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Notes on Current Books, Spring 1999

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

This is the fullest and most detailed account ever of Washington’s 45-year-long campaign to build and perfect Mount Vernon. By tracing Washington’s role as chief architect and planner of the work done at Mount Vernon, the authors introduce a Washington little known to either his contemporaries or subsequent historians. More than anywhere else, Mount Vernon was the place where Washington’s public and private lives intersected, and the authors convincingly discuss how Washington’s two major reconstructions of Mount Vernon reflect his maturing hopes for the future of American society. It is especially enlightening to see in these reconstructions how Washington blended scores of innovative ideas and techniques with the orthodoxy derived from his initial acceptance of the current models of fashionable taste. This interesting and gracefully written book, enhanced by more than 80 illustrations, is one of the best books to appear on Washington in many years.

England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399—1422, by Paul Strohm. Yale $35

The pressing problem for Henry IV, who came to power under the shadow of deposition and murder, was to establish a legitimate basis for his claim to the throne. In the face of baronial revolt, popular uprising, Welsh rebellion, Lollard opposition, and parliamentary restraint, Lancastrian apologists strove to justify and defend, often by deliberate falsification, the legal and hereditary right of the new dynasty. Leaving the misleading title of the book aside, Strohm’s intention is to investigate some of the images and symbols of the documentary material up to the death of Henry V. The result is a group of impressionistic essays which raise once again the familiar interpretative questions with regard to the constitutional struggle. The argument, however, is closed in by such dense thickets of “modernistic” prose in which “textuality” is paramount, that the important historical lessons which could be learned from this kind of survey are largely lost to view.

France in the Enlightenment, by Daniel Roche. Harvard $39.95

France in the 18th century was one of the world’s most exciting and unsettling cultures. Roche brilliantly describes the turmoil of a society on the verge of Revolution, and documents the way people viewed, worked with and worked against the institutions of the Old Regime. Filled with fascinating detail, this “panorama of a whole civilization” opens up new areas of research as it moves the reader through the various institutions which finally clashed in 1789. Written with elegance and authority (and ably translated by Arthur Goldhammer), this book is destined to become one of the standard studies of 18th-century France.

Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, by Don Herzog. Princeton $29.95

With biting, contemporary wit, Herzog, who teaches law and political theory at the University of Michigan, takes us on a tour of the social and political world of Britain between the outbreak of the French Revolution to the passing of the second poor bill (1789—1834). His purpose is to investigate how the lower orders attained a semblance of dignity and political agency in the face of such elitist outlooks as “the children of the poor should not be educated in a manner to elevate their minds above the rank they were destined to fill in society.” He begins with Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution whose excesses the latter sees as proof that educating the lower orders was “dangerous.” Burke feared that the “swinish multitude” once getting wind of the French Enlightenment, and Voltaire’s attacks on intolerance, corruption, hypocrisy, and abuses of power in church and state, would become skeptics of their own society. As newspapers became more available, discussions in coffeehouses and debates in alehouses more common still, an irrational rabble could threaten the reins of power held by aristocrats and the wealthy, whose status quo must be preserved. Conservatism, Herzog argues, was in direct opposition to democratic politics.

A New South Rebellion. The Battle Against Convict Labor in Rebellion: 1871—1896, by Karin A. Shapiro. North Carolina $55 cloth, $22.50 paper

In the postbellum South, many states leased convicts to private companies as a means of providing cheap labor for the growth of fledgling industries while adding funds to the state coffers. Integrating social and political history, Karin Shapiro offers the story of convict mining in late 19th-century Tennessee and the so-called “convict wars” it provoked between the state, mining companies, and free workers, who primarily relied on political negotiation and organization as a means of removing the system—which kept their wages artificially low and gave their employers enormous leverage against worker discontent—from their midst. Shapiro’s narrative takes us through the grinding development of postwar Southern industry, the injustice, paternalism, and racism of Tennessee’s criminal justice system, and the short-lived but important influence of the Populist party, whose rhetoric against large concentrations of power and wealth resonated deeply with Tennessee’s free coal miners. Ultimately, in 1890 the Populists garnered enough political power in Tennessee to give miners hope that the lease for convict labor between the state and the coal companies would be terminated. When the Populists failed to take such action, miners occasionally turned to armed revolt as a means of exerting control over their workplace environment. That the use of convict labor continued until the lease ran out in 1895 speaks to the weakness of labor in the South and the United States generally in the late 19th century and to the tragic consequences of the convict-lease system for the mostly African-American prison population who bore its brunt.

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, by Ira Berlin. Harvard $29.95

What Ira Berlin has written should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of slavery in North America, the first two centuries of what was to become the United States, and in race relations today. In this remarkable work the author explores in detail the various forms that slavery took over the first two centuries of European and African settlement in North America. He examines the differences between what began as dependent labor and ended being the horrible and reprehensible institution of slavery in America. Mr. Berlin explains that slavery was not always only about transplanted Africans living in the deep South working in tin-cotton fields for their entire lives at the total mercy of the white slaveholders. Slavery had its beginnings in a much different form than it ended and the author elucidates its early stages in vivid detail and clarity that not only allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the subject, but instills the desire to learn more.

Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age, by David M. Tucker. Missouri $27.50

An Algonquian word for “chief” or “great leader,” mugwump refers to a group of reformers active in American politics in the decades after the Civil War. Disdaining the partisan, money-grubbing, and corrupt practitioners of politics, especially those associated with the Grant administration, these reformers advocated free trade, civil service reform, sound money economics, and anti-imperialism. To each cause they brought to bear a shared conviction in the political economy and moral philosophy commonly taught in 19th-century colleges. As students, they absorbed the teaching of such men as Francis Wayland and John Stuart Mill, a dedication to individual liberty, and a fear of expansive government. This revaluation challenges earlier interpretations that argued that these reformers agitated for change only to secure for themselves influence that they believed had passed to other, less-qualified leaders. Tucker argues, by contrast, that these men were what they said they were: public moralists. They combined a genuine interest in public morality with a commitment to service. Often ridiculed and dismissed by historians, Tucker forces a reexamination of this distinguished and ultimately successful group of political reformers.

Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s, edited by John Earl Haynes. New England $50

The dozen essays collected here survey the decade presided over by Silent Cal, president from 1923 when Warren Harding died, to 1929 when Herbert Hoover assumed his ill-fated presidency. Coolidge has most often suffered the ridicule of historians and comedians for his laconic New England style. Three essays tear away the stereotype to explore this complicated man who, despite his off-putting style, managed to secure an overwhelming reelection in 1924. The remaining essays explore the culture, politics, and economics of 1920’s society, a decade squeezed between the Great War and the Depression. Women, immigrants, and such key components of popular culture as movies receive fresh attention. Two essays explore the implications for the United States as it emerged a preeminent power after World War I. The collection of essays offers a timely evaluation of a critical period in modern American history.

Sugar and Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837-1959, by Oscar Zanetti and Alejandro Garcia. North Carolina $59.95

Cuba was the one Caribbean economy to develop a substantial railroad industry. The authors use the development of the railroad and its close connections to the sugar staple to elucidate connections between capitalism and the state in the pre-Revolutionary era.

The Victors. Elsenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster $28

This volume consists of excerpts from Ambrose’s other works on World War II, bridged by small sections of additional narrative. A shameless marketing ploy by the publishers, to be sure; but Ambrose gets away with it. Ambrose’s earthy prose is always readable; and his empathy for the common soldier, combined with his genius for the techniques of oral history, has made his books memorable and justifiably popular. Those who have already read Ambrose’s other books will find nothing new in The Victors, except perhaps a more concisely stated argument for the merits of soldiers of democracy. Readers unfamiliar with D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, or Pegasus Bridge, on the other hand, will be encouraged to buy them; which is probably what the publishers had in mind.

The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire 1783—1829, by James E. Lewis, Jr. North Carolina $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

In this very well-written and researched offering, the author has provided a fascinating account of the first four decades of the United States and the challenges it faced from not only its own independence but the independence of the neighboring states emerging from Spanish colonization. As Lewis explains, during this period the people of the United States were in the process of determining what form their new nation would take. Added to the complexities of deciding the physical extent to which the nation should expand and what form of relationship the states would share was the prospect that with the dissolution of the Spanish empire many new sovereign states, with uncertain dispositions, would be forming on and near the newly won borders. Lewis has made an important and informative contribution.

Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock, by John D. Seelye. North Carolina $39.95

With great wit and massive research, John Seelye presents the history of that great touchstone of American values. In the grand tradition of Michael Kammen, he examines the shifting symbolism of a monumental icon from the 18th to early 20th centuries, relying on extensive use of graphic images, speeches, sermons, drama, and fiction. Seelye shows how and why the meaning of the Pilgrims and their supposed landing place changed over successive generations, as various social, political, and religious groups, including the Sons of Liberty, antebellum abolitionists, and anti-immigration conservatives of the 1920’s, invoked in behalf of their own causes, and sometimes conflicting ideologies, Plymouth Rock as the concrete manifestation of the Pilgrim legacy. By a close reading of the New England graffiti, in particular, inscribed on the blank slate of this granite boulder, Seelye shows how that region successfully asserted its cultural dominance and moral imperatives in American history and national identity.

The Last Dinosaur Book, by W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago $35

Written by a University of Chicago cultural historian, The Last Dinosaur Book is an original attempt to evaluate the history of the dinosaur image in American society since its first appearance in the 19th century. From Thomas Jefferson to Steven Spielberg, the dinosaur has captured the imagination of large portions of American society, becoming in the process what Mitchell terms “the totem animal of modernity.” For anyone who wonders why they loved dinosaurs as a child (or still remain fascinated by them), to those who want to find out why these creatures continue to feature so prominently in American popular culture, Mitchell’s brilliant book is the place to look for answers.

The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography, by Louis A. Pérez. North Carolina $16.95

In this masterfully constructed synthesis of 100 years of historiography on the War of 1898, Louis A. Pérez demonstrates how U.S. policymakers and historians have continually rendered the Cubans as insignificant actors in their own history. This is most explicitly exemplified in the christening of the war as the “Spanish-American War.” By consulting Cuban archives and historiography he rectifies this situation and illustrates the central role Cubans exercised in their liberation from Spain and reinterprets their exclusion from the subsequent negotiation process.

In so doing, he challenges the arguments posited in this “hegemonic historiography” regarding the explosion of the Maine, U.S. entry into the war, and U.S. motives and policy. He argues that, indeed, imperialistic strategic and commercial interests, not humanitarian sentiment and idealism, were at the heart of U.S. policy. At a time of Helms-Burton when Cuba and Castro continue to cause concern in U.S. minds, Pérez beautifully captures the Cuban memory of the events of 100 years ago and offers an understanding of Cuban-U.S. relations from which we might all benefit.

America 1900: The Turning Point, by Judy Chrichton. Henry Holt $29.95

This companion volume to the PBS video series is a panoramic photograph of America in the final year of the 19th century. Documentary writer and producer Chrichton introduces the seedlings that matured into the cultural landscape of 20th-century America. The labor unrest preceding the union movement, the elimination of black civil rights that exploded 60 years later in the struggle to regain those lost lights, the hard-driving election campaign that brought to office the doomed McKinley and his youthful, energetic, trust-busting successor Theodore Roosevelt, are all here as are the Galveston flood, the Boxer Rebellion, the Paris Exposition, the creation of U.S. Steel, the Philippine war, and the Springfield mine disaster. It was an exciting year and Chrichton has assembled a broad overview of the issues and events that made it so. For those wishing to pursue any story in depth, there is a chapter on sources and notes.

The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy, by Maria Susan Stone. Princeton $55

This is a detailed historical account of state patronage of art and culture (both “high” and “mass”) during the Fascist regime in Italy. Recent interdisciplinary work on the intersection of art, museums, politics and mass markets has challenged the post-World-War-II notion that artistic modernisms have always been progressive and/or anti-bourgeois. As The Patron Slate shows, though the Nazis pilloried modern art, modernists elsewhere were used by, and found ways to make use of, totalitarian regimes. Stone portrays Fascist cultural policies as flexible and opportunistic, and “the art produced in Italy between the world wars” as “occupy[ing] a space between concurrence with and rejection of Fascism’s ideological and rhetorical imperatives.”

LITERARY STUDIESIdeologies of History in the Spanish Golden Age, by Anthony J. Cascardi. Perm State $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper

For more than a decade Cascardi has been looking at Spanish Golden Age literature (16th and 17th centuries) from a historicist perspective, and the volume under consideration here brings together ten studies, most of them previously seen in slightly different versions. Cascardi’s goal is to “historicize a category” (Golden Age) which is, he states, normally viewed in aesthetic terms. Although slightly exaggerated, the claim nonetheless points us toward a fresh— postmodern—view of the literature of “early modern Spain” which allows us to draw new conclusions about texts we thought we knew well. The author reads Cervantes, Tirso, Calderón, Garcilaso and others from outside their texts, marking ways in which those texts are not (exclusively) aesthetic, but also social, constructs. “Power,” “desire,” “authority,” “subjectivity,” and “marginal social” types all figure prominently in Cascardi’s analyses of some of Spain’s most beloved and revered authors.

Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Em of American Literary Realism, by Thomas Peyser. Duke $49.95 cloth, $17.95 paper

This book is an example of contemporary criticism at its best. Though it looks at literature in an economic, political, and sociological framework, it is not narrow or reductive in its vision, but rather takes an expansive view of its wide-ranging subject matter. Instead of shutting down enquiry with pat and predetermined answers, Peyser genuinely explores the works he discusses, raising new questions about familiar texts and shedding fresh light on them by juxtaposing them with obscure and long neglected works of American literature. The book focuses on the writings of Edward Bellamy, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Dean Howells, and Henry James, but it views them in the larger context of the beginning of what has come to be known as the American century. Peyser brilliantly demonstrates that as early as the end of the 19th century, authors as different as Bellamy and James were already dealing with issues of globalization and Americanization in ways that foreshadow and illuminate contemporary debates on these vexed issues. Finally, and most impressively, though theoretically informed, Peyser avoids the turgid jargon of much contemporary criticism; he writes elegantly and eloquently, with a crystalline clarity to both his prose and his reasoning.

The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson. Houghton Mifflin $24

The author of the widely read novel, Housekeeping, has gathered a number of dove-tailing essays on what she calls “modern thought.” Hers is a fierce, biting polemic against some of the principal figures of such thought, especially Nietzsche and Freud, whose influences have been especially harmful, she believes, to our civilization. She is deeply troubled by the fact that a shallow nostalgia has replaced history. For Ms. Robinson “civilization is the ecology being lost.” Her view is grim, but justifiably so, and her lucid, forceful position must be seriously considered.

Modernism’s History, by Bernard Smith. Yale $40

As the author shrewdly observes with trenchant brevity, “Modernisms are critiques of Modernity.” The various currents of modern art, literature, and thought are, in general, in an agnostic relationship to the culture of the present; hence, the avant-garde, which sees a better future. This richly synthetic book, both learned and provocative, takes a broad view of the various “Modernisms” in the story of art. The author concludes in our own post-modern moment that postmodernism is the mask which 20th-century modernism adopted in its struggle with the formalism institutionalized between 1945 and 1960, what he calls the Formalesque.

Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship, by Nancy Ruttenburg. Stanford $19.95

This magisterial book puts forward the thesis that the process of democratization occurred historically on the microlevel of the individual, not on the level of the nation state. It begins by examining the rise of democratic character in colonial America within two “aberrant” social spaces, those of the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692 and the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. The book then moves to analyses of various literary manifestations of the desire to establish a national democratic character, including Brown’s Wieland (1798), Crevècoeur’s Letters and the writings of Cooper, Whitman, Emerson, and Melville. A stunning interpretation of American democratic culture in its full complexity.

Prospero’s Mirror: A Translators’ Portfolio of Latin American Short Fiction, edited by Ilan Stavans. Curbstone $17.95

This is a terrific idea, executed with flair and passion by a host of skilled translators. Each translator was asked to select a favorite piece of Latin American fiction and provide a facing-page Spanish/English translation for this book. The results will delight anyone interested in the writing of some of our best Latin American authors. Helen R. Lane translates Luisa Valenzuela, Suzanne Jill Levine translates Silvina Ocampo, Edith Grossman translates Augusto Monterroso, Gregory Rabassa translates Dalton Trevisan, Alfred J. MacAdam translates Felisberto Hernández, and so on. Each piece (16 in all) is preceded by a short dual bio of the translator and the author. Ilan Stavans provides a thoughtful essay on “Translation and Identity” as an introduction, and Margaret Sayers Peden’s epilogue praises the collection’s novel idea, “a collection shaped by translators.” All royalties are being donated to the PEN American Center to aid translators.

The Adventures of David Simple and Volume the Last, by Sarah Fielding, edited by Pete)- Sabor. Kentucky $45 cloth, $16.95 paper

This important edition reproduces for the first time since its original publication the first edition of 1744. The second edition (also 1744) contained numerous orthographic, grammatical, and stylistic revisions by the author’s famous brother, the novelist Henry Fielding. Though these changes were made with Sarah’s approval, Sabor rightly questions whether Henry was motivated less by a desire for accuracy than by a desire to “shape his sister’s novel into one reflecting his own concept of fiction.” Henry’s changes, as well as his preface to the second edition, are now relegated to a helpful appendix. Sabor’s informative and critically important introduction provides more than biographical context—it corrects various misconceptions and inaccuracies about Fielding’s life and career and highlights her enormous contribution to the English novel. After two centuries of neglect, Fielding’s works are now more widely read by students of the novel and of women’s literature. Fine editions such as this one of Fielding’s first novel assure that this process will continue.

Southern Selves: From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons, edited with an introduction by James H. Watkins. Vintage $14

In this volume, James Watkins has collected 31 excerpts from 19th- and 20th-century Southern authors writing autobiographically. Dedicated to reflecting the diversity of Southern experiences, Watkins includes pieces from a wide geographic area and from men and women, whites and blacks, rich and poor, free and slave. Many of the exceipts will be familiar to readers of Southern literature, whether they be from the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs or the planter’s son’s recollections of William Alexander Percy, from the antisegregationist Lillian Smith or Richard Wright’s searing portrait of life under Jim Crow. Others are new, such as Kaye Gibbons’ previously unpublished essay, “The First Grade, Jesus, mid the Hollyberry Family.” Even for the initiated, however, the juxtaposition of these materials will surely lead readers to see familiar pieces in a new light, as we are reminded that Southerners have often lived with ambivalent and divergent thoughts on the region of their birth.

The Derrida reader: Writing Performance, edited by Julian Wolfreys. Nebraska $65 cloth, $25 paper

Wolfreys, in his introduction, informs us that the definitive article “The” in his title docs not demand that his book be the definitive collection of Derrida’s work. In typical Derridaean fashion, Wolfrey’s insists that we find another way of reading the title: The Derrida Reader: Writing Performances. So begins our topsy-turvy journey into the discursive idiosyncracies of Jacques Derrida. The compilation, though eclectic, manages to pull through a constant theme: Derrida s concern with the literary act. Wolfrey’s introduction is enjoyable and informative; his selection of Derrida’s translated work is comprehensive. This book is an excellent collection of Derrida as “radical rhetorician” as well as a welcome edition to the corpus of Derrida “readers.”

Spanish Medieval Epic: Mythic Roots and Ritual Language, by Thomas Montgomery. Penn State $42.50

The Spanish epic, once at the very center of literary production, has fallen into hard times. Few of us study the epic these days, which is a shame. As Montgomery reveals, many epics build on the myth of the initiation of the warrior (as opposed to birth and/or cyclical renewal), and this initiation was created in verse and then performed by minstrels in front of an audience. The author offers some interesting, if not always convincing, perspectives on medieval Spanish epics such as the Siete infantes de Lara, the Mocedades de Rodrigo, and the famous Poema de Mio Cid. A conclusion might have helped fuse the two parts of the book together more successfully.

Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention, by Carolyn Hamilton. Harvard $39.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

This work looks at Shaka Zulu as a historical symbol and links its use to the mobilization of Zulu identity. Hamilton traces the development of the figure of Shaka as the central metaphor in South African politics, challenging previous discussions about the construction of Zulu identity. Hamilton argues against those historians who view images of Shaka as mere adaptations of the “real” character of Shaka; she argues that the particular images of Shaka used by those such as colonial administrators, journalists, and politicians resulted from the narrow range of Shakan depictions within the Shakan historiography. She shows that the image of Shaka has been the continual reworking of a metaphor that developed out of the Natal native administration’s attempt at creating a model for control and domination during colonialism. Through her analysis of the creation and uses of the Shakan metaphor, Hamilton’s work calls into question the very nature of history.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common reader, by Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Strans, & Giroux $16

A bibliophile, nay a bibliomaniac, of unbounded bookishness, the author is no “common reader.” Nor is she your run-of-the-mill essayist. Her literary meanderings in the tradition of Montaigne and Lamb are exquisitely wrought, in a word, precious. Some will find her musings on proofreading and literary gluttony too refined, if not self-important; others will admire greatly the wit and precision of her prose. Although she will probably not command a wide audience, Fadiman will find her way into the hearts of many book lovers.

Views of Trasition: Liturgy and Illumination in Medieval Spain, by Rose Walker. Toronto $75

Too bad the budget for this book would not allow for more colored plates (there are eight full pages of color, plus 65 additional black and white illustrations), although the paper is of very high quality. Spanish medieval manuscripts are beautiful and intricate, but Walker’s interest in them is less aesthetic than liturgical. She analyzes the content of the manuscripts in order to trace the subtle changes effected in the liturgy during a time of tension and frequent upheaval in Spain. As she notes, “Change was a difficult concept in medieval society” and consequently, change was viewed with skepticism and resistance. This very original book tracks the ways in which change was introduced in liturgical texts, specifically, the shift from Mozarabic liturgy to the Roman liturgy.

Something to Declare, by Julia Alvarez. Algonquin $20.95

This is the first collection of essays from the noted poet and novelist Julia Alvarez. Truth be told, I like her poems better: they are crisper, tighter, so often simply wonderful. These essays are autobiographical, airy and simple and sometimes a little flat. Many of the essays circle a primary concern for Alvarez: her sense of location and inheritance as part of her identity as a writer. Being an American novelist living in Vermont who has been pegged as an important Latino voice in contemporary literature, Alvarez is concerned to present herself more simply as a working, struggling writer. All the same, the voices of her family and the questions of her critics and readers keep bringing her back to the fundamental question of where she fits, of where her writing comes from, and what it can be called. The answer might best be found in her poems and novels, and left at that. These aren’t bad essays, by any stretch. The writing, as one might expect, is fine, and many of the stories about her childhood are especially evocative. Particular fans of Alvarez’s work will surely be interested in the autobiographical material, as will students of Latin American literature.

Spanish Women Writers and the Essay: Gender, Politics, and the Self, edited by Kathleen M. Glenn and Mercedes Mazquiarán de Rodríguez. Missouri $34.95

This excellent and very useful collection of essays on essays written by Spanish women brings together some of today’s top critics with writers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Anyone interested in Spanish letters—in particular, essays penned by women—will find new and interesting material here. The critics and subjects include Irizarry on Arenal, Bieder on Pardo Bazán, Ugarte on Burgos, Blanco on Martínez Sierra, Bretz on Nelken, Mangini on Chacel, Pérez on Zambrano, Bergmann on Martín Gaite, Vosburg on Falcón, Dupláa on Roig, Mazquiarán on Puértolas, and Gascón Vera on Montero. The chapters are focused, well written, and frequently illuminating. The volume would have been enriched had it included. something on the 18th-century writer Amar y Borbón. With bibliography and index.

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and- the American Gothic Imagination, by Karen Halttunen. Harvard $29.95

Halttunen examines the history of murder, or more precisely, how Americans have perceived the crime of murder over time. She uses a variety of sources including execution sermons, pamphlets, newspapers, and popular crime literature. She argues that until the middle of the 18th century, Americans believed the crime of murder was merely another evidence of sin, and grew out of the same innate depravity that infected all of humanity. Communities, though they executed sinners, nonetheless acknowledged their common moral failures with the killer. As the 19th century progressed, however, murderers increasingly became seen as moral monsters, separated from the rest of humanity. Accounts of crimes became more sensational and secular, and led to our current fascination with socio-psychological understandings of violence. Halttunen has written an interesting and well-researched book.

The Best American Essays, 1998, edited by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin $27.50

A wonderful selection of 25 essays, including established literary figures such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, John McPhee, and Andre Dubus, as well as new voices, many of them from points across the globe. Diana Trilling reflects on an evening at the Kennedy White House. Jamaica Kincaid castigates Christopher Columbus. Anwar F. Accawi lovingly renders the Lebanese village of his childhood. Sven Birkets describes the tension between inner and outer realities one experiences when “lost” in a book. And Mary Oliver reflects on the “miniscule house” she constructed in her back yard, complete with a built-in table for writing poetry. What makes these—or any—essays great is that they are made, in Ozick’s word, “out of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance, . . .(showing) the movement of a free mind at play.”

Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, by Guy Davenport. Counterpoint $27.50

This delightful, brief, poetic, freely associative book is a quartet of meditations on still life, and much more. Describing a bust of Sherlock Holmes in the detective’s room (a literary still life), Davenport takes flight, and the next thing the reader knows he is passing through the labyrinth of imagination as the author guides us meanderingly to Edgar Allan Poe, Thoreau, Homer, Picasso, Braque, Horace Vernet, Oscar Wilde, to the obscure Constantine Meunier, and beyond. Intoxicating in its historical fantasy, Davenport’s book is not for pedants but for the common reader, who retains a child’s wonder.

LIVES & LETTERSAddie, by Mary Lee Settle. South Carolina $24.95

Mary Lee Settle begins her memoir with the observation that “An autobiography that begins at one’s birth begins too late, sometimes in the middle of the story, sometimes at the end.” In Addie, she moves backward from a summer day in her grandmother’s hammock to the history of the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia and forward again, encompassing old love stories and racial strife and Indian wars, to show the way this place—its mining booms and busts, its rivers and mountains—shaped her family’s story and, in turn, her own. “All memories are real,” she writes. “Of course they are, like dreams are real, like old wounds that insist until they heal and leave a twinge of memory in the scars.” The memoir focuses on Settle’s grandmother, Addie, and it is written in rich, compelling prose that, like the best of novels, leaves you with the sense that through Addie’s life and an understanding of her impact on the writer’s life, you have come to understand something important about your place in the larger world.

Lee and His Generals in War and Memory, by Gary W. Gallagher. Louisiana $27.95

Gallagher, one of the most prolific authors writing on the military aspects of the American Civil War, presents in this volume 13 essays, all but one of which have been published before. In the first section, which concentrates on the tactics and strategy of General Robert E. Lee, the author discusses the importance of Lee’s victories in maintaining Confederate morale, the risks he took during the 1862 Maryland campaign, the reasons why Lee chose to attack at Gettysburg on the second and third days of that battle, and the falling off of Southern leadership during the final year of the war. While attacking those who discount Lee’s abilities as a general, Gallagher provides, particularly in the second and third essays, much information critical of his generalship. The second group of articles explains the reasons behind Stonewall Jackson’s popularity, both during and after the Civil War, and John Magruder’s unpopularity following the 1862 Peninsula campaign. Gallagher also ably defends the actions of James Longstreet at Second Manassas, A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell on the first day at Gettysburg, and Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. Once again, several of these essays, those on Longstreet, Hill, and Ewell in particular, provide ammunition for a critique of some of the decisions Lee made as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The final section, entitled “Fighting for Historical Memory,” deals with a diverse series of topics, from the post-war writings of Jubal Early and the forged letters of George Pickett to his wife to Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary and the importance of battlefield preservation. In each of these well-written and impressively researched essays, Gallagher has provided much food for thought and many indications of where future study should take us.

Eudora, a Writer’s Life, by Ann Waldron. Doubleday $25.95

Eudora Welty has given permission to not a single biographer, but Ann Waldron, the author of two previous biographies (Hodding Carter, Caroline Gordon), persistently delved into Welty’s extraordinary life and work with passion and insight. Organized in 72 brief chapters, this will also serve as an easy-to-use reference for Welty fans. Sometimes one wishes for more interesting angles into this multi-faceted author’s life; but, as Waldron explains, Welty’s loyal friends just won’t talk. For now, this biography should do admirably.

The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein, by Paul William Roberts. Farrar, Straits, & Giroux $24

Rare is the book both hilarious and painful. Roberts’ account of his three journeys to Baghdad blends rapid-fire satire with an eye for the callous, stupid and petty devastations wrought on the Iraqi population by both Saddam Hussein and the United States. This book is by far the most interesting and responsible account of Iraqi life before, during, and after the war. Roberts’ sense of the comic is perfect—as when he relates his interview with Saddam after accidentally downing a tablet of Ecstasy. Dark humor follows insight in a book that will undoubtedly become a classic.

The Unknown Matisse, by Hilary Spurling. Knopf $40

The author concludes her biography of Matisse, which covers the early years (1869—1908), by justly celebrating the emotional intensity and purity of the painter’s masterpiece, Harmony in Red. Tracing Matisse’s life before this great moment in the history of art, she tells her story beautifully, and with enthusiasm. Not a critical biography, which interprets the paintings of Matisse extensively, this book nevertheless gives us a vivid sense of the ways in the artist’s childhood experiences shaped his future course. “Descended from and surrounded by” the weavers of Picardy, Matisse absorbed their sense of color and design, which would be echoed in the rich colored patterns of his future art.

The Odyssey of a Southerner: The Life and Times of Gustavus Woodson Smith, by Leonne M. Hudson. Mercer $32

Gustavus W. Smith commenced his Civil War Service as one of the most respected and highest-ranking Confederate generals. Illness, lackluster performance, and disputes with Jefferson Davis soon reduced him to a minor player, but he remains a fascinating figure. One of the best engineers to emerge from West Point, he spent the antebellum years as a factory manager in New Jersey, an architect working on the Treasury Department building in Washington, and, immediately prior to secession, New York City Street Commisioner. Given his long career in the North, one wonders how Smith became an ardent secessionist, but Hudson does little to explain. Badly written and superficial, this book would have little to recommend it, if it were not the only modern available biography of Smith.

Summer of Deliverance, by Christopher Dickey. Simon & Schuster $24

Christopher Dickey has written a superbly crafted memoir of one of America’s most celebrated and most infamous writers, his father, James Dickey. There is bitterness here and the stories of drunkenness and womanizing come to light, but what lies at the heart of the book is the powerful, frequently awkward, and painful love between a father and son. From Christopher’s childhood when James Dickey began “making my head,” to the filming of Deliverance, when the Georgia poet was already more famous than most of the actors on the set, from his second marriage, long after he had become a caricature of himself, to his death bed and reconciliation with his son, James Dickey is an engrossing subject. “If I didn’t call him before eleven o’clock in the morning,” Christopher writes, “I might as well have not have called him at all. He wouldn’t remember or couldn’t speak coherently enough.” And, later, “We were not my father’s kind anymore. But we all wanted to believe, still, that we could be.” In clear-eyed, often moving prose, Christopher Dickey recognizes both his father’s demons and the frequent genius of his work. His poetry runs through the book like a time line. “. . . Come, son, and find me here/In love with the sound of my voice.”

From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo, by Mary Stanton. Georgia $24.95

This is not a simple biography. Rather than merely telling the story of Viola Liuzzo, Stanton weaves in what she calls “the story of the story”; by which she means the author’s own process of discovery as she set out to reclaim Viola Liuzzo’s forgotten history. The tangible presence of the author throughout the book becomes distracting, as it seems, at times, to overwhelm the compelling narrative of Liuzzo’s life. And I found myself irritated by Stanton’s attempts to delve, with little evidence, into Liuzzo’s psyche. In the end, however, Stanton does a fine job of uncovering the story of a committed, complicated, and largely forgotten woman, who, in death, was deliberately smeared by the FBI to shift attention away from its role in her murder.

Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land, by Sanford Lakoff. Chicago $25

This biography skillfully recounts the life and thought of one of America’s leading intellectuals from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. During this period Max Lerner conducted simultaneous careers as both an academic social scientist and a political journalist. A Jewish immigrant, strongly influenced by the writings of Thorstein Veblen, Lerner’s enthusiasm and breadth of interests engaged his students at Sarah Lawrence, Harvard, Williams, Brandeis University, and at the U.S. International University in California. His political prose appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, PM, and The New York Post. Lerner was a leading public critic on the social democratic left during the New Deal. In the years before and during World War II, he strove to unite the liberals and the left to fight fascism, but later came to acknowledge the excesses of Russian totalitarianism. In his “impressionistic essay,” America as a Civilization, a massive book published in 1957, Lerner turned away from his earlier radical criticism of America’s social and economic system to praise its uniqueness. In his later years Lerner’s erotic exploits contributed to turbulence in his personal life while he became increasingly conservative in his politics. The author incorporates Lerner’s own account of his youth, “From Minsk to Manhood” and makes wise use of quotations from Lerner’s diaries as well as his journalistic contributions.

Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, by Karen Holliday Tanner. Oklahoma $28.95

Fans of the movie Western think of Doc Holliday as played by Victor Mature, Burt Lancaster, or Dennis Quaid, the loyal pal of Wyatt Earp who helped destroy the villainous Clanton gang in the gunfight at O.K. Corral. But legends often stretch the truth. In this entertaining and informative book, Karen Holliday Turner, a cousin of John S. Holliday, D.D.S., sets the record straight. With the family records at her disposal, she tells of his genteel upbringing, his early life in Georgia during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the tragedies that hounded him, including the onset of tuberculosis which led him to journey west. Of course, we also meet Earp and Ike Clanton and find out what really happened when they met in the town of Tombstone, Arizona on that fateful October day in 1881.

Tchaikovsky and his World, edited by Leslie Kearney. Princeton $55 cloth, $19,95 paper

This collection of essays addresses the numerous problems in previous studies of Tchaikovsky, whose works and biography have often been the subject of imprecise and illusory analyses. Through articles on Tchaikovsky’s life, his music, characters in his works, and the social and political environment in which the composer lived, this volume thoroughly explores the numerous sides of Tchaikovsky. Sure to change the ways in which we understand the life, music, and times of this Russian composer, the essays in this collection will interest scholars from a variety of fields.

Ben Shahn: An Artist’s Life, by Howard Greenfeld. Random House $30

When, in 1947, Ben Shahn at the apex of his career, had a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the most influential critic of the period, Clement Greenberg, wrote: “This artist is not important, is essentially beside the point as far as ambitious present-day painting is concerned.” Even though the critic’s judgment still stands, the story of Shahn’s life, from Lithuania to New York, is a fascinating chapter in 20th-century social history. This brisk biography, made up of short chapters, which do not probe deeply, is nonetheless a straightforward account of Shahn’s career, both lucid and informative.

Campaigning with “Old Stonewall”: Confederate Captain Ujanirtus Allens Letters to His Wife, edited by Randall Allen and Keith S. Bohannon. Louisiana $34.95

Soldiers’ memoirs, letters, and diaries almost always make interesting reading. The letters of the Georgian Captain Ujanirtus Allen, covering the period from June 1861 to June 1863, are no exception. Allen participated in almost every major engagement in Virginia and Maryland during this period, and although a trifle theatrical (in the style of the times), his letters constitute a useful source of insight into the lives of soldiers during the Civil War. The editors’ annotation is not intrusive, and the provision of maps makes for greater ease of reading.

Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author, by Laurence Lipking. Harvard $35

This study of Samuel Johnson is not a biography but an interpretation of his writings as each text contributed to shaping his career as an author. Lawrence Lipking is a distinguished scholar and critic and his approach to authorship provides him with an opportunity to analyze and comment upon Johnson’s texts. Some of the chapters, like the one on Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare, provide new insights and all are written thoughtfully and gracefully. The volume provides a valuable approach to Johnson’s works, one that supplements biographical studies.

Closely Guarded: A Life in Canadian Security and. Intelligence, by John Starnes. Toronto $35

Starnes’s memoir tracks his own career in the Canadian government, including his involvement in many covert government activities, shedding light on the little-known world of the Canadian intelligence community and the international security and intelligence network in which Canada has participated. Unfortunately, much of this book focuses on the minutiae of the author’s career (transfers, promotions, luncheons, holidays, recounted from letters to his wife). Though this book will interest those who follow the history of Canada’s undercover operations, it is not a particularly lively read. For that, read spy novels. Starnes has written five.

N. C. Wyeth, by David Michaelis. Knopf $40

David Michaelis tells the story of Newell Convers Wyeth, America’s favorite illustrator and the progenitor of the Wyeth artistic dynasty. A story both rich and odd, it begins with the mysterious death in infancy of a maternal uncle. A vague aura of doom is insinuated and, with the marriage of the morbidly nostalgic (and probably manic-depressive) Hattie Zirngeibel to the placid, businesslike Newell Wyeth (who “never spent the day at home”) and the subsequent birth of N.C., Michaelis effectively creates a sense that something interesting is about to happen. N.C.’s “constant urge to draw” results in a pragmatic father’s insistence on a year of farm labor to knock “this artist nonsense out of his head.” The ensuing family crisis culminates, miraculously, with an apprenticeship to the legendary Howard Pyle. Wyeth’s struggle to emerge from Pyle’s dominating influence, his successes, and the creation of his own legend are sympathetically depicted. Correspondences between the power of his art and the strange relationship with his peculiar mother and, much later, with a daughter-in-law, are sensitively explored. Illustrated in color and black-and-white.

FICTIONBad Man Blues, by George Garrett. SMU Press $19.95

George Garrett is the most proficient quick change artist in American letters, our greatest impressionist and our most gifted ventriloquist. By turns wise-ass and wistful, romantic and hilarious, in his new collection of stories and essays, Bad Man Blues, Mr. Garrett’s voice turns up, among other places, in the mouth of( a tabloid reporter, a “yuppie lawyer,” and the lovelorn secretary of the Earl of Monmouth, each successive story, as pitch-perfect as the last. “Genius Baby” finds John Towne, the protagonist of Garrett’s earlier novel Poison Pen fleeing the scene of his crimes “with various angry fathers in hot pursuit yelling “Stop, Thief!” Because . . .there wasn’t any other sensible cry to utter under the circumstances.” These stories, like the cry of the angry fathers, are the last word on their particular subjects. Perhaps even more impressive, however, are the essays in which Garrett removes his various disguises and speaks in his own voice of his childhood in Florida, of his misadventures in academia, of boxing and Joe Louis, of writing, and, in a gorgeous piece entitled “Heroes,” of his father, “an American radical, part populist, part prophet and mostly a rare example of what, in our buttoned-up era . . . I would have to call a Neanderthal Democrat.” In Bad Man Blues, we find all of George Garrett’s celebrated voices, humorist, romantic and realist alike, and it would be a pleasure to think that he has dropped his guard long enough to give his readers a glimpse of the real George Garrett as well, but, even as you turn the pages of this new volume, you will sense him doing his duck and weave, shuffling and bobbing, drifting dangerously close to a corner and punching his way out again.

An Appalachian Mother Goose, by James Still. Kentucky $25

Ancient rhymer, grand old timer, seeks his inner child. Plays fast and loose with Mother Goose, drives this reader wild. My ear is tin to mountain din, to fondest rhymes defiled. To silly, hill-billy Mr. Stilly, and to doggerel, Kentucky-styled.

The Love of a Good Woman: Stories, by Alice Munro. Knopf $24

This gathering of eight stories, some of them close to nouvella length and five of which appeared in The New Yorker in recent years, is Ms Munro’s tenth book and ninth collection of stories. Nothing radically innovative here; rather the elegantly written, solid, cumulative, and layered rendition (not unlike the stories of the late Peter Taylor) of several generations in their gradual growth and change. Set mostly in rural or resort areas in Canada, these stories are most powerful in their exploration of characters who are remarkably and fully dimensional. Ms. Munro’s work has been widely reviewed and highly praised. She is eminently deserving of such attention and admiration.

Tomcat In Love, by Tim O’Brien. Broadway $26

Tim O’Brien’s new book is a tunny, occasionally moving novel which follows Thomas “Tomcat” Chippering’s obsessive pursuit of his ex-wife and his desire for revenge. Chippering, a linguistics professor who refuses to speak the name of his romantic rival, is an incurable flirt. He insists on the depth of his love for his wife even as he blunders from one amorous disaster to the next. Tomcat In Love is a smooth, probably harmless read, which, unfortunately doesn’t measure up to the standards Tim O’Brien set for himself with the Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award. Even taken on its own, however, Tomcat In Love never quite manages to come alive and Tomcat, who narrates his own story, is so completely deluded and obnoxious that the reader has a hard time deciding who to pull for in this train wreck of a love story.

Evening, by Susan Minot. Knopf $23

In Susan Minot’s finest novel to date, 65-year-old Ann Lord lies in bed facing her imminent death from cancer and revisiting her life’s greatest passions and disappointments. When her daughter brings her a balsam-scented pillow from the attic, she’s drawn back into a weekend in Maine in 1954 when, at a friend’s wedding, she found and lost her one true love. He was engaged to someone else, and after a brief Ring with Lord, proceeded to marry the other woman. But Lord has never ceased regarding him as the most important man in her life, perhaps less for who he is than for the possibilities he represents. Feverish and delirious from morphine, she engages in intense conversations with him, occasionally veering into consciousness to interact with the constant stream of bedside visitors. This delicate novel is superbly written, offering subtle insights into the mind of a dying woman.

It Happened Like This: Stories and Poems, by Daniil Kharms, translated by lan Frazier, pictures by Katya Arnold. Farrar, Straits & Giroux $17

When Stalin’s censors prohibited avant-garde writer Daniil Kharms (1905—42) from further publishing for adults, he turned to writing children’s books and became a favorite among Russian readers of his time and remains so to this day (an annual Kharms festival takes place in St. Petersburg). lan Frazier (acclaimed author of Great Plains and Coyote v. Acme) collaborated with Russian emigre artist Katya Arnold inviting English-language readers to sample Kharm


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