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 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
This is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the eaThis is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the early 1920s, he is forever moving between elation over this wonderful world, and despair over the fickle indifference of his great love, Edith. He tries to assuage his disappointment with liaisons with other women, but to no avail. This third-person narrative alternates with a first-person intrusive narrator who upbraids Edith for her indifference to The Robber and sounds off on any number of peripheral matters in a seemingly offhand if not random fashion. These "arabesques," as W.G. Sebald calls them, might also be thought of as a kind of ur-magic realism. As if that weren't enough, late in the text it is announced by the author that he and The Robber have teamed up to create the present text. This reader was reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre: or, the Ambiguities, though it should be said that The Robber is a laugh riot compared to that formal novel and far more, indeed almost obsessively, discursive.
At 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strAt 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strengths and (considerable) shortcomings. It was published one year before LBJ's Great Society program passed Congress, which, for the first time in the nation's history, sought to address longstanding racial injustices. Baldwin describes the unrelenting degradation faced by black Americans, both white indifference and murderous hostility toward them, in a spare, unadorned prose whose effect is harrowing. At the time of its publication it must have scared bigoted white people shitless. Yet it was also a prescription for change, and much of the change it calls for has come to pass. That is not to say that today we are without racial problems. Black Lives Matter-- that's irrefutable--but if you want to know how truly god awful it was in the bad old days, this is the book, one of the few, that you must read....more
This is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story ofThis is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story of Simón Bolívar--he who liberated South America from Spanish colonial tyranny--and his retreat from public life just prior to his death. The great trick of the novel is to make condensed passages of historical summary ring with life through the recollections of the dying General. Predictably perhaps he obsessively catalogs his enemies' perfidies which on some level seem to be the disease which is killing him, though it's actually TB. Such is the loyalty of the man's officers that just before his death he sends them off on various guerilla missions to undermine the governments of his enemies. Despite the sure knowledge of his impending death he seeks to promote insurrection instead of harmony.
It is for this reason that John Lynch, one of Bolívar's biographers, detests the popular idea of the man as the "George Washington of South America." Truly, he was nothing of the kind. He allowed himself to be named Liberator and Dictator of Peru and through the Ocaña Convention named himself Bolivia's "president for life" with the ability to pass on the title. He needlessly promulgated multiple contradictory edicts. He was against popular representative government. Though, paradoxically, he believed in a US-style federalist union for South America, he was incapable of putting goals for the growth of inclusive democratic institutions above his petty enmities, as Washington did with such aplomb time after time.
(N.B. Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who freed his slaves upon his death in 1799. All U.S. slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. See Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. It was 1816, however, when Bolivar manumitted the slaves of South America, including his own.)
We also meet his longtime, forebearing lover, Manuela Sáenz, and find her to be as formidable a character as the General himself. At one point some weeks after after the General and his retinue have traveled into exile on a cortege of barges down the Magdalena, she incites civil unrest back in Santa Fe de Bogata against his enemies:
In an attempt to make her life impossible, the Ministry of the Interior had asked her to turn over the [General's] archives she had in her care. She refused and set in motion a campaign of provocations that drove the government mad. In the company of two of her warrior slavewomen [manumitted] she fomented scandals, distributed pamphlets glorifying the General, and erased charcoal slogans scrawled on public walls. It was common knowledge that she entered barracks wearing the uniform of a colonel and was apt to take part in the soldiers' fiestas as in the officers' conspiracies. The most serious rumor was that right under Urdaneta's nose she was promoting an armed rebellion to reestablish the absolute power of the General.
So a beautifully written if dense narrative that satisfies on multiple levels. Do read it. One final note, there's no magic realism here as in The Autumn of the Patriarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the narrative is nonchronological which demands an attentive reader. This is no in-flight or beach read! I found it deeply satisfying....more
I'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing isI'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing is always hard to find no matter its form. But this particular work is terrific. It's insightful. We see how Georgia O'Keeffe's talent developed early in life. In 1903-04 Georgia and her many sisters were driven some miles in a horse and buggy from their Wisconsin farm to art lessons, an almost unheard of extravagance in those still largely frontier days. We follow O'Keeffe during her subsequent study at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York (57th St.), and Columbia University (Teacher's College), also in New York. She becomes a most unorthodox teacher of art in Virginia and, later, Texas. It is while there, in West Texas, that she discovers Big Sky country, the American southwest, whose strange beauty was to possess her for the rest of her life. But between the Texas teaching and the full-time move to New Mexico there was an interval in New York when she was discovered by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist, who championed her, scandalously left his wife and married her, a woman 25 years younger than himself. For about twenty years she lives with the garrulous Stieglitz in New York. In the spring and summer they shift activities to the Stieglitz family compound upstate on Lake George. Here the great man is surrounded by his large family and circle of admirers. For Georgia, the East ultimately comes to seem a dead place. She yearns for southwest. A change is made. Instead of going to Lake George for the summer, she will go to New Mexico, where she will paint prolifically. (She was virtually blocked in the East.) There she discovers Ghost Ranch, and a few years later the house at Abiquiu. Steiglitz doesn't like the arrangement but he knows she will not paint otherwise, so her lets her go. The arrangement continues until his death in 1946, when, after three years spent settling his estate, she moves west full time. In the 1960s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, she undergoes a ludicrous fall from critical favor. The absurd interpretations by the critics of the day are well represented, and hilarious they are too for being so fantastically off the mark. In the early 1970s she is justly returned to her proper status with a series of big shows in major U.S. cities. I found her will an astonishing thing to contemplate. Unlike most people, and this was her greatest gift in my view, perhaps greater than her artistic mastery, she knew what she wanted from life, almost from day one, and she doggedly went out and got it. This focus is at the core of her spare way of life and stripped down esthetic. Most of all she had this immense appetite for solitude. For most of us, with our various codependencies, that's hard to imagine. But it was fascinating to see it manifest in the life of this woman whose character seems set from the moment of birth. She is an astonishing historical figure largely because of her output of a timeless body of art which has defied all critical reductions. The author has done an excellent job. The biography's far more penetrating than I had thought it could be. And this is done for the most part by showing and quotation, not by that awful sort of psychologizing that is actually a projection of the writer's own wishes. Warmly recommended....more
Highly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The langHighly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The language is spritely, sullen, erotic by turns. The old gringo, American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce, is a bitter man come to Mexico seeking death at the hands of the revolution. He meets the younger rebel General Tomas Arroyo whose innate machismo turns his relationship with the old gringo into a Game of Manhood. A game only the general seems to be playing. The old gringo fearlessly marches straight into the most dangerous faceoffs with the Federales. He seems invulnerable, god-like. The bullets don't so much as graze him. Arroyo's rebels marvel at him. Arroyo resents the gringo for stealing his thunder. In a comandeered train the general, his army, and the gringo cross the desert for a day and a night to the famous Miranda Hacienda. It was here that Arroyo was fathered by Señor Miranda. It was here Arroyo grew up and came to know intimately his nation's "aristocracy." It is in the destruction of the hacienda that the general seems to want to make a grand statement. On arrival he and the old gringo find the white woman -- the "gringa" -- arrived only hours earlier from the U.S. to teach English to the Miranda children, long since flown the coop. Her name is Harriet Winslow. She becomes Arroyo's lover. One feels she could use the workout. She positively screams uptight white anglo-saxon protestant, and the destruction of personal property is incomprehensible to her. She discounts the long history of class oppression in Mexico in a trice. Somehow she feels -- laughably -- even in the absence of the departed Mirandas, that she is responsible not only for stopping the destruction of the hacienda, but also for seeing to its restoration. (She sets the peons to ridiculously whitewashing the place.) Yet like certain characters in Anita Brookner's oeuvre, she knows she's missed much of life in her 31 years. The old gringo sees her submission to Arroyo only in terms of the general's machismo. He does not for a minute imagine the attraction this man of action might hold for Harriet. The sex is electric. As I've said elsewhere, I am no fan of sex in literature. It's almost always badly done -- but not here. Here the sex is integral, it works to push the story forward; whereas, usually, all the action of the fiction must stop for nookie time. It's almost too long, the sex. Fuentes pushes it about ten pages too far. But one can see why. It's working so well. The novel's onieric bent seamlessly blends backstory, dialogue both thought and spoken, hopes and dreams, you name it. The prose is consistently dazzling. You must read it....more
Interesting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now knowInteresting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now know to be beyond doubt. But at the time, when it was just being introduced, the theory, and especially its association with the Cretaceous extinction, was not immediately embraced on the part of paleontologists. This led Luis Alvarez, no doubt in his frustration, to call paleontologists "not very good scientists." Oh dear! But Gould's coverage of the developing story is very fine and can be followed here and in his subsequent books, especially The Flamingo's Smile....more
This book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. QuiteThis book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. Quite good and gripping writing explaining what is still pretty much the current state of our knowledge.
Gould has a fondness for rehabilitating scientists who were wrong for interesting reasons. In this volume those figures include: Edward Tyson (who sought to place chimpanzees next to humans as the next link in the great chain of being theory), the Rev. William Buckland (who misinterpreted evidence of past glaciation as proof of The Flood), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (who straddled the epigenicist/preformationist embryology debate of the 18th century), and the father of taxonomy himself, Carolus Linnaeus (whose work was also skewed by the false great chain of being theory).
Gould is always careful to point out that no science is without its limiting cultural or social preconceptions. Scientific knowledge, moreover, is conditional, never fixed, and changes with our ever modifying understanding of it. He writes:
Good arguments don't provide nearly as much insight into human thought, for we can simply say that we have seen nature aright and have properly pursued the humble task of mapping things accurately and objectively. But bad arguments must be defended in the face of nature's opposition, a task that takes some doing. The analysis of this "doing" often provides us with insight into the ideology or thought processes of an age, if not into the modes of human reasoning itself. (p. 284)
I enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- thereI enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- there are 10 altogether -- this is my least favorite. At his best SJG's essays play off a number of seemingly unrelated topics and then slowly, often dazzlingly, he weaves the disparate threads together. He still does that here. And the best essays, "The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague" and "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" are right up there with his very best. But too often the essays are flat and lacking in the discursive fun that is his hallmark. I intend to read the other five books. But if you're going to read only one let me recommend either Dinosaur in a Haystack or Bully for Brontosaurus. Gould's Wonderful Life, about the Burgess Shale, is brilliant, too, but it's a stand-alone title and not part of the essay series. See my review for each of these....more
Just a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feJust a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feels ambivalent about. Well, I loved his Europe Central and have high hopes for this one. I understand he's particularly good at writing about sex, which is very hard to do. We'll see.
Quickly fell off the go cart. Will give it another try. Enjoyed what I read but was distracted by other books....more