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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian 1809--1922

by James Tertius de Kay.

Norton, 336 pages, $25.00.

"Ships," Mr. de Kay observes, "are rarely very interesting in themselves." He has concentrated on the people who sailed in the Macedonian, the things they did, and the sometimes un-naval reasons for their actions, to make an unusual variation on nineteenth-century history. The Macedonian was launched in 1810, to fight Napoleon. Her first captain was Lord William FitzRoy, who was soon cashiered for swindling the treasury--although, being the son of a duke, he was later quietly reinstated, and died an admiral. Money played a considerable part in the ship's history. A subsequent American captain made a neat profit from his command and got away with it, because although his activities were illegal, they did not cost the government a penny. In the interim the Macedonian, after an embarrassing British-organized financial fiasco in the United States, was assigned to hunt French and American prizes around Madeira. Prize money was important to underpaid captains. The Macedonian found an American ship, thought to be the Essex and no great problem. She was in fact the United States, Stephen Decatur, captain. Outgunned, dismasted, blood-sodden, and as helpless as a log in the water, the Macedonian could only strike. Her colors were presented to a surprised Dolley Madison in the midst of a Washington ball, for our Navy had panache in those days. It was also practical, and a captured Royal Navy frigate was too useful as a showpiece of diplomacy, gunboat or otherwise, to be risked in actual battle. The Macedonian became a Kilroy: whatever went on, usually for civilian commercial reasons, from intimidating the Bey of Tunis to opening Japan, she was there. Her least likely adventure was the transport of relief supplies to famine-stricken Ireland, a humanitarian action organized by the author's great-grandfather, George Colman De Kay. One would like to have a bit more detail about Commodore De Kay. He stands up well alongside Decatur, Matthew Perry, and the unjustly forgotten Uriah Levy. The Macedonian eventually came to scrap and land-based indignity, but her remains did get what may be considered a Viking funeral. Mr. de Kay has written a thoroughly delightful and informative book from an unexpected point of view.



The Chimera

by Sebastiano Vassalli, translated by Patrick Creagh.

Scribner, 320 pages, $23.50.

Mr. Vassalli's acrid historical novel describes the events leading to a witch-burning at a northern Italian village in the year 1610. It may be late in the day to denounce the Inquisition, but the elements of bigotry, xenophobia, personal ambition, and stupid fear that sent an innocent young woman to the stake still exist, and the author's ability to evoke shadowy parallels between the seventeenth century and our own gives his work an unnervingly powerful bite.



Rebel Private: Front and Rear

by William A. Fletcher.

Dutton, 224 pages, $20.95.

These "Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier" were privately published in 1908, but because most of the edition was lost in a fire, Fletcher has remained little known except to scholars. There is, therefore, sound reason to make his work available, for he was a remarkably level-headed, unsentimental reporter of the practicalities of an enlisted man's life: dirt, rain, mud, cold, and danger. Fletcher was an unpretentious writer, but he knew how to tell a good story. His escape from a Federal prison train and the cross-country return to his unit is a neat tale of suspense, and the book as a whole is an admirable piece of Americana.



Christina Rossetti

by Jan Marsh.

Viking, 640 pages, $29.95.

Christina Rossetti's maternal ancestors included Grandpapa Polidori, a scholarly type who had witnessed the storming of the Bastille, and Uncle John, physician to Lord Byron, author of The Vampyre, and a suicide. Her father was a political reformist and poet who had settled inLondon as a teacher of Italian after fleeing the kingdom of Naples with a price on his head. There were four Rossetti children, raised in the ambiance of their father's frustrated hopes for Italy and their mother's intense devotion to the Church of England. Maria became an Anglican nun. Dante Gabriel became a painter, a poet, and the most spectacularly bohemian of the Pre-Raphaelites. William became a sensible minor bureaucrat and an unbeliever. Christina, a lively, gregarious, tantrum-prone child, abruptly became a shy, morose adolescent who required treatment for what was presumably a nervous collapse. She also became a poet, compared in her day to Elizabeth Browning and Matthew Arnold. Her poetry leaned heavily toward death, prayer, unexplained guilt, and demon lovers, although that last item may have resulted from early exposure to the gothic school. Ms. Marsh would not agree. She makes a brave effort to account for all of Christina's preoccupations, but her subject remains enigmatic, except as an intensely devout and literal-minded Anglican spinster who refused to be published in a magazine that included the work of, in her opinion, heretics. She lost, possibly on purpose, at least two suitors. She worked--irregularly, because her health was always poor--for an enterprise devoted to "saving" young prostitutes by converting them into dutiful domestic servants. Her antiquated clothing provoked a cartoon by Max Beerbohm. She took fond care of her mother in Mrs. Rossetti's old age. She learned--very slowly--to deal with publishers. To attribute all this to nineteenth-century notions of proper female behavior, as her biographer does, is not a satisfying explanation, even with the added fashionable suggestion of sexual abuse, for which Ms. Marsh concedes there is not an atom of evidence. George Eliot and George Sand were near contemporaries of Christina Rossetti's, and unhampered by prissy rules. Of course, they were novelists. Rossetti was a poet--at her best, a fine one. In the end the reader must settle for that.



Where Bigfoot Walks

by Robert Michael Pyle.

Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $21.95.

Mr. Pyle, an ecologist and a naturalist with a particular penchant for butterflies, undertook to hike alone through the Northwest area where most reports of Bigfoot originate. He did not expect to find the animal--merely to determine whether the territory could provide food, shelter, and concealment for a very large ape. He heard some unidentifiable noises, ate a lot of huckleberries, observed small wildlife, suffered painful disappointment from custom-made boots, and concluded that the wilderness could support such a creature. As he tersely puts it, "If bears, why not Bigfoot?" (But does Bigfoot hibernate?) When not hiking, Mr. Pyle conferred with established Bigfoot hunters, an amusingly argumentative, mutually suspicious crew of loners and eccentrics whose aversion to organization and cooperation makes it likely that Bigfoot will long remain where Mr. Pyle would prefer to keep him--in the realm of intriguing possibility.



Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature

edited by Kathleen Kuiper.

Merriam-Webster, 1,248 pages, $39.95.

This splendidly comprehensive reference book runs from Aakjaer to Zweig and from Gilgamesh to the present. It includes literary terms, old gods, titles, characters, and the kind of authors who cannot be found in a standard encyclopedia except by reading the entire entry on the literature and history of Atlantis or Shangri-La. The text does not include references for further research. One cannot expect everything in 1,248 pages.


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