Book Review

HeirApparentThe Washington Post, January 3 2014.

A Life of Edward VII, The Playboy Prince

By Jane Ridley
Random House. 752pp. $35
When the dissipated, overweight, scandal-prone Prince of Wales finally got the job he’d been waiting for all his life, he was 59 and tired. “It has come too late,” he said, in German, to his wife, Alexandra, as she knelt and kissed his hand beside his mother’s deathbed. Jane Ridley’s exhaustive new biography presents her subject as a Victorian Prince Hal, an immature philanderer who grows up into a decent, if hardly heroic, king.

Certainly nobody hoped for much from Victoria’s eldest son — “few kings have come to the throne amid lower expectations” — but those low expectations were his own doing, as hundreds of pages of biography have already detailed. As an attempt to rescue Edward VII (known as “Bertie”) from unfairly harsh historical judgments, the story of his reign — like the reign itself — is too little, too late. The story is also an indictment of the system of hereditary monarchy. And it’s hard not to see parallels between Bertie’s fate and that of his great-great-grandson Prince Charles, now 65: to spend adult life searching for something to do while waiting for Mother to die.

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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


self-help-messiahBiographile, November 21 2013


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.


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

Joanna Scutts

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.

Book Review

woman-rebelBiographile, October 15 2013.

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.


ZealotBiographile, August 27 2013. Part II, August 29 2013.

Joanna Scutts

Random House. 336pp. $27

The biographer of Jesus of Nazareth has been fielding plenty of media interest and controversy over his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which attempts to uncover the man behind the Messiah. We spoke to him about the constraints of biography, the challenge of researching a time before “history,” and Jesus as a political rebel in part one of our interview. Check back later this week for part two.

BIOGRAPHILE: Why did you choose biography, as opposed to any other way of writing about Jesus? What was it about biography that gave you new possibilities?

REZA ASLAN: When you write about Jesus it’s hard to avoid either Christology on the one hand, or apology on the other. For so many billions of people around the world, Jesus is more than just a man, so if you want to treat him as a man, you can’t avoid dealing with the theological implications of his life. The only way to do so is through the lens of a biography, because then you’re limited in how speculative you can be. There are many books about Jesus that challenge orthodox Christian views of him, but so many of those books are themselves a form of theology — they speculate about influences he may have had, places he may have visited, et cetera. What biography essentially forces me to do is to maintain a sense of grounding, to keep from making statements that cannot be backed by the history of the world in which Jesus lived.

BIOG: So it’s a way of limiting yourself to those known facts, which are so few and far between, and resisting speculation.

RA: Yes. What I’ve noticed is that people who criticize the book, and then read it, often respond by saying that it wasn’t that odd or weird; I think they expect wild accusations about Jesus. But there’s no pedagogical purpose in this book — it’s simply an attempt to unearth what little we can know about this historical figure.

BIOG: Can you describe a little of your research process and its challenges — for instance, the multiple languages in which sources are written?

RA: I often say that writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon, because by the time Napoleon exists, there is a firm concept of a thing called history. The notion of history as an accumulation of verifiable facts and dates is a product of the modern world. When writing about an ancient figure like Jesus, and one endowed with spiritual significance, you have to make a differentiation between sacred history and history, right from the start. What the ancients thought when they said the word “history” was not what we think. They were much more interested in revealing truth about the characters they were writing about, rather than facts. Facts were secondary, if not irrelevant.

That means that we are immediately at a disadvantage when writing about Jesus, because essentially the only information we have about him is the New Testament, the Gospels — and as I’ve said [in the book], the Gospels are not documents of history. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s acts, his works — they are testaments of faith, written by communities of faith, many years after the events they describe. To put it another way, the Gospel writers already believed something about Jesus, that he was the Messiah, that he was the son of God, that he was God incarnate, and set about writing the Gospels to prove that belief. They are theological arguments, so they’re not that helpful in trying to reconstruct the Jesus of history. What I do instead is rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that — thanks to the Romans — we know a great deal about. By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him that is in many ways more accurate than that offered by the Gospels.

The methodology for doing what I just described has been set for centuries — the quest for the historical Jesus is a centuries-long endeavor. The tools that have been developed to try to analyze as far as possible the claims of the Gospels according to the history of the time — to figure out what is more and less likely historical in the New Testament — have been used by thousands of Biblical scholars before me. I don’t do anything different.

BIOG: The book is a wonderful synthesis of so many things that have been known in the academic community, but just haven’t become a part of our larger cultural understanding of Jesus and his time.

RA: Oh, that’s the fault of academics. The biggest criticism I have of my colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience. Now, ironically, the biggest criticism my colleagues have of me is that I spend all my time synthesizing research and making it accessible to a broader audience. There is this culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience — we’re immediately tagged as not serious. And honestly, that explains why there is such anti-intellectualism in the media and in popular culture.

BIOG: The historical context you bring out seems so basic to understanding the story of Jesus and how the Gospels came to be written — primarily the importance of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. That’s generally understood as a decisive moment in Jewish history, but you show that it’s equally fundamental to the development of Christianity.

RA: It changes everything.

BIOG: So in the book you foreground the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and then fit Jesus’ life into that larger story.

RA: My goal was to so deeply and fully immerse readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century that by the time you got to Jesus’s story, I wouldn’t have to explain it — you could figure out for yourself the larger implications of what he was saying and doing.

Part Two

BIOGRAPHILE: At the beginning of your book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, you quote the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who says that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest, and that scholars see the Jesus they want to see. What kind of Jesus emerged for you in the course of writing this book? He seems like a much more political figure than he is later understood to be.

REZA ASLAN: Well, let’s be clear that in Jesus’s time there is no difference whatsoever between politics and religion. So I don’t know if it would be correct to say that this is a political look at Jesus, because you can’t separate the two in the way that we do in the modern world. “I am the Messiah” is both a religious and a political statement; they are exactly the same. I’m just trying to make the reader aware of the political implication of what most people think are mostly religious issues.

BIOG: One theme that emerges so strongly, especially when you get to the later chapters about St. Paul and the Roman adoption of Christianity, is how certain aspects of Jesus’s life and his teachings end up being pushed out of the story. At the beginning you explain that this is a time of great inequality in wealth and tension between the rural poor and the urban rich, and Jesus is absolutely on the side of that rural poor, and comes from that background, and sees poverty as a virtue. That was always a difficult claim for Christianity to maintain, as the power and wealth of the church grew.

RA: Right, you go from “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” to Joel Osteen, and “Jesus wants you to be rich,” and drive a Bentley. That sums up everything I think about how far we’ve got from Jesus’s teachings.

To go back to the question about Rudolph Bultmann – it’s absolutely true, and I think, by the way, it’s true of every historian, every biographer. Otherwise there would only be one biography of every character in the world. There’s no such thing as objective history: a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries. For me, my quest for the historical Jesus was launched while I studied at a Jesuit Catholic college, Santa Clara University, and the Jesuits of course are famous for their focus on social justice and Jesus’s preferential options for the poor, so there’s no doubt that that influenced my look at Jesus. The scholars and professors who trained me — there’s no question that their focus on Jesus as a man dedicated to social justice impacted my own scholarly look into Jesus. I also think it’s historically accurate, but nevertheless, I absolutely admit that that influence exists.

BIOG: That Jesuit influence is so interesting, since at the end of the story you begin to get into these debates within the early church about the direction of the faith, but obviously as it develops that’s beyond the scope of the book.

RA: I’m glad you say it’s beyond the scope of the book, because a lot of people have said that this book is about Christianity, or it’s an attack on Christianity. But it’s not — it’s a book about Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew.

BIOG: And about the Roman Empire.

RA: Exactly.

BIOG: It seems to me the book is grappling with a much bigger question, which is the tension between facts and faith, and how far it’s possible to reconcile history with belief.

RA: I think when it comes to a historical look at Jesus, the principal dividing line isn’t whether you believe he’s the Messiah or not, whether you believe he’s God or not. The line is whether you believe that Jesus was utterly unique or not. In other words, do you believe that Jesus was unlike every other Jew of his time? Do you believe that his perception of God, his reading of the scripture, his understanding of the Messiah and the messianic function, his view about the relationship between creator and creation, was completely and utterly different than every other Jew of his world — was totally and utterly innovative? Or do you believe that he was remarkable, that he was extraordinary, that he was charismatic, and all of those things, but he wasn’t utterly unique, that he saw the world the way most Jews in his time saw the world, and that he understood the function of the messiah, the interpretation of the scriptures, the way that most of his fellow Jews did? I think the historian falls in the latter category, and the person of faith falls in the former category.

In other worlds, is it possible that Jesus was utterly unique, is it possible that unlike ninety-eight percent of his fellow Jews he could read and write, is it possible that in contradiction to everything that Judaism has ever said about the nature of God and man, that Jesus thought that he was himself God? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? No. The historian’s job is not to say what’s possible: it’s to say what’s likely.

BIOG: I almost wanted a sequel to this book that talks about St. Paul, who did seem to be the one — along with the Gospel writer John — whose way of thinking about Jesus was unique and new and transformative. It was their interpretation of Jesus that broke the religion from Judaism.

RA: That’s right. If you want to put it in its simplest way, an innovation happened in Judaism, otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity. The question is, when and where did it take place? Did it take place in the mind of an illiterate, uneducated, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee? Or did it take place in the mind of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking, educated, deeply Romanized Jew named Paul? Again — choose one. The person of faith says it was Jesus and the historian says no, it was probably Paul.

BIOG: I know you’ve had plenty of extreme reactions to the book, but have readers of faith also been open to this alternative that you’re presenting?

RA: To be honest, the overwhelming response of Christians to this book has been positive. I have received countless emails, tweets, and personal messages from Christians saying that this book empowered and enriched their faith. I understand where that idea comes from. At the heart of orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but the consequence of that belief is that Christians too often focus on the God part. When you go to church, you mostly hear about Jesus the God, and even when you hear about Jesus the man, there is this kind of safety net underneath him, because his motivations, his actions, the troubles that he encounters are always tempered by the fact that he’s also God. A lot of Christians don’t fully encounter what it means to believe that Jesus was also a man, that he lived in a specific time and place, that he was shaped by his world, that his teachings were in response to the specific social ills that he confronted, and that his actions were a response to the powers of this time. Christians don’t often get that that perspective in church. You can believe that this man that I am talking and writing about is also God, and still be enriched by this biography.

BIOG: The way you write about Jesus is so enriched by the history but also very aware that there was something extraordinary that marked him out, and we’re never going to know exactly what that was, what sort of personality attracted those followers that enabled a new religion to be built on the basis of this individual.

RA: In fact, I think that looking at him as a man makes him that much more extraordinary, more remarkable. The idea that a poor peasant could have started a movement that was such a threat to all the authorities of his time that he was ultimately arrested, tortured, and executed for it; the fact that an illiterate, uneducated man had the charisma and power of his teachings necessary to start such a movement is extraordinary. It makes him that much more powerful, that much more worth knowing and following. Whether you think he’s God or not is fine, but just looking at him as a man, you cannot help but be blown away by him. You can’t help but want to know him and to follow him. Part of the reason why I wrote this book was to show that you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.

BIOG: You can find his example inspiring without believing that he’s God.

RA: Without the baggage of dogma, exactly.

BIOG: You end up with someone who is restored to non-Christians as much as enriched for Christians.

RA: In fact, the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received from Christians has been matched by the extremely positive response I’ve received from atheists — both of whom thanked me for confirming their already-held notions of Jesus. Writing a book that brings atheists and Christians together — that’s probably what I’m most proud of.

Book Review

ZELDAThe Washington Post, May 6 2013


By Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s, 375pp, $25.99

By Erika Robuck
NAL, 326pp, $16

By R. Clifton Spargo
Overlook, 366pp, $26.95

ZELDA SAYRE was 17 when she met Scott Fitzgerald, a green-eyed Yankee from Princeton, at a military ball in Montgomery, Ala., the town she ruled like a princess. It was 1918, and Lt. Fitzgerald was waiting. His superiors at Camp Sheridan might finally ship him out to a winding-down war, or Scribner’s might agree to publish his novel — and while he waited, he welcomed the distraction of a vivacious local belle. What they did, said and felt on that occasion was written down by both of them, torn up and rewritten many times over the course of lives devoted to self-mythologizing and, later, self-defense.

Even as “The Great Gatsby” tops the bestseller list in anticipation of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version, three new novels reimagine the marriage and the myth that sprang from this meeting. Therese Anne Fowler’s “Z” is narrated by Zelda in Montgomery, shortly before Scott’s death in 1940 — during a calm hiatus between her confinements in mental institutions. A wistful tone distances Zelda from the frenzy of her past, but the retrospective structure dulls the energy of this inherently gripping story, in which a naive girl slowly wakes up to the double bind of being her husband’s muse. The novel is liveliest when Zelda expresses wonder in the moment, and when the distinctive voice Fowler has given her shines through — all “fellas” and dropped g’s. It’s weaker when Zelda has to play the diligent footnoter of her own life: “I’d soon learn that this Mr. Griffith was D.W. Griffith, who along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had recently formed a company called United Artists.”

In a concluding note, Fowler characterizes Fitzgerald biography as a “raging argument” between Team Scott and Team Zelda. The former paints Zelda as the neurotic wife who burrowed into Scott and broke him down like a rampant strain of ivy. The latter, in the wake of Nancy Milford’s recuperative 1970 biography, sees her as a gifted artist destroyed by an alcoholic husband and a misogynistic medical establishment. Fiction offers freedom in two areas where biography is usually frustrated — dialogue and sex — and Fowler uses her novelistic license to score one for Team Zelda. Ernest Hemingway viciously turned on Zelda for unknown reasons at some point in 1925, and the novel offers a plausible, if tawdry, explanation: a failed seduction that ends with Zelda comparing Hem’s manhood unfavorably with Scott’s. Yet this creative rewriting of history only goes so far, and the novel remains torn between what is known and what can be imagined.

Erika Robuck’s “Call Me Zelda” strays further from the record by inventing a nurse, Anna Howard, who is driven to care for Zelda, Scott and their 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, by her own tragic past: a husband missing in action and a small daughter dead from tuberculosis. Anna meets Zelda at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore, where she was admitted in 1932. After quickly becoming attached to the mercurial writer’s wife, Anna agrees to leave the hospital and work privately for the Fitzgeralds at La Paix, their Baltimore mansion. In order to delve into the Fitzgerald legend, Robuck has Anna encourage Zelda to write out stories from her past. These fragmentary essays evoke the wild energy of Zelda’s novel “Save Me the Waltz,” which she wrote at Phipps, but are too brief to write the character into life.

R. Clifton Spargo’s “Beautiful Fools” compresses the Scott-Zelda story even more, into a few days in 1939, when the two took a disastrous vacation to Cuba. The luxury of fictional space allows the novel to develop a languid atmosphere that is nonetheless charged with the threat of violence. Spargo’s descriptions of Scott’s washed-up state — his lack of appetite, his tubercular cough, the continual poisoning of his wrecked body with booze — are florid and relentless. He digs out Benzedrine pills coated in grainy melted chocolate from the pocket of a jacket; he tries to intervene in a cockfight and is beaten half to death; he drags himself out in a tropical storm in search of the wife who has disappeared after hearing of his infidelities from a witchlike clairvoyant.

In Spargo’s hands, the Fitzgeralds emerge as fully human, if crazed and ruined characters: Scott trapped by cowardice between a desperate wife and his lover, Sheilah Graham; Zelda deluding herself that their rift can be mended and they can live together again in peace. There’s no remnant of glamour in this final vacation, only the end of love, as they trade back and forth a valueless currency of hopes, promises and vows of loyalty. This is as far from the fantasy of DiCaprio’s “Gatsby” as an asylum in Baltimore is from the Riviera, but it’s the one version of the story that resists the temptation to glamorize Scott and Zelda out of their humanity.

Scutts is associate editor of the literary journal PEN America and teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.

© The Washington Post Company


here-i-am-tim-hetherington-alan-huffmanBiographile, April 30 2013

Joanna Scutts

By Alan Huffman
Grove. 256pp. $25

Tim Hetherington, the British-born photographer, filmmaker, and writer who was killed by a mortar blast in Misrata, Libya, in April 2011, had worked in many of the world’s bloodiest and bleakest war zones. Driven by his desire to understand the people involved — especially the young men drawn irresistibly into violence — Hetherington created intimate portraits amid scenes of mayhem from Liberia to Afghanistan. We spoke with his biographer, Alan Huffman, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, about Hetherington’s life, work, and legacy.

Biographile: The subtitle of your book calls Tim Hetherington a war photographer, but you suggest in the book that that label is inadequate. How would you describe him now, having been so deeply immersed in his life and work?

Alan Huffman: Tim was best known as a war photographer, and war obviously defined his work, but he didn’t consider himself a conventional photographer and certainly not a conventional war photographer. He didn’t see himself as part of the “bang-bang club.” He was more interested in the basic truths that images and stories of war can convey than in the temporary drama of combat.

That’s not to say he wasn’t attracted to conflict — he was, but he saw himself as an artist, a storyteller, and a humanitarian, and part of what attracted him was the fact that there’s no better place to understand human nature than in a time of war, when everyone is put to the test. He was interested in what conflict revealed about individuals, whether they were soldiers, rebels, or civilians caught in the crossfire, and he was as likely to photograph a sleeping soldier as he was someone firing a gun.

BIOG: Was it difficult as a writer to evoke the visual qualities of Hetherington’s photography, and the way that he and his fellow photographers saw the world? On the flip side, what do you think a book can achieve that photography or documentary film can’t?

AH: After I saw Sebastian Junger’s documentary film about Tim for the first time, I was a bit envious. Seeing Tim’s photos and videos – including images of him – projected onto a big screen created such a vivid impression. But when I told Sebastian that, he said his response after reading the book was that I was able to go more deeply into Tim’s story, as well as into the stories that unfolded around him. I think the book and the film complement each other in that way. Sebastian’s task was to tell Tim’s story very specifically and visually in ninety minutes or so, and it does so very powerfully, but that also meant that some compelling footage ended up on the cutting room floor, including scenes in Misrata, Libya, where Tim was killed, which were tangential to the film. With 250 or so pages to work with, I had more latitude. There are limitations in trying to tell the story of such an amazing life in 250 pages, but I could follow the sorts of tangents that Tim himself was following. I could explore the stories behind his images — his own, and those of his subjects.

There’s nothing like the power of images — that’s what Tim’s work was about, and we included a section of photographs in the book, for obvious reasons. But a written narrative provides context and telling details that aren’t evident on the surface. And fortunately, the scenes that Tim documented tended to be dramatic, and lent themselves to narrative very well.

BIOG: What was your connection with Hetherington before you began writing the book? What drew you to his story?

AH: I met him after we’d both been to Liberia during its civil war. Our reasons for being there were very different — I was there for a few weeks in 2001 researching a book called Mississippi in Africa, about the freed-slave immigrants who founded Liberia. I had very carefully avoided the fighting because I was looking for people who were themselves avoiding it. Tim, on the other hand, was embedded with a rebel army, and was thrust into a series of harrowing conflicts — his first time. After the war ended he returned to Liberia and lived there for three years, during which he also worked for the UN, helping track down war criminals. Our experiences, while related, hardly compared.

What struck me when Sebastian [Junger] introduced us was Tim’s keen interest in what I had personally seen in Liberia. That was Tim — he was most of all curious, and he understood that everyone knew something he didn’t know, and he wanted to find out what it was. That initial impression of him and his view of the world stuck with me. After he was killed, I was talking with Sebastian about the documentary film he was working on about Tim, and it just seemed obvious that there needed to be a book. I cared about Tim – everyone who met him did – but I wasn’t as close as Sebastian was, so I could see him as a character in a story. Otherwise it might have been much harder to write the book.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard — it was a very intense experience. And I did feel an allegiance to him. But knowing he felt that everyone’s life was valid freed me as a writer to approach the book in a similar way, to also explore the stories that intersected with his. He became my guide as much as the subject of the book.

BIOG: Did your view of Hetherington and his work change over the course of writing the book? What was the most challenging aspect of telling his story?

AH: Before writing the book I thought of him as a very talented photographer who was also generous, funny, smart, and charming. I liked and admired him. That was a typical reaction. But after immersing myself in his story, I realized he was far more complicated and that he had ambitious goals, and greatly suffered for his work. He was determined to find beauty amid all this excruciating pathos, and he paid a price for it.

I did not set out to write a tribute to him. I think he deserved more than that. He would not, in my view, have wanted to gloss things over, or to push other people into the background to transform himself into a larger-than-life figure. Still, I don’t think I fully understood beforehand how committed he was to the idea of explaining the world to the world, as he put it, and to showing the true impact of war, on everyone. He was braver than I ever knew, not only because he put himself at physical risk, but because he had to face his own demons along the way. I also didn’t realize before how innovative he was, pushing the limits of every media available to him. He was searching for the front line in a variety of ways, including artistically.

The biggest challenge, for me, was to find out everything I could about him, and about what had happened in Misrata, which meant traveling there in the summer of 2012 to probe the painful, fresh memories of people who were there during the war. In the end, the trip was challenging, but brought its own revelations.

BIOG: Especially in the chapters on Afghanistan, you describe Hetherington’s fascination with young men at war, and with the “feedback loop” between the imagery of war and the way that soldiers end up acting out those movie or TV versions of what war is. But I wonder if there’s also a kind of feedback loop that war journalists — reporters and photographers alike — get sucked into. Do you think Hetherington got caught up in his own version of that feedback loop?

AH: In one way or another we’re all part of a feedback loop. We take cues from characters we admire, whether they’re real or fictitious. The danger, of course, is that we may mimic imagined behavior when faced with real situations. We may try to play someone else’s hand rather than the one we’ve been dealt, which can end in disaster. I don’t think Tim was prone to doing that. He was making his own way. He wasn’t trying to mimic anyone else. What he did do, and what all of us sometimes do, is play a role of our own making — mimicking an idea of ourselves that’s influenced by the ideas others have of us. In Tim’s case, the photographers with him in Misrata tended to defer to him because he was a very compelling figure: a tall, gregarious guy who had been around the block a few times, who knew his way around a war zone. If there was any feedback loop he was part of, that was it. He was Tim Hetherington, the seasoned war journalist, the guy who’d had a bounty on his head in Liberia, who’d walked all night on a broken leg in Afghanistan, who’d documented the genocide in Darfur. He might easily have been killed countless times, in numerous wars, but in Misrata the energy created within the group of photographers who were there was very powerful, and Tim was at the center of it, and it pushed them to places that they — and he — might not otherwise have gone.

BIOG: Hetherington emerges as a strikingly versatile storyteller, equally at home in film, old-fashioned still photography, and writing. Do you think that versatility made him unique — or do you think all modern war photographers need to be able to look beyond the single striking image, in order to tell a fuller story?

AH: I do think that combination is rare. Some still photographers are also very good videographers, and some — including Chris Hondros, who died alongside Tim in Misrata — are also very good writers. But it’s rare when someone moves so freely across different media. One of the tragedies of Tim’s death is that we’ve not only lost him, we’ve lost a remarkable experimentation in multimedia storytelling.

BIOG: What do you think will be his legacy?

AH: Tim’s legacy is incomplete, and unfortunately, always will be. But it points the way to deeper understanding and greater empathy for people in extremely difficult situations. Most of us watch passively as events of profound importance drift past on our social media timelines. Even if we choose to enter the fray as journalists, the tendency is to get what we need and move on. Tim’s work illustrates the importance of making a deeper commitment to understanding what truly matters, which is never more clear than in a time of violent conflict, for better or worse. I think he’ll be remembered for his willingness to go to the ends of the earth to understand how people deal with adversity, and what that reveals about all of us. Everything is documented today, in cell phone photos and videos, but Tim wanted to go far deeper than that. It’s easy to imagine people looking at his work decades from now and being inspired to do the same.


Book Review

girls-of-atomic-city-kiernan2Biographile, April 17 2013

Denise Kiernan
Touchstone, 400pp, $27

In mid-August 1943, 24-year-old Celia Szapka boarded a train in Newark, New Jersey, carrying a suitcase and wearing her brand new I. Miller shoes. She knew she was traveling for a job helping the war effort — she had been working on a mysterious “Project” in New York City for the past few months — but she did not know where she was going or how long the journey would last. Hours later, the train rolled into Knoxville, Tennessee, where it was met by a car that whisked Celia and several other young women to a muddy, makeshift encampment tucked into a bend in the Clinch river, a site that would eventually sprawl nearly 100 square miles. Tens of thousands of people, many of them young, single women, would converge on the site over the next two years, doing their part to advance what would become known as the Manhattan Project, to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City shares the story of these young ladies.

An extraordinary work of journalism, biography, and scientific history, Kiernan’s book explains the origins and life of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She interweaves the stories of the women who worked there with the parallel “life story” of uranium, known as “tubealloy” — its discovery (focusing particularly on the role of female scientists), enrichment, and use in the bomb. The separation of these stories is signaled by the use of different typefaces to tell each story, underlining the essential secrecy of the work at Oak Ridge, and the necessary ignorance in which its 75,000 residents lived.

Kiernan’s characters represent a cross-section of the society of Oak Ridge: women of different racial and class backgrounds, whose roles ranged from janitors, nurses, and secretaries to mathematicians, chemists, and physicists. Most of these women, now in their seventies and eighties, were interviewed by Kiernan in the process of her research, and she skillfully mimics their voices, with their distinctive turns of phrase and dialect, to make their stories come alive. A cast list at the beginning of the book (of people, places, and “things” like tubealloy) helps to keep the different characters straight, and also emphasizes the unreal, theatrical nature of this temporary city, in which secrecy bred a strange kind of coded language.

In addition to Celia, we meet and follow Toni Peters, a local Tennessee secretary, who first hears of the Project through the government’s program of forcible requisition of property — her aunt and uncle’s farm is seized to make way for Oak Ridge, and like many of their neighbors, they are faced with a long, uphill fight for adequate compensation. Kattie Strickland, from Auburn, Alabama, is enticed to find work at the plant by the prospect of decent wages, despite the racial discrimination that forces her to live apart from her husband and prevents her from bringing her four children with her, although there are schools on site for white children. The upright, ambitious Jane Greer, who is “rudely yanked out of line” at the University of Tennessee and told that women cannot matriculate as engineering majors, instead trains as a statistician. She goes on to oversee a team of female mathematicians working around the clock to track production rates at Y-12, the electromagnetic separation plant at Oak Ridge.

A large part of the drama of the story, of course, comes from what we as readers know all along about the site’s purpose — and what the women working there do not know. The book opens with a prologue, “Revelation,” dated August 1945, which dramatically depicts the wildfire conversion of “the Secret” into “the News”: “Slowly the entire Reservation was igniting, ripples of information expanding outward via word and wire.” But the story of Oak Ridge doesn’t end with the bomb, or the end of the war that spurred its development. The atomic city’s population dropped after 1945 but soon ramped up again, with the advent of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Oak Ridge was placed under civilian control in 1947, and its gates, identification badges, and checkpoints were removed to turn the place into something closer to an ordinary town, yet much of its secrecy and notoriety remained in place.

Kiernan briefly traces the postwar fortunes of her central characters, and the changing attitudes to what they unknowingly created in their mysterious wartime home. It’s clear that those years were formative and unforgettable for the women who survived them — years when domestic and military life were entwined, and when, despite their gender, they were entrusted with their government’s most important work. By focusing on the details of their everyday lives and vividly evoking their different characters and personalities, Kiernan gives Celia, Kattie, Vi, Jane, Toni, Dot, and their thousands of peers the testament they deserve — without at any point losing sight of the devastating consequences of their work.