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J A N U A R Y   1 9 9 4

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


General James Longstreet

by Jeffry D. Wert.

Simon & Schuster, $27.00.

The man whom Robert E. Lee once addressed as "my old war-horse" presents a biographer with a problem. Longstreet lost two houses to fire, and with them all the private papers and letters that might have enabled Mr. Wert to get beyond his subject's professional life. The military facts are there, down to the name of the railroad on which Longstreet rode from one unimportant spot to the next. (Mr. Wert is conscientious.) Like so many of the West Pointers who later commanded Federals or Confederates, Longstreet learned his trade in the Mexican War, where he proved himself a notably good officer and had the opportunity to observe the effectiveness of Winfield Scott's tactics. General Scott deplored frontal assaults and was adroit with flanking movements, points that Longstreet never forgot. Lee's determination to make a frontal assault at Gettysburg provoked opposition from Longstreet and led to later accusations that Longstreet was responsible for the Confederate defeat there. There is little reason to credit that charge, but Mr. Wert has turned up some other facts that suggest that Longstreet, though a fine battle commander, was less than scrupulous off the field. He received pay as a Confederate officer before resigning his U.S. commission, engaged in what amounted to a conspiracy while serving under Braxton Bragg in Tennessee, and maneuvered shamelessly after the war for preferment from the victorious Federals. That last move can be considered no worse than practical common sense, but men who were not old friends of Ulysses Grant were understandably annoyed. Military records are necessarily cold, humorless, and tailored to circumstance, and because these are all Mr. Wert had to work with, readers looking for a human character may find Longstreet no more than an efficient fighting machine. Civil War enthusiasts will certainly find the book of interest.



Charles M. Russell, Word Painter

edited by Brian W. Dippie.

Amon Carter Museum, distributed by Abrams, $95.00.

In 1864 a fourth child was born to Charles Silas and Mary Elizabeth Russell, of St. Louis, Missouri. The Russells were prosperous--he was the financial manager of a growing mining and manufacturing company--and expected their son to, in the old phrase, make something of himself, presumably through education. Young Charlie proved impervious to schooling, or indeed to anything but the lure of the western frontier. In 1880 his parents gave up and allowed the boy to spend the summer on a sheep ranch in Montana. He never really came back. What he did do, when not night-herding horses and hanging about with cowboys in the local saloon, was draw, paint, and eventually model the action around him, casually giving away his work to anyone who wanted it. People did want it, it became widely known, and by the turn of the century Russell was a successful artist with a national reputation as the great recorder, along with Frederic Remington, of a frontier already become history. Russell never learned to spell, and punctuation remained a mystery to him, but he wrote letters that, reproduced in this handsome tome, are a delight to the eye, because he filled his pages with the sketches that came easily to him instead of with the writing that he professed to find toilsome. His language was as idiosyncratic as his spelling. New York City became "a camp of four millions an I guess I know about eight it makes me fell small. . . ." On that same trip, he reported to "Friend Bill," "you will notice in the picture belo Iv spent money on harnes but Im going to dress well if it brakes me." The picture belo is a self-caricature combining polished gentlemen's fashion of 1903 with western boots, a sagging red sash, and a derby too small for Russell's solid head. Russell could write eloquently when he wanted to, particularly about the lost world of cattle drives and Indians and open country, and he could be tersely funny. His hand is not always readily decipherable, but the text is usually worth the effort and the illustrations are always a lavish, effortless pleasure. The editorial notes are thorough and helpful.



Robert Davidson: Eagle of the Dawn

edited by Ian M. Thom.

University of Washington, $50.00.

Robert Davidson, of British Columbia, is a Haida artist who creates striking works in the ancestral native style and has contributed major support to the revival of Haida traditions. This well-illustrated tribute to his achievements demonstrates the beauty of his sculpture, jewelry, and prints, but offers little information on the Haida myths and legends from which his motifs derive.



Twilight Country

by Knut Faldbakken, translated by Joan Tate.

Dufour, $29.00.

Although the author is Norwegian, his quietly alarming novel is set in a generalized projection of a society disintegrating from the effects of industrial pollution and economic inadequacy. Air is unbreathable, water is undrinkable, all goods are in short supply, and all services are erratic. Nothing flourishes except bureaucracy, as a baffled government grinds out cradle-to-grave regulations that complicate a citizen's life without improving it in the least. Mr. Faldbakken's hero escapes from the mess with his wife and small son by fleeing to the vast dump that borders the city. There they find a few other refugees with whom, through ingenuity and a little violence, they construct the beginnings of a community. In one way the novel is a gruesome forecast of a world ending with a whimper under a pile of its own garbage. In another it celebrates the human capacity to survive on an unprecedented frontier. The reader is free to choose.



The Columbia Encyclopedia

edited by Barbara A. Chernow and George A. Vallasi.

Columbia University, distributed by Houghton Mifflin, $125.00.

The fifth edition of this solid one-volume reference book includes AIDS (previously there was merely "aids," a rather protean feudal tax) and brings the history of Somalia from 1974 up to the current UN relief effort. It retains a few entrenched annoyances, too. From Knossos one must still see the generally discarded Latinization, "Cnossus." Part of the charm of any encyclopedia is the enticement to waste time and stumble on unexpected and possibly unintentional information. Kipling's Jungle Book tiger was named for an antique Mogul ruler, but who would know that except by coming upon the real Sher Khan, dates and all, while looking up something else entirely?



The Fus Fixico Letters

by Alexander Posey, edited by Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. and Carol A. Petty Hunter.

University of Nebraska, $37.50.

Posey, the son of a Creek mother and a white father, was officially a Creek and a newspaper editor in Oklahoma during the years of argument over the transition from Indian Territory to statehood. In addition to editing, Posey wrote occasional columns as Fus Fixico, a grassroots reporter of Creek opinion. Dialect humor is out of fashion, but when handled by a man who truly knew the lingo, it has its points. "Well," Fixico begins, "so Hotgun he say he was for double statehood, 'cause they was too much long-tailed cyclones out in Oklahoma and people was had to live right close to a hole in the ground like prairie dogs to keep out a they way. . . . Then Hotgun he say they was no one want to be spliced onto Oklahoma but some thumb papers that was printed out in the country and didn't had no circulation except when they was being printed." The ins and outs of the statehood row may be more than a modern reader cares to follow, but a random dip anywhere in the collection will turn up an item like the attempt to charge the Town and Country Club with violation of a Prohibition law. Getting nowhere with Lieutenant Colonel Adjutant General J. Wentdressed Withem, the court called in the club's black cook and asked her what the members drank. "And the old Auntie she say, "Well, so sometimes coffee and sometimes tea and den again sometimes pure water. But how you 'spec' I gwinter to know when de Loosetenant Colonel Stunt General Mistah Wentdressed Withem don't trust nobody with his gin but hissef?" Wentdressed Withem's real name was J. Fentress Wisdom, and the perversion is, by Fixico's standards, mild. Teddy Roosevelt was President Rooster Feather and Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock became It's Cocked, possibly in sly tribute to his notorious inability to make a decision. Posey was an intelligent journalist (he correctly predicted the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War) and his humor retains mirth and bite despite time and changes of literary fashion. The editors have done admirably in providing identification and factual background for Fixico's irreverent communications.



Seized: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a Medical, Historical, and Artistic Phenomenon

by Eve LaPlante.

HarperCollins, $20.00.

This book grew out of an article that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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