Books June 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

Transformations of Love
Francis Harris
Oxford

John Evelyn—the great English diarist, gardener, scholar, and sometime public servant—was a fifty-year-old husband and father when, in 1671, he began a strange and intense friendship with a maid of honor at Charles II's dissolute court: the beautiful, witty, and ardently devout Margaret Blagge, age nineteen. For six years, until her early and harrowing death following the birth of her child (she had married a rising young courtier in 1675), they carried on a platonic and passionate relationship, imbued with their deeply felt religious convictions. They prayed together; they exchanged letters in which they expatiated on their spiritual partnership and seemed (especially to the modern reader) to conflate religious and sexual fervor (these soul mates knew that their friendship was open to misreading—Blagge asked Evelyn to burn six of her letters just before her marriage); she sat for a portrait for him (which is at once provocative and demure); he gave her a locket set with diamonds. She believed that religious devotion and self-knowledge were inconsistent with the claims imposed on women and with what Harris nicely terms "the sense of being constantly observed and regulated," either at court or in marriage, and so she was drawn to a life of celibacy. He, worldly-wise, knew how terribly limited were the options available to a pious young woman in Protestant England, which had no nunneries, so he urged the love of his life to marry. In short, theirs was a complicated relationship—and one that today's readers and academics would condescendingly and almost automatically describe in crude terms of sex and power. Indeed, in the 1950s an Oxford scholar wrote two debunking studies of Evelyn and Blagge in which he dismissed her religiosity as neurotic and argued that it would have been cured by sex. But Harris, a senior curator of manuscripts at the British Library, is far too careful a historian to indulge in anachronistic cynicism. In her subtle analysis she places Evelyn and Blagge's relationship in the context of the post-Reformation ideal of "seraphic love" and in the tradition of intense friendships between men and women in religious settings—friendships that to this pair seemed, Harris writes convincingly, "to offer an escape from the constraints of patriarchy." Dissecting an intense, ambiguous, and fraught relationship (one in which what we now see as sublimated sexuality played a prominent role, but one that existed in a pre-psychoanalytic age), Harris gently compels her readers to understand that relationship through the participants' eyes. She throws light not only on the inner lives of her subjects but also on the religion, court culture, philosophy, concepts of femininity, sexual mores, and—not least—horticulture of seventeenth-century England. With a delicate but sure hand Harris has accomplished the highest and most difficult task of the historian: she has allowed us to understand the past on its own terms. Her piercing, quietly stylish work is without question one of the best histories of the year.

History

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
by Allen C. Guelzo
Eerdmans
"There have been ten thousand attempts at the life of Abraham Lincoln," Horace Greeley remarked, "whereof that of Wilkes Booth was perhaps the most atrocious; yet it stands by no means alone." For more than 130 years what is sometimes called the "Lincoln industry" has churned out title after title about our sixteenth President. Since 1934, when the Lincoln scholar James G. Randall addressed the American Historical Association on the question "Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?," thousands of books have been written. Most volumes in this crowded field aren't worth reading. But Guelzo's is quite simply the best book on Lincoln to be published in a generation. It treats every aspect of its subject's public and private life with intelligence and penetration (its portrait of the tortured courtship and marriage of Lincoln and the mercurial Mary Todd is among the most nuanced and discerning—and is certainly the most trenchant —I've read), but this is primarily a study of Lincoln's ideas and outlook. Guelzo precisely traces and explicates the roots and development of Lincoln's anti-Jeffersonian public philosophy and political economy (rightly emphasizing the far-reaching importance of his centralizing, nationalist economic policies—a subject most previous biographers have woefully neglected) and of his views on slavery and race relations. Most important, however, Guelzo subtly examines Lincoln's personal struggles over religion and the complex ramifications of his deeply ingrained Calvinistic determinism. This book will forever change historians' understanding of Lincoln's view of the Civil War, and is essential if we are to apprehend how this despairing nonbeliever came to see the conflict (to quote Edmund Wilson) "in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect"—a process that culminated, of course, in his Second Inaugural Address, the most spiritually profound of our state papers. Redeemer President, which has just been released in paperback, won the 2000 Lincoln Prize and has been almost universally praised by academics—but was unconscionably ignored by all the major review outlets, perhaps because it was published by a firm specializing in scholarly theological titles. I hope that in this inexpensive and accessible format Guelzo's masterpiece will gain the wide attention it warrants.

Power and Profit
by Peter Spufford
Thames & Hudson
Spufford, until 2001 the Professor of European History at Cambridge, has written the definitive history of commerce in the Middle Ages, a subject to which some of the most original medieval scholarship—including that of Fernand Braudel and Robert Lopez—has been devoted for the past forty or so years. He focuses on the effects in the 1300s of the previous century's so-called "commercial revolution," which saw innovations—in banking and credit, transport, manufacturing, and commercial organization —whose economic impact was in many ways as profound as that of the Industrial Revolution, and which engendered a level of economic activity unmatched until the 1700s. And he has synthesized an astonishing range of recondite secondary sources, from "Medieval Silks in Montpellier: the Silk Market, ca. 1250- ca. 1350" to English Tin Production and Trade Before 1550 to "Beer Imports Into the Low Countries," in order to elucidate the two poles of medieval commerce: the luxury trade in beeswax, spices, fur, cotton, glass, soap, carpets, and slaves, fueled by the royal and ecclesiastical courts; and the ordinary bulk trade in salt, grain, wine, timber, and cloth that provisioned the great cities of Paris, Milan, Florence, London, and Venice and supplied their manufacturers. Spufford is above all fascinated by the means of commerce—how fairs were organized and interest rates calculated, how merchants' alpine guides kept warm, how traders were accommodated, silver mined, and wool stretched. Having traveled the ancient routes of the merchants and their pack animals, Spufford arrestingly conveys the topographical and climatic backdrop of, and hindrances to, trade. This book would not be nearly so effective without his aptly chosen, authoritative, and often wryly captioned illustrations, mostly details from paintings and illuminated manuscripts; it and Nicholas Orme's Medieval Children are the most beautiful and intelligently designed works of scholarship I've encountered in recent years.

Architecture

Daniel H. Burnham
by Kristen Schaffer, edited by Scott J. Tilden, photographs by Paul Rocheleau
Rizzoli
In addition to designing and developing Chicago's lakefront (specifically the magnificent Lake Shore Drive and its attendant system of parks), Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912) led the design teams that built a large number of the canonical structures of American architecture—including New York's Flatiron Building, famously depicted in photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. But his legacy is often overlooked, owing largely to the attention lavished on his partner and close friend, John W. Root. Schaffer clarifies the creative collaboration between the two, thereby accentuating Burnham's role. More important, Schaffer, Tilden, and Rocheleau pay particular attention to Burnham's astonishing work after Root's death, especially his Reliance Building and the Railway Exchange Building (at last there's a proper appreciation of this supremely refined structure). But the volume's best feature is Paul Rocheleau's precise yet luxurious photography, which conveys Burnham's extraordinary artistic range. Rocheleau captures the simplicity and power of the Montauk and Monadnock Buildings, the golden light that infuses the Rookery Building, and the Beaux Arts grandeur of Washington's Union Station. His best photographic studies, though, are of the Reliance and the Railway Exchange, which reveal their functionalist elegance, their lively expression of steel framing (gently undulating curtain walls of terra cotta and glass form a thin skin stretched over structural skeletons), and the purity and exactness of their proportions and details. (All the edifices pictured by Rocheleau are still very much working buildings, and have been remarkably well preserved or lovingly renovated.) Studying these photographs is a sensuous delight (the creamy white glaze on the terra-cotta sheathing of the Railway Exchange's lobby is like the frosting on a cake), and they allow the reader to appreciate just what the great Louis Sullivan meant when he wrote that Burnham's buildings "rose sheer and stark, with a subtlety of line and surface ... that gave one the thrill of romance."

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In