Editor's Choice December 2005

Passion in Fashion

What to read this month

Mao, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf). This volume, the most complete and assiduously researched biography of its subject yet published, presents a detailed portrait of Mao as an opportunistic gangster and a sadist (not even a committed ideologue!) who was, the authors convincingly argue, responsible for "well over 70 million deaths in peacetime"—more than Hitler's and Stalin's tolls combined. Chang, the author of Wild Swans, a compelling account of her family's and her country's agony during the Cultural Revolution (it's the best-selling nonfiction paperback in publishing history), and her husband, Halliday, a historian of the Soviet Union, tenaciously chronicle the Great Helmsman's sanguinary purges and manmade famines. They reveal him as unrelievedly unsavory (he disliked bathing and toothbrushing and enjoyed witnessing torture) and, it seems, a man devoid of all human virtues. Even the heroics of the Long March, they carefully demonstrate, were wholly fabricated. An almost endless indictment (I'm sure Mao was as relentlessly unredeemed as the authors demonstrate, but it's fair to say that Mao lacks a certain nuance), this work is nevertheless as well researched as possible, given current restrictions. (Chang scoured the available Chinese documents; Halliday was particularly resourceful in his investigations in the archives of the former Soviet Union; and the authors together interviewed several hundred subjects—including scores of Mao's officials, agents, and hangers-on, including his valet.) The book's subtitle, "The Unknown Story," overlooks the fact that scholars such as Stuart Schram and Roderick MacFarquhar have documented many of the worst excesses of Mao's regime, and that the memoirs of Mao's doctor, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, copiously displayed the Chairman's personal unpleasantness. But no earlier work comes close to matching the density of detail here, and in many cases—such as their account of Mao's scheming with the Japanese during World War II—the authors have performed brilliant historical detective work. Better books on Mao will eventually be written, but probably not until the regime that still reveres him reforms itself a good deal more. At the very least this book should finally mortify those former campus radical chowderheads who sported the Little Red Book (unread and unreadable) in the pocket of their Army surplus jackets.

New Art City, by Jed Perl (Knopf). This almost impossibly rich book evokes, explores, illuminates, and analyzes the Manhattan art world of the 1940s through the early 1960s, a period that famously saw the "triumph of American painting" and New York's concomitant rise to supremacy as the world's artistic capital. Perl's scintillating panorama leads readers from creaky wooden-floored downtown lofts to the International Style buildings that transformed Park Avenue into a sleek canyon, and from the bohemian-utilitarian Cedar Tavern to the swank-modernist Grill Room of the Four Seasons. He takes in the art dealers, the curators, and the critics who oxygenated artistic life; developments in theater, dance, music, film, philosophy, and poetry that influenced and were influenced by the artists and their work; and the frenetic cultural and social whirl that MOMA incessantly stirred. And he interweaves astute pen portraits of artists both celebrated and neglected (Hans Hofmann, de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, but also Nell Blaine, Burgoyne Diller, and Earl Kerkam) with penetrating, clear-eyed, and jargon-free assessments of their creations (see especially his brilliant appraisal of the contrasting astringencies of Donald Judd and Fairfield Porter) and with keen and sympathetic analysis of the ideas that animated them. Perl, The New Republic's art critic, is unerringly alert throughout to the broad economic, commercial, social, intellectual, and cultural forces that engendered, channeled, impinged upon, and ultimately vitiated the Manhattan art scene. Dore Ashton's discerning and graceful 1973 book, The New York School, took a similarly sweeping and ambitious approach; Perl's work—the sort of grand marriage of criticism, history, and biography that Edmund Wilson achieved in his finest books—is in most ways an even greater accomplishment. The book can sometimes be hard going; Perl is a lucid and often witty writer, but he's frequently grappling with complex and dizzying ideas. The effort is worth it. New Art City is a thrilling achievement.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, by Michael J. Sandel. Harvard University Press. Portions of this book first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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