Books July 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

Curzon
by David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

George Curzon (1859-1925) was seemingly marked for greatness. Dubbed, with envy and irritation, "a most superior person" by his contemporaries at Balliol, the aristocratic striver won a fellowship to All Souls, traveled widely, wrote scholarly tomes on the Near East, and was the most glittering figure in England's most glittering social set (where he conducted a series of affairs with some of the most prominent married women in the kingdom). All this before he was twenty-seven, when he was elected to Parliament. Five years later he became undersecretary for India. At thirty-nine he secured what was probably the most powerful appointed position in the world: he became Viceroy of India, the ruler of almost 300 million people. The youngest man ever to hold that title, Curzon was, for better and worse, perfect for the job. Since his days at Eton this prodigious worker had essentially spent his intellectual life preparing for it; no politician knew more about India and its neighbors. He and Cromer of Egypt were the most capable, briskly efficient, and high-minded imperial administrators at the apogee of the British empire. As for the worse, no one could possibly have been temperamentally better suited to pseudo-sovereignty. Pompous, supercilious, self-pitying, pedantic, and meddlesome, Curzon possessed outstanding abilities, but they were all but eclipsed by his pestiferousness. His unusual capacity for treading on important toes and creating enemies destroyed his brilliant viceroyalty. Although an effective Cabinet minister during the First World War and Foreign Secretary in the early 1920s, he had alienated too many in his party to achieve his ultimate goal, the prime ministership, and he died a disappointed man. This distinguished and immensely accomplished failure has been enormously fortunate in his biographers. Harold Nicolson, who worked for Curzon at the Foreign Office, wrote a characteristically astute and elegant account of him as Foreign Secretary (Curzon: The Last Phase); Kenneth Rose, in Superior Person, gave a sparkling portrait of Curzon's early years and of the interlocking social, intellectual, and political elite that formed his circle; David Dilks, in his two-volume Curzon in India, offered a rich study of nearly every aspect of his viceroyalty. But until now no single work adequately chronicled Curzon's entire life. Gilmour's absorbing, intelligent, quizzical, and stylish biography covers with equal authority and panache late-Victorian country-house weekends, maneuverings within the War Cabinet, and the background of the Treaty of Lausanne. (A typical aside: "The best years of the Curzons' marriage were spent in India. They were often apart and, when together, were seldom alone.") But the focal point of this 684-page book is, as it must be, Curzon's years as Viceroy. No clearer and more vivid account has been written of the high point of the Raj—its workaday management as well as its pomp.

Germany's War and the Holocaust
by Omer Bartov
Cornell

Scholarship on the Holocaust continues to swell. And, inevitably, so do the scholarly debates and controversies—some silly, some complicated, a few actually important. Despite its annoyingly clumsy prose, Bartov's collection of previously published but extensively revised articles is among the most accessible books for the layman hoping to understand the contours of the current historiography. Bartov established his reputation in 1985 with a truly pathbreaking study, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, which demonstrated conclusively that, contrary to the self-serving reminiscences of German veterans, the German army—not just the SS and other Nazi ideologues—had willingly, even enthusiastically, participated in the slaughter of Soviet civilians and in the attempted extermination of the Jews. (He extended and deepened his conclusions in Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich.) Not surprisingly, some of the most astute essays here examine various aspects of the Wehrmacht's complicity in the Holocaust. While avoiding an easy judgmental stance, Bartov draws nuanced but crucial distinctions between wartime atrocities generally (including those of the other combatant states of the Second World War) and those that Germany committed, especially on the Eastern Front, which were, as he shows with precision, uniquely terrible. (This is an especially significant discussion given the proclivity of some German revisionist historians for drawing facile parallels between the crimes of Nazi Germany and those of Stalin's Soviet Union.) Although Bartov is an innovative military historian, in his essay on the diaries of the great German conservative, patriot, and Jew Victor Klemperer he also displays a subtle grasp of social and cultural developments, especially the growing, and in the end nearly total, Nazification of German society under the Third Reich.

Bessie
by Chris Albertson
Yale

In 1972 the first edition of this book was broadly hailed as the finest jazz biography ever written, but it was flawed. The writing in this revised edition, which includes new interview material, remains ham-fisted, and Albertson still offers no sophisticated explanation for the source and development of Smith's stupendous musical gift (the influence—or lack thereof—of Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues," on Smith's style and phrasing goes essentially unexplored). Albertson nevertheless gives us a remarkably clear-eyed examination of Smith's personality (and sexuality) and, more important, of the gritty and greedy music business. The milieu in which Smith worked was devoid of saints, but the least appealing characters in the book turn out to be the New York white liberals who applauded and exploited her. Carl Van Vechten, a forerunner of radical chic, emerges as superficial and lecherous. Even worse is the widely but not astutely admired producer John Hammond, who, if not knowingly then certainly irresponsibly, originated and disseminated the (as Albertson meticulously shows) apocryphal story that Smith's death was the result of a Mississippi hospital's racist policy. Although Albertson disproved that legend more than thirty years ago, it refuses to die; today Smith is perhaps better remembered for the misrepresented circumstances of her death than for her hard and heartrending music.

In The Presence of Mine Enemies
by Edward L. Ayers
Norton

Ayers scrutinizes the effect of the Civil War and of the debates that preceded it on two communities—Augusta County, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, 200 miles away. In so doing he illuminates both the similarities that existed and the striking differences that developed between the North and the South before and during the conflict. His approach—exploring the impact of public events on daily life, and juxtaposing battlefield and home front—gives readers a fuller picture than they'd obtain from a more conventional micro-history. But Ayers—who has written two superb scholarly studies of the post-Civil War South—falters with his pseudo-literary devices and diction. Throughout, his narrative ambitions exceed his writerly abilities, and the means he uses to unite close-ups and wide perspective (he explicitly embraces a cinematic vocabulary) make for a flabby book. To combine the local and the national, for instance, he'll often supply lengthy summaries of local newspapers' reports of faraway events. Add to these defects Ayers's surprisingly jejune conclusions and this work, although sometimes engrossing, becomes disappointing and a bit pretentious.

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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.

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