Saturday Night Review of Sunday Book Reviews
From the NY Times Sunday Book Review this week:
First up is a wild footnote of a story about Joseph P. Kennedy's foray into Hollywood, and how he ended up with Gloria Swanson. Like most things Kennedy, it was a raucus ride, with Kennedy rising and falling like a meteor in movieland. It was funny to read how Joseph P., whose anti-Semitism was often on display, thought he could best who he called the "pants pressers," but wound up getting his pants pressed while he was still wearing them.
Second up is an interesting introductory review of two new books on Charles Darwin, who with Abraham Lincoln--both born on February 12, 1809--are celebrating their bi-centennial birthdays. The connection between Darwin and Lincoln, which is the subject of one of the books, sounds fascinating and quite right to my mind, as I've long been interested in how two of the most dominant men of the 19th Century were born on the same day and year. I guess such coincidences are bound to happen sometime! Still, the review falls short of recognizing even the complexities of Darwin's anti-slavery views with the ways in which he analyzed the common descent of humankind, and where racism could still sometimes lurk. For more on this, see the (unfortunately non-Web available) essay by the late, great Stephen Jay Gould about Darwin, slavery and racism, "The Moral State of Tahiti--and of Darwin" in Gould's "Eight Little Piggies" (Norton, 1993). Nobody's perfect, is what Gould is saying. And Darwin was overall a highly decent and brilliant person worthy of praise on almost every level.
Here is another review of a new book describing how the theory of evolution became popular with America's intelligensia after the Civil War. The reviewer properly notes how Herbert Spencer's reputation has suffered over the past 50 years, and how Darwin is looking damned strong among scientists and at least the more thoughtful public intellectuals in our and others' societies around the planet. I think it would be interesting to read the book under review, "Banquet at Delmonico's--Great Minds, the Gilded Age and the Triumph of Evolution in America" with "War Against the Weak," by Edwin Black, because Black's point is that the widespread acceptance of evolution, influenced more by Spencer's views than Darwin's, led us to eugenics--which was given great praise as a "science" by many in both the political Left and Right from the 1880s through the 1930s. "War Against the Weak" is a book for those of us who view science positively because it reminds us that horrors can be committed by human beings in the name of any value or ideology, religious, secular or otherwise.
And third, here is a book review which provides a perspective regarding John Muir that one often does not read much about, which is how Muir's philosophical backgrounding and views led him to the wilderness, and how that philosophical background reverberated throughout the rest of his life. I like that the reviewer defends Muir and gives the author of the book a jab for not being kind enough to the subject of his book. One doesn't see that all too often, but when it occurs, it is worth savoring...
A word about the passing of John Updike (Well, more than a word):
And speaking of savoring, I can't resist, amidst the adulation for John Updike, paraphrasing Gore Vidal's great attack on things Updikean. He said of Updike and his books during the 1960s, I believe: Updike is a middle aged man, living and teaching at a small New England college, writing about a middle aged man, living and teaching at a small New England college...and having sex.
Vidal also remarked that Updike had very little to say about the American Empire or anything critical about the commercial structures within American society--compared not simply to Vidal's own novels, but also the novels of Sinclair Lewis and William Dean Howells. However, said Vidal now arching a metaphoric eyebrow, Updike was at least "very radical about adultery..."
If we think this sort of comment is inappropriate at the passing of Updike, well, perhaps it is. What I can add by way of background, however, is that Updike was no fan of my favorite American writer, Sinclair Lewis, for the very reasons I find Lewis compelling--which is that Lewis wrote about bigger issues than one's libido. And too often, in the literary academy in the U.S. today, there is a belief that if one doesn't write about the narrow, and write with obscure prose, or write overly descriptive passages about the most trivial things, one is not being "literary." This goes back to Henry James and his ridiculously long passages describing what is on the night table of some aristocratic woman, for example.
I don't want to rip too much into Updike. It's all a matter of taste. I just wish that those who rip into Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene or the social novels of John Steinbeck and Jack London would understand that those novelists are important as novelists (not sociologists), and their novels are more than worthy of being called "literature." And personally, I continue to see Lewis as American literature's Charles Dickens--a writer who captured our imaginations and yet told us profound truths about our society.