The Month in Books - February 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in February:

  1. The Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan (review)
  2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers (review)
  3. A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley (review)
  4. Breathing Lessons - Anne Tyler (review)
  5. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (review)
  6. Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood (review)
  7. Truman - David McCullough (review)
  8. Eisenhower - Carlo D'Este (review)

Pages Read: 4,042
Year-to-Date: 8,014

P.S. Today marks six years since I started this blog.

Truman by David McCullough

mccullough_truman.jpgHarry Truman assumed the office of President of the United States on April 12, 1945. In the four months that followed, Truman would oversee the surrender of Nazi Germany, negotiate with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, and authorize the use of atomic bombs against Japan. This dramatic beginning was a harbinger of things to come. In his nearly 8 years in office, Truman's administration led the U.S. into the United Nations and NATO, restored Western Europe through the Marshall Plan, recognized the State of Israel, and resisted Communist aggression via the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. And that was just in the foreign policy arena.

Truman is widely regarded as one of the unlikeliest of American presidents, considering the humbleness of his Missouri farmland origins. David McCullough's Truman does nothing to assuage that notion. I was astonished, however, to realize that Truman was born in 1884, just two years later than Franklin Roosevelt. After all, as he was in such better health than FDR at the time of the latter's death, and lived nearly three decades longer than his predecessor, it seemed logical that Truman be a much younger man. That the two men were nearly the same age amplifies what different worlds they came from, and what different paths they took to the presidency. While Roosevelt was a child of privilege, wanting for little and attending the best schools money could buy (Groton, Harvard, Columbia Law), Truman had a slightly different upbringing. While never suffering the poverty of young Dwight Eisenhower, his family saw its share of setbacks:

John Truman's run of luck on wheat futures had ended. He began losing heavily that same summer of 1901, and to recover his losses kept risking more and more until he had gambled away nearly everything he and Matt owned--as much as $40,000 in cash, stocks, and personal property, including 160 acres of prime land on Blue Ridge given to Matt by her father.

The situation could not have been much worse. At age fifty-one, John Truman was wiped out. The Waldo Avenue house had to be sold. For a while the family lived in another part of town, trying to keep up appearances, but eventually they had to pack and leave Independence altogether. They moved to a modest neighborhood in Kansas City, where John took a job for wages, something no Truman had done before.

Perhaps even more striking than these disparate origins are the experiences Roosevelt and Truman had in World War I. Though the war was a pivotal event in each man's life, they served in wildly different circumstances. Roosevelt left his seat as a New York state senator to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two man in what was then a cabinet-level department (the creation of the unified Department of Defense would be one of Truman's achievements as President). Truman, by contrast, was an artillery battery commander who saw combat in France:

West of Cheppy the battery moved into a peach orchard. Harry and one of his lieutenants, Leslie Zemer, Sergeant Kelley, and Corporal William O'Hare went out ahead to establish an observation post, stringing a telephone line and advancing, unknowingly, several hundred yards beyond the infantry. About dusk, from the crest of a hill, Harry saw an American plane drop a flare off to the west, then turning his field glasses on the spot, saw a German battery pulling into position on the left flank, across a small river in front of the 28th Division, which was beyond his own assigned sector. Standing orders were to fire only at enemy batteries facing the 35th Division. Harry decided to disregard that.

While Roosevelt did battle with the bosses at Tammany Hall early in his career (before seeking reconciliation to further his statewide ambitions), Truman was a machine man from the get-go. The Kansas City political scene was dominated by Tom Pendergast, and it was through the Pendergasts that Truman obtained a position as a county judge (akin to a county commissioner, not a judicial magistrate). But if Truman gained the post through the political machine, he did not consider the job a mechanism for corruption or graft. Truman believed in rewarding party loyalists, and would continue the practice throughout his career (suffering great criticism during his presidency), but he believed first and foremost in honestly and efficiently promoting the welfare of his constituents:

It was as though all he had absorbed in his readings in the history of the Romans, the memory of the model of Caesar's bridge, the experience of countless misadventures by automobile since the days of the old Stafford, the memory of the roads he had seen in France, not to say his own experience with the farm roads in and about Grandview and the father who had literally died as a result of his determination to maintain them properly, converged now in one grand constructive vision. He would build the best roads in the state, if not the country, he vowed, and see they were built honestly.

Truman would drive from town to town to get the bond passed for these public works, setting the precedent for future campaigns in which his own hard work and personal touch would lead him to victory. Elected to the Senate in 1934 after Pendergast's first three choices turned him down, and re-elected after a divisive Democratic primary, Truman would make a name for himself as the chairman of a committee investigating allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in military spending. During his tenure as chairman, Truman demonstrated his personal integrity and evenhandedness, his willingness to speak truth to power, and his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion:

At Truman's insistence any member of the Senate was welcome to sit in and take part in the hearings. When presiding, he seemed invariably well prepared and in charge, yet he seldom dominated. Instead, he would go out of his way to let other senators hold the stage. No one could remember congressional hearings being handled with such straightforwardness and intelligence. As in his earlier railroad investigations, witnesses were shown every courtesy, given more than ample time to present their case. There was no browbeating of witnesses, no unseemly outbursts tolerated on the part of anybody... Yet Truman could be tough, persistent, in a way that took many observers by surprise. It was a side of the man they had not known.

The selection of Truman as the Vice-Presidential candidate in 1944 was so complex and dramatic a event as to merit an entire book on its own. It was widely understood (if less openly discussed) that Roosevelt's poor health meant the second spot on the ticket was more important than usual:

Seeing the President after his return to the White House, Ed Flynn was so alarmed by his appearance that he urged Mrs. Roosevelt to use her influence to keep him from running again. "I felt," Flynn later said, "that he would never survive his term." Ed Pauley would say that his own determination to unseat Wallace came strictly from the conviction that Wallace was "not a fit man to be President... and by my belief, on the basis of continuing observation, that President Roosevelt would not live much longer." George Allen, remembering these critical months just before the 1944 convention, wrote that every one of the group "realized that the man nominated to run with Roosevelt would in all probability be the next President..."

And after just seven weeks on the job, Truman would be elevated to the highest office (leaving the vice presidency vacant for nearly four years). The highs and lows of Truman's presidency are thoroughly explored by McCullough, and as the list enumerated above suggests, it was hugely eventful. The account of Truman's re-election campaign, including the famous whistle-stop tour, is particularly satisfying considering the smug presumptuousness of his Republican opponents. And I had no idea that Truman vacated the White House for almost his entire second term while the building was renovated, including total demolition and reconstruction of the interior.

Perhaps the most welcome chapter of the book comes at the end. Considering the unfortunate fate of so many of America's great presidents, who either died in office (Lincoln, Roosevelt) or shortly thereafter (Washington, Wilson), it was wonderful to learn that Truman shared a long, happy retirement with his wife. Though nearly impoverished after decades of public service, the sale of the family farm and other endeavors secured a pleasant, if modest, lifestyle. They traveled widely, became grandparents, and Truman devoted himself to his presidential library:

Largest and most generous of the town's gestures, and must the most appreciated by Truman, was the donation of a town park north of the Square as a site for his library. He could not have been more pleased. Independence would be a far more appropriate location than Grandview and more accessible. Slover Park, a quiet, picturesque 13-acre knoll, was just beyond U.S. Highway 24... only a mile from 219 North Delaware, nothing at all for a good walker.

McCullough was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Truman (he would win again in 2002 for John Adams), and it is undoubtedly one of the best works of nonfiction I've had the pleasure to read. Though Truman weighs in at a hefty 992 pages, the rhythmic fluency of McCullough's prose makes for effortless reading. There is no question this book is a project, but it is one well worth tackling.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

atwood_alias.jpgIn 1843, a 16-year old Canadian servant named Grace Marks was convicted for being an accessory to the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and was also suspected of killing the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Another servant, James McDermott, was convicted of actually shooting Kinnear. Both were sentenced to death, though Marks' sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The crime was widely publicized, with great controversy over whether Marks was a premeditated co-conspirator, as McDermott claimed, or merely an unlucky accessory after the fact. Marks served her sentence at the Kingston Penitentiary, with a brief interlude at an asylum for the mentally ill.

This historical snippet of true crime is the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel, Alias Grace. The main narrative takes place in 1859, sixteen years after the murders. Grace remains imprisoned in Kingston, and is now employed during the day as a servant/seamstress by the wife of the prison's governor. Headed her way is a young American doctor, Simon Jordan, who intends to employ psychological observation to unlock the mystery of the murders, namely by filling in Grace's professed memory gaps. Most of the novel is told either via Grace's first-person recollections, third-person observations of Dr. Jordan, or through a series of letters between Dr. Jordan and various correspondents. Grace's perspective is at once the most direct, most powerful, and naturally the most suspect:

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised, because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word - musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

As he arrives and begins his afternoon interviews of Grace, Dr. Jordan is filled with ambition and scientific curiosity. He has plans to make his name and found his own asylum. Yet the further the story progresses, the more troubled he becomes. He becomes terribly entangled in the personal life of his landlady. He is also being subtly pursued by the Governor's daughter. And his lack of progress with Grace (a particular flop being his attempt to trigger Grace's memories about the bodies in the cellar by bringing root vegetables to the interviews) increases his self-doubt:

The trouble is that the more she remembers, the more she relates, the more difficulty he himself is having. He can't seem to keep track of the pieces. It's as if she's drawing his energy out of him - using his own mental forces to materialize the figures in her story, as the mediums are said to do during their trances. This is nonsense, of course. He must refuse to indulge such brain-sick fancies. But still, there was something about a man, in the night: has he missed it? One of those men: McDermott, Kinnear. In his notebook he has pencilled the word whisper, and underling it three times. Of what had he wished to remind himself?

This is the third of Atwood's novels that I have read. While Alias Grace does not quite rise to the heights of The Blind Assassin or The Handmaid's Tale, it is a cut above what most anyone else has been publishing over the past decade. Atwood has a particular skill for setting her novels outside the present day, be it in the past, like the mid-19th century in Alias Grace or the 1930-40s in The Blind Assassin, or the future, as in The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake.

I was particularly impressed at the way she portrayed 19th-century understandings of psychology. There are certainly indications that, if Grace's story can be credited, she may have suffered from a dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Jordan, for all his insights, remains limited by the nascent state of experimental psychology, and Atwood offers what appears to be a faithful rendering of the science a la 1859. Jordan's psychological explanations, limited though they are, are a tremendous advance beyond the Spiritualist explanations offered by Grace's other well-intentioned observers. And Atwood makes sure to leave enough ambiguity for even the modern reader, with all our wisdom about memory and psychology, to remain discomfitingly uncertain about Grace's true role in this violent chapter of Canadian history.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

eugenides_middlesex.jpgMy reading this year has seen a streak of Pulitzer Prize winners, having finished four in the past six weeks. Though I recognize that literary awards, like other awards, are often prone to biases toward the conventional, the politically correct, or the familiar, I have found the Pulitzers to be a convenient shortcut to notable literature over the last century. The list of winners includes such personal favorites as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and James Agee's A Death in the Family. In the last decade, the award committee has shown particularly gifted taste with selections including Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, Richard Russo's Empire Falls, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

Among this most recent run of worthy titles, the award in 2003 went to Jeffrey Eugenides for his second novel, Middlesex. His debut, The Virgin Suicides (reviewed here), made some waves for its somewhat taboo subject matter and unusual first-person plural narration, and was adapted by Sofia Coppola for her feature-film debut. Nearly a decade later, he returned with a book that pushes even further into societal taboos. From the opening line, Calliope Stephanides makes clear he is not a run-of-the-mill narrator:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

It is thus revealed up front that Calliope is an intersex individual, the single fact that drives the remaining 460-page narrative. Calliope, now Cal, is 41 years old and working in the U.S. Foreign Service in Berlin. That is the end of the story. The beginning of the story, as he tells it, takes us all the way back to 1922 and a widely-forgotten offshoot of World War I: the Greco-Turkish War. Calliope's grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, are residents of a small village near Smyrna in western Anatolia, claimed by Greece as the spoils of war after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. And, by the way, they are brother and sister:

Joking but not joking, Desdemona and Lefty embraced. At first they just hugged in the standard way, but after ten seconds the hug began to change; certain positions of the hands and strokings of the fingers weren't the usual displays of sibling affection, and these things constitute a language of their own, announced a whole new message in the silent room.

When the tides turn and the Turks advance, Desdemona and Lefty flee to the shore with the rest of the new Greek refugees. As Smyrna burns and the flames advance, Lefty makes a desperate proposal: if we live, we marry. Desdemona, fully expecting to perish in short order, agrees. With little time remaining, Lefty makes use of his self-taught French to convince a wary French official to allow the two to be evacuated to Greece as French nationals. From there, the long boat ride to America gives them a much-needed opportunity to re-invent themselves and their back story:

On the eighth day at sea, Lefty Stephanides, grandly, on one knee, in full view of six hundred and sixty-three steerage passengers, proposed to Desdemona Aristos while she sat on a docking cleat. Young women held their breath. Married men nudged bachelors: "Pay attention and you'll learn something." My grandmother, displaying a theatrical flair akin to her hypochondria, registered complex emotions: surprise; initial delight; second thoughts; prudent near refusal; and then, to the applause already starting up, dizzy acceptance.

Once landed in America, the couple travels to Detroit where they convince their sponsor and cousin, Lina, to keep their secret. They share a residence with Lina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, and begin to build an American life. Lefty even does a brief stint on the assembly line with Ford:

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford but his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.

But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.

Things do not go smoothly, however; Jimmy Zizmo becomes conspiratorial when the two women get pregnant simultaneously and appears to kill himself by plunging his car through thin ice on a frozen lake. Lefty and Desdemona grow apart, as she becomes fearful of reproducing after hearing the potential fate of inbred children. His basement speakeasy is hard-hit by the Great Depression, and Desdemona goes to work for the nascent Nation of Islam as a sericulturist:

Like a cleaning lady working in Grosse Point she came and went by the back door. Instead of a hat, she wore a head scarf to conceal her irresistible ears. She never spoke above a whisper. She never asked questions or complained. Having frown up in a country ruled by others, she found it all familiar. The fezzes, the prayer rugs, the crescent moons: it was a little like going home.

For the residents of Black Bottom it was like traveling to another planet. The temple's front doors, in a sweet reversal of most American entrances, let blacks in and kept whites out.

The lives of the next generation, married second-cousins Milton and Tessie, prove no less dramatic, with scenes featuring the 1967 Detroit race riot, in which Milton's business is burned (to his financial benefit via multiple fire insurance policies, the fate of Smyrna having been burned into his genes). And of course that brings us to their second child, Calliope. Largely presenting the outward appearance of a female child, with the family doctor failing to notice the unusual sex organs, she is raised without questions as a girl. It is only in puberty, when the other girls begin to blossom physically and menstruate, that anything seem amiss. Calliope falls in love with her best friend, referred to as "The Obscure Object" to protect her identity:

Her honey- or apricot-colored back tapered at the waist in a way mine didn't. There were white spots here and there, anti-freckles. Wherever I rubbed, her skin flushed. I was aware of the blood underneath, coursing and draining. Her underarms were rough like a cat's tongue. Below them the sides of her breasts swelled out, flattened against the mattress.

"Okay, I said, after a long while, "my turn."

But that night was like all the others. She was asleep.

It was never my turn with the Object.

Eugenides has somehow managed to craft a worthy addition to the canon of immigrant family sagas while also traversing the cultural taboos surrounding incest and intersexualism. While these topics certainly raise feelings of discomfort or awkwardness, they do not provoke the knee-jerk squeamishness that one might expect. Eugenides' is a sympathetic portrayal and brings the human elements to the forefront. The same holds for his forays into race relations, teen sexuality (also plumbed in The Virgin Suicides), and the immigrant experience. And though we know from the first page the exact point at which Calliope's sexual complexity will be discovered, four hundred pages later the moment is still suffused with tension and suspense. An extraordinary book.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

tyler_breathing.jpgAnne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, centers on the nearly empty nest of Ira and Maggie Moran, their struggles through middle-age, and how each one copes with the disappointments life has shown them. The novel opens early on a Saturday morning in which Ira and Maggie will drive from their home in Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania for the funeral of Max, the husband of Maggie's best friend, Serena. To add to the existential crisis, the very next day they are set to take their younger child, Daisy, off to college.

Things go awry right from the start. Maggie has to rush to the body shop to pick up their recently-refinished Dodge before they can head to Pennsylvania, and once in the car is immediately distracted by a radio talk show:

A soft voice on the radio said, "Well, I'm about to remarry? The first time was purely for love? It was genuine, true love and it didn't work at all. Next Saturday I'm marrying for security."

Maggie looked over at the dial and said, "Fiona?"

She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender--the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.

Fiona, as it turns out, is Maggie's former daughter-in-law. The dissolution of her marriage to Maggie's son, Jesse, and the subsequent removal of Maggie and Ira's granddaughter, Leroy, from their lives, is a gaping wound in Maggie's life that the intervening years have failed to heal. Maggie is convinced that Jesse and Fiona still love each other, and that she can bring about a reconciliation. Unfortunately, there is a striking imbalance in Maggie's ability to convince herself and her ability to convince others, and her perpetual meddling has netted few results. When Ira pulls off to a roadside cafe to check his map (he is convinced he can find a faster way to Deer Lick), Maggie spills her heart out to the waitress who serves her coffee:

"[Jesse] took up singing with a hard-rock band. He dropped out of high school and collected a whole following of girls and finally one particular girl and then he married her; nothing wrong with that. Brought her to live in our house because he wasn't making much money. I was thrilled. They had a darling little baby. Then his wife and baby moved out on account of this awful scene, just up and left. It was nothing but an argument really, but you know how those can escalate. I said, 'Ira, go after her; it's your fault she went.' (Ira was right in the thick of that scene and I blame him to this day.) But Ira said no, let her do what she liked. He said let them just go on and go, but I felt she had ripped that child from my flesh left a big torn spot behind."

Suffice it to say that Maggie's version of these events is rather selective, and her own role in the drama is largely ignored in her own account. As more of the family history is revealed in subsequent chapters, one gets the sense that Maggie's meddling, obvious from the start, often descended into outright manipulation. Without ill intentions, she has a way of choosing convenient facts, slicing up memories, and leaving out the rest in a way that blows up in her face time and time again:

So here she was alone. Well! She brushed a tear from her lashes. She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn't seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines--something like a poorly printed newspaper ad--and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place.

While the events surrounding Fiona's departure (and the echoing consequences) are the underlying force driving the narrative, the details are held in suspense for much of the novel. In the meantime, Maggie and Ira arrive and attend the funeral, a bizarre re-make of Serena and Max's wedding, with funeral guests singing the same songs they sang at the wedding. Interrupting this narrative are frequent flashbacks, such as to the early years of Maggie and Ira's courtship.

Tyler temporarily shifts the narrative from Maggie to Ira in the second section of the book, giving us the opportunity to compare the couple's disparate perspectives in a way they themselves cannot. Ira's had his own share of burdens; just on the brink of setting out on his own path, his father announced his retirement at the family picture framing shop and handed the business to Ira. Ira also inherited the burden of supporting his sisters, one of whom is mentally handicapped and the other an agoraphobe.

One theme that emerges quite subtly is the strength of Ira and Maggie's marriage. They fight frequently and they have caused each other a great deal of grief. But their marriage has survived, and there are several scenes throughout the book which shows how well they fit together, even if they don't always realize it. It is a marriage whose strength manifests in the sort of ordinary, taken for granted, leaning on one another's shoulders kind of way.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

smiley_thousand.jpgThere must be something about Shakespeare and farms. A decade and a half before David Wroblewski set Hamlet in a Wisconsin dog-breeding farm in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (reviewed here), Jane Smiley put the Iowa farmland spin on King Lear in A Thousand Acres, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Larry Cook, an Iowa farmer, plays the part of aging patriarch. His eldest daughters, Ginny (who narrates) and Rose, live on the farm with their husbands Ty and Pete, respectively. Ginny, unable to carry any of her own pregnancies to term, dotes on Rose's two little girls. The youngest of Cook's daughters, Caroline, has eschewed the farm for law school and then life in the big city (well, Des Moines).

The book's title comes from the patriarch's empire, a substantial piece of farmland cobbled together over several generations by the work and luck of Cook and his ancestors. The final piece, combining his father's 640 acres with the 370 of the neighboring Ericsons, was the crowning achievement on Larry's lifetime of accomplishment. Still successful but grown weary of inheritance taxes, Larry springs a surprise on everyone. He wants to transfer his land to a corporation owned equally by each daughter:

In spite of that inner clang, I tried to sound agreeable. "It's a good idea."
Rose said, "It's a great idea."
Caroline said, "I don't know."

And as quick as that, their fates are sealed. Caroline is written out of the deal, setting her on a collision course with her sisters. The farming sons-in-law embark on an ambitious expansion and equipment upgrade. As one might foresee, it does not take long for Larry to feel restless in his newly subordinate position. As his behavior becomes erratic and Ginny and Rose try to exert some restraint, he spirals completely out of control:

He leaned his face toward mine. "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house." His voice modulated into a scream. "Or tell me about what I can do and what I can't do. You barren whore!"

If Larry Cook's descent into madness and subsequent flight to his youngest daughter is reminiscent of Lear's fate, it is utterly devoid of the sympathy one feels for the fallen monarch. Here it is the father, not the daughters, whose monstrosity is revealed as the story progresses. The daughters are deeply flawed to be sure, but whatever missteps they take pale in comparison to, and may derive from, their father's crimes.

The novel deals frankly with a host of difficult or taboo subjects: miscarriages, cancer, suicide, insanity, incest, rape, adultery, and more. But except for Ginny's failed pregnancies, which are delicately shown to shape much of her worldview, these provocative and sensitive subjects are handled with neither care nor, apparently, much interest. The most shocking revelations are tossed out in a few matter-of-fact sentences with the same level tone used to describe mundane details about a tractor or dress fabric. Perhaps this is intentional, a symptom of Ginny's restricted emotional range. But the effect of touching the untouchable is severely undermined where the contact is treated so casually.

All in all an interesting effort that mustered ambitions it could not meet. Like Toni Morrison's Beloved and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, this is a book I read in high school and disliked, unable to summon much perspective beyond ignorant teenage malehood. Unlike those titles, which I've since discovered to be transcendentally brilliant, Smiley's effort still leaves me ambivalent. This time I feel a bit more confident that the flaws rest in the work more than the reader.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

mccullers_heart.jpgIn 1940, amidst the remnants of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, twenty-three year old Carson McCullers published her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The novel, which she had been working on while studying creative writing as a night student at Columbia and NYU, was a tremendous success upon publication, both critically and commercially.

More than fifty years later, this book was still so highly regarded as to rank 17th on Modern Library's controversial List of Best 20th-Century Novels. This achievement is particularly notable in light of the criticism the list received for having just 8 female authors (strangely, McCullers' novel was left off the list published by Radcliffe students in response). It was also listed in Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Set in a small city in the Deep South, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter tells the story of five individuals, each burdened with a sense of isolation and yearning to be able to express themselves and be understood. There is Biff Brannon, the owner of a local cafe; Jake Blount, an alcoholic Communist who has wondered into town; Dr. Benedict Copeland, an African-American doctor yearning to better his people's fate; Mick Kelly, a teenage girl stumbling through puberty; and John Singer, a deaf-mute whose silence allows the other four (and the rest of the town) to project their needs and hopes onto him:

One by one they would come to Singer's room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and composed. His many-tinted gentle eyes were grave as a sorcerer's. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room--for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.

The trouble is that Singer is no better off. Like them he is lost and lonely. Like them he is unable to express himself, unable to be understood. Like them he has projected his need for human connection to a deaf-mute, in this case his friend Antonapolous. The opening chapter depicts the companionship of these two men, which lasted ten years before Antonapolous starts to misbehave and his cousin commits him to an asylum. Singer is never the same, and his despair is no different from the four who sought solace in him:

He saw Antonapoulos sitting in a large chair before him. He sat tranquil and unmoving. His mad face was inscrutable. His mouth was wise and smiling. And his eyes were profound. He watched the things that were said to him. And in his wisdom he understood.

This was the Antonapoulos who now was always in his thoughts. This was the friend to whom he wanted to tell things that had come about. For something had happened in this year. He had been left in an alien land. Alone. He had opened his eyes and around him there was much he could not understand. He was bewildered.

One of McCullers' noted achievements in this book is her vivid, sympathetic portrayal of the African-American community and their continuing struggle just to survive, let alone overcome, the weight of history's oppression. Dr. Copeland is a successful professional, but he has failed in his personal life. His anger at his people's treatment leaves no tolerance for African-Americans who fail to share his ambitions to rise up and build a new world. He drove away his wife and children, and despite the intervening years, his frustrated rage has no end:

He felt the fire in him and he could not be still. He wanted to sit up and speak in a loud voice--yet when he tried to raise himself he could not find the strength. The words in his heart grew big and they would not be silent. But the old man had ceased to listen and there was no one to hear him.

The lonely struggle to connect portrayed in this book is universal, as McCullers demonstrates with her diverse cast. But the universality of this striving is apparent only to the reader, as the characters prove unable to recognize that each one is sharing the same struggle. When they coincidentally find themselves all arriving at Singer's room at the same time, awkward silence, rather than awed recognition, fills the air:

Always each of them had so much to say. Yet now that they were together they were silent. When they came in he had expected an outburst of some kind. In a vague way he had expected this to be the end of something. But in the room there was only a feeling of strain. His hand worked nervously as though they were pulling things unseen from the air and binding them together.

As a result, this is rather relentlessly bleak book, befitting the dark times in which it was published. Near the end of the last chapter, one of the character's experiences an epiphany that serves as the pearl of hope for the entire book: "a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who--one word--love." But it is a mere glimpse, which quickly fades.

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

bunyan_pilgrims.jpgIt is daunting to try to say something new about a book that is oft touted as the world's bestselling title, after the Bible. In the 300-plus years since John Bunyan published The Pilgrim's Progress, it has never been out of print. It has had a tremendous influence as both a work of religion, offering an accessible presentation of Protestant theology, and as a work of literature. Think of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (or the magazine), named after a location in the book. Or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which the girls recreate the pilgrim's quest in their own home.

For those not familiar with the book, it is a Christian allegory depicting the path of salvation through two pilgrimages. The first part, published in 1678, follows Christian, a man who has left his hometown, the City of Destruction (e.g. Earth), on a journey to the Celestial City (e.g. Heaven). Through reading the Bible, he has become burdened by the knowledge of his sinfulness. He is guided toward the Wicket-Gate (e.g. Christ) by the helpful Evangelist:

Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, "Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, "No." Then said the other, "Do you see younder shining light?" He said, "I think I do." Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."

So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ear and ran on crying, "Life, life, eternal life." So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.

And so on, as Christian meets a variety of friends and foes and traverses a series of obstacles and sanctuaries. I must admit that at first, and at various times throughout the book, the allegory struck me as heavy-handed and naive. There is just something a bit childish about Christian being rescued from the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. But if the allegory is quaint or awkward at times, there are also passages of tremendous beauty and profundity. After Christian makes his way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and is joined by the aptly named Faithful, they encounter Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative is more attached to words of faith than faith itself, and Christian warns Faithful against this doomed path:

[Saying and doing] are two things indeed and are as diverse as are the soul and the body. For as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practice part...This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life, and let us assure ourselves that at the day of doom, men shall be judged according to their fruits. It will not be said then, 'Did you believe?' but, 'Were you doers or talkers only?' And accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit...

Dark though Christian's journey is, it ends well. But what of the wife and children left crying after him? Bunyan did not neglect them, and in the second part of the book, published in 1684, we follow them on a second pilgrimage. Inspired by her husband's efforts and ashamed of her treatment of him, Christiana sets out with her sons (and her neighbor, Mercy) along the same path her husband took. Though reflecting the antiquated 17th (and 18th and 19th and most of the 20th) century notion that women are the frailer sex and thus need a male escort (Great-Heart), this second part also highlights the spiritual needs and capabilities of women (as well as children, and the mentally and physically handicapped):

[W]hen the Saviour was come, women rejoiced in him before either man or angel., I read not that ever any man did give unto Christ so much as one groat, but the women followed him and ministered to him of their substance. 'Twas a woman that washed his feet with tears, and a woman that anointed his body to the burial. They were women that wept when he was going to the cross, and women that followed him from the cross, and that sat by his sepulchre when he was buried. They were women that was first with him at his resurrection morn, and women that brought tidings first to his disciples that he was risen from the dead. Women therefore are highly favoured and show by these things that they are sharers with us in the grace of life.

The second pilgrimage is warmer and more uplifting, reflecting the effect that widespread knowledge of Christian's journey has had on the countryside. In Vanity, the site of Faithful's dramatic execution as a martyr in the first part, a new era has dawned:

You know how Christian and Faithful were used at our town; but of late, I say, they have been far more moderate. I think the blood of Faithful lieth with load upon them till now; for since they burned him, they have been ashamed to burn any more. In those days, we were afraid to walk the streets, but now we can show our heads. Then the name of a professor was odious; now, specially in some parts of our town (for you know our town is large), religion is counted honourable.

The Pilgrim's Progress is a flawed, imperfect work. The allegory can be clunky and sometimes masks the underlying message. Bunyan's preaching is often strident, with Judaism and Catholicism coming under heavy attack, but it is clearly reflects a sincere espousal of his belief that salvation through faith alone is the one true path. The book should be required reading for its historical importance and literary influence, but as its enduring popularity suggests, it retains much to be appreciated in our own age.

John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith

smith_marshall.jpgIf Franklin Roosevelt is the undisputed champion of federal power in the last century, his 19th-century counterpart is surely John Marshall. It is fitting then, that a decade before Jean Edward Smith wrote his magisterial FDR (reviewed here), he devoted his scholarly attention to Marshall, the fourth, and greatest, Chief Justice of the United States.

Law students spend a disproportionate amount of their time reading the Supreme Court opinions of Marshall, which set not only the framework of commercial and constitutional law, but also determined the power and purview of the federal judiciary as well as the hotly-contested relationship between the federal and state governments. His decisions read like a laundry list of legal landmarks: Marbury v. Madison, Fletcher v. Peck, McCullouch v. Maryland, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Gibbons v. Ogden, just to name a few.

It was of some surprise then, to find that more than half of the 524 pages in Smith's John Marshall are dedicated to his life before taking the bench. Despite his youth relative to other Founding Fathers, Marshall managed to have a hand in most important events in our country's early life. The eldest of Thomas Marshall's fifteen children, his childhood was largely comfortable, though not luxurious. His father worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax (as did George Washington) and sought success in the west, eventually settling in the Kentucky frontier, then part of Virginia. Thomas had experience in the state militia, and when the Virginia convention authorized minutemen battalions in 1775, he was appointed as the Culpeper battalion's major. His son followed, and was commissioned a first lieutenant. When war came, both men saw their share of action, starting with an early skirmish in December 1775 at Norfolk:

"The alarm was immediately given," Marshall reported, "and, as is the practice with raw troops, the bravest [of the Americans] rushed to the works, where, regardless of order, they kept up a heavy fire on the front of the British column." At the same time, Colonel Stevens led the Culpeper riflemen onto some high ground to the left of the causeway, from which they sent a withering cross fire into the grenadiers' flank. Marshall's father, Major Thomas Marshall, assumed overall command of the troops at the breastworks; Lieutenant John Marshall was with the riflemen on the flank. Colonel Woodford subsequently reported to the Virginia convention that "perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a greater carnage, for the number of troops" engaged.

The Marshalls also saw action at Brandywine and Germantown, and spent that famous winter at Valley Forge. John Marshall's experiences in the war, and the resulting attachments he felt to the nation, convinced him of the need for a strong federal government. After the war, Marshall studied law at the College of William and Mary, built a nascent legal practice in Richmond, and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. As the newly independent country struggled under the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, Marshall supported the Constitutional Convention's effort to strengthen the union:

His pragmatic nature resisted the adoption of a large number of a priori principles, but on four issues his views were firm. He believed in a strong central government, the supremacy of the constitution, the necessity for an independent judiciary, and the unalienable right to possess, enjoy, and augment private property. Marshall's views were consistent with the major currents of eighteenth century American thought. Locke, Blackstone, Hume, and Montesquieu--the writers most often cited in postcolonial America--stressed that the purpose of government was to protect private rights, especially the right to property, and that the tyranny of the majority was as much to be feared as the tyranny of the crown.

As the states began to consider the newly proposed Constitution, it became clear that Virginia would play the deciding role. By the time the question came to Virginia, eight states had ratified. One more was needed, and all eyes looked to the Old Dominion. Marshall maneuvered to ensure a convention was called, and that the enabling motion did not explicitly authorize amendments (as favored by anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, knowing it would scuttle the whole project if each state offered its own changes). An all-star cast was called to Richmond: Marshall, Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and more. From the start, the outcome was uncertain:

Opposite Henry, James Madison anchored the nationalist end of the spectrum. His tough-minded, interest-based view of politics defined the central thrust of the Constitution. "Let ambition counter ambition," he wrote in Federalist 51, and his advocacy of ratification without amendments was uncompromising. "The question on which the proposed Constitution must turn," he wrote to Edmund Pendleton, "is the simple one whether the Union shall or shall not be continued. There is in my opinion no middle ground to be taken." Marshall, who admired both Henry and Madison, captured the essence of their historic confrontation. Patrick Henry was much more than an orator, said Marshall. He was "a learned lawyer, a most accurate thinker, and a profound reasoner. If I were called uopn to say who of all the men I have known had the greatest power to convince, I should say Mr. Madison, while Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade."

Even in the crowd of luminaries, Marshall's incisive legal reasoning proved noteworthy; it may be that the nationalist views he would espouse from the bench got finely-honed during arguments with this company of giants. The federalists won, if only just (ratification passed 89-79), at which point Marshall was appointed to a committee charged with preparing proposed amendments. These "became the bases for the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution." Despite the heat and vigor with which the debate was joined, Marshall managed to remain on good terms with his political opponents, a skill he retained and put to good use throughout his career. In fact, he would even join forces with Henry as co-counsel on several high profile cases in the years ahead.

Marshall returned to the Richmond bar and quickly rose to prominence as one of the commonwealth's finest solicitors. The 1790s were a tumultuous time, and the legal arena was no different. A new country faces new issues and requires new precedents. The Virginia bar was beset with disputes, with cases especially numerous regarding land titles, debt repayments, and admiralty seizures. He remained politically active, and was amongst the most notable supporters of John Adams' policy of moderate neutrality (attacked by both Jefferson's Republicans and Hamilton's High Federalists). As a result of the high esteem in which Marshall was held, he was designated as one of the three peace emissaries sent to France to attempt to prevent open war, the mission that resulted in the infamous XYZ Affair. Marshall would subsequently serve in Congress and as Secretary of State before being nominated to the Supreme Court by the lame-duck Adams after John Jay declined to re-take the office:

Adam's decision came as a surprise, especially to Marshall. In retrospect, however, the choice appears inevitable. Apart from his devotion to the president, Marshall was one of the few Federalists to command the respect of both parties and one of the few who would bring to the Court both legislative and executive experience. He had represented the United States abroad with distinction, and, with the possible exception of Adams himself, no Federalist stood higher in public esteem. In addition, Marshall's legal skills were superb. His analytical mind and his pragmatic bent had made him one of Adams's most trusted colleagues, and his personal integrity was unchallenged.

Smith spends the latter half of the book examining in great detail the 34 years of Marshall's famed chief justiceship. He covers the shifting make-up of the court and the recurring struggle with radical Republicans to establish the independence of the judiciary. He also highlights the collegial atmosphere promoted by Marshall, resulting in a new practice of issuing an "Opinion of the Court" (usually unanimous and usually authored by Marshall) rather than individual, seriatim opinions. This practice continued through Marshall's tenure even as Republican executives filled the court with their own nominees (a great frustration to Jefferson, not dissimilar to that felt by Republican presidents in our own time). Smith also does a tremendous job discussing each term's important cases. He provides both the factual and procedural background to the key cases, examines the legal issues at stake, the arguments presented by counsel, and parses the court's opinions. Smith has a knack for discussing sophisticated legal issues in a layperson-friendly manner, a skill he also rightly credits Marshall with mastering.

One of the book's few real weaknesses is the dearth of information about Marshall's non-professional life, a stark contrast with Smith's thorough treatment of Roosevelt. Marshall appears to have been a devoted husband, particularly considering his wife's long years of invalidity, but there are few insights beyond that. This does not appear to be Smith's fault, however. Unlike many of his contemporaries who left prodigious records to be mined by historians, Marshall "saved none of his letters or memoranda and systematically destroyed his files at regular intervals."

If such records had survived, there is no doubt Smith would have cited them. As with FDR, Smith has demonstrated his scholarly chops with extensive endnotes (151 pages for 524 pages of text) and a 30-page bibliography. Smith put this research to good use, crafting a biography worthy of American's finest jurist. Marshall deserves a place in history for his non-judicial accomplishments; for his efforts on the bench he belongs on the shortlist of those most responsible for the nation's survival, growth, and prosperity.