Brief Reviews


Lincoln's Admiral:
The Civil War Campaigns
of David Farragut

David Farragut, the U.S. Navy's first admiral, did not roar, "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead," as his ships entered Mobile Bay. He said the equivalent, however, and Mobile was taken, like New Orleans and the Mississippi River before it. Mr. Duffy's book on Farragut's Civil War campaigns reveals that he was a serious, determined, vastly capable commander, and too unflappable to provide picturesque anecdotes. His background was unusual. His father, a sea captain from Minorca, served in the American Revolution, and that connection eventually led to the placement of the motherless son in the family of a naval officer who offered to train him for the sea. The boy was less than ten years old when he was commissioned a midshipman. He sailed off, under the eye of his surrogate father, into the War of 1812. Most of the action he encountered was off the Pacific coast of South America, where at one point he was appointed prize master of a captured vessel. At twelve years old he was commander of a ship and handled it well -- after getting the disgruntled civilian captain out of his way. That high point was followed by years of peace and stagnation, until the Civil War required efficient action against Confederate ports and the Mississippi River, and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy put Farragut on the job. The campaign up the river was full of risk and excitement and tricky maneuvers, and the author makes the most of it. Mr. Duffy is primarily interested in fighting ships. He makes their equipment and performance and the reasons for Farragut's decisions thoroughly absorbing and understandable. He does not altogether overlook the people who worked those ships. After one battle Farragut looked at the casualties laid out on the deck and quietly wept.

In the Memory of
the Forest

Mr. Powers's novel starts in the shape of an amateur-detective thriller. The setting is a small farming village in Poland shortly after the collapse of Communist rule, where Leszek, an amiable young man, wants to know how the son of a good old friend and neighbor came to be murdered in the nearby forest. The police and civic authorities, hangovers from the old regime, are doing nothing about the killing except talk -- and Mr. Powers does a splendid imitation of soothing official gobbledygook. Leszek and the victim's enraged father begin their own investigation, and the novel becomes an exploration of the guilt, fear, and corruption that underlie the history of the town, where nothing is ever said about the disappearance of the once large Jewish population or the network of bribery and smuggling that supplanted normal business under the Communists. The novel is a serious work on the aftermath of fifty years of horror and the reactions of the people asked to confront the past that they have tried to ignore. It is also a good story, rich in action and character, with an intelligent acceptance of the fact that an indecent government can drive decent people to indecent action.

The Letters of
Nancy Mitford and
Evelyn Waugh

Mitford's niece by marriage, Charlotte Mosley, explains that she has omitted Evelyn's earliest letter to Nancy, "because it would necessitate thirteen footnotes in as many lines of text to explain people who do not reappear." She also warns readers, "Their letters were written to amuse, distract or tease and should be read for entertainment, not as the unvarnished truth." With those points in mind, a reader who enjoys malicious gossip and extravagant prejudices can get much pleasure from the Mitford-Waugh letters. Reading them is rather like panning for gold. In the midst of much water and gravel one finds sparkling phrases, glittering anecdotes, and now and then a nugget, such as Waugh's observation apropos Jessica Mitford's book on California funeral customs that the features "that strike us as gruesome can be traced to papal, royal & noble rites of the last five centuries." There is also an argument about how Mitford, in a piece on French affairs, had described the activities of a Catholic clergyman. Waugh, a niggling pedant on official procedure, was determined to set her straight. Mitford defended her sources. The reader gradually realizes that neither of them knew exactly what had gone on and therefore both were soaring in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Since they shared a detestation of the twentieth century, they were really more comfortable up there. Ms. Mosley's notes on the letters are terse and practical. One learns who the people mentioned were, whom they married (usually several spouses), and when they died. Occasionally one learns a bit more. Osbert Sitwell wrote Waugh a congratulatory letter about Brideshead Revisited but privately told friends that he found the novel "unspeakably vulgar." It is not safe to skip anything in this peculiar correspondence, but not advisable to read it straight through. The letters require the free time they originally had to create the effect that the writers intended.

The Inheritance

The editors, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, found among the Alcott papers a notebook labeled "My first novel written at seventeen" in Louisa's hand. Alcott devotees will want to read it. Nobody else needs to, although any reader can be impressed by the young author's control of her plot and her implied knowledge of the popular fiction of 1849. Titles and money abound, as do tears and blushes. Noble renunciation marches with improbable repentance. There is no hint of the humor that enlivened Alcott's later writing. There is no evidence that the tale was ever published, which may have been just as well. It would have been a hard thing for the mature Alcott to live down.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 120-122.

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