Book Review

doughboysThe Washington Post, August 23 2013

THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War

By Richard Rubin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 518 pp. $28

The 100th anniversary of a war means the snapping of a thread: Even those miraculous few survivors who sneaked into service, underage, in the war’s waning months and lived to be super-centenarians are gone. At the end of his homespun narrative of America’s experiences in World War I, Richard Rubin struggles to articulate what this passing means:

“You can read yellowed old books, watch grainy old silent films, peruse monuments verdant with decades of oxidation; you can stroll upon a forest floor still dimpled with shell holes, poke around crumbling concrete bunkers, zigzag through shallowed trenches, fill a grocery bag with jagged shrapnel picked from a freshly plowed field. None of it is anything like talking to someone who was there; or just looking at him as he lies in a hospital bed before you, mute; or even, simply, knowing that he is still alive out there, somewhere.” With the death of Frank Woodruff Buckles on Feb. 27, 2011, that knowledge is now entirely lost.

Ten years ago, Rubin set out to locate and interview as many surviving American veterans as possible: no easy task, given how little information was available about who or where they were. He crisscrossed the United States, visiting private homes and retirement communities from Oregon to Louisiana to Massachusetts, to ask men at the end of their lives to describe events from the beginning. With a median age of 107, the veterans had enlisted or been drafted in their late teens — when all of them were looking for adventure. None recalled any burning patriotic motive: They were hoping to escape tough rural childhoods, helping parents and siblings scrape a living from whatever was at hand. Nearly all had dropped out of school in early adolescence, and no postwar G.I. bill encouraged them to return — they became laborers, farmers, professional soldiers, salesmen, hard and tireless workers. In most cases, too, nobody outside their families had ever showed much interest in their stories, which are fragmentary, unrehearsed and more vivid to them than nearly everything that came later.

The scholar Samuel Hynes once summed up the myth that subsumed British memories of World War I in avalanches of memoir, poetry, fiction and history: Innocent young men joined up in droves to save “civilization” and instead were slaughtered by idiot generals. The power of that myth made it well-nigh impossible, in Hynes’s view, for elderly British veterans to separate their own experiences from those of Sassoon, Owen and the rest. Elements of the myth certainly seeped into the American collective memory of the war, but they did not wholly color it, so the stories Rubin hears are often unexpected, fresh and strange. Describing a man he saw killed, 106-year-old J. Laurence Moffitt of the Yankee Division does not strain to interpret the memory or assess its impact on him, but simply says: “His face was all blown off. I leaned down over him to tell him that his gas mask was off. Then I saw that his face was mutilated, and so I just left him for the fellows whose job it was to take care of the wounded.”

The book is strongest where Rubin allows these stories and these remarkable men to speak for themselves, but he too often intrudes with the eagerness of a history buff for whom no detail is uninteresting. His prolixity can be effective — in his prologue, a page-long sentence piles up the events, people and inventions that World War I predated, powerfully evoking its historical distance — but has diminishing returns. When the Kaiser is described as “bellicose, petulant, blustering, racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, paranoid, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, conniving, treacherous, greedy, and possessed of powerful inferiority and persecution complexes,” the adjectival overload robs the sentence of its coherence.

With its subtitle referring to the “forgotten world war,” the book is guided by the conviction that its readers know little or nothing about the war’s basic history, which is then served up with the clunky humor of a high school teacher trying to engage a bored class: Pershing “wasn’t President Wilson’s first choice for the job; that would have been General Fred Funston. Funston, though, committed the fatal error of suddenly dropping dead a few weeks before America entered the war. So Pershing it was.”

Rubin is much stronger as a guide to the obscure corners of war history, such as Tin Pan Alley’s massive industry of war songs, which he displays with a collector’s zeal. His interview with Warren Hileman, a veteran of the American Expeditionary Force’s battles in Siberia against the Cossacks and Japanese during the Russian Civil War of 1919-22, gives a glimpse of the war’s distant reverberations: “How do you think we did at thirty below zero?” Hileman asks.

The book is also an invaluable reminder of the power of war to expose, and to warp, the values of a fighting nation. America in 1917 was racist to the core and maintained rigorous segregation throughout the military. One veteran, Howard Ramsey, describes to Rubin his gruesome work of transporting corpses for reburial in special cemeteries after the Armistice. As a white man, however, he was spared the worst of it: “ ‘The colored people did all the work,’ he confessed. ‘We didn’t have to handle the bodies or anything like that.’ ”

On the home front, President Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 — sweeping prohibitions of any expression of opposition to the war — had a disproportionate impact on the country’s huge population of immigrants, who were dogged by suspicion and pressured and threatened into conformity (buying war bonds and joining up were unblushingly advertised as ways to prove one’s Americanness). In these stories of the suppression of dissent and of the country’s disgraceful neglect of the needs of returned veterans, it becomes all too clear that some things don’t change in the course of 100 years.

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

© The Washington Post Company

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Book Review

enlightenmentThe Washington Post, July 12 2013

THE ENLIGHTENMENT AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS

Anthony Pagden
Random House. 501pp. $32.

IN ANTHONY Pagden’s sweeping new study, the Enlightenment constitutes a collective intellectual journey away from God toward a new understanding of man. His account of this journey is bookended by brief examinations of the objections posed by the Enlightenment’s detractors, from the Romantics to modern religious conservatives, but ultimately the title, “Why It Still Matters,” seems more of a publisher’s push for relevance than a driving force of the book. The Enlightenment’s legacy, after all, is hiding in plain sight. If you are a member of a liberal democracy, believe in the separation of church and state, approve of the existence of the United Nations, and consider science, education and critical thinking to be broadly beneficial to individuals and society, you are by Pagden’s account a child of the Enlightenment — but if you reject these things, you most likely consider yourself an enemy of the West, secularism,liberalism or modernity rather than the Enlightenment. How such notions grew out of 18th-century philosophies is an implicit concern of the book, but its central purpose is to trace a genealogy of Enlightenment ideas.

As a historian and theorist of empire, Pagden is a specialist in big ideas and what happens when they come into conflict: His last book, “Worlds at War,” concerned (as the subtitle put it) “the 2,500-year struggle between East and West.” He is therefore an appropriate authority on a continent-wide, century-spanning project that voraciously absorbed new fields of scientific and humanistic inquiry. Prior knowledge of such important preconditions as the decline of religious authority in Europe, classical philosophy as an unshakeable foundation of thought, and the impact of New World exploration is useful but not necessary for the reader who is willing to submit to an erudite, witty and skeptical guide (and is undaunted by densely packed and elliptical sentences).

The basic story that unfolds is rooted in history, from the Reformation to the French Revolution, but not wholly explained by it. The Reformation shook to its core the central authority of the church and subjected its sacred texts to the skeptical analysis of geography, history, biology and common sense. The resulting fights and schisms caused decades of bloodshed — especially in France, where Michel de Montaigne, from the sanctity of his study, indicted Europeans’ claims to be more civilized than cannibals, even as the Europeans were driven by doctrinal disputes to slaughter their own countrymen. Skepticism, Montaigne’s (and Descartes’s) guiding principle, was limited only by a writer’s boldness. What if instead of something in the heavens, there was nothing? Without God, what might man become?

Furthermore, for more than a century, Europeans had known that the limits of the world as the Greeks and Romans knew them were no more fixed than the walls of a bubble. Men and women in the Americas, Africa and Asia existed under wholly different laws and a wide variety of gods, giving the lie to the totalizing unity of monotheism. In his 1651 book, “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes had represented man as a creature motivated purely by a competitive survival instinct, and as scientific knowledge advanced, man’s unique place in the universe seemed poised to disappear, along with the threadbare remnants of his immortal soul.

Yet even those who embraced the advance of reason were reluctant to consider man a beast like all the rest. He was different: capable not only of intellectual reason but also of love, sympathy, friendship and moral choice. The goal of the Enlightenment, Pagden argues, was to wrest from the theologians the effort to “understand what it meant to be human,” and thereby to prove two controversial claims: first, that human beings are unique, but not by virtue of any resemblance to a divinity; and second, that they share a common human nature, of which the strongest impulse is towards social life, or what came to be known as cosmopolitanism.

The accounts of these early stirrings of Enlightenment thought, amid the ruins of classical and Christian certainties, are the strongest parts of the book, depicting a world on the brink of discovery and peopled with gleeful iconoclasts like Voltaire and the independent-minded David Hume, “the single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ the Enlightenment ever produced.” Pagden introduces his more obscure characters with a nod to their importance, noting for the reader those whom “we shall meet again,” which feels like being guided through a vast ballroom of rotating strangers by a confiding insider.

It is a diverse group: The Enlightenment’s major thinkers were French, English, German, Scottish, Italian and Spanish; they were poets, scientists, historians, adventurers, philosophers, novelists or some combination of them all; they were atheists, agnostics and members of religious orders; they were aristocrats as well as educated professionals; they were men and (very occasionally) women. Although “no group so heterogeneous could ever be expected to agree upon everything, to speak with the same voice, or even to share a common intellectual stance,” Pagden shows clearly how these thinkers nonetheless developed, shared, and — most crucial — criticized each other’s ideas, in order to drive forward the basic project of understanding themselves.

To pursue the drama of ideas, Pagden necessarily excludes much of the larger cultural scene — the art, literature and music that explored, popularized and poked fun at Enlightenment theories. Glancing references to Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Mozart and the extreme women’s fashions of the mid-18th century offer no more than a glimpse of this wider world. Yet the Enlightenment’s enduring significance surely lies in the ways that its ideas were communicated and adopted by wider communities, and came to be accepted, at least in the West, for better or worse, as the foundation of the modern world. Quite how this happened, however, is a story for another book.

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

© The Washington Post Company

Book Review

collegeofoneThe Rumpus. July 23, 2013.

COLLEGE OF ONE
By Sheilah Graham
Melville House Neversink Library. 304pp. $15.

Reviewed by Joanna Scutts

The Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, born Lily Shiel, shaped herself out of nothing much, and she knew it. As her eight memoirs attest, she also knew how remarkable the story of her self-reinvention was—especially the three and a half years she spent as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s companion and lover, until he died on her green living room carpet in December 1940. Her 1967 memoir College of One, reissued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, tells the story of the couple’s relationship through their shared project of educating Sheilah, via a one-woman intellectual boot camp devised by Fitzgerald, “for a woman who had to learn in a hurry.”

Graham’s desire for education is rooted at first in shame and fear. Shame: that she can’t keep up with the intellectual conversation of the people she gets to know in London, New York, and Hollywood, the likes of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Mary McCarthy, who drop names she doesn’t recognize and assume a knowledge she doesn’t share. Fear: that she’ll be exposed, humiliated, and banished back to where she came from. It isn’t until she’s deep into her curriculum that she begins to enjoy the reading and discussion for its own sake, rather than out of a class anxiety so palpable it’s painful to read. Even Graham’s success in Hollywood is driven by her sense of shame—she goes west from New York with relief, to a town “notorious” for its ignorance: “I would be comfortable there. No one could embarrass me with erudite conversation.”

Lily Shiel grew up in an orphanage in the east end of London, her thick hair regularly shaved to prevent lice, and the eager brain underneath stuffed with homilies, Bible verses, and historical simplifications that promoted an allegiance to God and King. It was an upbringing that erased her identity as the child of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine, and shaped her into an obedient daughter of the English working class, terrified of anarchy and unions, and accepting of an unjust status quo. Her father had died when she was very young and her mother, too poor to cope, placed her two youngest children in the orphanage. When Lily graduated at fourteen, her education was over: she was needed at home, and it wasn’t until her mother died a few years later that Lily moved to the West End of London and made her way onto the stage, via shop work and marriage to a much older man, who smoothed out her accent and groomed her, if not quite for stardom, then at least for survival.

Many years later, in Hollywood, the lowest moment of Graham’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald came when he threw her secret origins in her face, screaming that she was a Jew in front of the nurse who had been hired to see him through the aftermath of a titanic gin binge. This ugly detail is softened in the memoir (Graham says only that he revealed her “humble beginnings”) but is stripped of euphemism in the afterword by Graham’s daughter Wendy Fairey. It’s the starkest example of the memoir’s pattern of revelation and evasion in its depiction of Fitzgerald, who appears by turns as generous and self-interested, loving and narcissistic, hopeful and nihilistic.

Graham early on shrugs and accepts the power imbalance of a male Svengali educating a beautiful protégée. Long before she meets Fitzgerald, she says she has learned “that men who are in love are not interested in whether the girl knows an A from a B at the beginning of the relationship”—and suggests that perhaps they prefer it that way. Scott himself, she says, likens his education of Sheilah to what “Irish and Scotch pioneers who had struck it rich in the West had done, importing peasant girls to marry.” Not that the two can marry, with Zelda still alive in a distant asylum, haunting Sheilah’s nightmares. The education becomes a bond that stands in for, and later transcends, that missing marriage.

The curriculum of the College of One, described in detail and reproduced in a neatly typed appendix, is eclectic, demanding, and innovative. Fitzgerald is a firm historicist, assigning novels and poems as illustrations of an era as Graham works her way through the thousand pages of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. He helps her through Shakespeare by assigning her “bridges” of famous passages to memorize in advance and then watch out for as she reads, and professor and pupil act out scenes from novels, plays, and poems. He constantly revises the curriculum, giving it to his long-suffering secretary to re-type. It would be hard not to see the whole thing as a masterly form of procrastination—Fitzgerald was dragging his heels on The Last Tycoon at the time—were it not for the joy and peace that it clearly gave him in the last year of his life. Graham, too, makes clear at the end of the book that she has moved beyond shame to a prouder, more positive understanding of her education, shifting from the past to the present tense as she declares: “It widened my horizon. I know where to look. I know how to evaluate. I am curious.”

As a writer, Graham is plain and conversational, and her story often meandering and anecdotal. But her modest style makes the defining moment of Fitzgerald’s death—right in the middle of the music course—land the more powerfully for its understatement:

It was a strange coincidence that he asked me to play [Beethoven’s] Eroica Symphony while he was making some notes about football on the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Soon after it ended, Scott suffered his fatal heart attack. There was still an echo of the music in the room with the afternoon sun through the venetian blinds making patterns on his pale face on the dark green carpet.

Perhaps only at a distance of twenty-six years can something so shocking be described with such elegant detachment—and perhaps only by the most diligent student of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Astoria, New York.

Book Review

shrapnelThe Wall Street Journal, May 24 2013

SHRAPNEL
By William Wharton
William Morrow. 263pp. $23.99

Shrapnel wounds haphazardly—it can glance off the surface or lodge deep in the body. In William Wharton’s World War II memoir, it becomes a metaphor for the impact of the war on a young soldier and for the ordinary psychic shocks that can maim a person: “the general shrapnel of the human condition.”

In a series of 30 episodes, “Shrapnel” describes Wharton’s progress from basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., to combat in France and Germany and a distinctly inglorious aftermath. Throughout, Wharton’s resistance to authority, and his conviction that the Army is insane, reckless, incompetent or all three, subvert any heroic expectations. The “good war” is just like any other: chaotic, dull and soul-shakingly traumatic by turns.

William Wharton was the pen name of Albert William du Aime (1925-2008), the author of three memoirs and eight novels, including “Birdy” (1978), a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was adapted into a 1984 film. Born in Philadelphia in 1925, he joined the Army out of high school and then, after the war, married, had four children, and worked variously as a teacher, painter, handyman and author.

The war, he writes in “Shrapnel,” convinced him at the age of 19 that he never again wanted to hold power or authority over another person. In a long section titled “D-3,” Wharton is offered a mission—as though it’s a privilege—parachuting behind enemy lines in preparation for the Normandy landings. “This all sounds like a very poor movie,” he thinks, but the promise of a Silver Star and the obligation to appear fearless—”the great male double bind”—make refusal impossible. He is tipped out of a plane in pitch darkness, sets up camp in the root-hollow of a fallen tree and waits. Nothing happens. Eventually, with his rations running low, he is discovered by Canadian troops and delivered back to his regiment. The whole mission has been pointless, and there is “no mention of my silver star.”

Wharton and his fellow troops have only the vaguest notion what this war against the “Krauts” is about. There are occasional exceptions, such as a hapless yet determined Jewish recruit and a German-born, Jewish-American soldier, Kurt Franklin, whose family has been killed by the Nazis. Franklin is matter-of-fact about his desire for revenge but also about the anti-Semitism he has encountered in the Army. He enlists the blond, blue-eyed Wharton to help him interrogate Germans, including forcing two SS officers to dig and lie down in makeshift graves. One finally breaks down “as they start sprinkling dirt on his face.” Although he recognizes Franklin’s need for revenge, it’s too much for Wharton: “I feel like a Nazi myself.”

The book’s final section, “Massacre,” is introduced simply as “a very sad story.” Wharton’s patrol rounds up 10 surrendering Germans—”a raggedy, loose, sad-looking bunch.” Fatigued, he relinquishes command to one of his men and leaves, but when the patrol reappears they have no prisoners. His replacement claims to have shot them trying to escape, but the true story is one of torture, revenge and shallow graves. It was kept out of the public record by a special court-martial, which may also have indirectly kept this memoir from publication in the U.S. for many years.

Wharton’s writing is plain and declarative and resolutely free of wider reference. Military slang obtrudes, a special code for a special moral universe: KP, OD, SNAFU. The memoir’s power lies in Wharton’s refusal to make the mental and moral adjustments necessary to normalize war. The officer giving him his absurd parachute mission tells him that the radio he is carrying is the most important thing about it: “I look at him to see if he’s kidding. He isn’t.”

For Wharton, militarism in itself—even heroic American militarism—is continuous with the abandonment of humanity that enabled Hitler’s regime. When “goofy southern crackers” in his unit discover that black troops were billeted in a building just before them and hurl their mattresses into a courtyard to burn them, they are not redeemed because they are fighting Nazis. “I don’t have much confidence in my fellow human beings even sixty years later,” Wharton writes. His memoir forces us deeply to question our own.

—Ms. Scutts teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.

Book Review

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

THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WOMEN WHO HELPED WIN WORLD WAR II
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.

Book Review

dotterBiographile, March 21 2013.

DOTTER OF HER FATHER’S EYES
Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Dark Horse, 89pp, $14.99

The intensely inventive graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes takes its title from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and its inspiration from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. The story of Lucia is interwoven with that of the author, Mary M. Talbot, and her father, a prominent Joyce scholar. Through this hybrid structure, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes explores women’s struggles to balance creativity and domesticity, the impact of domineering fathers on headstrong female children, and the addictive refuge offered by art. These themes are brought to life through another kind of hybridity – that of words and pictures, and the collaboration between Mary, the writer, and her husband, Bryan, the artist.

The story opens with a flashback and a moment of recognition across generations, as present-day Mary, a middle-aged literary scholar, comes across an old ID card of her father’s in a drawer and recalls another fragment from Joyce: “my cold mad feary father.” The full-color present-day opening gives way to a sepia-toned past, out of which spring crimson flashes: a hair ribbon or a blood-smeared newborn, as bright and unpredictable as a memory. The language can be equally striking, packing a whole cultural history into a single frame, as when a stern-faced nurse announces to Mary, going into labor for the first time: “Come on, sunshine. Shave and enema time.”

The grayish past depicts Mary Talbot’s upbringing in northern England as the only daughter of teachers in a working-class neighborhood. The noisy presence and sudden departure of her four much older brothers leaves young Mary dislocated and alone, the only child now present to absorb her father’s rages. The insistent tap tap tap across a closed door, which signals her father’s absorption in his work, is like a ticking grenade, until the door is flung open to reveal a roaring face, and SLAM and SMACK SMACK SMACK burst across the image. Like Lucia Joyce, Mary learns early on that her father’s work means that his moods and outbursts must be quietly tolerated – the more so because a daughter should, in the eyes of both fathers, be docile, obedient, and invisible.

Growing up around her father’s study of Joyce didn’t just make Mary aware of the realities of the writing life and lodge enigmatic phrases in her memory. It also meant that she was primed to notice the overlaps between her own life and that of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, born in 1907 in Trieste to penniless, peripatetic parents with the same names as Mary’s own: James and Nora. Lucia’s tragic story is illustrated in bold washes of black and blue, her thick dark halo of hair contrasting with Mary’s paler outline. In Paris as a young girl, Lucia discovers a talent for ballet, but her efforts to forge a career on stage or as a teacher are constantly interrupted by the disapproval and rival demands of her family. Set pieces that show Lucia’s enraptured discovery of dance, her figure leaping joyously across the page, give way gradually to scenes of rage between the girl and her parents, and eventually to nightmarish images of her imprisonment in the first of many asylums.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is an unusually intimate example of artistic collaboration, as shown through affectionate footnotes in which Mary corrects Bryan’s impression of her past (“My mother would never have been caught dead in a frilly apron”). Sheepish, romantic Bryan, whom Mary married when she fell pregnant in her teens, is a character in the book, resplendent in flowing hair and bell-bottoms. The collaboration between his drawings and Mary’s words allows the reader to travel effortlessly back and forth through the side streets of Wigan and literary Paris in the 1920s, and to discover connections across time, space, and experience. This moving story, funny and shocking by turns, is a wonderful example of how the boundaries and expectations of both biography and memoir can be pushed.

Book Review

The Black CountThe Washington Post, November 2 2012.

THE BLACK COUNT: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
By Tom Reiss
Crown. 414 pp. $27

THE ORIGINS OF Tom Reiss’s quest to uncover the forgotten life of Gen. Alex Dumas lie in a memoir by the general’s son, the novelist Alexandre, who was 4 years old when his father died — in bed, of cancer, after surviving the most grueling military campaigns of the French Revolution. On being told that God had taken the man he idolized, little Alexandre shouldered one of his father’s guns and announced that he was going to heaven “to kill God, who killed Daddy.” The author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” kept his father alive through a campaign of literary hero-worship. In “The Black Count,” Reiss does his best to train a skeptical historian’s eye on the Dumas legend, but he often appears equally dazzled by his extraordinary subject.

The man who became Alex Dumas was born in 1762 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, son of a black slave woman and a dissolute white nobleman. Reiss efficiently evokes a brutal world in which “the cheapness of slave life brushed against the exorbitant value of the crop they produced.” Sugar could bring outsize profits for aristocrats trying to hold together crumbling estates in France: Dumas’s uncle, who married into plantation money, was a success in the business; his father, who followed his brother to the Caribbean, was not.

A running theme of this book is the unexpected power of bureaucracy and legal loopholes in a world otherwise ruled by brute force, and Saint-Domingue offers a prime example. In order to contain the consequences of “an environment that the colonists themselves frequently characterized as being awash in sensuality, temptation, and illicit alliances,” the government in Paris had codified black slavery — but also decreed that if an owner married a slave, she and her children would be “rendered free and legitimate.” The result was a surreal era of wealth and freedom — especially for mixed-race women — alongside the “charnel house” of the plantations. The child originally known as Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie spent his first 12 years in that world, until the death of his father’s two brothers sent the errant marquis back to France to reclaim his title. Once there, having sold his family into slavery to pay for his passage, he sent for his son — transforming him overnight from a captive into a count.

This was the first of Alex Dumas’s many transformations, reflecting the tumultuous world into which he stepped. Revolution, still a philosophical dream, was a decade away; in the meantime, the teenager mastered all the intellectual and athletic skills expected of a young white nobleman. After several years of decadent living in Paris, Thomas-Alexandre transformed himself again, this time deliberately, by enlisting in the Queen’s Dragoons as a private. Reiss skillfully draws out the story from archival scraps and reads in his subject’s enlistment as “Dumas, Alexandre . . . son of . . . Cecette Dumas” a statement of “poetic revenge,” rejecting his father’s title and declaring himself the son of his black mother. Under ordinary circumstances, an enlisted private could have risen no higher than sergeant-major; the 1780s in France were not, however, ordinary circumstances.

Reiss presents the coming of revolution as a whirlwind of idealism, confusion and raw need. Conspiracy theories thrived where harvests failed, and radical political ideas became reality on the back of desperate food shortages. Dumas was swept up in revolutionary ardor, as even the abolition of slavery became a real possibility. In the small town of Villers-Cotterets, he was billeted with a fervently republican innkeeper, and hints of Othello’s wooing of Desdemona appear in the way Reiss describes his impact: “Here was a young man with breeding, bearing, intelligence, and a life of unbounded romance and exoticism. The entire family was beguiled.” Most besotted of all was the innkeeper’s daughter Marie-Louise, who was to be Dumas’s loyal wife; her father required only that the couple wait until Dumas had been promoted to sergeant. In the space of a year, he had become a general.

Perhaps because he was living proof that no status was stable, Dumas survived the Terror of the early 1790s with his neck and his principles intact — according to his son, deliberately turning his back on public executions: “When the terrible hour arrived, and all other windows were filled with spectators, my father would close his, pull down the blinds and draw his curtains.” At such moments, Dumas appears almost superhuman in his moral integrity and courage; it’s almost a relief to read that, like Achilles, he also suffered bouts of rage.

Dumas’s military career is why he enters the history books at all, yet the gulf between his commitment to his command and the futility of his battles makes these accounts hard to read. He is more human when he’s on the way down and a short, paranoid artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte is on the rise. Among Napoleon’s many underhanded deals, most of them devastating to his rival Dumas, is one with the white planters that opens the door to the reintroduction of slavery and the end of a brief dream of racial equality in France.

The biography is bookended by meditations on remembering and record-keeping. In the novels of Alexandre Dumas, the worst crime is to forget; Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas, which results in Reiss’s having to hire a safecracker to access the general’s private papers. Since a statue to Dumas was melted down by the Nazis, a new monument recently appeared in Paris: an enormous pair of slave shackles, which honor him as a symbol, not as a man. This remarkable book stands instead as his monument.

Joanna Scutts , an associate editor of the PEN America journal, teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.

© The Washington Post Company

Book Review

CezanneBiographile, November 7 2012

CEZANNE: A LIFE
By Alex Danchev
Random House. 512pp. $40.

Alex Danchev’s biography of Cézanne, Cézanne: A Life, makes it clear that even as the painter’s reputation has risen, his art, like the man himself, remains mysterious, challenging, and impossible to pin down.

The story opens in 1907, the year after Cézanne’s death, at the first retrospective exhibition of his work in Paris – in Danchev’s words, “the most consequential exhibition of modern times.” He explores in great detail the varied responses to this collection of paintings, from bafflement and scorn to “something close to a religious conversion,” undergone by the young poet Rilke. The paintings inspired psychiatric diagnoses of various kinds, and a legend had already grown up of the painter as disturbed, tormented, and plagued by “inquiètude” – anxiety or restlessness. Throughout the biography Danchev chips away at this calcified legend of Cézanne to reveal a thoughtful, humorous, and intellectually sophisticated figure. For a reader coming to the life with no particular preconceptions about the artist, these meticulous, often lengthy challenges to biographical orthodoxy can seem like digressions; however, Danchev conveys their importance through his lively and emphatic writing.

The most heartfelt work of recovery and correction focuses on Cézanne’s wife, Hortense, known to his friends as “La Boule” – the Dumpling. Of humble origins, not beautiful, and apparently not particularly sensitive to her husband’s talents and needs, Hortense had few defenders, and few friends, and was usually treated “with a degree of contempt.” Yet Danchev analyzes her two surviving letters, and more extensively, Cézanne’s multiple, multifaceted portraits of her, to arrive at a subtler picture of a sensitive, somewhat nervous, often sickly woman, who was certainly loyal and patient. Hortense bore the artist’s only child, his son Paul, and lived with him for seventeen years, largely kept secret from his family, before he finally made an honest woman of her in 1886.

The biography is broadly – though not strictly – chronological: Its chapters present periods in the artist’s life through themes such as “Le Papa,” “Anarchist Painting,” and “Non Finito,” sometimes revisiting material mentioned earlier from a different perspective. The story begins with Cézanne’s childhood in Aix-en-Provence, the son of “an archetypal self-made man,” a hatmaker turned banker, who was at best a grudging supporter of his son’s art. Once it was clear Paul was not cut out for the law studies his father insisted upon, Cézanne’s père agreed instead to give him a small allowance, just enough to survive in Paris as a student of painting. The move, though hard-won, was not permanent. Throughout his life Cézanne remained spiritually rooted in the southern soil of Provence, and never made any attempt to lose his nasal accent with its distinctive, thickly rolled “rrrrr”s.

The accent, his appetites, unrefined manners, and scruffy clothes contributed to the legend of Paul Cézanne as a passionate peasant, but in Danchev’s reading, Cézanne’s attachment to Aix and the surrounding countryside was also intellectual, deepened by his knowledge of its Roman past and by his youthful love of Latin poetry. His comrade in these early years of creative exploration was a younger schoolfellow with the odd name of Zola, whom Paul befriended when he defended him from bullies. The friendship of these “Inseparables,” as they called themselves, was a lifelong bond, although tested at the end by Émile’s success, conspicuous wealth, and habit of cultivating important people – and also by his habit of putting Paul, often unflatteringly, into his novels.

The story of Cézanne’s life is also the story of his friends and the creative community in which he lived, and the biography offers a detailed picture of these relationships, quoting at length from literature and letters to or about the painter and his work. Taking his cue from his subject, who was not deeply interested in politics or society beyond his own circle, Danchev touches only briefly on the tumultuous wider context of his life, particularly the violent upheaval of the Paris Commune of 1871. Although Cézanne was personally and artistically close to the anarchist Jewish painter Camille Pissarro – in a climate of virulent anti-Semitism – politics was always subordinated to art. Cézanne looked at the world by looking at the objects, sitter, or landscape in front of him, and was entirely consumed by the struggle to understand it through his brushstrokes, colors, lines, and planes.

Danchev is a persuasive and sensitive interpreter of Cézanne’s painting, and the chapters of the life are interspersed with analyses of five of the artist’s self-portraits, beginning with “The Desperado” – an intense, red-eyed figure, fired with ambition and just arrived in Paris – and ending with the final self-portrait, “The Inscrutable,” in which the artist appears physically diminished but still intensely self-searching, still seeking “the unvarnished truth.” It is during Cézanne’s final years, during which he was plagued by failing eyesight and the onset of diabetes, that he produced many of his greatest works, in a creative raging against the dying of the light. He died as he lived, as he had always wished: painting in the hills of Provence.

The book includes eighty-six color plates and many more sketches and photographs to support its portrait of the artist as a self-directed and restless seeker after his own, unique kind of truth, which his admirers and detractors alike struggled to understand: “He seemed not to see as others saw, but slant.”

Book Review

crusoeThe Washington Post, May 18 2012

CRUSOE: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth
By Katherine Frank
Pegasus. 338 pp. $27.95

THE WRECKING of a vessel on a remote island, from “The Odyssey” to “The Tempest” to “Lost,” is an evergreen beginning for stories about what makes us civilized and human. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe may be the archetypal survivor, who endures his desert island by imposing his values on inhospitable surroundings. When “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719, true stories of seafaring adventures, run-ins with pirates, and encounters with strange lands and peoples were so popular that Defoe’s fictional book was touted as a true-life tale. The proposed candidates for the “real Robinson Crusoe” would have crowded him off his island, but in her intelligent and surprising new book, “Crusoe,” biographer Katherine Frank focuses on Robert Knox, a young sailor whose story arises at the intersection of adventure, commerce and colonialism.

In choosing Knox rather than Alexander Selkirk — the Scottish castaway usually put forward as the “real” Crusoe — Frank makes it clear that she considers the state of captivity, whether in a far-off land or a grim London prison, to be more central to the Crusoe myth than the desert island. Knox and Defoe never met, but their entwined stories of imprisonment give a fascinating glimpse of a world stirring into modernity.

In November 1659, the same year Defoe’s Crusoe washed up on his island, 19-year-old Knox was a crew member on board the Anne, an East India Company ship captained by his father. Battered by a storm while at anchor off the south coast of India, the ship had to limp to Kottiyar Bay in Ceylon for repairs, where word of its presence soon spread. After a series of confused negotiations with the small native army sent from the interior kingdom to investigate, young Knox, his father and 14 other men found themselves kidnapped, on the improbable-sounding authority of the King of Kandy. The men were marched inland, split up — although Knox and his father were kept together — and moved from village to village. For months they awaited an audience with the king that never came. Capt. Knox succumbed after less than a year to an acute tropical fever, and although his son survived, it was 20 years before he saw his home again.

In his book, “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon,” Robert Knox described how he gradually became accustomed and acclimatized to the life of a Sinhalese villager. The book was published in 1681, a year after he and a fellow captive finally managed, through “calculation, cunning, patience and stamina,” to escape the king’s watchmen — and the odd wild elephant — and make it to a Dutch stronghold. The book was the work of a writer with extraordinary powers of observation and memory, confronting an environment that sometimes seemed touched with magic: “His silver pocket watch had long since stopped, and he now reckoned time as his neighbours did, by a plant called the ‘four o’clock flower.’ This was a deep purple or white blossomed flower that opened every day at four o’clock in the afternoon and remained open ‘until the morning, when it closeth up it self till four a clock again.’ ”

There’s no evidence that Defoe ever traveled outside Britain, but his imagination ranged wide and deep, and his wrecks and captivities were many. His business ventures and failures landed him in dizzying debt, in the pillory and in prison, where inmates had to pay for everything, down to the sixpence for “an earthen pisse-pot.” Writing was his savage revenge, especially the five years of frenetic creativity in the wake of “Robinson Crusoe,” when he published at least 48 works, including the novels “Moll Flanders” and “Roxana.” Frank draws on a wide range of Defoe’s writings to argue that the creation of Crusoe was driven by lessons he learned the hard way, such as the moral of his “Hymn to the Pillory” (1703) that “Survivors are those who create in the face of all the dark forces that seek to destroy them.”

Knox, however, was neither a mythmaker like Defoe nor a creature of myth like Crusoe. His experience was extraordinary, and Frank is a sensitive reader and earnest narrator of his life, but Knox comes more vividly to life in his querulous old age, obsessively expanding and rewriting the story of his captivity, than as the young sailor trapped in an alien world.

One reason for this is that he resolutely was a company man. The East India Company was globally powerful but locally vulnerable: “its far-flung outposts were connected by wooden ships that sailed like toy boats through thousands of miles of ocean.” Its tentacles were busily establishing trading posts wherever wealth could be squeezed from the soil or the inhabitants of a foreign land, and the story of shipwreck is therefore also the story of the company’s ruthless economic colonialism.

The great irony that, in 1684, Knox was made the captain of a slave ship at the company’s behest is not one he seems to have noted. It’s true, of course, that he “would have had to be a much more unconventional man than he was” to object to the slave trade at this point in history; but it makes him an occasionally frustrating hero for such an unconventional, surprising and thoughtful book.

Joanna Scutts , who teaches literature at Columbia University, is an editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.

© The Washington Post Company