New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

Thomas & Jane Carlyle
by Rosemary Ashton
Pimlico/Trafalgar Square

Thomas Carlyle—the once celebrated but now unread Victorian sage—was gloomy, clumsy, pedantic, and literally (and otherwise) flatulent. His wife, Jane, was bitter, sardonic, brilliant (a guest informed her, "You would be a vast deal more amiable if you were not so damnably clever"), and intellectually frustrated. His marriage proposal to her, not one to set a heart aflutter ("Together we may fail to be happy; separate, we can hardly fail to be miserable"), nicely set the tone for their less than cheerful matrimonial life. Indeed, Samuel Butler famously thanked God for letting the Carlyles marry each other "and so make only two people miserable instead of four." But this notoriously unhappy union is among the most compelling in literary history, because in their letters and journals these two wrote slyly, caustically, and endlessly about their intellectual and political world and, more important, about themselves and their marriage (subjects they obviously—and charmingly—found ceaselessly absorbing). More than 9,000 of their letters survive, making theirs probably the most minutely and intelligently documented marriage ever. (Letter writing was the ideal vehicle for Jane's waspish wit; although Thomas is rightly castigated for his narcissistic insensitivity to his wife, one suspects that he provided her with the irritant necessary for her peculiar literary pearls.) A number of writers—most notably Thea Holme, in The Carlyles at Home, and Phyllis Rose, in Parallel Lives—have rendered sensitive, if at times anachronistic, portraits of this marriage. But these have been miniatures; Rosemary Ashton works on a broad canvas. A fluent scholar and a lively writer, she has absorbed everything the Carlyles wrote, and seemingly everything written about them by their contemporaries (they were by far the most famous literary couple of the century). Eschewing flabby generalization and unfounded speculation, she depicts and analyzes their partnership with precision, and also with fairness and detachment (quite an achievement, especially when assessing the sullen, windy, and often simply impossible Thomas). Ashton's 550-page book is, as its subtitle promises, a portrait of a marriage, but it's perforce also a portrait of an age, because it puts the couple where they belong if one is to understand them at all: at the very center of the Victorian intellectual and literary elite. There they argue, flirt, and gossip with—and exasperate—the luminaries of their time, including Dickens, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, Darwin, Thackeray, Ruskin, Emerson, Goethe, and Giuseppe Mazzini.

Literary Studies

A Visit to Don Otavio
by Sybille Bedford
Counterpoint

Bedford—that fantastically glamorous, cosmopolitan writer—spent the Second World War penned up in Manhattan; before her return to England she "had a great longing to move, to hear another language, eat new food; to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible." So she traveled through Mexico with a woman friend. She took no notes, but she sent postcards; when she got back to London, she called her correspondents to collect those cards and started writing. The result was this, her first book and—by wide agreement—one of the great works of travel literature. Bedford is a hard, even somewhat cynical writer, but she "wanted to make something light and poetic," and her sharp eye and precise language allowed her to fashion this enormously sensuous work. (Bruce Chatwin declared, "When the history of modern prose in English comes to be written, Mrs. Bedford will have to appear in any list of its most dazzling practitioners." Without question.) Sporadically out of print, it has just been reissued. Buy and read this marvel.

The Unwritten War
by Daniel Aaron
Alabama

This book, published in 1973 and out of print for several years, has now been reissued. Although a valuable survey of the literary legacy of the Civil War, a subject of staggering cultural and historical importance, the book will always be overshadowed by one of the very few masterpieces of American literary history and criticism, Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, written eleven years earlier, which explored the same territory (albeit in a far more idiosyncratic fashion). Aaron, now a professor emeritus at Harvard, explicates the impact of the war on writers from Hawthorne and Melville to Faulkner and the Nashville Agrarians (his assessment of the Agrarians is by far the shallowest and most hostile chapter in the book; generally this liberal Yankee is at a loss when he strays below the Mason-Dixon line). Yet he very oddly neglects the two greatest writers of the war itself—Lincoln and Grant. And although his analyses of individual authors are often keen, he stumbles badly in his overall thesis. In his introduction he states, "One would expect writers ... to say something revealing about the meaning, if not the causes, of the War," and he argues implicitly throughout his book that in fact "writers"—by which he means fiction writers and poets—failed to do so. But why would we look to imaginative writers, as Aaron does, for what he calls "historical insight"? The Iliad, after all, is hardly an exposition of the meaning and causes of the Trojan War. Aaron is clearly disappointed in Ambrose Bierce when he writes that Bierce's "response to the War had always been intensely personal, never philosophical"; but isn't a personal response precisely what we want from a writer of essays and short stories? Puzzled that novelists and poets neglected to approach their subject as historical philosophers (and, it would seem, annoyed that they failed to impose on the war the "meaning" he finds in it), Aaron offers a nebulous, and what we would now characterize as a PC, explanation: "Race," he asserts, "blurr[ed] literary insight." He uses the fact that African-Americans figured only marginally in the literature of the war as evidence that writers were psychologically resistant to confronting the racial aspect of the conflict (which to him is its central aspect). The "literary dearth," Aaron avers, "is to be accounted for by the blocking out of race." Well, maybe. But Aaron himself seems to be lacking in historical insight: the preoccupations of the present, he ought to know, should not be exported to the past.

History

Interesting Times
by Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon

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.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

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

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

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.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In