A U G U S T 1 9 9 5
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.
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
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
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.