Book Review

Biographile, December 8 2013breathless

BREATHLESS: AN AMERICAN GIRL IN PARIS
By Nancy K. Miller
Seal Press, 238pp, $16.
The front cover of Nancy K. Miller’s absorbing new memoir, An American Girl in Paris, shows a young woman in an overcoat, dark hair teased into a low beehive, smiling at the camera as she strolls along the banks of the Seine. Her pose looks confident, but a closer looks shows a little uncertainty in her smile, as though she’s aware that she’s trying too hard to play the role of an insouciant local and disguise what she really is: a brainy, sheltered Upper West Side girl trying to run away from home. The snapshot is a revealing window into what follows, the tension between confidence and timidity, between growth and regression, above all the desire to become something other that what you were raised and trained to be.

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nation2-9The Nation, September 2-9 2013

FASCIST SYMPATHIES: ON DOROTHEA BRANDE

In the mid-1930s, slumped deep in economic depression and faced with ever-worsening news from Europe, Americans turned to self-help with a sharp new thirst. The decade, bookended by the Crash and the War, was a period of seeking, searching and struggling, as is clear from the titles turned bromides like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Life Begins at Forty that still pepper our vocabulary. The decade’s most successful self-help books emphasized the power of the mind and the will to rise above the burden of circumstance. Unable to stabilize the market or the world, readers turned inward and saw themselves anew—as fixable machines, captives of an unbridled will or endlessly renewable resources.

In his first inaugural address in March 1933—the speech in which he asserted that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—President Franklin Roosevelt articulated a basic tenet of self-help: the decade’s problems, he suggested, were as much in people’s heads as in their pocketbooks. Happiness could be found “in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort,” rather than “in the mere possession of money,” and should be understood as a private process rather than a matter of public profit. Successful self-help authors likewise worked to convince readers that they could take power into their own hands, which were not tied by economic circumstances or political realities. That the genre experienced a boom during the politically turbulent 1930s was not a coincidence, but rather a consequence of that turbulence. Despite Roosevelt’s urging that happiness was separate from “the mad chase of evanescent profits” and could be achieved by the power of the mind, self-help would align most powerfully in the decade not with popular democracy but with the politics of fascism.

The extension of the vote to women and Native Americans in the 1920s, the rabble-rousing of populists like Huey Long, and the vastly expanded use of radio to promote political messages, from FDR’s fireside chats to Father Coughlin’s pro-fascist broadcasts—all of these made national politics during the Depression a feature of daily life, and extreme circumstances encouraged extremist philosophies. While the number of Americans who became card-carrying Communists or self-proclaimed fascists remained small, the threats those movements implied—foreign infiltration, forced redistribution of wealth, insurrection, coup d’état—loomed over the decade. As these mass movements threatened to subjugate the individual will, the soul of American identity, self-help offered a way to shore up that will by reconnecting the people with their exceptional natures. For self-help gurus and their acolytes, individual success represented an antidote to mass politics and a promise of stability amid the chaos.

Dorothea Brande’s 1936 guide Wake Up and Live!, which will be reissued by Penguin in September ($15.95), was a slim, simple work of pop psychology that advocated a radically individualistic form of self-improvement. It urged readers to place their own success above all other commitments and to train their mind to overcome the fear of failure. The simple yet elusive formula that made Wake Up and Live! a bestseller—“Act as if it were impossible to fail”—held great attraction for those who felt powerless. It was both heroic and hubristic in its suggestion that failure could be outsmarted; and at a time when the word “failure” was so often yoked to the word “bank” (some 9,000 American banks failed between the 1929 crash and the establishment of the FDIC in 1933), it determinedly wrested power out of the hands of institutions and gave it back to individuals. Brande drew her terminology of the competing “Will to Live” and “Will to Fail” from Nietzsche and pointedly observed that her program took “superhuman strength of character.” It relied on the illusion that an unfair world is a level playing field, on which winners and losers compete on an equal basis, unconstrained by gender, race, class, money or ability.

* * *

Brande’s belief that success proved superiority was a popular theory. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, from 1937, also urged readers to succeed by overcoming their fear of failure. Hill’s ideas grew out of the multifaceted New Thought movement, which had long promoted the power of the mind to bring about material goals, like making money and curing sickness. The New Thought movement originated in the nineteenth century with the teachings of Phineas P. Quimby, a Maine clockmaker who became fascinated by mesmerism, hypnotism and the healing power of the mind (Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was his patient and student). The movement was highly individualistic—a swirling of ideas derived from Emerson and the Transcendentalists, the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and a loosely conceived “Eastern” spirituality—as well as a reaction against the scientific empiricism of the Enlightenment.

Above all, New Thought sought to restore the human mind to power. Hill’s book, which advocated mind-control techniques such as visualization and autosuggestion to bring about wealth and power, was based on the retrospective reasoning of those who were already successful and believed that they had achieved this solely through their extraordinary mental prowess. Hill claimed to have analyzed over a hundred American millionaires, having parlayed a chance encounter with Andrew Carnegie into access to the industrial titans of his day, who were more than happy to reflect on how their personal fortitude had propelled them to prosperity. Think and Grow Rich mystified their road to riches in a way that both intrigued and frustrated its readers, promising a “secret” that the book never really explains beyond urging them to cultivate a “burning desire” for success. More than 15 million people bought it anyway—almost as many as have bought into the twenty-first century’s New Thought phenomenon, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, since 2006. Byrne’s secret is similarly vague. She claims that a “law of attraction” governs the universe and shapes our lives, and that by banishing negative thinking and training our minds to visualize our material desires, we can “attract” what we want. The Secret became a hit after extensive promotion by Oprah Winfrey, but it was later criticized for its pseudoscientific claims, lack of evidence (only Byrne herself seemed to have mastered the law of attraction for material gain) and implicit victim-blaming—if positive thinking could cure cancer, as the book suggests, then presumably those who died of the disease failed to properly visualize recovery.

Although Dorothea Brande does reveal and repeat her formula for success, it remains unclear exactly what it means or how it works. Like political slogans, New Thought–inflected formulas appeal to desire and fear rather than reason. As historian Stephen Recken notes, “words such as power, mastery, and control dominated the literature of the movement”—and spoke directly to a readership that lacked those very things. Filtered through the self-help of writers like Hill and Brande, these ideas promised to liberate readers from the deterministic forces of the economy. There is nothing democratic about 1930s self-help, no sense that it might be possible to better yourself by working to improve everyone’s collective lot. In a political climate fearful of the spread of communism among the “inferior” or disenfranchised masses, the call to rise above, rather than strive together, was especially powerful.

The will-to-success books, then as now, existed alongside self-help guides that preached satisfaction over status and pleasure over power. They also suggested you were alone in your quest. Live Alone and Like It, the 1936 guide by Vogue features editor Marjorie Hillis, encouraged its single-woman readers to build happy, independent lives but warned at the outset that this would take “will-power” and was a solitary pursuit: “When you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you.” The bible of the positive psychology movement, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, would not be published until 1952, but he started airing his radio show, The Art of Living, in 1935. On it he promoted ideas that drew heavily on New Thought, autosuggestion and the belief that the mind was more powerful than external reality—especially if that reality was unpleasant. Although Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People offered social rewards over riches, it strongly hinted that professional success and power would follow. The author clearly took his own advice seriously, reinventing the spelling of his own name, from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie,” in order to imply a relationship to Napoleon Hill’s hero.

According to 1930s self-help guides, the costs of failing to conform to the self-improvement imperative were severe: they were an admission that you were one of society’s losers. The conviction that white American society was in decline was common in the 1930s, a basic tenet of the overlapping work of fascists and eugenicists. Writers like Brande accordingly urged their readers to pursue success in order to separate themselves from the herd of nobodies. The prolific Walter B. Pitkin, author of Life Begins at 40, was one of many who imagined a society divided into an elite and an underclass: his 1935 book Capitalism Carries On envisioned that society as a series of endless improvement workshops, “where the skilled and the experienced tinker with the clumsy, the young, the senile, the malicious, and the pathological precisely as mechanics now tinker with automobiles.” Brande devotes a full chapter of Wake Up and Live! to identifying the numerous and various types of failures, including the seemingly innocuous “embroiderers and knitters,” “aimless conversationalists,” and “takers of eternal post-graduate courses.” There is no call here to “tinker” with the less fortunate: the best you can do is urge them to buy the book.

* * *

Dorothea Brande is now best remembered for her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, a briskly pragmatic guide to literary success, but in her own time she was also well known as the wife of Seward Collins, one of the leading proponents of American fascism. In the middle of the decade, she worked alongside her husband on his right-wing political journal The American Review, regularly contributing articles as she developed her self-help theories. Collins, unlike Brande, was born into money and used it to shortcut Dale Carnegie, buying friends and influencing people. When he moved to New York after Princeton, he also used it to amass a vast collection of erotica that was his pride and obsession. He bought the respected literary periodical The Bookman in 1927, where Brande first came to work for him, and his cultural influence grew within a circle of friends that included Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a disastrous affair with Dorothy Parker at the same time, when his politics were quite different: ”I ran off to the Riviera with a Trotskyite,” she later recalled.

When he abandoned The Bookman to start The American Review, Collins’s politics had turned from Trotskyite to Tory, and he published the English conservatives Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton alongside Allen Tate and other Southern Agrarians. Nostalgia for a lost rural past was a central theme of American conservative thought and a driving force behind several self-help bestsellers of the 1930s, chief among them Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (1937), which presented a mythical Chinese village as the model for contented living. Brande seems to have shared with her husband a suspicion of urban cosmopolitanism, and her writing in The American Review energetically denounced modernist literary culture. In a 1933 review of Q.D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, Brande presents herself as one exhausted by the age: “sick to death of anti-religious prejudice, of subversive social and moral standards, of records of family hatred and morbid self-expression.” Casting euphemism aside, her review of a literary anthology by the Jewish critic Ludwig Lewisohn argues that the kind of “stupidities” that “abound” in the book were not only written by “members of Mr. Lewisohn’s race,” but “come to us oftenest and in their most extreme form from Jewish writers,” a fact that “cannot be denied.” Anti-Semitism was a deeply rooted infection in 1930s America; by itself it was no reliable indicator of fascist political sympathies, but in combination with anti-modernism, nationalist nostalgia and elitism, it became a key ingredient in the kind of fascism promoted by The American Review.

After 1933, Seward Collins swung further rightward, praising Mussolini and Hitler for their defeat of communism and writing regularly in praise of authoritarian leadership. Pressure from Jewish groups and his own disenchanted writers—as well as an embarrassing interview in the left-wing magazine FIGHT, in which Collins both declared himself a fascist and railed against indoor plumbing—led him to close The American Review in 1937. In its place he opened a bookshop for right-wing publications, which was later alleged to have been a meeting place for Nazi sympathizers, although it seems to have been more shabby than sinister. Collins and Brande went on to become increasingly fascinated by the occult and paranormal; Brande trained as a medium, and the couple were closely associated with London’s Society for Psychical Research. Despite her political commitment to Christianity, Brande shows no sign of having believed in the orthodoxy of heaven: Wake Up and Live! is driven by the urgent, fervid belief that the reader has only one life to live, so that even sleep is a waste of precious hours.

* * *

The murky history of American fascism is populated with bizarre characters, and Seward Collins is by no means its most eccentric. Lawrence Dennis, the author of 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, could have been a poster child for ruthless self-improvement and Brande’s Nietzschean “will to succeed.” A Southern-born black man who gained fame as a boy preacher, Dennis cut all ties with his roots to move north, attend Exeter and Harvard, and pass for the rest of his life as white. Like Seward Collins, he advocated the need for a new elite to run the country, armed with what his biographer, Gerald Horne, calls the “firepower of intelligence rather than complexion.” Dennis was motivated by both anti-communism and anti-capitalism, denouncing the corruption of Wall Street’s (Jewish) bankers in the pages of The New Republic and The Nation as well as The Awakener, where he was an editor, and which shared offices with a thinly disguised Italian fascist propaganda agency. If reinventing yourself through the power of mind and indomitable will, costs be damned, was a path to success, then Dennis embodied the parallel faiths of 1930s New Thought self-help and right-wing politics.

However, the entwining of those faiths had yet to find its most influential figure—in the 1930s, she was just beginning her long climb to the apex of the American quasi-fascist self-help philosophy. Alisa Rosenbaum, the Russian immigrant who would reinvent herself as Ayn Rand, goddess of the American right wing, published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936. Rand recognized that self-help relied on the power of the imagination and that fiction could be an even more powerful means to advance an ideology. She offered not formulas but role models, encouraging readers to identify with her lonely, brilliant industrialists hamstrung by the idiocies of lesser men. Wildly elaborated versions of the “case studies” that supported the arguments of Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill and Dorothea Brande, these characters represented the potential of a self-selected, self-centered elite, propelled to power by genius alone. Her novels dramatize the conflict between the successes and the failures, the exceptional individuals and the lazy, dangerous masses, in such a way that the reader need never actually prove the theory in his or her own life … which, in the end, became self-help’s most compelling story of all.

Joanna Scutts teaches at New York University’s Gallatin School. She is at work on a book about 1930s self-help and its appeal to single women.

© The Nation

Book Review

julllepore_011383848761The Washington Post, November 7 2013 

BOOK OF AGES: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
By Jill Lepore
Knopf. 442 pp. $27.95

This is a story of many Janes, stretching in time from the Nine Days’ Queen, Lady Jane Grey, to Jane Austen. A name — the satellite, feminine form of John, nickname Jenny — given again and again through the generations. The only reason we know anything at all about a Boston woman named Jane Mecom, who died in 1794 of “old age, & a Cold,” as it was reported in the church record, is that she was the beloved little sister of one of the most remarkable men in American history.

Jill Lepore’s luminous story of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister is stitched together from fragments and scraps, a life’s “remains” — a word with layers, meaning what is left of the physical body as well as a body of work: literature and descendants. Jane wrote the dates of birth and death of her family members in a “Book of Ages” that she stitched herself: “the remains of her remains,” as Lepore puts it.

Unlike many biographers who deploy fiction to quietly fill the gaps between facts, Lepore — a history professor at Harvard and a New Yorker staff writer — draws attention to what is missing from the story. There is no record of anything Jane Franklin might have thought or felt in her youth. Her brother does not mention her in his autobiography, although they were devoted correspondents. Yet from a few elusive lines in the letters Benjamin wrote back, and from her deep and creative research into the world the Franklins were born into, Lepore gives us a woman in the flesh, with no hints and hedges about what she must, or might, have felt: “She never put on pants. Instead, she bled, and tied rags between her legs.”

Like all the women she knew, and almost all the women in her world, Jane Franklin “lived a life of confinement,” literally and figuratively. For more than half her life, she lived and labored in the house where she was born, and she was pregnant half of that time: 13 times in 20 years. She was the youngest of 17; her brother Benjamin, whom she adored, was six years older. He taught her to write, and then he ran away from home: “When he left, the lessons ended.”

On his 21st birthday, he wrote her a letter in which he warned her to guard her virtue and said he had reports of her beauty. Lepore, astutely, takes neither of these claims at face value: In warning his sister away from men, Benjamin was trying his hand at a conventional kind of correspondence. No portrait was ever made of Jane, so we cannot judge if there was any truth to the pointed flattery, as Lepore writes: “An eighteenth-century letter is a tissue of coyness and custom.” But not long after that letter, Jane was married to one Edward Mecom, who moved in with her and her parents. If she was pregnant at the time, which might explain why she was allowed to marry at the unusually young age of 15, she either miscarried or the baby died. Her first living child, Josiah, named for her father, was born two years later and died just before his first birthday.

All there is to know about Edward Mecom is a scant paper trail of failure — furniture seized in payment of debts — and fertility. He and Jane stayed in her family’s house and had 11 more children, of whom nine survived to adulthood. She named them for her siblings and forebears, and they did the same with their children — a family tree full of Benjamins and Janes. Lepore elegantly reads between the lines: All the children named a child after their mother, not one after their father. Those who survived infancy struggled and suffered. Jane’s daughter Polly died at 19, Sally in her mid-20s. Her sons were “unsteady,” unreliable, listless, sickly — despite their uncle Benjamin’s increasingly useful connections and inspirational example, they proved unable to rouse themselves to success. Her son Peter, by the age of 24, was “violently insane,” and Jane had to pay a woman in the countryside to care for him.

Why were the Mecoms so relentlessly sick? Lepore speculates plausibly that the disease that came to be called tuberculosis might have burrowed into their lungs and brains in the close, dark quarters of the house they shared. It could cause “lassitude” and early death; it could cause insanity. The doctors and scientists of the Enlightenment were struggling to understand better how such things were transmitted and how they might be treated. Meanwhile, Jane Franklin Mecom died believing she had outlived all but one of her children: her daughter Jane.

In part three of Lepore’s book, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award in nonfiction, Jane bursts into speech at age 45, in the first of her surviving letters. She sent it to Benjamin’s wife, Deborah, full of family and town gossip. To Benjamin she sent requests for advice about her wayward sons, along with her reflections on what she was reading, and increasingly her opinions on public affairs as the economy and conditions of life in Boston deteriorated after the middle of the 18th century. Lepore suggests that Jane’s personal losses made her question her beliefs and drove her growing interest in government, making her wonder whether “not only Providence but also men in power — politics — determined the course of human events.”

In the excerpts from her letters included here, Jane emerges as witty, curious and resilient in the face of unimaginable grief, yet she is not an unsung hero of the revolution, a forgotten Abigail Adams. Her importance, as Lepore’s portrait memorably shows, lies in her ordinariness — her learning thwarted by circumstance, but her intelligence shaped by her uniquely female experience. We may know about Jane Franklin only because of her famous brother, but he is not why she matters.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor at New York University.

© The Washington Post Company

Interview

self-help-messiahBiographile, November 21 2013

DECODING DALE CARNEGIE: A Q&A WITH STEVEN WATTS

SELF-HELP MESSIAH: DALE CARNEGIE AND SUCCESS IN MODERN AMERICA
By Steven Watts
Other Press. 592pp. $29.95

Steven Watts’ Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America is the first biography of Dale Carnegie, the self-help guru whose multimillion-copy-selling 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People remains one of the most-read and most influential books of the twentieth century. In his revealing biography, Watts looks behind the mask of the prophet of positive thinking to uncover his poor rural origins, his checkered professional career, and his complex personal life.

BIOGRAPHILE: You’ve previously written biographies of important cultural figures like Walt Disney and Henry Ford. What led you to Dale Carnegie? Did this project grow out of your previous work?

STEVEN WATTS: In part I was simply looking for a new subject in modern American culture after my last book. But in a more intellectual vein, I had always been struck by students’ reactions to Carnegie’s How to Win Friends when I taught it in various classes. Some hated it and some loved it, and the discussions were always lively. So I looked into Carnegie and discovered no biographies had been written about him. So the project seemed like a natural opportunity to write an interesting and informative book.

BIOG: As you were Carnegie’s first biographer, was there was a lot of detective work involved?

SW: After scouting around, I discovered there was an archive of material on Carnegie at the offices of Dale Carnegie and Associates on Long Island. The company agreed to open those sources to me — they were largely untapped — and I also ended up interviewing several members of Carnegie’s family, including his daughter, his granddaughter, and his son-in-law. So I was able to use a lot of new material in writing the life of this influential cultural figure.

BIOG: What particularly surprised you along the way?

SW: I was surprised to discover that Carnegie mainly saw himself as a teacher, a calling he pursued since he began to teach courses on public speaking in 1912. How to Win Friends, in fact, flowed directly out of the lesson plans and talks that evolved in the Carnegie Course over the previous twenty-five years, and he always considered his writing as secondary to his teaching. I was also surprised to uncover something previously unknown both to his family and his company: a long relationship with a married woman that produced a girl he believed to be his daughter. Even though he broke things off when he married in the mid-1940s, he continued to support and encourage the “daughter,” whom he loved dearly.

BIOG: It seems that Carnegie drew a great deal from his own life in developing his theories — although he was keenly interested in psychology, it was really his own experiences that gave him the basis for his teaching and his books. However, that also meant that he had difficulty reconciling his own life with his fame, and living up to people’s expectations.

SW: Carnegie’s own life was a rags-to-riches tale, as he rose from poverty in rural Missouri to great fame and influence. But it came only after he had cycled through a number of jobs and professions as an actor, a novelist, an entertainment impresario, and a journalist. After becoming successful and writing the book on how to create an attractive personality and develop human relations skills, he discovered that people expected a larger-than-life, charismatic figure when they saw him — when in fact he was a rather modest, soft-spoken Midwesterner. He worried about disappointing people. Carnegie also discovered that his principles of “make the other person feel important” in his famous book aroused controversy over the issue of sincerity. Critics suggested that he was really promoting a program of “flattery” as a way to soft-soap others and make them susceptible to your will. That fine line between genuine appreciation of others, and manipulating others through false praise, continues to bedevil his program.

BIOG: You give an intriguing analysis of his name change, for example; he seemed not to understand its significance, or the idea that it could be seen as insincere or manipulative.

SW: Carnegie’s name change in early adulthood — from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie” — did have a whiff of manipulation to it. While done for practical reasons, he claimed, it also seems in part to have been an attempt to associate himself with the famous industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

BIOG: How do you feel about him now, having written the book?

SW: Having finished the book, I see Carnegie as neither good nor bad but as fascinatingly human, an individual with a great life story. But more importantly, I see him as a very influential figure in the shaping of modern American culture. His endeavors, both with his course and his books, created the foundation for modern notions of success in our complex bureaucratic society. Carnegie created the foundation for the plethora of self-help programs that have become central to the therapeutic culture that envelops us today.

Interview

than-you-for-your-service-finkelBiographile, November 11 2013.

LIFE IN THE AFTER-WAR: A Q&A WITH DAVID FINKEL
Joanna Scutts

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
By David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books. 272pp. $26

David Finkel’s powerful new book, Thank You for Your Service, follows a group of soldiers home from Iraq, exploring how they, their families, and the military establishment tackle the day-to-day stresses and dangers of life in the “after-war.” Here, we catch up with Finkel on what brought him from The Good Soldiers to Thank You for Your Service and more.

BIOGRAPHILE: How did this book develop out of your previous book, The Good Soldiers?

DAVID FINKEL: The Good Soldiers was an account of what happens to a group of young infantry soldiers going into the Iraq War, who were on the ground for almost fifteen months. I was with them reporting for about eight months, and the intent was to write an intimate portrait of young men going into really any war: They had a rough time of it, and they came home changed, and that was that. I thought I had done my job, but then – I guess because of the credibility I had gained from the first book – some of them began getting in touch with me and describing sleeplessness, bad dreams, depression, anxiety; I heard of a couple of suicide attempts. So I realized I’d only written half the story.

BIOG: So they reached out to you – they felt this needed to continue as much as you did?

DF: They weren’t talking to many people, but some of them did want to talk to me. I was grateful for that, but I was also disturbed, thinking they’ve got to have someone better to talk to than a journalist.

BIOG: A major part of the story is the men’s need to be heard and to have their struggle recognized – but they also feel inhibited in telling it.

DF: Yes, this is pretty brutal stuff that they’re going through, and for whatever reason they decided that it was worth laying themselves out, so people can have a better sense of what’s happening in a lot of homes across the country. It’s not just the men, it’s – forgive me for saying “wives and girlfriends,” but this new book is an extension of the first one, and because it was an infantry battalion, it was all male. The story I’d told was with these guys, so I stuck with them and their families.

BIOG: How long did you spend with the characters? Were you writing their stories simultaneously, or did you focus on one story at a time?

DF: The only move I have – I wish I had others – is immersion reporting, where you just show up, and you stay, and you see what happens. Over the years I’ve gained confidence that if you stay long enough, some kind of story will develop. For the first book, I came home with a pile of notes and then spent a year shaping them into some kind of narrative. The same thing this time. I had the sense that something was up, so I went, and spent as much time with the families as I could, over the course of a couple of years. Embedding again is a way to describe it – just being present. And over time things did happen, and at the end of it once again I had a pile of notes that I shaped into a narrative of what the after-war is like.

BIOG: Have you had responses from the people in the book since it’s come out?

DF: I’m starting to. The territory of this one, the terrain, is really difficult psychological stuff – not without amusement, not without hope, but it’s pretty tough stuff. So I told these folks that if they signed on to be a part of the project, one of the parts of the deal was that they couldn’t see the book until it came out. They would have to take a leap of faith, and let me be around as long as I needed and wanted to be around, and trust that I would write a book that truly respected what they’d been through. There’s one soldier who doesn’t live far from me in Washington, D.C., so I met him for dinner, gave him a copy of the book, and then we went on our way. Somewhere around two in the morning I got a text from him saying, “I’m on chapter one.” Then he texted again saying, “I’m laughing hysterically”; then he texted a little bit later and said, “I can’t stop crying.” Then a few minutes later he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to chapter two.” So that was one response. Other people have said it’s not easy for them to see themselves but they’re going to keep going. So what I’ve heard so far suggests that what they’re reading, they’re recognizing as the truth of their story.

BIOG: You also describe how the personal stories connect to official policy, and what the military is trying to do about suicide prevention and mental health provision. Was that always going to be a part of the story?

DF: Well, I didn’t know what the story was when I began – I was just following these people as they went through what they were going through, which led them to this sprawling, overwhelmed mental health system. There are some successes, but there are also some colossal failures in the system. In the case of Adam Schumann, Nic DeNinno, and Tausolo Aieti – they all reached a point where not only did they enter this system of mental health care but their three varying experiences say so much about what’s out there and how messy it is.

BIOG: And the accidents of their circumstances make their recovery so much harder – lack of money, social and geographic isolation.

DF: Underneath all there’s the intense stigma attached to saying anything in the first place. So many guys would say that they wished they could look in the mirror and see an actual physical representation of an injury, so then they would believe something was wrong with them. As I’ve seen again and again with these guys, once they say something, they’re just waiting to be told that they’re a piece of shit for needing help at all. They’re waiting to be shamed for having to ask, rather than feeling a sense of release for saying something.

BIOG: So they can’t say anything until some kind of violence has happened, and it’s the absolute last resort.

DF: Right, it’s out of crisis. But I’ll say this: There are some incredibly compassionate people in the military leadership who want to help. You have people like [U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff] Peter Chiarelli, who I write about, who understand at a deep level that you can’t go to war without being affected, and that a certain segment of the population will need help recovering, and society needs to take that seriously. That’s great, but you still have the old-fashioned guys who just call somebody who needs help a “pussy.”

We can have disagreements all day about whether these wars were worthwhile, but that’s not the group I’m writing about. These weren’t the people who created policy, they were the people who went over there – for whatever reason – and carried out policy. Adam Schumann, in that regard, by every estimate had done well, and yet he came home feeling guilt and shame that he had to leave early. He’d saved a couple of guys, even though he had a broken leg, and he was on fire, but the thing that causes him to break down was the one guy he couldn’t save, who he dreams about. I remember saying to Tausolo Aieto one day: “Do you ever dream about the guys who you did save?” He said, “Well, that doesn’t seem to be what my dreams are about.” And on it goes. Amanda Doster, the widow of James Doster, what’s her shame? Her shame is that it’s three years later and she can’t get over it. As if there’s a timetable. So we can all assume that we know that the after-war is hard, but I think if you read these stories, you actually do know what the day-to-day is like.

BIOG: You end on the moving idea that ultimately this is not a story of crisis and recovery, but it’s about trying, every day. There aren’t cures or drugs that will take this away: it’s up to the men and their families to just keep trying. That might not be the hopeful ending that we want, but it seems to be the real one.

DF: These are people who went to war thinking they knew what it would be about, and then they didn’t. Then they come home changed, into families where the expectation is they’re home now, so everything’s going to be OK. So day-to-day life is something that’s so out of whack – it’s about reacting to what’s now, what’s next – and against that they keep trying to regain some sense of control. They’d like to feel better, and what else is there to do except wake up, and try again?

BIOG: At the end of the book, instead of being an empty gesture, your title starts to feel more genuine. You feel a sense of respect that isn’t just formulaic.

DF: Maybe the point of the title is that you’ll read this and realize whom you’re thanking and what you’re thanking them for. These wars have seemed so distant, but this is not a book about “those people over there.” They’re not them, they’re us: they went to war, they’re trying to feel better, and here they are.

Interview

happy-marriage-ann-patchettBiographile, November 5 2013. (Part II November 13 2013.)

FACT AND FICTION: A Q&A WITH ANN PATCHETT
Joanna Scutts

THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE
By Ann Patchett
Harper. 305pp. $27.99

The award-winning novelist and memoirist, author of the brand-new collection of writings, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and owner of Nashville’s beloved indie bookstore Parnassus, opens up to Biographile about the public role of a writer, and about tempting fate with a title, in the first part of a two-part interview.

BIOGRAPHILE: In your introduction, you present the book as a serendipitous, almost accidental collection of your nonfiction essays. Do you now see a larger story unfolding through these different stories — a thematic through-line?

ANN PATCHETT: Oh, absolutely — I think I was being cavalier [in the introduction] because it took me two years to do it. My friend Niki Castle put it together and then I kept going through and taking out the pieces that I thought were weak and writing something else to build a narrative arc. Then I would read it through again, and something that had seemed really great two or three readings ago now seemed weak, because I kept upping it, kept pulling things out. If it works the way I want it to work, it’s a book about the things that I am deeply committed to: the things that I am, in a sense, married to. Not just my husband — family, friends, dogs, art, work, bookselling. The things that I wouldn’t give up.

BIOG: So the title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,is bigger than just the one essay that shares it. When did that emerge as the title for the book?

AP: It was fairly late in the game. On one hand, speaking as a bookseller, it’s a great title. Garrison Keillor was reading at the store last night, and he asked me about the title, and I said it. He looked up and he just looked so shocked, and said, “That’s a great title. It’s fiction, right?” I cracked up and said no, and he said, “That’s terrifying.” And that’s sort of how I felt about it. It’s a great title but it was so scary to me, because it’s as if I’m saying, “My children are beautiful, and they love me, and they get good grades, and they don’t smoke crack” — it’s just a really bad idea from a personal point of view to call a book this, because it’s like inviting the evil into your life. Once I decided to call it that, every time my husband and I had an argument I would say, “Oh, this is great, I’ve got a book coming out in six months called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and look at us now!”

BIOG: You have at least until the paperback version comes out …

AP: That’s right! “This was the story of a happy marriage.” Only have to change two letters.

BIOG: It’s how literary titles tend to go — you’re waiting for the ironic twist.

AP: If nothing else, it’s a title that will make people go to the book and say, “What? What’s that about?” And that’s what you want.

BIOG: There are so many ways it can be read — it brings up ideas of what marriage is, how a happy marriage is different, and what happiness is.

AP: There’s a picture of me on the back of the book, which is something I normally object to, but it’s in the bookstore, and it’s me sitting in this sea of books. There are boxes of books all around, and there are books up to the ceiling, and I’m quite small — and I really like that, because if you picked the book up and turned it over you’d think, well, wait, is she talking about being married to books? And in a way, I am.

BIOG: I wanted to ask about the challenge in nonfiction of deciding what’s private and what’s public. I found the stories about your public engagement as a writer so striking, particularly about opening the bookstore, and around the Clemson speech and controversy. [In 2006, Clemson University in South Carolina assigned Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty, the story of her close friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, to the incoming freshman class, and invited the author to give the convocation address; Patchett found herself subject to a protest and smear campaign by “concerned” locals and parents who objected to the book.] Do you find it harder to write about yourself in these public roles, where it’s not just your story that you’re telling?

AP: No, I don’t — in fact, I’d never even thought of it. When I’m writing about opening the bookstore, or about Clemson, I’m really writing about how I am feeling in that experience, so it doesn’t register as different than when I’m in the nursing home feeding my grandmother.

BIOG: The bookstore story in particular is about becoming aware that suddenly you’re the face of something. It remains your perspective, but it brings up an interesting question about the public role of the writer.

AP: It’s true, because I am telling stories in which I’m in front of an audience, and a lot of other people are viewing me as these things are happening, but that doesn’t change my personal experience in the moment — I’m just in it. I’m also viewing myself with a certain amount of detachment, as the person that these things are happening too, but it doesn’t change me as a person. No matter what’s going on, we’re still just seeing the world with our own two eyes.

Part II

BIOGRAPHILE: Do you think Truth and Beauty would have been as controversial a choice for the students at Clemson if it were a novel?

ANNE PATCHETT: Oh, I think it wouldn’t have been. In the speech that I gave at Clemson I say something about that, that maybe the reason that The Great Gatsby andAnna Karenina and other novels aren’t as upsetting is that they aren’t true, and so we can think, well, people didn’t really behave this way. Yet personally, I find fiction so much more moving and glorious than I do nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction and I enjoy it, but if I make a list of my favorite books, they’re always novels.

What fiction is good for is it gives us empathy, because it forces us into the skin of another person, in the way that nonfiction doesn’t always do. Somehow in nonfiction, knowing the story is true, we stay outside and observe it, and yet in fiction — if it’s good — we’re often really forced into the story, and into the skin of the character. We can say, that’s how that feels, or I don’t want to participate in these acts — or I do want to participate — because now I have a better sense of how it feels.

BIOG: And somehow, with an autobiographical piece of writing, it’s easier to blame the writer for the bad feelings we may have when we read. With a novelist, we understand that it’s imagination — we’re a step removed.

AP: When you read a novel you can imagine it happening to you. I read Katherine Boo’s book,Behind the Beautiful Foreversabout Mumbai and the slums, and to me it’s a wonderful book, but I had a sense of disconnect. Compassion, but just thinking, Man, I am never going to Mumbai. Whereas if I read a book like White Tiger, another book about poverty in India, but it’s a novel, I feel it all pressing in on me. I feel like, I just shot that guy. It brings a panic up in me, that closeness with the character.

BIOG: Also the uniqueness of your experience, as a nonfiction writer, is part of what makes your story special. It can’t be shared in the same way, so the writer has to find different ways to share what they’re feeling and thinking. Although this isn’t primarily a book about writing, there’s a lot here about your writing methods. Do you approach nonfiction differently from fiction?

AP: Well, for me, nonfiction is so much a job, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been a successful nonfiction writer, compared to some of my friends who are novelists. This was true especially in my twenties and thirties. I have lots of friends whom I was always recommending to magazines — I’ll put in a good word for you, and you can get this job too — and they couldn’t do it. They procrastinated. They couldn’t do this whole deadline thing, and it made them incredibly miserable, to have the looming assignment, and for some reason that never bothered me; I’m really good with assignments! But there really aren’t a lot of fiction writers who go back and forth between the two. [Elizabeth] Gilbert is a good friend of mine and she of course is somebody who does it brilliantly, but at the same time, everybody is just so shocked that she can write fiction, even though she started out writing fiction. No, there aren’t a lot of people we’re willing to accept this from.

BIOG: You mention that one of the changes in the publishing landscape has been that you’re given different parameters by, say, Audible and Byliner, to write longer pieces. In the book, the difference between what would have been a substantial magazine article feels much smaller next to those longreads, and has a different rhythm. Does that higher word count change your writing?

AP: It really does, because I’m so fixated on word count. Do you know that magazine called The Week? They have an author in there every week who picks six books to recommend, and they said it was supposed to be 320 words. So I pick my six books and I write my six little descriptions, and it’s 320 words, and I send it in. The editor wrote back and said, “Oh my God, you actually turned in 320 words. Usually when I say it’s supposed to be 320 words, an author sends in 900, and then I have to cut it down.” So it has been really interesting to open up. But at the same time, Audible and Byliner also told me how long they wanted it — 15 or 20,000 words. It wasn’t like I could just write forever.

The one piece actually where I had no restrictions was the piece about the Los Angeles Police Department [a story in which Patchett, the daughter of an LAPD captain, successfully tries out for the Police Academy]. I had written a very short piece about that and then I went back and rewrote it for the book and made it really long, because I had all these fabulous notes. But even then, at the end, I found myself going back and cutting out big chunks of that piece, because I was afraid it was going to be boring, that I was giving too much information.

BIOG: So having a sense of the length of a story will start to shape it even before you begin to write.

AP: Absolutely.

Feature

bookermaniaThe Millions, October 23 2013

BOOKERMANIA!
Joanna Scutts

On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.

The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.

However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.

What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.

Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.

Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reportedGraham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.

“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.

Book Review

woman-rebelBiographile, October 15 2013.

WOMAN REBEL: THE MARGARET SANGER STORY
Peter Bagge
Drawn & Quarterly. $21.95

In cartoonist Peter Bagge’s new graphic biography Woman Rebel, the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger is a flame-haired, rubber-limbed crusader, whose eyes pop in fury and disbelief at the small-minded opposition of powerful men to her cause. Bagge’s wildly funny treatment presents a necessarily edited version of Sanger’s extraordinary life, although detailed notes at the end of the book explain “Who’s Who and What’s What,” and flesh out the various characters with whom Sanger tangled throughout her long life.

The first pages skip rapidly through the early life of the girl born Margaret Higgins in Corning, New York, one of ten surviving children of Irish Catholic immigrants. It’s clear that the fate of Margaret’s mother, who had eighteen pregnancies in twenty-five years, shaped Margaret’s views on the necessity of family planning; on her deathbed, gray and fatalistic, Anne Higgins tells her daughter “it was the Lord’s will” and “that’s what happens when two people love each other.” Sanger’s activism, in this story, begins early and is also shaped by her father’s fiery socialist views. When she learns that she has contracted tuberculosis, the disease that killed her mother, she is groggy but determined that it will not slow her down.

Margaret and her husband, William Sanger — an aspiring architect working as an architectural draftsman — begin their married life in a conventional way, in a New York suburb where they have three children in quick succession. But in Bagge’s drawings, children are heavy and burdensome: ugly, outsized bundles that hamper women’s freedom of movement. Sanger’s marriage, similarly, becomes burdened by the obligation to care for the children amid the increasingly powerful pull of politics. In her work as a nurse in poor New York City neighborhoods, Sanger witnessed the misery of women driven to desperate botched abortion attempts by unwanted pregnancies and children they couldn’t support, and became increasingly determined to bring to these families the contraceptive information that had long been quietly available to upper-class women.

In 1912, a column Sanger published in the socialist newspaper The New York Call brought her to the attention of her nemesis, postal inspector Anthony Comstock, who used his position to prevent the distribution of any material he considered obscene — which meant anything remotely to do with sex. It would be Comstock — and the sweeping Victorian-era anti-vice laws named for him — against whom Sanger would eventually triumph in the 1936 trial that effectively legalized birth control for distribution by doctors. The unforgettably named “United States vs. One Package of Japanese Pessaries” was precipitated by Sanger’s ordering contraceptive devices from Japan, with the intention of getting them intercepted and forcing the trial.

Due to the nature of her work, Sanger is frequently pictured in the dock, fuming in courtrooms presided over by whiskered judges, or imprisoned in gloomy, unsanitary cells. Throughout her career, as her signature red hair gradually turns gray, she remains a forceful presence, often shown in horrified close-up in response to various friends, co-conspirators, and opponents who try to obstruct or distort her message. Bagge’s warts-and-all style gives Sanger a personality that jumps off the page.

In his afterword “Why Sanger?” Bagge takes note of the many negative myths that have arisen around Sanger and her work, and he doesn’t shy away from portraying controversial moments. Yes, Sanger once addressed a meeting of a women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan, but she was never a member or sympathizer, despite her use of then-common terms like “negro.” She would speak to any group of women who agreed to hear her, and use any means to share her message with, especially, impoverished women who had never been taught even the most rudimentary biology — Bagge’s version of the KKK event has Sanger interrupted by a young woman asking “what’s a vagina?” Her sympathy for eugenics is harder to unravel, but Bagge notes that in the early twentieth century, the much-feared term covered a vast and wide-ranging ideology, and its supporters advocated everything from clean water and improved nutrition to sterilization of the “unfit.” At the time, hardline eugenicists criticized Sanger for being insufficiently committed to the movement and for refusing to use race as a category of “fitness” — and far from being a Nazi sympathizer, Sanger’s books were among the earliest to be banned by Hitler’s regime.

“It’s an irony festival!” Bagge writes about the various denunciations of Sanger, emphasizing how difficult it is to judge her by twenty-first-century standards. It’s hard for us to see how the founder of Planned Parenthood could also be staunchly anti-abortion, how a woman working so hard for women’s rights could often be a fierce antagonist to other female activists, and how Sanger could balance her enthusiasm for “free love” (which included affairs with H.G. Wells, among many others) against what often looks like neglect of her own family. In Bagge’s unfailingly entertaining telling, Sanger is no saint — but she is something like a heroine.

Book Review

ConfrontingTheClassicsHCThe Washington Post, October 18 2013

CONFRONTING THE CLASSICS: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations

By Mary Beard
Liveright. 310 pp. $28.95

At the end of this energetic and eclectic collection of book reviews on classical subjects from Augustus to Asterix, Mary Beard considers the basic question, “What are reviews for?” Beyond “a basic quality-control mechanism,” she sees them as opportunities for debate and conversation, a way of taking a book seriously and treating its ideas as worthwhile. At the same time, Beard, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge and has served as classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement for 20 years, admits that keeping things appropriately fair and balanced can be difficult in such a small world, where reviewers are more than likely to run into their subjects at conferences. It therefore takes a particularly talented writer such as Beard — clear-eyed, witty, learned, sincere — to engage outsiders in such questions as the true meaning of Thucydides’s barely penetrable Greek, the political importance of Cleopatra for Rome, the greatness of Alexander and, underneath it all, how we know what (we think) we know about ancient Greece and Rome.

The essays that make up most of “Confronting the Classics” are as much about what happens in the gap between antiquity and modernity as they are about the ancient works of art, literature, history and architecture themselves. Beard has no time for misty-eyed idealizing of the culture of Greece and Rome (or the era when it was more widely studied), beyond what it may reveal about those doing the looking back. Classical study has been lamented as “in decline” since at least Thomas Jefferson, as she points out, and such laments “are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies.” The scholars whose books she praises most highly are therefore those who do not try to smooth over the gaps in the record but to jump into them and peek about.

In the past few years, Beard has become the public face of modern classical scholarship in Britain, fronting BBC television shows about Pompeii and Caligula. Her high profile has made her the target of some vicious online attacks, which she has discussed in a blog she writes for the Times Literary Supplement. In light of her experience, her examinations of the misogyny and mythmaking surrounding powerful women such as Boadicea, Cleopatra and Augustus’s wife Livia are particularly trenchant. One of the most disturbing and important essays in the book, “What Gets Left Out” — ostensibly a somewhat inside-baseball examination of Robert B. Todd’s 2004 “Dictionary of British Classicists” — asks whether a respected don’s well-known “pawing about” of his female students ought to be part of the record. This question develops into a deeper one about pedagogy, politics and biographical censorship, how reputations are formed differently for men and women, and who, exactly, gets to be termed a “classicist.”

Reviewing Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra,” Beard faults the otherwise “skeptical and businesslike” biographer for taking at face value a description of the extravagant Ptolemaic kingdom written by an unknown historian and surviving only as an entry in a literary encyclopedia assembled by the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death. Beard easily demonstrates that this is preposterous as a factual account, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful or interesting. Beard’s real point is that if we skip over the biases, gaps and questionable authenticity of pretty much all of these ancient sources in order to pretend that we can recover what Cleopatra’s childhood was “really” like, we are missing out on a more interesting question: Why do we want to know? Why have there been, as Beard points out, five biographies of Cleopatra in five years, and why are we willing to accept so much fiction in our ancient history? Elsewhere, Beard argues that this is less a problem of publishing’s love affair with biography than it is of “what modern historians of the ancient world think . . . is worth studying and writing about.” Generally, this is not what the ancient material (which is, in fact, extraordinary diverse and extensive) can tell us, which means that the historian ends up trying to solve a problem she herself has constructed: “Prestige in this business goes to those who outwit their sources.”

As well as posing important historiographical questions, Beard’s book is rich in revelation about the Greek and Roman world, especially in essays that explore the snobbery directed at freed slaves in Rome, the misery of Roman soldiers garrisoning a dull and drizzly Britain, developments in classical tourism since the 19th century, and what we can learn from the ancients’ favorite joke book. It helps to have a basic grasp of ancient history, but concise introductions to each of the book’s five sections explain how the essays fit together and what questions run through them, so that even pieces that dig into knotty problems of translation, excavation and political ideology remain accessible.

We will never know everything we might want to know about how Greeks and Romans thought, spoke and lived, but as Mary Beard demonstrates, there’s plenty that we do know, and plenty more we can continue to argue about.

Scutts is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor at New York University.

© The Washington Post Company