BIOGRAPHY and MEMOIR
The Last Mrs. Astor
by Frances Kiernan (Norton)
At the end of the 19th century, the then-Mrs. Astor was known for setting the parameters of New York society by the number of people who could fit into her ballroom. It is a measure of high society’s progress since those days that the current (and final) undisputed holder of the title has made her mark through intelligent philanthropy and discriminating patronage of the arts. Recently in the news because of an unseemly tussle between her son and grandson over her guardianship, the 105-year-old Brooke Astor deserves to be remembered for what she actually accomplished, and this sympathetic telling of her story should counterbalance all that gossipy sensationalism.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
by Nancy Isenberg (Viking)
National memory is inevitably drawn to melodrama, and Burr has historically been cast in the role of black sheep in the Founding Family. But Isenberg argues, with elegance and meticulous research, that the principled, adroit Burr shouldn’t be the fall guy in our early national narrative. On some issues, particularly those later espoused by feminists, he was far ahead of his time, and his political conduct was “no better, no worse” than that of his contemporaries Jefferson and Hamilton. In fact, in her assessment of Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s treatment of Burr, Isenberg reveals an unsettling truth: “Politics, then as now, causes ‘great’ men to speak irrationally and act deviously.”
George Kennan: A Study of Character
by John Lukacs (Yale)
The dean of the realist school of foreign policy wouldn’t seem to be a natural biographical subject for so passionate an opponent of totalitarianism as Lukacs. But mostly the author focuses on Kennan as the great American figure of his age: a sterling character and true font of wisdom, a man whose actual views were far more complex and nuanced than the gross public perception (based on his espoused policy to simply contain the Soviet Union). This beautiful little book is suffused with the love and respect that Lukacs has for his subject, whom he knew and revered as that rare breed: the foreign-policy expert who becomes a true statesman.
Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton (Harvard)
This biography of McPherson explores how the evangelist combined old-time religion with newfangled technology to build a multimedia soul-saving juggernaut in 1920s Los Angeles. Even if Sutton’s efforts to connect McPherson to today’s evangelical resurgence are sketchy and unconvincing, his book (particularly in its analysis of the media coverage surrounding McPherson’s 1926 “kidnapping”—likely staged in an attempt to obscure an illicit affair) is a thorough and absorbing portrait of a wholly original figure.
SOCIETY and CULTURE
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal (Chicago)
Mysticism and empiricism, East and West, enlightenment and … golf? Esalen—equally a phenomenon and an institute—sought to amalgamate these things and more into a “human potential movement,” a unified utopia “creatively suspended between the revelations of the religions and the democratic, pluralistic, and scientific revolutions of modernity.” And for a time it did, resolving many of its inherent paradoxes to achieve something unique (and uniquely American) in its eclectic egalitarianism. Co-founded by former Stanford classmates Michael Murphy and Richard Price, Esalen had as its set and setting 1960s California (a sui generis time and place if ever there was one). During its heyday, it drew counterculture notables—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Leary spent time there; so did Maslow, Huxley, and Campbell—and notoriety (the term touchy-feely sprang forth, fully formed) in equal measure. It eventually lost its vitality, but not before giving rise to the New Age movement that persists today (as does the institute itself, albeit in neutered form).