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Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


Max Beerbohm
Caricatures


by N. John Hall.
Yale, 240 pages, $45.00.


"The incomparable Max" was indeed incomparable -- a writer of wit, charm, and originality, and a caricaturist with an "unfailing eye for the centre of a situation" and a "gift for fixing it in a memorably comic form." The collection of drawings presented by Mr. Hall covers Beerbohm's field of victims thoroughly. Authors, artists, actors, politicians, and royalty were all his targets. The text and notes are well written (exceptionally so for the art-book genre) and reinforced by quotations from Max and his highly articulate contemporaries. Max gave up cartooning by 1942, because, he explained, "I began to remember people more or less exactly as they were, and was obliged to put in the exaggerations consciously." An earlier description of his methods emphasized memory, not direct vision, as the basis of his resolutely unrealistic art. "I cannot," he wrote a friend, "imagine a worse thing befalling anyone than to see the streets peopled with my creations. It has never befallen me." The late drawings from the years shortly before Max "laid aside" his pencil show clearly what had happened. The subjects are recognizable, but they are no longer victims. The gadfly had lost his sting, and Max, a sound critic, knew it. But in his heyday he gave wonderfully effective and amusing jabs that can still draw a chuckle.
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Snow in America

by Bernard Mergen.
Smithsonian, 321 pages, $24.95.


Professor Mergen uses snow and responses to it as an illustration of both the practical and the emotional development of American character. Snow has changed from a moral resource encouraging endurance and ingenuity to a public nuisance to an ecological and economic resource. Poets have made it a metaphor for states ranging from euphoria to despair. This intelligent study is not ivory-tower theorizing. It deals firmly with street cleaning, the growth of the ski industry, water usage, winter carnivals, and even fashions in the making of snow forts and snowmen. It does all this well.

Paul Delaroche

by Stephen Bann.
Princeton, 304 pages,
$49.50.


Delaroche (1797-1856) was an early success as a painter and remained successful throughout his life. He has been ignored since his death. Mr. Bann undertakes to account for this odd situation and hopes to revive interest in Delaroche. Speculation about family tensions and rivalries is not much help in either of these causes, but examination of the paintings is interesting. Delaroche was a history painter, but not in the moralizing, inspirational manner of David. The post-Napoleonic public had seen more than enough of that sort of thing. Delaroche selected historical episodes likely to attract interest -- the murder of the Duc de Guise, the death of Mazarin -- and painted them with great attention to details of costume, well-composed and plausible arrangements of the participants, and no indication of his own opinion of the event. He is reported to have said, on his first view of a daguerreotype, "From today painting is dead." He in fact became much interested in photography. It did for the present what he tried to do for the past -- it got the shot. Delaroche remained, in effect, a paparazzo with a brush, while painters in general turned to agitation, editorializing, psychological inquiry, and the cultivation of individualistic brushwork. Delaroche was a fine technician, though, with a nice eye for the dramatic moment. He deserves the reappraisal that Mr. Bann hopes to provoke in honor of his 200th birthday.

Agent of Destiny:
The Life and Times of
General Winfield Scott


by John S. D. Eisenhower.
Free Press, 480 pages,
$27.50.


Winfield Scott (1786-1866), after some frittering with a law career, joined the Army and came to prominence in the War of 1812, when he actually won a battle in the United States' bumbling attack on the Canadian border. He was one of the most notable of the young men who replaced those relics of the Revolution still in control of military affairs. The other was Andrew Jackson, and the two bumped heads off and on for years. When not engaged in winning the Mexican War and similar military duties, Scott dabbled in politics -- unsuccessfully. He had an incorrigible habit of speaking his mind. When the Civil War broke out, he had been in command of the Army for many years and was too fat to mount a horse and in poor health generally. He was replaced by the overcautious George B. McClellan. He had had, however, a varied, exciting, most useful career, and his biographer makes a fine story of it. Mr. Eisenhower, a retired brigadier general and a former ambassador with sound Washington connections, understands and clearly explains both military actions and the politics lurking behind them. One learns, among other things, that the partisan habit of angling for the next election while ignoring current problems was well entrenched so long ago that it should probably be considered respectable. Mr. Eisenhower has the right touch for a biographer; he gives the impression that he thoroughly enjoyed learning about his subject and is delighted to share a great story with his readers.

Cactus Tracks &
Cowboy Philosophy


by Baxter Black.
Crown, 288 pages, $23.00.


Whether the verses and anecdotes of the "Cowboy Poet & Former Large Animal Vet" are genuine folk art or a canny and sophisticated simulation, they are genuinely amusing.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Crabcakes by James Alan McPherson. Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $23.00. James Alan McPherson is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Violence and Childhood in the Inner City edited by Joan McCord. Cambridge University Press, 348 pages, $59.95/$19.95. One of the essays in this book, by Elijah Anderson, appeared in somewhat different form as "The Code of the Streets," The Atlantic's cover story for May, 1994.

Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History by Hans Koning. Brookline Books/Lumen Editions, 224 pages, $15.95. Koning is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. This is his twelfth novel.


Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Brief Reviews; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 105 - 106.

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