Contents | May 2003
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2003
Books & Critics
Nelson: Love & Fame
New & Noteworthy
What to read this month
by Benjamin Schwarz
by Edgar Vincent
elson and Churchill are their country's greatest heroes. These men, in their turn, bore the pre-eminent responsibility for successfully thwarting the two greatest threats of invasion Britain has faced since the Spanish Armada. Both combined supreme self-confidence with a remarkable—if often winsome—emotional immaturity. Both had stalwart courage and a flair for the theatrical. Both were masters of self-promotion, yet while they frantically pursued fame, both scrupulously ensured that others received the credit they deserved. Both coined gallant phrases that will forever define their nation's best self (Nelson's "England expects that every man will do his duty" is by far the most famous maritime signal in history). But only Nelson—who lost an arm, his vision in one eye, and ultimately his life in combat—was an audacious and brilliant leader of men in epic battles. Only Nelson could sway and inspire—and dominate— others with his charm. And only Nelson maintained a lasting and intense love affair with perhaps the greatest beauty of his age, Emma Hamilton. Vincent's extraordinary work does justice to this extraordinary man. He writes in his introduction that a biographer must approach his subject "with empathy and a forensic attitude," and the author's sharp, skeptical intelligence sets this book apart. Alas, nearly all other giant historical biographies (this one is more than 600 pages) merely assemble lists and facts, chronicling their subjects' lives in great detail but with little insight. Vincent, whose book is based almost entirely on primary sources, has researched prodigiously, but he doesn't let events, letters, or diary entries speak for themselves; rather, he interprets, shapes, and dissects the historical material, which renders his biography consistently—and again, alas, almost uniquely—engaging. Whether probing Nelson's conduct of the Battles of Saint Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar; or showing how his astonishingly successful leadership was based on his recognition of the need among all his men "for self-respect, for fairness, and for justice" (Vincent's is the most astute study I've read of the various aspects of military leadership—strategic and operational as well as managerial); or revealing Nelson's character and attitude toward the Navy in an analysis of the contrast between him and the equally dashing, humane, and daring Lord Cochrane (who was a far less effective organization man); or assessing Nelson's insecurities as revealed in his letters to Hamilton; or illuminating how Nelson's account of Copenhagen displayed both his courage and his "singular capacity for making sure that what he had done was not overlooked," Vincent writes with fluency and deploys his evidence with keen analytical ability and storytelling skill. He has written a great biography and a poignant love story; his last sentence will break your heart.
by Wolfgang Wagener
Wagener's detailed, clearly written, and exquisitely illustrated study of the work of the mid-twentieth-century architect Raphael Soriano is a paean to the vanished middle-class, egalitarian Los Angeles. On the eve of the Second World War no other city in America was so democratic (it could be argued), because in no other city was the freestanding, single-family house so predominant. And in no other city was the middle-class housing stock so architecturally distinguished; the California bungalow, which two architectural historians have called "the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced," flourished there. By the mid-1940s a number of the city's most distinguished architects—including Soriano, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Soriano's protégés Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood—recognized that the techniques and materials of the war industries, especially the aeronautical industry, could be used to design and build a new type of affordable and beautiful house for southern California's swelling population. They were enlisted in the Case Study House program (1945-1966), which aimed to build avant-garde Modernist family homes on a bourgeois budget. Marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space (the Case Study architects, Soriano in particular, were adept at interweaving rooms and patios), and built largely of glass framed in lightweight steel, these clean-lined houses also managed (unlike Philip Johnson's and Mies van der Rohe's soulless domestic glass boxes back east) to be jaunty, relaxed, and remarkably livable. Soriano's work was the apotheosis of the Case Study House ideals. Like his mentors Rudolf Schindler and Neutra, Soriano molded the understated, pure Modernist aesthetic to the climate and good life of southern California. But he was equally attentive to cost and to the need for easy and fast construction, and was hence imaginative and innovative in his frequent use of prefabricated, industrial, and off-the-shelf materials. This book places Soriano's designs in the cultural, political, and economic context of postwar southern California, and it keenly assesses both his breezy, family-friendly houses and his contribution to the Case Study movement (his pioneering use of steel module frames eliminated the need for interior, load-bearing walls and resulted in the open floor plans that became a distinguishing feature of the program's houses). But Wagener's most impressive feat is his revealing use of photographs, notably those by the great architectural photographer Julius Shulman. (Shulman's beguiling nighttime photograph of two women in cocktail dresses sitting in Case Study House #22, which seems to hover above the lights of the San Fernando Valley, is an iconic image of modern architecture.) Shulman has always seemed especially sensitive to Soriano's vision, perhaps because he has now lived for more than half a century in a house designed by the architect.
As of This Writing
by Clive James
James is among the very small number of great critics writing today—a group that includes Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Hitchens. All write with verve and recklessness, which they combine with extraordinary erudition. All are imbued with what James calls "the spirit of Grub Street"—all, that is, write in "the tradition of supplying a supplement and a corrective to ... the dust contractors of the universities." The authors and subjects he examines in this collection of "essays"—really review essays—range from Nabokov to Judith Krantz, from Richard Nixon's memoirs to the Final Solution; from Stevie Smith to Peter Bogdanovich, from Philip Larkin to Marilyn Monroe. (Among and within his pieces James artfully juxtaposes the high and the low—a tendency he shares with Ackroyd. Both men have been regular television critics.) He is penetrating on all these (especially Larkin), but I find him most astute and heartfelt in his assessments of his fellow literary journalists. His celebrated 1972 essay on Edmund Wilson remains the most trenchant appreciation of both the critic's writing ("Wilson's style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence—throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent men to agree") and his peculiar point of view as a "patrician individualist," revolted by the fact that "the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by the Democracy he had never been sure about." He hits the mark in his evaluation of Vidal, whom he rightly regards as Wilson's "natural heir," who "just knows a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid prose"—but whose critical honesty is hobbled by his "thirst for glamour." And James is equally incisive on Susan Sontag, who, he writes, "conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea." His piece on Orwell, however (who not only made political writing an art but, James correctly avers, "is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing"), is the best here, and among the best considerations of that author ever written. Sure, James praises Orwell's style and its "irresistible force of assertion," but far more valuably, he takes apart Orwell's sentences to show us how he created conversational prose like a windowpane. And James succinctly tells us why to read Orwell, why to be wary of him, and why to revere him: "Not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts—a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made everything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue."
Awe for the Tiger, Love for the Lamb
edited by Rod Preece
This intelligently edited, deeply researched anthology presents a wealth of writing, from antiquity to the beginning of the twentieth century, on compassion toward animals. Despite the expressions of pity it contains, it is largely a history of obduracy, casual cruelty, and sadism. Although in the 1600s the rational and scientific René Descartes performed experiments on dogs that could only be described as psychopathological, a seemingly modern sympathy for animals, and a revulsion for humanity's brutality toward them, goes back to Plutarch and Lucretius. But Preece's compilation clearly shows that an ethical revolution took place in nineteenth-century Britain—a society that explored with rigor, moral imagination, and (of course) earnestness both the fact of human beings' viciousness toward other creatures and the idea of humanity's obligation to animal welfare. It is an intellectual feat that remains impressive today. (Certain progressives who cultivate a cheap toughness say they can't muster any sympathy for cute furry creatures so long as human beings anywhere are oppressed. Lest they sneer at Victorian sentimentalism and hypocrisy, they should be reminded that many of those who championed animal protection also led the fights against the slave trade and child labor and abuse.) Preece's anthology—half of which is devoted to nineteenth-century (mostly British) writers—can be approached equally as a literary anthology and a historical one, because it contains selections not only from Bentham, Mill, and Darwin, but also from Sheridan, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Christina Rossetti, the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy, Stevenson, John Henry Newman, Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Shaw, Twain, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. Readers may want to pair it with James Turner's insightful history Reckoning With the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind, recently reissued by Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Course of German History
by A.J.P. Taylor
Taylor was, to appropriate the title of his favorite among his books, a troublemaker. Provocative and showy, his arguments annoyed complacent historians and angered readers wedded to the conventional wisdom. No twentieth-century historian wrote with more brio or precision. None so thoroughly cut through cant and qualifications to render truly brilliant and usually unsettling—and often highly debatable—judgments. This book, first published in 1945 and recently brought back into print, was his first best seller. A lucid survey of German history from 1792 to the outbreak of the Second World War, it's really an elegant, interpretive historical essay, which is more rewarding (and occasionally exasperating) the more the reader knows about the subject. The book—which discerned continuities in German history and argued that Nazi foreign policy wasn't an aberration but merely an extreme expression of Germany's drive for the mastery of Central and Eastern Europe —was and remains enormously controversial. And, of course, Taylor courted controversy, from his celebrated opening sentences ("The history of Germany is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality") through his frequent epigrammatic summaries ("No one can understand the Germans who does not appreciate their anxiety to learn from, and to imitate, the West; but equally, no one can understand Germans who does not appreciate their determination to exterminate the East"). But the subsequent scholarship of Hans Gatzke, Fritz Fishcher, Immanuel Geiss, and Taylor himself (in The Origins of the Second World War) testifies to the cogency—if not the correctness—of his interpretation of "the German problem.'' More important, this book still contains the most concise, intelligent, and pungent assessments in English of, among many other topics, the revolutions of 1848, the impotence—and therefore the historical irrelevance—of German liberalism, Bismarck's and Stresemann's strategies, and the irrationality of Tirpitz's "risk fleet" ("Nothing could better express the roaring spluttering energy of Germany, like a ship's propeller out of water, than this vast naval force, absorbing great quantities of economic power, engendering disastrous international friction, destined never to be used to any decisive purpose in war, but to perform a role in history only as the match which began the explosion and collapse of the Hohenzollern Reich"). Taylor's work is a model of stylish, scintillating compression. This edition is part of an important publishing venture—the Routledge Classics series, which brings out unusually handsome paperback reissues of often neglected seminal works of twentieth-century sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, and criticism.
The First Day on the Somme
by Martin Middlebrook
July 1, 1916, is the bloodiest day in Britain's history. At seven-thirty that morning an unbroken line of British soldiers along an eighteen-mile section of the Western Front climbed out of their trenches and began to advance slowly and methodically toward the German positions, which were in some places less than 200 yards away. By dusk the British had suffered more than 57,000 casualties; 20,000 men were dead, and three of every four officers had been killed or wounded. On that day the British people suffered their most profound national trauma, from which in many ways they have yet to recover. Middlebrook minutely reconstructed the first day of the four-month Battle of the Somme, using letters, diaries, division and battalion histories, and above all the testimony of more than 500 British soldiers who had survived. His book, published in 1971 and now back in print, remains one of the most innovative and harrowing works of military history ever written. In the past ten years a number of historians, notably Tim Travers, have with great sophistication reassessed British strategy and tactics on the Western Front. This new crop of books supplements but doesn't supersede Middlebrook's microhistory. It's still the definitive account of that day of slaughter, and the most unsentimental yet heartbreaking appreciation of the British infantrymen —stolid, sardonic, comradely—who fought and died in the Great War.
The Anti-Semitic Moment
by Pierre Birnbaum
Hill and Wang
This meticulous account of the anti-Semitic hysteria that swept France in 1898—engendered by the Dreyfus affair and encouraged by the Catholic Church—makes for terrifying and fascinating reading. Terrifying because Birnbaum, who has mined local archives and police records, explicates the size and ferocity of the frequently violent mobs (often chanting and fueled by genocidal slogans) that attacked Jewish businesses and neighborhoods throughout France; fascinating because his often gripping chronicle is social history at its best, showing how these demonstrations spread to the cities, towns, and even villages of every section of the country. But the great surprise is that for all the savagery of the rhetoric and the viciousness of the crowds, no Jews (except in Algeria) were killed. The forces of order, although hardly philo-Semitic, stanched the furor and ultimately, if imperfectly, upheld the law.
Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2003; New & Noteworthy; Volume 291, No. 4; 103-106.