Skip to main content

Notes on Current Books, Summer 2001


ISSUE:  Summer 2001

Since so much scholarship and writing about the Civil War focuses exclusively on North America, Blackett’s impressively researched study comes as a welcome corrective to remind us of the powerful international effects of the war. As he points out, traditional accounts of British responses to secession and the outbreak of violence have interpreted British partisanship along class and economic lines. Divided Hearts, as its title implies, shows how much more complicated and ambivalent those responses were. In different chapters Blackett examines the waxing and waning of British abolitionism; organized support for the protagonists of the war in the form of various societies and associations; efforts to influence public opinion through propaganda, newspapers, and petitions; the influences of public agitation, meetings, lectures, panoramas, and dioramas; and the reaction to Lincoln’s assassination. Especially insightful is Blackett’s discussion of how the American Civil War may have shaped the attitudes of many Britons toward reform movements in their own country.

Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, by Catherine Allgor. Virginia $29.95

This stylishly written book boldly argues that elite women in early Washington, through patronage, networking, and material display, did the dirty work of politics and thus allowed their men to retain their republican purity. While this argument is quite overdrawn, especially in its discussion of patronage, some of Allgor’s insights are stunning. For example, her exploration of Dolley Madison’s decoration of the White House and discussion of the significance of the First Lady’s drawing rooms are wonderfully depicted. Her treatment of Louisa Catherine Adams’ social campaign for her husband’s presidential bid is full and measured. While Allgor is to be applauded for shifting our focus from women as marginal social creatures to women as political actors, she has only opened the debate about how central and significant that activity was.

The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz. W. H. Freeman $24.95

This is the second major book on Plymouth Colony to appear recently. Like John D. Seelye’s Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (1998), it helps dispel many popular myths about the Pilgrims. The late James Deetz of the University of Virginia, a founder of modern American historical archeology, was the foremost expert on the archeology of Plymouth Colony and developed the first-person interpretive program at Plymouth Plantation. Drawing upon these field experiences, as well as material, cultural, and traditional documentary sources, this book, his final gift to us, offers a well-rounded portrait of all aspects of Pilgrim society. With his trademark good humor and storytelling talent, Deetz elaborates themes introduced three decades ago by John Demos in A Little Commonwealth: Family Life and Death in Plymouth Colony (London, 1970). This final labor of love is an educational and entertaining read and serves as a fitting capstone to a long, fruitful career.

The Captain’s Concubine: Love Honor, and Violence in Renaissance Tuscany, by Donald Weinstein. Johns Hopkins $39.95

One of our premier scholars of Italian Renaissance history and the author of the fundamental study, Saronarola and Florence now gives us a fascinating study of social history in Pistoia. His story of merchants, priests, and prostitutes is told with a narrative vivacity that is exceptional in scholarly historical writing. Indeed, Weinstein writes with the virtues of an historical novelist, which are wed to a vigorous scholarship based on archival studies and a control of primary sources—among them, a variety of treatises on women and love. A rich and evocative study!

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan. Indiana $29.95

Gary Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan have collected nine essays on the myth of the Lost Cause and its relationship to Civil War history. One of the major projects of the contributors is to dispel some of the myths of the Lost Cause that still abound today. The contributions all uncover the differences between the myth and the history of the Civil War. Most of the essays concentrate on Confederate military leaders, including Jubal Early, Wade Hampton, John B. Gordon, James Longstreet, and in one case the widow of a Confederate officer, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, wife of George E. Pickett. The essays demonstrate how Southerners dealt with the devastation of defeat. Gallagher and Nolan’s offering supplements the growing body of literature on the Lost Cause in Civil War history.

Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865—1900, by Mary Ellen Curtin. Virginia $19.50

Mary Ellen Curtin, who teaches history at the University of Essex in England, has written a book that explores the small but highly significant world of African-American prisoners in Alabama after the Civil War and their supposed Emancipation. Far from being freed from a state of bondage, a great many simply swapped one type of slavery for another. Leased as convicts to entrepreneurs and corporations, both men and women experienced harsh treatment but in doing so acquired skills and a measure of influence over their lives. Some even were able to parlay these lessons into work as skilled miners after release. Curtin examines letters and official reports to detail a story of brutality that should sober any fair-minded reader. It is a book primarily for the specialist, but its implications reach much further.

The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire, by Francis Jennings. Cambridge $19.95

In this sweeping revisionist account of the American Revolution, Francis Jennings dispenses with the shibboleths that have long formed the mythology surrounding the nation’s birth. Jennings takes direct aim at the Founding Fathers, illustrating that the motives behind their desire to break free from the rule of the British had far less to do with creating a land of liberty for all than for promoting their own self-interest. His account is particularly useful because it sheds light on the impact that the revolution had on others living in what became the United States, such as Indians and slaves, for whom the break from the English Crown proved detrimental. Jennings’ self-conscious attempt to forego traditional interpretations, and their sources, moves beyond iconoclasm for its own sake, and instead provides a take on the origins of the American empire that gives balance to “mainstream” perspectives.

The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsula and the Seven Days, edited by Gary W. Gallagher. North Carolina $34.95

The Richmond Campaign of 1862 marked a crucial turning point in American history. The 50,000-odd casualties were a mere downpayment on what was to come, the bleeding-to-death of Southern society as it was then constituted, for good or ill. It marked the birth of the legendary nexus of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. It undoubtedly prolonged the Civil War by two years and radicalized the outcome, raising the stakes from surrender of Richmond with further negotiated settlement to conquest, destruction, and humiliation. The unraveling of social relationships and both the long-term good (and just) and the not-so-short-term bad aspects of what these changes meant for enslaved blacks in a prejudiced society could be anticipated on the basis of a close look at the immediate effects of this campaign had on black and white denizens of the Peninsula. Military brilliance and stupidity, endurance and exhaustion, incredible waste of courageous young men, and the utter inadequacy of politicians or journalists in times of great human need are also revealed in the study of this series of battles. No where else is so deep a consideration of these and other ponderable aspects of this campaign so conveniently or compellingly condensed as in this splendid volume.

The Sante Fe Trail, by David Dary. Knopf $30

Subtitled, “Its History, Legends, and Lore,” author Dary’s work is a lively yet erudite chronicle of this major Western artery of 19th-century commerce, of keen interest to specialist and general reader alike. The highly American attractions of adventurous enterprises, exotic destinations, and amazing profit potential are enduring underpinnings of the Trail’s always colorful story, here boldly delineated. And their nostalgic allure continues to beckon visitors across the Plains and into the Southwest a century and more later. Pack this book along if you can go; invest some time in it at home if you cannot.

Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom, by Ariela J. Gross. Princeton $39.50

Ariela Gross explores the “double character” of slaves as both property and persons. Dichotomies abound in Gross’ book: property vs. person, slave vs. free, black vs. white, law vs. society. Gross transforms these dichotomies into more than simple contrasts. She shows how slaves could be simultaneously property and persons within the purview of the law and within the eyes of their masters. She demonstrates the impact of white words on black lives and, more innovatively, the impact of black words on white lives. In these ways, Gross includes both whites and blacks as actors in the legal arena. Throughout, Gross maintains a cognizance of the distinctions between the rule of law and the events of everyday life. Moreover, Gross, relying upon local court records of Adams County, Mississippi, and state supreme court records, uncovers the daily interactions of masters and slaves, the world beyond the courthouse. At the same time, Gross demonstrates the collision of the fine racial distinctions of day-to-day life and the rigidity and simplification of the legal discourse. Gross connects the various strands of her interpretation through the culture of honor and its impact on both whites and blacks. In Double Character, Gross offers a nuanced and elegant interpretation of antebellum Southern law.

Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance, by H.A. Drake. Johns Hopkins $68

If you read one book on late antiquity this year, read this one. If you read one book on politics this year, read this one again. Drake’s study offers a fascinating and meticulous (and fascinating in its meticulousness) analysis of the rise of “intolerance” as acceptable policy in the Roman Christian Empire of the fourth century AD. The brilliance of the book originates in its methodology, which eschews the plodding and narrow reliance on classical sources alone (though it is quite classically erudite), in favor of approaching historical events with the savvy of political analysis. Rejecting as indefensible the premise that Christianity, as monotheism, is essentially intolerant, Drake unpacks the history of “Constantinian theocracy” in order to reveal the essentially accidental character of its emergence and triumph; “the explanation lies in social processes, not theology,” The book is not without its flaws; at times, the reliance on political analysis can seem just as anachronistic and procrustean as the assumptions underlying the consensus position he contests. But the flaws are microscopic when compared to the achievement. A work of visionary brilliance, it at one blow overturns the consensus which it begins by opposing, and teaches us, with elegance and wit, invaluable lessons about religion, politics, and the study of history.

LITERARY STUDIESLectures on Shakespeare, by W. H. Auden, reconstructed and edited by Arthur Kirsch. Princeton $29.95

From October 1946 to May 1947 W. H. Auden gave a series of Wednesday evening lectures at the New School for Social Research in New York, covering all but two of Shakespeare’s plays and the sonnets. True to his sense that “criticism is live conversation,” Auden talked these lectures, with only the plays in front of him and his notes, which he afterward threw away. In painstakingly reconstructing the 28 lectures, Kirsch used the notes taken by Alan Ansen (who became Auden’s secretary), along with the notes of three other people who attended the lectures and Auden’s markings in his own copy of Kittredge’s edition of Shakespeare. In the resulting written pieces, we can see that the individual plays interested Auden for different reasons and to different degrees. But in all of them is evident what Kirsch calls his “immensely spacious and integrated intellectual universe.” Three appendices provide a record of Auden’s Saturday discussion sessions, the examination he gave at the end of the fall term, and the passages marked in his copy of Kittredge. Along with Kirsch’s elegant introduction, textual notes unobtrusively supply citations for Auden’s wide-ranging allusions to other authors, explain aspects of the lectures’ reconstruction, and frequently point the reader to connections in Auden’s own poetry and essays.

Crossing the Color Line: Readings in Black and White, edited by Suzanne W. Jones. South Carolina $16.95

How can one foster cross-racial understanding? Editor Suzanne W. Jones contends that reading each other’s literature is the best way to promote and deepen understanding. She proves her contention by providing the reader with a fascinating collection of short fiction dealing with race relations. Organized chronologically, these stories are grouped into three sections. Called “Misreadings,” the first section deals with interactions between white employers and working or lower class blacks. In these stories, the whites view the blacks stereotypically. Stories in the “Rereadings” section include both black and white protagonists whose views shift as the story progresses. The third section, called “New Readings,” contains stories which focus on both commonalities and differences between the races. As characters reach across the color line to relate to one another, whites tend to try not to offend blacks, while blacks tend to be on the alert for any sign of offense. The 19 stories are written by both black and white authors including Alice Adams, Ellen Douglas, Toni Morrison, Reynolds Price, and Alice Walker. In this collection, Jones succeeds in providing a vehicle for both races to alter perceptions of one another.

Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton. Viking $19.95

At the beginning of his dialogue Cratylus, Plato has Socrates quote a saying of Heraclitus, which is central to the latter’s elusive thought: “All things are in motion and nothing is at rest.” The epigram to the conclusion of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, these words capture the sense of flux or “perpetual motion” central to modernity. Though centuries-old, the enigmatic utterances of the ancient philosophers thus still speak to us. James Hillman says as much in his fine introduction to Haxton’s lucid translations, which are given here with the original Greek.

Herman Melville A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work, by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Checkmark Books $17.95

This useful book has much to offer the Melville enthusiast, whether student, teacher, or general reader. After a brief introduction, the authors provide a 16-page chronology of Melville’s life and times before proceeding to more than 200 pages of encyclopedia-style entries. These entries range in length from two or three lines identifying minor characters in Melville’s fiction to 14 pages on Moby-Dick, most of which go to plot synopsis. In addition to entries on particular titles, people, characters, places, publications, organizations, and ships, this volume includes brief entries on special topics such as abolitionism, bisexuality, the Civil War, modernism, and religion. Next comes a genealogy of Melville’s family, categorical appendix, bibliography, and general index. Although some scholars may find helpful material here, the basic level of many entries may send them in search of more sophisticated resources.

In Fact, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon $26.95

The 45 brilliant essays on a variety of subjects, ranging from literary criticism to personal memoir, are joined together inseparably by the writer’s dominant and admirable voice. Mallon, a first-rate editor (on the staff of GQ), a reviewer and critic of distinction, and among the handful of major historical novelists, has a lot going for him: knowledge, intelligence, humor, and wit, and the inability to write an uninteresting sentence. Not to forget a matador’s bravado courage— he takes on some of the big names and sacred cows without any hesitation or polite timidity. This is a book that is worthy of full attention, and rewards that attention with a wealth of pleasure.

Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination, by Sarah Gordon. Georgia $29.95

Eschewing traditional theological readings of the self-designated “prophetic artist,” Gordon here proffers a refreshing feminist, psychoanalytical, literary-critical look at Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. In this comprehensive study, Gordon, a professor at Georgia College and State University in O’Connor’s native Milledgeville, uses her extensive knowledge of O’Connor’s biographical materials, essays, and unpublished letters to underscore a tension in the author’s work: a desire, on the one hand, to deconstruct societal notions of Southern womanhood and propriety, and, on the other, a ubiquitous internalization of a patrilineal literary and religious heritage. Reconstructing the often patriarchal influences of Thurber, Poe, Lynch, New Criticism, and Catholicism on the author, Gordon posits that O’Connor, in her quest to be taken seriously as a female Southern writer, appropriated into her work modernity’s “male gaze” and misogynistic view of the female experience. Gordon’s text is a must-read for its undaunted exploration of critical questions most O’Connor scholars evade rather than plumb, including O’Connor’s possible racism, quasi-Manichaeanism, ambivalent depictions of women, denigration of human relationships, and creative grappling with the expectations of patriarchy.

Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism, by Sean McCann. Duke $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

If there is any segment of popular culture that mirrors economic, social, and political reality, it is surely detective fiction. Somehow dealing with crime forces authors to deal with the question of what holds society together even as they spotlight what threatens to tear it apart. Taking up such masters of the genre as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Sean McCann does an excellent job of showing how American detective fiction has reflected many of the central dilemmas of democracy in the 20th century. His chapter “Dashiell Hammett and the Realist Critique of Liberalism” is one of the highlights of the book and makes a convincing case for seeing works such as The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Glass Key as rooted in the historical moment of the 1920’s and 30’s. For fans of detective fiction, this book offers a way of soothing their consciences about their guilty pleasure—the cheap novels they have been reading on the sly all these years turn out to have something to teach us about American history. And those interested in American history will find that McCann has offered a new angle on understanding one of its most troubled and complex periods.

Understanding Fred Chappell, by John Lang. South Carolina $29.95

Fred Chappell, a prolific poet and writer of great gifts, poses serious problems for the critic who would try to keep up with him. Undeniably a full-fledged man-of-letters, Chappell has left his mark on every form he has worked with: novel, short story, poetry, criticism, essay. John Lang, professor of English at Emory and Henry College and, like Chappell, a native Appalachian, has done a first-rate job within the format of this lively critical series of following Chappell’s career from regional to international recognition, exploring his roots in the classical as well as the American literary traditions, and arguing persuasively that Chappell must be considered as one of the major writers of our time. This book should help that case strongly, as Lang covers the territory thoroughly and with lucidity.

Romanticism at the End of History, by Jerome Christensen. Johns Hopkins $45

Anachronism, prematurity, hope. These are the striking terms that resonate and recur throughout Jerome Christensen’s Romanticism at the End of History. For Christensen, these terms simply describe the Romantic aspiration to realize new, unpredictable, and hopeful futures by means of a strong-willed refusal to accept the apparent inevitability of the past. In the vision of this critically ambitious study, Romanticism— both the historical period and the permanently available stance of the soul—is “a conspiracy against the given,” and Christensen invites us all to participate in this conspiracy. Readers who tend to think in terms of the ethical and imaginative uses to which poetry can be put will surely be attracted by the broad ambitions of this book. And they may be dazzled by some of the really exciting readings of writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Scott. But they may also be puzzled about how these readings exemplify the Romantic hope to which the book summons us. Nonetheless, Romanticism at the End of History represents a fascinating and intelligent defense of Romanticism at a time when, it seems, Romanticism has few able defenders.

Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy, edited by Jason Shinder. William Morrow $24

Overlook the punning title, skip the dispensable introduction, and you will find a fascinating and unusual group of personal essays, almost all of them specially commissioned for this book. Collectively, the writers included here—Pain Houston, Mark Doty, Phillip Lopate, Adam Gopnik, Susan Cheever, Lucy Grealy, Douglas Bauer, Rebecca Walker, Susan Wood, David Mura, Emily Fox Gordon, and others—have extensive experience with psychotherapy, “the talking cure,” from group and couples therapy to traditional psychoanalysis (there is even an account of the treatment called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing,” or EMDR). The best of these pieces address, explicitly or implicitly, the similarities between therapy and writing: the construction of a narrative, the close attention to language, the difficult work of telling the truth. While the idea of psychotherapy has become familiar enough to be a cliché in our culture, thoughtful descriptions of the actual experience of the process are rare; we are fortunate to have these varied accounts from so many able storytellers.

Willa Cather’s “Southern Connections”: New Essays on Cather and the South, edited by Ann Romines. Virginia $59.95 cloth, $18.50 paper

Although Willa Cather was born and raised in Virginia until she was nine years old, she is not often thought of as a Virginian. This collection of 16 essays began at the seventh in an ongoing series of International Willa Cather Seminars, held for the first time, in Frederick County, Virginia, Cather’s childhood home. The thought-provoking scholarship presented here offers fresh new insights into Cather’s last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), a novel that other scholars have shunned. All of the essayists in this collection present cogent arguments for considering Cather as a Southerner. In addition to enriching the field of Southern literature, this collection adds to the literature on black women’s cultural and labor history. One of the ironies of Southern history is to see one’s culture in unexpected new ways.

Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, edited by Michael McKeon. Johns Hopkins $65 doth, $29.95 paper

McKeon has assembled an incredibly valuable and ambitious resource for students of the novel. He has constructed an anthology of the criticism of the genre and, thus every major theoretical or critical movement is represented by at least one excerpt from a major volume. At nearly 950 pages, of small print, the volume is loaded. There are seminal essays by Frye, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Lukács, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Watt, Armstrong, Jameson, Appiah, and Hutcheon. And that’s only half! In addition, McKeon has done an absolutely superb job with the introductions to each major part of the book; he has constructed lucid, highly accessible head-notes that provide intellectual and historical context. Sure to sell many copies to graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams, this anthology will be an indispensable addition to the libraries of all aficionados and students of the novel.

Writing War in the Twentieth Century, by Margot Norris. Virginia $19.50

The book’s title and its aim, as expressed in the Introduction, promise a study of how “war” has been written in the 20th century—how it has been represented and become a problem of representation. But Norris’s selectivity, and her strident resistance to understanding military issues, foil her work before it begins. Three chapters on the distant topic of World War I, one chapter on the Holocaust (really, a fluff piece for her friend Thomas Kenneally, author of Schindler’s List), two chapters on the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima, and a chapter each on Vietnam and the Gulf War—the last simply a 15-page critique of Pentagon media policy, which is as easy (and as graceful) as shooting fish in a barrel—the choices offer a picture of writing as about the insanity of political and military commanders (the usual suspects), the hypocrisy of governments, and the cruelty of suffering in the Holocaust. But none of this is very new, and none of it gets very far into the manifold experiences of war in the past century, for soldiers or civilians. Suggestions of parallels between the Holocaust and Hiroshima occlude the distinct sorts of horrors they represented—and are especially unhappy coming from a child of a German World War II soldier who died on the Russian Front. By and large what we are here offered is the exploitation of a worthy issue—the tremendum of modern war—by a rather Chomskian political program. Disappointing, and boring.

The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550—1640, by William J. Bouwsma. Yale $29.95

A reliable and comprehensive account of the complex, even contradictory, intellectual themes of the Renaissance. Bouwsma is an esteemed historian of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and his thesis allows him to combine the attention to optimism and liberation so typical to studies of the former with alertness to pessimism and anxiety pervasive in studies of the latter. His basic argument is stimulating and elegantly comprehensive, namely that the Renaissance (including the religious tumult of the Reformation) was “generally ambivalent,” beginning with an upheaval and revolt against stifling late medieval forms and then, once liberty was tasted too fully, recoiling into a search for new forms of order to stabilize the culture set adrift by their freedom. Bouwsma’s erudition allows him to describe the Renaissance as trans-national, but he remains within the realm of high culture and does not attend to material changes. This leads to a rather thin and elitist focus (pace his disavowals of “intellectual history”) and leaves some questions unasked—such as what made the late medieval world seem “stifling”—if that was really the cause of cultural change at all. Nonetheless, a very useful book for those who want an introduction to high intellectual culture in the Renaissance, especially when coupled with the work of figures like Anthony Grafton. Highly recommended.

The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics, by John Plotz. California $48 cloth, $18.95 paper

When is a Londoner not a Londoner but a member of a crowd? This is an interesting question, one that guides John Plotz’s artful study of the work crowds do for British literary thinkers in the early 19th century. By 1800 London was already a thriving metropolis, one that naturally shaped the experience of those living there, instead of the country. Other writers have focused on how urban experience differs from its pastoral counterpart; Plotz delves deeper and asks what it is to be a member of a crowd (crowds being more common in cities than in towns). He fashions an answer through examining works by De Quincey, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and Charlotte Bronte. His intelligent study helps us to understand the increasing difficulty of retaining an individual identity in the midst of a horde.

LIVES & LETTERSEscaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest, by Bernard Mayes. Virginia $29.95

A broadcaster for the BBC, an organizer of the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S., a founding chairman of NPR, the creator of an important suicide hotline, a professor, a media consultant, and, oh yes, a “queer priest,” Bernard Mayes has lived a far from exemplary life—if “exemplary” is defined as the norm or something to be emulated. But “exemplary” it is: it exemplifies what can happen when an intelligent, passionate, and deeply thoughtful individual finds his natural inclinations in conflict with the teachings of the Church. Mayes sheds new light on the ways human beings struggle to reconcile frequently divergent impulses, and he draws unsparingly on his experiences in order to provide a framework for the understanding of society and nature. This is a stark book, gutsy in its revelations, moving in the details of his religious journey, and heartening to millions of gay men and women who have found themselves cast out of social and religious hierarchies for reasons even the most intransigent bigots have difficulty comprehending. While his belief in certain dogmas of the Church may have faded, his commitment to his fellow humans intensified and became a substitute, even better some would say, life’s mission.

The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, by Benjamin Woolley. Henry Holt $25

Although he was one of the most learned and original men of the Elizabethan Age, his greatness has been obscured by subsequent historical misinterpretation and neglect. Almost forgotten are the important contributions to mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and navigation, the momentum he imparted to philosophical, medical, and chemical investigations, the role he played in the establishment of what he may have first termed “Brytish Impire,” his incomparable collection of scientific instruments and books. The few who recall his name link it with his prominent role in alchemy, astrology, and mysticism. Highly respected in the the first political and intellectual circles of England and Europe, Dee’s remarkable life ended sadly, reviled and in penury, his home, library, and collections ransacked. It is difficult to put down this well-written and well-researched account of how all these things came to pass. Lucid, thoroughly enjoyable, it also affords a fresh and enlightening perspective on one of the most fascinating eras of human history. This most accessible and enthralling account should appeal to almost any reader.

William Hogarth, by Matthew Craske. Princeton $14.95

Hogarth appeared early in the development of that popular form of pictorial satire continued by Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank, and in his own right a painter in oils of great distinction, he was a well-known figure on the political scene of Georgian England. Eschewing a “life and art” biographical approach in an already crowded field (three important books by Paulson, Bindman, and Uglow since 1971), Craske’s purpose, in a superbly illustrated volume of 80 pages, is to show the man as an artist in his own time through the interpretation of his works on the theme of “my picture is my stage.” In this way, we come to know Hogarth as a social critic, a reformer of morals and manners, who by his prints and paintings hoped to enlist the support of a larger audience than could be counted on through patronage. Although he exposed the grotesque to make his point that the degenerate could be found at the top of society as well as at the bottom, his position was the mean between Puritan restraint and public profligacy in which good behavior came to be more important than good birth. As a short, but expert, introduction to the artist and his times, this book has much to recommend it.

Mary Shelley in Her Times, edited by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Johns Hopkins $42.50

This volume of essays joins The Other Mary Shelley and Iconoclastic Departures as attempts to broaden our view of Mary Shelley’s achievement as a woman of letters. The public, even the academic public, persists in thinking of her simply as the author of Frankenstein, but in fact she wrote five other novels, as well as numerous short stories and biographies. This collection of essays, featuring many of the leading names in Mary Shelley studies, directs our attention to works that even scholars of the Romantic era have neglected. It contains essays on novels such as Mathilda, Valperga, and The Last Man, and also looks at Shelley’s work as a journalist and an editor. As a result, this volume goes a long way toward filling out our picture of this extraordinary and still underrated author. Nevertheless, after this third attempt to get “beyond Frankenstein,” as one of the essayists puts it, one begins to suspect that scholars may say what they want but the general public is going to remain attached to Mary Shelley’s first—and let’s face it—greatest work. She may be a one-trick pony, but what a trick and what a pony!

The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, Volume 9, September 1791-February 1792, edited by Mark A. Mastromarino and Jack D. Warren. Virginia $62.50

Like the other volumes in the presidential series that have been published thus far, this work deals with a host of issues, some of national, even historic, consequence and others of only personal importance to our first president. During the period covered, the fall and winter of 1791—1792, Washington oversaw the continued growth of the new federal city on the Potomac; attempted to smooth over the wounded feelings caused by Pierre L’Enfant’s ill-considered actions as designer of Washington, D.C.; pushed through Congress, in the face of great senatorial opposition, the appointment of U.S. ministers to London, Paris, and The Hague; and, in the wake of Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s defeat in November 1791, tried to rally public opinion for yet another military expedition against the hostile Indian nations on the Northwest frontier. The letters included in this volume, both those written to and from Washington, are carefully transcribed and expertly annotated. Along with the other volumes in the series, this work will be of great interest to those wishing to learn more about the political, military, social, and agricultural history of the Early Republic.

Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret. Eerdmans $28

After Martin Luther, Jean Calvin stands as the most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. This account of Calvin’s life, translated from the original French by M. Wallace McDonald, reads quite well. Numerous scholarly references blend easily with a friendly and highly engaging text. Calvin emerges as a complicated figure about which many religious believers of differing faiths will subsequently want to know more. Particularly interesting are the criticisms of the Roman Catholic church, perhaps not surprisingly. A solid achievement.

Thomas Gray: A Life, by Robert L. Mack. Yale $39.95

Mack’s biography of Gray is the first major biography of the poet in almost 50 years. As such, it draws upon a wealth of new scholarship and recent developments in 18th-century scholarship. Always a fascinating study, Gray is often seen as one of the forerunners of English romanticism. His poetry is famous for its intense imagery and moody conjurings. Often focusing on only the major works, students of Gray will find new depths to a writer known only for a few poems in his short life. This new biography is packed with new information—a testament to Mack’s archival research—especially in providing crucial information on Gray’s domestic and family relationships. In particular, Mack recasts the impact of his abusive father on the young poet’s early work and development. This much needed revisiting of such a pivotal 18th-century poet makes both fun and fascinating reading. Mack’s new biography will certainly become a modern standard on not only Gray as poet, but Gray as man.

Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720—1870, by Lisa Norling. North Carolina $45

With a deft pen Lisa Norling illuminates the everyday lives of families living in the whaling communities in Southeastern New England during the 18th and 19th centuries. Basting together several strains of maritime historiography and social history, Norling’s treatment highlights the conflicted patterns of liberal individualism and domesticity that developed during the first two decades of the 19th century. These superstructural ideals, forged in the latter-half of the 18th century, at times developed as a “painful contradiction” to the infrastructural realities of the New England fishery. This clash, Norling suggests, not only produced new ideas about domestic life and its relationship to the whale fishery and the economic workforce but also forced the fishery to incorporate and interpret new “domestic conceptualizations of marriage” into its everyday economic operations. While Norling’s work is steeped in the scholarly arguments of the day, the construction of her story allows these arguments to recede in the background of the text simultaneously bringing to the fore the lives, thoughts, and words of the women found in these whaling communities nestled along the shores of southeastern New England. As such, anyone who is appreciative of well-written history will enjoy Captain Ahab Had a Wife.

Picasso: The Communist Years, by Gertje R. Utley. Yale $55

Picasso was a committed Communist, yet he rejected the mindless orthodoxy of the party and the day-to-day pettiness which demanded blind obedience as it stifled dissent. He failed to question the party’s inability to appreciate his art even as he attended fund-raisers and political rallies in support of the Communist agenda. How did such contradictions square with Picasso’s dove-laden paintings, his famous rejection of war (“Guernica”), or his passionate artistry? Such issues are superbly addressed in this original study of a long-ignored aspect of Picasso’s life and work (“the weapons of art” as he called his creations). Utley discusses the artist’s motivations to join and stay with the French Communist Party, the way the party’s ideology infused (or not) his artwork, and the impact communism had on him as a man and as an artist. This is an aspect of Picasso we never completely understood before, and the book is a welcome addition to the growing bibliography on the 20th century’s most important painter. With notes, bibliography, 175 black and white illustrations (photos, posters, paintings, drawings), and 40 color illustrations.

A Southern Practice: The Diary and Autobiography of Charles A. Hentz, M.D., edited by Steven M. Stowe. Virginia $64.50

Much of what we believe we know about private life in the antebellum South is derived from the study of diaries of wealthy white women, more recently enriched by the recollections of former slaves. Occasional voices of white men are those of politicians and soldiers from within, journalists and novelists from without. Here is a new voice of uncommon interest. The honest and appealing voice of this small-town physician discloses from an intimate and fresh perspective a rather different view of the Old South than one is accustomed to encounter. Hentz’s peripatetic early life and gifted parents brought him into contact with many interesting and important people. Of these experiences and of the various activities, interests, and reflections of the remainder of his life we partake richly in his diary and autobiography. It is something of a relief to learn so much about a man and society possessed of virtues not dissimilar from those we continue to treasure and different from those suggested by other perspectives. Splendidly edited and introduced, this is a wonderful contribution to the professional and personal history of medicine, manhood, and society in the Old South.

Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza, by David Baguley. Louisiana $49.95

Baguley’s rich account of the man Victor Hugo derisively called “Napoleon le Petit” is quite aptly subtitled: this is unquestionably a lavish, literary, extravagant study of one of the most controversial political figures of the 19th century. What makes this work especially gratifying is Baguley’s use of literary theory to confirm and invigorate the cultural and historical criticism of recent decades. Indeed, Émile Zola and his celebrated novels of France’s Second Empire appear to inform this biography more than any traditional source. Baguely’s use of fictional representations of Napoleon III underscores his view that the emperor was so illusive a political figure that he found himself “at the confines of the unrepresentable.” Yet, unrepresentable or not, Napoleon le Petit makes for fascinating reading in this smart, enjoyable volume.

James II, by John Miller. Yale $17

Another volume in the Yale Monarch Series, James II is the first 17th-century Stuart to be represented in the series. Reigning as the last Stuart, James’ brief time on the throne (1685—1688) was marked by both political and religious rancour. The years preceding James II’s reign are marked by the growing partisan animosity between Whig and Tory. James’s near “martyrdom” following the Rye House Plot (and subsequent re-appointment to the cabinet council by Charles II) is quickly eclipsed by the conversion to Catholicism—an act which historians agree seals his fate as a ruler. Miller’s book not only covers James’s years as ruler of Britain, but also explores his relationship to Charles II and the complicated events that led to the “Glorious Revolution.” In sum, Miller provides an excellent digest of Restoration politics and social history for any level of reader.

The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman, by Barbara Howard Traister. Chicago $30

I suspect that very few readers know much—if anything—concerning Simon Forman (1552—1611). Alternately known as a physician, astrologer, magician, and pervert, Forman remains an illusive character. One remarkable fact for which we are all in Forman’s debt is his detailed manuscripts and autobiographical writings. Having had no formal medical training, yet maintaining a prosperous practice, Forman spent several decades being hounded by the College of Physicians of London. Forman’s writings make for an esoteric, sometimes bizarre catalogue of his professional experiences, obsessions, and sexual escapades—not unlike a later diarist named James Boswell. Traister’s research and overview of Forman’s work provides a fascinating glimpse into both Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming A Writer, by Judith Otiz Cofer. Georgia $32 cloth, $14.95 paper

“I tell stories that recount the suffering and joy of the Puerto Rican emigrants of my experience, mainly women.” This collection of essays and poetry is a 20th-century biography of a writer who happens to be a Latina. In 127 pages Cofer weaves her professional and personal lives together and presents us with a candid rendering of living and writing outside the margins. The works are wide-ranging and the quality is consistently high. Cofer has learned how to use the power of works to conquer her fears. She uses her culture to expand her freedom and in doing so she has transgressed cultural stereotypes and allows us to re-envision a writer’s perspective.

FICTIONVertigo, by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse. New Directions $23.95

Vertigo is a quietly spectacular book. While you’ll find it in the section with other novels, its insistent traversal of generic boundaries—that mirrors its thematic traversal of spatial and temporal boundaries—makes it difficult to classify and incredibly worthwhile to read. With writing that is reminiscent of Italo Calvino, Max Frisch, Borges and others who owe a debt to Kafka, Sebald is a German-born writer living and writing in England and his work echoes his spatial and linguistic displacement. Vertigo, containing elements of autobiography, history and travelogue, is Sebald’s first novel only now available in English.(His second and third novels are already available in English.) The book consists of four sections, in which a character, sometimes even Sebald himself, experiences in his journey a dizzy loss of “footing,” of space, time and identity. Sebald offers proof of his own knowledge of these places by including images, receipts, and photographs. In Vertigo, Sebald has thrown in everything—including the kitchen sink, or a receipt for it! And we’re the richer for it. A superb book.

Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. HarperCollins $26

Soul Mountain, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in literature, requires its readers to have patience. Patience, for example, to believe that the short, episodic chapters are leading toward a cohesive whole. Patience, to wait for a narrator split into four personal pronouns—I, you, he, and she—to deliver a comprehensible story. Though story, at least in the sense of most contemporary novels, is not what Xingjian is attempting in this book. Instead, he cobbles together a mix of folklore, character sketches, and snapshots of the rural Chinese countryside to create a modernist mosaic. The result is half-memoir, half-fiction, an expatriate’s reimagined journey through the Qiang, Miao, and Yi districts—places as much on the fringe of Chinese history as civilization. From biologists studying giant Pandas to Daoist masters and small-town Communist thugs, the people we meet along the way are interesting enough. Still, the interactions are minimal. After all, a traveler who gets involved is only asking for trouble. The question is whether the resulting introspective narration can hold your attention. For those readers with a steady interest in modern China and the psychological isolation of its society, the answer is yes. For those readers with a less precise motivation, who simply want to lose themselves in a story, the answer is otherwise.

A Friend of the Earth, by T. C. Boyle Viking $24.95

In his eighth novel, T. C. Boyle has created a dystopian eco-nightmare as told from the perspective of Tyrone Tierwater, former radical environmental activist and currently the 75-year-old manager of a pop star’s private menagerie of the “unlovable” endangered animal species: warthogs, giant anteaters, hyenas, and a couple of lions just for kicks. As the novel cycles back and forth between the early 90’s and the year 2025— when the climate has turned drastically tropical, monsoons wash away buildings, and most of the major recognizable species except for rice, catfish, and human beings have gone extinct—it builds a satirical, mordant, and oddly compassionate portrait of human ignorance, culpability, greed, love, and the inevitable consequences (or the future of the planet. Boyle’s writing has a pop flavor which should not camouflage the complexity and boldness of the story he tells, a cross between prison diaries and a loose reconstruction of the moment when two people ate of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, if it were possible that Paradise was only found after they had eaten their fill. For a tale whose conclusion we seemingly know in advance, this novel is packed with amazing quantities of suspense, tension, and surprise.

Light Action in the Caribbean, Stories, by Barry-Lopez. Knopf $22

From the author of the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams comes a terrific set of stories set variously in Peru, China, the Caribbean, California, and the American West; stories of men and women exploring their own innocence and desire, not without violence, solitude, banishment, and disillusion; or hope, defiance, and integrity. A highly recommended collection in which landscapes collide with emotions, morality, and politics. Hallmark Lopez, concluding with “The Mappist,” bound to be recognized as an American classic.

María de Zayas Tells Baroque Tales of Love and the Cruelty of Men, by Margaret Rich Greer. Pennsylvania State $49

In the middle decades of 17th-century Spain, Maria de Zayas’ novellas rivaled Cervantes’ in popularity. Virtually forgotten in subsequent centuries, Zayas has recently found enthusiastic new readers and critics. Zayas was a pessimistic feminist. In her prologues she vigorously defended women’s intellectual and moral equality with men, but she was unable to envision stories that demonstrated this assertion. Rather, her novellas are darkly disturbing tales populated by sadistic men, women who collude with their victimizers, and treacherous female antagonists. A few fortunate heroines renounce heterosexual love and seek safe haven within convent walls. Guided primarily by psychoanalytic narrative theory, Greer explores the multiple sources and displacements of violence in Zayas’ bleak world.

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, by Kathleen Cambor. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23

Kathleen Cambor literally re-casts one of America’s most catastrophic events, the Johnstown Flood, by weaving the story around two invented families in this stunning historical novel, In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden. Both the working class Fallons and the upper class Talbots depend on the steel magnates whose bad judgment brings about the town’s ruin and the hundreds of lives lost in the flood. Though they were warned that the dam could not withstand heavy rains, contractors for the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club went ahead with the lavish estate of Andrew Carnegie and his hunting club pals. The rest is history, or so they say. But Cambor makes it a bit of a mystery.

Faithless: Tales of Transgression, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco $27

The redoubtable and prolific author has here gathered a corpus of stories that appeared previously in Playboy, Harper’s, Granta, and The Paris Review, among other publications. Although the photograph of an embracing couple on the cover of the dust-jacket along with the use of the word “transgressions” in the title give a certain titillating impression, the stories are in fact about all kinds of stories, about aging, rage, obsession, etc. The range of the stories is indeed impressive, as is their power to enthrall the reader with their literary craft. In one powerful and unforgettable story, “Ugly,” the author tells of how an ugly young woman copes with her very ugliness: a land of inverted parable of our own age, obsessed by cosmetics and superficial beauty.

The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo. Scribner $22

This book marks a departure for Don DeLillo as a novelist and is not calculated to please admirers of his earlier work. With its austere prose, brief compass, and enigmatic narrative, it reads more like a novel by J.M. Coetzee than by the author of White Noise, Libra, and Underworld. The Body Artist lacks the verbal energy, sprawling story, broad canvas, and kaleidoscopic cast of characters that distinguish DeLillo’s famous novels. Instead he offers an intense, virtually claustrophobic focus on less than a handful of characters, who remain shadowy and deliberately unrealized. The novel is so quiet that one could hear a pin drop, as it were; indeed DeLillo devotes a whole paragraph to the falling of a paper clip. The mood of the work is captured in a typical passage: “She took a bite of cereal and forgot to taste it. She lost the taste somewhere between the time she put the food in her mouth and the regretful second she swallowed it.” The Body Artist has a kind of stark beauty all its own, but DeLillo seems to have strayed from what he does best as a novelist.

Chapter from her Upbringing, by Ivy Goodman. Carnegie Mellon $15.95

Joyce Thompson has said of writers that some are called by language and have to learn story while others are called by story and have to learn to love and use language. Ivy Goodman is clearly the first kind of writer. The 13 stories in this collection illustrate Goodman’s flair. Yet, her characters are “very dry, removed in all ways, not present, looking in. . . .” as one characters says of herself. Perhaps this may be Goodman’s point, that there “is nothing richer than an interior life,” but it does not make for a good story. And though there are memorable moments, most notably a child sucking on his father’s baby teeth, Goodman’s characters are not. She does take some stylistic risk, playing with shifting points of view in order to emphasis her theme, but it was difficult to care about these people and harder still to recall what, if anything, happened.

The Quick and the Dead, by Joy Williams, Knopf $25

Joy Williams’ latest novel tracks the bizarre tale of three girls drawn together by loss traveling into the desert. Alice is a 15-year-old who has an opinion on everything, Corvus is an orphan whose parents died in a freak accident, Annabel is a rich, lively, somewhat shallow girl who lives with her father in a house haunted by the ghost of her mother. This unusual group is united by the fact that each of them has lost her mother. On their long journey, the three encounter a variety of eccentrics, misfits, and otherwise quirky characters, each drawn with deft brilliance by Williams. This by turns comic and horrifying tale of wounded souls traveling barren terrain is by no means an easy trip for a reader, but it is well worth the ride.

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Random House $24.95

Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth has reaped flattering comparisons to the fiction of Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, even Charles Dickens. Her rambunctious style may have a certain genre-debt to the encyclopedic, postmodern, or picaresque, but unlike some of her forbears Smith’s inventive comic verve does not leech away the interiority of her characters. She sets her story in a multi-racial North London neighborhood of halaal shops, Jamaican Jehovah’s Witnesses, penny laundromats, and a pub which has kept its Irish name and accouterments despite having been taken over many years ago by a family of Iraqis who all share a bad skin condition and the name Abdul, forcing them to hyphenate their first name with nicknames such as Abdul-Mickey, Abdul-Colin, or Abdul-Jimmy. The na

0 Comments

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

Recommended Reading