Contents | November 2002
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 2002
Books & Critics
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
New & Noteworthy
What to read this month
by Benjamin Schwarz
by David Thomson
Knopf, 960 pages, $35.00
reference book of extraordinary literary merit, this eccentric, audacious, sparkling work returns—revised, updated, and bulging with 300 new entries (including Rin Tin Tin and Graham Greene), which helps to account for its nearly 1,000 closely printed double-column pages. Probably the greatest living film critic and historian, Thomson, an Englishman who lives in San Francisco, writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael. His judgments in these pungent mini- and not-so-mini-essays can be exasperatingly wrong: He characterizes Mike Nichols's vacuous and pretentious wife Diane Sawyer as "lovely and smart"; how can he express any reservations about Children of Paradise? And although he's hardly an auteurist, his book focuses on directors at the expense of writers and producers.
But regarding the important issues Thomson is almost always dead-on: He champions the supreme genius of Howard Hawks, who captured better than any other filmmaker both "masculine romanticism" (in Red River) and "the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture" between men and women (in Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and, of course, His Girl Friday). He astutely observes that Agnes Moorehead figures in "the two most indelibly humane moments in the work of Orson Welles"—the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane's mother opens the window "to call in her son from the snow so that he may advance on his destiny" and the scene in The Magnificent Ambersons in which "Aunt Fanny watches Georgie devouring her strawberry shortcake, pleased to be useful ... but knowing that he does not need her, deeply aware that her vibrant romantic hopes are growing shrill with neglect." He appreciates the often neglected Jean Arthur, prizing her "rare, querulous charm" and the "earnest, furious thought" she brought to comedy and romance. He knows that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema"—and he even has the perspicacity to recognize as Grantlike the "wit, narrative speed, and good-natured ease" of the great TV show The Rockford Files. The book is a marvel.
by George Orwell, edited by John Carey
Everyman, 1408 pages, $35.00
Buy this book. Unless, that is, you already have the four-volume The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters—available now only in paperback—or the twenty-volume Complete Works. (I own both, but I'm keeping this one for my desk.) Orwell's are the most important essays of the twentieth century, and reading them—along with his nonfiction books The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia—will make you a clearer thinker, a cleaner writer, and a more thoughtful human being. This handsome, 1,372-page hardcover volume contains his complete essays (even his unfinished piece on Evelyn Waugh, which is missing from the four-volume edition) and selected reviews and journalism. It also includes an incisive introduction by the brilliant John Carey, but lacks an index—a grievous fault, but its only one.
The Victorians: The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 8, 1830-1880
by Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 560 pages, $45.00
Though its title suggests a dry and earnest tome full of summary lists ("Kingsley's other novels include Hypatia, Westward Ho! ..."), this is an imaginative, penetrating, often idiosyncratic history, written with brio. Davis takes an expansive view of literature (in addition to examining the poetry, fiction, and drama of the period, he writes about books and essays on theology, science, biography, travel, criticism, history, and psychology); he addresses the relationship between literature and broad political and cultural trends; and he pays particular attention to what he calls the "conditions of literary production," such as the growth of the reading public and changes in the book trade. But by probing his abundant subject in what amount to selective and detailed critical essays (for instance, devoting the bulk of one of his three chapters on fiction to comparing the high realism of Trollope and George Eliot—who emerges from this account as the greatest literary genius of the age—to support his contention that "the novel offered the most subtle, diversified and complicated network of shifting interrelationships available to human thinking"), Davis has written a book of breathtaking depth as well as breadth.
Published and Perished
edited by Steven Gilbar and Dean Stewart
David R. Godine, 220 pages, $26.95
This wittily selected and atrociously titled anthology of remembrances of American writers by American writers reveals as much about the eulogists as about their subjects. In his treacherous commemorative pen portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, John O'Hara couldn't transcend his propensity for envy and schadenfreude. Then again, Fitzgerald's memorial to the enormously kind but cynical Ring Lardner managed to be at once generous (Fitzgerald noted that as a writer Lardner "heard and recorded the voice of a continent," and that as a man "he always did every single thing he said he would do") and superciliously dismissive, if not wholly inaccurate, in its appraisal of Lardner's artistic merit. Of course, writers are a notoriously insecure and backbiting breed, so it's a delight to come across Willa Cather's sweet and sad recollection of the doomed young Stephen Crane; Booth Tarkington's brave encomium to the already out-of-fashion William Dean Howells; Saul Bellow's trenchant appreciation of the enormous differences between him and John Cheever, which endeared them to each other; and H. L. Mencken's rollicking and loving account of his first meeting with James Gibbons Huneker—a pilsner-marinated lunch at which Huneker delivered a five-hour monologue on subjects ranging from "the defects in the structure of Sister Carrie" to "what George Moore said about German bathrooms" to the causes of Tchaikovsky's suicide (the talk "was chaos made to gleam and coruscate with every device of the seven arts").
by N. John Hall
Yale University Press, 224 pages, $24.95
Hall's book has many strengths and some annoying—because they are so avoidable—defects. Too many literary biographers exhaustively chronicle their subject's every journey and meal while failing to probe the relationship between the writer's life and his work. In contrast, this short, highly intelligent literary portrait incisively appraises Beerbohm's personality, writings, and relationships with, among others, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. But it's marred by a self-conscious style that Hall describes as "quirky" (must he refer to his long-dead subject as "Max"?).
The GI War Against Japan
by Peter Schrijvers
New York University Press, 256 pages, $45.00
This terrifying, remarkable work examines the attitudes, perceptions, and behavior of U.S. fighting men in the Pacific theater during World War II. Imaginatively drawing on letters, diaries, memoirs, military reports, and contemporary psychological assessments, Schrijvers reveals the social, historical, and emotional roots of the peculiarly frenzied and merciless war that Americans fought in what they regarded as an exotic and impenetrable paradise—a conflict that escalated into a campaign of extermination, and a war against the land and nature itself. Schrijvers's sober account of Americans' wartime rage, which manifested itself in wholesale rape and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, is far from a work of crude revisionism—he reminds us of the abysmal conduct of the Japanese, and he refreshingly and correctly views the dropping of the atomic bomb as a continuation of the methods used by all the combatants. Nevertheless, this temperate study of murderous fury is among the most unsettling books I've read in years.
by Orlando Figes
Metropolitan Books, 544 pages, $35.00
Figes is among the plethora of young, bold, and brilliant British historians who write with authority and verve. His first book, A People's Tragedy, is the finest history of the Russian Revolution in the English language. This, his second, is a stunning and ambitious cultural history of Russia. Its thematic chapters examine such subjects as art, customs, folklore, religion, cuisine, education, and—most important—the works of novelists, poets, composers, historians, philosophers, and choreographers. Figes captures nothing less than Russians' complex and protean notions regarding their national identity, and their tortured and not infrequently violent efforts to define and determine it.
The World of Odysseus
by M. I. Finley
New York Review Books, 224 pages, $42.95
A scintillating work of literary and historical sociology, this book, originally published in 1954 and last revised in 1977, is back in print. In five tightly and elegantly argued chapters Finley uses the Homeric poems and the always conflicting and sparse archaeological evidence to speculate about and shed light on the world of Greece in the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. His topics range from agriculture to gift-giving, but his approach is mainly psychological and anthropological—he focuses on this intensely alien culture's conceptions of justice, morality, kinship, love, and power, and its attitudes toward sexuality, violence, and death. His book and E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational remain the smartest and most dazzling works on ancient Greece that are accessible to the layman.
The Great Catastrophe of My Life
by Thomas E. Buckley, S.J.
University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages, $49.95
Buckley's examination of divorce in antebellum Virginia elucidates a complex, antiquated legal and legislative procedure and exposes southern attitudes toward a host of subjects—including marriage, sex, family life, and domestic violence. What makes the book of more than scholarly interest, however, is the author's sensitive and detailed recounting of the anguish that often prompted and always accompanied the efforts to dissolve marital bonds.
In the Devil's Snare
by Mary Beth Norton
Knopf, 432 pages, $30.00
Here is yet another book about the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. Historians are drawn to this subject in part because it defies explanation. Their attempts to make sense of it are often anachronistic and usually overly speculative: they've attributed the crisis to the psychosexual imagination of teenage girls, to status anxiety, to collective hysteria, to misogyny, to religious fervor, even to organic hallucinogens. Norton continues in this tradition. In a slightly self-important tone, she links the crisis to the bloody and, from the point of view of the Massachusetts colonists, disastrous war against the French and the Indians on the northeastern frontier. That war, Norton avers, contributed to the sense of panic, and the colonists saw it and the outbreak of witchcraft as divine punishment for their sins. But her logic leaps when
she concludes that had the war "been avoided, the ... [witchcraft] crisis would not have occurred." And she's on even shakier ground when she conflates fanciful motive with evidence, asserting that the judges—as leaders of the colony who had bungled the war—"needed" to believe the witchcraft charges, because "if God had providentially caused the wartime disasters and he had also unleashed the devil on Massachusetts, then they bore no responsibility for the current state of affairs." Norton's own case would be thrown out of court.
Mrs. Astor's New York
by Eric Homberger
Yale University Press, 336 pages, $29.95
Homberger probes the values, familial interconnections, clubs, neighborhoods, houses, social rituals, and resorts of nineteenth-century New York's aristocracy. As lively and lucidly written as Cleveland Amory's and Stephen Birmingham's portraits of the rich and well-born, this book is more penetrating, thanks to Homberger's rigorous scholarship. Readers may want to pair it with David C. Hammack's analytical history Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century—or, of course, with Edith Wharton's novels.
Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930
by Susan J. Matt
University of Pennsylvania Press, 232 pages, $35.00
Matt's unusually accessible study builds on the enormous body of recent scholarship that has examined America's transformation into a consumer culture in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Whereas most such works have concentrated on demographic, economic, manufacturing, and—most important—marketing changes, Matt recognizes that a consumer economy depends above all on a profound shift in values. She insightfully details the ways in which advertisers encouraged potential consumers to embrace envy (an emotion that had traditionally been castigated), but she fails to assess the complex ways in which a consumer economy not only relies on but produces that redefinition of standards: such an economy, perforce, makes individual choice the highest good, and the radical individualism it engenders corrodes traditional values and social relations. Still, Matt shows the vital link between a consumer economy and the twin convictions that life's chief object is personal happiness and that consumers "can turn themselves into who they long to be" by getting and spending. And in doing so, she illuminates an unresolved contradiction at the heart of modern capitalism: the very values it produces are at war with the values—industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline, and avoidance of debt—that built it and that are necessary for its long-term survival.
by David Wise
Random House, 256 pages, $24.95
This is the best of the now six major books published in the past year on the Robert Hanssen spy case, but that's not saying much. Wise, perhaps the foremost writer on espionage, had access to more sources (including Hanssen's psychiatrist) than did the other authors, and he clarifies some secondary matters (such as how the FBI recruited the KGB officer who betrayed Hanssen). But he, like the other authors, writes in a flabby journalese. And although all the books recount the story with a degree of detail that borders on the prurient, they all fail to illuminate most of its important issues—which isn't surprising, given that it involves highly classified information as well as the dark inner life of a profoundly unhappy, secretive, and unsavory man.
The Man Who Talks to Dogs
by Melinda Roth
St. Martin's Press, 240 pages, $23.95
Roth's is really two books: a touching if not terribly insightful portrait of a young man who has devoted his life to rescuing the street dogs of St. Louis, and a harrowing report on the plight of the millions of abandoned and stray dogs throughout the United States. As Roth demonstrates, their lives (and those of stray cats) are rendered short, painful, and terror-filled, because their subspecies has been bred for thousands of years to be dependent on man's protection and kindness—"they are not mentally or physically designed to be on their own." These dogs are—literally—our creatures, and their heartbreaking condition testifies to humanity's obduracy and, all too often, its sadism.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2002; New & Noteworthy; Volume 290, No. 4; 107-110.