Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Spring 2003

ISSUE:  Spring 2003

No modern scholar of the Civil War had studied the military aspects of the Fredericksburg campaign in rigorous detail until Francis O’Reilly, and his book will certainly stand as the definitive study of that campaign for some time. O’Reilly argues that earlier views oversimplify both the campaign and the costly battle of December 13, 1862, which pitted against one another the two largest armies ever assembled in the war. In many unprecedented ways the fighting in the Fredericksburg campaign has more in common with modern warfare than with other Civil War battles, most of which unfolded in woods and fields: Fredericksburg was the first American city subjected to systematic bombardment; the first city in North America in which armies engaged in street fighting; and the site of the first river-crossing under fire. O’Reilly also shows that Ambrose Burnside, the Union general usually scapegoated for the disastrous charges against the stone wall on Marye’s Heights, should not bear all the blame for failure. Above Burnside loomed Lincoln, along with Stanton and Halleck, and Lincoln, in desperate political need of a victory, exerted intense pressure on his general, pressure that subverted military pragmatism. Below Burnside stood generals, such as Hooker and Franklin, who failed or performed poorly in their own ways. Finally, O’Reilly’s study reminds us that the Battle of Fredericksburg really consisted of two distinct and separate battles, the famous one on Marye’s Heights and a second one to the south involving Stonewall Jackson. Whereas the first battle really amounted to systematic slaughter, the second was characterized by what O’Reilly calls “savage closeness” and “can rightfully be called the true Battle of Fredericksburg.” Another gem of Civil War history from one of the best presses in the field.

The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, by Richard Davenport-Hines. Norton $29.95

Although described several times by the author as a history of narcotics (by which term he includes not only opiates, but stimulants like cocaine, hallucinogens like marijuana, and hypnotics like chloral), this book is, in fact, less a historical survey than a massive catalogue of historical examples which serves to illustrate the manufacture, distribution, and use and misuse of these drugs through brief descriptions of the lives of the people concerned. It ranges from De Quincey to Freud to Ginsberg but deals chiefly with the medical and social problems in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is obviously the result of a major effort to discover and organize a vast amount of information on the subject, and it is accomplished with authority and flair. Indeed, what might easily have been dull and laborious reading in the official publications has been made interesting and often provocative by a constant parade of men and women whose lives were in some way changed for better or for worse by the drugs they took. But while the reader can follow the development of the narcotics trade through the successive stages of unregulated private use and toleration, to greater public concern, government classification and control, and, finally, to prohibition and the rise of the international illicit market, there is also an underlying thesis which comes as a conclusion to this work. Given the impossibility of complete control over drugs, the astronomical annual cost in trying to police them, the criminal consequences of the trade, the fact that many of the drugs now listed can, when properly used, be beneficial, would not a reasonable solution be now to establish a free market under government license? After reviewing the evidence presented here, it is a question that every thoughtful reader will want to consider.

Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935—1940, by Reynolds M. Salerno. Cornell $35

The historiography of the origins of the Second World War in Europe has an Anglo-German bias, The bilateral conflict did, of course, engulf the entire continent, but according to the extant scholarship, the war’s origins are rooted in the rivalry between England and Germany. In this fascinating and compelling volume, Salerno seeks to correct this bias by focusing on the role played by Italian foreign policy with respect to France and Britain, in determining the way in which the crisis years unfolded. Salerno argues that until 1935, Italian foreign policy was cautiously expansionist in the Mediterranean region. A policy of negotiation with England and Germany accompanied one of confrontation with France and Yugoslavia. After 1935, when Mussolini assumed a firm hand on Italian grand strategy, this bifurcated foreign policy became wedded to an imperial ideology synchronous with Hitler’s Lebensraum. Such a strategy was likely to succeed because the Mediterranean region was of asymmetric strategic importance for France and Britain. Because the French and British were never able to overcome the divisions created by Italy’s Mediterranean policy, Allied pre-war and wartime strategy was severely hobbled. For Salerno, the inability of the Allies to adopt a coherent strategy led directly to “nine months of “phony war,” the fall of France, and eighteen months of peril for the British.” Vital Crossroads is a compelling and well-crafted work of history. Salerno’s work sheds new and invaluable light on the origins of the Second World War, and should be read by historians and international relations scholars alike.

Confederate Crackers and Cavaliers, by Grady McWhiney. McWhiney $29.95

After half a century of teaching and writing, Grady McWhiney has become a venerable figure in Civil War history. His particular contributions have included a noteworthy biography of Braxton Bragg and a number of observations on the tragic effects of West Point training on Civil War tactics. He has emphasized the “Celtic” origins of many Southerners as a critical source of cultural divergence from the culture of the North. This new and enjoyable book, from the presses of the author’s own foundation, contains in distilled form these characteristic themes. Considerable emphasis is placed on the role of Jefferson Davis and there are thoughtful chapters on A. P. Hill, Beauregard, Grant, and sexual behavior of Southern officers, as well as the recurrent themes of “cavalier/cracker culture,” Bragg, and outmoded tactics. It is all vintage McWhiney—comprehensive grasp of pertinent military history, provocative revisionism, engaging writing style. There may be some straw men and the extent to which the author’s love of a good story occasionally influences his interpretations will be vexing to specialists. His version of the “two culture” theory of the evolution of our Civil War may be oversimplified and overstated as compared to Vernon Parrington’s older and perhaps wiser observations on that subject. But every chapter is intriguing and informative and the whole amounts to a book that will greatly please most Civil War buffs and engender debates in each of the nation’s innumerable Civil War roundtables.

The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity During the Hundred Years War, by Susan Crane. Pennsylvania $19.95

Crane’s book intelligently and creatively investigates the ways in which late medieval subjects are constituted through participation in cultural practices and rituals from 1300—1450, a period of intense cultural exchange between France and England. Crane challenges the idea that, in the context of performance, the body operates as the locus of identity, arguing instead for the importance of bodily gestures, clothing, and ornament as arbiters of identity. The first part of the book discusses the methods through which clothes were designed to speak, that is, to articulate the social and ancestral identity of the wearer, or even to make this identity function as a poetic conceit. In later chapters, Crane explores the ritual inversions of the charivari and interlude, which invite unruly behavior (the staging of the wild man, for instance), and instill oppositional possibilities in the identities of the performers. On the subject of “cross-dressing,” Crane analyzes how Joan of Arc’s clothes served as a means of self-definition, and how during her heresy trial, it was this surface, and not a hidden interior that became the focus of her inquisitors.

Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation, by Elizabeth Regosin. Virginia $49.50 cloth, $17.50 paper

Regosin focuses on pension legislation passed between 1862 and 1890. She examines 100 pension claims from soldiers, widows, mothers, fathers, and children from every state in the South including the border states. Most of the claimants were former slaves, though a few were free blacks. Not only does Regosin explore the pension process from the first application to the final decision, she also explores what it means for formerly enslaved people to become citizens. Her attention to the claims of widows, children, and parents contributes to a better understanding of the black family during a period of great transformation. She has done an excellent job of drawing out the complexities of the transition from slavery to freedom through their personal narratives. As such, this study is a compilation of stories with themes that still resonate in contemporary society: identity, displacement, assimilation, and resistance.

The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941—1945, by Michael Beschloss. Simon & Schuster $26.95

Whether a particular war is just or otherwise, warfare is an ethical domain fraught with challenges that are vexing and chilling. And, when the stakes are as large as they were in Europe from 1941—1945, any decision is likely to be ethically imperfect. Among the subjects in esteemed historian Michael Beschloss’ new book The Conquerors is the nettlesome historical debate surrounding American knowledge of and policies toward the Nazi death camps. Beschloss presents both sides of the argument in a fair and balanced manner, yet according to the author, Roosevelt had excellent intelligence on the Holocaust that was being waged on Europe’s Jews and failed to act. The unflinching efforts of Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau to first persuade the president to act, and then failing that, to push for an exceptionally punishing peace constitutes the book’s more fascinating themes. So presented, Morgenthau stands as an interesting historical figure. On the one hand, we can see that on the issue of forcibly ending the slaughter of millions of civilians by the Nazis, Morgenthau’s dogged determination is impressive and worthy of admiration. On the other hand, the information that drove him to clash with his president and with Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson over the Holocaust also led Morgenthau to push for a punitive peace; an outcome that would certainly have stymied the development of a strong, peaceful, and democratic Germany. Indeed, according to Beschloss, it was the determination of FDR not to repeat the failures of history contained in the treaty of Versailles that ultimately determined the content of U.S. policy. Beschloss has written a fascinating book on an exceptionally important subject. This work is worthy of consideration by all who ponder the ethical and power-political questions in war and peace.

Kansas: The History of the Sunflower State, 1854—2000, by Craig Miner. Kansas $29.95

Announced as combining serious scholarship with great readability, Kansas is a comprehensive work enlivened with wry anecdotes about the state that has been called “the commonwealth of hyperbole.” Miner’s presentation persuades that though time and place dictate much, it is the convictions and acts of particular people—such as John Brown in the Free-State Struggle and Clarina Nichols for women’s rights—that have influenced largely Kansas’ paradoxical course in wobbling back and forth between slave and free, wet and dry, empowering women and restricting women, laissez faire and governmental control, boom and bust, and creationism and evolution. This thoroughly researched work seems to miss no important character or event in flowing smoothly from the “Bleeding Kansas” of territorial days to the modern industrialized state that perhaps rightfully deserves the appellation of social and economic experiment station of the nation.

The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II, by John Bierman and Colin Smith. Viking $29.95

This lively book about a still largely underappreciated theater of the war makes good casual reading for military history buffs. Serious students of World War II will not be so impressed. Although the authors have made an important contribution to the study of the war by virtue of their extensive interviews with surviving veterans, the rest of the work rests almost entirely on secondary source material in English. In addition, the authors did no research in German archives and present only the British perspective of the battle. They accordingly overestimate Alamein’s wider significance in World War II. A good work of popular history, but not much else.

Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York, by Richard M. Ketchum. Henry Holt $30

Turning from his readable histories of the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, and Saratoga, Richard Ketchum in his latest book considers the 15 years that preceded the actual outbreak of hostilities in 1775. The dramatic story of the real American Revolution, that which occurred in the hearts and minds of colonists who were transformed in the 1760’s and early 1770’s from loyal subjects of King George III, has been told many times before, but never as eloquently. In plumbing the depths of the factionalism that developed between the influential DeLancey and Livingston families and of the maneuvering of British politicians, as well as detailing the assumptions and actions of imperial policymakers in London, the author brings to light how an empire was lost and brings to life the individuals who had to decide where their loyalties lay. By drawing on the letters, journals, and diaries of early New York City residents, this engaging account never loses sight of the people who had to choose sides as the forces of resistance and reform gathered momentum and turned into America’s first civil war. This poignant narrative, supported by a list of principal characters, a bibliography, source notes, and an index, can be read profitably and enjoyably by all.

Glass: A World History, by Alan MacFarlane and Gerry Martin. Chicago $27.50

Glass is a provocative work which, like many other popular books in the past decade, attempts to establish the necessary (if not sufficient) conditions which produced the most technologically sophisticated cultures in world history. Where the book Guns, Germs, and Steel grounds the technological superiority of Renaissance Europe upon the peculiarities of geography and other advantages in its distant agricultural past, MacFarlane and Martin argue that the technological superiority of the West hinges upon a less magnificent advantage: facility in the technology of glass-making. Glass provides a cogent argument, moving with relative ease between continents, cultures, and historical periods, yet for those readers who seek a detailed and scholarly exploration, they are bound to be a little disappointed, as the intended audience is a general one. Still, the thesis is curious and original, and the work provocative in its implications for the study of technological history.

Water Technology in the Middle Ages: Cities, Monasteries, and Waterworks after the Roman Empire, by Roberta J. Magnusson. Johns Hopkins $38

Obviously we know very little about medieval European plumbing, except that it simply copied Roman methods and didn’t work very well. Well, that’s a not-so-obvious assumption. Magnusson leads us through what we do know about medieval hydraulics, which survives in the ground as archaeological artifacts and on paper as records, mostly of monasteries. The author discusses the engineers, the planners, the builders, and the users. She cautions that surviving plans do not necessarily match what actually got built, and that plumbing undergoes constant modification. A richly interesting book on an unlikely topic.

Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America, by Sarah J. Purcell. Pennsylvania $35

This interesting study shows how the public memory of the American Revolutionary War in the decades following the founding of the U.S. not only informed the culture of republicanism and helped create a national mythology of unity and national cohesion but also formed in effect a national identity based on a shared history of common sacrifice and common political vision. Extensively researched and very well written, it covers the period from Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 to Lafayette’s triumphal return to America in 1825.

The Landscape of History, by John Lewis Gaddis. Oxford $23

This highly readable little book, subtitled “How Historians Map the Past,” explicates the historical method. Through mainly visual metaphors of painting, drama, cartography, mathematics, biology, physics, Mr. Gaddis shows us how historians tackle the problems and processes of portraying the past. The historian is not bound by time or space, but in order to define the topic and organize myriad pieces of evidence, he must choose what to include and what to discard. A written history is selective, abbreviated, abstracted. And in choosing and ordering the particulars, the historian molds a representation of events. We should be skeptical of believing that any history approaches reality. An historian’s portrayal of the past is idiosyncratic and, for good or ill, it often contains a moral agenda. Mr. Gaddis’ insights are as astute as they are intriguing.

LITERARY STUDIESThe Complete Works of W. H Auden: Prose, Volume II, 1939—1948, edited Edward Mendelson. Princeton $45

During his first 10 years in America, Auden wrote what are often considered among his best poems, such as his elegies for Yeats and Freud and “September 1, 1939.” Now Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, has scoured the archives and assembled for the first time the poet’s imaginative, wit-brimming prose from this period, much of it never before reprinted. In essays that range in subject from Mozart, Henry James, and Yeats to Christianity, wartime poetry, and ironic heroism, Auden displays the capacious intellect, wide-ranging sympathies, and unfaltering brilliance that make him one of the most admired writers of the 20th century. Mendelson’s meticulously edited collection will be a delight for all who relish the work of this massive, mid-century mind.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar. Norton $35

Fairy tales, according to one school of thought, are morality plays that can help us mold our children into model members of society. In this collection of 25 of our most enduring fairy tales, Maria Tatar strongly disagrees. Tatar, a Harvard Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and a frequent commentator on children’s literature celebrates the power and mystery of fairy tales. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales illustrates the ways of the world—a world that is harsh and where humans live with fear, anxiety, power, passion, and love. Given the mysteries, ambiguities, and complexities of each story, Tatar’s point is well taken. This book not only delivers stories such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Rumpelstiltskin” in modern rather than literal translation, it offers persuasive interpretations in annotations that explore the historical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of each work. One of the highlights of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales is the nearly 300 paintings and drawings by the legendary illustrators who have tried their hand at rendering various stories. Many of the images are reproduced in color.

The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. Ivan R. Dee $27.50

Henry Adams captured the essence of the 11th-century Norman age in a celebrated description of a dinner that William soon-to-be Conqueror hosted at Mont Saint Michel. Hughes-Hallett performs the same feat for the age of high English Romanticism. The reconstructed dinner—hosted in 1817 by Benjamin Robert Haydon for Wordsworth, Keats, Lamb, and Monkhouse—is placed within a context of scene-setting detail and denouement that place the reader upon a familiar footing with the participants and their society. One becomes, effortlessly, a privileged member of the party. As such, we come to know enough about Joseph Banks, Sarah Siddons, Leigh Hunt, Wellington, Hazlitt, Byron, Coleridge, and their dozens of friends, enemies, families, triumphs, tragedies, their Elgin marbles, London architecture and geography, and every other contemporary subject, as to promptly appreciate with wink, tear, or nod the conversation of an immortal evening. At the center is the light that is shed on the exceedingly interesting life of the painter Haydon, while the rest revealed in greater or lesser chiaroscuro detail. Our knowledge of those we already knew well is enriched or vivified. For the rest there are new figures to greatly admire— such as the patient and considerate Monkhouse. And there is human frailty—such as Mary Lamb’s madness—and the way of the world— Haydon’s own sad demise—to contemplate. What a splendid evening one can spend at the table of Haydon’s Lisson Grove lodgings and in his world, courtesy of this wonderful, eloquently evocative and provocative book. And as is appropriate for such a social occasion, rich scholarship is distributed inconspicuously among laughter, brilliant conversation, wit, the elegant comestibles. Appropriate to the age of the familiar essay, comfortably amusing conversation may in an unguarded moment seize one viscerally. High flown sentiments, ideals, and acts may inspire admiration or may beg indulgence where we recognize that a dear friend is once again riding his charming and familiar hobby-horse or nursing the injuries of life.

The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle, by Jonathan S. Burgess. Johns Hopkins $45

The Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey continue to be translated anew, and noticed when they are. Less widely noticed are ongoing debates and discoveries as to other poetry about the Trojan War. Burgess takes up the many ways in which traditions of the war were transmitted (including performances, inscriptions and images) and evolving understanding of dates, locations, and connection among versions. He argues that the Homeric poems were not at first especially influential, and that a group of other poems, the Epic Tradition, are the earliest literary evidence. He also notes non-metrical sources. Many oral traditions have been found to have relations, not within lines (metrical) but among lines “measured.” Perhaps such will emerge in or around Greece. The range and argument of the book make valuable to any with interest in what we call Homeric, and indeed, in ancient traditions generally.

The New American Studies, by John Carlos Rowe. Minnesota $19.95

Since the 1950’s when Henry Nash Smith famously asked if American Studies could develop a method, the field has seen a host of attempted answers. The answers took a decidedly political turn in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. One of the most compelling voices in the recent debates has been that of John Carlos Rowe, and now in this collection of essays we have his answer as he advocates the inclusion of theoretical models while keeping the residual practices inherited from the history and literature model. The New American Studies is divided into two sections, the first aimed at other American Studies scholars and devoted to theoretical approaches to the discipline; in these, Rowe urges the adoption of postmodern, post-national, and cultural studies methods. In the second section of the book, Rowe puts these models into practice on texts ranging from Henry James, Modernist painting, Muriel Rukeyeser’s poems, Vietnam on film, and Elian Gonzalez. In each, he shows how American Studies can use its history of social criticism and, at the same time, benefit from other theoretical approaches. The book will be immensely worthwhile for scholars in American Studies, as well as those who might benefit from a synthetic model of poststructuralist methods.

Writing for the Information Age, by Bruce Ross-Larson. Norton $23.95

This is a valuable, and in places excellent, tool for writers, especially those writing for the Web. The format is designed to appeal to those whose medium of choice is the Internet, which generally works very well: each two-page spread is divided into columns labeled “technique,” “example,” and “comment.” A box entitled “links,” however, which directs the reader to related topics, seems as obtrusive as it is potentially helpful. The book opens with a valuable compendium of online thesauri, dictionaries, style guides, etc., and a thorough discussion of how to use Microsoft Word’s features to organize content and streamline formatting. The rest of the book is devoted to topics such as structure, writing devices, common usage errors, and economical writing. Ross-White clearly hopes his book will be the Elements of Style of the computer age, and in the main it is. It’s jarring, however, when he declares that a sentence that begins, “It appears that Cuba will” should be changed to “Cuba will.” What if Cuba doesn’t?

Shelley Among Others: The Play of the Intertext and the Idea of Language, by Stuart Peterfreund. Johns Hopkins $52

As renewed scholarly interest in English Romanticism continues to grow, a number of studies of its primary exemplars written from the standpoint of contemporary developments in literary theory have recently appeared. Peterfreund’s comprehensive study of the poetical works of Shelley situates itself among these recent books by appealing in particular to Shelley’s conception of language and its relationship to a variety of postmodern theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Paul deMan and Jacques Lacan. Peterfreund’s method is nothing if not exhaustive. Nearly every one of Shelley’s poems receives extensive commentary and interpretation. While newcomers to Shelley may be somewhat put off by the sheer density of reference and scholarly elaboration in the book, longtime students of Romantic poetry will find Peterfreund’s volume illuminating both in its explication of Shelley’s own complex philosophy of language and in what that philosophy reveals of the relationships among a variety of Romantic and other texts.

Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture: What Becomes a Legend Most, by William Patrick Day. Kentucky $29.95

Students of pop culture or fans of current vampire stories such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and novels by Anne Rice might enjoy this book. Being both old enough to remember Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows and young enough to enjoy Buffy, I recommend this book for people interested in vampire stories. Others may simply find the book an overwrought attempt at “scholarly” work. The book traces the portrayal of vampires, vampire slayers, and other archetypal characters in movies, books, and television shows as viewed through the prism of cultural context. Day starts with Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and moves quickly to more recent works. Stoker’s tale reflected the repressed sexuality and emphasis on Christianity prevalent during the Victorian era. Through detailed discussion of movies and television shows, Day argues that current depictions of vampires reflect the alienation and inherent conflicts of modern life.

What Is What Was: Essays, Stories, Poems, by Richard Stern. Chicago $18

The nonfictional work of a novelist as accomplished and highly-praised as Richard Stern would merit our attention if only for the sake of the light it sheds on his fiction. What Is What Was offers far more than that. Stem brings his characteristic focus and economy to the nearly 70 pieces collected here, which include portraits, essays, reviews, elegies, and a small handful of stories and poems. The result is a rich and rewarding work. The non-fictional pieces abound with insights that transcend their subjects. Stern writes perceptively about science, sports, and politics, as well as writers and writing: his personal reminiscences of W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and Ralph Ellison are among the book’s highlights. The three works of short fiction included are excerpted from longer works. None of them is entirely satisfying in its truncated form, but they do serve as enticements to a larger experience of Stern’s fiction. Between the lines of all of his writing, one discerns a man who is thoroughly in love with the world of literature after half a century’s work in it, a man sustained by the community of writers and thinkers and eager to share with his readers “the feeling that you’re connected to those who’ve formed your mind and helped make your life comprehensible, moving, lighter, deeper.”

Willa Cather Scholarly Edition: The Professor’s House, edited by James Woodress, Kari Ronning, and Frederick M. Link. Nebraska $75

The impetus for this new scholarly edition of Cather’s seventh novel was the recent discovery of an extant previous draft of the novel showing that she had significantly revised it prior to publication. This discovery is important for Cather scholars because the author herself denied throughout her lifetime that any other drafts of the novel existed. James Woodress and Kari Ronning have provided extensive explanatory notes to accompany the text and draw links between the published version and Cather’s draft. Perhaps most interesting for non-specialists is Woodress’ historical essay contextualizing Cather’s story of Tom Outland’s archeological discovery within alongside of the Mesa Verde discovery in Colorado in the early 1890’s. Historians as well as Cather scholars will find this new work useful and informative.

Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature, edited by Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Missouri $37.50

The collection is a true miscellany of critical essays, nothing meriting the titular geologic metaphor which is repeated without any real meaning throughout the editors’ introduction and the essays themselves. The essays are perhaps competent, but uneven in vision and implementation, the strongest being Tobias Gregory’s “In Defense of Empson,” which offers an apology of the out-of-favor critic whom Alistair Fowler wrangles with endlessly in his two editions of Paradise Lost, Elizabeth Saur’s “Milton and Dryden on the Restoration Stage,” and Joan Faust’s “Donne on Love,” which attempts to ground Donne’s fear of sexual intimacy in the more disturbing scientific, medical, and religious theories of the early modern period.

Figuring Sex Between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester, by Paul Hammond. Clarendon $19.95

A difficult project accomplished with considerable aplomb. The figuration of homosexual desire is seldom unambiguous in Renaissance literature, and Hammond argues convincingly that this is a strategic decision on behalf of Renaissance writers to explore such relationships while not alarming the censors. He examines how Shakespeare adapted his sources to support (encourage?) the possibility of male homosexual relationships in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, but his examination of the Sonnets is perhaps the most persuasive. Unerringly faithful to the complexities of the series, Hammond examines how the multivalent dimensions of the poems richly encourage homosexual readings while not blatantly committing themselves. Deft handling of both the canonical texts and a wealth of unpublished manuscripts; must-have for any serious student of Shakespeare or Renaissance literature.

Memorial Fiction: Willa Cather and The First World War, by Steven Trout. Nebraska, $40

Professor Trout has written this “extended reexamination” of two of Willa Cather’s novels with the aim of enhancing appreciation of her sophisticated artistry, and to show cause why Cather should be acknowledged as one of the great writers about World War I—the equal of a Dos Passes or a Remarque. Trout develops convincing arguments through exacting analyses of Cather’s One of Ours, which he terms a war memorial, and The Professor’s House, which he terms a book about memorializing. Trout examines these within the context of the Great War’s culture of “a dangerous mixture of nostalgia (for chivalry) and modernity (mechanized war).” Much of Trout’s interpretations center on the symbolism he finds Cather drawing in the lives of main characters. For example, the death of Lt. Claude Wheeler signals the death of the American frontier and its attendant mythology. Memorial Fictions is a densely written book offering new insight on fiction about war.

Shakespeare Remains: Theatre to Film, Early Modern to Postmodern, by Courtney Lehmann. Cornell $18.95

Instead of asking the worn out question of whether or not Shakespeare wrote the plays assigned to him, Lehmann begins by asking what do we mean by the term “author” anyway? According to Lehmann, after postructuralism declared the death of the author, the aura and subjectivity invested in this term didn’t die, but became embodied by the “text.” After investigating the historical context of Renaissance authorship, Lehmann posits another alternative, using film theory’s idea of the “auteur,” which sees authorship as a montage effect that is produced out of the collision between the director/writer and his materials. Her book includes close readings of several plays as well as savvy discussions of how recent films, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, re-read Shakespeare and utilize the tensions between author and apparatus as a means of addressing the complex matrix of early modern authorship. She also looks at the filmic corpus of Kenneth Branagh as the most recent embodiment of post-colonial Shakespearean auteurship. Overall, Lehmann’s book is itself a montage of sorts, an intelligent, inventive engagement between Shakespeare studies and post-modern theory.

LIVES & LETTERSEnterprising Women, by Virginia Drachman. North Carolina $39.95

This book weaves the major themes of women’s history—work and family, gender and professional indentity, femininity and women’s “proper place,” and sex discrimination—into the fabric of American business history in biographic sketches of women entrepreneurs from the Colonial era to the year 2002. These are the stories of 50 women who understood how to mesh ideas, capital, labor, and advertising to create profitable enterprises. Always ambitious, sometimes failing, but seldom daunted, Drachman’s true characters—from legendary figures to the forgotten—file before the reader to command a rightful place in the business world. From Colonial days to Modern, from Rebecca Lukens with her iron manufacturing to Katharine Graham of The Washington Post, it is a colorful procession of talents and achievements told in engaging prose and elegantly presented with photos and color plates.

The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years, 1835—1862: Charlotte Street to Cheyne Walk. 1. 1835—1854; 11. 1855— 1862, edited by William E. Fredeman. D.S. Brewer $165

Scholars of Victorian arts and letters have long anticipated William Fredeman’s edition of the Dante Gabriel Rossetti correspondence. This new nine-volume edition, the first installments of which appeared this year, represents the culmination of more than 25 years of labor, and it both exceeds its readers’ expectations and fills a much-lamented gap in the scholarship. To say that Fredeman’s edition surpasses earlier editions of Rossetti’s correspondence is to stop short of the mark. The new Fredeman edition accomplishes nothing less than a full eclipse, more than doubling the total correspondence previously available in print, offering its readers access to nearly 5,800 Rossetti letters, written to more than 330 recipients, all of which have been judiciously annotated and fully indexed. Included among the letters are reproductions of more than 100 drawings and caricatures penned by Rossetti. Taken as a whole, this new collection promises to provide, in the words of its late editor, “a virtual extended day-diary and annotated address book” for the painter-poet, revealing “the entire human network on whom [Rossetti] depended and with whom he shared his domestic, professional, and intimate identity.”

Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, by Hermann Kurke. Princeton $35

This absorbing biography of Thomas Mann, famous for heavy novels such as Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, allows us to peek into the altogether private world of the great German writer. Mann, a Christian, fled the Nazis and settled in the United States—first in Princeton and then in southern California. This Nobel prize winner (for literature) developed an erotic attachment to his own son, a fact which initially shocked some of his devoted fans more than a decade ago. It seems none of Mann’s various homoerotic fantasies ever reached consummation, but they do pepper this lively look at an energetic and remarkably successful intellectual pace. Mann’s apparent preference for blond-haired, blue-eyed men will hardly surprise readers of Death in Venice. The hallowed director Visconti memorably adapted the novella for the screen; he masterfully cast an Aryan adonis to fan the flames of forbidden desire in what has become Mann’s best-known work. The translation (from German) by Leslie Willson reads smoothly.

My Own Medicine: A Doctor’s Life as a Patient, by Geoffrey Kurland, M.D. Henry Holt $25

Geoffrey Kurland writes an engaging story about the period in his life when he battled hairy cell leukemia, a rare form of cancer. A 42-year old pediatric pulmonologist when he was diagnosed in 1987, Kurland finds himself faced with medical treatments not dissimilar to those of his young patients. He is also faced with the emotions of a person staring down death, For a self professed “doer” from a family that doesn’t talk about its feelings, Kurland is honest about his tendency to distance himself from others. He realizes early in his treatment that this is a battle he will primarily fight alone. My Own Medicine is fascinating because Kurland writes with clarity and skill. Vivid descriptions of his cancer treatment—surgeries and chemotherapy—are balanced with recollections of similar procedures he administered to his young patients. My Own Medicine is not just about Kurland’s illness. It is also about his life as an extreme runner (he had qualified for the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race over the Sierra Nevada mountains, a month before his diagnosis), and as a man in relationship to his girlfriend, parents, patients, and colleagues. This memoir is full of insights for those who want to understand what is feels like to be a patient. It is also uplifting. Kurland’s attitude toward life is embodied by this quotation from a fellow ultrarunner: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg. Viking $29.95

Daniel Ellsberg’s covert photocopying and subsequent publishing of thousands of documents pertaining to the decision-making behind the American war effort in Vietnam is among the best known examples of civil disobedience in American history. It is certainly one of the most effective. Although Secrets does not reveal much new regarding the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s memoir is nevertheless a fascinating depiction of the crisis of conscience suffered by this former insider. Interestingly, Ellsberg knew very early on that the escalation of the war in 1964—65 was born in a crucible of deception. In August 1964, Ellsberg was busy pouring over the cables sent by the Navy from the Tonkin Gulf. His position allowed him the access to know that the administration’s claims regarding an “unprovoked attack” were simply not the case. Despite his early understanding and private revulsion to the course of American involvement in Southeast Asia, Ellsberg’s decision to risk his job and his freedom by copying and disseminating the famous documents did not come until 1971. His depiction of this period is extremely interesting—Ellsberg potently describes the frustration he suffered resulting from his fruitless attempts to convince his superiors that America’s Vietnam policies were fundamentally flawed. This is a fascinating memoir and should be read by anyone interested in this sad period in America’s history.

My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time, by Sven Birkerts. Viking $24.95

Before he was a respected essayist and literary critic, Sven Birkerts was a boy who preferred to be called Pete, squirmed under the weight of his Latvian heritage, and longed to be average. Growing up in 1950’s suburban Detroit, Birkerts was obsessed with an ideal of American boyhood that contrasted painfully with his own weirdly European household, dominated equally by the ways of his grandparents and the moods of his volatile architect father. When the 1960’s arrived, Birkerts enthusiastically joined the ranks of the contrary. In college he skipped classes, smoked pot, and lent his personal anger to the public causes. Eventually (like his mother) he found both escape and salvation in books. The warts-and-all approach of this satisfying memoir is a mark of the author’s honest curiosity. Even as Birkerts gradually understands more of his own story, he retains a sense of the self’s foreignness: “Odd,” he writes, “how we make our way into our lives.”

The Herndons: An Atlanta Family, by Carole Merritt. Georgia $39.95

From the very first sentence Carole Merritt engages the reader in the lives of the Herndon family. This family portrait illuminates much more than one family. We learn of the patriarch, Alonzo Herndon, an uneducated barber who had been enslaved. He built an empire from his skills, first as a barber, followed by real estate investments and later as founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Merritt focuses on Atlanta during the years 1880—1930 when people of color endured unprecedented violence. This study, however, illuminates another story of struggle. Merritt’s intimate look at the Herndon family addresses class as much as race. Copious images from the Herndons’ personal collection, an extensive bibliography and index as well as endnotes enhance this beautifully bound study. Merritt’s discussion of race relations, social conditions, and Southern history within a family biography is an American story that warms the heart and lifts the spirit.

Madame de Pompadour: A Life, by Evelynne Lever. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $26

How many male heads of state today keep mistresses? Hard to say. Prince Charles’ Camilla Parker-Bowles, to name only one, follows in a rich and not-yet-dead tradition of mistresses. In this lively biography we get to know the mistress of Louis XV of France. Except for the fortune teller who predicted it all before the fact, no one would have guessed that a bourgeois girl in the 18th century could go so far. And go far she did, becoming a wealthy and influential woman in her own right. We read here of the travails she faced, the gossip she had to overcome, in her quest to become a bona fide patroness of the arts. Even Jesuit priests would refuse her absolution when she tried to say confession. Life wasn’t easy, but it was never boring, for a woman who made the most of what she had in a particularly colorful period of French history.

These Hands I Know: African-American Writers on Family, by Afaa Michael Weaver. Sarabande Books $16.95

Weaver has assembled an eclectic group of poets and prose writers. Seventeen essayists present their offerings about family. They have created a showplace where readers can sit back and enjoy private thoughts and conversations. Each writer in their own way reveals their interior lives as it relates to family. As a whole these essays explore the wide range of African American life and culture. Attention is given to men, particularly fathers. What a pleasure to explore the complexity of the black male psyche through the lens of family. This collection of essays challenges our perceptions of ourselves as well as our perception of those deemed as “others.” At the core we find ourselves through these fresh representations of self. We learn that we are more alike than unalike.

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired, by Francine Prose. HarperCollins $25.95

The central conceit of this book, the presentation of nine chapters, each of which presents a bio-sketch of a different woman who served as the inspiration to a famed male artist, reads as literary voyeurism, the aesthete’s version of “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Dr. Phil.” Prose highlights the tumultuous and dysfunctional relationship between artist and muse (a power dynamic, to be sure, in which the always feminine muse’s talents, interests, and desires are subservient to those of the artist for whose work she provides fodder). It is a fast-paced, entertaining read, but the stereotypes in which it engages, and the easy assumptions and moral clarity with which it judges the relationships that it portrays, also make The Lives of the Muses a guilty pleasure. The book’s introduction considers the multiple definitions of a muse before falling back on a standard but limited notion of female victimhood. One wishes that Prose would have complicated the notion of a “muse” by considering relationships in which a man inspired (or supported) a woman in her artistry, same-sex muse/ artist relationships (one thinks of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein or Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf), or those in which both (or several) members of a relationship served as both artist and muse, as with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Such an approach may have provided a more satisfying understanding of the complex psychology of “inspiration” and its relationship to the realization of works of art.

My Father’s People: A Family of Southern Jews, by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Louisiana $22.50

Author or editor of more than 50 books, and for many years a dominant figure in the study of Southern literature, Rubin here turns back to Charleston, South Carolina, the world of his youth (and the world of his early novel—The Golden Weather), to tell us the story of his family, focusing specifically on his father and his father’s brothers and sisters. Rubin, a first-rate journalist before he began his academic career—a time well told in his 2001 memoir, An Honorable Estate: My Time in the Working Press—here proves himself to be a master, as well, of the popular form of the family memoir. Enduring poverty and misfortune, the Rubin family in the end prevailed and enjoyed productive and influential lives. Told in a lean, clear, evocative prose, enriched by a cast of quirky and memorable characters, My Father’s People is a deeply moving, yet utterly unsentimental American story, signal proof that there is (sometimes) a core of irrepressible laughter at the heart of things.

Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804—1824, by Aleksandr Nikitenko, translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson. Yale $16.95

This light but absorbing little memoir has long been known to students of 19th-century Russia but deserves a wider audience. Nikitenko, who rose from serfdom to become a university professor and prominent literary critic and thus can hardly be considered typical, nevertheless provides a remarkable glimpse into the world of the serf. His account is doubly interesting as he was passionately Ukrainian and therefore has insightful things to say about the differences between “Moskals,” as he terms ethnic Russians, and his fellow “Little Russians.” A stimulating foreword by Peter Kolchin, a historian who has written widely on the similarities and dissimilarities between American slavery and Russian serfdom, is an added reason why this small offering on the nature of Russia’s own “peculiar institution” should not be overlooked by scholars and general readers alike. Well-chosen illustrations and maps of the regions in question are likewise helpful.

Last of the Old-Time Outlaws: The George West Musgrave Story, by Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner Jr. Oklahoma $39.95

George West Musgrave (1877—1947) was a cattle rustler, train robber and killer who galloped through the Southwest, creating havoc for a living. In this thoroughly researched and competently written biography, the authors—John Tanner, a history professor at Palomar College, and Karen Tanner, the author of Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait—approached, but did not cross, the line between academic and trade publishing. Which, given the topic, is too bad. They used fascinating, primary sources, including the Pinkerton Detective Agency files on the Dalton Gang; Wells, Fargo & Co.’s robbery reports; the Musgrave Family Bible; and the Larry Pointer Papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. The authors present Musgrave’s life in remarkable detail, but could have spilled more ink on setting the scene and placing Musgrave’s life in the context of his times. And much of the background information that appeared in the endnotes could profitably have been woven into the narrative, improving its chances of being read and contributing depth to the book. By the end of the trail, this cowpoke just wanted to ease back on the reins and sit for a moment on a creaky saddle, listen to the train steaming across the flatlands and watch a big red sun set over the mesa, relieved that Musgrave was out of the picture.

I Acted From Principle: The Civil War Diary of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon in the Trans-Mississippi, edited by Cynthia DeHaven Pitcock and Bill J. Gurley. Arkansas $34.95

The outbreak of any war, particularly a civil war, has the effect of promptly subduing reason, doubt, and understanding. The wide spectrum of individual human opinion at other times shaded so delicately by loyalties, criticisms, hopes, disapprovals, intuitions, experience, and a hundred other complex influences, is reduced almost at once to the convenience of just a few compelling generalizations to which all are asked to submit, irrespective of state or condition. This wartime parting of lambs and sheep worked its unwonted violence on the life of an important St. Louis physician, his wife and family. Unwillingness to abandon Southern “loyalties” rather than any overt act of “disloyalty” cost them their civil liberties and possessions, forcing McPheeters to flee into the arms of Confederate forces happy to have his skills as regimental surgeon. The engaging story of this estimable man of principle and his family is well told in his splendidly edited and annotated diary. It is a vivid and lively account, something of a fresh perspective on a terrible war as it was played out by petty bullies at various levels of society and their victims in the most volatile regions of the country.

Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, by Dominic Hibberd. Ivan R. Dee $30

In 1918, ten days before an armistice ended World War One, the British Army buried yet another of their brave young soldiers in shell-torn France. Not interred with Lt. Wilfred Owen, but left scattered among relatives and friends in England, was a rich legacy of letters and poems. Since published, these have established Owen as the preeminent voice among the “pity of war” poets of the 20th century. Biographer Hibberd brings new research and interpretations to previous studies of Owen to present a new and intimate portrayal focusing on the wars that raged within this literary genius: Owen, the apostate, doubting Owen the parish assistant; Owen, the lover of men; denying Owen, the beloved of women; and Owen, the tender poet, quarrelling with Owen the trained warrior. Hibberd knits Owen’s life and letters together through revelations of Owen’s relationships with family, teachers, friends, soldiers, poets, and lovers. He traces the painful awakening of the poet in Owen in a fascinating narration that is thorough, warm and nonjudgmental.

FICTIONWinter Run, by Robert Ashcom. Algonquin $19.95

This vivid evocation of rural farm life in the Virginia Piedmont of the 1940’s chronicles via a series of related stories a boy’s adventures with a variety of characters both human and animal. Through a multiplicity of experiences—varying from entertaining to traumatic—with horses, hounds, livestock, and the wild creatures of field and forest, a boy indelibly informed by both blood and land ties encounters life, love, and loss in a place and time by turns both bucolic and cruel. Young Charlie Lewis explores relationships within the neighborhood which, though inevitably predicated upon strictures of class and race, collectively provide a rich and supportive environment, in which he flourishes. The author reopens a door upon a way of life which time, with its inexorable process of change and attendant loss, would soon change forever; a community both bound and enriched by a common sense of place and purpose.

Bending Heaven, by Jessica Kane Counterpoint $23.

On the surface Jessica Kane’s stories seem simple enough—an American family travels to London, a lawyer goes on retreat with her firm, a woman holds a yard sale—but in the way that a single candle can sometimes illuminate a large room, a single voice can fill an auditorium, these small stories tell the large ones of loss, betrayal, and defeat. In this first collection Kane makes good, comic use of her past employment as a book publicist in the story “How To Become A Publicist.” In “Exposure” the world of publicity takes a turn for the dark. Perhaps that is to the good since story collections need balance. However, the portrait of an aging woman writer is unsympathetic to worries years away from this young author.

Paradise Alley, A Novel, by Kevin Baker. HarperCollins $26.95

This ambitious and entertaining historical novel dramatizes the July 1863 draft riots in New York City. The riots were perhaps the worst civic disturbance in the history of the United States; the mob was composed mostly of Irish immigrants who resented the beginning of a draft for the Civil War (as well as the $300 exemption which could be purchased by the affluent to avoid service). The targets of its collective anger were primarily African-Americans


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

Recommended Reading