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Notes on Current Books, Spring 1992


ISSUE:  Spring 1992

The Owens Valley in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada has often supplied the setting for compelling art, including Mary Austin’s melodramatic novel The Ford (1917) and Roman Polanski’s celebrated film Chinatown (1974). Here it provides the setting for one of the half-dozen most important works in historical sociology by an American scholar. Unlike Austin and Polanski, Walton takes no liberties with the historical record. His account of the periodic “water wars” between valley residents and Los Angeles authorities, which span nearly a century, is accurate as well as gripping. The 32 photographs, some of them by the author, are indeed worth a thousand words; Beverly Lozano’s maps are terrific. But it is not Walton’s history— good as it is—that makes this a landmark book. Each of the narrative chapters is dotted with perceptive, sometimes strikingly original insights anchored in the theoretical literature on ideology, social protest, and the relative autonomy of the state. Walton’s long final chapter, entitled “State, Culture, and Collective Action,” is a tour de force. For a long time to come, historians and social scientists who write about social change and social movements will want to begin their investigations with another reading of Western Times and Water Wars.

The Quest for Authority and Honor in the American Professions, 1750—1900, by Samuel Haber. Chicago $39.95

There is something distinctive, and something very American, about the culture of the professions. Most of our university graduates will enter one or another, be it the law, medicine, engineering, teaching or accountancy. Their rationale goes beyond economic reward to a more intrinsic set of values, associated with status, prestige, hierarchy. These values help explain today’s choices and also the enthusiastic professionalization of a wide range of service activities in the late 19th century. Haber’s valuable book explores the middle-class search for the career, a gentlemenly pursuit in an age of capital and commerce. Authority and honor, duty and privilege, were the humors of a modern cultural phenomenon suffused with the virtuous ideals and deferential norms of preindustrial society.

The American Dream of Captain John Smith, by J.A. Leo Lemay. Virginia $29.95

This new interpretation of Smith attempts to correct the past mistakes and abuses by historians who tended to blame Smith for the evils of American settlers which ensued after he left the continent. A pragmatic, self-made individual, this new Smith was neither a braggart nor a wanton killer of Indians but rather a social visionary whose life presaged the agrarian, egalitarian, and secular ideal we most usually associate with Jeffersonianism. Lemay states his thesis boldly, argues it reasonably and clearly, and is destined to become the leader of a long overdue revisionism in John Smith studies. He makes an impressive case that Smith was not only the greatest single founder of the English colonies in America but also the father of what we call the American dream, “the secular, unselfish, idealistic faith in a better way of life for the ordinary person.”

The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South, by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. North Carolina $24.95

In the past decade, academically trained historians have finally begun to reclaim the study of the battles of the American Civil War from the “pop” historians and war buffs. It might seem from the subject of this volume that this recent flood of battle books must have already covered the “real” battles, leaving Hughes to try to fill a book with an early (November 1861) and almost insignificant engagement, so small that more men died in some major battles than fought at Belmont. It is remarkable, however, how interesting Hughes has made Grant’s aborted river expedition; it is even more remarkable how many manuscript sources on this battle Hughes has discovered. Rarely has a battle on this small scale been analyzed in such detail, although some readers may feel that Hughes analyzes a bit too much when he tries to judge the conduct and abilities of obscure line officers. Well-researched and well-written, this book illuminates that early stumbling and fumbling period of the war which has so often been ignored.

1492. The Decline of Medievalism and the Rise of the Modern Age, by Barnet Litvinoff. Scribner’s $24.95

The present book written, like a dozen others, in anticipation of the Columbus anniversary, offers the reader a general but somewhat disjointed survey of Western continental European history in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The scene is shifted around, from Spain to Italy, to France, to Austria, and back to Spain, in an effort to put the voyages to the New World in perspective. The result, unfortunately, is not very successful. Not only is the narrative weighted down by a clumsy prose style, by excessive reliance on out-dated research, and by a tendency to facile generalization, but the author’s desire to make 1492 the pivotal year during the last millennium constitutes a fundamental flaw. Thus “medieval” is set against “renaissance” (“But the Middle Ages were due to expire in the Renaissance anyway,” p.6), clericalism against humanism (“The Renaissance, flowing from Florence . . .spread . . . to all western Europe. Medieval resistance melted beneath the barrage. . .,” p. 93), and the old world against the new (“. . .we had made of the New World a tabula rasa, then imported all the ills of the old—injustice, rapacity, overweening racial pride,” p.xx). The result is a gross distortion of the historical process, which is made to serve the moral views of the author, and, alas, a book which is useless for the professional and misleading for the layman.

A Time for Tea. Travels through China and India in Search of Tea, by Jason Goodwin. Knopf $22

In the course of a very personal account of wanderings in the cities and towns of Asia, which finally bring him back to London (naturally, in time for tea), the author sketches some colorful vignettes of the tea trade, its history, and present-day operation. The style is, at times, rather labored, and the reader must put up with lengthy introductions to some very tiresome characters; but there is enough interesting detail and assorted odd facts to make this a worthwhile journey.

Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture & Society in Early Maryland, by Lois Green Carr, Russell R. Menard, and Lorena S. Walsh. North Carolina $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

Robert Cole arrived in Maryland from England in June 1652 with his wife Rebecca, four children, and two servants. About ten years later he was dead, leaving seven orphans for his executors to raise (Rebecca had predeceased him) and a small farm for them to manage. In general, little is known about the everyday life of ordinary small farmers of the period, but, in Cole’s case, there is a considerable amount of information available. In 1662 Cole planned a trip to England and in preparation for that trip made a detailed inventory of what he owned and wrote an unusually elaborate will. Cole’s will and inventory, combined with his executor’s account of 1662—1673, provide the basis for this book. The authors give the general context for the Cole plantation and then discuss over several chapters, building a farm, work details of the agricultural year, living standards, and community and family life. The work is supplied with numerous useful illustrations, maps, tables, and appendixes, and is copiously footnoted. The authors’ excellent work, utilizing and expanding on the materials that fortuitous circumstances provided, has, indeed, given us a closeup look at everyday life in mid-17th-century Maryland.

The Civil War in the American West, by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. Knopf $27.50

This fine book shows why Knopf is preeminent in the publishing of great works of history. Josephy gives us in vivid detail the battles that took place in the border states and territories from the beginning of the great conflict between the Union and Confederate troops until the last surrender by a Confederate general, the Cherokee guerrilla leader who gave up two months after Appomattox. He explores battles, armies, trails, rivers, and Indians in creating this first great comprehensive history of the Civil War in the West. If any criticism can be leveled at the author, it is in not paying quite enough attention to the traditional political and military leaders who have been examined when looking to explain the Western theatre. Especially weak is the author’s insight into the role played by Jefferson Davis. However, given the immense scholarship available on the Confederate leader, and the scope of Josephy’s work, this is not a serious omission.

Bougainville: The Forgotten Campaign, 1943—1945, by Harry A. Gailey. Kentucky $27

Fifty years ago Americans fought and died on tiny Pacific islands with exotic names like Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella, and Munda. Bougainville, the largest of these Solomon Islands, proved in microcosm a model of the war in the Pacific. Gailey shows us that American forces invaded this jungle-covered island to establish airfields to aid in the reduction of Rabaul, center of Japanese power in the southwest Pacific. American forces contented themselves with constructing a fortified position on a small part of the island, leaving the nearly 60,000 Japanese defenders to wither on the vine. Later in the war, the Australian forces that replaced American units learned at a high cost the value of MacArthur’s island hopping strategy. Gailey shows that Australian army leaders fought because, for once, they had the show to themselves without the heavy-handed Americans present to prevent them from doing so. Bougainville also witnessed the first employment of black Americans in ground combat in the Pacific. Gailey documents the reluctance of American commanders to use black army units and how one exaggerated incident of panic in an unseasoned company of the 93rd Division shaped the attitudes of higher level American commanders for the remainder of the war. While this book does not capture much of the flavor of ground combat in the Pacific, it gives the reader insight into the complex factors that went into fighting the Second World War in that theater.

LITERARY STUDIESAcademic Capitalism & Literary Value, by Harold Fromm. Georgia $35 cloth, $16 paper

This book constitutes a powerful indictment of the dominant trends in contemporary literary criticism, and includes incisive, biting, and often witty critiques of such major figures as Stanley Fish, Elaine Showalter, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. With the skill of a journalist, Fromm is often right on target in exposing all that is wrong in today’s criticism: “Just as Andy Warhol turns a Campbell’s soup can into art, Fredric Jameson turns art into a Campbell’s soup can.” Fromm’s main thesis is that the Marxist literary critics who dominate today’s academy are hypocrites—they indict capitalism, while reaping the benefits of the economic abundance it has produced and pursuing careers with the crassest professionalism, whoring after trends with a slavishness a Hollywood producer would be ashamed to display. Fromm’s book suffers from being a collection of essays written over several years—he does not develop his arguments systematically and is occasionally repetitious, and some of his essays already seem somewhat dated. At times his rhetoric becomes too strident, but on the whole he gives a judicious assessment of the contemporary scene, and is even capable of discriminating among the critics he attacks, sensing, for example, that Frank Lentricchia is an exception to many of the failings Fromm documents. The academic establishment will be quick to condemn this book, but that will be just another sign of the willful isolation from any larger intellectual community Fromm criticizes in today’s professorate.

The Case for a Humanistic Poetics, by Daniel R. Schwartz. University of Pennsylvania $32.95 cloth, $16.95 paper

It is tempting to describe this as a courageous book. After all, it proposes a dialogue between parties that barely communicate in print, in the classroom, or in the public forum. They are, on the right, literary history and formal criticism, and on the left, reader-response theory and deconstruction. Haunting and vitiating the whole symposium, however, is the specter of dogmatism—not only in the doctrinaire attitudes of die-hard new critics and the self-willed textual impotence of their ancient adversaries, but the relativistic orthodoxy of Stanley Fish and the know-it-all skepticism of Americans who pillage Derrida for hermeneutic gadgetry. Schwartz is far from innocent in all this. Proclaimed a pluralist, he in fact advocates eclecticism, which discriminates infallibly between what is right and what is wrong in every framework and composes a supermethod whose ill-matched terms, distinctions, and logical moves have not only lost all contact with their supporting arguments, but yield profoundly incoherent readings. The line between courage and rashness is, it would seem, even thinner than Socrates let on.

American Fiction in the Cold War, by Thomas Hill Schaub. Wisconsin $35 cloth, $12.95 paper

With communism collapsing all over the world, we are no doubt due for many retrospective analyses of various aspects of its long struggle with capitalism. But let us hope that they do not all make Thomas Schaub’s mistake of thinking that just because the Cold War is over, it never happened. Schaub sets out to analyze how liberal critics and authors fell prey to what he views as American Cold War myths. The problem with his approach is that he uncritically assumes that liberal attitudes were irrational and hence need explanation. From the safety of the 1990’s, Schaub can present the frightening events of the past with astonishing blandness: “The victory of Chinese communism in 1949 and the discovery that the Soviet Union had exploded an atom bomb further contributed to the culture of anticommunism.” Ah, those paranoid liberals: unaccountably upset that a billion people had gone over to the other side and mysteriously troubled that Joseph Stalin had acquired nuclear weapons. Another example of a liberal myth for Schaub is “the dominant cold war polarities which privileged American democracy, imagined as a fruitful tension of conflicting groups in contrast with the monolithic repressiveness of the Soviet Union.” What a shame that even the Soviet people have now succumbed to this American myth and rejected their Marxist political heritage. These quotations give some sense of how shallow, theoretically naïve, and dogmatically left-wing this book is.

Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, by Tim Redman. Cambridge $34.50

This book makes bleak reading. In great historical detail, Redman documents Pound’s intimate relationship with Italian fascism. At a time when many critics decry anything left of Mao as “fascist,” Redman usefully restores historical specificity to this much-stretched term. He charts Pound’s preoccupation with political and economic theory, from his early Socialist writings to his fervent support of Benito Mussolini—a support that would ultimately lead to the poet’s incarceration at Pisa and his trial for treason. Redman rejects the pervasive critical separation of Pound’s politics from his poetry, but his book may ultimately repeat this division in offering only scant analysis of the poetry.

Reading Auden: The Returns of Caliban, by John R. Boly. Cornell $31.50

The title promises more than the book delivers; this is not the book of detailed, subtle, exhaustive readings that Auden’s poetry deserves but has not yet received. Although the book falls short of its titular promise, it advances a thesis that will prod scholars toward a more sophisticated interpretation of Auden’s work—namely, that Auden’s poems combine multiple, often contradictory, voices. Boly listens carefully for these discordant voices, and he effectively turns up the volume of the texts so that we can all be more responsive to the “heteroglossia” he uncovers in Auden’s brilliant poetry.

Shelby Foote: Novelist and Historian, by Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Mississippi $32.50

Foote, the astute commentator in the acclaimed PBS series “The Civil War,” is not only our preeminent Civil War historian but an accomplished novelist. Phillips, a professor of English at Mississippi State University, shows how Foote’s artistic distance from the elements of regionalism brings balance and accuracy to his fiction, and how his keen sense of narrative is responsible for his persuasive historical writing. Examined are Foote’s interviews and lectures, correspondence with his lifelong friend Walker Percy, and his six laudable novels. An exemplary study of one of America’s finest writers.

The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture, by Joel Black. Johns Hopkins $14.95

This lucid and wide-ranging book sets aside conventional approaches to murder and studies it from an aesthetic perspective. According to Black, murder has been treated as an art form ever since De Quincey. Black makes the fascinating argument that the aestheticization of violence extended the Romantic theory of the sublime, and that the Romantic link between art and violence continues to find expression in episodes such as the shootings of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan—actions patterned on works of art. Well-written and often brilliant.

Modernism and the Fate of Individuality, by Michael Levenson. Cambridge $39.50

This comprehensive critical study shows how modern novels negotiate the strain between a 19th-century conception of character and the 20th-century narrative forms that revise and contain it. In his subtle, complex account of the problematic representation of modern selfhood, Levenson finds examples from the works of Conrad and late James, E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, and, finally, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Levenson’s extreme sensitivity to language makes his textual readings, as well as his larger claims about the combative relation between self and community, both compelling and convincing.

A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context, by Susan VanZanten Gallagher. Harvard $29.95

This is not the first book-length study of Coetzee, nor will it be the last. As the leading novelist of South Africa, he has built an international reputation and will be the subject of critical scrutiny for years to come. Gallagher has made a valuable contribution to Coetzee scholarship: she has written detailed chapters on all of his novels, including the most recent, Age of Iron, and she does a good job of supplying her readers with the background in South African history needed to comprehend the political dimension of Coetzee’s work. Unfortunately, this is the kind of study likely to appear in the early stages of a great author’s reception. Gallagher is sympathetic to Coetzee and indeed eager to promote his reputation, but she is evidently not capable of responding to the genuine complexities of his art. She is primarily cpncerned with showing that he is “politically correct” (she actually uses the phrase without noticeable irony on p. 199). Thus she tends to read Coetzee’s works naïvely, as if they had a stable and identifiable point of view (for example, she focuses on Susan Barton in Foe as if she were somehow Coetzee’s spokesman and not called into question just as the other characters). Gallagher plays down the postmodern aspects of Coetzee’s novels in favor of extracting straightforward political morals. Her study can serve as a useful introduction to one of the most impressive bodies of fiction produced in our time, but a genuinely probing book on Coetzee remains to be written.

Citadel Culture, by O. K. Werckmeister. Chicago $24.95

Like Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside, Citadel Culture powerfully and trenchantly warns of the potential sterility of life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fastening upon the “radiant pessimism” that struts through the postmod scene, Werckmeister broods on the ideological gridlock he encounters in a culture that “has no fronts, only competing propositions . . .absolute and relative at once.” By discussing fixtures as diverse as Francis Bacon, Umberto Eco, George Lucas, Kraftwerk, and Habermas, Werckmeister is able to show how in many different arenas political programs become little more than the rarefied gestures of impotence, exhaustion, and cooptation. The basic insight is not new, but this study is remarkable for its sustained intelligence, its tense, footnoteless prose, and the honesty with which it depicts the playpen “interventions” of “engaged” academics for the sad spectacles they are.

Classics of Civil War Fiction, edited by David Madden and Peggy Bach. Mississippi $24.95

This excellent anthology offers 14 essays, all but two written expressly for this collection, each dealing with a major work of fiction about the Civil War and published before 1950. The writers have chosen works that interest them, and some of the choices are fascinating. Among the best essays are Mary Lee Settle’s on John Peale Bishop’s Many Thousands Gone; Tom Wicker on Allen Tate’s The Fathers; James Cox’s examination of The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane; and R.H.W. Dillard’s essentially feminist accounting of The Battle-Ground, by Ellen Glasgow. There are other first-rate essays by Stephen Becker, Ishmael Reed, Rosellen Brown, Daniel Aaron, and others. Together with a good bibliography, “Selected Novels, Stories, Poems, and Plays,” these essays do achieve their primary purpose—to call forth renewed attention to the literary inheritance of our bloodiest war.

LIVES AND LETTERSThe Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan, edited by Charles East. Georgia $34.95

When Sarah Morgan began her diary in 1862, she was 19 years old but already a loyal Southerner, a “rebel, body and soul.” With her father dead and her three brothers fighting for the Confederacy, she and her mother made their way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where she produced what proved to be one of the most interesting diaries of the whole Civil War period. It ranks with Mary Chesnut’s famous account and in many ways surpasses that of the elder woman because of Morgan’s youthful exuberance, questioning nature, and observant eye. The dreadfulness of war, the burden of womanhood, and her first stirrings of feminism combine to transcend her story beyond even that of her fascinating personal life. Superbly annotated, nicely designed, and splendidly introduced, this fine edition should be the definitive version of an important autobiography for several generations.

The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, edited by Herbert D. Schimmel. Oxford $59

Twenty years in the works, this edition of Lautrec’s correspondence contains the text of 619 of the artist’s letters, along with descriptions of 29 others whose locations are uncertain. In addition, the full scholarly apparatus includes 31 letters by Lautrec’s friends and family members. Beginning when he was six, the collection documents Lautrec’s life as he developed from a fairly conservative aristocrat (he would have become a count had he lived) to a Bohemian artist in Montmarte, and from an illustrator who painted to an avant garde artist who incorporated themes and techniques from the applied into the fine arts. One danger of so inclusive an edition is that a reader will find the trivial as well as the profound, and many general readers of this collection may fail to be interested in the artist’s orders for more photographic paper, or his single-sentence confirmations of business meetings. Still, these letters are invaluable for their portrayal of the immediate circumstances and daily concerns under which Lautrec’s distinctive art was produced. With 72 black and white plates: photos, maps, facsimilies of documents, and Lautrec’s posters.

Mikhail Gorbachev: The Origins of Perestroika, by Michel Tatu. Columbia $24.50

With this biography, we begin to get closer to an accurate, balanced, sane view of the man who changed the world by dismantling his own nation. A distinguished French journalist, Michel Tatu has written on Soviet affairs for years, and he brings to his work a refreshing detachment so often missing in American and British Kremlinology. The Gorbachev who emerges here is a deeply flawed, tragic figure who nevertheless had one great role to play and played it to perfection. This work now becomes the standard by which future biographies must be measured.

The James: A Family Narrative, by R. W. B. Lewis. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux $35

Lewis, author of the prize-winning Edith Wharton biography, has written an overweight study of the entire James family: William the philosopher, Henry the novelist, Alice the invalid, younger brothers, Wilky and Robertson, plus grandfather William who came to America from Ireland at age 18 in 1789 and amassed a fortune that permitted his son, Henry Sr., to remain gainfully unemployed all his life, writing theological treatises. H.J. Sr.’s sons William and Henry have been the subject of countless books; there are biographies of the other James siblings, and a group biography by F.O. Matthiessen. Lewis has vacuumed up all published material and reassembled the work of other scholars, excusing his sloppy documentation with an equivocal statement about “the aims” of his annotation: in other words, justification for using secondary sources. He’s apparently ignored three important recent studies of William and overlooked ten of his boyhood letters that throw light on his relationship to his father. The most valuable part of this tedious rehash is a 45-page appendix on the James descendants, although those living may not be pleased with some revelations about the family. This is not a book for James scholars, and few general readers are likely to wade through 640 pages.

Remembering Anna Akhmatova, by Anatoly Nayman. Henry Holt $29.95

The lives of the poets often do not bear up under scrutiny, but Anna Akhmatova’s, at once so tragic and so incredibly rich in human experience, was an exception. When a young man many years her junior attached himself to her in 1959, she seems to have recognized in him a man sensitive and talented enough to produce, long after her death, the memoir she would never write. That is what Nayman has tried to do in this interesting, moving, uneven work. It is by no means clear he understood her genius, but that he worshipped her as a giant among the Soviet midgets excuses his shortcomings.

Orwell: The Authorized Biography, by Michael Shelden. Harper Collins $25

Eric Blair, as George Orwell was known to family and friends, would surely like this biography: it reveals so little of him. For all his access to the family and to Orwell’s few papers, Michael Shelden does not capture the essence of his subject. We learn almost nothing about Orwell’s tramping around England in the company of the homeless poor, very little about his down-and-out life in London and Paris, nothing new whatsoever about his service in the Spanish Civil War. What we do get is a serviceable chronology, but that is about it. One of the century’s premier political writers deserves better.

Matisse, Picasso, Miró As I Knew Them, by Rosamond Bernier. Knopf $50

The author, cofounder of the art review L’Oeil, who came to know Matisse, Picasso, and Miró during the 1940’s, has written a beautiful, nostalgic, and sympathetic series of reminiscences about these great masters. She writes with a spare elegance and deft touch, noting things in the everyday world that delighted her painter friends. Her appreciations of art are often sensitive and acute, and her quotations will surely be of considerable interest to students and devotees of modern art. Exquisitely designed, Bernier’s book is filled with breath-taking illustrations, many in color.

Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, by Norman F. Cantor. Morrow $27

A well-researched, spirited, often entertaining account of the intellectual and to a lesser extent personal ventures of a number of remarkable scholars, whose diverse and sometimes divergent reconstructions, interpretations, and appreciations of various moments and aspects of the Middle Ages have shaped our understanding of that era. Among the personalities discussed (often critically) are Frederic William Maitland, Marc Bloch, Ernst Kantorowicz, Erwin Panowski, Charles Haskins, Eileen Power, Richard Southern, David Knowles; but numerous other writers, of comparable or lesser significance, are also presented and discussed, in an always lively and often controversial fashion.

An American Engineer in Stalin’s Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932—1934, with an introduction by Michael Gelb. California $29.95

As bizarre as it seems today, in the 1920’s and 1930’s thousands of Americans went to Soviet Russia to participate in Stalin’s great social experiment. Zara Witkin, a California civil engineer, was one of the starstruck young people—quite literally, because he was attracted more by a Soviet film actress’s screen presence than by Stalin’s ideas. He worked for three years building Soviet power, had a fling with his actress, and came away profoundly disillusioned. This is an interesting account from an unusual perspective.

William Gerhardie: A Biography, by Dido Davies. Oxford $55

Few people today recognize the name, yet William Gerhardie walked with the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Mansfield, H.G. Wells, and Edith Wharton, all of whom praised his genius as a writer. That Gerhardie’s reputation faded so quickly may attest to the topicality of that genius, yet even modern readers will be shocked and delighted by such novels as The Polyglots and Resurrection, and God’s Fifth Column is a masterful memoir. Gerhardie merits a sympathetic biographer, and in Dido Davies he has found one.

Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by August Heckscher. Scribner’s $35

A thoroughly researched, well-written account of Wilson’s complex and often tormented existence, which strikes a correct balance between the chief aspects of the man’s life: the personal aspect (with reference to his family background, his development, his two marriages), the professional aspect (the scholar and the college president), the political aspect (the governor of New Jersey, the president, and the would-be architect of a new world order). The biographer has put to excellent use his command of an impressive body of primary and secondary sources and given us what is likely to count as the biography of Wilson for a generation.

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Vol. 4, 1908—1911, edited by Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge $69.50

An indispensable link of Conradiana, this volume documents a very important part of Joseph Conrad’s life and literary career. The letters presented center on two subjects: overstrain in writing (with a nervous breakdown as a result) and work over Under Western Eyes. The “Russianness” of this novel and Russia as a subject of Conrad’s art and thought are illuminated on the basis of first-hand information. The edition in progress will eventually bring Conradian studies to a new stage.

Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, by Richard Powell. Rizzoli $45

This impressive biographical study centers on the notable works of the African-American painter William H. Johnson. Born in Florence, South Carolina, Johnson (1901—1970) lived in Paris, Norway, and Denmark for a number of years. Then, in 1938, he returned to New York with his Danish wife. The book’s color plates superbly detail die stages of Johnson’s works (ranging from European expressionism to vibrant and colorful narratives), and the text corrects several mythical stories surrounding Johnson’s arduous life.

Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livemore Abbot, edited by Robert Garth Scott. Kent State $27

“If I don’t have the luck to come back with the army, goodbye to you and all the rest.” Thus Abbot wrote to his father on Jan. 19, 1863, little more than a year before his death at the Battle of the Wilderness, where he died in command of his Union regiment. The book will be essential reading for scholars of the Civil War and non-specialists alike, for it presents a vivid sense of the war—from quotidian concerns (“the boots got here safely”) to the euphoria of victory (“we whipped them everywhere”), to the final words (“we shall take the field. . . .”).

FICTIONTwo Lives, by William Trevor. Viking $21.95

Brilliant tales of two women who lead tragic lives worlds apart. Both are victims, both survivors after a fashion, Mary Louise Dallon in a corner of Ireland where lives are crippled by small meannesses and unfulfilled love; “Mrs. Delahunty,” who is English, in an Italy that is gentler; but no one escapes his fate there either. Trevor’s insight and compassion are deep; but his characters, fully alive from the first deceptively simple sentences, tell their own stories, reveal their own flaws, while the author himself stands aside, silent, invisible. A score of novels and story collections later, Trevor remains one of the supreme masters of the art of fiction in our time.

The Loser, by Thomas Bernhard. Knopf $19

This “relentless inner monologue,” as Mark A. Anderson characterizes the novel in an “Afterword,” is typical of Bernhard’s difficult, hypnotic, and compelling work. It is a fictionalized biography of the Canadian pianist Glen Gould, onto which Bernhard—one of Europe’s most eloquent writers—grafts details from his own life and, as always, obsessions, which include death, suicide, self-identity, the nature of truth, artistic creativity, and existence. The prose also is obsessive, with the elliptical repetitions and looping sentences which double back on one another while at the same time propelling the reader forward on their beautiful cadences. Bernhard’s characters (Bernhard himself, in the minds of his numerous hostile critics) are slightly off center, spectators in society who observe human nature from a distance with an ironic eye. Bernhard’s work is iconoclastic, corrosive, and frequently very funny; one feels slightly soiled after reading him.

The Incas, by Daniel Peters. Random House $25

This is a big book in scope as well as in length (more than 1,000 pages, in small type, on a large page with narrow margins). It is an historical novel that deals in authentic detail with the tragic defeat of the Incas by their Spanish conquerors in 1530. For assistance in traversing this exciting travelogue, the author thoughtfully provides maps and a genealogy as well as a glossary of gods, characters, tribes, and places. The patient reader will be amply rewarded because the volume more than lives up to its romantic subtitle—”A magical epic about a lost world.” Indeed, one will thereafter be induced to read the author’s two previously published companion books, The Luck of Huemac (dealing with the Aztecs) and Tikal (about the Maya). What is truly remarkable is that this successful writer is an amateur scholar and neither an academic nor a professional historian. Bravo!

TV Safe, by Jim Stinson. Scribners $19.95

This is a gentle romp through television land in which, like prime-time TV fare, nothing seems real. The murders seem done with dummies and catsup, the emotions are counterfeit coin, and the threats and bullying are sheer bluff. All that said, the story has a certain charm. Stoney Winston is a Hollywood hanger-on, a man who for more years than he can count has been a gofer, a junior writer, or whatever, just so he could be near the action. His latest gig is as a gag writer on a quiz show, but he gets fired from even this job not far into the story. Fortunately, the program director hires him to find out how one of the contestants is cheating, and when the trail points to the star of the show—a blonde who is clearly out to lunch even by television standards—Stoney proves himself a much better detective than writer. Then again, that’s not saying much.

The Best of the West, edited by James Thomas and Denise Thomas. Norton $9.95

This is the fourth annual anthology of a delightful collection of short stories dealing with the West, which is not only a geographical designation but more importantly also a state of mind. The excellent selection of the editors will be enjoyed not only by those of us who have lived beyond the wide Missouri but also by urban dwellers in the East who may now be tempted to visit that part of the nation where values differ so much from those where they live. American cowboys, for example, have always been more interested in the character that lies within a man than the clothes that he wears on the outside.

Daughters, by Paule Marshall. Atheneum $19.95

Paule Marshall has always been that most unappreciated of contemporary American writers—a storyteller. Style, in Marshall’s work, is not promoted at the expense of character or plot. She creates people who matter, faced with choices which matter. Here, as in Praisesong for the Widow, her people live and make their choices in the equally exotic worlds of New York and the Caribbean. Pulled between these two magnetic poles is Ursa Mackenzie, daughter of an American-born mother and the charismatic island politician, Primus Mackenzie. Ursa must choose between career and family, dependence and independence, America and Triunion. This is evocative, stirring, physical writing, as befits a storyteller. Marshall knows that to involve our senses is to involve our minds and hearts.

Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture, edited by Jack Zipes. Viking $30

When we think of fairy tales we think primarily of the brothers Grimm, of Hans Christian Andersen or, perhaps, of the classic collections of Andrew Lang. This is, however, a different sort of book. Compiled by a noted specialist in the field, it includes examples that range from antiquity (the enchanting tale of Cupid and Psyche by Apuleus) through contemporary fiction (notably Michel Tournier, Angela Carter, and Robert Coover). Overflowing from this wondrous cornucopia of magical fiction are offerings by Voltaire and Goethe, Hawthorne and Yeats, Apollinaire and Thurber, Calvino and Meckel. An anthology to be treasured.

Easeful Death, by Ralph McInerny. Atheneum $19.95

The suicide of a vagrant enables washed-up poet Howard Webster to assume the man’s identity and flee to Sardinia while the literary world discovers Webster’s genius posthumously. After two years of isolation Webster walks into a barbershop to find himself on a magazine cover and “his” novella number one on the best-seller list. The poet returns to find that his daughter has tried to bury his reputation by creating a foundation, but the interest rekindled in his work has swelled the organization’s coffers. With all that money, Webster has no way to get to it. This black tale of greed and revenge is funnier than it ought to be, with more plot changes than a pinball machine. Best of all is McInerny’s take on the literary world, which, like the surgeon’s scalpel, is executed with grace and precision, but still draws blood.

The Half Man, by George Packer. Random House $20

A Yale graduate who currently teaches English at Harvard has capitalized on his previous experience as a Peace Corps volunteer to write his first novel. Set in Asia (Sri Lanka?), it is the stirring story of an idealistic young American journalist who goes to the Third World country to cover the big story of a post-Cold War revolution. He has a personal emotional breakdown in a nation suffering from a parallel breakdown of chaos and despair in its economy and culture. The success of this troubling tale should encourage the author to write a sequel.

Rostnikov’s Vacation, by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Scribner’s $19.95

The murky and constantly shifting moral ground of contemporary Russia is a perfect background for Kaminsky’s detective Porfiry Rostnikov. In the past, Rostnikov patiently and painfully labored to squeeze a rough kind of justice from a system that was based on lies and distortions. Now, with few even paying lip service to the old pieties, the pure knight Rostnikov and his band of merry men stand in even greater relief against the gray, sordid backdrop of the new Russia. Once again Kaminsky approaches his subject by indirection, combining investigations of murder, computer thievery, and the underground youth culture with a believable plot to assassinate Gorbachev and reverse the tide of political change swirling about the nearly defunct Soviet Union. For mystery fans interested in those changes, it’s almost as good as being there.

New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 1991, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Algonquin $9.95

It isn’t quite the South you want your Northern or Midwestern friends to think you live in—too many protagonists work at Food Lion—but it’s a South you can recognize, and besides these stories are terrific. (One is even from the VQR.) So buy the book, read it, and—let ‘em laugh—put it in your guest room anyway.

Jump, by Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $20

A young girl, as refugee fleeing home across a game preserve, endures a killing trek. She is divested of possessions, family, identity. The author bills her sojourn as “The Ultimate Safari.” Having seduced and impregnated his wife-to-be, an Arab student sends her to meet his family accompanied only by her unborn child and a bomb, which destroys in midflight the jet she boards. A wealthy suburbanite finds his own son impaled on the razor edged wire circling his intruder-free enclave. The ironies are stark, but not so ponderous as to insult the reader. Not since Alan Paton has a white South African written so powerfully of life at the base of the globe. Gordimer shocks us, sometimes with microfine detail, just as often with a blinding clarity. This collection of stories fits a pattern the new Nobel laureate has led us to expect: parables often, but never preachments.

Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen. Harper Collins $20

A beautiful young girl defies her family to enter the cloistered world of a nunnery. She displays extraordinary devotion; her piety seems almost passionate. In time the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, appear on her hands. The convent turns upon her in disbelief. Seventeenth-century Italy? A backward mountain village in prerevolutionary Mexico? Neither. The story is set in 20th-century America, and the time and place—upstate New York—make it that much more intriguing. Hansen’s delicate treatment of the idea of religious rapture, an idea that seems curious or even perverse to today’s reader, takes us beyond skeptical rejection and makes this unlikely tale very accessible. He creates the cloistered world and allows us, ever so quietly, to peek within. We do not solve the mystery, but he helps us discover its spiritual power.

The Sun Maiden, by Erika Taylor. Atheneum $19.95

Erika Taylor’s debut novel is the careening, funny, irreverent, and moving story of J.O. Warren’s adventures while trying to summon up the strength to introduce herself to the father who abandoned her while she was still an infant. Entertaining readers while they wait for the momentous confrontation are Mr. Saul, inventor, designer, and sole supporter of the Car of the Future; Samantha, J.O.’s actor-roommate who is in love with The Messiah; Smeg (aka Andy), a virgin with a rat named Fear; Rafi, an Israeli with a Zen-like appreciation for .357 Magnums; and partner, Monk, a baby-skinned tough guy with a distressing notion about the origin of feminine prophecy. This is an offbeat tale by a talented young writer.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRSScandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, by Suzanne Garment. Times Books $23

A smoothly written, humane, and altogether loopy attack on journalists, officials, and “public interest” lobbyists who investigate corruption in Washington. Ms. Garment admirably catalogues the excesses visited upon public notables by those who would get to the bottom of this and that. However, as she zeroes in on “post-Watergate” legislation as a root cause for today’s acrimony, she cannot bring herself to criticize President Nixon for anything. That’s typical of Scandal’s topsy-turvy perspective on recent national history.

The Vietnam War and American Culture, edited by John Carlos Rowe and Richard Berg. Columbia $34.50

In 1898 William Graham Summer wrote of “the conquest of the United States by Spain.” The effects of Vietnam are trauma and dehumanization. Making use of the methods of cultural criticism, the authors examine the ways in which the mass media have shaped American attitudes toward Vietnam and the Vietnam people. Running through the book is the recurrent theme that when Americans failed to sell American democracy to the Vietnamese, we set out to sell Vietnam to America. From music to poetry and toys to comic books, Vietnam has come to signify various symbols in American culture: a syndrome, a commodity, a succession of films, an unavoidable word, a portrait of violence and war wounds. Even Vietnam studies are corrupted by a flawed strategic vision. We went to Vietnam, we are told, to acquire a sphere of influence, not to gain raw materials or new commercial markets. We were playing the “imaginary” game of European balance of power politics. We were creating a new form of colonialism. It debased us and robbed us of identity and values. If some of the cultural insights of contributors such as Chomsky and Rowe appear valid, the same cannot be said of their political analysis. It was because the policy planners lacked a strategic vision, not that they had one, that U.S. policy foundered. If one were to grade the volume from the standpoint of an understanding of international politics, that grade would not match the one for its cultural criticism.

Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? by Molly Ivins. Random House $23

Molly Ivins has the kind of job that the rest of us can only dream about—telling the people she sees every day what she really thinks about them and getting paid for it. Explaining her early days at the Texas Observer, a liberal magazine, Ivins writes that she would “denounce some sorry sum-bitch in the Lege (legislature) as an egg-suckin’ child-molester who ran on all fours and had the brains of an adolescent pissant” and prepare to be “horsewhipped at the least.” But all that would happen was that she’d see the subject of her political commentary the next day and “he’d beam, spread his arms, and say “Baby! Yew put mah name in yore paper!”” Who could resist working in a place like that? Certainly not Ivins, who found Texas more to her liking than working for the New York Times, which fired her for describing a community chicken-killing festival as “a gangpluck.” This collection of Ivins’ magazine columns is not for everyone. But for those who revel in the sweet hiss of air escaping from punctured politicians, it’s pure pleasure.

In the Name of Democracy, by Thomas Carothers. California $29.95

This overview of the Reagan administration’s Latin American policy develops a contentious thesis: that the democratic turn of Latin authoritarian regimes toward democracy actually had little to do with Washington, which offered these countries little but rhetoric to back their transitions. Centered largely around the Central American crisis, this book will find many readers among Reagan critics, but it leaves the scholar with many unanswered questions and few sound answers.

Iron Curtain Rising, by Peter Laufer. Mercury House $19.50

Drawing on visits to Eastern Europe before, during, and after 1989, Laufer illustrates the contradiction between the idealism of the revolutions there and the unresolved burdens of the past. While these societies convincingly rejected Communist rule, they could not eradicate its effects overnight, nor could they long avoid the reappearance of ethnic intolerance and nationalism. Although clearly not an East European expert, Laufer applies his journalistic tenacity and personal observations to this very newsworthy subject. He cites a wealth of evidence which bolsters his central theme, focusing particularly on the revolution and subsequent unification of Germany. His treatment of ethnic strife in Yugoslavia, Slovak separatism, and ethnic Hungarians in Romania demonstrates that while the Iron Curtain has risen, threatening clouds still lurk over Eastern Europe. Though overly pessimistic and superficial in places, Laufer’s work contributes to our understanding of the ominous signals currently emanating from Eastern Europe.

The Cold War as Cooperation, edited by Roger E. Kanet and Edward Kolodziej. Johns Hopkins $48.50

At a time when we ponder weighty questions like the concept of a New World Order, this book argues that the foundations of greater Soviet-U.S. cooperation were actually laid during the Cold War. The authors in this edited volume examine regional crises (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Central and South America, Asia) and see “cooperation” limited to “convergent superpower acceptance of results, conditions, rules, and precedents” that arose from their rivalry. This book will arouse controversy over whether a regime of rules and precedents governed their moderation, or whether it was actually the result of prudence.

America Recommitted: United States National Interests in a Restructured World, by Donald E. Nuechterlein. Kentucky $28

Six years ago this author’s book, America Overcommitted, put forward the thesis that the United States had assumed more of the responsibility for world order than it could successfully manage. The present book looks at the events in international relations since the spring of 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, through the momentous changes in Eastern Europe since then, through the stop-start developments in the Soviet Union, to the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq in August of 1990. Laying out a frame for measuring what he calls the National Interest Matrix, Nuechterlein assesses the recent actions of the United States in a textbookish but highly readable manner and finds the country equal to the challenges it faces.

Just Doctoring: Medical Ethics in the Liberal State, by Troyen A. Brennan. California $34.95

Recent debate in biomedical ethical theory has reflected currents in moral philosophy generally. Are there identifiable foundations for ethics, and if so, what might they be? Should ethics in medicine follow the requirements of a single coherent theory, or should we consult a looser decison-making process according to principles drawn from several theories? Should casuistry be revived as a workable decision-making procedure? Troyen Brennan attempts to situate these debates in their practical context of medical practice in our liberal state. Recognizing the importance of autonomy and beneficence in the physican-patient relationship, Brennan contends that we must pay closer attention to questions of justice, since physicians are compelled to practice medicine with ever increasing attention to the legal and moral aspects of their actions. The first three chapters are devoted to a description of the liberal state and how medicine must function within it. The political philosophy is a bit thin, but given the task of the book it is quite adequate. Having set the boundaries of medical practice in a liberal state, Brennan proceeds to discuss such topics as informed consent, quality in health care, rationing, AIDS, and the economics and politics of health care. This is a fine book deserving the widest possible audience. For specialists in biomedical ethics, this book will generate much discussion.

Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, by Michael Kammen. Knopf $40

“The mystic chords of memory” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our culture.” In his spacious, encyclopedic survey from the late 19th century to the present, Kammen traces American collective memory and patriotism, ranging over a vast array of materials—national holidays, collecting of Americana, historical memorials, etc. Lincoln himself has been a subject of “enduring veneration,” but the places in and around Springfield, Illinois, long called “Lincoln shrines,” are now referred to as “sites.” Where have our better angels flown?

Three Blind Mice, by Ken Auletta. Random House $25.

A favorite image of photojournalists of the Vietnam era shows Lyndon Johnson firmly planted in the oval office, striking an expectant pose among three TV sets. There is little doubt that the objects of LBJ’s attention are CBS, ABC, and NEC, the network news sources for the first “living room war.” A parallel photo from the Persian Gulf War might feature George Bush in a similar setting, but his point-of-view would focus upon a single screen showing not the networks but CNN—the international upstart that scooped “the Nets” in coverage of the Gulf conflict. The time frame between Bush and LBJ marked the decline of the networks and the rise of cable, Fox, HBO, PBS, and VCRs. The same period saw the end of network dominance over TV programming that existed from the popular inception of TV in the 1950’s until the mid 1970’s. Journalist and political commentator

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