I was away in the Boston, MA area with my daughter this past week, and had little blogging time. I missed last Sunday's NY Times Book Review and offer some thoughts about last week's set of reviews now:
Last week's NY Times Sunday Book Review led with biographies of two 20th Century literary giants, Somerset Maugham
and E.M. Forster
, which books contended that their respective sexual proclivities and childhoods deeply influenced their work. For those interested in reading about the sexual proclivities of writers, fine, but I am with Gore Vidal in believing that biographies of this sort are more gossip than anything that would illuminate a writer's work. Having read Maugham's master work, "Of Human Bondage", for example, I find nothing particularly relevant to the work that he turned out to be a homosexual or cruel towards others in his private life. And the same may be said for Forster's wonderfully brave and humane essays in "Two Cheers for Democracy" or in his outstandingly perceptive novel of manners and issues of economic class, "Howard's End."
Does biography always remain irrelevant? Certainly not. Vidal's own biography, in growing up with his grandparents, one of whom was the Senator from Oklahoma for thirty years, played a powerful role in forming Vidal's love of American history that led to his great historical novels series. Still, Vidal himself recognized that too often memoir
and biography revel in gossip, and are neither a substitute for reading the works nor are they necessary to understand the text of a writer's works. Certainly, Vidal knew nobody from the 5th Century B.C. or in the Age of Julian, but those two historical novels remain two of his most powerful novelistic and historical works. I've just finished "Creation"
last night, and it may well rank as Vidal's greatest novel, and I adored "Lincoln," "Julian" and "Burr" as well.
Other Times reviews included a review
of a new book on the American Founders which was well constructed, and fairly informative. However, I am in sharp disagreement with the bolded portion of the following paragraph:
While acknowledging this profound failure of the founders’ imagination (regarding slavery--MJF note), Rakove invites a renewed appreciation for the undeniable accomplishments of the first of America’s “greatest generations.” Still, his conclusion is too optimistic. It derives as much from his chronological framework as from the story he tells. Ending not with the ratification of the Constitution or Washington’s election but with Hamilton’s plan for a strong and fiscally sound central government, Rakove implies that this final achievement was more durable than it in fact was. Jefferson’s election a mere eight years later would begin the process of dismantling Hamilton’s program, and Andrew Jackson would deliver the coup de grâce during the Bank War of 1832-33.
The reviewer seems unaware of the fact that Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was a Hamiltonian in his policy proposals. Jefferson himself supported increased government support for technology and internal improvements, which ultimately led John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, to became a member of the administration of Jefferson protege, and leading Constitutional Founder, James Madison. While it is true that Andrew Jackson wrongly destroyed the national bank in a fit of anti-intellectual rage, Jackson too followed much of the Hamiltonian program JQA and Henry Clay were proposing, which was to build infrastructure and promote industry within the nation. These are examples of how one set of politicians follows another set of politicians' programs while maintaining the rhetoric that masks a remarkably similar set of programs or policies. Henry Adams, in his history of the first two
decades of the American 19th Century captured this paradox as well as anyone, but somehow this continues to elude some history professors. While my point may be overstated--Jefferson certainly undermined the nascent navy that Washington and especially John Adams had built--the reviewer's statement should have been gently edited by a more knowledgeable editor.
The Times included as well an overwrought review
of two overwrought books about the cultural world of rock and roll fans. It's a review worth noting, however, if only to show once again how anyone who writes about rock and roll for a national newspaper or magazine tends to be rather dumb, or in the case of the particular reviewer, horribly pretentious. One can painfully detect the reviewer attempting to craft a sentence that is "literary" or at least "hip." The result is a rather silly affair, starting in the opening sentences which pay homage to that now legendary group of art-house phonies, the Velvet Underground, and ending with a string of references that is mere gibberish to those not aware of who the reviewer is discussing. And since the discussion is of less than compelling personalities, those who do not know the references need not tax themselves to find out...Far better to read about the cultural history of yoga
or the Dreyfus
case, as those book reviewers ably sketched. Cultural studies is often very profound when it is grounded in sociology and history.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Mark Edmundson, one of the authors of the rock and roll books in question, is better at straight biography. His book on Freud's last days
was very insightful about Freud, and was compelling in its weaving of the cultural, historical and political currents in Europe and elsewhere in the late 1930s.
review of a new book of letters exchanged over decades between Cold War theorist and grand elitist (in the best sense of that latter term), George Kennan, and the historian John Lukacs, a brilliant emigre from Soviet tyranny, deserved a far more detailed and penetrating review and discussion. One will have to wait for the NY Review of Books to tackle this work.