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Notes on Current Books, Spring 1988

ISSUE:  Spring 1988

With one of the best and most fitting titles in recent years, Arguing with Historians shows its author doing just that in 11 previously published essays, most of them historiographical pieces from the past ten years dealing with some of the key issues in 19th-century American history. Current assails historical fads, present-mindedness, muddle-headed amateurism, racial, ethnic, and sectional prejudices, and mind-numbing ideologies. Whether criticizing recent psychological studies of Lincoln, certain historical novels, the new ethnic history, and “neo-Calhounists,” or in studying Thaddeus Stevens or carpetbaggers, Current’s arguments are clear, calm, and convincing, based not on some fashionable “world view” or critical scheme but on his commitment to historical accuracy and responsibility, and his search for historical truth—as corny as that may sound. These essays demolish many popular myths (such as the “Mecklenburg Declaration”) and deflate many a bloated academic ego and thus should be of equal interest to argumentative historians and general readers. Current may strike some readers as a curmudgeon, but curmudgeons are very welcome these days.

Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History, by Fritz Stern. Knopf $19.95

The author of Gold and Iron, a much esteemed book on the formation of the German Empire, has gathered together here ten lectures and papers written over the last decade. Beautifully distilled and spacious, these studies offer much insight into the aspirations and failures of modern Germany. The origins of anti-Semitism in Germany are discussed here, as is Hitler’s astonishing rise to power, which (the author explains) depended in part on the dictator’s cunning use of the language of religion—of national salvation and redemption. While objective and fair-minded, this study is also highly personal. It touches repeatedly on the struggle in contemporary Germany to come to terms with its horrifying recent past.

The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763—1834, by Paul A. Gilje. North Carolina $32.50

Gilje’s story covers a broad range of disorderly behaviors in New York City between the Revolutionary and Jacksonian periods. It describes Pope Day processions and revolutionary political protests as well as race riots, labor unrest, and disturbances associated with taverns, brothels, and theaters. The emphasis on disorder, in turn, is balanced by briefer accounts of changing ways of maintaining public order. The episodic narratives of disorder are unified by Gilje’s thesis that rioting after 1760 increasingly lost its traditional function of affirming threatened communal values and became instead a violent menace to persons and property. It thus reflected the divisions and fears of a pluralistic and modernizing society.

Dining in America 1850—1900, edited by Kathryn Grover. Massachusetts $25 cloth, $12.95 paper

This group of essays was written on the occasion of the exhibition, Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts, held at the Strong Museum a couple of years ago. It will be of considerable interest to scholars of American Studies — history, literature, and art — for the picture it presents of American manners. Cookbooks, food molds, teapots, utensils, the rituals of dining, and the vision of the dining room are among the topics explored in this instructive and copiously illustrated work.

The Fall of the Athenian Empire, by Donald Kagan. Cornell $39.50

The fourth volume in the author’s history of ancient Athens, which has been called one of the major achievements of modern historical scholarship, begins with the ill-fated Sicilian expedition of 413 B.C. and ends with the surrender of Athens to Sparta in 404 B.C. Richly documented, precise in detail, it is also extremely well-written, linking it to a tradition of historical narrative that has become rare in our time. The author concludes that when Thucydides connected the Athenian defeat with the death of Pericles he meant that Pericles “alone among Athenian politicians could persuade the people to fight in a way contrary to their prejudices and experiences.”

Our Colonial Heritage: Diplomatic and Military, by James Trapier Lowe. University Press of America $32.50 cloth, $19.75 paper

On the assumption that the child is father to the man, James Trapier Lowe searches the history of colonial America for the origins of diplomatic and military policies later pursued by the United States. An American style of diplomacy evolved from two sources: the colonial practice of maintaining agents in London and the dealings the colonies had with each other over matters ranging from boundary disputes to cooperation in war. Lowe also discusses the colonists’ dealings with the Indians and American contributions to the colonial wars before 1763. He sees relations with the Indians as being characterized by elements of genuine diplomacy, and he stresses that Americans sought involvement in war to pursue their strategic interests. Herein lay the origins of American “imperialism.”

The Metamorphosis of a Medieval City: Ghent in the Age of the Arteveldes, 1302—1390, by David Nicholas. Nebraska $35

Americans who are troubled by the decline of the industrial economy will find parts of Nicholas’s book very intriguing. Ghent had been a prosperous city in the industrial heartland of medieval Europe. It bought grain from the French, wool from the English, and beer from the Germans. In the 14th century, however, things changed. The textile industries moved into the countryside, population declined, and the city found itself enmeshed in the series of rebellions and wars which could be subsumed in the Hundred Years War. Nicholas finds that the urban population moved into services and industries with a local market. Yet the strength of the economy remained relatively unchanged.

Court and Country: Studies in Tudor Social History, by A.L. Rowse. Georgia $24.95

Rowse starts out with a good idea: to illuminate the tension between London and the provinces in Renaissance England by examining the lives of minor historical figures who played roles at the court and in the country. But his biographical essays on such figures as Honor Grenville, Lady Lisle, Sir Peter Carew, and Topcliffe, are too narrowly focused to make any points. The book badly needs a synthetic essay, at the beginning or the end, and a greater attention to structure. As it is, Rowse presents the fruits of his research as interesting trivia.

Industry of Devotion: The Transformation of Women’s Work, 1500—1660, by Susan Cahn. Columbia $27.50

As England made the transition to capitalism, new ideologies and material conditions contributed to the restriction of women’s power both inside and outside of the home. Although this change was most visible among the upper classes, where women were not wage earners, it also had some effect upon the households of peasants and workers. As women were deprived of active economic and social roles in their communities, they were expected to assume a new role as the emotional and effective anchors of domestic life.

The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition: Volume 4, edited by Gary E. Moulton. Nebraska $40

The most recent volume of this magnificent new edition of the Journals covers the period from the spring of 1805, when the Corps of Discovery left Fort Mandan, North Dakota, where they had wintered among the Mandan and the Hidatsa Indians, to midsummer, when they had made the difficult portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri and reached the three forks of that river, which they named after the Administration that sponsored the journey: the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers. Contained here are the first descriptions of the terrain, flora, and wildlife of the upper Missouri, as well as the unembellished drama of an extraordinary adventure. Each volume of Moulton’s edition renews the Journals’ status as the American epic text.

Stalin in October: The Man Who Missed the Revolution, by Robert M. Slusser. John Hopkins $28.50

Where was Stalin when the heavy stuff was going down? If you believe the histories written while he was dictator, you are convinced he was at the center of events, but if you prefer the truth you will read Slusser’s book and discover that the crafty Ossete was nowhere near the real action. One can construct a whole theory of Stalin’s regime out of this: having missed one of the decisive events of modern history, Stalin set about altering history’s record and killing anyone who could testify for the truth. This is a fine account by a distinguished historian.

The Birth of France: Warriors, Bishops, and Long-Haired Kings, by Katharine Scherman. Random House $22.50

The colorful men and women who laid the foundation for the development of modern France seem to come to life in Scherman’s book. Instead of telling the story of medieval France through an emphasis upon the lives and deeds of its rulers. Scherman explores the deeper processes behind the personalities and events. The most important of these processes were the formative role of the Church in politics and government and the beginnings of a centralized bureaucracy.

A Virginia Family and its Plantation Houses, by Elizabeth Langhorne, K. Edward Lay, and William D. Rieley. Virginia $27.50

The three authors of this book, an historian, an architect/preservationist, and a landscape architect, have combined their efforts to produce a remarkable study of the history of 12 houses which were built and occupied by four generations of one family, the John Coles family of the Virginia Piedmont, from the 1740’s to the 1860’s. The book examines the houses, slave quarters, plantation buildings, gardens, roads, as well as family account books, tax lists, wills, and personal letters in order to show how the houses were built, financed, and how they related to the economic and social needs of plantation life. Amply illustrated with numerous photographs, maps, drawings.

Hidden History, by Daniel J. Boorstin. Harper & Row $19.95

America’s greatest living historian uses the occasion of his recent retirement as the Librarian of Congress to regale us with a gourmet feast of intellectual soul food. It is a gift of 24 essays, previously published but newly edited by the author and his wife, written in his incisive, erudite, and yet highly readable fashion, on people and events in our past, in the fervent wish that they will help us to understand and enrich our future.

The Origins of Agnosticism; Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge, by Bernard Lightman. John Hopkins $29.50

A very important study in intellectual history which traces the origins of Victorian agnosticism to Christian philosophy, especially to Kant’s fundamental epistemological argument that the very nature of the human mind precluded knowledge of God. This led the Victorian agnostics to reject the orthodoxy of institutional religion while, at the same time, maintaining an essentially Christian belief in the validity of human religious emotion and the divine quality of the natural order. In fact, they saw their movement as the climax of the Protestant Reformation which argued for a purer form of Christianity compatible with the modern world. Highly recommended.

LIVES & LETTERS Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the Civil Rights Movement, by Mary King. Morrow $22.95

This is an important and revealing portrait of the involvement of Ms. King—a liberal, white, middle-class woman—in the civil rights movement generally and the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) specifically. In true autobiographical fashion, the perspective throughout is that of Ms. King. She vividly re-creates her personal and political maturation between 1962 and 1966. She also shows how her familial background as well as the social context of the early 1960’s shaped her fateful decision to join SNCC. Of particular interest is her discussion of SNCC’s philosophy, notably its emphasis on grass-roots organizing and the development of local black leadership. Her assessment of SNCC’s critical shift from an interracial, integrationist, nonhierarchical collective to an all-black, separatist, increasingly hierarchical group captures a powerful transformation. An equally significant aspect is her analysis of how her own feminist consciousness and that of other women activists were fired by their involvement in the civil rights movement. One can legitimately argue about her interpretation of past events or the cogency of her analysis at points. Still, this is the kind of personal document—provocative and touching—that we need to understand more fully the “Movement” and SNCC’s key role in it.

Dear Miss Nightingale, edited by E.V. Quinn and J.M. Prest. Oxford $68

This correspondence between an Oxford don, Benjamin Jowett, and a reforming heiress, Florence Nightingale, is, the editors suggest, a sublimated romance. The surviving letters are almost all Jowett’s, but the passions are mainly Nightingale’s— pure water, clear sewers, and statistics, often spilling over into a discussion of social causality, free will, divine planning, moral duty, politics, and literature. The book is perhaps most interesting as an introduction to the theology, philosophy, and ideology of reform in mid-Victorian England. For Nightingale, it was “a religious act to clean out a sewer and prevent cholera,” while Jowett held that “even very abstruse metaphysical questions are very near practice.”

General A. P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior, by James I. Robertson, Jr. Random House $24.95

Based on some heretofore unpublished letters and memoirs of both A.P. Hill and the men who served under him, this biography brings to life a relatively unknown Confederate general. A native of Virginia, Hill received military training at West Point and later saw combat in both Mexico and Florida. However, not until the Civil War, when he was given the “Light Division” to command, was his knowledge of military science fully challenged and his ability to lead men better revealed. Hill’s troops would eventually see battle at Mechanicsville, Second Manassas, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg and the siege of Petersburg.

Talking across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913—1919, edited by Robert Crossley. New England $27.95

Little known in this country but still read for his original, highly influential science fiction (Last and First Men and Star Maker), Olaf Stapledon courted his future wife with an ocean of words. This absorbing collection of their letters is their story and reflects the history of their times. As the editor says in his excellent, highly informative introduction, the correspondence reads like an epistolary novel. The highly literary sensibility which informs these letters is apparent, as he says, in the very first letter, in which Stapledon describes his first vision of Agnes Miller as a sort of Beatrice: “you became a kind of guiding star.”

Trollope: Interviews and Recollections, edited by R.C. Terry. St. Martin’s $29.95

In his introduction the editor remarks that he has presented here “cumulative and dissonant views in a variety of voices.” That is true. The voices range from those who knew Trollope at the Post Office, in the hunting field, on his travels, as guests in his home and as fellow diners elsewhere, editors and fellow writers, and family, the latter including his mother, brother Thomas, and a granddaughter born after his death who knows only what she was told. The result of all this is a hodgepodge, naturally, but the picture of the man that emerges is all of one piece: big, blustery, indefatigable. It does not explain the genius of the writer but colors the full-length portrait of him.

A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, 1932—1953, edited by Gunther Stuhlmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $19.95

Not as interesting as Nin’s journal, her letters and Miller’s will nevertheless be of considerable interest to specialists concerned with these authors. They give a vivid sense of place and are filled with literary ruminations and allusions—to Lawrence, their tutelary deity, and also to Dostoyevsky, Gide, Joyce, Havelock Ellis and countless others, whose works they voraciously consumed. Most of all, their letters vividly record the joys and pains of writing, the sensuous buzzing of words in their heads.

Clara Barton, Professional Angel, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Pennsylvania $24.95

Although widely-recognized as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War, Clara Barton also founded the American Red Cross and actively espoused women’s rights during her lifetime. Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s biography focuses upon how Barton used these heroic, active endeavors to gain the love and respect she sought and often did not receive from family, friends, and society. Moreover, these pursuits gave Clara Barton an identity and the broader, more active life she desired but had often been frustrated in maintaining as a female in the 19th century. Clara Barton emerges in Pryor’s engaging study as a very complex, driven figure out-of-step with her time. Pryor has extensively researched Barton’s papers. However, her often too sympathetic portrayal of her subject’s life somewhat mars her work. Nevertheless, students of women’s history, social history, and American medicine should find this biography very insightful and enjoyable.

Victorian Sisters, by Ina Taylor. Adler & Adler $17.95

What do Rudyard Kipling, Stanley Baldwin, and Angela Thirkell have in common? They were all cousins, the children and grandchild of three of four Macdonald sisters who married far beyond their Methodist preacher-father’s intention or expectations. Georgiana married the painter Edward Burne-Jones; their daughter Margaret married J.W. Mackail and produced Angela Thirkell. Alice married John Lockwood Kipling and produced Rudyard. Louisa married Alfred Baldwin and produced a prime minister. A fourth sister, Agnes, also married a painter, Edward Poynter, but her offspring were not as well known. The rest of this large family of 11 either died young or lived unnoteworthy lives. But the four sisters, who were close to each other all their lives, no matter how far apart in actuality, were extraordinary in the way in which they enlarged their circle of friends and acquaintances and escaped the rigorous confines of ever-changing Methodist parsonages. Ms. Taylorhas done a remarkable job in fitting together all the pieces of these sisters’ lives from start to finish. The book also contains a good number of interesting illustrations.

Pepper: Eyewitness to a Century., by Claude Denson Pepper with Hays Gorey. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $17.95

The most telling remark in this intriguing work comes early: “I was a New Dealer before there was a New Deal.” To which might be added, “And I’m a New Dealer still!” Well written, well illustrated, this is a comfortable yet informative book about a good man doing good works. It tells us about Pepper’s rise to national prominence, his fall engendered by McCarthyism, and his dramatic political rebirth. Although Pepper’s life has encompassed famous faces and momentous events, he wisely takes little credit for changing the course of history. And even if humble, red-clay beginnings are a wee bit exaggerated, this minor flaw is more than offset by delightful diary quotes “peppered” throughout the text.

Mary Todd Lincoln, by Jean H. Baker. Norton $19.95

Although Mary Lincoln is probably among the least popular of American First Ladies, this biography helps to set straight the historical record by placing in perspective many of her so-called character flaws. Mrs. Lincoln has been attacked for being unfaithful, mentally ill, greedy, and outspoken, but Baker demonstrates the absurdity behind most of these accusations, showing that Mary’s worst flaw was her refusal to conform to the social conventions of her day. Vilified in the press, Mary Lincoln eventually fled this country for Europe, where she remained until her declining health forced her to return to live in America.

Coming to Terms: A Study in Memory and History, by Henry F. May. California $25

In this autobiography, May takes the novel approach of combining history and memory to describe the events in his life and analyze their significance. While still very much a product of the 20th century, May highlights the subtle ways in which first his Calvinist heritage, and later his father’s trek westward, influenced his personal development. His dissection of this interplay between past and present is both provocative and insightful. In addition, the reader is reminded that one’s link to the past is a vital component of one’s own self-understanding.

Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South, by Melton A. McLaurin. Georgia $13.95

In Separate Pasts, Melton McLaurin, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington and author of four books on Southern history, ventures into the realm of autobiography. In so doing, he teaches us more about Southern history than most of the footnote-laden tomes produced by academic historians. This brief, gracefully written account of the author’s childhood and adolescence in segregated Wade, N.C. in the 1950’s takes us on a journey from his uncritical acceptance of segregation as a boy to his realization of his own race prejudice (brought home to him by his revulsion at having to blow up a basketball with a needle that had just touched the lips of a black boy) and finally his recognition that his elders’ justification of the system “simply did not conform to my personal experience with blacks.” That the smartest man in Wade was a black citizen who lived in a cave on the edge of town and would never have a chance to apply his intelligence because of his race confirmed the bankruptcy of segregation for McLaurin. He tells his story without the saccharine platitudes one might expect to find in such a book, which makes it all the more enjoyable and convincing.

Trump: The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump with Tony Schwartz. Random House $19.95

No rags-to-riches tale, this is a well-crafted book with few surprises. Wharton alum Trump tells us to think big, maximize our options, know our market, use leverage, enhance location, deliver the goods, and contain costs. “Don’t-call-me-Donny” adds as an afterthought, oh yes, “have fun.” But it’s all too obvious that this brash billionaire’s idea of fun is the deal. He praises his lovely wife not as a helpmate and mother but as a shrewd business manager. Three children are cited in passing in the acknowledgments, but then (strangely) only two of them are named. Nor do they (two or is it three?) appear in an extensive photo section dominated by rich-and-famous faces and soaring skyscrapers. All told, were it not for personal pronouns and dollar signs this book would be at least 50 pages shorter.

A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Homey, by Susan Quinn. Summit Books $22.95

This meticulously researched biography includes a detailed account of the war within the New York Psychoanalytic Institute between the orthodox Freudians and those, like Horney, who dared to depart from the party line. The unprincipled behavior of some of the rigid Freudians, who were more concerned with protecting their own egos than with advancing the study of psychiatry, is shocking. Horney, having been maneuvered into a corner by the machinations of Lawrence Kubie, president of the Institute, courageously walked out in 1941, followed by her supporters. They founded their own institute, only to quarrel among themselves two years later. Horney continued to write, publishing her own theories which had long been at odds with Freud. She maintained that the developing personality was influenced not only by biological factors but also by cultural ones, and she questioned Freud’s emphasis on penis envy and the unresolved Oedipus complex. In the 1920’s, long before the women’s movement, Horney openly challenged Freud’s ideas about women. Quinn documents Horney’s anxiety-filled teen years with quotes from her diaries and describes her medical school years in Germany when few women were accepted in the profession. Horney married and had three daughters; she had a series of lovers throughout her life. Quinn’s book is a tribute to this complex, extraordinary woman.

The “It” Girls, by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $17.95

The “It” Girls traces the lives of two English sisters, Lady Duff Gordon or Lucile and Elinor Glyn, who elevated themselves into the glamour circles of the late 19th century. Gordon became a prominent couturière who added camisoles and lace knickers to Edwardian ladies’ wardrobes. The short flapper dress eventually replaced Gordon’s fashions and standing. Elinor Glyn wrote the tantalizing, risque romances The Visits of Elizabeth and Three Weeks. At 56, Glyn moved to Hollywood to pursue a writing career in the motion picture industry. Illustrations and photographs add to the book’s surface appeal. Nevertheless, The “It”Girls is a shallow biography that is hindered by its organization. The two authors might have gained greater insights into their subjects if they had completely discussed one sister’s life, then moved on to the other, and had a strong conclusion to unify the two lives.

LITERARY STUDIES Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction, by Jerome Meckier. Kentucky $29

This is one of the more interesting books on Victorian fiction to come out in recent years. Meckier summarizes his thesis very well himself: “Hidden Rivalries argues that nineteenth-century British fiction should be seen as a honeycomb of intersecting networks. Within and between these networks, novelists rethink and rewrite other novels as a way of enhancing their own credibility.” Meckier does an excellent job of bringing together various works of Victorian fiction to show how they illuminate each other. He is particularly impressive in the chapter detailing how Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a response to the challenge represented by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. This book is, then, a study in what is fashionably known as intertextuality, but fortunately it has none of the failings of fashionable criticism. Meckier writes clearly, does not overburden his argument with unnecessary theoretical baggage, and always remains in close contact with the works he is discussing.

Matthew Arnold, edited by Miriam Allott and Robert H. Super. Oxford $34

Arnold was one of those rare literary amphibians, at home both as a poet and as a critic. Although he considered “[T]he critical power . . .of lower rank than the creative,” he favored a symbiotic relation between them. He found the English Romantics “premature” because they “did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth, even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.” Arnold’s own poems are knowing, and melancholy. The Oxford edition is handsomely made. It includes a five-page chronology of Arnold’s personal and professional dates, careful notes that include textual history, and a bibliography of “further reading.” One wonders, however, why the editors chose to print such a short selection from Arnold’s important Culture and Anarchy, excluding the famous discussion of Hellenism and Hebraism. It seems a major oversight for the “authoritative edition” that this claims to be.

The Fiction of Walker Percy, by John Edward Hardy. Illinois $24.95

Percy under the microscope—analyzed, probed, dissected, criticized, and praised. The result, an in-depth inquiry into characters found in five novels and the world they inhabit, is an intriguing juxtaposition of what Percy, Hardy, and still other Percy scholars have had to say about the work of a contemporary literary figure. An extensive introduction, numerous explanatory notes, and a five-page bibliography round out this tour through a fictional realm, much of it rooted in Walker Percy’s real world of Catholicism, the Deep South, medicine, race relations, and man’s never-ending struggle with inner urges and external pressures, those mundane everyday concerns we all must deal with. Not afraid to use the pronoun “I” and express personal opinion, Hardy takes the reader on an often-fascinating journey as he demonstrates linkage among author, Binx Boiling, Will Barrett, Lance Lámar, and Tom More.

Critical Paths: Blake and the Argument of Method, edited by Dan Miller, Mark Bracher, and Donald Ault. Duke $45 cloth, $17.95 paper

It seems odd to speak of “traditional approaches” to Blake, but we do seem to have reached the point where an established orthodoxy of Blake interpretation, chiefly embodied in the writings of Northrop Frye, is being challenged by a variety of new approaches. This volume consists of essays which present themselves as being in the vanguard of Blake criticism, exploring new avenues of interpretation and perhaps working toward a new consensus. In methodology, the essays cover the whole spectrum of contemporary criticism, including Marxist, psychoanalytic (Lacanian), deconstructive, and feminist analyses of Blake. The essays are uneven in quality: some of them repay careful reading, but others are more ordinary than their authors would have us think. In any case, none of the essays has the power and brilliance of the work they seek to displace, and readers approaching Blake studies for the first time would still do well to begin with classics such as Frye’s Fearful Symmetry and Harold Bloom’s Blake’s Apocalypse. Probably the best essay in this volume is Stephen Cox’s “Methods and Limitations,” a carefully reasoned warning against the excesses and logical failings of Blake criticism, which unfortunately goes unheeded by many of the authors of the other essays.

The Best American Essays 1987, edited by Gay Talese. Ticknor and Fields $16.95

This volume presents reassuring evidence, although there is too much writing nowadays and thus too much bad writing, that there is some good writing being done. The best piece in the volume is Daniel Mark Epstein’s “The Case of Harry Houdini.” Also notable are Gretel Ehrlich’s “Spring” and Donald Hall’s “Winter.” Garry Giddins’ piece on Jack Benny, “This Guy Wouldn’t Give You the Parsley Off His Fish,” is first-rate, both entertaining and informative.

Defoe and Economics: The Fortunes of Roxana in the History of Interpretation, by Bram Dijkstra. St. Martin’s $29.95

Dijkstra uses the critical reception of Roxana as a test of his theories concerning ideology and literary interpretation. Drawing heavily on Defoe’s economic treatises, Dijkstra reads Roxana as a kind of prose georgic, guiding the tradesman to microeconomic, and England to macroeconomic, success. This reading requires the dismissal of the last quarter of the work—the so-called “Susan-tragedy”—as a potboiling engraftment. Dijkstra goes on to discuss the novel’s critical history and concludes with an assault on the ahistoricality of modern psychological readings. Even when Dijkstra’s argument is not persuasive, it is interesting, well-written, and well-supported. No serious student of Defoe, of the novel, or of critical theory should ignore this study.

Convergencies: Essays on Art and Literature, by Octavio Paz. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $19.95

The author, a major poet who also happens to be one of our finest essayists, continues to explore the plurality of “worlds” that contribute to the universal culture of “one earth.” The literatures of Latin America (not “Latin American literature”), Japan, France, Portugal, and Spain, the paintings of Picasso and Miró are among his subjects. The very nature of language is explored in a defense of “translation”; the dignity of craftsmanship in an age of technology is celebrated; and America “at table and in bed” is analyzed in terms of Fourier’s ideas. Graceful, analytic, and imaginative, these essays are boldly poetical and provocative.

Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation, by Danièl Cottom. Minnesota $35 cloth, $14.95 paper

George Eliot self-consciously contrasted her “realistic” art to “romance,” but critic Cottom analyzes the ideological presuppositions that structured her depictions of social life. To reveal those presuppositions—about the individual and society, education, gentility, social class, etc.—suggests the hegemonic power of a middle-class intellectual discourse that justifies itself by claiming neutrality and universality (hence realism). Unfortunately, Cottom’s intriguing arguments are not well supported by sustained close readings of Eliot’s work. An excellent final chapter advocates literary criticism that “concentrates on the politics of rhetoric,” but the preceding chapters provide a somewhat bewildering example of such an approach.

Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost,” by John Peter Rumrich. Pittsburgh $24.95

While this study is neither so beautifully written nor so accessible to the novice as C.S. Lewis’s Preface (which Rumrich emulates), it brings useful literary and philosophical contexts to bear on the study of Milton’s epic. In particular, Rumrich dwells upon concepts of “glory” and “chaos” in his development of a reading of Paradise Lost that emphasizes God’s evolution of the former from the latter. Rumrich denies the Christian orthodoxy of the poem and argues that its theodicy is “limited and largely negative.” This book is highly recommended for students of Milton, and less so for the general reader.

Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance, by Elaine V. Beilin. Princeton $33

One of the prominent blessings of recent feminist criticism is the reevaluation of female authors of the past, with the hope of correcting previous gender biases and thereby enlarging, and likewise correcting, the canon. Accordingly, Beilin’s goal is “to ask how social and literary attitudes toward women influenced women writers in Renaissance England.” Her approach is wise and fruitful, shunning a radical, imperialistic feminist criticism that would seek to make these Renaissance women feminists; such an approach she correctly describes as “anachronistic.” In many ways, the study is a survey of women writers in the Renaissance, as well as an investigation into the external pressures on them. Well researched, and written capably if not adroitly, Beilin’s work thus serves the purpose of an excellent introduction to a lively topic.

The English Gentleman: Images and Ideals in Literature and Society, by David Castronovo. Unger $12.95

In the 18th century everyone who could write produced an essay on “taste” and often indirectly defined a responsible social ideal. The problem was approached more directly in the 19th century with a concern for “the gentleman.” A number of valuable social histories have now appeared to pull together ideas from essays, novels, “courtesy books,” statements on boys’ schools, sermons, and parliamentary speeches. Castronovo’s book reveals the breed as slippery but defineable: the gentleman was selfish and generous, a leader and a follower, disciplined and riotous. The author is a careful reader who is willing to refine terms such as “honor,” “duty,” “respectability,” and “virtue.” All in all, a competent work on a lively subject.

Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language, by David G. Riede. Virginia $30

This scrupulous, close reading of Arnold’s poetry in a full historical context presents a moving account of how the poet sought “to salvage a faith in language from the wreck” of his own analyses. The author sees in Arnold’s work an effort to assert the power of language but in words “that, ironically, . . .only enclose an empty space.” This book will be of considerable interest not only to students of Victorian literature but also to scholars of Modernism, who will recognize, thanks to Riede’s analysis, the proximity of Arnold’s critical wilderness to the wasteland of T.S. Eliot. This excellent study is the second in the new and promising series of Virginia Victorian Studies.

A Common Room: Essays 1954—1987, by Reynolds Price. Atheneum $23.95

A successful and prolific novelist has gathered here a series of occasional pieces written over a period of nearly 35 years. Tough-minded yet warm-hearted, the author is eagle-eyed, often contentious and witty. He writes with great beauty about his own fiction and memories, about other Southern authors, about Jimmy Carter, about female opera singers, and about the Bible. He tells us why Vanity Fair is not a great book, and he has impish things to say about Nabokov’s lectures on Cervantes. Sometimes he makes unforgettable observations about our present conditions. Commenting on our need for heroes, he observes: “to say we lack heroes is to come dangerously close to saying we lack the capacity to love.”

Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings, edited by Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge $39.50

This collection of a dozen articles offers a series of widely varying readings of García Márquez’ fictions (from Leaf Storm, 1955, to Love in the Times of Cholera, 1986). The approaches include structuralist, anthropological, pyschoanalytical, Marxist, thematic, deconstructionist, and linguistic, and deal with issues of narrative complexity, the unreliable narrator, shifting narrative voices, etc. A feminist perspective would have been welcome, but the diversity of approaches—while precluding the possibility of any theoretical coherence— provides interesting and valuable commentaries on the Colombian writer’s works. The best (Labanyi, Griffin, Prieto) stimulate excitement and further thought. The book also contains García Márquez’ 1982 Nobel Prize Address, an excellent bibliography, and an index.

FICTION Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Random House-$18.95

This novel opens with the exquisite precision of fine chamber music, and, like the instruments in a string quartet, the four central characters in this story of the bonds of friendship and of marriage, are essential to one another. Two couples meet at a university where the men are starting careers as academics. Charity and Sid Lang are wealthy; Sally and Larry Morgan are penniless and from different backgrounds. The immediate feelings of affection at first meeting are difficult to accept. Charity, who combines the manipulative skill and willfulness of Scarlet O’Hara and Becky Sharp, engulfs the Morgans with her benevolence. The circle of gratitude gets tighter when Sally contracts polio, and the Langs help with the medical expenses. The bonds of friendship are paralleled by the bonds of marriage. Sid, who knows he is run by his wife “like a lawnmower,” can’t inhale unless Charity exhales for him. While she masks her need to control friends behind a display of generosity, with Sid she makes no pretense. Aware of his own paralysis, Sid is comforted to see Larry bound to Sally, crippled and totally dependent on him. The strength of the novel is in the Morgan’s relationship, but Sally remains shadowy while Charity takes center stage. Stegner is such a wise, splendid writer and storyteller that he can write a superb book despite the awkward device of imagined flashback scenes, and despite Charity, one of the most insufferable females in literature, an imperious, peremptory, self-centered woman who talks in italics and expresses disapproval with “Oh, pooh!

The World as I Found It: A Novel, by Bruce Duffy. Ticknor & Fields $19.95

The epigraph for The World as I Found It is a quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The preface explains that the book is “a work of fiction. . .[which] follows the basic outlines of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life and character. . .[but] makes no attempt at a faithful or congruent portrayal, even if such were possible.” Duffy explains his manipulations and changes of facts and dates in the lives not only of Wittgenstein but of his co-philosophers and mentors, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, as well as of the people surrounding them in England, and of Wittgenstein’s Austrian family, friends, and enemies. This is a very long and complicated book. No matter how much Duffy has twisted and colored fact, no matter how much is the product of his imagination, this is one novel, perhaps the only one extant, that would read better if it had an index and footnotes. So much for Duffy’s fiction, which is bound so inexorably to fact. Even without these aids, The World as I Found It is fascinating reading.

Time with Children, by Elizabeth Tallent. Knopf $15.95

Elizabeth Tallent is a fine writer. Her eloquent stories gain force when juxtaposed, as they are here, in ways that highlight and shade the modern themes of divorce and separation, and the effects of those displacements on the adults and, especially, children who must learn to survive them. Three unfaithful married couples dominate this book, as they struggle to control not only the physical space of the homes that define their lives but the emotional space of a relationship that, they come to see, they do not understand. Throughout, it is the children who suffer most. One mother, fresh from an affair, whispers to her young son: “From now on you must be good.” The children here are good—innocent, at least. It is the adults who are not. A fine, well-wrought group of stories from a talented writer.

Saints and Scholars, by Terry Eagleton. Verso $14.95

This is Eagleton’s remarkably skillful first work of fiction. It is as witty and polemical as Eagleton’s critical writing, but it is not simply a novel of ideas. Eagleton grounds his ideas in character and situation, and he has invented (or chosen) some intriguing characters and an extraordinary situation in which Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nikolai Bakhtin (the Russian critic’s brother), James Connolly (the Irish revolutionary who, in this novel, miraculously escapes his execution), and Leopold Bloom meet and argue. The result is a continuation of Eagleton’s incisive socio-historical critique of intellectual life and the modern world. An enjoyable and provocative book.

Cuts, by Malcolm Bradbury. Harper & Row $10.95

“It was the summer of 1986, and everywhere there were cuts.” So begins the author in a spoof of Thatcher’s England. Cuts in industry, cuts in science, cuts in the arts. It was a time, the author tells us, when the “old soft illusions” were being replaced by the “new hard illusions.” This is the story of what happens when a writer who teaches night school, one Henry Babbacombe, is called to the glass towers of Eldorado Television. The satire is often very funny, though its effect is limited, since the novel has the effect almost of a verbal comic strip.

The Golden Droplet, by Michel Tournier. Doubleday $16.95

Tournier weaves myths for our myth-denying age: his novels seem to radiate significance far beyond the ostensible scope of their plots, and The Golden Droplet is no exception. Indeed, if I found this new work less pleasing than Tournier’s earlier masterpieces, Friday, Gemini, and The Ogre, it was because for once this mythifying radiance proves too strong, too deliberate. Idris, the Berber boy who pursues a snapshot and his own wanderlust from an Algerian oasis to Paris, is too transparent to hold his own as a character against wave after wave of imposed themes and meanings. The plot itself disintegrates into disconnected episodes once Idris reaches Paris. Even so flawed, however, The Golden Droplet remains an engaging, thought-provoking work. Tournier has more to say than all but a few of his peers, and he has the skill to hold your attention while he says it.

In the Music Library, by Ellen Hunnicutt. Pittsburgh $15.95

Written in a beautiful, spare prose, these stories exalt quotidian experience and delicately portray the losses and disappointments of everyday life. Never sentimental as such, they are charged with a depth of feeling that moves the reader and causes him or her to reflect on the “meaning” of the plainest of things—an expression, a gesture, a chance phrase. For all their pathos these stories are informed by a delightful wry humor, marvelously present, for example, in the “ode” to knapsacks, satchels, and beach bags—to all soft bags— at the beginning of the tide story, “In The Music Library.” Many of these stories are about the fragile melodies and strange chords of life, and the author, who sets several of them in music classes, writes in an evocative prose that, itself, rises to the condition of music.

World’s End, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Viking $19.95

As readers of Water Music, Greasy Lake, and others of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s works know, he can write circles around anyone else in American letters today. That makes World’s End an even greater disappointment. Boyle has lost none of his flair for the language, but the plot here is just not right. In part a modernized Legend of Sleepy Hollow complete with footless motorcyclist, in part a kind of Wapshot Chronicle, the novel has too many themes and too little coherence; at times it painfully recalls Thomas Pynchon at his brilliant, mysterious worst. In his earlier works, Boyle was a free spirit who disciplined himself; here he is just free, and he isn’t always fun to follow.

Zion’s Cause, by Jim Peyton. Algonquin Books $14.95

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill has been producing some fine novels recently, notably Clyde Edgerton’s Walking across Egypt and Gary Gildner’s The Second Bridge. The works fall closer to the Southern literary style than to the Northeastern, and this is the case for Jim Peyton’s homespun novel as well. In the tradition of Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, Peyton offers us a “novel” that joins a series of potentially separate short stories, telling the history of the fictitious town, Zions Cause, Kentucky in a series of short vignettes; however, as the work progresses, the reader comes to understand that the novel also traces the “history” of a man’s coming of age—of his evolving consciousness as he progresses toward adulthood. Unfortunately, Peyton tends toward the formulaic, and his tricks are too, too, obvious; each story springs from some awkward, usually amusing, occasionally thought-provoking, impulse, somewhat along the line of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, but they lack a striking depth of meaning, believable characterizations, and dense, capable description. Thus, although he writes stories that amuse, Peyton does not impress the way other recent Algonquin authors have; he fails to match, for example, Edgerton’s faithful, full characterizations and profound meaning.

Murder in the CIA, by Margaret Truman. Random House $17.95

Margaret Truman’s newest addition to her capital crime series thrillers fails to give the reader much inside information on the inner-workings of the “Pickle Factory” or the CIA. When an undercover CIA agent’s friend is murdered on a business trip, the agent investigates the death uncovering in the process a disillusioning trail involving covert CIA activities utilizing mind manipulation techniques. Although this novel would seem to be the work of a Washington insider, trivial descriptions of activities such as a taxi cab ride and preparations for an overseas flight supplant useful background information on the agency and the characters. Moreover, these descriptions coupled with the mechanical, lifeless sentences rob the novel of its suspense quality.

Criminal Tendencies, by William O’Rourke. Dutton $19.95

Of all the novelists paraded in recent years by publishers as natural successors to Graham Greene, this one comes the closest. Using Key West, Florida, as the backdrop for a broad social canvas portraying hustlers and hermits as well as rich tourists and poor transients, along with co-conspiring Cubans and the CIA, the plot is one of intricately woven international intrigue featuring elegant prose paired with biting wit, all of which makes for a thoroughly entertaining literary event.

A Boat off the Coast, by Stephen Dobyns. Viking $16.95

Why doesn’t every fisherman with his own small boat create the capital for a new life by making a few simple smuggling jaunts in the wake of a foreign freighter? Perhaps they would if their life was as convincingly constrained as that of the protagonist here. But such offers don’t come at random, and the best of intentions will not ensure that friendships remain visible. A poet as well as a novelist, Dobyns offers, within the confines of an effectively plotted and cleanly narrated suspense format, an absorbingly palpable view of the complexity of ordinary emotions.

A Death to Remember, by Roger Ormerod. Scribner’s $14.95

Ormerod works hard on his plot and presumably on his characters, but neither is really convincing or top grade. The figures are wooden and jerky, and the style is equally so. Maybe his earlier books are better, but this one is certainly not a book to recommend.

Tending to Virginia, by Jill McCorkle. Algonquin Books $15.95

Novel writing by resident or expatriate North Carolinians seems as flourishing a cottage industry as quilting. As busy and as talented as anyone working that territory these days is 29-year-old Jill McCorkle. Thee years ago her publisher brought out her first and second novels simultaneously, not only to offer current value but to illustrate growth potential. He made a resounding point that once again reverberates. The first, The Cheer Leader, is good, the second, July 7th, is spookily good, nothing short of terrific. In this latter seriocomic dissection of a North Carolina town, McCorkle lets us share a warm detachment from her large cast of characters, all of whom come across as memorable and most as endearing. In her third novel she pulls us much closer to her townspeople. The effect is every bit as dazzling but more disturbing. Ginny Sue awaits the birth of her first child. Her condition draws together her mother, grandmother, cousin, aunt, great aunt—and provides the title. McCorkle gets under the skin of each with uncanny precision. A storm one afternoon confines them all to the same room. Stories are told, including that of a dead great aunt, secrets revealed, existing antagonisms and delusions exacerbated. The volatile reaction is brilliant, sometimes funny, often harrowing. Life being lived rises palpably from these pages. Using mostly dialogue (without too much adaptation, this novel could make a powerful play), McCorkle digs ever deeper into the psyches of these ordinary women whose lives have ranged from constructive to blighted. Under her searching eye and in their own unerringly heard and faithfully rendered speech, they become extraordinary, fascinating, and, one predicts, unforgettable.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, by Russell Jacoby. Basic Books $18.95

In The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby chronicles the failure of American society to produce public intellectuals over the past generation. Rather than spawning a new set of cultural critics, our age still looks to older intellectuals when it needs a reasoned response to an issue. But such a function itself is passing from our cultural scene. The intellectuals who emerged during the 1950’s—William F. Buckley, John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell, as well as C. Wright Mills, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, and others—enjoyed a wide audience for their diverse writings. They wrote to and for America’s educated public. Today famous intellectuals are those who enjoy a reputation within their particular discipline. Overwhelmingly, they are academics who address each other to the neglect or disdain of the wider public. Jacoby argues that this change may be traced to the atrophying of a hospitable metropolitan Bohemian environment, the disappearance of the intellectuals in the radical movements of the 1960’s, and the ever extending reach of the university. The strength of this book lies in Jacoby’s ability to show how the intellectual’s retreat into academia has created a void in our intellectual life.

The Empire Builders: Power, Money and Ethics Inside the Harvard Business School, by J. Paul Mark. Morrow $17.95

If the search for wealth is the American civil religion of the 1980’s, clearly Harvard Business School is its Vatican. Despite its eminent faculty and legions of prominent alumni, it seems as if the main product of Harvard University is its mystique. Accounts which promise to penetrate at least a layer or two of that mystique will have a natural audience. Despite a style which often resembles a tabloid, the author reveals some fascinating and occasionally lurid glimpses of life at HBS. The interesting question raised by the study is what sort of creature is produced when the academy mates with an openly and self-glorifyingly corporate ethos. The political struggles are not just about library budgets


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