Sunday Morning Review of Book Reviews: March 27, 2011
This morning's NY Times Sunday Book Review has some fascinating biography book reviews:
First up is Geoffrey C. Ward's nicely written review of a new book on a man who truly deserves to have a religion started in his name: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The film on Gandhi is the greatest film epic I've ever seen, and is truly inspirational. His autobiography is one of the most insightful and self-critical I have ever read from any famous political leader. It is also exciting to learn Ward, an excellent historian, is writing a book about the partition of India and Pakistan after independence from Great Britain. I did not know he had some personal acquaintance with India.
ADDENDUM 3/28/11: Wow! Ward seems to have studiously avoided the bi-sexual angle of the book he was reviewing. See here. Ward did deal with the racist part, but recognized that Gandhi evolved away from that stance. As for the bi-sexual stance, it is sometimes difficult for us in the 21st Century to understand the way people from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries wrote and what they meant. There was often a florid style that people had that to our ears means sex, when in fact it does not mean that at all. Ward had an argument about 18 years ago about Eleanor Roosevelt's proclivities when he tore apart Blanche Lincoln's two volume bio of ER. I think Ward was more right than wrong then, but I think he should have mentioned this issue in the Gandhi review. See here and here. I vaguely recall another rejoinder Ward had with Cook where Ward said in effect, "For years, it was ER's detractors who called her a lesbian. I defended ER from that charge, and did so because I admired her. Now, because I deny a modern historian's designation of her as lesbian, I am denounced by that historian as hating ER."
Second, historian David Oshinsky favorably and also nicely reviews two biographies about legendary Brooklyn Dodgers: Branch Rickey and Roy Campanella. Oshinsky gives kudos to Jimmy Breslin's new bio of the flamboyant, inspirational and then skinflint- co-owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who people somewhat jokingly called "the Mahatma"--like Gandhi. What surprised me is that Oshinsky did not mention the magisterial biography of Rickey, which I read several months ago, by David Lowenfish. The beauty of Breslin's book appears to be its brevity and summarizing of Lowenfish's work--but my feeling about Breslin is that his viewpoint is terribly shallow about the business side of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Breslin is one of those foolish adults who continues to believe the lie told to him as a child that O'Malley schemed to leave Brooklyn, when in fact he was pushed out of Brooklyn. The powers that be in New York City, led by Robert Wagner and Robert Moses, gave O'Malley one choice: Queens or completely leave New York City. They didn't think O'Malley would leave, but Moses really wanted O'Malley to leave because he hated O'Malley's Tammany Hall political appointee father, and had his own ideas for a new baseball team to come to New York--helping along the way his buddy, William Shea, of the legendary and sometimes corrupt law firm, Shea & Gould. The Metropolitans show up a few years after O'Malley and the Dodgers (and less beloved NY Giants) leave for California, and the new stadium in Queens is called...Shea Stadium. That the Mets' current ownership is tied up with the convicted and disgraced financier Bernie Madoff is rather ironic in this light, isn't it? And it is doubly ironic to consider how the "villain" O'Malley had wanted to build a stadium in a vacant building and area of Brooklyn without one cent of taxpayer subsidies--and was refused by the city.
The biography on Campanella is intriguing, and proves why Rickey knew the first African-American baseball player in the modern era had to be an educated man who was loyal to his wife and family, and who could articulate on behalf of his "race" (I put that last term in quotes since biologists, sociologists and anthropologists tell us it is more a social construct and no better an indicator of character traits than our hair and eye color).
Third, here is writer James Gavin's excellent review of a new book on the legendary French singer, Edith Piaf. He brings her to life, manages to explain the shortcomings and positive aspects of the new biography of Piaf, and gives us a range of other sources that provides support for his opinions of the new biography. He knows his stuff, in other words, and writes about Piaf with a sensitivity that should make us males of the species proud.
Fourth, here is an astonishing review of a new book about Will Rogers, who was to me always more of a Bill Maher or even Jon Stewart of his time, with a healthy dose of the late Molly Ivins in the sense of playing a role of a small town mid-western "hick" who said profound things in a simple manner and style. I had no idea he was that connected to the back rooms of political life in the USA. John Schwartz's review is deliciously written, and I love the nugget he pulled from Rogers' vault of witty remarks: "Everything is changing. . . . People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke." How timely is that!? One amusing criticism of Schwartz is he shows his New York urban bias at the end of the review. He said Rogers' so-called "cornpone" does not travel well to our time. Try telling that to fans of Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, Mr. Schwartz. You and I may not like that sort of humor, but millions still find it hilarious. Still, I wish Molly had written the book--or even review. God, I miss her...(That's Susan Filudi doing the initially awkward interviewing...She is a delightful person, too, and so very earnest!)
There are also some intriguing reviews of new history books, including Richard Kluger's sad book about Native Americans losing the land we now call the Pacific Northwest, a fascinating sociologically-based perspective on the life of Isaac Newton and more evidence of the tragedy of Zimbabwe and the monstrous leader Mugabe, who started out as a darling of Western Bankers when he first took power three decades ago, and then embraced a totalitarian form of populism to maintain power since then.
Finally, here is a decent review by Andrew Delbanco of David Goldfield's new book questioning whether we should have as a nation fought the Civil War (1861-1865). Delbanco makes only a decent case why the Civil War was necessary, but I would go further. The Southern leadership was aching for war to defend slavery from the 1830s forward. The amazing thing is that the war did not start earlier. Henry Clay's astute and sometimes too effective diplomacy in the US Senate kept war from occurring in 1820 and especially 1850. There was also violent rhetoric and growing armed clashes in the territories and then States of Nebraska and Kansas, and the slightly earlier fight over California entering as a "free" state, which caused John C. Calhoun at the end of his life to lament that secession was either necessary or slavery was doomed. Calhoun also realized that Clay's diplomacy had staved off the inevitable war for so long that the North now had a population and wealth advantage, since slavery dominated plantations were simply not as profitable and as good for economic development as factories and finance, which characterized the North and northern Mid-West.
One also sees the inevitability of war between the Southern region of the US and the rest of the nation in the way in which the argument over slavery was underneath nearly every argument in Washington DC and other State capitols--whether involving Native American affairs, the tariff, "internal improvements," etc. The Southern States' Senators were all in favor of national power when they pushed for and passed the "Fugitive Slave Act" as part of the Compromise of 1850. The law overruled States' rights to protect runaway slaves escaping to and residing in the "free" States' borders and required State governments to cooperate and allow federal authorities to remit the slaves to their masters in the slave states. Talk about your mandate! The Southern Senators of course became more enamored with the rights of States following Lincoln's victory in November 1860...The reviewer forgets to alert the reader that the so-called moderate, Alexander Stevens of Georgia, the first Vice President of the Confederacy, made clear in his remarks at the time that slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.
The Confederate political leaders, starting with Jefferson Davis and down through Nathan Bedford Forest, should have been executed as the traitors they were for all the carnage they caused to defend a cause, slavery, that was odious and so against the ideals expressed in our nation's Declaration of Independence. At least Jefferson knew what a hypocrite he was as a slave holder, and so did Robert E. Lee, who more than any Southern leader, was able to move to stop the carnage by his brave act of surrender (see Jay Winik's "April 1865" for this remarkable insight). The failure to execute people like Forest and Davis allowed these men to rehabilitate themselves with their racist views intact and to tell their lies about having simply wanted to preserve states' rights. Plus, Forest was an enthusiastic and early supporter of the notorious Ku Klux Klan. Delbanco fails to explain to lay readers that the failure of Reconstruction following the war had to do with this leniency, and how the failure of Reconstruction led to rigid segregation laws and cultural practices. Nor does Delbanco explain how the corruption of the Republican Party from an economic standpoint made that cultural response possible. See: Rayford Logan's "The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson" for the most compact and penetrating analysis of this subject.
I'll check out David Goldfield's book, but I believe his pacifism has gotten the better of his judgment. Sometimes, there are good and solid reasons to fight a particular war. In my not so humble view, the US Civil War was the most inevitable of any American wars, foreign or otherwise.