The Groaning Shelf
Five new titles that instruct and entertain.
Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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.
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.
Our cover subject, Jane Austen, is matched here by her American equivalent, Emily Dickinson, among the ranks of enigmatic literary spinsters. But whereas Jane Austen depicted in lavish detail her cloistered corner of the English upper middle class, Emily Dickinson’s poems are allusive, fleeting, leaving more than a little unsaid and adding to the mystery of the businessman’s daughter who, dressed always in white, retreated by stages into the recesses of her family’s comfortable Amherst homestead.
You don’t have to be a Dickinson scholar to appreciate the details of research and informed speculation revealed in Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord by John Evangelist Walsh (Rutgers, 216 pp., $25). A cache of letters, which appeared in the possession of a literary confidence man in the decade after Dickinson’s death, were found to be a series of intense, emotional declarations by the poet to someone she called “Master,” with whom she had clearly been infatuated for years. At the time, the Dickinson family was convinced of their authenticity, and, indeed, there is every reason to believe that they were written by Emily Dickinson—but to whom?
The author here makes a compelling argument for Otis Lord, two decades older than Emily, a distinguished judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and married. There is no evidence that the meeting of these two disparate minds ever led to anything more than a fierce emotional bond, featuring chaste meetings in Boston and at the Dickinson household. But Walsh makes a persuasive case that Judge Lord was, in fact, the Master, and finds suggestions to support his notion throughout Dickinson’s poetry. His theory is that she planned to marry the widowed Judge Lord, and when he died suddenly, she lost interest in living.
The advantage that radical Islam enjoys in its confrontation with the West is the West’s ambivalence about radical Islam. Bill Siegel’s The Control Factor: Our Struggle to See the True Threat (Hamilton, 388 pp., $24.99) is a thoughtful attempt to discern how and why insecurity and fear—the “control factor”—undermine the instinct to recognize Islamist terror for the existential threat that it is. The Muslim world, of course, is a complex structure of nationalities and cultures, and the West, disunified not only politically but historically and characteristically, is uncertain about how to contend with Islam. Siegel believes, and is no doubt correct, that until the West sees radical Islam steady and whole there is no telling how many terrorist episodes will continue to undermine Western resolve.
Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard.