Brief Reviews--June 1997

From Nineveh to
New York

Austen Henry Layard, a young Englishman with more pedigree than money, was poking about the Middle East when, in 1845, he discovered the remains of Nineveh and organized its excavation. Assyrian art was an astounding and disconcerting revelation to midcentury Britain. Layard was a relative of Lady Charlotte Guest, the daughter of an earl and the wife of Sir John Guest, a magnate in the iron business. Lady Charlotte took to Assyrian art at once and with enthusiasm. By means that today would be considered highly improper (and that did raise a few Victorian eyebrows), she procured enough Assyrian sculpture and artifacts to add a "Nineveh Porch" to the Guest estate of Canford Manor. The porch was a wild mixture of Victorian Gothic taste and modified Assyrian motifs. The antiquities were real -- a most extraordinary collection to have been in private hands. The pieces were eventually dispersed, hawked about by an art dealer, and flirted with by several museums; they wound up in the Metropolitan as a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. Display space was always a problem. At one point it seemed that "these marbles, which began their Western career in the Canford stable, might spend the remainder of their days in the Metropolitan's garage." (Under plastic, because the roof leaked.) Mr. Russell writes with unpretentious efficiency, seldom revealing his own opinion of the events he reports, which involve aesthetic theory, social wire-pulling, religious misinterpretation, and a number of interesting people -- beginning with Lady Charlotte, who had a weakness for young men on the make. It is a truly remarkable story.

The Gospel
According to the Son

Mr. Mailer told one of his publisher's editors, "Novelists are supposed to look into the eye of the tiger," and certainly a life of Jesus related by Jesus himself is a daring enterprise. The result, however, is not particularly surprising. Mr. Mailer presents a good man, who does indeed hear divine instructions and advice, whose miracles are genuine (and also exhausting), and who loses his temper, contradicts himself, worries about the source of his power, and fears for the future of his people and the movement he has started. What is missing in this reasonable character is any hint of the magnetically persuasive preacher that Jesus must have been. Satan and Judas have considerably more energy, probably because Mr. Mailer had less Scripture and therefore more freedom in imagining them. One can hardly hold this against the author: Milton had similar trouble. Satan is a great scene stealer.


Mr. Joseph, once a lawyer himself, persuaded attorneys and one judge to talk about the profession. It may be the interview format, which records words but not timing or tone of voice, that makes these people seem pointlessly belligerent, fond of spiteful gossip, and very protective of their tails. They create a general atmosphere of discontent, but one does not learn anything definite about the law in their company.

Doo- Dah!
Stephen Foster and
the Rise of American
Popular Culture

As everyone surely knows, Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was a prolific composer of American popular songs that spread around the world. Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) heard "Oh! Susanna" sung in Hindi in Delhi. Foster's songs were irresistible. Foster himself was a feckless drunk who managed to be paid very poorly for his music at a time when other popular composers prospered. Mr. Emerson covers the rise of American popular culture as well as Foster's sad career, and does it well. He describes the development of the minstrel show, the interweaving of African and European musical traditions, the erratic effects of racism, the influence of imports like Jenny Lind, and the devious methods of publishers. It is all thoroughly interesting.

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