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Notes on Current Books, Winter 1999

ISSUE:  Winter 1999

In this lavishly illustrated and densely written synthesis, Black, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, England, successfully argues for war to be discussed within the context of world history. Europeans were not the sole dynamic powers in the world, he argues, nor were differences in military technology the sole reason for European successes. He discusses the military cultures of India, China, Persia, and others in depth, and uses examples of regional conflicts that did not involve Europeans to illustrate many of his points. This leads to some minutely detailed explanations of little-known campaigns and battles but will be refreshing to those already familiar with European conflicts. While Black gives technology its due, he relies also to a larger extent than other military historians for explanations of battlefield success and failure on contingency, the political context of wars, psychological factors, and disease—even at times pointing out the benefits of defeat to the vanquished. And since the author’s reach is so wide, the notes and bibliography that accompany the text are an added bonus. This volume is essential for military historians and could be perused profitably by the general reader.

Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe Before World War II, by Ivan Berend. California $40

Ivan Berend reminds us in his masterful history of Central and Eastern Europe that in order to understand the present state of this region, we must understand its past, particularly the oft-neglected years between the two world wars. After the First World War, the countries that make up Central and Eastern Europe faced a period of convulsions that deeply affected the region, as individual nations on the European periphery began to turn away from the Western capitalist system when it showed signs of weakness. Berend skillfully weaves economics, politics, and culture together in telling his story of this region in the years between the two world wars, and the end product is the best account now available of these turbulent years in the history of Eastern and Central Europe.

A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910—1948, by Bryant Simon. North Carolina $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

In keeping with many new political histories, Bryant Simon defines politics broadly in this study of South Carolina millhands between the two world wars. He insists that political action be inclusive of electoral behavior and attendance at stump speeches and rallies but also of signing petitions, writing letters, and arguing around the kitchen table over the meanings of symbols and slogans. Arguing with generations of political historians of the Jim Crow South who relegated poor whites to little more than virulent racists, too ignorant to see their own class interests, Simon instead argues that the identities and interests of white millhands were constantly in flux. Surely, millhands were dedicated to preserving their own supremacy as whites, but issues of state power and ideas about gender and class constantly interacted with their sense of race, confounding simple notions about the preservation of whiteness as the fundamental priority of poor white Southerners. Simon’s historical narrative follows the politics of the millhands from their cleavage to white supremacist appeals from men like Governor Cole Blease to the failure of those appeals during the Depression and the early New Deal, when class politics seemed to carry the day. The final chapters of Simon’s work find the re-emergence of racism as a successful political strategy as the New Deal ultimately failed to implement policy that might truly shift the balance of power in the United States toward labor interests. Seeing futility in battling capital and fearful of black efforts at political organization in the 1940s, millhands soon hunkered down for massive resistance in the early civil rights era.

The Invention of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. Toronto $16.95

This short book redraws the scholarly arguments concerning the origins, purposes, and outcomes of the medieval religious wars known as the Crusades. Tyerman directs our attention to the Third Crusade, a flashpoint in Western history for the reason that this was the only genuine moment of crusading, as seen from the point of view of the Crusaders themselves. The very idea of the Crusade was an invention, then, in the sense that it is primarily a myth created by historians, medieval and modern, for propagandistic reasons. This book is a compelling and fresh look at a crucial part of Western European history.

From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France, edited by Sara A. Melzer and Kathryn Norberg. California $50 cloth, $18 paper

From the Royal to the Republican Body focuses on a topic that has been fashionable for some time now: the politics of the body. This well-researched and well-written collection of essays is, however, a welcome addition to this already substantial literature. In a chronologically ordered series of studies, major scholars from a number of different disciplines make a convincing case for the centrality of bodily practices, as well as metaphors, in the transition from royal absolutism to republicanism in France. One of the real strengths of this collection is its attention to the relatively neglected question of the role of dance in 17th- and 18th-century political culture (essays by Mark Franko, Susan Leigh, and Susan McClary), as well as to such obvious corporeal topics as sexuality, punishment, medicine, and clothing. The essays are also consistently attentive to issues of gender and race. All in all, this volume persuades the reader of the importance of the body to the study of political culture.

Hungary at War: Civilians and Soldiers in World War II, by Cecil D. Eby. Penn State $35

Very little has been written in English about the role of Hungary in World War 11. Cecil D. Eby, a historian who has hitherto written only about American history, moves part of the way toward filling the gap in Hungary at War. This is an oral history, composed of a series of interviews that Eby conducted in Hungary in 1989 and 1996, tied together by narratives of the course of political and military events in Hungary before and during the war. As one might expect, the interviews conducted before the fall of communism in the country are somewhat less open and honest than those dating from 1996. As a whole, however, these firsthand accounts of life in Hungary during the war are both interesting and informative. Eby summarizes rather than quotes the interviews, bringing them together into a clear and flowing narrative.

Necessary Virtue: The Pragmatic Origins of Religious Liberty in New England, by Charles P. Hanson. Virginia $35

Necessary Virtue is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the history of religious tolerance in America. Charles Hanson examines the hostile anti-Catholicism of pre-Revolutionary New England and contrasts it with the post-Revolutionary American tolerance for religious diversity. He postulates that because of political necessity in the form of an alliance with Catholic France and French Quebec, New Englanders had greater reason to grow tolerant and overcome their anti-Catholic hostilities. Hanson argues that though Protestant Congregationalism fueled the Revolution, it was Catholic aid that allowed the Revolution to succeed. This acceptance of Catholicism ushered in the maturing of religious liberty and freedom culminating in the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Through a variety of historical narratives, Necessary Virtue skillfully forces us to recognize the influence of historical contingencies on political and religious beliefs. Hanson elegantly shows that the belief in religious liberty does not find its source in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers but can be traced to class struggle and its political necessities. Necessary Virtue is a revealing analysis of religious tolerance in Revolutionary America.

Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700—1805, by Barbara Wells Sarudy. Johns Hopkins $29.95

Barbara Wells Sarudy’s analysis of gardens and gardening in the 18th-century Chesapeake further develops the narratives surrounding the gentry and their large estates. By exploring these landscapes and people who shaped them Sarudy successfully tells the stories and subsequent manifestations of republican ideals and newly-found independence as depicted in Chesapeake gardens. Peppered with detailed plans and illustrations of the great gardens shaped by, to name a few, George Washington and William Byrd, II. Full of primary-source references, this book is a must-have for the amateur gardener and scholar of the cultural landscape alike.

An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A. D. 400—600, by Christopher A. Snyder. Pennsylvania State $65

Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, between the Romans and the Saxons, is in the twilight period, the time between sunset and night, or night and sunrise, depending on how you want to see it. In any case, the dearth of evidence precludes a satisfactory history and we have invented such names as Dark Age Britain, King Arthur’s Britain, or Sub-Roman Britain to describe it. The title of this book is no worse, but no better, than the others, except that it leads the author to make a case for the uniqueness of the age defined by its own set of characteristics. But this is a hazardous undertaking. More useful is the discussion of the documentary and archaeological sources, with helpful comments on the meaning of key words and phrases, and on the current theories of leading scholars in the field. In what is essentially a student’s handbook, Snyder succeeds very well in giving a clear picture of how unclear the history of these centuries is.

The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War, by David Syrett. South Carolina $24.95

This short work by an accomplished naval historian explains what may at first appear to be an obscure subject. The preoccupation of some historians with naval affairs in North American waters during the Revolutionary War has, however, tended to obscure the impact that European events had on the course of the war. Syrett demonstrates that Britain’s unsuccessful attempts at naval supremacy in Europe gravely increased British, and commensurately alleviated American, supply problems in North America. This book, clearly written and both easy and interesting to read, is a companion to the author’s earlier book The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775—1783.

The Lincoln Mailbag: America Writes to the President, 1861—1865, by Harold Holzer. Southern Illinois $29.95

Lincoln received hundreds of letters each day of his presidency, none more poignant than a plaintive note from Annie Davis, a slave from Maryland, who wrote Lincoln in the summer of 1864: “you will please let me know if we are free.” Annie was not free despite Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation. Not until the passage of the 13th amendment would she be free. The letters collected here rescue from obscurity lost voices, including Annies’, but also the widowed mother pleading for her son’s return, the prisoner’s wife begging Lincoln for his release. Armchair generals, political cranks, and would-be inventors are represented too. In fact, this fascinating sampling from the Lincoln papers shows a full picture of Lincoln’s America during five extraordinary years. We glimpse ordinary and remarkable Americans engaged in conversation with their president, most often one-sided, but fired with the expectation of a moment’s intimacy with their elected leader. In him, Americans reposed their affection, frustration, despair, and hope. In their letters to him they offer us a most representative picture of a nation at war, but hopeful yet of peace.

Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia, Text and Drawings by Art Rosenbaum; Photographs by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum; Musical Transcriptions and Historical Essay by Johann S. Buis. Georgia $24.95

The ring shout is an African American religious performance tradition in which some participants shuffle counter clockwise in a circle, singing to the rhythmic accompaniment of hand claps and a wooden stick tapping on the floor. Shouting refers to the movement around the circle and the shouters are accompanied antiphonally by “bassers” who do not move in the circle. Although the ring shout is religious, it is not performed as part of the church service but, rather, on special occasions, primarily on watch night (New Year’s Eve). The ring shout is the most African of traditions that have survived in America. First reported in the 1840’s and 1850’s, the ring shout was thought to have died out in the mid-20th century. It survived, however, unknown to most except the participants and their community, in Bolden, Georgia (McIntosh County). In recent years the shouters have taken their tradition to local and national festivals and, in the process, have sparked something of a revived interest in their own area. It will be interesting to see how the revival ultimately affects this ancient tradition.

LITERARY STUDIES The Height of Our Mountains: Nature Writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, edited by Michael P. Branch and Daniel J. Philippon. Johns Hopkins $39.95

Excerpted from travel journals, diaries, letters, speeches, essays, novels, and government and scientific reports written over four centuries, this remarkable collection of writings contains 70 selections from literary excursions exploring the interaction between man and of one of America’s most beautiful natural landscapes. The judicious selections of the editors are enhanced by a provocative introduction, informative background and editorial notes, interesting illustrations, and a useful bibliography, making this a model of regional nature-writing anthologies.

Louisiana Sojourns: Travelers’ Tales and Literary Journeys, edited by Frank De Caro. Louisiana State $39.95

This nearly 600-page book presents one of the U.S.’s most culturally and enthnographically rich states as seen through 76 prisms, ranging from Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1856 view of “free people of color,” to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1953 view of “real jazz,” to Mark Twain’s view of “castles and plantations,” to John James Audubon’s view of a runaway slave, to William Least Heat Moon’s take on Cajun music. It’s a wonderful collection. The pieces offer a rich mosaic of the state’s history, legends, music, people, and natural environment, most of them beautifully written. Each of the book’s 11 sections has an introduction, as well as a “travel update” offering practical advice for sightseers. But Louisiana Sojourns offers just as much pleasure to those whose idea of traveling means settling into a comfortable chair with a good book—preferably a wicker chair on a wide veranda.

Ventures into Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity, by U.C. Knoepflmacher. Chicago $35

No turf is off-limits for 19th-century gender wars, least of all children’s fairy tales. This book explores how four male and three female authors’ constructions of childhood in fairy tales point to their gendered views of identity. The tales by men, including John Rushkin, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Mat-Donald, and Lewis Carroll, all use a female reader protagonist, downplaying sexual differences and sentimentalizing an arrested childhood. By contrast, those by women, including Jean Ingelow, Christina Rossetti, and Juliana Ewing, offer more realistic stories that allow their girl characters to grow and mature. Other topics explored along the way in this thoroughly researched and well-written book include the Victorian notion of childhood and the problems inherent in segregating “adult” and “juvenile” texts.

Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End, by John Willinsky. Minnesota $22.95

Don’t be misled: this is not a book about the schooling of children in formerly colonized nations. Willinsky reviews a broad range of literature on the topics of Western imperialism and representation of the “Other” while criticizing what modern-day Western students are taught about colonialism and their own educational heritage. Willinsky deftly weaves theory with literary/cultural criticisms of textbooks and students’ writings which, aside from making post-colonial philosophy more accessible, makes one aware of the fact that the “West” still indoctrinates its students with colonial-era images of the “East.” One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is the function of Canada as a frame of reference, as opposed to the United States.

Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts, 1830—1890, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth. Oxford $85

This superb collection of writings covering the range of Victorian psychological thought will undoubtedly help us reframe our understanding of this crucial period. The Victorian period was, after all, the period of origin for this century’s conceptions of psychological phenomena such as the unconscious, dreaming, and sexuality. The editors include texts from the following areas: physiognomy, phrenology, mesmerism, associational theory, dreams, memory, feminine sexuality, masculinity, forms of insanity, theories of heredity, degeneration, and modernity. Headnotes and introductions provide a first-rate contextualization of the materials here.

Wordsworth and the Victorians, by Stephen Gill. Oxford $45

It is now a commonplace that Wordsworth outlived his gift. Almost nothing he wrote in the last four decades of his life measures up to the work of his great decade (1797—1807). And yet, as Wordsworth’s artistic power waned, his cultural authority grew. He became, as Carlyle put it, “a recognised lion.” In his fine biography, William Wordsworth: A Life (1989), Gill sensibly limited himself to Wordsworth’s reaction to his shifting status in society. His new study is a kind of sequel: a biography of Wordsworth’s cultural after image. Equally impressive are the range of Gill’s scholarship and his talent as a story teller. Both are in evidence, whether he is discussing Victorian tourism or the novels of George Eliot.

The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents, by Elisabeth Bronfen. Princeton $19.95

This wholly original and deeply insightful book offers an exciting reading of the traumatic causes of hysteria. Bronfen’s field of inquiry encompasses turn-of-the-century medical writings, novels, opera, film, and photography. For Bronfen, hysteria emeges as a universal human experience, one not inherently tied to stifled feminine sexual energy. The readings are always analytically rich and historically sound. This is some of the best psychoanalytically-charged cultural criticism to emerge in the last decade.

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1650—1740, edited by Steven N. Zwicker. Cambridge $59.95

Another contribution to the ever-expanding Cambridge library of introductory volumes to English literature. This one is much like the others: it offers a concise and engaged treatment of the literary and historical contexts surrounding the topic in question. This volume studies the literary culture of Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Pope, and many others. Fourteen essays guide the reader through one of England’s most charged and productive literary periods. Bibliographies and chronologies supplement the essays.

Toward Another Shore: Russian Thinkers Between Necessity and Chance, by Aileen Kelly. Yale $35

Since the advent of the Cold War, Western scholars have associated the Russian intelligentsia with intolerance and indifference to the means they employed, qualities that in turn paved the way for the Soviet regime and its horrors. In this new book, Aileen Kelly reveals a different, more positive side of the Russian intelligentsia, particularly its unique strands of pluralism and liberalism. In essays exploring Russian thinkers from Herzen to Bakhtin, Kelly offers a significant reappraisal of Russian thought and its importance both for Western thought and the Russia of today.

American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, edited by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy. Iowa $32.95

The five sections of this volume—”Framing the Gothic: Theories and Histories,” “Psychoanalysis and the Gothic,” “Racial Politics in Gothic Texts,” “Gothic Currents in Women’s Writing,” and “The Gothic Postmodern”—reveal its approach to the Gothic: rather than attempting to find the unifying features of a genre, the essays here examine the ways in which “Gothic cultural production” confronts us with the repressed Other (whether the Other of the nation, the ego, the male, the majority, the modern, or the white). Particulars, rather than universals, and recent, rather than classic, scholarship mark the terrain of this volume, which argues that the study of the Gothic has implications for our national identity. The use of the term “interventions” in the subtitle points to the volumes intention to move from cultural criticism to a form of political engagement that, the editors argue, “is necessary if the various darknesses and secrets are to be more than tropes.”

Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick. Princeton $22

Serious scholarship on dandies and the fin de siècle are no longer that remarkable, but Garelick’s treatment of Wilde, Mallarmé, and Baudelaire frankly is. Her hook is the politics of public performance—the kind that gets people noticed and earns them a cult following. Though her subjects are mostly 19th-century men, the relationship between dandies and women also plays a prominent part in this engaging study, as do latter-day dandies like Prince, Jackie O, and Jacques Derrida. A thoughtful and important book.

Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide, edited by Michael O’Neill. Oxford $75 doth, $19.95 paper

The exponential growth in literary criticism in the past three decades has made books like this necessary and at the same time made their task next-to-impossible. This volume does about as good a job as could be expected of surveying the vast body of “literature of the Romantic period,” discussing both primary texts and secondary (contemporary reviews, bibliographies, criticism, etc.). The book covers the six canonical Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats), but also includes chapters on lesser-known authors of the period (such as John Clare and Thomas Love Peacock), some of the major prose fiction writers (Scott, Austen, Mary Shelley), and various other categories (including many of the female authors of the period who have been attracting critical attention lately). Though it was probably necessary to turn each chapter over to a different author, the result has been to introduce a certain inconsistency into the volume. General works on Romanticism taken seriously in one chapter may not even be mentioned in another (where they are equally relevant). And readers should be forewarned—no volume such as this can do their research work for them. The chapter on Mary Shelley, for example, manages to omit several of the most important critical studies of Frankenstein, including perhaps the best single book written on the subject, Christopher Small’s Ariel like a Harpy.

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase. Harvard $45

Fashions come and go, even (especially?) in academia. Some thinkers remain consistently popular over time. In the last century, Nietzsche has joined Montaigne as an enduring figure who helps us to understand better the human psyche. What emerges from reading Pierre Hadot’s recent reflections on the meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the debt some of our best known thinkers (Montaigne and Nietzsche, among others) owe to Marcus Aurelius. This is the kind of book that can grab your attention and hurl you through several hundred pages, ever curious to read on. Harvard University Press likely did not struggle over whether to publish a translation of Hadot (one of the most celebrated living intellectuals in Europe) uncovering new levels of meaning in this classic of Stoic thought.

Hermeneutics of Poetic Sense: Critical Studies of Literature, Cinema, and Cultural History, by Mario J. Valdés. Toronto $45

Valdés inquires into textual “meaning” in the light of postmodern literary theory, weighing in on the side of hermeneutics and history. Drawing heavily on Ricoeur, he looks at “poetic sense” as a counterweight to the “postmodern deconstruction of all paradigms” and bases his excellent commentary on readings of texts from Spain and Latin America. It is difficult to argue with his belief that “sense demands order” and he finds order in complex works by Unamuno, Paz, Carlos Saura, García Márquez, Fuentes, and others. A particularly useful “Glossary of Specialized Terms from Science and Philosophy” will aid the reader to appreciate this dense yet readable study.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook, edited by Julie Bates Dock. Penn State $35 doth, $16.95 paper

Here is a full-dress critical edition of a seminal text in literary, women’s, and genre studies. Dock examines the mythology that has grown up around the publication and reception of “The Yellow Wail-Paper,” moving then to an analysis of the haphazard reprintings the story has undergone and the resulting textual deterioration that has affected the form in which most readers now meet Gilman’s work. In addition, Dock presents the Gilman’s comments upon the story, letters and diary entries that bear upon its history, and a collection of reviews contemporary with its earliest appearances. The editor also provides complete textual apparatus to allow reconstruction of the surviving holograph manuscript and of the eight textually significant printings of the story. For each of these contributions scholars will be grateful. One is left only to wonder whether by choosing the first printed form of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” for copy-text over the existing holograph the editor has given us an elegant reception study but stopped short of an edition that removes every possible mediating layer to give an unobstructed view of Gilman’s accomplishment.

LIVES & LETTERS A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere, by Jayne E. Triber. Massachusetts $29.95

This is a well-written, extensively researched, and extremely detailed biography of the man known for his midnight ride. While Triber describes that famous incident in full, she is more interested in tracing the line of Revere’s long career as a master goldsmith, freemason, industrialist, and American revolutionary. According to the author, Revere’s desire for prosperity, independence, and social distinction led him into the ranks of republicans. While he served during the Revolution as a militia officer, courier, currency engraver, and gunpowder expert, he never made it into the inner circle of Boston revolutionaries and was disappointed in his desire for a Continental Army commission. After the war he supported the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and became a stalwart Federalist, but never received the federal office he expected. Revere adapted to a new industrial economy, however, and succeeded as a manufacturer, establishing foundries for the casting of copper and iron implements, including bells and stoves, as well as producing copper sheeting for ship bottoms. This will, no doubt, be the standard biography for years to come.

The Papers of George Washington. Presidential Series, Volume 7: December 1790-March 1791, edited by Jack D. Warren, Jr. Virginia $60

This finely edited volume documents a significant period of George Washington’s first presidency, including the close of the First Congress, when he signed into law acts establishing a national bank, creating a federal excise bureaucracy, and increasing the size of the United States Army. The correspondence in this volume therefore concerns filling new civil and military offices, but also covers the siting of the new federal district on the Potomac and preparations for Arthur St. Clair’s major Indian campaign. Emerging ideological differences between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are clearly expressed in their conflicting opinions on the constitutionality of the Bank bill. Annotation throughout is informative, not obtrusive. For instance, in his notes describing a box sent by John Greenwood containing unspecified “contents . . .perfectly agreeable” to Washington, the editor helpfully identifies Greenwood as Washington’s dentist, and hypothesizes that the box contained a set of false teeth.

Dr. Freud: A Life, by Paul Ferris. Counterpoint $30

Ferris, an award-winning biographer of poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin, provides here what may be the most accessible, unbiased, and sensitive account of the life of the originator of modern psychoanalysis. Written more for a lay audience than a scholarly one, this biography elucidates the conflict contemporary revisionists of Freud’s life and thought face: whether to canonize him as true genius or vilify him as a deceiver. This book will prove valuable for those who seek an immensely readable and deeply informative account of Freud and his theories.

Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s, edited by Wilson Jeremiah Moses. Pennsylvania State $50 doth, $16.95 paper

Collected in this volume are four narratives from antebellum black Americans who chose in 1853 to emigrate to Liberia, founded by the American Colonization Society in 1822 as an effort to remove free people of color, whom they generally perceived to be dangerous, criminal, and potentially subversive elements of the American populace, from the United States. By the 1850s, emigrants themselves saw Liberia as a chance to create a new black nation. The narratives offer differing perspectives on these possibilities, from William Nesbit’s stinging condemnation of the colony and its sponsors to Samuel Williams’s defense of the potential for a new black Christian republic and Daniel H. Peterson’s description of the “brilliant prospects for the colored man in Liberia.” Also included are letters from Augustus Washington judiciously offering both support for emigration and criticisms of the colonizationist movement. Collectively, the four narratives point to the conflicts between antebellum American blacks over colonization and reveal their encounters with the aboriginal inhabitants of Liberia and their societies. Each of these narratives was reprinted in the 1960’s but most libraries today have either lost their copies or had them stolen, or have placed them in rare books rooms and archives. Moses deserves our thanks for having collected these valuable and fascinating documents here.

The Papers of John Marshall, Vol. 9: Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, January 1820-December 1823, edited by Charles F. Hobson. North Carolina $60

This superb volume in a model documentary edition from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture publishes 309 documents, most of them, naturally, judicial in nature. Five of the 47 Supreme Court decisions that Chief Justice John Marshall delivered from 1820 through 1823 are printed in full, the most important being that of Cohens v. Virginia, in which Marshall presented in 1821, to the discomfort of President James Monroe and states rights Republicans, a comprehensive statement of the scope and extent of the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Also printed in this volume are 23 of Marshall’s circuit court decisions, which are not as readily available as his Supreme Court decisions. Finally, 100 personal letters to and from colleagues, friends, and family members appear herein. The correspondence, which concerns such matters as the health of his wife and care of his widowed sister, the education of his son at Harvard, publication of a second edition of Marshall’s Life of Washington, as well as state and national politics, rounds out the man and helps explain his greatness as a judge.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow. Random House, $30

In Titan, Ron Chernow presents readers with an able follow-up to his National Book Award-winning biography of J.P. Morgan. Chernow’s book introduces complexity and nuance into the scholarship about Rockefeller, too often portrayed as a cardboard cut-out “robber baron.” Using Max Weber’s sociological theories as a framework, Chernow shows how Rockefeller squared his fundamentalist religion with his avaricious business practices. Rockefeller emerges as a scrupulous businessman, albeit one whose scruples often conflicted with those of others. Unflinching, Rockefeller remained true to his own internal logic. Weak in the early chapters, where Chernow bolsters scant evidence with speculation and psychoanalysis, his balanced treatment of Rockefeller’s meteoric rise and subsequent vilification cuts between the poles of hagiography and demonization. Chernow ably untangles the paradoxes presented by Rockefeller and his goliath, Standard Oil.

Women of the Twelfth Century, Vol. 3: Eve and the Church, by Georges Duby. Chicago $14

Duby continues his brilliant analysis of the place of medieval women in 12th-century European culture by turning, in this volume, to the problem of how churchmen described, judged, and interacted with women. Much textual ground is covered in this short book: commentaries on Genesis, Capellanus’s treatise on love, clerical letters written to nuns and noble women, and books of manners. Duby’s account is critical, as he paints a lurid portrait of discursive and real violence against women, violences sanctioned by the church and its God.

The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Vol. XXIV December 7, 1846-December 5, 1947, edited by Clyde N. Wilson and Shirley B. Cook Alexander Moore, associate editor. South Carolina $59.95

Volume XXIV of the John C. Calhoun papers details the final months of the public life of this controversial politician. This volume provides insight to the primary issues concerning this South Carolina statesman—the imminent fission between the Northern and Southern states and slavery. Included in this volume are discussions concerning the Wilmot Proviso—an important event in the struggle between the North and South over newly-secured territories. In addition to the rich primary data contained in this volume, Wilson, Cook and Moore provide the reader with background information on the well-documented people and events found throughout the papers. It is the combination of meticulous editorial comments/notes and strong documents that make this volume indispensable to scholars of the pre-Civil War South.

Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, by Phillip Callow. Ivan R. Dee $30

Phillip Callow has published 14 novels and his experience as a storyteller shows in this wonderful biography. He transports us through all of Anton Chekhov’s life: childhood poverty, early literary hackwork, medical school and practice, publishing and theatrical success, and a devastating account of Chekhov’s futile battle with tuberculosis. However, the arc of Chekhov’s life is not quite seamless, mostly because Callow makes frequent stops to summarize the author’s works. He does this to highlight a paradox: that a man with such a deep understanding of his characters could flounder when it came to his own emotions. But the biography is much stronger when Callow describes Pavel Chekhov’s store as having the “smell of vodka mingled with the odor of cheese and herrings” or the way Chekhov discouraged his sister from accepting her only marriage proposal; in short, when, in Chekhov’s words, Callow goes “after tiny details, grouping them in such a way that once you’ve read them you can close your eyes and see a picture.”

Gertrude Stein: Writings 1903—1932 and Gertrude Stein: Writings 1932—1946, edited by Catherine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman. Library of America $40 each

In praising these two volumes, Richard Howard has called them “the grandest (and the gravest) in a long parade of revivals.” Wonderfully full, these volumes allow the reader access to most of Stein’s work, from her first novel Q.E.D. (1903) to her last essay, “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1946). With minimal notes (set quietly at the back of each volume), the editors have let the permutations of Stein’s preoccupations and her daring (and sometimes silly) experiments speak for themselves. Yet, one can imagine such an edition that would be less grave and more playful, or even more grand, with more space on the page and in between individual pieces. Nevertheless, the pleasures of seeing most of Stein all at once (along with some excellent photographs, a copy of a manuscript page, and the like), far outweigh the mild irritation at being hustled from one selection to another in these jam-packed volumes.

Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober Houghton Mifflin $35

This is an incredibly useful reference for anyone researching, or just interested in, Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office and the decade of the 80’s. By interviewing more than 100 individuals who worked with, and against, him during his time in office, the authors have created an outstanding oral history which provides insight into the character of Reagan as man and president. In addition to facilitating a greater understanding of Reagan and his legacy as president, the major issues of his terms are explored not just with an author’s opinion or interpretation but through the point of view of the major participants and observers of the time. In fact, to their credit, the authors use very few of their own words, focusing, rather, on the most important words for an effort of this sort—those of the key figures in the events themselves. Highly recommended.

Cardozo, by Andrew L. Kaufman. Harvard $55

Judges can be shadowy figures. They are shielded from public view by their dark robes; free from scrutiny in their secluded chambers. We know them often only through the formal legal opinions through which they interpret the law. Small surprise then, that the most famous judges turn out to be the most celebrated writers, whose public appearances are primarily made in print. Benjamin Cardozo was a premier example of the judge as author. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. whom he replaced on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932, Cardozo won his reputation as a state court judge who could turn a memorable phrase. Unlike Holmes, he remained on the high court only six years. Thus, notes biographer Andrew L. Kaufman, his habit to introduce innovation into the prosaic common-law areas of personal injury and contract law yielded more historic impact than his thoughts on the U.S. Constitution. Kaufman’s biography of 700 plus pages was 40 years in the making, and Cardozo is a subject Kaufman has lived with for an entire professional life. His attention to the details of the reclusive Cardozo’s life clearly make this easily the most complete and the most insightful study of the Justice in print.

After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, by Nancy Venable Raine. Crown $23

This book movingly recounts the author’s painful, eight-year recovery from a brutal assault. More than just a physical violation, she describes rape as “separation from the world of light—from meaning, memory, nature, mother, from earth and fecundity itself. . .the sudden tearing open of solid earth that produces the unimaginable nightmare of death.” Raine skillfully weaves her own experience of post-traumatic stress with scholarship on the psychological effects of rape, underscoring that rape is profoundly different from other violent crimes. The nature of the crime itself—sex that in no way resembles making love—and the discomfort, embarrassment, and silence it elicits from friends, family, and strangers make it an unspeakable horror. Raine’s purpose is to give language to the unspeakable, to ease the stigma of rape by exploring how and why rape is the only crime that attaches blame to its victims. Beautifully written, thoughtful and wrenching, it is an important book.

FICTION Freedomland, by Richard Price. Broadway Books $25

With a plot from the tabloids tucked under his arm, Price returns to the fictional urban landscape of Clockers, where he succeeds against the odds in winning our sympathy for Brenda Martin, a Susan Smith alter ego who claims that her son was inadvertently abducted by a black car-jacker. Screenwriter Price brilliantly orchestrates the forces—white, black, police, media— that descend on the scene, smelling the brimstone of a racial inferno, but as a whole the novel feels like a major Hollywood production unsuccessfully anchored by character actors. The two protagonists through which the narrative is alternatively viewed—housing cop Lorenzo “Big Daddy” Council, and the rabid reporter Jesse Haus—speak their lines and walk through their scenes with an earnest lack of depth. The author’s acclaimed ear for dialogue is apparent, but apart from brief flashes, the prose is ungainly. The momentum builds toward a powerfully rendered climactic scene where the overwrought narrative ultimately overheats, leaving a frazzled, overlong denouement. Perhaps the inevitable film will get the editor the book so desperately needed.

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, by Naomi Ragan. Simon & Schuster $24

A descendant of an illustrious Jewish family driven out of Spain during the Inquisition, Catherine da Costa wants her self-absorbed granddaughters to realize who their family is, to understand the suffering their ancestors endured, and to know the price that was paid for survival. Money didn’t just grow on the family tree. Author Naomi Ragan has done a skillful job of weaving together two stories—the modernday da Costa, a wealthy, Jewish, New York City socialite who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Hannah Mendes, her Converso ancestor. Da Costa sends her granddaughters on a quest to find the missing portions of Mendes’ journal, which has been in the family for generations and describes Mendes’ life and the lives of family members during this terrifying time in Jewish history. Journal passages appear as they would to dealers and collectors of old manuscripts, lending an air of authenticity to the search. The novel is compelling as historical fiction; less so in its contemporary moments.

Saratoga Strongbox, by Stephen Dobyns. Viking $21.95

Stephen Dobyns’ Saratoga mystery novels are a pleasure to read. Their dialogue is first rate, their plots never insult one’s intelligence, and the two main characters’ idiosyncratic behavior makes them instantly engaging. Victor (call me “Vic”) Plotz, the narrator of this novel, describes his friend, Charlie Bradshaw, this way: “He is a private dick with a conscience, which is like a puritanical prostitute. If the Boy Scouts needed an in-house private cop, Charlie would be the guy for the job.” Of himself, Vic says, “I have always been a pal of easy money. What some people call temptation, I call opportunity.” It is this entrepreneurial way of thinking that sets this novel in motion. Victor is offered the chance to deliver a strongbox of cash (counterfeit? real?) for a local player, but when he engages a stand-in to do the run, things begin to get complicated. Before the novel is over, the mob makes an appearance, several houses are destroyed, and Charlie and Victor are nearly burned to a crisp in a metal furnace. All the while Victor has to deal with the fact that this steady girlfriend, “the queen of softness,” may be stepping out on him. Saratoga Strongbox is enjoyable from cover to cover.

Perjury, by Stan Latreille. Crown $24

The publisher is touting the author of this legal “thriller” as a successor to Scott Turow. He is not. But he has written a good story in a workmanlike fashion. Jack Brenner, a hot-shot public defender from Chicago, chucks it all to enter a lucrative civil practice in Michigan, but soon finds himself as a court-appointed defender of a woman accused of perjury. The woman had accused her husband of sexually abusing their daughter, but the charges were dropped when the woman admitted to lying about him under oath. Brenner takes on this hopeless case as the crusader he is, and unsurprisingly there are a few twists in the plot by the end of the book. Readers are forewarned—there are many descriptions of child abuse and pedophilia in this novel.

A Dog’s Head, by Jean Dutourd. Chicago $12

Nearly a half century old, Jean Dutourd’s recently reissued tale of the lighter side of social ostracism is not mere tongue-wagging, but a very sage and engaging “animated” fantasy. Edmond Du Chaillu has a spaniel’s head and a sense of humor. Follow Edmond from his bruised childhood and army career through stock market success and the pain, suspicion, and joy he encounters as a self-conscious monstrosity attempting romance. Mythology meets bestiality in this dark, seductive, and humanistic work, part of a timeless genre that includes Candide and Animal Farm.

The Long Falling, by Keith Ridgway. Houghton Mifflin $22

Irish author, Keith Ridgway makes a strong and lasting impression with his first novel, The Long Falling. There are three qualities that stand out as contributing to this novel’s intrigue. First, Ridgway draws a realistic and touching portrait of a woman, Grace, who is forced to make some important decisions about herself and her relationships to others. Secondly, the author adds texture to the drama through the treatment of sensitive moral issues, such as spousal abuse, homosexuality, and abortion, that run through and parallel to the main story line. Finally, Ridgway writes from the points of view of each of the main characters, an effective way of describing Grace’s dilemma’s and of providing the many sides of the moral issues. His adeptness at dealing with issues that are not only sensitive, but morally difficult, only serves to emphasize the insight and sophistication that Ridgway possesses as a new author.

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A.S. Byatt. Oxford $30

In the literary tradition of The Oxford Book of Short Stories and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories comes a welcome new collection of English short stories. Byatt’s introduction nicely sets the stage for works from Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, G.K. Chesterton, and many others. This volume would travel well with you: you could pick it up and put it down on trains and planes and find quick, literary entertainment whenever you like.

What We Keep, by Elizabeth Berg. Random House $23

Elizabeth Berg is a beautiful writer. In keeping with her past history of excellence in her genre, What We Keep is a splendid short novel about childhood, family relationships, and perception. In particular, Berg tackles the fragile relationship of mothers and daughters and does it in a child’s voice so compelling that one is struck with her ability to write. What We Keep is a novel about abandonment and awakening with a story line that is rich and compelling. However, what is most impressive about this novel is the 12 year-old voice of Berg’s main character, Ginny Young. Berg’s ability to recreate the languid summertime experiences of a gifted 12-year-old and to weave a tale in her voice is astounding. The writing is poignant and eloquent and the novel a winner.

The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton. Random House $23

In this, Hamilton’s third novel, she weaves a tale which explores the meaning of passion and talent, family and relationships, pain and healing. The story is centered around Walter McCloud, an aspiring dancer forced to realize that his passion for ballet cannot overcome his lack of true talent, and his relationships with Mitch and Susan, truly gifted dancers, and Daniel, McCloud’s brother who is stricken with cancer. Exploring the pain of thwarted love, the novel also creates a place of hope and healing in the house on a lake that has been a gathering spot for McCloud’s family for years. Though quirky at times, switching between McCloud’s childhood and adulthood, this novel is nonetheless a fine addition to Hamilton’s collection of novels.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, by Sebastian Barry. Viking $23.95

By accomplished Irish playwright and author Barry, this extraordinary novel tells a story of exile and redemption in modern-day Ireland. The protagonist embodies a paradox: he’s apolitical, yet a political exile, for reasons that make little sense to him. It is a story, however, of his redemption through unlikely friendships in the most unlikeliest place, friendships in which he discovers deep affinities with his own life. Lyrical prose combines with a moving tale about home and homelessness.

The Betrayal, by Sabin Willett. Villard $25

Unlike other thrillers reviewed recently, this is a first-rate work, The characters—especially the lead, a politically inside lady-who-lunches now spending more time to raise her daughter—are fleshed out via thoughtful, unobtrusive prose, rather than relying on a chunk of adjectives, and the supporting cast get as much care as the main players. The generation of interest in each of the protagonists is this book’s greatest strength. The Betrayal’s plot centers around the attempt by her boss—currently candidate for the vice-presidency—to use the heroine as patsy in an illicit arms-selling scheme. Details add conviction without intruding on the narrative, and the events are realistic, well-crafted, and interesting. Willett has clearly worked for precision in the writing, and the reader benefits. Several cuts above the pack.

The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, by Barbara Vine. Crown $24

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, has produced another enthralling psychological study. Gerald Candless, award-winning writer, devoted father, and brutal husband, leaves at his sudden death two devoted daughters, a relieved widow, and, although this does not become apparent until late in the book, an autobiographical novel. One of his daughters begins writing a memoir of her beloved father and as the book progresses, we are drawn further and further into the realization that not only was Gerald Candless not what he seemed to be, but the family he created to incarnate his ideal family was also not what it appeared. Slowly and naturally, Vine peels away the layers of disguise and exposes not merely the real Gerald Candless, but the sad differences between hollow, artificially-inseminated relationships and those based on openness and sharing. Reminiscent of Mary Gordon’s memoir about her search for the reality of her writer father, this is a superb work of fiction.

Acts of Murder, by Laurali R. Wright. Scribner’s $22

Don’t try to read this mystery novel in short bursts. You’ll end up re-reading each section many times in a vain attempt to remember all the necessary details of the sub-plots, and miss out on the intricacy of design offered. In addition, the minds of the characters, the chief foci of the work, require and deserve more focussed attempts at understanding. We are offered a superb leading lady, the apparently innocuous Mrs. O’Hara, and the supporting cast is presented from inventive and interesting angles. So perhaps you should read this twice—once to work out the personalities, then a second time to discover what they actually did during the book. Wright’s writing repays attention; I enjoyed her creation very much.

The Coffin Dancer, by Jeffery Deaver. Simon & Schuster $25

Lincoln Rhyme is the former head of the NYPD forensic’s department. He is also a quadriplegic. In this thriller Rhyme has to protect three witnesses for 45 hours— until they appear at a grand jury proceeding—from a professional killer known as the Coffin Dancer. Using a sophisticated voice-controlled computer, the legwork of a beautiful NYPD detective, and the mind of a brilliant criminologist, Rhyme matches wits with the killer in a plot that has more twists and turns than a week at Le Mons. If the speed and tension of the plot don’t get you, the amazing forensic detail will.

The Evolution of Jane, by Cathleen Schine. Houghton Mifflin $24

A wonderfully witty comic novel from a writer with a gift for infusing fiction with a philosophical framework-of-the-18th-century-rationalists in Rameau’s Niece, of Charles Darwin in The Evolution of Jane. Vacationing in the Galapagos Islands while recovering from her divorce, Jane Barlow Schwartz discovers her longlost cousin and childhood pal, Martha Barlow, working as a park ranger. Jane has never understood why Martha abruptly ended their friendship, and the loss has plagued her for years. Using Darwinian theory, she speculates about the possible impact of an old family feud, picking back through the women’s Yankee-Cuban-Jewish ancestry, exploring the origins of both the Barlow species and female bonding, Her investigation becomes a kind of scientific quest, leading her into some wacky, but ultimately enlightening, situations. A smart, fun, funny book.

NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS The Proper Study of Mankind, by Isaiah Berlin. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux $35

The most important moral thought of our age is found in the work of Eastern European intellectuals, who translated their local experiences of evil, suffering, and tyranny into insights of value beyond their source. But alongside them one must place the work of Isaiah Berlin. Although himself born in the Czar


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