An excellent overview of the work of Diego Velazquez and his standing among the Old Masters. It's also the story of one man transfixed to the point ofAn excellent overview of the work of Diego Velazquez and his standing among the Old Masters. It's also the story of one man transfixed to the point of monomania by one of Velazquez's works, John Snare, a 19th century bookseller and collector. Highly recommended....more
Epistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry AdamsEpistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry Adams was grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams. He was a Boston Puritan born in 1838 who at sixteen attended Harvard College—severely berated here—and went on to pursue a career as a journalist, novelist and historian.
His historical gamut stretches from the American Revolution to the years just before World War I. His writing is wry with patches of brilliance and, less often, turgidity. There are some extraordinary scenes. In one it's 1860 and Henry Adams travels as a courier for the American consulate to Sicily to find Garibaldi "in the Senate house toward sunset, at supper with his picturesque and piratic staff, in the full noise and color of the Palermo revolution." He also meets William Makepeace Thackery, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Lyell, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few.
It was fascinating for me to learn that in 1861, when the author arrived in England as a private secretary to his U.S. diplomat father, that the British recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate belligerency and came close two years later to recognizing the Confederacy as a state. Then came the Trent Affair in which two Confederate diplomats (Mason and Slidel) were seized by a U.S. vessel from a British mail steamer—clearly an act of war. The author describes the tentativeness of their position in London at the time.
Mostly the first half of the book is a merciless dissection of British royalty, society, manners, dining (ugh), and eccentricity in general in the latter half if the 19th century. Adams views it as wholly self-centered and self-regarding, a closed world without lessons to offer him. He's says so in a singular, scabrous overview that's at times very funny.
It occurs to me that the The Education of Henry Adams (1906)—whether intentionally or not—serves as a kind of corrective to James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1819). In it many of the assumptions underlying that earlier work are called into question. Dr. Johnson's famous bromide—"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."—gets a thorough refutation.
Adams' insights come at the expense of himself and anyone nearby. His irony morphs at times into vitriol. Lauded as a unique view on the American story. I think it very well may be. This has for me been one of those great interstitial reads, in which, using the framework of autobiography, the writer is able to cover many of the nooks and crannies of history often overlooked in more general texts. Neil Sheehan does much the same thing but with biography in his Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. I recommend both books highly, though from a literary point of view Sheehan's is the better written work.
Time has not been kind to Adams' style. Though there must have been a day when it was considered muscular, its phrasing today strikes one as slightly archaic and stilted at times. Its historical insights may be unique, but the text's omissions are as telling as its inclusions. Indeed, Henry Adams' world seems strangely Islamic with half its population going unmentioned. Women had virtually no role in the society of his day—they certainly did not have the vote—except as helpmeets and incubators of heirs. It's very strange to read historiography which excludes them so painstakingly.
(Tellingly, Clover, his wife of many years, is completely written out of the book. This seems truly strange when one learns by way of a Wikipedia search that in 1885 she killed herself by drinking darkroom chemicals. Adams takes a page or two to rhapsodize about the Augustus St Gaudens' statue he commissioned for her grave, in Rock Creek Cemetery, but he never tells us it's for his wife. This we must learn by independent means.)
It is the ultimate form of self-denigration to declare that one is beyond education. The kind of almost omniscient learnedness that Adams pursues is a literary convention that dates to the ancients. He returns to this hobbyhorse over and over. It wears thin, for he is only able to keep to his steed by views increasingly abstract. The writing—always a challenge—grow less coherent the deeper into the book we go. So an at times fascinating if ultimately problematic read....more
A learned and textually dense exegesis. An unmatched resource providing a unique overview. There's nothing like it out there in English, not with suchA learned and textually dense exegesis. An unmatched resource providing a unique overview. There's nothing like it out there in English, not with such breadth. The author has taken over two millennia of speculation about angels—what she calls "the four levels of discourse: literal, moral, allegorical and mystical"—and transformed it into something genuinely readable. Praiseworthy....more
A story of the artist's despair told through the unique circumstances that made him who he is—a writer for the ages, a bastard and a socially inept peA story of the artist's despair told through the unique circumstances that made him who he is—a writer for the ages, a bastard and a socially inept person masquerading as an adept. The section showing the young Pat and Vidia in love is too long but contains too much matter relevant to the later narrative to be cut. Still reading......more
I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green:I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is and superbly written. The author's ability to compress this picaresque decade of his life into a mere 230 pages is a marvel. Stone has long been considered a writer's writer, still, I would lay odds that some of his nimble phrasing here came from honing these tales at dinner parties and other venues over the years. The book is very funny.
It opens with Stone at the helm of the USS Arneb. At sea he keeps two pictures over his desk: one of Bridget Bardot, the other of the New York City skyline. These he calls the poles of his desire. His descent into yellow journalism is interesting. On discharge he went to work for the New York Daily News, perhaps no worse then than it is today, and later for a few scuzzy National Enquirer-like rags. There he was responsible for headlines such as "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds." He goes to Hollywood with Paul Newman to make his novel A Hall of Mirrors into an apparently bad movie called WUSA. I've never seen it, have you?
He introduces us to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other works. I'm very grateful for the introduction because I've always been led to believe Kesey was a charlatan. Au contraire. Stone eulogizes his friend here as a great—if often drug-addled—man of superior learning and charisma. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are probably most famous for setting off from Northern California in a psychedelic bus for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Neal Cassady was the driver. Yes, that Neal Cassady, Kerouac's friend, the one immortalized in On the Road.
One tale of the Pranksters in Mexico—Kesey was on the run from drug charges—has Cassady clandestinely using a hypodermic to dose a roast pig with LSD and amphetamines, thus sending the many diners—Stone was one—on an unexpected journey. That LSD was originally intended as a Cold War weapon, coming out of CIA-funded studies at Stamford University, and ultimately became a popular drug which "changed the minds" of Baby Boomers and others in many ways during that time of heightened social consciousness, is an irony that resonates to this day.
When Stone goes to Vietnam as a stringer, the narrative grows thin, the prose seems rushed, fragmented. But this is only in the last fifteen pages or so. The rest of the book is quite wonderful....more
A real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American CiviA real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Brown's plan was to steal tens of thousands of rifles from the sleepy, rural armory. With them he would arm fugitive slaves hiding in the Blue Ridge Mountains against their so-called masters. It didn't quite work out. Brown and nineteen others were hung for the attempt.
I like that it's a folksy tale without literary hi-jinx. The whole thing—prefaced by a hilarious news story dated 1966—is said to be gleaned from the newly discovered slave narrative of one Henry "the Onion" Shackleton, the only survivor of the raid. The beauty of this sort of writing is that it gets out if its own way, leaving the greater narrative arc open to view. It's interesting how some of the constructions here—the tropes—their economy and method of proceeding, remind me of E.L. Doctorow. I'll have to think some more about that.
To create convincing speech of the period, McBride makes interesting use of solecisms—such as runned for ran, set for sat, gived for gave, throwed for threw, hisself for himself, and incorrect subject-verb agreement as in: "We has come to free the Negro. And you is our prisoner." There are intentional clichés, too, figures of speech which are key to the Onion's idiom. Because this non-standard English is consistently rendered throughout, it never seems a burden to read, as overwrought dialect can often be. See William Faulkner's Flags In the Dust, his third novel, for an example of such overwrought dialect. By contrast, McBride's novel is fresh, broadly funny, a delight. Highly recommended.
N.B. — A movie is in the works with author McBride as producer and Liev Schreiber, who will play the fiery abolitionist John Brown, also serving as producer. Henry "the Onion" Shackleton is to be played by Jayden Smith. Let's hope they do a good job....more
3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that link3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that linked up many formerly disparate threads of my personal reading. Such books are rare pleasures. I had always known that Alexander von Humboldt’s story was a link missing from my general knowledge. The praises of Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould alone told me as much. But I didn't know this was generally due to anti-German sentiment so powerful in the U.S. and Europe after World War II.
During his Latin American explorations (1799-1804), Humboldt was front page news in the West. He and his team climbed volcanoes, pressed plants, murdered fascinating new animal species, reset the coordinates, often grossly incorrect, for scores of cartographic features (rivers, mountains, etc.), slept on the shores of the Orinoco River, dodged leopards, crocodiles and other predators, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes. This was a time when his name was a byword for adventure on the lips of every schoolboy, even in the U.S.
Afterward Humboldt returned to Europe, settling in Paris, where he wrote up his findings. What resulted was a series of paradigm-smashing publications for both scientists and general readers. He is the first true naturalist as we understand that term today. It helped that Humboldt was a writer of startling clarity and concision. Until then, it seems, writing for the masses was not considered a career-expanding opportunity by men of science. Author Andrea Wulf does not say why, but I think it probably had something to do with the presumed loss of reputation for so craven an act of moneymaking. Humboldt changed all that. Sacks and Gould and countless other writers would become beneficiaries of his breakthrough.
But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.
He had as personal acquaintances Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had him arrested briefly as a German spy. They all read him. His works constituted an epiphany for Charles Darwin, who took Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on board H.M.S. Beagle with him and who later met his hero. Henry David Thoreau could not have written Walden without Humboldt's example. The English Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron all read and were influenced by him; as was Edgar Allan Poe, who dedicated his Eureka to him.
The major figures succeeding Humboldt and carrying his torch, if you will, include George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature coalesced Humboldt’s environmental warnings, previously scattered throughout many volumes, into a clarion call for the conservation of the natural world; Ernst Haeckel, the prolific marine biologist, who virtually broadcast the Humboldtian sensibility to countless millions through his own popular books and articles; and John Muir, the comically ecstatic naturalist largely responsible for creating the U.S. federal parks system.
P.S. Humboldt was almost certainly homosexual. He usually had some slender young man with him in the guise of assistant. He avoided women like the plague, except those who could talk science, and he was said, if we are to believe Wulf (I do), to have disappointed entire cities of women who thought he'd make a fine match. His life was, in part, another bullet to the gizzard of that ridiculous fiction, the celibate bachelor. ...more
A novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd persoA novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd person to 1st and back again. A tale of young men finding their way in the world. Beautiful and shattering....more