The Civil War’s 150th anniversary, Dickens’s bicentennial, the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring. All these are reason enough for updated biographies, groundbreaking research and new works that interpret history and the world of literature.
If you thought it was impossible to mine new information on Thomas Jefferson’s life and his contradictory attitudes (and behavior) toward slavery, think again! Two significant new works this year underscore how much of Jefferson’s life was at odds with the reality of his actions and attitudes as a slaveholder. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek (Farrar, Straus & Giroux $26) is a detailed and intimate portrait of Jefferson’s world through the prism of slaveholding as a landowner, agriculturalist and man of elegant lifestyle, who financed construction of Monticello through his slaveholdings of 600 people; and who was not averse to the use of the whip to keep his young male slaves in line. Jon Mecham’s Thomas Jefferson: The art of power (Random House. 759 pp. $35) is less revelatory about how Jefferson’s “blind spot” as a slaveholder contradicted his ideals for the nation. New York Times critic Janet Maslin notes, “This biography ascribes less complexity and malice to Jefferson than other recent books have. But it captures less of his brilliance too.” It is, however, a tour de force of facts and information – the endnotes and bibliography run more than 200 pages. Will we ever know who was the real Jefferson? Review of The art of power
Two books this year – on Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln – would be worth reading concurrently, perhaps even side by side. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands, demonstrates the paradoxes that led Grant into a military career and then on to the presidency in the Reconstruction era. Grant did not want to go to West Point (he went nonetheless); his family believed he was a failure, though he rose to prosecute the Civil War successfully for Lincoln in a series of bloody battles that ended at Appomattox. Respected for his strategic brilliant in the military theatre ( e.g. “ his ability to visualize the entire battlefield in the midst of conflict…to take risks, and …courage in the face of setbacks.”), he was called a “butcher” for the thousands of Union troops he sacrificed in bloody battles. He disdained politics but was elected twice to the presidency(1869-1877) – the second time with the largest popular majority of the 19th century. Grant’s reputation has taken a beating for more than a century over his support of corrupt political nominees and other scandals. This biography (one of 7 on him written in recent years) reconsiders the man and is more benevolent. Reviewer Michael Korda notes, ““As president he prevented America from going to war with Britain or France, treated Native Americans with a decency and sympathy never emulated by his successors, did more than his share to bring the former Confederate states back into the Union as political equals, and appointed the first black to West Point as a cadet.” Daily Beast review
Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, David von Drehle ( Henry Holt & Co.) Von Drehle focuses on the year 1862 – early days in the Civil War, financial disaster looming in the US Treasury, pressures from all around. Read the Atlantic essay adapted from von Drehle book for an incisive look at how Lincoln rose to greatness in the next 12 months – as commander in chief and architect of plans for winning the War and advancing Emancipation. Atlantic essay adapted from the book
The bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth (b.1812) is cause for celebration: Dickens & the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor is a new book that takes center stage in examining why the prolific writer was so committed to reform. Historian Ruth Richardson ( Fellow of the Royal Historical Society) bolsters her claim that the Old Strand Workhouse, just a few doors from where Dickens lived as a child, is the source and inspiration for his book Oliver Twist. The hour-long interview with Diane Rehm is worth a listen before you run out to get the book
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Reiss. (Crown Publishers) 414 pp. $27. The biracial Alexandre Dumas, son of an aristocratic French father and a black slave woman, was the inspiration for his son Alexandre, to write The Count of Monte Cristo, based on real-world experiences the father had had, languishing in an Italian prison, at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte He also drew on his father’s life for The Three Musketeers. (The third generation Alexandre was also a writer!) This biography focuses on the life of “the black count” who became a free man and nobleman, moved to France, rose to the rank of general, and survived The Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. You could not possibly make up all of the twists and turns of this great story. Review and excerpt
Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring marks its 50th anniversary this year with a new biography On a Distant Shore : The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder (Crown Publishers) 496 pp. $30, on the gentle biologist-writer who warned the nation that indiscriminate pesticide application and its overuse on crops, in particular DDT, was having deleterious effects on birds, fish, animals and even humans. Today, after a half-century of ongoing attacks on Carson (1907-1964) by those call her research “junk science” and wrongly blame her for malaria deaths in countries that have banned DDT, many people have new appreciation for her truth-telling and recognition that she was a stimulus for modern environmentalism.
DDT was widely used during World War II to kill mosquito populations in the tropical Pacific Theatre and to delouse humans in Europe, including in Nazi concentration camps. After the war, DDT was used prolifically as a pesticide on crops such as cotton and potatoes. A powerful neurotoxin, it can destroy hundreds of insect varieties and remain toxic for long periods. Even today, DDT remains in the atmosphere from spraying by countries that have not banned its use (the US ban came in 1972) and even lying dormant in the soil, where it can become volatile. Many humans carry the so-called “body burden” of retaining DDT in their cells.
Souder’s essay in Slate looks at the arguments still raging over Carson and her legacy and asks: “Why do we fight? How is it that the environment we all share is the subject of partisan debate?” Book review