Editor’s Choice April 2006

Lee and Sherman

What to read this month—and what not to
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Peggy Lee was "too good for her own good," as the jazz critic George Hoefer discerned in 1959 (a remark quoted in this book, though it's misattributed to John Tynan). The range of her talents and the reach of her appeal obscured her extraordinary accomplishments and somewhat dented her prestige. Listeners won over by her gigantic pop hits were at a loss when she returned, as she always did, to her jazz roots. But some jazz purists shunned her because of such crossover recording successes as "It's a Good Day," "Golden Earrings," "Mañana," and the songs in Disney's Lady and the Tramp—all of which she wrote. Lee, of course, was one of the first great singer-songwriters (she amassed more than 200 composing credits). She was also among her era's finest recording artists (with her 1956 Black Coffee, which epitomized world-weary sophistication for a generation, she pioneered the "concept album"). She was, moreover, the greatest chanteuse of her age (her minimalist and confessional style perfectly suited the intimacy of the nightclub, and her act at Ciro's in the 1940s and, above all, her engagement at Basin Street East in the winter of 1961 remain legendary). She was, as Hoefer declared, simply "the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey."

Peggy Lee, of course, was one of the first great singer-songwriters (she amassed more than 200 composing credits). She was also among her era’s finest recording artists (with her 1956 Black Coffee, which epitomized world-weary sophistication for a generation, she pioneered the “concept album”). She was, moreover, the greatest chanteuse of her age (her minimalist and confessional style perfectly suited the intimacy of the nightclub, and her act at Ciro’s in the 1940s and, above all, her engagement at Basin Street East in the winter of 1961 remain legendary). She was, as Hoefer declared, simply “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey.”

To some, this is like being declared the best Jewish player in the NBA. But in fact Lee interpreted the urbane lyrics of the American songbook with a knowingness, a resigned wit, a refined intelligence, a quizzical irony—conspicuous already in her first recording triumph, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with the Benny Goodman Band—that Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday could not approach. On stage she didn’t emote; she arched an eyebrow. The introspective, slightly New Agey, domestically oriented Lee also led an unusual life for a female entertainer of her time. Many of her closest friends were men—Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer (her mentor as a lyricist), Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra (only with the last was she romantically linked). For a good part of her career, she was a single mother. Her unremarkable 1989 autobiography (which, alas, she insisted on authoring without the aid of a ghost writer) revealed little about the nature of those friendships or her experiences raising her daughter, although it was famously direct, if understandably opaque, regarding her traumatic childhood on the plains of North Dakota (Lee’s father was an amiable but ineffectual alcoholic; her stepmother beat her with sadistic regularity). This book, which perforce draws heavily on Lee’s, adds little to that picture.

Richmond, though, firmly grasps Lee’s musicianship, even if his sound judgments often lack specificity (he doesn’t, for instance, assess precisely the enduring influence of the Goodman Band, for which she was the canary from 1941 to 1943, on her phrasing and technique, although he rightly and astutely acknowledges her 1942 recording with the band of “Where or When”—the loveliest rendition ever of that supremely lovely song—as a landmark of her “maturing style”). But he fails to put Lee—in many ways as emblematic of mid-century America’s cultural and sexual style as was Sinatra—in a broader context, in the way that Gary Giddins brilliantly did for Bing Crosby. Musicians, for the most part, leave scant documentary records. So a great biography, like Giddins’s, must be as much a cultural history as a life history. Five singers warrant that sort of treatment: Armstrong, Holiday, Crosby, Sinatra, and Lee. Only one has yet received it.

Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout (Viking). This book’s subtitle will provoke some confusion. The work isn’t a consideration of the ultimate justice of the conflict (the author blithely takes that complex proposition for granted), nor does it primarily explore the war’s relationship to slavery. Rather, Stout applies ethical standards to the prosecution of the war. This can at times be a tiresome exercise, but it yields some refreshing and unsettling (albeit often unintended) insights into the most probed of America’s conflicts, and into aspects of this country’s moral narcissism, which much of the rest of the world has frequently found at best puzzling and at worst insufferable. First, though, one must acknowledge the book’s many and egregious faults.

Stout may be among the foremost historians of American Christianity, but his book is yet further proof that the professoriat has no business teaching the country’s youth how to write. The diffuse, 550-plus-page tome is riddled with sloppy diction (he writes of the “enormity” of the achievement of abolition) and ham-handed prose (the “Civil War may have ended with a whimper, but ongoing debates … contain a good bit of bang”). Stout gives lengthy potted histories of most of the war’s campaigns and major battles, leaving the poor reader to attempt to discern what all these unfocused accounts have to do with the often slackly developed contentions—more often gestured at than argued—that the author advances.

Still, both Stout’s sensitivity to religious rhetoric and the spiritual and ethical lens through which he examines the war allow him to show, if not really to explicate, how the North’s understanding of its purpose bequeathed to the country a muddled, missionary civic religion, which “sacralized” the American state and “elevat[ed] America as its own religion.” During the conflict, this evolving civic religion provided a “moral high ground,” which justified any military action; indeed, questions about the war’s just conduct went all but unasked. (Lincoln is the chief culprit in this development. An honest progressive should acknowledge that if George W. Bush were to deliver Lincoln’s lofty but gaseous and quasi- mystical Second Inaugural Address, said progressive would castigate that speech as, well, gaseous and quasi- mystical—and as evidence of a president’s dangerous belief in America’s messianic destiny. Then again, Lincoln is clearly Stout’s hero, so the question of what, precisely, Stout makes of that civic religion is among the many things left frustratingly vague in his book.)

The Second World War and the North’s Civil War are enshrined as America’s Good Wars, so Stout’s dogged and somewhat repetitious efforts to remind readers of the often useless battlefield slaughter that marked the conflict may have the happy effect of ruffling some Civil War buffs and those pseudo-tough-guy liberal historians who hail the struggle as an abolitionist crusade. But in fact their time would be better spent with the war writings of Ambrose Bierce, the Yankee combat veteran, whose sardonic, grotesque, hallucinatory sensibility, married to a severe and precise prose style, permitted him to depict the war as a murderous enterprise without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose—a rendition far more honest than either the North’s sanctimonious notion of the Battle Cry of Freedom or the South’s romantic idea of the Lost Cause.

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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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