Contents | June 2003
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 2003
Books & Critics
Transformations of Love
New & Noteworthy
What to read this month
by Benjamin Schwarz
ohn Evelyn—the great English diarist, gardener, scholar, and sometime public servant—was a fifty-year-old husband and father when, in 1671, he began a strange and intense friendship with a maid of honor at Charles II's dissolute court: the beautiful, witty, and ardently devout Margaret Blagge, age nineteen. For six years, until her early and harrowing death following the birth of her child (she had married a rising young courtier in 1675), they carried on a platonic and passionate relationship, imbued with their deeply felt religious convictions. They prayed together; they exchanged letters in which they expatiated on their spiritual partnership and seemed (especially to the modern reader) to conflate religious and sexual fervor (these soul mates knew that their friendship was open to misreading—Blagge asked Evelyn to burn six of her letters just before her marriage); she sat for a portrait for him (which is at once provocative and demure); he gave her a locket set with diamonds. She believed that religious devotion and self-knowledge were inconsistent with the claims imposed on women and with what Harris nicely terms "the sense of being constantly observed and regulated," either at court or in marriage, and so she was drawn to a life of celibacy. He, worldly-wise, knew how terribly limited were the options available to a pious young woman in Protestant England, which had no nunneries, so he urged the love of his life to marry. In short, theirs was a complicated relationship—and one that today's readers and academics would condescendingly and almost automatically describe in crude terms of sex and power. Indeed, in the 1950s an Oxford scholar wrote two debunking studies of Evelyn and Blagge in which he dismissed her religiosity as neurotic and argued that it would have been cured by sex. But Harris, a senior curator of manuscripts at the British Library, is far too careful a historian to indulge in anachronistic cynicism. In her subtle analysis she places Evelyn and Blagge's relationship in the context of the post-Reformation ideal of "seraphic love" and in the tradition of intense friendships between men and women in religious settings—friendships that to this pair seemed, Harris writes convincingly, "to offer an escape from the constraints of patriarchy." Dissecting an intense, ambiguous, and fraught relationship (one in which what we now see as sublimated sexuality played a prominent role, but one that existed in a pre-psychoanalytic age), Harris gently compels her readers to understand that relationship through the participants' eyes. She throws light not only on the inner lives of her subjects but also on the religion, court culture, philosophy, concepts of femininity, sexual mores, and—not least—horticulture of seventeenth-century England. With a delicate but sure hand Harris has accomplished the highest and most difficult task of the historian: she has allowed us to understand the past on its own terms. Her piercing, quietly stylish work is without question one of the best histories of the year.
Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
by Allen C. Guelzo
"There have been ten thousand attempts at the life of Abraham Lincoln," Horace Greeley remarked, "whereof that of Wilkes Booth was perhaps the most atrocious; yet it stands by no means alone." For more than 130 years what is sometimes called the "Lincoln industry" has churned out title after title about our sixteenth President. Since 1934, when the Lincoln scholar James G. Randall addressed the American Historical Association on the question "Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?," thousands of books have been written. Most volumes in this crowded field aren't worth reading. But Guelzo's is quite simply the best book on Lincoln to be published in a generation. It treats every aspect of its subject's public and private life with intelligence and penetration (its portrait of the tortured courtship and marriage of Lincoln and the mercurial Mary Todd is among the most nuanced and discerning—and is certainly the most trenchant —I've read), but this is primarily a study of Lincoln's ideas and outlook. Guelzo precisely traces and explicates the roots and development of Lincoln's anti-Jeffersonian public philosophy and political economy (rightly emphasizing the far-reaching importance of his centralizing, nationalist economic policies—a subject most previous biographers have woefully neglected) and of his views on slavery and race relations. Most important, however, Guelzo subtly examines Lincoln's personal struggles over religion and the complex ramifications of his deeply ingrained Calvinistic determinism. This book will forever change historians' understanding of Lincoln's view of the Civil War, and is essential if we are to apprehend how this despairing nonbeliever came to see the conflict (to quote Edmund Wilson) "in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect"—a process that culminated, of course, in his Second Inaugural Address, the most spiritually profound of our state papers. Redeemer President, which has just been released in paperback, won the 2000 Lincoln Prize and has been almost universally praised by academics—but was unconscionably ignored by all the major review outlets, perhaps because it was published by a firm specializing in scholarly theological titles. I hope that in this inexpensive and accessible format Guelzo's masterpiece will gain the wide attention it warrants.
Power and Profit
by Peter Spufford
Thames & Hudson
Spufford, until 2001 the Professor of European History at Cambridge, has written the definitive history of commerce in the Middle Ages, a subject to which some of the most original medieval scholarship—including that of Fernand Braudel and Robert Lopez—has been devoted for the past forty or so years. He focuses on the effects in the 1300s of the previous century's so-called "commercial revolution," which saw innovations—in banking and credit, transport, manufacturing, and commercial organization —whose economic impact was in many ways as profound as that of the Industrial Revolution, and which engendered a level of economic activity unmatched until the 1700s. And he has synthesized an astonishing range of recondite secondary sources, from "Medieval Silks in Montpellier: the Silk Market, ca. 1250- ca. 1350" to English Tin Production and Trade Before 1550 to "Beer Imports Into the Low Countries," in order to elucidate the two poles of medieval commerce: the luxury trade in beeswax, spices, fur, cotton, glass, soap, carpets, and slaves, fueled by the royal and ecclesiastical courts; and the ordinary bulk trade in salt, grain, wine, timber, and cloth that provisioned the great cities of Paris, Milan, Florence, London, and Venice and supplied their manufacturers. Spufford is above all fascinated by the means of commerce—how fairs were organized and interest rates calculated, how merchants' alpine guides kept warm, how traders were accommodated, silver mined, and wool stretched. Having traveled the ancient routes of the merchants and their pack animals, Spufford arrestingly conveys the topographical and climatic backdrop of, and hindrances to, trade. This book would not be nearly so effective without his aptly chosen, authoritative, and often wryly captioned illustrations, mostly details from paintings and illuminated manuscripts; it and Nicholas Orme's Medieval Children are the most beautiful and intelligently designed works of scholarship I've encountered in recent years.
Daniel H. Burnham
by Kristen Schaffer, edited by Scott J. Tilden, photographs by Paul Rocheleau
In addition to designing and developing Chicago's lakefront (specifically the magnificent Lake Shore Drive and its attendant system of parks), Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912) led the design teams that built a large number of the canonical structures of American architecture—including New York's Flatiron Building, famously depicted in photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. But his legacy is often overlooked, owing largely to the attention lavished on his partner and close friend, John W. Root. Schaffer clarifies the creative collaboration between the two, thereby accentuating Burnham's role. More important, Schaffer, Tilden, and Rocheleau pay particular attention to Burnham's astonishing work after Root's death, especially his Reliance Building and the Railway Exchange Building (at last there's a proper appreciation of this supremely refined structure). But the volume's best feature is Paul Rocheleau's precise yet luxurious photography, which conveys Burnham's extraordinary artistic range. Rocheleau captures the simplicity and power of the Montauk and Monadnock Buildings, the golden light that infuses the Rookery Building, and the Beaux Arts grandeur of Washington's Union Station. His best photographic studies, though, are of the Reliance and the Railway Exchange, which reveal their functionalist elegance, their lively expression of steel framing (gently undulating curtain walls of terra cotta and glass form a thin skin stretched over structural skeletons), and the purity and exactness of their proportions and details. (All the edifices pictured by Rocheleau are still very much working buildings, and have been remarkably well preserved or lovingly renovated.) Studying these photographs is a sensuous delight (the creamy white glaze on the terra-cotta sheathing of the Railway Exchange's lobby is like the frosting on a cake), and they allow the reader to appreciate just what the great Louis Sullivan meant when he wrote that Burnham's buildings "rose sheer and stark, with a subtlety of line and surface ... that gave one the thrill of romance."
The Chicago Auditorium Building
by Joseph M. Siry
Whereas Burnham is the most inexcusably neglected of Chicago's nineteenth-century architects, Louis Sullivan is justifiably the most celebrated. From 1886 to 1890 Sullivan and Dankmar Adler (with the young Frank Lloyd Wright serving as their chief draftsman) designed and built the Auditorium Building—the structure that established the city's architectural reputation. The building integrated a 4,200-seat theater, a 400-room hotel, and a high-rent tower containing 136 offices. It was magnificent, and it was monumental; only America's great railway terminals matched it in size and complexity. Its exterior walls, of solid masonry, are nearly devoid of ornament; Sullivan concentrated instead on the aesthetic effect of mass and texture and of the proportioning of large, simple elements. But his soaring, highly decorated interiors exhibit his penchant for the lyric and romantic; this gigantic structure manages—like most of Sullivan's greatest achievements—to be at once handsome and sprightly. Part of the publisher's authoritative series Chicago Architecture and Urbanism, Siry's meticulous, abundantly illustrated, and wide-ranging 550-page chronicle of the building's funding, design, and construction is as much a social history as an architectural one. He explicates, for instance, the social and commercial role of nineteenth-century hotels, and—most important—shows how, in the years after the Haymarket riot, the edifice embodied the progressive capitalist ideal of its principal patron, Ferdinand W. Peck, which was to build a democratic variation on the European opera house that would offer affordable performing art to both the city's elite and its skilled work force. Siry also details (in an approach that is somewhat refreshing for an art historian) the building's triumph in engineering as well as in aesthetic design; Adler's mastery of the enormous technical problems it presented, from foundations to hydraulics (for the mechanical equipment of the stage) to acoustics (Wright asserted in 1941 that the building contained "the greatest room for music and opera in the world today, bar none"), puts him among the most important engineers of the nineteenth century. Read either Siry's or Schaffer's books with Lewis Mumford's classic The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts of America, 1865-1895, a brilliant work that rightly adulates Sullivan though it all but ignores Burnham.
The Girl from the Fiction Department
by Hilary Spurling
Sonia Brownell, a young, smart, and pretentious beauty with a reputation for what would once have been called promiscuity, married the lonely and cadaverous George Orwell on his deathbed. She has ever since been regarded by many as something of a literary gold digger, but she always had her partisans—and Spurling is by far her fiercest. Nearly every aspect of Sonia's behavior concerning Orwell is disputed (Was she or was she not nightclubbing with her former lover, Lucian Freud, when Orwell died? How often and for how long did she visit Orwell in his final days?), so there's room for a charitable interpretation of this difficult woman. Sonia certainly had her strong points, including charisma: she was the inspiration for the bossy and earthy Julia ("the girl from the fiction department") in Nineteen Eighty-four, and Anthony Powell, Marguerite Duras, and Angus Wilson (Sonia discovered him for the literary magazine Horizon) all based fictional characters on her. Jean Rhys, Cyril Connolly (her boss at Horizon), Stephen Spender, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mary McCarthy, and Francis Bacon also enjoyed her loyal and generous, if capricious, friendship. Many have judged Sonia as the tyrannical and grasping executrix of Orwell's literary estate, but her careful co-editing of the 1968 four-volume collection of Orwell's essays, journalism, and letters unquestionably solidified his reputation as the one twentieth-century writer who elevated journalism to an art. Nevertheless, Spurling, a distinguished biographer who was close to Sonia for the last decade of her life, ignores or thoughtlessly dismisses many of the unsavory accusations leveled against her subject, making this at best a prejudiced—and at worst an unreliable—life history. Spurling's desire to salvage her friend's reputation also lends a breathless, frenetic, and at times sloppy quality to her prose: Sonia's visits, Spurling writes, "lifted her friends' spirits like the sun coming out." And Sonia was daunted by the "enormity" [sic] of the task of editing The Collected Essays. Far too ardent, this is nevertheless a needed corrective to the beating Sonia has taken from many of Orwell's biographers.
Scenes From an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell
by John Rodden
Yes, yes, more Orwelliana. (Books about Orwell will be thick on the ground by the end of this year, which is the centenary of his birth.) Although many regard Orwell as the most important writer of the twentieth century, there are no fully satisfying, comprehensive examinations of his work. The problem with Orwell is that, as he wrote of Charles Dickens, he's a writer "well worth stealing." For more than half a century he's been enlisted in causes that weren't his own—celebrated and fought over by anarchists and Cold War liberals, by the Old Left and the New Left, by socialists and neoconservatives. For example, Christopher Hollis, his friend from Eton, wrote an important study highlighting aspects of Orwell's ideas that conformed to Hollis's Catholic, conservative, anti-capitalist world view. Such an account of the writings of an avowed atheist and socialist (albeit one who averred that "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents") is obviously partial, in both senses of the word—although no more partial than, say, the often astute study by another of Orwell's friends, the anarchist George Woodcock, who argued that Orwell was at bottom (no surprise) an anarchist. Rodden's previous volume, the exceptionally imaginative and synthetic The Politics of Literary Reputation, is the best book on Orwell, even though in it Rodden scrutinizes not Orwell's work but, rather, how others have appropriated that work and how Orwell's reputation has developed over time. Scenes From an Afterlife, essentially a collection of unconnected essays on Orwell, is far less ambitious and, because it often regurgitates Rodden's earlier ideas, somewhat disappointing. It nonetheless contains a great many insights. In dissecting Orwell's politics Rodden rightly emphasizes his nostalgic populism and his deep debt to William Cobbett and Dickens; Orwell was, as he puts it, "a nineteenth-century radical who turned skeptical and pessimistic given the specter of a totalitarian future." In other chapters Rodden keenly limns Marx's influence on Orwell, and Orwell's views on religion. (Here Rodden should have examined more thoroughly Orwell's conviction that liberal society cannot satisfactorily survive on its own rational resources and utilitarian axioms, unsustained by a faith that exalts love and community over egoism and self-interest. After all, Orwell wrote that Marx's line "Religion is the opium of the people" needed to be placed in context with the line that precedes it: "Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world.") Rodden is especially perceptive concerning Orwell's asceticism. To be sure, this self-deprivation—or self-obliviousness—had an endearing aspect (although Rodden doesn't quote this, Orwell, typically, pronounced Britain's wartime canteen food "really very good"), but it also evinced a disturbing streak of masochism (and in subjecting his ailing first wife, Eileen, to his life of excruciating self-denial, perhaps even of sadism). No writer in English has more often been likened to a saint than Orwell. But Orwell himself wrote that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Rodden's portrait offers further evidence confirming Malcolm Muggeridge's judgment that Orwell was "more lovable than likeable."
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, by Carl Elliott. Norton. A portion of this book first appeared as "A New Way to Be Mad," in the December 2000 Atlantic.
Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2003; New & Noteworthy; Volume 291, No. 5; 86-91.