A P R I L 1 9 9 7
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
The Civil War Campaigns
by James P. Duffy.
Wiley, 288 pages, $27.95.
David Farragut, the U.S. Navy's first admiral,
did not roar, "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead," as his ships entered
Mobile Bay. He said the
equivalent, however, and Mobile was taken, like New Orleans and the Mississippi
River before it. Mr. Duffy's book on Farragut's Civil War campaigns reveals
that he was a serious, determined, vastly capable commander, and too
unflappable to provide picturesque anecdotes. His background was unusual. His
father, a sea captain from Minorca, served in the American Revolution, and that
connection eventually led to the placement of the motherless son in the family
of a naval officer who offered to train him for the sea. The boy was less than
ten years old when he was commissioned a midshipman. He sailed off, under the
eye of his surrogate father, into the War of 1812. Most of the action he
encountered was off the Pacific coast of South America, where at one point he
was appointed prize master of a captured vessel. At twelve years old he was
commander of a ship and handled it well -- after getting the
captain out of his way. That high point was followed by years of peace and
stagnation, until the Civil War required efficient action against Confederate
ports and the Mississippi River, and Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy put
Farragut on the job. The campaign up the river was full of risk and excitement
and tricky maneuvers, and the author makes the most of it. Mr. Duffy is
primarily interested in fighting ships. He makes their equipment and
performance and the reasons for Farragut's decisions thoroughly absorbing and
understandable. He does not altogether overlook the people who worked those
ships. After one battle Farragut looked at the casualties laid out on the deck
and quietly wept.
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In the Memory of
by Charles T. Powers.
Scribner, 384 pages,
Mr. Powers's novel starts in the shape of an
thriller. The setting is a small farming village in Poland shortly after the
collapse of Communist rule, where Leszek, an amiable young man, wants to know
how the son of a good old friend and neighbor came to be murdered in the nearby
forest. The police and civic authorities, hangovers from the old regime, are
doing nothing about the killing except talk -- and Mr. Powers does a
imitation of soothing official gobbledygook. Leszek and the victim's enraged
father begin their own investigation, and the novel becomes an exploration of
the guilt, fear, and corruption that underlie the history of the town, where
nothing is ever said about the disappearance of the once large Jewish
population or the network of bribery and smuggling that supplanted normal
business under the Communists. The novel is a serious work on the aftermath of
fifty years of horror and the reactions of the people asked to confront the
past that they have tried to ignore. It is also a good story, rich in action
and character, with an intelligent acceptance of the fact that an indecent
government can drive decent people to indecent action.
The Letters of
Nancy Mitford and
edited by Charlotte Mosley.
Houghton Mifflin, 531 pages,
Mitford's niece by marriage, Charlotte Mosley,
explains that she has
omitted Evelyn's earliest letter to Nancy, "because it would necessitate
thirteen footnotes in as many lines of text to explain people who do not
reappear." She also warns readers, "Their letters were written to amuse,
distract or tease and should be read for entertainment, not as the
unvarnished truth." With those points in mind, a reader who enjoys malicious
gossip and extravagant prejudices can get much pleasure from the Mitford-Waugh
letters. Reading them is rather like panning for gold. In the midst of much
water and gravel one finds sparkling phrases, glittering anecdotes, and now and
then a nugget, such as Waugh's observation apropos Jessica Mitford's book on
California funeral customs that the features "that strike us as gruesome can be
traced to papal, royal & noble rites of the last five centuries." There is
also an argument about how Mitford, in a piece on French affairs, had described
the activities of a Catholic clergyman. Waugh, a niggling pedant on official
procedure, was determined to set her straight. Mitford defended her sources.
The reader gradually realizes that neither of them knew exactly what had gone
on and therefore both were soaring in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Since they shared a
detestation of the twentieth century, they were really more comfortable up
there. Ms. Mosley's notes on the letters are terse and practical. One learns
who the people mentioned were, whom they married (usually several spouses), and
when they died. Occasionally one learns a bit more. Osbert Sitwell wrote Waugh
a congratulatory letter about Brideshead Revisited but privately told
friends that he found the novel "unspeakably vulgar." It is not safe to skip
anything in this peculiar correspondence, but not advisable to read it straight
through. The letters require the free time they originally had to create the
effect that the writers intended.
by Louisa May Alcott.
Dutton, 188 pages, $18.00.
The editors, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, found
among the Alcott papers a
notebook labeled "My first novel written at seventeen" in Louisa's hand. Alcott
devotees will want to read it. Nobody else needs to, although any reader can be
impressed by the young author's control of her plot and her implied knowledge
of the popular fiction of 1849. Titles and money abound, as do tears and
blushes. Noble renunciation marches with improbable repentance. There is no
hint of the humor that enlivened Alcott's later writing. There is no evidence
that the tale was ever published, which may have been just as well. It would
have been a hard thing for the mature Alcott to live down.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly
Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 279, No. 4;