J A N U A R Y 1 9 9 4
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
by Knut Faldbakken, translated by Joan Tate.
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
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
Seized: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a Medical, Historical, and Artistic
by Eve LaPlante.
This book grew out of an article that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.