Many times each year the reviewer is called upon to answer the question “Do we really need yet another book about the Civil War?” Surprisingly often the answer is a tentative “Yes!” Considerable stores of new information are assembled into accounts featuring the perspective of the private soldier, the career of the lesser known general, the economic and political travails of yet smaller towns or regions, and the postwar tricks of public memory. This outpouring appears to feed without surfeit the incredible appetite for even the obscurest detail. Here we are told again and better of the best-known day of the war, in a beautifully written account chiefly from the vantage point not of fumbling and fussing generals and their plans and excuses, but from that of the common soldiers and junior officers whose immediate plans involved surviving without embarrassment. No prior account captures with such integrity and historical accuracy the horror and valor of the best-known infantry assault of the war. This book imparts a palpable understanding and appreciation of the roles played by men of all ranks, both sides, the brave, the foolish, the cowardly, the opportunistic. So the answer here is “Yes!”—even in a year with several new books on Gettysburg alone, here is one that we needed.
The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, by Eamon Duffy. Yale $22.50
Historians of the Reformation have usually focused on figures like Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII. Eamon Duffy, reader in church history at the University of Cambridge, has elected instead to study this process of epic change at the local level, examining in rich detail the Reformation as it transformed life in Morebath, a small village in Devon in southwestern England. The shift from the “lavishly Catholic” England before Henry’s break with Rome in the 1520’s to the robustly Protestant nation of Elizabethan times is chronicled in the opinionated accounts of Morebath’s parish priest, Sir Christopher Trychay. The process of resistance, rebellion, punishment, and gradual—and reluctant— accommodation is detailed by both Trychay and Duffy. It is a fascinating story, the likes of which are seldom available to the historian, much less the general reader. Motives are examined, the social and economic lineaments of Morebath are laid bare, and the reader is presented with a lively picture of a society in the throes of change. The Voices of Morebath will fascinate historians who already find the period exciting. Those who have considered themselves immune to the charms of Clio may be in for a pleasant surprise. This book deserves a wide readership.
The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, by David J. Eicher. Simon Schuster $40
The U. S. Civil War is one of most studied wars in the history of warfare. The extant literature covers all of the levels of war (from the lowest technical-tactical aspects of specific battles to the highest levels of grand strategy) in amazing detail. With so much written, and with so many sources available to the military historian, one would think that little more could be learned, that few narratives could be offered that are not merely repackaged presentation of old news. It is precisely because of this, however, that David J. Eicher’s The Longest Night will stand as one of the triumphs of Civil War history. This single volume work (of 990 pages) was written as a companion piece to James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom. Where McPherson’s single volume work covers the social, political, and economic context of the war, Eicher’s focus is strictly on the military aspects of the war. (It should be noted that McPherson wrote the forward to this work.) Eicher has written a book that is both a fully contained narrative and a reference work. This work has an elegant style and is amazingly comprehensive. The Longest Night contains more than 80 maps and diagrams, is well documented, and highly accessible. This work will certainly become a classic of Civil War history. It should be read and consulted by scholars and buffs alike.
Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, by Joanne Freeman. Yale $29.95
This book is an exciting exploration of the culture of honor that underpinned the politics of the early American Republic. In an era without political parties, the code of honor served to regulate the behavior of gentlemen, a status which all those in public life strove to hold, providing some stability to an anxious elite. Freeman, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia, frames each of her chapters around a significant—and often neglected— primary source in order to discuss the politics of reputation, political gossip, the use of “private” letters, pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers in political warfare, dueling, and the election of 1800 in the context of honor culture. Her command and close reading of these sources is admirable, and has allowed her to harvest a crop of new insights into the history of the period. This achievement, coupled with a style that is compulsively readable, makes this book a serious delight.
Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History, by James C. Riley. Cambridge $29.95
Between 1800 and 2000, the average life expectancy at birth more than doubled, from 30 to 67 years. James Riley considers this the most important development of the modern era, allowing countless millions to experience the pleasures and poignancies of life that would otherwise have been denied to them. But how did it happen? Were economic improvements primarily responsible? What role did science play? How important were upgrades in public health provision, emanating from the broadening of the boundaries of the state? Or should we place more emphasis on the spread of literacy and an increasing understanding of the prerequisites of healthfulness? Clearly, when put in this way, it is clear that the rise in the expectation of life was a complex development, influenced by an array of different (and sometimes contradictory) factors. Mr. Riley, in a compact and clear fashion, outlines the major sources of change with exemplary balance and appropriate authority. The lesson that he derives from history is that there is no single strategy for success; what worked in one society often proved unhelpful in another. This, of course, is in large part because the causes of premature death differed from place to place. The lesson he derives from the present is that there is still much to be done to reduce inequalities in life span across peoples and regions. The caution for the future is that there may not be enough resources to achieve that end, given the demands imposed by those who have already benefited and who will become an ever greater presence in the 21st century—the aged (and increasingly very aged) in the rich societies of the West.
The War Hits Home: The Civil War in South-eastern Virginia, by Brian Steel Wills. Virginia $34.95
This is an excellent narrative history of the Civil War years as experienced by the people of Southeastern Virginia. Concentrating on a narrow geographical area in this way allows Wills to offer a rich assortment of detailed views of the effect war had on local life. Drawing heavily from letters from soldiers and residents, but also from other primary sources, Wills largely lets the people of Suffolk, Norfolk, and surrounding environs speak for themselves. The focus of the book is largely on the white residents of this region of Southeastern Virginia, so while attention is paid to Union soldiers in the occupying forces, and the experiences of African Americans enslaved in the region, the overall tone of the book, coming from the voices of the residents themselves, is that of a Southern, or more precisely, of a Confederate history. The book is amply supported by footnotes and bibliography, although the many, many citations necessary for such a multi-threaded narrative are placed in the back of the book, which is less than perfectly convenient. The book has a number of black and white illustrations and photographs, and several maps, all of which add to the text. There is no particular thesis to Wills’ work, and little in the way of extended analysis: rather, the strength and beauty of this book is the wealth of detailed, intimate contact with the voices of the people of Southeastern Virginia.
Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945, by Richard D. E. Burton. Cornell $36.50
An intricate, absorbing, and multi-faceted analysis of the literary, political, and cultural fury that animated Paris during the years of the 19th and 20th centuries, Blood in the City takes up representative figures as diverse as Paul Claudel, J. K. Huysmans, both Bonapartes, the Virgin Mary, and Marshall Pétain. While concentrating on some of the more striking personalities of the period, Burton also investigates the often incongruous meanings of the monuments and public places that give the French capital its heart and soul. Among the more prominent examples are Père-Lachaise cemetery, La Place de la Concorde—where Louis XVI was guillotined when it was called la Place de la Révolution—and Sacré-Coaur. Perhaps the very best chapter in Burton’s very good book is the thoughtful comparison of Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower— contemporaneous, yet philosophically divergent monuments that speak to the paradoxes of modernity. Rewarding to the very last syllable, Blood in the City is a testament to outstanding historical scholarship.
The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, by Victoria E. Bynum. North Carolina $29.95
Drawing on a wide range of published and manuscript sources, extensive oral histories, and visits to local cemeteries and deserter hide-outs, Victoria Bynum has recreated a story that links together the fluid colonial and antebellum landscape of frontier Mississippi, the bitter disputes of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, and the racial and political violence that characterized much of the 20th-century South. Bynum’s story shows how personal, local, state, and national interests converged and diverged in unpredictable and fascinating ways in this corner of Mississippi. By treating women and men as equal actors in the conflicts in Jones County, Bynum shows how future historians might convincingly knit together the all too-often disparate fields of political, ideological, gender, and racial histories. In juxtaposing the competing memories of the conflict in Jones County, Bynum reveals the ways in which social and ideological concerns bear on the writing of history, and ultimately, on how writing history can be a method of challenging deeply held social patterns and ideological beliefs.
While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers, by Steven E. Woodworth. Kansas $29.95
This impressively written and researched volume has managed to shed light on yet another aspect of the American Civil War, the religious lives of soldiers. In compelling narrative prose Steven Woodworth analyses the religious views and motivations of the men who battled on both sides of the conflict, arguing principally that Christian faith was important to the vast majority. Woodworth contends that Confederate and Union soldiers alike were convinced that God was on the side of their “just cause,” but articulated that justification in different ways. The Northern victory indicated to many of the rightness of their cause, and despite a Southern defeat many Confederate soldiers continued to embrace the notion that God had ordained slavery and the Southern way of life.
Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution, by John Alien Macauley. Alabama $32.95
This engaging volume captures a little known aspect of Southern religious history. Macauley argues that despite evangelical dominance in the antebellum South, Unitarianism persisted among many liberal Christians committed as much to a “Christian rationalism” and the “sanctity of individual conscience” as they were to the Bible as “the Word of God.” Impressive detail and narrative structure.
Necro Citizenship: Death Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States, by Russ Castronovo. Duke $54.95 cloth, $18.95 paper
Drawing on a vast range of material, Castronovo’s book shows how notions of citizenship are bound up with tropes of death in the post-revolutionary public sphere, and that exposing the tropes of death one can see discussions over slavery and suffrage in a new and valuable light. It’s range of reference is indeed compelling. Castronovo uses examples from the occult, slave narratives, and American philosophy to name but a few. Coining the term “necro ideology,” he shows how the practice of citizenship often relied on the rhetorical deployment of death, in a manner that was often anti-democratic, serving to silence the mob. At the same time, by calling on figurations of death, “necro-ideology” often allowed for the deferral or displacement of concrete ideological conflicts onto absent or abstract political corpses. Necro Citizenship will be an important book for anyone concerned with constructions of the public sphere, constructions of national identity, or with some of the texts under examination, which include Emerson, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Hawthorne, and Frances Harper, among others. The book more than makes up for its sometimes turgid prose with its provocative insights and its compelling argument.
Heroes of History; A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modem Age, by Will Durant. Simon & Schuster $27.50
The man whose name we associate with The Story of Philosophy, Pulitzer Prize winner Will Durant, authors posthumously this engaging romp through Western history. Paying particular attention to religion and philosophy, Durrant leaves us with a work appropriate for many beginning college students. Adults traveling to or from work may also enjoy brushing up on facts they learned long ago (or should have). Familiarity with this material cannot help but fill out our sense of all that life has to offer.
LITERARY STUDIES Reading Groups, by Jenny Hartley in association with Sarah Turvey. Oxford $9.95
With 50,000 Brits and ten times that many Americans involved in reading groups, it’s time to describe what they are, who belongs to them, how they choose titles, how they talk, and what the implications of their projects might be. Based on survey research, this volume offers a wide diversity of answers, but falls far short of full—or fully reassuring—coverage. Long-term associations of readers, Hartley and Turvey found, cut across social classes, generations, educational levels, and media; taste runs from the classics to best sellers, chosen by one or more members and discussed from any of several perspectives: personal reaction, external fact-finding, or interpretation, usually free and easy. Undeniably valuable, reading groups foster active engagement with books by assuring that no one need confront them unsupported—or, for that matter, unchallenged by divergent opinions. That said, the gains of Hartley’s and Turvey’s sample may not be as great as they would suggest, for activity, encouragement, and debate are not synonymous with well prepared, sound, or productive dialogue. A propos of which, Hartley and Turvey did not include 850 Great Books discussion groups enrolling more than 20,000 adults. No longer limited to the canon set decades ago by the late Mortimer Adler, the Great Books program seeks to deepen understanding by critical exchange on the fit between interpretation and textual fact. Personal judgment is but a pendent of the process. In short, the Great Books plan transforms the reading group into a vehicle for continuing education—without the impedimenta of papers, examinations, or grades. Hartley’s and Turvey’s slighting of this option trivializes their results in more ways than one: not only is the account incomplete, but it leaves the hugely misleading impression that, as presently constituted, Anglo-American reading groups rarely nurture deeply inquisitive minds and, by extension, are no model for the public forum of a healthy democracy.
Writings on Empire and Slavery, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited and translated by Jennifer Pitts. Johns Hopkins $42.50
Following closely upon the publication of the University of Chicago’s new translations of The Old Regime and the Revolution and Democracy in America, the appearance of this collection of Tocqueville’s writings on French colonialism could mark a resurgence in studies of one of the great political thinkers of the 19th century. Whereas Chicago’s new translations allow us to take a fresh look at familiar classics, this book will introduce readers to an aspect of Tocqueville’s thinking that has received little attention in the English-speaking world—his analysis of the French colonial presence in North Africa and the West Indies. Instead this volume collects essays, reports, and journalistic articles Tocqueville wrote in the 1840’s on French colonial problems, several at the request of French authorities or in response to contemporary political debates. Though not a work of the scope or importance of Democracy in America or The Old Regime and the Revolution, these essays do reveal Tocqueville looking at French colonial issues with the same shrewdness of political insight he displays in his major writings.
The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora, by F. Abiola Irele. Oxford $49.95
This book is a welcome addition to the growing body of critical work on African literature. Though strictly speaking it is a collection of essays published elsewhere, it is as well integrated as many books in the field. Irele begins with essays on such general subjects as “The African Imagination” and “Orality, Literacy, and African Literature” and then proceeds to discuss a variety of representative works. General readers will be most interested in Irele’s long essay on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a well-balanced and judicious analysis of what is perhaps the most famous African novel. Among other well-known writers, Irele discusses Wole Soyinka, but he also deals with figures less familiar to general readers, such as Ahmadou Kourouma and Amadou Hampaté Bâ. Irele writes a clear and effective prose and avoids the kind of ponderous jargon that often makes criticism in the field of postcolonial studies virtually unreadable. At the same time, he does engage the major critics in his field, drawing upon the best of their work and staking out his own distinct position.
The Simms Reader: Selections from the Writings of William Gilmore Simms, edited by John Caldwell Guilds. Virginia $42.50
This is the first collection to cover the broad spectrum of the writings of perhaps the Old South’s leading literary figure, William Gilmore Simms of Charleston, S. C. , most noted for his novels of the Revolutionary War period and his history of South Carolina. Selections from his essays, poetry, drama, short fiction, epigrams, and letters are represented in this book, supplemented by a lengthy introduction by the preeminent Simms scholar, John Caldwell Guilds, as well as a chronology and a select bibliography.
Drama, Play, and Game: English Festival Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, by Lawrence M. Clopper. Chicago $45
If the roots of medieval drama remain somewhat disputed, so does the medieval conception of drama. Lawrence Clopper infuses a new subtlety into the discussion of an English anti-theatrical tradition. Clopper’s definition of ludi inhonesti as “pleyinge” that medievals grouped with all sorts of festival game usefully distances medieval drama from the medieval concept of theatrum. Theatrum was seen as a uniquely classical depravity, while the problem with “pleyinge” was located in its carnivalesque abandon. The ingrained pre-Christian underpinnings of even 15th-century England, which remain underappreciated, show through in Clopper’s explication. This incisive explication is developed gracefully and buttressed throughout by extensive, yet nuanced, excavation of primary texts. Drama, Play, and Game largely re-casts the common, hoary account of medieval drama and its contested status.
H. G. Wells’s Perennial Time Machine, edited by George Slusser, Patrick Parrinder, and Danièle Chatelain. Georgia $40
This volume grows out of a centennial celebration in London of the original publication of The Time Machine in 1895 and appears just in time for yet another Hollywood film based on Wells’ book—more evidence, if any were needed, of the editors’ claim that it continues its hold on a wide public’s imagination. The contributors to the volume illuminate The Time Machine from a variety of perspectives. Because the essays are generally brief and to the point, the editors manage to pack 16 of them into the space of a little over 200 pages. One group of essays analyzes the lasting appeal of Wells’ novel, another group looks at The Time Machine in light of social and political concerns of the Victorian era, and a third group considers later adaptations of Wells’ time travel idea—from Heinlein to Hollywood. Given the quality of the essays, this volume is must reading for anyone interested in Wells or the development of science fiction in general.
Signifying God: Social Relation and Symbolic Act in the York Corpus Christi Plays, by Sarah Beckwith. Chicago $35
An interesting and rich book which exploits recent philosophy of language, and theological writing on liturgy, to explore the power of the York Corpus Christi plays as a form of sacramental theology. Beckwith argues that that theology—and thus the core of the plays themselves—is inaccessible to us in revivals of those plays in recent years: “our forms of life cannot sustain the forms of presentness and the profound obstacles to presentness that are explored by the mutuality of community and eucharist in the medieval plays . . . . they are hard to make present to us and hard for us to acknowledge.” The cause of their inaccessibility to us is, as the above passage suggests, the different “forms of life” we inhabit as compared to the medievals (a difference whose origins Beckwith identifies with the English Reformation); but be that as it may be, the plays become a kind of historicgraphical hieroglyphic for her, raising larger questions as to the present possibilities for “sacramental theater” in general. Given that theater has this religious, and sacramental, character in its origins, the search for some contemporary possibilities for its renovation is salutary; but Beckwith leaves us hanging, as it were, waiting for such a “re-founding” of mystery, but unable to anticipate its advent. A cannily uncanny book.
Literary and Linguistic Theories in Eighteenth-Century France; From “Nuances” to “Impertinence”, by Edward Nye. Oxford $70
“Imitation,” “clarity,” “nature,” “nuance,” “impertinence”—all are used today in scholarly and popular discourse, and all are accepted as commonly understood concepts. This was not always the case, as Nye makes clear in this tightly-argued and provocative study of word usage in 18th-century France. The battles over the appropriateness, or even the meaning, of these words raged across 18th-century Europe since they tended to reveal not only aesthetic posturing but also ideological sympathies. What Nye states for “nuance,” for example, plays itself out across the spectrum of dozens of linguistic interpretations: “What is now largely a fashionable word for minutiae was once interestingly implicated in important discussions about the imitative qualities of different lands of artistic representation.” By tracking the shift in word meanings through various French texts, the author concludes that “Eighteenth-century language debates are a rich source of theories about imitation in the arts and a remarkable attempt to answer the “what” and “how” questions to which it gives rise.” Anyone interested in the 18th century will find rich food for thought in this book.
The Edge of Meaning, by James Boyd White. Chicago $30
This ambitious book tracks “through a series of texts in which a mind can be seen trying to imagine a world, and the self within it, in such a way as to make possible coherent speech and valuable action.” We watch Thoreau re-imagining himself as a creator, Huck Finn struggling with other people’s imagined worlds, Odysseus mastering his world in change, and Frost and Herbert imagining worlds they can exist in. He shows Plato imagining the mind in Phaedrus, and White’s own struggles as a lawyer dealing with slippery language and even slipperier reality. He closes each section with personal anecdotes of himself growing up, unusual in a scholarly book, but always illuminating. Unfortunately, his final chapter, on uncovering meaning in Vermeer’s paintings of women, descends into mere blither; White simply has no idea what he’s talking about. But his chapters on how Homer’s early Greek language works and how to take sentences apart are alone worth the price of the volume.
Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man, by James V. Catano. Southern Illinois $25
What a shame such an arresting title has been squandered on such a dry, plodding, unhip work. The problem with this book is not Catano’s scholarship, which, industrious and thorough, explores the way in which stellar businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and Lee lacocca are portrayed in American culture as bastions of authentic, monolithic masculinity. There is no higher acclaim for contemporary American males, Catano writes, than to be designated a self-made man. This book’s trouble has rather more to do with the inherent dullness of its subject. While Ragged Dicks begins where many recent successful offerings in the field of Men’s Studies end (Catano’s sections of psychoanalysis and sadomasochism are particularly erudite and well crafted), those other studies bespeak a certain transgressiveness, as if the topic at hand isn’t entirely fit for public consumption. Catano’s work, on the other hand, seems to promise a sexiness that the blue-bloods of corporate America cannot deliver. The book, like the subject it so keenly studies, is effective and boring.
A Literary Guide to Provence, by Daniel Vitaglione. Swallow $29.95 cloth, $17.95 paper
Only if thyme and lavender were somehow infused into the pages of this book would it evoke more emphatically the spirit and charm of the south of France. Part anthology, part travel guide, Vitaglione’s project is a scrapbook of Provence’s finest literary achievements, from Pagnol’s splendid portrait of his childhood near Marseille to Zola’s masterful reworking of Aixen-Provence. The book’s organization links individual destinations with the writers who got there first. Somewhat expectedly, Vitaglione ties F. Scott Fitzergerald to Juan-les-Pins, Colette to St. Tropez, and Van Gogh to Aries. But other great writers also make an appearance, among them Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Robert Louis Stevenson, Graham Greene, and Willa Cather. Provence is a notoriously beautiful, insouciant corner of the world, and Vitaglione— through the words of better writers—has captured the Provencal character admirably.
An Irish Literary Dictionary and Glossary, by Richard Wall. Oxford $39.95
“Literary” here is a little misleading: you’d use this not for looking up Irish authors and their works but for looking up words and phrases used by Irish speakers of English. Still, Richard Wall’s illustrative examples come mostly from Irish fiction, poetry, and drama and will be of interest to dedicated readers of such works. For instance, if you were reading Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments and suspected that the word “culchie” meant something other than “Arnoldian,” in Wall you could find not only a definition—”n., a. a yokel, uncouth”—but also seven alternative renderings of the word, eight examples of its use, a speculation about is origin (from the Irish name for the County Mayo village Kiltamagh (Coillte Mách) and two related Hiberno-English words—”jackeen” and “townie”—that Wall defines elsewhere. Of course, “townies” may be found in plenty of non-Irish locales, and since Wall doesn’t confine himself to words derived from Gaelic, his principles of selection have to be a bit arbitrary. Thus a reader of Irish political novels such as Doyle’s A Star Called Henry could find in Wall a paragraph each for “Union, the” (referring to the 1800 governmental Act of Union), “Union” (referring to a poorhouse or workhouse—the OED cites Kingsley’s Yeast for this meaning), and “Unionist” (referring to an anti-nationalist political position, illustrated here by one disparaging remark from Yeats) but nothing for the related political term “Loyalist” and nothing to explain the sort of “union” 1916 rebel James Connolly made much of (i. e. , the labor sort). This valuable compendium will serve best those who can admire its plentiful inclusions more than they will be frustrated by its inevitable omissions. It belongs in libraries and in the offices of specialists.
Regarding Ellen Glasgow: Essays for Contemporary Readers, edited by W. D. Taylor and G. C. Longest. The Library of Virginia $25
Glasgow remains powerful, troubling, and as mystifying as life itself. Her unblinking novels provide the most comprehensive and accurate literary record of social life in Virginia from the Civil War to World War II. There are deluded, coarse, cowardly, destructive people. Her account of what James Branch Cabell called well-mannered futility also contains, as does life, extraordinary women who make the most of things. In a struggle in which there is ever another trial and defeat, the things themselves appear to have little value. And there is ever a magnanimous soul that harbors illogical optimism that honest persistence itself may be enough to carry one forward. If the setting entails the particulars that set Virginia apart from other places, the human portrait and such lessons as may be gleaned from it are pertinent to all places. Thus this remarkable author continues to merit our close attention. And she certainly deserves this very fine collection of appreciative and perceptive analytical essays.
Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties, by James Hall. Oxford $45
In Mercy, Mercy Me, James Hall explores the contributions of African American artists of the 60’s: Robert Hayden, William Demby, Paule Marshall, John Coltrane, and Romare Bearden. In addition, there is a chapter on W. E. B. DuBois. These six figures represent for Hall the unique perspective of African Americans that is able to at once critique and further American culture. Hall argues that despite its diffuse and diverse practices, African American cultural production during the 1960’s was fundamentally “antimodern” by showing the limitations of U. S. culture. For Hall, each of these figures “document the destructive advances upon the self by consumer capitalism, technology, and ritualized violence” and yet offer hopeful resistance to such destruction. Mercy, Mercy Me is both insightful and well written. It provides close detail of each of its cases and articulates their connections in ways that are convincing and compelling.
LIVES AND LETTERS Radical Visions, by Charles A. Nelson. Bergin if Garvey $59
Subtitled “Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and their Efforts on Behalf of Education and Politics in the Twentieth Century,” this volume is a long-overdue reappraisal. Thoroughly researched, tightly argued, and clearly written, Radical Visions presents, first and foremost, a new analysis of the Great Books plan—its canon, method, perspective, and goal—from John Erskine’s undergraduate surveys at Columbia, through the much embattled Hutchins College at the University of Chicago, to its fullest realization, at post-1937 St. John’s (Annapolis), where Barr and Buchanan presided over the country’s most ambitious project to unite critical thinking, intellectual collaboration, and engaged cultural literacy. Their uncompromising persistence constitutes a land of pedagogical epic, whose long-term outcomes can be measured by the signal contributions of St. John’s alumni, particularly in law, journalism, education, and the non-profit sector. Nelson’s narrative then passes to Barr and Buchanan’s post-St. John’s adventures with the Foundation for World Government, their struggles against McCarthyism and the Internal Revenue Service, their sojourns abroad, as well as their final years, which saw the dying Buchanan as Robert Maynard Hutchins’s guest at the Center for Democratic Institutions and Barr, largely on his own, writing two great contributions to classical studies, The Will of Zeus and The Mask of Jove. Throughout the second half of Nelson’s opus, the reader finds Barr and Buchanan bearing constant witness, under the most adverse circumstances, to the values that had animated their educational project. In today’s terms, they not only walked the walk, but did so with the rarest authority and grace. What Thomas Lask wrote of The Mask of Jove applies equally to the last six chapters of Radical Visions: no precis can suggest their richness.
The Barrymores: Hollywood’s First Family, by Carol Stein Hoffman. Kentucky $40
First and foremost, a family album. Second, a family history, not only of the Barrymores, but of the Lanes, the Drews, the Blyths, the Costellos, all theatrical families, all interrelated. The pictures are charming, the text informative. The Lanes began it all in the New World in the 1820’s (the family traces itself back to the Elizabethan stage); Louisa Lane’s son, Jack Drew, became “the first gentleman of the American theater” by the 1880’s; his aunt, Georgiana married an actor who had been christened Herbert Blyth in the English county of Essex, but rechristened Maurice Barrymore by the time he arrived in Boston in 1875. Maurice had three children— Lionel, Ethel and John, who between them dominated first New York and then Hollywood for much of the first half of the new century. It was John, the great Svengali, who formed the alliance with the Costellos, whose father Maurice was a major star of the silent screen and whose daughters, Dolores and Helene were tinsel town beauties and Warner Bros, starlets. The lineage seemed to stop there. The next generation, born of John and Dolores, produced one minor star who burned out by his mid-30’s. Another Barrymore prodigy, daughter of John and playwright Blanche Oelrich, also proved less than adept at handling the pressures of the screen. It might be thought that the storied history of the Barrymores would end there. But the next generation provided a star with much of the luminosity of the Great Generation—Drew Barrymore, terminally cute in E. T. , a troubled teenager in the 1990’s, but resurrected as a Hollywood icon for a new generation by her performances in Charlie’s Angels and The Wedding Singer. That her status rivals that of John, while her vehicles pale by comparison with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, or even The Great Profile is a telling indicator of just how much Hollywood has changed since its golden era. This handsomely illustrated book charts the change with a fitting mixture of verve and poignancy.
War Diaries, 1939-1945, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, edited by Alex Danchow and Daniel Todman. California $40
World War II buffs will find the diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke fascinating reading because this is an opportunity to follow World War II from the top. Alanbrooke, who was Britain’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Winston Churchill’s chief military advisor, wrote the diaries nightly, primarily for his wife, in the strictest secrecy and contrary to all regulations. In these diaries he recorded his daily work, his frustrations, disappointments, fears, and his all too frequent arguments with Winston Churchill whose views on strategy and managing the war frustrated Alanbrooke. Their relationship was not helped by Churchill’s heavy drinking and ill health. The diaries also record Alanbrooke’s personal impressions of the important wartime conferences in Washington, Casablanca, Moscow, Teheran, Quebec, Yalta, and Potsdam. For Alanbrooke, the diary became an outlet for his despair, anger, and doubt. In his criticism he spares no one: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Charles de Gaulle, and others. Alanbrooke’s diaries are a unique source for the history of World War II.
Pilgrimage to Patronage: Lope de Vega and the Court of Philip III 1598-1621, by Elizabeth R. Wright. Bucknell $36.50
Lope de Vega (1562-1635) was early modern Spain’s most prolific and famous playwright— such a prodigal talent that “es de Lope” became a popular expression synonymous with excellence. But despite his success in the new urban public theaters, Lope longed for the prestige of a courtier-poet and for many years cultivated noble patronage to this end. Although Lope ultimately failed in his quest for a palace appointment, he succeeded in fashioning a model of celebrity that was widely imitated. He elevated the status of the professional writer and invented a formula for drama that allowed younger playwrights, like Calderón de la Barca, to reap the rewards of royal favor that had eluded him. Through a study of several of Lope’s lesser-known works, Elizabeth Wright provides a fascinating account of an artist’s struggle for upward mobility at a time when an emerging popular marketplace was dramatically changing the old rules of privilege and patronage.
Faith of Our Mothers: The Stories of Presidential Mothers from Mary Washington to Barbara Bush, by Harold I. Gullan. Eerdmans $25
Gullan’s book is the latest in a literature growing out of an American fascination with political dynasties, first ladies, and presidential partners. His work, focusing on presidential mothers, is a sweeping effort to examine the maternal influences on the 42 men who governed this country. While little is known about some of these so-called founding mothers, these accounts are overshadowed by the stories of their more famous sons. Gullan’s title foretells his main assumption: that faith in the potential of their offspring as well as a strong religious faith rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs guided these matriarchs and provided a common thread for examining their lives. Indeed it is suggested that had many of our presidents not been in public office, they would have entered the ministry of their respective religious traditions. Gullan questions whether some presidential mothers held too tightly to the apron strings rather than gave wings to their sons’ ambitions and dreams. He claims Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Catholicism was more form than substance and was deeply concerned about outward appearances of propriety. FDR’s “smothering mother” Sara Roosevelt doted on her only child and actually forbade him from divorcing Eleanor. Both Lincoln’s mother and stepmother figured prominently in his formation. From Lincoln’s “angel” accolades of his mother to Nixon’s saintly portrayal of his parent, this book is as much about what famous sons thought of their mothers as it is about the lives of the women themselves. One learns much about the family of origin of future presidents—often involving stepfathers and half siblings and a variety of domestic arrangements. While some mothers hailed from a life of privilege, others struggled in poverty as single mothers or partners in abusive relationships, or as blind observers to a husband’s infidelities. Gullan implies that it was the maternal more than the paternal influence that most shaped the lives of our nation’s presidents. The verdict may still be out on the primary presidential influence, but this book stands as an enjoyable read and an inside perspective on the domestic road to the White House.
Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by Leonard Rogoff. Alabama $39.95
This book provides a rich historical narrative of the experience of Jews living in the neighboring North Carolina Piedmont towns of Durham and Chapel Hill. Durham holds a particular significance in the brief history of scholarship on Southern Jews as it was the setting for The Provincials, Eli N. Evans’ pioneering and influential, but primarily autobiographical account of the Southern Jewish experience. In Homelands, historian Leonard Rogoff employs an impressive array of documentary sources and oral histories to describe how and why Jews were drawn to the region as it became an industrial tobacco and textile town, university center, and now, a metropolitan area. Rogoff offers much detail on the familiar theme of how European immigrant Jews maintained a Jewish identity and community while becoming small-town Southerners, even as the meaning of each of these categories was, and is, diverse and always changing. Unique contributions of the book include descriptions of the brief role of Jewish immigrant labor in the birth of the tobacco industry; the relative openness of the universities to Jews in the 20th century; and recent developments within the increasingly large and diverse Jewish population in this growing American Sunbelt metropolis.
The Man Who Made Wall Street, by Dan Rottenberg. Pennsylvania $29.95
The man in question is Anthony J. Drexel, partner of Junius and J. P. Morgan, friend of Jay Cooke and George Childs, founder of the Drexel Institute, and uncle and patron to Saint Katherine Drexel. The man’s career is a microcosm of the developments of the American financial market in the crucial half-century after 1850—from railroad bonds to industrial finance. His was the first company to build an opulent statement on Wall Street in lower Manhattan and was a pioneer in international finance, with offices in London and Paris. Yet Drexel remains largely unknown. This book, directed more to the financial enthusiast than to the academic, indicates that he deserves better.
Lee in the Shadow of Washington, by Richard B. McCaslin. Louisiana $29.95
Although many have recognized the various parallels and connections between Washington and Lee, much of the discussion has been superficial. McCaslin’s mining of this rich vein has rendered information of considerable importance in understanding the degree to which Lee’s lifelong admiration for Washington influenced his education, choice of career, marriage, domestic life, and personal character. Of particular interest are McCaslin’s persuasive views of the manner in which Washington’s example guided Lee’s decision to provide his services to the Confederacy, the principles that governed his strategic planning and execution, his rejection of guerilla tactics in the waning days of the Civil War, his work for reunification, and his acceptance of the presidency of Washington College. Washington is shown to have been Lee’s lifelong mentor, rather than the source of some marble image engrafted on Lee’s dead features by Lost Cause iconographers. Lee earned his Washington likeness honestly and at great personal cost.
The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series: Volume 11, August-October 1777, edited by Philander D. Chase and Edward Lengel. Virginia $70
The leaders of the American Revolution thought and communicated on paper, and many of their letters and written orders have fortunately survived. For two decades the editors of The Papers of George Washington have opened a window into the military operations and organization of the Continental Army by diligently publishing Washington’s Revolutionary War papers, which document the politics and leadership of its generals and provide glimpses into the daily struggles of American troops. Their latest volume presents more than 600 documents created during the frustrating three months of maneuvering and fighting that followed General William Howe’s movement up the Chesapeake and his successful march on and occupation of Philadelphia. Washington’s incoming and outgoing correspondence details his almost disastrous defeat at Brandywine Creek and his attack on British positions at Germantown, which failed, quite literally, because of the fog of war. Washington and his officers were defeated on the field, but not in spirit, as their men fought well against professional British soldiers. Good news from the Northern Department, where General Horatio Gates defeated and captured the British army under General John Burgoyne, also kept up patriot hopes. The most illuminating documents in the volume are Washington’s general orders, which offer snapshots of Continental Army tactics, morale, discipline, and propaganda. Extensive editorial annotations provide necessary identifications and context, and four maps trace the movements and clashes of the British and American armies. Most valuable is a detailed analytical index that organizes and makes accessible to scholars and other researchers a vast amount of information. The editors, like Washington’s troops heading into the winter at Valley Forge, can take pride in their past accomplishments as they anticipate their future efforts with confidence.
Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life, by Nancy Mowll Mathews. Yale $39.95
This engaging study is a sociologically and psychoanalytically informed biography of the famous painter that pays special attention to Gauguin’s self-conscious construction of his own life as an artist. Pointing out the overlap between Freud’s developing psychosexual theory of personality and Gauguin’s abiding interest in “the role of sexuality in human creative acts,” Mathews refuses to interpret the artist “as a Marxist or feminist cultural hero,” and finds his thinking about myth, religion and primitivism to be shallow and derivative. Gauguin believed “that a person must create his . . . own life . . . in the same way that a painting is willfully constructed,” and the strength of this biography is Mathews’ attention to Gauguin’s attention both to manipulating art markets and to fashioning an artistic persona for himself. Doing so, he often abused his friends and lovers, and Mathews does not shrink from judging him on that score while nonetheless skillfully interpreting his art and writings.
Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Steers, Jr. Kentucky $29.95
Thousands of books have been written about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, but there are few scholarly examinations of the events and circumstances surrounding his assassination. As a result, myths and half truths abound concerning this tragic event. Steers has written a detailed, scholarly account based on original sources as well as newly discovered evidence concerning the assassination. Steers traces the events which led to that fateful night in Ford’s Theater: the careful plotting by the conspirators, the role of John Wilks Booth, the murder, Booth’s flight and death, the roundup of the other conspirators, and the trial and executions. The assassination of Lincoln was not simply the act of a deranged actor but part of a wider, more complicated conspiracy involving members of the Confederate Secret Service, Confederate sympathizers and agents, chief among whom was Dr. Samuel Mudd, too often regarded as simple, country doctor. The assassination was in retaliation for the unsuccessful Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid in which Union cavalry tried to free Union prisoners, burn Richmond and assassinate Jefferson Davis. The author follows conspiracy from its origins to the burial of Lincoln’s body in Springfield, Illinois.
Iris Murdoch: A Life, by Peter J. Conradi. Norton $35
For many people Iris Murdoch is best known as a novelist. But a lucky few know it is her non-fictional works, especially her Platonic philosophical essays, which serve as the spinal cord of her thought, and the luminescent core of her gift to the world. For these people the appearance of a biography is cause for both excitement and anxiety, because the value of learning more about her life and the origins of her thought is counterbalanced by the anxiety that she will become a more generally known commodity and perhaps suffer the obscure disvaluing that comes with popularity. Happily for us, this biography satisfies the hope while quieting the anxiety, for it is written by a true lover of Murdoch’s thought—one whose criteria match rather well those of her aficionados. This results in a biography which is not ponderous, yet remains too microscopically detailed for those seeking an entry into her world. Much of the book is dedicated to the years up until 1947—when she re-entered her academic career in Cambridge and then (from 1948) in Oxford—and it elegantly but not obtrusively discusses Murdoch’s rather exerting love life, provoking thought but not titillation. Conradi is extremely good on the influences that went into Murdoch’s development, and he alludes to various heretofore hidden wondrous treasures—such as noting that Murdoch wrote a book on Heidegger in the 1980’s and 90’s, which she decided not to publish. Most basically, he has a gift for being intimate with Murdoch while yet seeing her wholly in truth—confirming one of her most persistent insistences, namely that in seeing the world in love, we see the world aright. A generous and honest biography, one much as Murdoch deserves.
Gwen John: A Painter’s Life, by Sue Roe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $30
Consider two self-portraits by Gwen John: the first with her strong painter’s hand at her waist, imperious facial expression, elegant silk dress; the second soft, even beseeching, shawl drooping, the writing and painting hand nowhere to be seen. Roe tells us, carefully and sympathetically, the story of the one woman who lived both these personae, simultaneously. John painted in Paris during the heady years before the first World War. Accepting Rodin as her long-term lover and Rilke as her friend, she nonetheless lived largely in hiding from people, even standing up Ezra Pound during one of her lay retreats. She beseeched God to inform her imagination and her modernist experiments, and eventually converted to Catholicism. Roe tells us that she painted “women in rooms,” and, in filling out that simple phrase, illuminates an important period in modern art, a woman’s life, and the mysteries of artistic intensity and vision. Roe’s excellent use of unpublished letters to tell John’s story implies the need for a carefully edited volume of John’s correspondence. After reading A Painter’s Life, one hopes that Roe will do the job.
FICTION The Cry of an Occasion: Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, edited by Richard Bausch, with a foreword by George Garrett. Louisiana $29.95
Nineteen writers, either members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers or winners of the Hillsdale Prize for Fiction or the Chubb Award for Fiction in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, selected their own contributions to this collection. They’re all gems, but stories by Elizabeth Spencer (“The Everlasting Light”), George Garrett (“Feeling Good, Feeling Fine”), Madison Smartt Bell (“The Naked Lady”), and Doris Betts (“Three Ghosts”) shine especially bright—no mean feat in such brilliant company.
The Marble Quilt, by David Leavitt. Houghton Mifflin $24
These new stories by a writer who made it big just after finishing college (at Yale) nearly 20 years ago bear the trademarks of his work. Smoldering homoeroticism billows through deft prose and entertains richly, even if this collection seems weaker than his others. In “The List,” Leavitt plays innovatively with the format of Laclos’s masterpiece Les liaisons dangereuses, a book composed entirely of letters traded among a group of rivals. “The List” consists of messages traded over e-mail between gay scholars. In “Crossing St. Gotthard,” we read lines anyone familiar with Leavitt’s previous work might immediately ascribe to him: “And Harold watched Stephen’s trousers hungrily, hungrily. Glimpses, guesses. All he had ever known were glimpses, guesses.” Describing desire distinguishes the author’s talents. Turning 40 now, David Leavitt is nothing if not consistent.
Best New American Voices, 2001, edited by Charles Baxter, John Kulka, and Natalie Danfurd. Harvest $14
The numbers are impressive. The 17 stories by emerging new writers collected here come from “about 350 prescreened nominations from about 150 writing programs in America and Canada.” Filtered through editors Kulka and Danford, a small group of finalists were sent on to be examined and selected by guest editor Charles Baxter. Baxter’s selections are in part conditioned and directed by his own moderate ideological agenda. His co-editors allow: “His selections make for a diverse multi-cultural anthology,” one which stresses the “meeting of cultures: gay and straight, black and white, domestic and foreign.” Never mind about educational agendas. The stories themselves are excellent—especially Phyllis Keith’s “Of Cabbages,” Amanda Davis’s “Louisiana Loses Its Cricket Hum,” and Jeb Livingood’s “Oh, Albany, My Love.” All the stories are brimming with youthful energy and promise some serious accomplishment by gifted new talents.
P is for Peril, by Sue Grafton. Putnam $26.95
As the alphabet mystery series has progressed, so has Sue Grafton’s writing style. Her sleuth, Kinsey Millhone, has developed from a one-dimensional female version of the hard-boiled private eye into a complex and thoroughly likeable character whose eccentricities only add to her subversive charm. In this installment, the ex-wife of a popular doctor hires Kinsey to find out why he was killed. Kinsey quickly finds herself in the midst of a family drama in which she cannot help but take sides as she searches for the culprit in this suspenseful and intricately plotted mystery.
The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24
As Julie Summers’ car breaks down in a slum of Cape Town, South Africa, a turbulent love affair begins when Abdul, an illegal Arab immigrant, offers to help. Julie’s white and wealthy family disapproves of Abdul—who soon faces deportation—in a quiet but firm way. Julie and Abdul marry, fly to a nameless Arab country where Abdul’s family welcomes them. There, among her modest and strongly unified Muslim in-laws, Julie finds the comfort and sense of belonging that always eluded her; meanwhile, Abdul’s desperate longing for social elevation in the Western World, has dangerously intensified. The Pickup offers a realistic, unsentimental look at individuals torn apart by the love that united them as its “acceptance” also brought about “the authority to impose conditions.” With its densely colorful characters, its precise and lush narration, the 1991 Nobel Prize winner’s latest novel is one that enthralls, surprises and delights.
Lord of the Silent, by Elizabeth Peters. Morrow $25
In the latest installment of Elizabeth Peters’ popular Amelia Peabody mystery series, the indomitable Emerson family returns to their excavation sites in Egypt in the midst of World War I. Accompanied by Gargery, the irrepressible Sennia (and cat), and the newlyweds, Ramseys and Nefret, they arrive in Egypt and are immediately surrounded by romance, espionage, and murder. The one sour note in this otherwise highly enjoyable novel is Peters’ self-conscious attempt to represent the narrative as a reconstructed manuscript with interpolated documents. The gimmick doesn’t quite work, but Amelia Peabody fans will love the novel nevertheless.
The Valedictorian and Other Stories, by S. D. Navarro. Bilingual Review/Press $10<