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Notes on Current Books, Winter 1990

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

First published by Colin as Le Moyen Age and now in English translation, this is the first volume of three which cover the period from 350 to 1520 A.D. (Volume III: 1250—1520, has also appeared in English, and volume II: 950—1250, is in preparation.) Volume I, 350—950, is a joint effort by Michel Rouche, Evelyne Patlagean, Henri Bresc, and Pierre Guichard to provide an up-to-date, scholarly introduction to the traditional tripartite history of Medieval Latin, Greek, and Islamic culture and society. Bowing to modern sentiment, more than half the book is devoted to the development of the Byzantine empire and the emergence of Islam. As a result, relatively little space is left for a discussion of the Celtic and Germanic West and the civilization of Carolingian Europe. Consequently, the narrative dwells on the political history, and noticeably shortchanged is the literature, the architecture, and the religious culture. Nevertheless, the survey is in capable hands, and in spite of attempting so much in one volume the authors provide a number of fresh viewpoints and suggestive comments on the principal questions of regional diversity, land use and productivity, the commercial revolution, and the relation of church to state. The reader who will profit the most, however, is likely to be the one who already has a firm grasp of early medieval history.

Russia’s Rulers under the Old Regime, by Dominic Lieven. Yale $35

Who actually rules any country? It is never the king, the president, the prime minister, all of whom depend not only on masses of bureaucrats but also on managers, bosses, opinion-makers, teachers, and others to translate their will into action. In old Russia, the king was on paper an autocrat, in practice the captive of a few well-placed bureaucrats and court officers. Dominic Lieven of the London School of Economics has tried to sort out this high-level sociopolitical history of the late tsarist period, and the result is a penetrating, path-breaking analysis.

A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861—1865, by Phillip Shaw Paludan. Harper & Row $27.95

Astonishingly, this is the first history of the North during the Civil War in 70 years. Fortunately, it is very good. Paludan has managed to weave together a full social history without slighting the momentous events on the battlefield and in the government. He makes a persuasive case that the South did not so much lose the war as the North won it, and that the victor drew strength from characteristics the South thought would hinder its opponent: individualism, diversity, democracy, political conflict. While not glossing over the less attractive aspects of the North, Paludan makes palpable the ideals that drove this idealistic war.

God Gave Us This Country: Tekamthi and the First American Civil War, by Bil Gilbert. Atheneum $22.50

Bil Gilbert retells the familiar story of the Shawnee Tekamthi (Tecumseh), his efforts to unite the Northwestern Indians against American expansion, and his final defeat and death in the War of 1812. His account differs from other narratives of these events insofar as Gilbert sees the significance of his hero’s life not as prelude to the Anglo-American conflict but as the final stage in a longer “civil war” between Indians and whites for control of the North-west going back to the 1760’s. The book provides sympathetic insights into Indian history and culture, and Gilbert’s discussion of the myths about Tecumseh himself is especially informative. Still, Tecumseh’s personality ultimately defies explanation, and Gilbert cannot really penetrate the myths to the Indian reality below.

Industrialization, Family Life and Class Relations: Saint Chamond, 1815—1914, by Elinor Accampo. California $35

In this relatively short book, the author does a remarkable job of describing the lives of working men, women, and children in an industrializing French town. By using family reconstruction in conjunction with available information on migration and labor patterns, Accampo draws a number of interesting conclusions that challenge several previous assumptions about the impact of industrialization upon working-class life.

After Vasari: History, Art, and Patronage in Late Medici Florence, by Edward L. Goldberg. Princeton $49.50

The author of the acclaimed Patterns in Late Medici Art Patronage continues his journey through Florence in “the forgotten century” of the Seicento. He begins with an informative and interesting biography of Leopoldo de’ Medici who sponsored an edition of the lives of Florentine arts by Filippo Baldinucci. The latter is the central subject of this informative book, which is a mixture of biography and social history. The witty title, “After Vasari,” is suggestive of the fact that Baldinucci labored in the shadow of Vasari. His career and works are illuminated in a book which is an engaging introduction to 17th-century Florentine cultural life.

Students, Professors, and the State in Tsarist Russia, by Samuel D. Kassow. California $48.50

Here is a really splendid study of the intellectual in politics in late Imperial Russia. No country had better universities or more intelligent students, and few had a more miserable citizenry. The intricate dance of loyalists, revolutionaries, and the apathetic masses has never been better described.

Byzantium. The Early Centuries, by John Julius Norwich. Knopf $29.95

In spite of a pleasant narrative style and a wealth of colorful stories, the author of this volume has little to offer the serious student of Byzantine history. Most of what is said has been said before. The sections on Justinian and Theodora, and on the Emperor Julian, for instance, are taken largely from the superior works by Browning. On the other hand, many important modern studies, such as those by Bréhier, Ducellier, Barker, Dagron, Rubin, Stratos, Cameron, Grabar, Beck, Goubert, Obolensky, and Runciman, are missing from the bibliography. Moreover, what are in fact immensely complex historical events and developments tend to be reduced to brief, simplistic descriptions and explanations. The conversion of Constantine, Arianism, the relationship of the emperor to the church, and the iconoclastic controversy are examples which receive no more than a hurried summary. The pace is fast, and the reader is seldom bored; but rarely is he touched by the excitement which comes from the analysis of historical questions by an expert in the field, and never would he have an idea of the range and difficulty of current problems in Byzantine scholarship. The most that can be hoped for from this book is that the reader’s interest will be sufficiently aroused so that he will be drawn to the significant literature for the period.

Macaulay, by Owen Dudley Edwards. St. Martin’s $24.95

Thomas Babington Macaulay has been too readily dismissed as using history to justify his personal beliefs, serving as the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or the Paul Johnson of his time. That this identification of Macaulay as the embodiment of the Whig interpretation of history is facile and mis-leading is not the least of the contributions of this sensible volume. That the past can illuminate the present is a notion that many besides Macaulay can enthusiastically endorse; his insistence that history should be viewed as literature is all too neglected by today’s practioners of Clio’s craft. Unfortunately, Edwards’ critique of Macaulay’s History exemplifies this shortcoming, as it bogs down into a muddle of charge and countercharge. This detracts from athoughtful and judicious evaluation of one of England’s foremost historians, one which is equally insightful about the man, the politician, and the scholar.

How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938—1939, by Donald Cameron Watt. Pantheon $29.95

Because we know how difficult it is to end wars we ought to pay attention to how they get started. In this new study, Professor Watt of the University of London has produced the most provocative arguments since A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 The Origins of the Second World War. Not content to let documents speak with forked tongues, Watt reconstructs the evidence almost like a forensic pathologist and seeks to take us inside the minds not only of the principal actors but also of many key bit-players. The result is a superb scholarly whodunit. Highly recommended.

Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, by John Michael Montias. Princeton $49.50

In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the social history of Dutch art; for example, in Gary Schwartz’s book on Rembrandt and in Montias’ own previous book on the painters of Delft. For art historians Vermeer, since his “re-discovery” in the 19th century, has been a shadowy figure, whose precious few paintings have the luminous beauty of “crushed pearls.” For the author, an economic historian, however, Vermeer is a figure to be understood in precise social, religious, and economic conditions. This is his detailed, meticulous effort to reconstruct that milieu. What effect, if any, his historical reconstruction will have on our understanding of Vermeer’s magical art remains to be determined.

Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780—1820, by Roger G. Kennedy. Knopf $35.95

Orders from France is an ambitious attempt to discuss French cultural influences in early republican America. If it has a thesis, it is Kennedy’s observation that “a transfer of taste often accompanies a transfer of money repeated often enough to create an expectation.” In pursuit of this insight, the author conducts the reader through a kaleidoscopic survey of the Franco-American commerce in aesthetic concepts, technology, real estate deals, and architectural plans. The result is an engagingly written set of vignettes of colorful characters, outlandish places, and ambitious schemes to make fortunes and construct elegant buildings, most of which were only imperfectly realized. Kennedy succeeds in his efforts to illuminate neglected aspects of the Franco-American connection, but this is not a book to be assimilated in a single reading. The reader should dip into Orders from France for its flashes of insight into the vast panorama of its subject matter.

In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past, by Richard J. Evans. Pantheon $18.95

“Hitler’s Shadow” is the lingering burden of guilt for Nazi Germany’s past that inhibits a healthy sense of West German nationalism. Attempts by “neoconservative” German historians to escape this past and restore national pride have sparked a stormy debate known as the Historikerstreit. Evans tries to assess impartially this academic cum political row. Those who would put the past behind them try to relativize Nazi deeds, arguing that other 20th-century atrocities are comparable to the Holocaust, e.g., the massacre of Armenians in 1915 or of Cambodians under Pol Pot, or Stalin’s outrageous crimes. By denying that the Third Reich was uniquely evil, they would remove Germans’ moral burden, allowing them to stand tall once more. But Evans criticizes their methodology and contends that their arguments are ultimately based on lies of Nazi origin. Fortunately, to Evans, they have failed because the controversy has increased, rather than decreased, debate on the Nazi past. Yet their historical malpractice still disturbs Evans because it advances German authoritarianism, nationalism, and desires for reunification. The publisher’s claims aside, this is no “definitive” study of the Historikerstreit; it fails to scrutinize the neconservatives’ foes with equal intensity.

Soviet-American Dialogue on the New Deal, edited by Otis L. Graham, Jr. Missouri $27

There is much to be said for requiring American students to read what the Soviets say about American history, and of course we would all like for Mr. Gorbachev to have Soviet schoolchildren read some uncensored stuff from the West about Russian history. In this unique volume, Mr. Graham presents eleven Soviet essays on the New Deal and eight American commentaries on them. The result is a fascinating look in the mirror of the mirror.

The Chronological Atlas of World War II, by Charles Messenger. Macmillan $32.50

Along with the handful of great novels that came out of mankind’s most terrible war, this atlas is the surest guide to understanding the bloody drama. Messenger— born in London during the Blitz—has a sure hand with capsule narrative, the maps and charts are of a very high order, and the whole publication merits great praise.

The Soviet Economy in Turmoil, 1929—1930, Vol.3 of the Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, by R.W. Davies. Harvard $69.50

The maddening aspect of Stalin’s tyranny was that in one key area it worked. The dictator took a backward, agrarian country and almost overnight transformed it into a major industrial nation. The cost was of course enormous, and surely there were other ways to do it. But any other approach would have taken more time, and what would have happened then in 1941, when Hitler attacked? R.W. Davies, the British scholar, is easily the world’s foremost authority on this problem, and his new study maintains the high standard of his previous works.

LITERARY STUDIES Towards a Literature of Knowledge, by Jerome J. McGann. Chicago $24.95

In 1977 Jerome McGann undertook an ambitious scholarly project whose aim was to explore the political and sociological dimensions of literary history. The project was elaborated in a series of widely influential books (including The Romantic Ideology and The Beauty of Inflections); and it is completed here, in Towards a Literature of Knowledge. This latest work continues McGann’s persuasive polemic against various literary formalisms, his critique of the Arnoldian assumptions which continue to shape literary study. McGann argues that “poetry is not just a play or dance of language,” but “a set of actions carried out in the world.” He develops this argument through fascinating accounts of four poets (Blake, Byron, D.G. Rossetti, and Pound), paying special attention to the imaginative “exchanges” which take place between these poets and their readers. The result is a book which is at once theoretically sophisticated and highly readable—forcefully argued and richly detailed. At its best, Towards a Literature of Knowledge combines the intellectual rigor of literary theory with the subtle pleasures of literary biography. Both challenging and engaging, it is the perfect culmination of McGann’s original project.

Essays Ancient and Modern, by Bernard Knox. Johns Hopkins $32.50

Is it heresy to suggest that the elegant essays of Bernard Knox, Yale’s great classicist now retired to head the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., do not wear well? Knox’s celebration of the ancient virtues, though eloquent, does not seem specific (or cynical?) enough for modern use; his own politics shine forth from the essays both literary and autobiographical (Knox holds the croix de guerre, having taught the use of plastic explosives to French commandoes in World War II)— but his are an academic’s politics, full of vague mournfulness at the modern world, from the Spanish Civil War to the (it seems) indescribably nefarious doings of modern America. Even the general readers for whom this book was collected will perhaps feel that, though learned and stylish, its contents call to us from too long ago, too far away.

The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Form, by Mary Ann Wimsatt. Louisiana $35

Simms was in his day among the most popular and respected writers in America, overshadowing contemporaries like Hawthorne and Melville. Now he is nearly forgotten by all but a handful of specialists—partly because of a persistent sectional prejudice against this Charleston-born writer who never troubled to disguise his loyalty to the South, but partly because of Simms’ own shortcomings: he was a greatly gifted but often careless author who wrote too much too fast. Even a sympathetic reader, confronted by the 82-volume Simms oeuvre, may lose heart and turn away. To such readers Wimsatt’s book will prove invaluable; she has surveyed the vast territory of Simms’ work and is able to offer the rest of us a kind of road map, tracing patterns of continuity and development and isolating the dozen or so novels which are worth the time of any student of American writing. There are signs now of a small revival of interest in Simms; if it materializes, it will owe a good deal to this solid critical study.

Old Age and the Old Regime: Image and Experience in Eighteenth-Century France, by David G. Troyansky. Cornell $31.50

Following in the footprints of Michel Foucault and Philippe Aries, this varied study of literature, the arts, and social history traces a shift in 18th-century France from treating the old as figures of contempt to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible to their emergence as the honored senior citizens for whom the Revolution set aside a special celebratory day in its new calendar. Troyansky’s pattern comes most clear in art rather than life, but in both he has assembled a richly varied source-book.

A Theory of the Secondary: Literature, Progress, and Reaction, by Virgil Nemoianu. Johns Hopkins $29.50

A book which begins with a chapter asking the question: “Is Literature Always Reactionary?”, and answers in the affirmative, cannot be accused of being trendy in the current critical climate. This book does in fact run refreshingly counter to the overwhelming leftward tendencies of contemporary criticism. Moving between theoretical chapters and careful readings of specific works, Nemoianu argues that literature more often than not adopts a conservative stance with respect to the progressive movements of its day. Sometimes Nemoianu’s readings may seem as perverse as those of his left-wing opponents, as, for example, in his attempt to make Serenus Zeitblom in effect the villain of Mann’s Doktor Faustus. But at other times, Nemoianu can be both provocative and illuminating, as in his judiciously balanced treatment of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Nemoianu also shows insight in his discussions of other critics, such as Michel Serres and René Girard. This book may well raise some eyebrows in critical circles, but Johns Hopkins, a press which normally publishes the most avant-garde and hence most left-wing of critics, is to be commended for genuinely broadening its list by adding Nemoianu.

The Outermost Dream, by William Maxwell. Knopf $19.95

William Maxwell is one of the most idio-syncratic of essayists and reviewers, as this collection amply reveals. Most of these reviews were originally published in The New Yorker but have been revised somewhat. The initial essay review discusses the diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert and takes its title (as well as the title of this book) from an actual dream that Kilvert vividly and with horror describes. Other reviews range widely and discuss, among others, V.S. Pritchett, Lord Byron, Louise Bogan, Samuel Butler, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Virginia Woolf. Some of his targets he obviously likes; others he equally obviously does not. His needles are sharp, his blandishments few. Maxwell is a master craftsman and a superb stylist.

Jane Austen’s Lovers, by John Halperin. St. Martin’s $35

The title of this slender volume might lead a reader to expect something more than he will receive. Only the first chapter is devoted to Jane Austen’s affairs of the heart. Halperin lists 12 incidents, most of them too ephemeral to be given the name of love. One other chapter is concerned with Jane Austen. The others consider Meredith, Trollope, Henry James, Hardy, Gissing, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, and John Le Carre. All told, they represent a pretty fair critic’s considered opinions, which are not always fair but are nearly always interesting.

Embodying Revolution: The Figure of the Poet in Shelley, by Timothy Clark. Oxford $55

Clark’s is a densely argued account of Shelley’s development from Alastor through The Triumph of Life, and one that manages to illuminate just about every issue that has arisen in modern Shelley studies. At the center of attention is Shelley’s figuring of himself and poets generally as “stricken deer,” beautiful, prophetic, and doomed; no critic has provided such a rich account of the genesis and meaning of this image. This is an astonishing book in its variety and depth, and one that every student of romanticism must read.

Young Coleridge and the Philosophers of Nature, by Ian Wylie. Oxford $48

This is a quirky, oddly organized, but finally immensely useful book treating Coleridge’s scientific-philosphical interests of the 1790’s and culminating in readings of “Religious Musings” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Wylie is concerned to pin down Coleridge’s complex debt to empirical natural philosophy, especially as he saw ways to read its natural lessons in the moral sphere; in the process, he has much to say about Coleridge’s millennialism, his commitment to an “elect band” of sages who would save the world in its last days, and his friendships with particular cobelievers. Wylie’s reading of “Religious Musings” (once a central work in the Romantic canon), though remarkable, will probably interest readers less than his remarkable and persuasive suggestions about how Coleridge’s understanding of contemporary theories of phosphoresence, spontaneous generation, and semen contribute to the making and meaning of “The Ancient Mariner.”

Mazes, by Hugh Kenner. North Point $22.95

This is the prolific Kenner’s first collection of miscellaneous journalism since Gnomon (1958), and perhaps his most entertaining book since that one. A second volume on exclusively literary topics is promised; this half of the collection ranges widely: computers, labyrinths, King Kong (“Miltonic Monkey”), encyclopedias, Irish politics, the poetry of Richard Nixon. No one else writes like Kenner, and he can drive perfectly reasonable people into a black rage; but those who like him find him uniquely bracing and exciting as a commentator on modern culture, and, for all his satirical bent, blesssedly, indispensably cheerful.

Forming the Critical Mind: Dry den to Coleridge, by James Engell. Harvard $30

A kind of companion volume to Engell’s The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (1981), this book treats in more varied contexts the growth of romanticism from 18th-century thought. Its heroes are Dryden, Hume, and Johnson (there is a chapter on each), its villians all “neoclassicists” with their adherence to “authority” and rigid “rules”; the heroes fight for freedom and individual experience, which when they come lead naturally to romanticism. Much of value is said along the way, but in its general shape the story this book tells is one that several generations of students of the 18th century have been working to displace.

Trollope: Living with Character, by Stephen Wall. Holt $35

This book was written to rebut one picture of Trollope as a writing automaton, a picture produced by himself in his Autobiography. Stephen Wall sees another picture: Trollope revealed “not so much as a man who overworked and abused his gift, but as one surrendered to it and enslaved by it.” So, using all the novels, the good, the mediocre, and the bad, Wall analyzes the Reappearing Characters and the Recurring Situations that Trollope so voluminously and so assiduously produced. At the end the reader will probably know which of the novels he wants to reread, which to read for the first time, and which to avoid. Wall has done a complete rundown of Trollope’s work, a clear, concise, and persuasive one.

Unruly Eloquence: Lucian and the Comedy of Traditions, by R. Bracht Branham. Harvard $27.50

While it is hard to believe that this dense and learned book will serve, as its flyleaf suggests, as an “introduction” to Lucian, it is an extraordinarily persuasive effort to interpret Lucian’s parodic allusiveness as part of a coherent program of evaluating, while participating in, the whole history of classical literature. Branham presents as well many useful reflections on the workings of parody, comedy, and laughter, and on the reasons why Lucian—once the most admired of the ancients—came in the 19th century to be condemned and neglected.

Prefaces: Light Reading for Certain Classes as the Occasion May Require, By Nicholas Notabene, by Søren Kierkegaard. Florida State $17.95 cloth, $9.95 paper

This volume appears in a series called “Kierkegaard and Postmodernism,” a title under which Florida State University Press has chosen to market books by and about the Danish author. Perhaps the whole conception of postmodernism has been nothing more than the intellectual equivalent of a marketing device all along. In any event, it is good to have this work finally available in English translation. Prefaces is clearly not one of Kierkegaard’s major works, but it does shed light on his use of pseudonyms throughout his career and on his relation to Hegel and systematic philosophy. It is ironic that Kierkegaard’s satire on pretentious academics should be accompanied by the kind of prefatory material this volume supplies. The general editor of the series, Mark C. Taylor, regales us in his foreword with such portentous, pseudo-Heideggeriansms as: “What does not begin cannot, of course, end,” and the translator of the volume, William McDonald, chooses to inform us in his introduction, just in case we missed the clip on Good Morning, Copenhagen: “Søren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead.” If only he were alive, one suspects that Kierkegaard’s academic repackagers would not escape his scorn.

Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, by Gary Taylor. Weidenfeld and Nicolson $29.95

On the dust jacket the publishers claim that this book is a “major re-evaluation” of Shakespeare, his writing, and his place in world history. Well, not quite. It is, however, a lively account of the changing responses to Shakespeare over the ages in criticism, the theatre, and in other disciplines. The author needs a name for this subject, so he calls it “Shakesperotics.” Chapter 6 “Present Tense” includes reports on various recent Shakespeare conferences a la David Lodge. Nonacademic readers will be amazed by current scholarly approaches to Shakespeare—particularly by the banalities of the new historicism.

LIVES & LETTERS Of Love and Russia: The Eleven Year Fight For My Husband and Freedom, by Irina McClellan. Translated by Woodford McClellan. Norton, $19.95

Many will recall the plight of University of Virginia history professor, Woodford “Woody” McClellan, who in 1974 met and fell in love with a Russian woman, Irina Shivetsova, and later married her. For over ten years his wife was denied the right to emigrate by Russian authorities. Of Love and Russia written by Irina McClellan details, poignantly and realistically, the suffering she and her family endured: loss of jobs, ostracism, her daughter’s illness with ulcers, and alienation from her mother (who had lost her own job with the KGB). Peace finally came to Irina with marriage and her return to the Russian Orthodox Church. The book offers informed and interesting insights into the problems of daily life in Russia, housing, education, religion, and, above all, the all pervasiveness and brutality of the KGB in the pre-glasnost period.

Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original, by Henry Adams. Knopf $60

Thomas Hart Benton is best known to the public today as a regionalist painter of the American heartland. The story of his life and art is, however, far more complex than one might suppose. It is the story, vividly told here, of an artist from Missouri who confronted Modernism in its various forms, but who finally turned away from it. Nonetheless, Benton’s early abstractions were admired by critics of modern art and, as the author appropriately emphasizes here, Benton extensively influenced Jackson Pollock, whose Abstract Expressionist works marked the triumph of American modernist art at mid-century.

William Plomer: A Biography, by Peter F. Alexander. Oxford $49.95

Among the most absorbing biographies are lives of those who have done nothing (and for the biographer, writing is as good as doing nothing)—witness P.N. Furbank’s life of E.M. Forster (a life William Plomer was originally to have written). Peter Alexander’s gossipy evocation of Plomer, a witty, quiet, and intensely private man who eschewed politics and never came to terms with his homosexuality (though not for lack of practice) bristles with anecdotes about the likes of Ian Fleming, Benjamin Britten, and Rupert Hart-Davis and about Plomer’s years in South Africa and Japan. Plomer himself rests at the vacant center, uniting the anecdotes and speaking powerfully through his very silence.

Andrew Johnson: A Biography, by Hans L. Trefousse. Norton $25

The subject of this biography, the 17th president of the United States and the only one to be impeached, is not new to Hans Trefousse, who is an authority on Johnson, the impeachment, blacks, and Reconstruction. The present study is directed toward an answer to the question, how was it that a Southern frontier child of poverty could climb so unfalteringly up the political ladder, through local office, state offices, through both Houses of Congress, into the vice presidency as a Democrat in a Republican administration, fall heir to the Presidency, and still be so reviled and distrusted as to be impeached? Trefousse’s conclusion is that the contradictions in Johnson’s nature, his brittleness and pugnacity, his devotion to the preservation of the Union while yet stubbornly defending slavery, his unbending adherence to Jeffersonian-Jacksonism at a stage in American development when the frontier as a formative influence was being gradually replaced by industrialism, all of these militated against his being able to articulate a cohesive and appealing agenda for the country. Chances are that this work brings to a close serious efforts to understand and explain the career of our most unpopular president.

Blanco White, Self-Banished Spaniard, by Martin Murphy. Yale $30

Spain has benefited from the recent revival of narrative history by such fine biographies as J.H. Elliott’s Olivares and this one on Blanco White, the anguished Spanish clergyman who committed himself to England in 1810, edited a Spanish-language journal, El Español, that deeply influenced the Spanish-American independence movements, became an Oxford don, and died a Liverpool Unitarian. His name suggests a life in two worlds. That it was, but the two worlds were faith and reason as much as Spain and Britain. He repeatedly engaged one without breaking cleanly from the other. His liminality and moral courage make Blanco White a haunting character to Anglo-American readers of the late 1980’s who know the first and have need of the second. “Decisive in everything except his own affairs,” he came to no satisfying resolution in his restless “life-long struggle against orthodoxy.” This is a stylish and probing book that will interest students of Spanish, English, and Spanish American history, and religious thought in the Age of Enlightenment. It should also interest anyone who enjoys good biography.

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway. Knopf $18.95

In a clear and colorful style Jill Conway writes her account of her childhood and coming of age in the vast expanses of the Australian outback and later in Sydney. She shows the sheep ranch of Coorain with its beauties and hardships. As a child she was a part of the working life of the homestead. After her father’s sudden death, the family moved to Sydney, but held on to Coorain. In Sydney Jill Conway grew up, went to school and university, made friends, saw her mother change, one brother die and the other marry and establish himself. If you did not know that this is a true story, you would think it a wonderful work of fiction, for it has all the qualities of a good novel. It ends with Jill Conway’s departure for America and a brilliant and successful life there. But one wonders if a sequel to The Road from Coorain could possibly be as evocative and exciting as this book is.

Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, by John Evangelist Walsh. Grove $19.95

From September 1912 to February 1915 Robert Frost, with his wife Elinor and their four children, lived in several places in England. There he made a number of friends and after clumsy and disappointing beginnings established himself as a poet to watch and admire. The groundwork for this had been laid during his years of farming and teaching in New Hampshire. John Walsh explores and documents what happened to Frost during those crucial years which ended with the First World War, sending him back to New England and the roots that nourished him, to long continued fame and success.

Growing Up in Moscow, by Cathy Young. Ticknor & Fields $18.95

Among the memoirs of Russian-Jewish life since World War II, this new memoir by Cathy Young is at or very near the top of the list. A sensitive, intelligent portrayal of what Jewish life was like in the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years, Growing Up in Moscow serves as a useful corrective to both the official Kremlin smokescreen and the excessive attention in the West to the activists.

Jacques-Louis David: Revolutionary Artist, by Warren Roberts. North Carolina $42.50

Visitors to the National Gallery in Washington who have contemplated David’s strange portrait of Napoleon may well have wondered about the politics of a painter whose works were associated with the Revolution. This book is for them; it is a careful account both of David’s artistic activity and political career. In may ways, David’s career epitomizes different phases of the Revolution. This study will be of particular interest to art historians, since it is written by an historian. Although Roberts is not the first historian to study the painter, his perspective will no doubt fuel further discussion among art historians interested in the revolutionary period.

Ginsberg: A Biography, by Barry Miles. Simon & Schuster $24.95

This is the first full-length biography of Ginsberg, one of the best-known postwar American poets, leader of the Beat Generation, and author of the celebrated “Howl” and “Kaddish.” A friend and literary associate of Ginsberg’s for more than a quarter century, Miles draws on an extensive tape archive of Ginsberg’s conversations with his father Louis, personal interviews, and voluminous correspondence and private papers of the poet. Although this book is not an official biography, Ginsberg granted Miles complete access to his correspondence (more than 60,000 letters) and personal archives of hundreds of journals and notebooks. Most interesting are the detailed discussions of Ginsberg’s relationship with fellow poets and musicians (including Bob Dylan and The Beatles), and the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on his poetic development.

Lewis Mumford: A Life, by Donald L. Miller. Weidenfeld & Nicolson $24.95

This book is the first biography of Lewis Mumford, literary critic, Utopian, architect, urban planner, philosopher and all-around Renaissance man. Mumford, now in his mid-90’s and no longer able to write because of failing health, is best known as a critic of technology and architecture, and he is the author of The Story of Utopias, The City in History, Technics and Civilization. Mumford granted Miller full access to his private papers and correspondence. Most interesting is the discussion of Mumford’s marriage to his wife Sophia, the revelations about the ups and downs in Mumford’s family and emotional life, and his extraordinary and lifelong love affair with ideas.

Clear Pictures, by Reynolds Price. Atheneum $19.95

Anyone familiar with the novels of Reynolds Price will recognize in Clear Pictures some of the places and the people, some even by their own names, as Dr. Pat Hunter who in Kate Vaiden delivered Kate’s baby and in real life delivered Reynolds Price, a difficult birth. The style in the novels and the memoir is the same, too: simple, warm, clear as pure water, very personal but never mawkish or overblown. The memoir is given body and reality in a way the novels cannot, by the numerous actual pictures from the family album. Though these are in black-and-white their color cannot be obscured, and they graphically illustrate the test.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis: Volume 6, 1856—1860, edited by Lynda Lasswell Crist. Louisiana $55

The current volume in the Davis papers concludes Jefferson Davis’s tenure as Secretary of War and follows him into the Senate and through the controversial presidential election of 1860. Volume 6 is a marked improvement over its predecessor, with far more material actually included (rather than just listed in the calendar), and a good short introduction by Robert Johannsen. The annotations are marvelously helpful and thorough—perhaps too thorough, as they sometimes contain more information than is needed to understand the documents. More problematic is the editor’s insistence (as in the previous volumes) on including very large excerpts from The Congressional Globe containing Davis speeches or remarks. Crist tries to avoid including letters which appear in the old Rowland edition of the Davis papers; why, then, does she include this Globe material when it is available in print in most major libraries? This is especially annoying in view of the fact that so many apparently interesting letters seem to have been excluded. Frustrations aside, this is a handsomely produced and useful series.

John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union, by John Niven. Louisiana $24.95

This is an important new study of a pivotal player in the evolution of the 19th-century South. Niven portrays Calhoun as a complex, almost tragic, figure—ambitious and arrogant, to be sure, but also self-conscious and vulnerable. Calhoun’s public persona was further shaped by a youth spent in a frontier state in a new nation. Niven characterizes the ruling motif of Calhoun’s political agenda as a search for security, for a nation under military threat from Indians from the West and British from the East; for a region under economic threat from Northern aggression; and for a social system, whose moral inferiority Calhoun recognized along with its economic superiority in a resource-poor region. The flaws in Calhoun’s character turned this pursuit of protection into an intransigence on which the Union was all but wrecked.

I. A. Richards: His Life and Work, by John Paul Russo. Johns Hopkins $39.95

This book is the first biography of I. A. Richards (1893—1979), the English literary critic and philosopher of language. Russo, a professor of English at the University of Miami and an acquaintance of Richards, has written a remarkably thorough examination of Richards’ work and its relation to his life. Russo notes that Richards, one of the fathers of close textual reading and the New Criticism, maintained a critical position which held grave reservations about biography. Nonetheless, Richards implicitly endorsed this biography by granting Russo numerous informal interviews and access to Richards’ unpublished materials and correspondence. Russo stresses that Richards, the author of The Meaning of Meaning (1923) and Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), emerged as far more than a critic and philosopher in the last four decades of his life. Beginning in the 1930’s, he became a promoter of world literacy programs and Basic English, traveling from China to America to conduct language training classes and proclaim the gospel of literacy.

FICTION Spartina, by John Casey. Knopf $18.95

John Casey’s second novel is a long, languorous book about water—the salt ponds, marshes, creeks, and sea coast in and around the tiny state of Rhode Island. And it’s about Dick Pierce, a middle-aged Yankee fisherman who is hard of head, short-tempered, and as stubborn and smart as spartina, the “smart grass” that thrives in the salt floods and swamps. Pierce is perversely set on asserting himself, going against convention. He is a great eccentric—a man moved by the pull of the tides and moon and love of women and family— and an ordinary man. He thinks he wants nothing more from life than the chance to finish building his boat—Spartina—and become a self-sufficient fisherman. Time and money are against him, and how he deals with both is the rhyme and rhythm of the story. This is a fine, very American novel about time and place and people. It’s as beautiful as the open sea at sunset.

Elephant’s Nest in a Rhubarb Tree, by H.E. Bates. New Directions $17.95

This is the third volume of short stories by Bates, written between 1938 and 1964, to be published in the United States. Like those of the earlier books, the 20 pieces included here reveal the same sure touch of the master craftsman. With an astonishing economy of words and plot, but with a rare sensitivity to a wide range of moods, Bates succeeds almost every time in revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of quite ordinary men, women, and children in very personal encounters. This is a collection of brilliant sketches which will not only entertain the reader, but which will not allow him to leave before he has seen himself and his own motives in sharper perspective and with greater clarity than he ever imagined possible.

The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick. Knopf $12.95

This slim volume contains a story and a novella, both previously published in The New Yorker, and both were included in Best American Short Stories; “The Shawl” in 1981, and “Rosa” in 1984. Ozick’s haunting, powerful prose chronicles the life of Rosa Lublin, who, after witnessing her daughter Magda’s murder in a Polish concentration camp, must try to make sense of an existence that “thieves took” from her. In a scorching and brutal Miami, Rosa re-creates the spirit of Magda through letters to her in Polish and through contemplation of the shawl that nurtured Magda with its “milk of linen.” Ozick’s work is so replete with vivid images, whether horrifying or comic, that at times it becomes like reading poetry. She has created in 70 pages a crazed world, but one that makes some kind of terrible sense seen through Rosa’s tortured eyes. While The Shawl cannot be classified as solely Holocaust literature, Ms. Ozick has added, with poignancy and grace, a valuable addition to the story of the tragedy that affected so many millions.

The Venus Tree, by Michael Pritchett. Iowa $15.95

Brief and austere best describe this collection of stories that received the University of Iowa’s 1988 John Simmons Award for short fiction. Pritchett’s characters all live in a minimalist Western netherworld, and their lives are described with a combination of lean language and terse dialogue. In the best stories, this combination works effectively to create a distinctive tone, and the characters and their conundrums linger in the reader’s mind. In other stories though, the author’s efforts are too intrusive and the tales become too self-conscious and stilted.

The Silent Meteor, by John Bovey. Crane $6 paper

John Bovey’s second collection of stories does not sparkle like a quick meteor. Instead, the book illuminates the leathery rooms of far-off consulates and beams a long light through the contained lives of diplomats, washing all mystery away and showing people, just people, fumbling their lonely ways through life. Bovey’s prose is clean and strong, and his humor is crisp and lithe. His stories probe the workings of people and rooms. Like Dickens he uses possessions to reveal character; as a result his tales are finely molded. Exuding the ripeness of a thoughtful life, the stories provoke contemplation and dream and should not be missed.

A Place in Mind, by Sydney Lea. Scribner’s $17.95

Poet Sydney Lea’s first novel is a moving and brilliantly rendered tale of two lives— of two men whose friendship is held together by a sense of place which underwrites the happiness and protects them from the disappointment in their lives. Embedded in a fading New England landscape of trout rivers, grouse cover, and vestigial backwoods sensibilities—which Lea captures with a stunning range of descriptive talent—this novel traces the fates of characters brought memorably to life in prose as evocative as wood smoke, as fresh as the onset of autumn. Lea’s narrative is as convoluted as time remembered, as pleasurable to follow as the meanders of a river. As a novel, A Place in Mind has an aura of permanence about it. It has the depth and solidity of an important new place in American fiction.

While My Pretty One Sleeps, by Mary Higgins Clark. Simon & Schuster $19.95

Clark, a best-selling novelist, has written another well plotted but plodding mystery, a story about an obstreperous gossip columnist who is murdered just before she was to publish an exposé of the fashion industry. The heroine, who owns a successful clothing boutique, picks up her clues from what the characters do or do not wear, which means she is kept very busy. In this author’s New York, people change designer clothes like babies change diapers. If you can tell a Calvin Klein from an Oscar de la Renta, and give a hoot, this book might be for you. The story has a fairy tale quality about it, as if filmed in vivid technicolor but slightly out of focus. The effect is gauzy and romantic and just a trifle sticky.

Traders, by William Brashler. Atheneum $18.95

What could be a timely tale of scandal in the commodities market becomes instead an unevenly-written, unconvincing, sensation-seeking work of fiction. Set within the present-day Chicago Board of Trade, Traders explores how the lure of vast monetary profits affects the lives of an ambitious Florida beautician turned pit trader, a pit trader who nets twenty million over one summer, and a former sixties radical turned trader. Fraught with tales of office sex and drug dealings, the characters in Traders are as grimy and animal-like as the commodities in which they deal.

A Visitation of Spirits, by Randall Kenan. Grove $16.95

New and interesting things are happening with the youngest and latest generation of black fiction writers. The old tropes and conventions (and clinchés) are only tools now, to be used as they please by the innovative likes of Trey Ellis, Percival Everett, Don Belton, Yolanda Barnes, and now, with his exciting first novel, Randall Kenan of North Carolina. In a tightly structured but highly original form, Kenan tells the story of two cousins—the Reverend James Green and Horace Cross of Tims Creek—on two separate days, April 30, 1984 and December 8, 1985; and out of that story, in almost every conceivable form of showing and telling, Kenan gives us the history and legends of a black family from slavery days until now. Daring in form, this story is equally bold in its content which includes homosexual adventures and a tragic suicide. Sophisticated and accurate, Kenan offers us one of the first literary versions of a New South where (in this novel) the only bigotry is demonstrated by older blacks, where the days of segregation seem as far away as slavery, and where Batman and Superman are as much a part of daily living as hog killing and tobacco farming. Kenan’s accomplishment is more than merely promising.

Soldier’s Joy, by Madison Smartt Bell. Ticknor & Fields $19.95

Before he reached the age of 30 Bell had published four novels, most recently The Year of Silence, and a collection of stories—Zero db. Some of the stories are set in Bell’s native South, but all of the novels have been firmly placed in acutely realized urban sites. Now the prolific and gifted writer gives us his first Southern novel, set in the farm country near Nashville that Bell calls home. Time is the early 1970’s, and the two central characters are Vietnam veterans and buddies—Thomas Laidlaw (white) and Rodney Redmon (black). Together they battle the Klan and others, fighting for peace at home. What might, in less gifted hands, have been a simplistic thriller becomes a first-rate novel with dimensional characters, thoroughly realized setting, and as a bonus some wonderful writing about country music and banjo picking. A professional banjo player, himself, Bell writes whereof he knows.

Dexterity, by Douglas Bauer. Simon & Schuster $18.95

A first novel of remarkable grimness, Dexterity is the story of two American kids who cannot escape from their place—a poor upstate New York town—or themselves. Ed and Ramona marry in their teens, have a baby, and settle down into a life of dreary habit. Then one hot summer morning, in an uncalculated moment, Ramona walks out and tries to leave her old life and self behind. Bauer does not tell a banal tale about ignorant country folk who lack heart or hope; his characters are deeply human, and his evocation of the landscape is free from falsehood. This is not a happy story. But in the end, in the cold of a winter snowstorm, Ed and Ramona struggle with life and death, and the story becomes infused with vivid particularity and wonder.

Resonating Bodies, by Lynne Alexander. Atheneum $19.95

The heroine of this curious novel is a 17th-century viola da gamba named Rose. The hero, if such he be, is Rose’s current master, the aging musician Nicholas Jordan. In contrapuntal fashion each recounts a personal history. Rose tells of her various masters from her maker in 1670 through centuries of wear and tear. Nicholas records his history from childhood on. He has now given Rose a new master, his musician daughter Lucy, and he wants her back but knows that can never be. These resonating bodies—for like Rose Nicholas resounds— send forth a message of love and hate, of time past and time passing.

Brighten the Corner Where You Are, by Fred Chappell. St. Martin’s $15.95

In his new novel Chappell lets Carolina farm boy Jess Kirkman (whom some readers will remember from the 1985 novel I Am One of You Forever) recount the misadventures of his schoolteacher father, Joe Robert, during one eventful day in 1946. The result is a story which operates simultaneously as a broadly humorous farce, as a fantasy somewhere between Appalachian tall tale and South America “magical realism,” and as a tongue-in-cheek epic, a mythically resonant account of the wanderings of a genuine hero. It is one of those rare narratives which manage to carry a considerable thematic load lightly, a serious book which is never for a moment somber and often laugh-out-loud funny. Chappell’s growing legion of admirers won’t be disappointed, and those who don’t yet know the man Lee Smith calls “the one truly great writer we have among us” will find him near the top of his game in this fine novel.

Talking God, by Tony Hillerman. Harper & Row $17.95

It always seemed that Hillerman’s mysteries took their strength from their wonderfully evoked settings in the Navaho country of the southwest U. S. His latest novel, however, shows that his appealing characters are equally at home working outside the reservation. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are drawn to Washington, D.C., to investigate two different crimes. Leaphorn is puzzled by the murder of an un-identified man in his territory; Chee is on the trail of an Indian activist who works at the Smithsonian. The drama is played out in the “nation’s attic,” as the Smithsonian is called. There is an unhurried, “centered” quality to Hillerman’s books that is almost hypnotic. Besides the usual mix of Navaho philosophy and ritual, the author also treats the reader to a view of the nation’s capital through the eyes of Jim Chee. It is an unsettling vista and one that makes a good book even better.

The Evening Wolves, by Joan Chase. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $18.95

Southern Gothic with a twist (a cork-screw twist), The Evening Wolves is told in relays by the characters in it: Margy, Ruthann, Tommy, and their stepmother, Gloria. The leading man, Francis Clemmons, who manipulates his children and wife mercilessly, is graphically depicted: a cruel and sardonic humorist, a failed musician, who can twist an arm and cajole lovingly at one and the same time. Joan Chase’s way of writing may well be described as unique. Her characters are vivid and real—but you hope you never meet them on the beach, at the launderette, or on the street.



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