The Magazine

The Groaning Shelf

Five new titles that instruct and entertain.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Herewith a handful of assorted volumes that, having crossed the literary editor’s desk, strike The Weekly Standard as interesting—even pleasant—reading in a variety of moods and circumstances.

Emily Dickinson

Only in America, as it were, could an anthology define and illustrate Americanism, and this may well be the perfect specimen: What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song edited by Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub (ISI, 790 pp., $35). It is not an easy thing to capture what it means to be American in a wise selection of random writings, but here they are in one place. 

The editors—distinguished scholars all—have divided the national spirit into various categories (“The American Character,” “Civility, Tolerance, Compassion,” “The Virtues of Civic Life,” etc.) and illuminated them with excerpts at once humorous (Ring Lardner’s “Old Folks’ Christmas”), profound (Justice Holmes’s Memorial Day address, “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire”), and shocking/penetrating (“The Artificial Nigger” by Flannery O’Connor). Here are gathered together the writings and pronouncements of George Washington, Willa Cather, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Calvin Coolidge, and Frederick Douglass in a collection assembled with unusual intelligence and imagination. What So Proudly We Hail captures the country succinctly in words—in its long, complicated history, distinct humor, and high seriousness. Henry James once said that it is a complex fate to be an American, and here we learn why. 

 The literature of psychopathy is small but compelling (Hermit of Peking by Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff), and Geoffrey C. Ward, best known as the author of innumerable PBS/Ken Burns documentaries and a two-volume life of Franklin Roosevelt, adds to the short list a compelling, disconcerting portrait of his great-grandfather, whose fraud and sickness of mind are at once hypnotic and historic: A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in America (Knopf, 432 pp., $28.95). 

Ferdinand Ward, the disaffected son of a claustrophobic Presbyterian rectory in upstate New York, descended on Wall Street in the early 1870s and befriended the son of ex-president Ulysses S. Grant. Possessed of charm, ingenuity, and astonishing gall, Ward ultimately managed to lure the man who defeated Robert E. Lee on the battlefield into partnership in a sham brokerage house. When the deception inevitably ended, Ward went off to prison protesting his innocence, and General Grant, now mortally ill with cancer, sought to restore his family’s fortunes by writing, in a race with death, his brilliant Memoirs

Anyone who has entertained a moment’s skepticism about the War on Drugs will be intrigued by Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman (Oxford, 288 pp., $16.95). This is neither a user’s plea nor an indiscriminate attack on a federal initiative which has expended billions of dollars with no end in sight. 

During the past half-century the use of illicit drugs has continued to be an issue in the United States, and public opinion on legalization of marijuana is now evenly divided. The movement to sanction “medical marijuana” may be (as some assert) a kind of slow-motion legalization; but if so, it is a stealth campaign that enjoys a high level of public support. 

This is an admirably thorough, well-balanced, fair, and sensible assessment of this particular issue within the larger context of federal drug policy. The authors are specialists in the field, and seem determined to explain the problem rather than offer dogmatic solutions. Marijuana Legalization explores such pertinent details as the current state of research on cannabis, what “legalization” precisely means, and whether existing drug policies are consistent either with common sense or our constitutional heritage.