its glory, absurdity, and humiliation. Mewshaw shows how he found his way to writing after growing up in “America’s first suburban slum.” He shows how George Garrett helped him transform from an aspiring writer to the author of two novels with an M.A. and a Ph.D. And he shows us intimate portraits of William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene and Gore Vidal. Mewshaw gets everything right—the physical descriptions, the subtle one-upmanship played by various writers, the curious things that happen outside the public eye and off the historic record, and the struggle that becoming a writer entails. Do I Owe You Something? is at once a valuable history of our time and a moving portrait of its author.

Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman. W. W. Norton $35

In his well researched biography of Nikita Khrushchev, William Taubman presents a brilliant portrait of the metal worker in the Ukraine, with only a fourth-grade education, who rose to the top of the Soviet hierarchy. Taubman’s portrait of Khrushchev offers the reader a fascinating inside view of life at the pinnacle of Soviet power as well as a ringside view of the fighting and backstabbing that brought Khrushchev to the apex of power, enabled him to remain there and ultimately brought about his downfall. The author has utilized new sources which have recently become available to researchers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here is a vivid portrait of one of Josef Stalin’s henchmen who tried to absolve himself of his complicity in Stalin’s crimes by his “Secret Speech” in 1956 and who went on to overcome all of his rivals until he in turn was overthrown. Taubman has written not only an in-depth biography of one of the most unique individuals in Soviet history but also a history of the Soviet era as reflected in the life of an unusual Soviet citizen.

Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, by Nicholas Crane. Henry Holt $26

Sixteenth-century Europe is justifiably renowned for laying the groundwork of later scientific upheavals. Copernicus and Galileo immediately come to mind. The same cannot be said, perhaps, of Gerhard Mercator, despite his importance to the early modern revolution in the way that Europeans pictured, not the heavens, but the Earth. In this authoritative biography of Mercator—the first ever written in English— Nicholas Crane goes a long way toward re-establishing Mercator’s importance to the history of the 16th century as the incubator of the modern world. His meticulous but highly readable, even engrossing, text explores Mercator’s achievements as one of the leading figures in the new science of cartography, with its growing tendency to submit space both to the technical rigor of reason and mathematics, and to the artistry of engraving. It nonetheless knits the cartographer’s life into the social, political, religious, and intellectual fabric of his day just as much as it refers his achievements to a future legacy.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography, by Jean Grondin. Yale $35

This book will probably eventuate in damage to Gadamer’s reputation, precisely because it tries to preempt any and all charges against him. It smells of whitewash. The basic story, undisputed by Grondin, is that Gadamer is a German philosopher who worked away at his studies through the Nazi years and then the early years of the Soviet occupation with slow but steady success in each situation. Clearly someone who can work well with the Nazis and Stalinists, though certainly not a member of either party (albeit decidedly cooler towards the Stalinists), is ripe for a character study, and possibly for an investigation into the captive mind, philosophy under tyranny, or even the nature of German culture before 1950. Grondin, who is self-confessedly a Gadamer partisan, will have none of it. Instead we have a badly done biography, in which major events in Gadamer’s life—his divorce from his first wife and his marriage to his second, for example—are simply passed over in silence, while a good bit of time is spent in showing that, in effect, “hey, if Gadamer is a Nazi sympathizer, then so is Kierkegaard.” The real questions—of Gadamer’s escapism, moral cowardice, and ability to work smoothly with whatever bureaucrats were in power, traits so common in his class then (and perhaps today)— are ignored while the cheapest accusations against Gadamer are set up and knocked down in short order. One of the main lessons of Gadamer’s work has been that understanding is an importantly moral enterprise; here Grondin, one of Gadamer’s ablest exegetes, demonstrates that he has missed that lesson altogether. How much of that lesson did Gadamer himself miss? It’s hard to tell from this biography, but from the few evasive comments, it seems he never came to a reckoning with his actions, or inaction. Admittedly such a reckoning involves real moral courage, which Gadamer never demonstrated (or, as Grondin puts it, he “lacked the will to martyrdom,” but that makes him pretty much like the rest of us), and so the book fails to offer any insight into a condition, the condition of moral somnolescence, which we share with him as well. It’s safe to say that this book will be the main biography of Gadamer for some time, and more’s the pity.

Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George M. Marsden. Yale $35

Miracle of miracles—a biography, and a big one at that, that is actually tailored to the size of its subject. Most biographies today are bloated, garbage-scow behemoths, with footnotes flying like carrion birds above the text, picking away at all possible goodies. Marsden’s book hides away its learning, neither providing a running commentary on the author’s erudition nor exhibiting an obsessive, stalker-like knowledge of his prey. Rather, we have here a story, the story of Edwards’ life; and what a story it is. Edwards was and remained a subject of the English Crown, and he was and remained a colonial throughout his life—two facts about him that shape Marsden’s reading, in usefully illuminating ways. Furthermore, for a great theological genius, he was particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of his congregation, and suffered a great downfall in being thrown out of Northampton and forced to mission the Indians, before regaining something of his stature by the end of his life, as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). The work does not shy away from exploring Edwards’ thought, yet neither does it use his life as an excuse to present his philosophical theology. It even succeeds in presenting a fresh picture of colonial America in the first half of the 18th century. The closest work in ambition and achievement must be Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, and the lauds which still echo around that work will surely echo around this, on America’s own Augustine. Highly recommended.

Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America, by Thomas Andrew Denenberg. Yale $39.95

Martha Stewart is only the latest in a long line of American “lifestyle” entrepreneurs. In this book, published in conjunction with a 2003 exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Thomas Denenberg pieces together a coherent account of Wallace Nutting’s life, times, and entrepreneurial career. Nutting (1861—1941), “a master of self-invention,” wrote his autobiography (“a case study in chronological impossibilities and willful exaggerations”) and then “destroyed most of his business records.” But his books, catalogues, photographs, and furniture reached a huge market in the first half of the 20th century, and dominated middle-class colonial revivalist sentiments of the time. Lavishly illustrated, Denenberg’s book follows Nutting’s career and the development of his product lines, commenting usefully along the way on such varied topics as business organization, labor relations, and, of course, ideology and aesthetics.

Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life, by Kate Phillips. California $34.95

Interest in Helen Hunt Jackson has been strong since the second-wave feminist efforts to recover 19th-century women writers. While there are other biographies of Jackson available, this one is remarkable in a few respects. Phillips gives a chronicle of Jackson’s life along the lines of her literary productions, which ranged from early poetry to mid-life journalism to late-life novels. She follows recent trends in academia toward historicization; she urges readers to consider what Jackson herself thought of her own writing, as well as how her life events shaped her career. The biography also emphasizes certain points of Jackson’s character which are sure to draw sympathy with the current politics of those studying women writers—Jackson maintained a life-long interest in and passion for nature, was an outspoken, independent women who traveled widely, and, late in her life, became one of the first advocates for Native American rights. Phillips’ book is clearly written, well researched, unassuming, and should work harmoniously within the growing field of writings on Jackson and on late 19th-century women writers.

From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, edited by Gillian Dooley. South Carolina $34.95

This book is welcomed by those of us who are Murdoch fans, but I wonder if others will think it as good a use of trees. The idea of collecting all of the interviews Murdoch gave throughout her life—or as many as can be found—is a good one, even if it gives off the whiff of the fanatical archivist. But the benefits of collecting these interviews diminishes the further one reads into the book. Interviews are, after all, kind of like listening in on first dates; and were one to listen in on a person’s first dates, one would endure a great deal of repetition. Such is the case here. Do we need to read that Murdoch likes her “more recent” novels more than her later ones in every interview? How many times must we hear that Murdoch likes Christianity but not its “dogmas”? How often must we learn about her mother the Irish singer? of her early flirtation with Marxism? of her shift from Existentialist to Platonist? etc. One has the impression of a focused and reticent mind, which is what we expected, but it is precisely those qualities which stymie the idea of collected interviews. Reading it is like going on a tour to a foreign country where, day after day, you take the same route to the same church, and look at it once more. For those of us who love the church, wonderful; if not, not.

Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891—1931, by David Nice. Yak $35

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, great arguments have broken out about virtually all of the important 20th-century Russian composers, arguments about how implicated they were (or not) in Stalinist politics and arguments about how much this should matter to the posthumous assessment of their work. Sergey Prokofiev is certainly no exception. David Nice’s enormous new biography constitutes an attempt to wrestle one of the key protagonists in the story away from the political fights that have long tended to color both Western and Russian critics’ reactions to the music he wrote in the two different contexts. The first volume of this painstakingly researched tome tells the story of Prokofiev’s early years; it takes us from his childhood on a Ukranian country estate and his youth as a chess champion and conservatory student through the 17 years he spent abroad, in the U.S. and Western Europe, after 1918. In exile, Prokofiev wrote and performed some of his most celebrated compositions and rubbed elbows with many of the cultural icons of the moment, from Stravinsky and Diaghilev to Gloria Swanson. This is not the book, however, for those who like their biographies full of scandal, revelation, and dish. The emphasis throughout is on Prokofiev’s music and on his management of his family life and career. Considerable attention is given to demonstrating the consistency of the composer’s musical oeuvre across time and space and political revolutions (the book includes many excerpts from scores as well as useful appendices of works and recital programs). And Nice concludes the volume with a careful consideration of the personal and musical logic behind Prokofiev’s astonishing decision to move back to the Soviet Union in 1936. Those eager to learn more about those Soviet years, which lasted until the composer’s death in 1952, will simply have to wait for the next volume in this ongoing, comprehensive biography.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Black Women’s Political Activism, by Joyce A. Hanson. Missouri $32.50

During her lifetime (1875—1955), Bethune was one of a growing number of the few educated black women whose life spanned both the 19th and 20th centuries. The nation and the southern region witnessed tremendous changes in race relations, politics, economics, and within the domestic sphere itself. “Mrs. Bethune,” as she preferred to be called, became the first black woman appointed to a federal position as director of the Office of Minority Affairs under the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In addition, her various positions in the black women’s club movement enabled her to place several qualified black women in federal, state and local positions where they could effect change. The author, Joyce Hanson, deftly enables the reader to follow the unfolding process of becoming a political leader during a tumultuous time. Hanson’s discussion of the strategies and tactics used by Mrs. Bethune to challenge race, gender, and class inequities is adroitly executed. By weaving Mrs. Bethune’s life story into the national and regional narrative, the reader comes away knowing how one person’s life is intricately interwoven into America’s history. Hanson’s analysis of Mrs. Bethune’s life offers an expanded definition of politics, and thus positions Mrs. Bethune as a political animal who rose to an unprecedented level of power during a most difficult time in America’s modern history.

FICTION The Kalahari Typing School for Men, by Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon $19.95

This is the fourth (and the first to be published in hardcover) in a series of mysteries set in Botswana and featuring the founder of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Precious Ramotswe. Mma Ramotswe, as she is respectfully called, is kind and clever, and a meticulous observer of human nature. Her investigations in this, as well as previous books, explore the byways of domestic and social crimes of the heart—a philanderer is exposed, a thief wants to make recompense for an earlier crime, a pompous bureaucrat is shamed into doing the right thing. Sweet without being cloying and charming without being coy, the stories in this novel share a warmth and generosity of spirit that has made Smith an overnight literary sensation.

The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions, by Howard Frank Mosher. Houghton Mifflin $24

Who introduced the American West to the mysteries of hemp, taught the Crow Indians to fly-fish, and the Nez Perce to play baseball? Why, Private True Kinneson, veteran of the Revolutionary War, schoolmaster, inventor, playwright and uncle of Ticonderoga, a teenage prodigy in painting, who accompanies Private True westward and narrates the remarkable, and heretofore untold, story of this duo’s incredible contributions to expanding the frontiers of America and science. Though, perhaps the credit should go to President Jefferson, for Mosher reveals that in a moment of pity for the eccentric appearing and wild talking True and his kid sidekick, it is Jefferson who gives the pair mounts that enable them to compete with the Expedition of Discovery—which turns out to be fortunate for L & C, for, consistently, the inventiveness of True and the artistry of his nephew bail out the Expedition. On a canvas of real history (that he understands well), Mosher has painted some of the most outrageous and endearing characters we have seen since the writings of Cervantes. Their goofy antics will provide comic relief for readers satiated with scholarly works that inform but do not delight. And what pleasure reader wouldn’t prefer Mosher’s magical journey and happy ending to the real Expedition and its aftermath?

All Day Permanent Red, by Christopher Logue. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $18

The latest in Logue’s long and powerful retelling of the Iliad, this book recounts the story of “the first battle scenes of Homer’s Iliad.” It is not at all a translation, as Uzi submachine guns and the Nazi-Soviet battle of Kursk have a role here; but it does succeed in capturing something of the terror and ferocity of combat that occupies the Iliad better than any translation could do. It is terrifying, it is relentless, and (one imagines) like combat itself, it is at times almost entirely unintelligible, shards of experiences slammed up against one another with no attempt made to render them intelligible as a whole. Like combat itself (again, one imagines), it is the waiting before the fight, and the pauses within it, that actually convey the most terror—the still, calm deliberation of men setting out to kill or die trying. War is not going away in our world, and Logue’s version of the Iliad could well become a guidepost for our own age—thus reaffirming, paradoxically in part by violation, both the particularity and universality of Homer’s epic.

Mr. Potter, by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Straus Giroux $20

It’s a curious axiom of literary fiction: when it seems to become what it’s not, it succeeds best. Therefore, if you know empirically that what you’re reading is not a true story but you find yourself believing that fiction is instead fact, that what you’re reading is a biography and not a novel, it’s high art and undeniably so. Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter is an imagined biography of her father, a man whom she did not know but a man who worked as a taxi driver and chauffeur in the small island where she grew up. Kincaid describes the constancy of the sun and the sea there, the inevitability of the weather in prose almost as seamless as the sea itself and the sky that shines over her native land, the tiny Antigua she writes about with a nearly cosmic view. In this her tenth book, the author employs the use of repetition in her prose style a bit too much and so much so that it begins to sound like the reverberation from an electric guitar plucked irritatingly loud. But maybe that’s her point. One of her repeated phrases is “and he could not read and he could not write” and the effect of illiteracy is her point. Another repeated phrase is “a house which was really only one room” and so poverty is her point. She writes that because her father can’t read or write “his feelings were trapped in a capsule.” Although this book is a fictional history of her father, it is not a defense of her father. Her narrator states flatly that the cries of the girl-children her father made with many women fell upon indifferent ears. Because she, the narrator, is able to write she is able to “make Mr. Potter” and “unmake Mr. Potter” and he is “unable to affect the portrait.” And she, the author, is able to make us believe her.

Sharpe’s Havoc, by Bernard Cornwell. Harper Collins $25.95

In 18 previous novels Richard Sharpe, the gutter-bred London orphan who found a home in the British army, has marched over the battlefields of India, Portugal, Spain, and France delivering high adventure to millions of readers worldwide. In the 19th of the series, Lt. Sharpe of the 95th Rifles is trapped behind enemy lines after the French have seized Oporto, Portugal. In every Sharpe novel there is an enemy of great resourcefulness to overcome and a beautiful woman to save. Here a shadowy British officer whose goal is peace at any price embroils Sharpe and his men in a diplomatic dodge and more than one desperate fight. As in the other Sharpe novels, the story is framed by actual historical events (here the French retreat to Spain in 1809) and the period detail is wonderfully depicted.

Those who have a taste for historical fiction must give Sharpe a try.

Balthasar’s Odyssey, by Amin Maalouf, translated by Barbara Bray. Arcade $25.95

A Genoese antique and book dealer, Balthasar Embriaco, writes a series of journals as he tries to recover a volume he reluctantly sold, The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, which supposedly reveals God’s 100th and most secret name, a token of great power and perhaps the key to The Year of the Beast. In the year 1666, which just might be the beginning of the Apocalypse, he journeys to Constantinople, Smyrna, Genoa, Lisbon, London, and back again, gaining and losing the love of his life. London burns in the Great Fire, but the world does not end. He recovers the volume, but can’t read it because the book defends itself, so he decides to give it away. He ends up in Genoa, giving up writing. Now, that’s a terrific plot, but it just doesn’t work as a story. The journal form limits what Balthasar can know, and he becomes tedious and repetitious as he worries more about what people might think of him than about the end of the world. Too bad.

Momus, by Leon Battista Alberti, translated by Sarah Knight, edited by Virginia Brown and Sarah Knight. Harvard $29.95

Alberti, the universal genius of the Italian Renaissance, wrote one of the nastiest satires of human foibles. Momus, the sharp-tongued god of trouble, gets exiled from heaven for disloyalty to Jupiter. In Italy, he tells human beings how wicked the gods really are, causing a drop in worship. Later he persuades human beings to swamp the gods with prayers; then he rapes Praise, who gives birth to Rumor, and so on. All standard Renaissance allegorical stuff, with a difference: Alberti makes Momus funny, the deities scurrilous, and the human race hilarious. Ultimately, Momus serves as a handbook for princes, sorting out worthy and unworthy behaviors. The editors have produced the best text ever, based on Alberti’s corrected manuscripts, facing the only complete translation into English. A worthy addition to the excellent I Tatti Renaissance Library Series.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS The Last Escape, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. Viking $27.95

The testimonies in this book fill a gap in our knowledge about the end of the Second World War. By June 1944, a quarter of a million American and British soldiers and airmen were being held in prisoner-of-war camps in Nazi-controlled Europe. As the Allies pushed the German Army back on all fronts, the Nazis took revenge on the prisoners by starving them, depriving them of Red Cross packages and medical supplies, beating them, and—in “death marches” from camp to camp—lolling those who disobeyed orders or lagged behind. The authors have spent ten years building a highly credible record from diaries, official documents, photos and interviews with men—some of whom were force-marched hundreds of miles in sub-zero weather. Dysentery, frostbite, starvation, bullets, and despair took a heavy toll of lives and caused lasting injuries to the minds and bodies of survivors. These ordeals are personalized in the author’s tracing of the fate of individuals through the narrative. As much as the brutality shocks, readers may find equally appalling the revelations of bureaucratic lethargy and political dealings, in England and the USA, which prolonged the agonies of the prisoners. A survivor laments: “There was no one trying to find out what happened to us.”. . . Finally, we did. Sleep well, you ghosts of the stalags.

Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations, by Peter D. Feaver. Harvard $49.95

Since its publication in 1957, Samuel Huntington’s Soldier and the State has been the dominant work on civil-military relations. In that work, Huntington argued that the “optimal” mode of civilian control over the military came in the form of “objective control.” For Huntington, the primary goals of civilian elites are to ensure that the military is responsive to their demands (i.e., that civilians are in charge of the military, and not the other way around), and to ensure that the military is capable of performing its function well (i.e., protecting the state from external enemies). Objective control boiled down to permitting a norm of “professionalism” to become entrenched in the officer corps: the military would refrain from intruding in politics if the civilians would enable the military to conduct its affairs according to its own determined standards. Noting that the patterns of Cold War and post-Cold War civil-military relations in the United States do not at all approximate the classical interpretation, Peter Feaver offers a novel explanation (based on the principal-agent framework) that more accurately describes civil-military relations in the U.S., while simultaneously placing the Huntingtonian explanation in a proper context. Feaver’s Agency Theory is an important contribution to the literature to the extent that it provides the microfoundations for explaining how different instantiations of civil-military relations emerge. While agnostic as to the specific factors that can disturb a given equilibrium, Agency Theory is an important advancement—one that both permits great descriptive accuracy and offers important guidance to uncovering the ultimate causes of different forms of the relationship.

Containing Missile Proliferation: Strategic Technology, Security Regimes, and International Cooperation in Arms Control, by Dinshaw Mistry. Washington $50

In this well-researched and timely study the author has provided a wealth of information and thoughtful analysis about the current state of missile proliferation. During the detailed examination of many nations with past or present missile programs, descriptions are presented of attempts at limiting missile proliferation, and suggestions are offered for strengthening the efforts which have been, so far, ineffective in halting its advance. While explaining why nations choose to seek missile technology, it is cautioned that rather than relying heavily on missile defense to counter the growing threat of proliferation, greater efforts should be made to explore “how multilateral cooperation and international regimes can contain missile proliferation and manage global security affairs.” With its valuable tables and extensive notes, this work would be a very useful addition to the libraries of anyone concerned with the increasing threat of missile technology proliferation.

Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics, by Nasser Behnegar. Chicago $30

In 1953, Leo Strauss published his best-known book, Natural Right and History, based on the Walgreen Lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in October 1949. He argued with polemical vigor that we have a perennial “need for natural right”—that is, for the transcendent standards of right and wrong independent from social conventions.NRH signified an endeavor to renew the question of natural right in the “crisis of the West” with three problems: relativism, historicism, and the scientific study of politics. In a discreet survey of the problem of political science, Nasser Behnegar provides us with a concise examination of Strauss’ critique of Max Weber, the fact-value distinction and contemporary social science. Behnegar argues the subtle, yet even-handed thesis that Strauss “. . .is a friend, perhaps an indispensable friend, of the scientific study of politics.” While Weber had distinguished between facts and values, political life reveals that the difference is alien to a commonsense understanding of political things. The belief that the realm of science only pertains to facts, not values, finally reduces Weber’s social science to nihilism and absurdity, betraying the project of a genuine political science. Given the crisis of modernity this realization is far from palatable since, as Strauss declares, “Man cannot live without light, guidance, and knowledge.” In the end, the impressiveness of Behnegar’s unpretentious accomplishment goes beyond his illuminating reading of a much-ignored facet of Strauss’ thinking. The achievement lies in the clarity with which the problem of contemporary social science is presented and the calm aide-memoire that political science is concerned principally with wise action.

Leadership in the Crucible, by Kenneth E. Hamburger. Texas A& M $32.95

“Soldier, whom will you follow, to the very limit of your ability and endurance, into that crucible of violence and death we call combat?” The author of this historical narrative addresses that question by examining the interactions of men in a combat team that won the crucial battles of Twin Tunnels and Chipyong-Ni in 1951 in the Korean War. At Chipyong-Ni, the American 23d Infantry Regiment and the attached French United Nations Battalion united into a force of only 5,000 to turn back 30,000 Chinese Communist regulars—inflicting the first tactical defeat of the war on the Chinese Army. The determining factor in the two battles was leadership, asserts the author, especially the quality of the leadership shown by Col. Freeman of the Americans and Col. Monclar of the French. The military record and the testimonies the author obtained from interviews with 300 survivors of the battles create, in effect, an icon of qualities needed for combat leadership— experience, intelligence, courage and the hard-to-deflne ability to create strong bonds of trust all down the line of command. Monclar, the oldest soldier on the field, joins a platoon in capturing a key hill. Though wounded, Freeman refuses evacuation and hobbles along the perimeter of defense encouraging troops and seeing to their welfare. This is an informative, exhilarating, true story resulting from good research and writing.

The Jewish Political Tradition, Volume Two: Membership, edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, Noam J. Zohar, with co-editor Ari Ackerman. Yale $40

Part of an ongoing, ambitious, multivolume collection of texts on “Jewish political thought,” conceived broadly, this volume brings together texts concerned with, as the subtitle suggests, membership in the Jewish community. Who is a Jew? How does one become a Jew, and how does one, or can one, renounce one’s Jewishness? The argument is especially interesting as “political” questions of membership have never been neatly separated from ethnic or religious issues, and so the arguments about inclusion and exclusion become exceedingly intricate. This is especially so when texts from contemporary Israel are discussed (albeit, the editors say, “tentatively”). It is fair to say that the tradition has done a poor job of thinking through the challenges facing Jewish political thought in the face of the (increasingly) pluralistic political state of Israel. As more Israeli Jews secularize, membership issues become more and more a matter of ethnicity rather than religious observance, which secularization paradoxically pushes Israeli policy on citizenship increasingly towards relying on racial categories which smack, unpleasantly but with increasing accuracy, of apartheid-era South Africa or the Jim Crow American South. The editors don’t really discuss this, choosing instead to focus on the “diasporic” debates about Judaism. This is understandable and perhaps intellectually interesting; but, in downplaying the Israeli state, the elephant in the room, the work reinforces a distorted picture of the real challenges facing contemporary Judaism, and smacks of a certain kind of intellectual failure, and perhaps even intellectual cowardice, on the editors’ part.

Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919—1939, by Mary R. Habeck. Cornell $35

Among the most perplexing questions in the scholarship on the sources of military doctrine in general, and the development of armor doctrine in particular, concerns the peculiar development of German and Soviet operational level doctrine prior to World War II. The invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s Germany in the summer of 1941 is fascinating not only because it marked the opening of the second front of the war, but also because of its initially lopsided result in Germany’s favor. Among the few reasons for the devastating nature of the attack was the significant operational superiority enjoyed by the Germans in the form of the blitzkrieg doctrine. Yet, as Mary Habeck notes, it was the Soviet Union which only five years earlier possessed the most advanced armor doctrine in the world. How the two states developed similar doctrines during the interwar period, why the Soviets eschewed such a valuable innovation, and why and how the Germans took the lead in doctrinal theory and practice are the questions that Storms of Steel addresses. Habeck’s answers to these questions are wide-ranging. Prior to 1936, both countri


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

Recommended Reading