The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.
By Walter Isaacson.
Simon & Schuster, 2021, 481 pp
A Fascinating, Inspiring Story
By Jim Delmont
This is another in Isaacson’s brilliant studies of scientists and inventors and this story culminates in the 2020 Covid pandemic and the awarding of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jennifer Doudna and one of her research associates, Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French biologist – the first time in history that two women had won a Nobel Prize in science together. Eight years earlier they had published significant papers on CRISPR, the gene editing process that has opened the possibility of human gene editing and the first man-made changes in the evolution of homo sapiens. They were not alone, and the book is a wonderfully readable chronicle of all the efforts of the men and women, world-wide, who moved in the academic and research circles of many nations, seemingly floating from one opportunity to another like butterflies. This early lesson in the text – that brilliant students can move effortlessly from doctoral to post-doc programs as they desire - is a resounding endorsement of higher education in the sciences, as mentors take on eager students, who then move on to other mentors, with some collecting in desirable collaborative locations, such as Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s research lab at Berkeley. It seems an 18th century dream of the Enlightenment, as the best and brightest, with almost no obstacles, float about, learning from one another, sharing knowledge and constantly publishing in peer-reviewed journals. That is, until patents became an issue! Modern science is always just a step away from a business model, with patents. Universities, private research firms, and government research outlets vie for patents, a process that caused quite a wild stir for the butterflies.
Despite some conflicts - a few of which became personal – most of the fascinating people in this study, continued their good work in their respective fields after smoothing out the legal problems as to who was first with what. This is an amazing story, told in a solid, no nonsense chronicle style by an author who knew his subjects, interacted with them, and participated in some of their relationships and even in a bit of scientific activity. Every page is a pleasure. Just as Edwin Hubble, midst a swirl of Hollywood parties and friendships with movie stars and famous authors, managed to identify a star as another galaxy, thus opening up an astonishing vista of time and space to the human race, so Jennifer Doudna and others opened an unlimited optimism (and pessimism) about possible genetic manipulation of humans, beginning (they all hoped) with cures for genetic diseases.
Doudna is the sun around whom many of the others circled – and the book is omething of a biography - but there were many independents, including Rosalind Franklin (following Watson and Crick), Craig Venter, Francis Collins, Jack Szostak, Thomas Cech, Francisco Mojica, Erik Sontheimer, Luciano Marraffini, Jillian Banfield, Blake Wiedenheft, Rodolphe Barrangou, Philippe Horvath, Herbert Boyer, Robert Swanson, Kaihong Zhou, Martin Jinek, Sam Sternberg, Rachel Haurwitz, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Krzysztof Chylinski, Virginijus Siksnys, Feng Zhang, George Church, Rodger Novak, Eric Lander, Eldora Ellison (a patent lawyer), Josiah Zayner (a valuable loose cannon), Joseph Bondy-Denomy, He Jiankui, Michael Deem, who – with Doudna and others – helped open this new vista for mankind. A great many of them were also very active in 2020 attempts to use gene editing to attack the Corona virus.
Their story is fascinating and inspiring. Their dedication to research and publishing, their easy international collaboration, their vision – generally not limited or marred by national or personal egoism – confirms that higher education is doing what it should do, at least in the sciences. No woke politics here. Competition is important, but cooperation is more important – one of the lessons of this impressive book.
Jim Delmont holds a PhD in history and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Northwest Ordinance and Its Importance in American History
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 2019, 258 pp
By Jim Delmont
This relatively short historical study, the latest of many from master popular historian, David McCullough, got lost in the 2020 Covid confusion, but deserves a serious look. It contains one of the most important political lessons available to Americans today – the truth about slavery in the distant past in a huge area of what would become the United States of America. At a time when history is being deliberately distorted and malevolently used for political purposes and to advance reverse racism, “The Pioneers” tells a different story – how slavery was kept out of the entire Northwest Territory, an area bequeathed by Britain in the 1783 peace treaty and as large as the entire 13 colonies – an area that would eventually become Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Furthermore, the prohibition on slavery was made before the famous 1789 Constitution had been adapted!
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 has long been regarded as one of the stellar achievements of Congress in its entire history. But this was not the modern Congress of today – this was the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, our first constitution, when – for all practical purposes - each state was a separate nation. Our modern Congress is notorious for dodging important issues – in recent decades they have left abortion, same-sex marriage, religion in schools, and many other thorny issues up to the federal courts, which have no constitutional basis for judging them because the Court has no legislative powers, the Supreme Court being separated from the legislative process by the Constitution. Nevertheless, a cowardly Congress today leaves more and more to the courts or to “executive actions” by presidents, as its members turn their backs on their responsibilities.
No so in the 1780s, when proud New Englanders, loyal to their puritan past, lobbied for an opening of the west to pioneers. When we think of pioneers, we think of the great West: Colorado, Utah, Oregon. But in fact the earliest true pioneers set out for a tiny corner of Ohio, where they founded Marietta. Fewer than 50 men made the first difficult trip through Pennsylvania, arriving via a confluence of rivers to a thickly forested area they began chipping away at.
The New Englanders insisted that the Northwest Territory be developed in an orderly way, via squares of land, with a portion whose sale would be devoted to free public education. They brought their religion with them and fought both in Congress and later in the Ohio state legislature to keep slavery out. By 1804, this huge slave-free territory was joined by all of New England, including Rhode Island, plus New York and Pennsylvania as slave free areas which provided most of the manpower to win the Civil War, destroy the Confederacy, and end slavery both by the sword and by several post-war Constitutional Amendments.
The orderly creation of Ohio is a remarkable story involving remarkable men and women. The vast area of the Northwest Territory today has a population close to 50 million. Before the arrival of the New England pioneers, the Native American Indian population was about 40,000 – so large was the necessary land area and animal population to support a single Indian family. This area is now America’s industrial and agricultural heartland, vital to the U.S. victories in the two World Wars and the Cold War. The small details of its earliest development are as fascinating as are the members of its early small population. McCullough tells this story well – a story we should all know.
Jim Delmont holds a PhD in history and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Letters to Lucky
Written and Illustrated By Maureen Beat
By Jim Delmont
For a change of pace, let’s look at a delightful children’s book written by Omaha native Maureen Beat. Maureen, an artist and writer, has the gift of rendering subjects in water color so engagingly that they have an instant storybook look. Her book, “Letters to Lucky,” is “a true story and a tribute to our beloved beagle, Lucky,” she said in an interview. Maureen has a book signing Saturday afternoon, May 29, at the Bookworm (2501 S. 90th Street at Center) at 2 to 4 p.m., which will also be the one year anniversary of Lucky’s death. There will be something of a block party outside, but those who enter the store are expected to wear masks.
“Letters to Lucky” is doing well in Amazon’s Children’s Pet Books category, having recently moved from 47th to 2nd on the list. Lucky, who lived 13 years, was rescued by animal rescue workers as she roamed the streets, apparently having been used for breeding until then. Taken to a dog pound, she was shy with people and mourned the loss of her puppies, taken away from her. The first couplet in the book explains that: “There once was a dog lost and scared, who ran in the streets and nobody cared.” Maureen said that a two-year old, seeing the drawing of the dog – wary, with its tail down – said seriously, “Sad!” Adopted from the dog pound by Maureen and her husband, David, Lucky gradually came around, and became a neighborhood favorite. Children were so fond of her that the Beats put up a mailbox just for her and neighborhood kids put drawings and notes to Lucky in it.
Neighbors suggested the book after Lucky’s death, the fan mail box for Lucky having been up about five years then. So many children were upset after her death, saying they missed her, that the book seemed like a good idea. It took Maureen, a graphic artist, about six months to do the homey illustrations, and the first copies were printed at the Creighton University print shop – Maureen has been employed at Creighton for 14 years as an administrative assistant in the Office of Retention and in PreHealth Advising.
“I had wanted to write a book about a puppy, or the life of a pet, and neighborhood kids were giving me cookies because Lucky died, so this was the right project – a narrative of adoption and bonding. I wanted to convey emotion. The illustrations of children in the book are actually kids in our block here in the Memorial Park neighborhood. The paintings of Lucky are all from memory except for the first one,” Maureen said.
A graduate of UNO in Fine Arts, Maureen began illustrating glass plates in 1989, the subjects often being lost landmark buildings. She branched out to paint individual homes, often in the Dundee area, portraits of individuals, and landmarks like Rosenblatt Stadium – these are so impressive, they seem to me collector’s items. Many of these are magnificent, done for individual clients.
Maureen, who has also worked in advertising, has a real talent for renderings that are not quite impressionist, but have some of that appeal, while remaining realistic, yet with a shimmer of storybook beauty to the subjects. There is a touch of whimsy to Maureen’s works, partly due to her use of watercolors, but she blends acrylic paints with water to get firmer, brighter colors. Her portraits are acrylic on canvas. She is always careful to delineate her edges so that they have crisp definition. She has painted churches, schools, public and private buildings, and even the altar cloth for the “missioning mass” of the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, the president of Creighton University. The house portraits are so fetching that if I owned a distinctive house in a historic neighborhood, I would definitely want one. Maureen’s web site, art expressions ltd, offers many examples. With a longer summer vacation now, Maureen does much of her freelancing then. “All my works are water colors,” she said. Her portraits are 10 x 15,” which “frame up nicely” at 16 x 20.”
If you appreciate the warm, storybook look of childrens’ book illustrations from the 1940s and ‘50s, you’ll appreciate Maureen’s watercolors in “Letter to Lucky.” There is Lucky with children, on the greenest of grass, on a bed, in the kitchen, halfway up the stairs. At the end there is a photograph of the real Lucky. The last few pages offer some of the crayon drawings and messages from neighborhood children. Each page in the book has one to four rhyming couplets, which would be helpful to children learning to read and provide a catchy ring to the text for those too young to read. An example is the couplet accompanying a water color of the author in bed with a broken ankle: “Lucky jumped on her bed as her ankle was healing, dogs just sense how their humans are feeling.”
Like most children’s books, “Letters to Lucky” is no “War and Peace” in length – about 38 pages, like most of the genre. There may be a sequel, the longtime need to write a book about a puppy. Gizmo is the new household puppy, and may appear one day in a book, “Go Gizmo, Go.” As one who rescued a beagle from a dog pound where it had a three-day window to survive, and who also lived 13 years, I bought a copy of “Letters to Lucky” with pleasure.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Gatsby Prequel Misses Mark
Nick: A Novel
By Michael Farris Smith
Little Brown, $27
By Jim Delmont
Publicized as a prequel to Scott Fitzgerald’s famous 1920s novel, “The Great Gatsby,” Michael Farris Smith’s “Nick” falls spectacularly short. It seems the copyright on “Gatsby” has run its course and books like this can piggyback onto their betters now, with only book reviewers to pester them. Nick Carraway is the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” and that novel provides some information on his character and background: he “had advantages” growing up in Minnesota; Yale 1915; “enjoyed” World War I; moved to NYC to enter the bond business; reserves judgment; others confide in him; he admires “complete self-sufficiency”; drunk only once in his life before meeting Gatsby; had only one affair in New York; worked most of the time; “full of interior rules that act on my desires”; thought Tom and Daisy “rotten,” but also disapproved of Gatsby; and was “one of the few honest people” he had ever known. In short, well-ordered, fastidious, one who took his father’s advice, rather strict morally – almost priggish, though “hurrying toward gayety” in New York City, but eventually deciding that “some deficiency” in himself made the East not the proper place to live, thus returning to the special disciplining winters of St. Paul.
Smith’s Nick is altogether a different person: passive, dreamy to the point of hallucination, a clear victim of war PTSD (like Hemingway’s other Nick, Nick Adams), and a drifter given to falling easily in with lowlife. This is not the Nick Carraway of “The Great Gatsby.” In fact, of 292 pages, only the final six directly address this Nick’s association with the Fitzgerald classic. This Nick is a character in a surrealistic and often brutal tale of a psychologically wounded young man, who certainly did not “enjoy” the war, and who eventually takes up with a New Orleans French Quarter criminal who was horribly disabled in the same war.
But Fitzgerald is not the only 1920s author lassoed into “Nick.” Smith is one of those authors (thankfully, very few) who abhor commas. Consequently, we get sentences that are too long with multiple actions or comments jammed together, Hemingway style, but not as artfully as Hemingway would have done it. Other punctuation – semi-colons, colons, emdashes - are also missing where they are needed. Many sentences are just fragments, some just a couple of words, lacking verbs, Twitter talk. A typical awkward sentence is this: “He walked along the sidewalk and the fog swallowed him as he trudged with his pack across his back and his insides splitting and he listened for her voice to call for him.” Dialogue also mimics Hemingway, with flat, unemotional short statements stacked in a row. Strangely, some dialogue is set off with quotation marks, but some isn’t. Much of the novel reads like a Hemingway parody. The comma is a gift to writers, but not to Smith. Here are two “sentences” that simply needed a comma between them: “The third floor was where the men slept and most stayed outside during the day. Smoking and dozing in the sun and sitting with their feet in the spring.” Drop the period before “Smoking,” add a commathere, and you have a decent sentence.
About halfway through the book, another 1920s author appears: William Faulkner. Smith’s style, once he has his character mired in the poverty and vice of post-war New Orleans, begins to mimic Faulkner’s long, urgent, menacing statements, usually lacking punctuation as well. Here’s one: “And he was taken by vengeance and anger and thirst for violence not induced by the colors of flags but by the simple distaste for another human being and the pistol only inches from Kade’s head and this was not the way that he had killed before.” Note the sentence begins with a conjunction. As with Faulkner, the mood is ominous, the words marching forward like zombies, the heavy meaning of it all stressed to the breaking point. Here’s an example from Faulkner’s “Light in August,” also about a pistol: “The match burned down and went out, yet he still seemed to see the ancient thing with its two loaded chambers: the one upon which the hammer had already fallen and which had not exploded, and the other upon which no hammer had yet fallen but upon which a hammer had been planned to fall.” Note that Faulkner did manage to fit in commas and a colon.
There is also the Hemingway tendency to over explain physical actions. Here’s Hemingway from a short story about Nick Adams: “He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back, got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tumpline.” This deliberate heavy-handedness is meant to carry weight, but it is often just dull. Smith does this, too
The echoes of Hemingway and Faulkner, authors who flourished from the 1920s to the 1960s is embarrassing and derivative, and the lack of punctuation inexplicable. However, “Nick” is not without merit. The first third, describing Nick in and out of Paris, where he has leave from combat, is engaging. He lapses into his imagination to blot out the war, meets a down-and-out artist/prostitute and befriends her twice. Both Nick and Ella are real, as are the war scenes and the streets of Paris. The latter portion of the novel is almost a separate book, with Nick pushed from the stage for long intervals as the tale of a married couple - a madam of a brothel and her estranged arsonist-criminal husband - follows its deadly course in Southern Gothic mode (resembling previous work by Smith). Faulkner would have been at home with the brutality and dark atmosphere of it.
Though the cover of Smith’s novel features exactly the same startling eyes peering from a blue background that first edition jackets of “Gatsby” had, we know that Smith’s Nick is not the Nick Carraway of Gatsby because Carraway, as far as we are concerned, being the narrator, wrote” Gatsby,” revealing a lot about himself in the process.
Hopefully, there will be no more prequels or sequels to Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. The author died in 1940.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
An American Masterpiece
Famed director tells his story in new autobiography
APROPOS OF NOTHING: AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By Woody Allen
By Jim Delmont
Some readers may agree with some critics who say Woody Allen’s autobiography lives up to its title – but, in fact, it is an enjoyable excursion into the mind, personality, and delicious whimsy of Woody Allen, now 84, one of our finest filmmakers and a man of droll wit, who came of age as an artist in the 1970s, just in time for his unique combination of cynicism and romanticism, as old gods died and new ones failed to appear.
Much abused in recent years by “MeToo” scolds and the lingering (and vicious) child abuse charges made against him by his long-time lover, actress Mia Farrow, Allen remains calm, almost philosophically so, as he narrates these ugly chapters in his life along with gag-filled accounts of his childhood in Brooklyn and his own critical appraisal of his triumphs and failures as a filmmaker. In doing so, he is notably generous toward those who got him his entrees into stand-up comedy, playwriting, then filmmaking, but remains modest in his assessments of his career in film. In this book, he also praises his many distinguished cast members and his technical and supporting crews, despite that some of his former stars now disavow him because of the PC taint.
As to Mia Farrow, who appeared in twelve of his movies and had a relationship with him spanning 13 years, the dominant impression for most of us in the general public was that she and Woody were married and he took advantage of one of their adopted children, a Korean girl named Soon-Yi, revealed in 1992. A few months after that, he was accused of sexual abuse of another adopted child, Dylan, then seven, a child Woody was especially fond of in tandem with his affection for Moses, the two being the only Farrow children adopted legally by Allen.
In fact, Woody and Mia were not married and did not live together – and did not share summers together. She and her brood (initially seven children) lived across Central Park from Woody, who had a spectacular penthouse of his own. Woody had little to do with Soon-Yi before or after Woody’s relationship with Mia had sexually cooled. They became friends when she was a freshman in college, sharing a mutual interest in films, and then falling in love (“We couldn’t keep our hands off one another,” Woody confesses). Nude photos of Soon-Yi were found in Woody’s apartment by Mia (not at all hidden) and that stoked a rage that persists to this day. A few months later, Mia filed the charges regarding Dylan, suggesting she had been molested in an attic. The case was eventually evaluated by the prestigious Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital and by the New York State Child Welfare Department - in a 14-month investigation. Both cleared Woody, but he lost all contact with his adopted daughter. Ronan Farrow, two years younger than Dylan, has taken his mother’s side all his life, despite that he couldn’t have known much about the issue at the time. Moses, another adopted child, but seven years older than Dylan, has disputed her testimony and charged she was coached by Mia as to what to say. In 2018, he published a 3,600-word defense of Woody Allen. Some think Mia got the idea for the allegation from a Dory Previn song, “With My Daddy in the Attic.” Mia stole Dory’s husband, Andre Previn, from her - and Dory subsequently committed suicide. Suicide abounds in Mia’s life as two of her brothers killed themselves (another went to prison) and two of her children have committed suicide, another tried, and one died of AIDS alone on Christmas Day. Also, both Mia and Woody acknowledge that Ronan is probably Frank Sinatra’s son.
In writing about this – not at all the main focus of the book – Allen remains calm and matter-of-fact, laying out the evidence.
A pleasant contrast is found in his narrative of childhood years in Brooklyn with an overbearing mother and an eccentric father who had some friends in organized crime and always carried a gun. Woody writes, “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” which led him to skip classes and go to Manhattan to see double feature movies. He loved radio, the sophisticated pop music of the time, and movies (“I have always despised reality and lusted after magic,” he writes). As he describes colorful relatives, Allen slips in a gag every few pages (discovering at age five that people die, he comments, “This is not what I signed up for, I had never agreed to be finite.”). He had a keen interest in good-looking girls, but found that the brainier ones were way ahead of him culturally (Mickey Spillane was “the sole poet I could quote”). So he began a self-improvement program that is often satirized in his films. Basically a writer, the teenage Woody began writing one-liners used by show biz columnists like Earl Wilson, who assigned them to celebrities. Making a bit of money doing that, he worked his way up to stand-up comedy, joining a remarkable family of Borscht Circuit comics who worked vacation spots in New York State, also doing gigs in the city. Like Woody, they were mostly Jewish, descendants of immigrants from the suffering populations of Russia and Poland and progenitors of the remarkable comic angst that is so central to Allen’s outlook: life is dangerous and meaningless, so let’s joke about it – but the jokes have a melancholy edge. Death and sex discussions come up again and again in Woody’s movies, but “at least after death you’re not nauseous,” one script reads. Doing this period, he had a first marriage failure and later took up with actress Louise Lasser, with whom he had an eight-year affair before marrying her. She dazzled him with her talent, but her daffy behavior and tendency to stray ended the marriage. At 81 and 84, they remain friends.
Being published in the New Yorker was a big moment for Allen, but real success came when one of his much-praised mentors, David Merrick, the legendary Broadway producer, got Allen’s play, “Don’t Drink the Water” up to speed and ready to be a two-year Broadway hit after a disastrous tryout in Philadelphia. This was followed by another Broadway hit, “Play It Again, Sam,” later made into a movie. It starred Allen with Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts, who became mainstays in his later films. Another mentor, Ralph Rosenblum, helped Allen rescue his first film script, “Take the Money and Run,” after he acknowledged he knew nothing, technically, about screen writing. Besides Rosenblum, Allen credits three men with launching his long and successful film-making career: Arthur Krim at United artists, who backed Allen’s silly comedy, “Bananas,” and 13 other films; Vincent Canby, film critic at the New York Times, who praised his early work; and Jack Rollins, who became a producer of more than 40 Allen films until his death at age 100.
To review this book, it helps to be a film critic, which I have been much of my adult life. Woody Allen’s first financial success was “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex,” when he was 36 (1971). It was no great shakes, but its silliness hit a nerve in a decade when America was getting zany after almost a decade of travail. Some brilliant comedies followed, including “Sleeper,” set in the future and one of the funniest movies ever made, and “Love and Death,” a hilarious spoof of Russian literature, especially the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In these and earlier works, Allen created the nervous, cowardly nebbish character that became his trademark. It was based in part on Bob Hope’s coward character – Allen adored Hope and thought him a superb actor.
By the mid ‘70s, Allen was well-established, but the film that put him over the top was “Annie Hall,” featuring one of Diane Keaton’s finest performances - an Oscar winning one, and a surprise box office and critical hit. It won Allen three Oscars he didn’t pick up and helped him become a free lance filmmaker who then attained a guarantee of future financing of his films and complete artistic control over them. This was followed by a true masterpiece, “Manhattan,” shot in black and white, with one of the most touching performances in any Allen film, that of Mariel Hemingway as an 18-yr old in love with a man in his forties (it reflected life as she was actually in love with Woody in a relationship that began the previous year). “Stardust Memories,” an ode to Fellini, came out in 1980, a return to seriousness, and in 1982, Woody’s somewhat off-titled “ A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” one of the most perfect bonbons of light comedy ever made, with a wonderful cast that included Mia Farrow for the first time, Allen, Jose Ferrer, and Tony Roberts from “Manhattan.” It is also on my masterpiece list – a real charmer, light as a feather.
Allen went on, mixing comedy with drama. “Hanna and Her Sisters’ (1986) is his best comedy/drama, with a superb cast, one of the best movies of the half century, a winner of three Oscars and a unique work that bears comparison to those of the best directors of the era. Another comedy/drama in the later period was “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” with a knockout, Oscar winning performance from Penelope Cruz and memorable work from Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson. Without question, Allen’s best drama and one of the best pictures in the entire Allen body of work, is “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which won an Oscar nomination for Martin Landau, in the role of his career.
But there were many others. Who could forget Judy Davis’ smash performances in “Deconstructing Harry” and “Husbands and Wives,” or Kirstie Alley’s explosively funny hysteria in the latter film? “Broadway Danny Rose” was great fun, and “Zelig” a fascinating experiment. Woody mentions his divine trinity of 20th century directors – Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa – and who could argue? Putting himself down, Allen remarks, “I never made a great film,” and he suggests that he lacks emotional and intellectual depth. In fact, he made several great films, unique to his own talent and outlook. “I make different films,” he writes, but so did Bergman (his favorite), Kurosawa, and Fellini. There was only one of each – and there is only one Woody Allen.
Woody writes and directs a film a year, casually shooting them with as few takes as possible, often allowing his actors to improvise some of their lines, which lends a fresh, spontaneous feel to his films. He’s not big on technology and still uses an Olympia portable to write his scripts, often pacing around until an idea hits. Because of the lingering effect of MeToo, Woody’s latest film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” with Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning, was distributed in Europe, but not here – and is not available on DVD, a real shame. Allan Stewart Konigsberg, 84 years old, happily married to Soon-Yi for 23 years, with two adopted children, has said, “For students of cinema, I have nothing of value to offer.” That is so untrue. He has everything to offer, as writer/director of American masterpieces. Ingmar Bergman could not have made an American masterpiece.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
A Dazzling Debut
Agents, publishers battled for the rights to publish this novel. The winner? The readers.
AFTER THE FLOOD
By Kassandra Montag
William Morrow, $27.99
Photo by Nancy Kohler
By Jim Delmont
Nebraska native Kassandra Montag, a graduate of UN-Kearney, is a poet and has an MA in English Literature from Creighton University. Widely published as a poet, she decided to put two years into writing a novel. Interviewed recently in Omaha, she said, “I worked so hard on that book. I just hoped I could keep readers interested to the end of the book.” Her book, “After the Flood,” a tale of a young woman from Nebraska with a young child desperately trying to survive after a worldwide flood, keeps the reader interested – it certainly kept this reader interested. I have been reviewing books for over 40 years and it is one of the best first novels I’ve ever read. Nor am I alone in this judgment.
Thousands of writers seek agents every year – I know scores of them. It is a nearly impossible task. No major publisher today will accept a novel unless submitted by an agent. Agents (most are in New York) are swamped with manuscripts and queries. It can take months to get your refusal, if you ever hear back at all – so a South Dakota friend of mine said, after having four novels ignored. Kassandra sent off her manuscript to a select group of agents and got FIVE offers. That is unheard of. She decided to go with the Victoria Sanders Agency, a respected member of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). The agency put the book up for auction (also a rare event for a first novel) and William Morrow and Company, a highly regarded branch of HarperCollins, won the bid. The book has also been optioned for a TV series with Chernin Entertainment, though at 400 pages it is just right for a motion picture (Jennifer Lawrence would be perfect as Myra).
“After the Flood” is primal – about survival, and it follows an outline that Joseph Campbell, the great theorist of hero legends, might have loved. The story is a quest and a journey, with all the power these archetypal themes have. Myra, the heroine, is pregnant and has been abandoned by her husband during the disaster, taking their five-year-old daughter with him as she screamed for her mother. Seven years later, the narrative resumes, with a second daughter, Pearl, now with her mother, living on a boat, the two of them survive by fishing and selling or bartering their catch for necessities at remote villages that have survived the catastrophe. Governments don’t exist, people alone are in peril, pirates have become organized crime, taking over villages and maintaining “breeding ships” where young girls are prisoners to forced reproduction. Myra is determined to find her first daughter, Row, who would now be about twelve, before she suffers such a fate. That is the story, and it is a real page turner.
Reading it, I first thought of Faulkner, not in literary style – for Kassandra’s prose is short, blunt, clear, while Faulkner’s famous, dense sentences could run on for paragraphs or even pages. The Faulknerian touch is in the perseverance, the inexorable blind drive of the heroine to complete her quest. It reminded me of Faulkner’s Nobel speech about the survival of the human race, and his novel, “As I Lay Dying.”
“Absolutely,” Kassandra said. “I read a lot of Faulkner as an undergraduate – that toughness, unrelenting drive, man against time and mortality.” There is a touch of Melville, too – at one point in the narration by Myra, she notes that her situation may be “irrevocable…an ancient story already told” – akin to what Captain Ahab had to say about his quest for the white whale. The pitilessness of nature, as offered in Stephen Crane’s “An Open Boat,” comes to mind, too, as does Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” A single person against the elements.
Though the flood hints at global warming, a political issue, there is no mention of that aspect – just a few remarks about earthquakes on the seabed. The book is never preachy in that regard. “I didn’t want it to be preachy,” she said. “It may be feminist, too, but a different kind of feminism. Men have been portrayed on epic journeys, but this is a woman, so it is feminist in that sense – but she’s not perfect, but still a hero, driven on, but she can change and grow. Everyone makes mistakes, has flaws, both men and women.” In fact, Myra will lie to get what she wants. She carries a knife, too, and knows how to use it. But her fierce mothering and protectiveness of Pearl may be the strongest female aspect. Like all the characters in the book, the child Pearl is fully realized and vividly real. “You never listen to me!” she complains loudly at one point, because she is resourceful herself.
As to the deep primal survival theme of the novel, Kassandra mentioned that her father, who encouraged her creativity, had a bad accident at 16, that left him somewhat paralyzed. “Knowing that made me realize the role chance, luck, can have, and the ability to survive; what human instincts come to play in dangerous situations. This was fertile ground for survival questions.”
Kassandra grew up on acreage near Kearney, with a large garden tended by her mother. Close to nature, she studied it and read Jack London novels about survival. “Even as a child, I was fascinated with primal, survival stories,” she said, “and it always inspired my imagination about other worlds.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how Myra and Pearl are just simply in this challenging environment, their plight is just a fact, a natural thing – the narration (first person by Myra) is not fancied up with post-apocalypse language. Plagues, floods, earthquakes, fires - you must assume - are things that happen in nature. People have to face up to them.
While the prose is unadorned, it does convey strong emotions, longings, regrets, hopes. “I do believe that hope can give us resilience, hope can offset loss,” Kassandra said. “The first thing is the importance of community. Myra has to learn not to be isolated, which doesn’t serve her. With others she grows as a person, becomes tougher, smarter.” Among arresting phrases in the novel are these: “My rage beat on like a second heart” and “Her grief, like a third person in the room.”
The book has a lot of boating, sailing, and fishing information. Asked about it, the author said she got most of it from the Internet, but it involved a lot of research. Interestingly, she added, “The physicality comes from my work in poetry, I learned to ground everything in my poems in physicality, rather than in ideas.” This may have been due to influences from poet Don Welch, whom she met at UNK. “He has been my greatest writing mentor…he’s an incredible poet, who was able to capture the rhythms of rural life in Nebraska in ways I’ll never forget.” As to the very believable names of the two main pirate groups in the novel, Lilly Black and the Lost Abbots, she said, “the first had a pirate feel to it, and the second just came to me.”
Other authors who influenced Kassandra include the Norwegian Nobel winner, Sigrid Undset, author of “Kristan Lavrensdatter.” “I also liked Alice Munro, who captures relationships so well in her short stories, and Cormac McCarthy, especially his novel, ‘The Road.’ Faulkner, too.”
Montag is German, meaning Monday, but Kassandra is “primarily British, but with German and some Scandinavian,” she learned from an Ancestry DNA application. Her loyalty, though, is to Nebraska. She and her husband could live anywhere but prefer to stay here with their two children. “We love Nebraska,” she said, “with a real affection for the land and the people.” When told in a post-interview email that she, with her novel, had sprung up like a prairie flower, she emailed back, “I love your metaphor of a prairie flower – it made me think of Willa Cather and what a joy it is to be working in a state with such a rich cultural heritage.”
Kassandra Montag said that when writing the book, “I wanted a story readers could lose themselves in.” She has certainly accomplished that, already winning awards and recognition. You can’t put this book, down, eager to know what happens on the next page and never knowing how the ending will turn out – tragedy, full happiness, or somewhere in between. You lose yourself on the journey.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
THE SUN AND HER STARS:
SALKA VIERTEL AND HITLER’S EXILES IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD
By Donna Rifkind
Other Press, $30, 418 pp
By Jim Delmont
Biography is my favorite reading genre because nothing is as interesting as a human being from start to finish. This splendid study of actress/screenwriter Salka Viertel is not a lifelong one, but is mostly an account of her Hollywood years in the 1930s and ‘40s, though there is a brief account of her life after that, ending with her last years in Switzerland. When reading a biography, I always skip the Introduction, because I don’t want any details revealed, especially regarding someone I don’t know that much about. Doing so was a good thing – more on that later. The subtitle of this book would have been perfect for the title – and right to the point: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Salka Viertel was an extraordinary person who befriended and sheltered many who fled Nazi Europe before and during World War II. She and her husband, Berthold Viertel, were both active on the stage in Europe and were both from the Austrian Empire, he from its center, Vienna, she from a remote province that is now part of Ukraine. Both were Jews who came to Hollywood for work in films, but stayed because of the anti-Semitism of the Hitler regime. Ironically and suitably, they ended up in a German Bauhaus style home in Santa Monica, a unique place shown in the endpapers of the book – large, ultra-modern and no doubt pictorially a homecoming note for the many German and Austrian artists and intellectuals who gathered there for Salka’s famous Sunday soirees. Regardless of her financial situation, which alternated wildly from poor to comfortable, Salka entertained regularly and gave shelter to many who could not afford to buy homes or pay rent. The collective talent of her guests was staggering: composers, musicians, artists, writers, actors, including Nobel winner Thomas Mann and his wife, plus his brother, Heinrich, also a famous author; Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein; Bertolt Brecht: Greta Garbo, a personal friend of Salka’s for decades; Lion Feuchtwanger; Charlie and Oona Chaplin; Aldous and Maria Huxley; Marlene Dietrich; Christopher Isherwood; composer Arnold Schoenberg; Billy Wilder, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis; and many who had hair-raising escapes from Europe, including Franz Werfel, who was rewarded with a U.S. runaway best-selling novel, “The Song of Bernadette.” Others included European talents who became fixtures in Hollywood, including Fred Zinnemann, who eventually won four Oscars as a director and whose distinguished films included “From Here to Eternity,” “High Noon,” “The Nun’s Story” “Oklahoma!” and “A Man for All Seasons.” Another esteemed director, William Dieterle, was a frequent guest, too.
Salka’s three sons with Berthold arrived in California as schoolchildren in 1928 and took to the sea and sunshine. The eldest, Peter – handsome and gifted – became a writer, married actress Deborah Kerr, and made a lifelong friend of tennis companion Irwin Shaw, who became famous later for his war novel, The Young Lions. All three of the Viertel boys served in the U.S. military and Salka became a U.S. citizen. She and her husband both did free lance assignments at first, but Salka was talented enough to nail an MGM screenwriting contract, 1933-37, which enabled her to work with Greta Garbo on three films, including “Queen Christina,” under the tutelage of the legendary producer Irving Thalberg, whom Scott Fitzgerald featured in his final (and uncompleted) novel, The Last Tycoon.
What runs through this book, besides the warmth and energy of Salka’s personality, is the sheer terror of the need to escape Europe under the Nazis, the motif of the legendary movie, “Casablanca,” with its “letters of transit” to Lisbon - the only escape for many - but so difficult to obtain. The cream of European Jewish intelligentsia fled variously to Austria, Poland, then France, only to experience the same nightmare as each fell to German troops. This necessitated bribes, desperate attempts to physically cross the Swiss and other borders, help with visas and passports from such groups as the Emergency Rescue Committee and the European Film Fund, who had agents with cash on the ground, or who helped slash through bureaucratic red tape. Many escaped, but many didn’t. Some committed suicide. This was a time when a ship with over 1,000 Jewish refugees made it to Cuba, only to be turned away, then turned away again at New York City during FDR’s tenure, its passengers forced to return to a dreadful fate in Germany. Tough immigration restrictions, passed in the 1920s, when no such disaster could have been foreseen, were a serious problem, as was the political situation expressed in the isolationist sentiment of the Great Depression era.
Salka threw herself into the effort to save as many as possible, often making financial contributions that left her nearly destitute. She had literary celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Andre Malraux as guests at her gatherings, doing anti-fascist fundraising. She was a big-hearted, dynamic person, almost 40 when she arrived in America, reminding me of another German-Jewish émigré whom I knew personally, Gisela Konopka, who fled in 1941 at age 31, landing in Minnesota, where she built a world-famous adolescent social work department at the University of Minnesota. Both women exuded strength, warmth, intense idealism, a devotion to work, a love of humanity. Sadly, Salka’s support of a few “front” organizations of the American Communist Party led to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI snooping in her life, as it did with so many involved in anti-fascist activity during the 1930s and ‘40s, when its attention should have been on the fascists.
No beauty (which she admitted), Salka made a few films, including one in German with Garbo, but had a seductive personality she exercised by having a long-running affair with a neighbor! Her open marriage with Berthold was peculiar – he had always been something of a philanderer and spent many years away from his California family, first in Europe, then in New York, where he took up with a longtime mistress, finally divorcing Salka in 1947. Yet his visits of varying lengths to the “Zu Hause” on Mabery Road in Santa Monica were always warm and loving, both spouses pledging their affection.
Interestingly, the author never mentions the fact that the famous astronomer, Edwin Hubble, independently wealthy and a good friend of the Huxleys and Garbo, also entertained many in the same social circle, including Chaplin and Anita Loos. His story is included in the very entertaining book, Huxley in Hollywood, by David King Dunaway (1989). Hubble made the incredible discovery that some stars were actually other galaxies, thus vastly expanding our understanding of the universe. He loved entertaining Hollywood celebrities.
The Sun and Her Stars is full of wonderful anecdotes such as the meeting arranged by Salka between Thalberg and composer Arnold Schoenberg. The two powerful personalities clashed, each holding his own ground, as Thalberg queried Schoenberg about possibly doing a film score. Thalberg, familiar with Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” was unaware of the composer’s turn to difficult, 12-tone music, utterly unsuited to 1930s Hollywood movies. Schoenberg made preposterous demands, such as that the script match the music in rhythm and tone, so the episode ended in a stand-off, but with no hard feelings.
The book has perhaps a tad too much novelistic reading of its subjects’ moods and thoughts, but overall it is a delightful and much-needed study of a vivid chapter in the life of a remarkable woman. The Introduction, unfortunately, in keeping with the statement, ”Without immigrants there would have been no golden age of Hollywood,” compares the refugee plight of that time with that of today, comparing President Trump to Hitler, while claiming “Nazis are rallying murderously in American cities,” when almost all street violence in the USA comes from the political left, who shout down speakers on campuses, beat up people, stop traffic and set fire to buildings during riots. Excessive immigration, including refugee immigration, is creating huge bloc voting populations who are killing two-party democracy in the U.S., which will bring the far left to power indefinitely, as in Salka’s once democratic California, now dead to two-party politics. This attitude doesn’t ruin the book; it doesn’t even ruin the Introduction, but it is a discordant note in an otherwise fine achievement.
After 24 years, Salka had to leave the wonderful house on Mabery Road, described by her as “a sort of Shangrila for everyone who enters it,” and by the author as “a portal” to safety for many, including Salka’s aged mother. She couldn’t afford it, and after an interval in New York, she spent her final years in relative poverty in Switzerland. She told her own story in The Kindness of Strangers (1969).
“Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.”
ALEXANDER THE GREAT:
HIS LIFE AND HIS MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
Random House, $30
By Jim Delmont
Few humans have had the impact on the world that the young Macedonian king and military commander, Alexander the Great had. His extraordinary military conquests, 334-323 BC, created a gigantic area of Greek cultural influence that stretched from Egypt to India and laid the foundation for what is known as the Hellenistic age, a three-century period dominated by urbanization, science, Greek art and architecture, the spread of Hellenic philosophy, literature and religion, plus the foundation and planning of multiple cities, a great many of them named after Alexander. This massive intrusion also created a vast area for “Koine” Greek, a common Greek language, also known as the Alexandrian dialect, that became the international language of trade, commerce and culture (the New Testament was written in it).
Napoleon had brought along scientists and scholars when he invaded Egypt in 1798, but neither Napoleon nor his army stayed there very long – long enough to decipher the Rosetta Stone, but not long enough to build a cultural empire covering thousands of square miles. Of all the Alexandrias, the one that grew in size, reputation and wealth, was the one personally chosen in the Nile Delta area by Alexander himself. Fittingly, his embalmed body, in a beautiful tomb, would reside there for centuries after his sudden early death at age 33. Within a century and a half of Alexander’s death, his city would rival Rome as an economic and trading center, then surpass it, dominating the Mediterranean world for nearly 800 years, until surpassed by Constantinople, which was also Greek. Fittingly, given Alexander’s devotion to Greek culture, it became the location of the greatest library in antiquity, an institution that may have had more than 200,000 separate titles: plays, history, biography, poetry, science.
Napoleon was not the only historic commander to be drawn to conquest in the east on the Alexandrian model. The area was dominated by the Persian Empire, which two centuries earlier had invaded the Greek city states more than once, always losing militarily. Alexander, whose personal bible was Homer’s Iliad, felt justified in a war of revenge against the Persians, who had once burned down Athens, despite losing that war. He retaliated by sacking and burning the Persian capital, Persepolis, founded centuries earlier by Darius the Great, who had invaded Greece. Many later political and military figures, especially from Rome, sought to emulate Alexander’s heroics by also invading Persia, an area so large that it was as difficult to conquer as Russia, since its armies could simply withdraw deep into its desolate interior, leaving little for their pursuers. Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in the world and the military conqueror of the slave armies of Spartacus, invaded Persia in the first century BC and came to military grief and death. His rival, Julius Caesar, shortly after becoming dictator for life, began gathering a mammoth Roman army to follow Alexander’s path, but he was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate before his departure date. Roman-Persian wars went on for nearly 700 years, with such notables as Mark Antony and the Emperor Gordian humiliatingly defeated (Gordian died). The Emperor Julian the Apostate also died in an invasion of Persia (possibly changing religious history in Europe, as he was leading a pagan revival) and the Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians and held in captivity for the rest of his life. Only the fighting emperor Trajan defeated the Persians totally, but his fate was similar to that of Napoleon in Russia – the enemy abandoned their capital to destruction and faded away in the hinterlands.
Such was the often fatal influence of Alexander, whose armies had fought against the war elephants of India and never lost a major battle.
Anthony Everitt, a well-known practitioner of popular history (his biographies of Augustus and Julius Caesar are enjoyable and informative) is riding something of a revival of interest in classical history in Britain, as archeologists continue unearthing Roman settlements and discovering artifacts (Rome ruled Britain, without entirely colonizing it, for roughly the first four centuries AD). He writes with a breezy authority, a gift for summation, an intelligent overview, and quite often, a touch of humor. Early on, he boldly states that Alexander was “perhaps the most talented field commander of all time.” Unlike most generals, but very like Julius Caesar, Alexander, on his famous horse, Bucephalus, would plunge directly into combat, often leading the charge and suffering serious wounds. Like Napoleon, Alexander could analyze a battle as it developed crazily around him and make instant decisions to his advantage. So relaxed is Everitt’s diction that at one point he describes Alexander as “the kid who never grew up,” because of his near-juvenile love of the fighting heroes of the Iliad and his desire to emulate them.
Everitt’s study is about the same length in words, and follows a very similar chronological course, as an earlier Alexander biography, Alexander of Macedon, by a fellow Briton, Peter Green, published in 1974 and republished in a handsome edition in 1991 with a new preface by the author. The similarity in subject matter is probably due to the scarcity of ancient sources, but the two disagree on some of the most important events in the life of Alexander.
Originally, the invasion of Persia was to be made by Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, who had pacified all of Greece. Alexander was groomed for a military career by Philip, who also saw to his general education by hiring Aristotle as his tutor. Alexander’s mother, the fiercely ambitious Olympias, was both murderous and given to exotic religious notions, including the one that her golden-haired son may have been born of Zeus, rather than Philip (a popular idea with Alexander throughout his life). When Philip married a younger, and more purely Greek seventh wife named Cleopatra, Olympias was enraged and feared for her son. Not long after, Philip was assassinated, though both ancient and modern sources maintain multiple explanations and motives, Olympias – and even Alexander – figure in some. Green favors a conspiracy, possibly begun by Olympias, but Everitt withholds final judgment. They also disagree as to whether Alexander’s near-fatal fever after a dip into an icy river was due to the shock of the cold water or a more biological explanation - favored by Everitt - that he caught malaria from a mosquito bite. There is also a remarkable narrative parallel in their description of the fate of a sailor who fetched Alexander’s hat after a wind blew it away – to keep it dry, he wore it, for which he was punished. Both authors describe this gaffe with the same French phrase, “lese-majeste” (an insult to a monarch).
Alexander led the invasion force of some 90,000 men, a huge number for that time. He first subdued Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), then took the Syrian coast and Egypt and went on to smash Persian armies in famous clashes won by his own audacity and courage and the steely discipline of his battle-tested Macedonians. Eventually, he decided on Babylon as his new capital, but moved on, with many new recruits from Greece and Persia, to conquer India, where ferocious battles ensued, always won by the Greeks.
Alexander favored a multiculturalism, in which Greeks would intermarry with Persians (he took to himself a Persian princess, Roxanne, though his lifelong soulmate was his male friend, Hephaestion, who died at 32, leaving a grief-stricken Alexander) and administrative tasks would be shared by both ethnic groups. This was resented by the Macedonians, who had families back home and were beginning to resent the many years of the campaign. Finally, In India, they revolted and refused to go further (Alexander grossly underestimated the size of India). Alexander returned to Babylon to plan an invasion of Arabia. There, after heavy drinking bouts, he came down with a fever – or was poisoned. Despite his subtitle, “His Mysterious Death,” Everitt rejects conspiracy theories and endorses the view that Alexander died from something like malaria, perhaps after weakening his immune system with excesses of battle and drink. Green favors the “strong possibility” of a conspiracy “by a junta of senior commanders.”
Everitt’s book recreates the wonders of ancient cities and landscapes and makes good use of ancient sources that provide astonishing details, including extant letters and communications. He states flatly: “He (Alexander) set the scene for the Hellenistic civilization that was to dominate the next few centuries.”
Proof, if any is needed, that Everitt read Green is the fact that both men, in their final paragraphs, quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses – but they choose different lines!
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
TEN CAESARS: ROMAN EMPERORS FROM AUGUSTUS TO CONSTANTINE
By Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, $28
By Jim Delmont
Barry Strauss is one of a small fraternity of popular history writers who favor ancient Roman subjects. Like Edward Everitt and Anthony Goldsworthy, he is drawn to men of power in that age. Previously he did a good study, “The Death of Caesar” (2015) and has written on various topics in ancient Greek and Roman history, often with an eye to how they help illuminate our own times. Julius Caesar was really the first Roman emperor (dictator for life), but it was up to his grand-nephew and adopted son, Octavian, to create a semi-legal framework for the “First Citizen,” “Princeps” or “Imperator,” and make peace with various factions, thus ending an era of civil wars with military victories that created the platform for his political reforms. Octavian was rewarded with the title “Augustus,” based on the high-toned word, “august,” meaning eminent or elevated – it eventually became our eighth month on the Julian calendar.
Not surprisingly, then, Strauss selected Augustus Caesar as the first and greatest of his celebrated “Ten Caesars,” choosing from a list of about 80 candidates in a confusion of numbers brought about by various usurpers who served for varying terms before being overthrown by legitimate emperors, and by the fact that after the convulsions of the third century caused by barbarian invasions, some emperors served in the Eastern Roman Empire exclusively, most only in the West, and some in both regions (the last of whom was Theodosius the Great, fiercely Catholic and the last of the independent fighting emperors). Another complication is that at least a few women could be counted: Ulpia Severina, the widow of the Emperor Aurelian, if for only a month, and the redoubtable and highly intelligent Galla Placidia, who was Empress Regent, with the title of Augusta, for the twelve years of her son’s minority, the son being Valentinian III. Galla, whose extraordinary life has inspired many books, was granddaughter, daughter, sister, wife and mother of Roman emperors. No wonder she could take on such powerful figures as the greatest field commander of his time, the Roman general Aetius, who had turned back Attila the Hun. Many have pointed out that the stubborn, self-confident Galla was a better ruler than her weak and cowardly half-brother, Honorius, or even her son, who made the same awful mistake Honorius made – he murdered his best general, a situation that in both cases led to a barbarian sack of Rome (410, 455).
Augustus managed to create a new constitution in which the traditional offices and customs of the Roman Republic (the Senate, consuls, praetors, censors and other magistrates) continued while a new recognition of the Imperator (literally, commander of the armed forces) would exist in tandem with the old order. Like that of Britain, the constitution of the republic was unwritten, based on common practice, legal decisions, sacred traditions, with the executive power shared by two consuls who served only a year (so cautious were Romans of runaway authority in the hands of one man). This system lasted for centuries, with occasional lapses, but was inadequate to the demands of the new imperial era in Roman history. Founded about 500 BC, by 200 BC, the republic was building an overseas empire and by the time of Julius Caesar (who conquered France- Gaul - in an eight-year war) it desperately needed a more powerful, longer-serving executive. This political problem was never solved and killed off the republic with its incipient democratic trends. Augustus took on many offices for show, some – like consul – for short periods, others, like Pontifex Maximus (head of state religion) for longer periods. The Pope has this title now (Pontiff for short) and for the same reason – he is head of the generally recognized dominant religion
Augustus cleverly maintained the pretense that he was serving the republic while consuls were still elected (the office, even shorn of its authority, was so prestigious that it continued into the 500s, even after Rome had been conquered by Germans). In truth, Augustus’ authority rested on the legions he commanded, over 30 of them, each battle-hardened with 5,000 men, superbly armed with factory-made weapons and rigorously trained to exhaustion. Nothing in the Western world could stand up to their discipline and lethal arms, including the republic. The problem is obvious from our point of view: the emperor was basically a military man – and even when not – he was supported and maintained in power by the military. An amazing number of emperors led their legions into battle, including nearly all of the “most capable and successful emperors” on Strauss’ list. Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine were all veterans of many battles in many wars.
A key problem with this arrangement is that the emperor was not shielded, as American presidents and British prime ministers are, by constitutional norms. His position was inherently illegal and based on intimidating military force - therefore subject to overthrow by others who might be capable or lucky enough to summon military power equal or superior to his. Consequently, few emperors died in bed, and only one – the great general Diocletian – retired. Because his place in society rested on military power, the emperor was tempted to the sins of absolutism, which might include degeneracy and misappropriation of the state’s wealth, Nero being a good example. Oddly, Strauss has included him on his short list despite Nero’s fabulous indulgences and the murder of his own mother. Nero was apparently chosen because he was “the Entertainer,” an amateur singer, actor, songwriter, musician, who offered the public new buildings, elaborate games, and public welfare programs. Theodosius the Great would have been a better choice for the top ten, one would think, as he desperately fought off barbarian invaders and provincial Roman usurpers in major campaigns, restoring order as Rome faced its 5th century doom.
Caligula (not chosen for the list) was also a monster, and Tiberius, in old age, became a distant figure engaged in horrific sexual predation of children at his remote palace on the Isle of Capri. Vespasian was the first commoner to earn the purple, a successful general – as so many were – from the area of Yugoslavia. Trajan was the strongest military figure, expanding the empire to its greatest extent, including Rumania, conquered in a fierce campaign. Hadrian, the most cultured and refined emperor accepted the limits of Trajan’s territory and spent most of his time in office touring the vast expanse of it. He was devoted to Greek philosophy and art and reigned peacefully for many years. Marcus Aurelius, who has left us his philosophical Meditations, nevertheless spent much of his time on the German frontier engaged in defensive wars. Diocletian, a brutal military figure, saved the empire as it tottered from Germanic invasions (the Romans fought the Germans for 500 years) in the third century, stabilizing the government and overseeing economic reforms that included new coinage and a system of dual emperors in east and west. Constantine, who murdered a wife and a son, was converted to Christianity, founded Constantinople, and oversaw the theological gatherings of bishops that set dogmas still observed today.
When Theodosius (father of Galla Placidia) died near the end of the fourth century, German tribes had broken through the Danubian barriers and were never to be expelled. He did his best, dying young in his late 40s, but his incompetent sons (Honorius in the west, Arcadius in the east) served badly, and his grandson, Valentinian III, murdered General Aetius, which led directly to his own murder by members of Aetius’ bodyguard, and to political and military confusion that allowed the Vandals to ruthlessly sack Rome in 455. Though not the official year in most almanacs, 455 AD was really the end of the Roman Empire that began with Augustus. After that, puppet emperors, the best of which was Majorian, also murdered, served German masters. The Roman Empire survived another 1,000 years in its Greek-speaking Eastern half, the territory and government we now designate as Byzantium.
Readers may not agree with all the choices made by Strauss, but there is no denying how fascinating his emperors were and how well he tells their tales.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle
The Case for Trump
By Victor Davis Hanson
Basic Books $30
By Jim Delmont
Best-selling Historian Victor Davis Hanson is not the first historian to attempt to explain Donald Trump and his astonishing rise to the presidency. Former college history teacher, author, and one-time Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, also had a crack at it. In his 2017 book, “Understanding Trump,” published in June of that year - just a few months into Trump’s term began, he stressed Trump’s pragmatic, unconventional approach: the mass use of social media, especially Twitter, his contempt for elites, direct attacks on the politically correct press and media, his call to blue collar Reagan Democrats, rejection of globalism in favor of nationalist patriotism, and his meritocratic choice of aides and insider campaign workers, putting loyalty ahead of experience. Gingrich saw that Trump opposed elites in both parties on trade, immigration, identity politics, job creation, and many aspects of foreign policy. He also made a full frontal attack on the New Left influence in our schools, countering it with a bear hug of fossil fuel increase, Judeo-Christian tradition (even to restoring “Merry Christmas”), capitalism, and American exceptionalism. To the elites, especially in academia and the media, this was a sheer horror, a political Godzilla, who was successfully shoving aside “Crooked Hillary,” the left-liberal community’s anointed First Woman President.
Hanson, a retired professor of Greek and Roman classics in the California state college system, author of at least 20 books, and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, places Trump on an even larger canvas. What is happening politically, he argues, is that the U.S. is splitting between coastal urban populations and the large interior of the nation - with its smaller cities and vast rural areas. The latter still support traditional religious and patriotic values, as well as the famous American work ethic. Its voters are overwhelmingly white (that is, of European origin). The former are heavily minority and non-European immigrant, split between fabulously rich urban elites and armies of poor, including many on welfare support. This combination of rich and poor tends to vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
Trump voters are “a demographic,” as are non-Trump voters. They do not live in the same places. Trump’s election was a backlash against the coastal and largely liberal contempt the elites there have for small town, rural and white America. Hanson’s is the voice of a clever, intelligent writer who can view Trump within a prism of power and politics going all the way back to ancient Greece (he is an authority on the Greek city states and the leading political personalities of that era). The funniest line in the entire book is the statement that while Obama was praised as “a God,” by one journalist, the “Washington media and intellectual establishment” saw Trump as “the first beast of the Book of Revelation.”
Hanson makes it clear that Obama had been quintessentially politically correct (he even urged the chief administrator of NASA to make his first priority a reaching out to the Muslim world!). He was a perfect academic feminist, globalist, environmentalist, chip-on-the-shoulder minority, an apologist for American military and economic power, an enemy of Israel and its current leader, Netanyahu, and a supporter of a government take-over of health insurance as a first step toward a Canadian style “single payer” system. He also sought to woo Communist Cuba, fascist Russia (“re-set” button) and Islamist Iran. The contrast with Trump could hardly have been more dramatic – extended, as it was, to personal style and speech. Obama observed all niceties and subtleties in speech, even when making obviously spiteful statements, such as the one at a prayer breakfast with Christian ministers when he clumsily tried to balance the 12th century Christian Crusades against contemporary Islamist terrorism. Trump was, by contrast, brash, insulting, crude, impulsive, “uncouth.” His did not speak as smoothly as a typical university graduate, despite an Ivy League degree. His opponents saw Trump as “an ignoramus and a knave.” But Hanson points out that anti-Trump slurs and insults often surpassed in vulgarity anything Trump himself said, being frequently scatological or even suggesting assassination or other violence. Trump brought out the worst in his opponents, whose attitudes often “amounted to little more than monotonous and scripted groupthink.”
What elite observers didn’t pay enough attention to was Trump’s previous success on television. Hanson points out that 28 million Americans watched the finale of the first season of “The Apprentice” and the elitists didn’t realize that “viewers became voters.” They also didn’t understand that Trump’s invective, often shocking, concealed an “uncanny assessment” of its own effectiveness. The elites just didn’t get it, often sliding into hysteria when he made a typically exaggerated claim or threat (they still do). This phenomenon was perfectly explained by reporter Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in a brilliant analysis: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
Hanson points out the heavy odds against Trump not only in the media and academia, but within big business as well. The five largest corporations in the U.S. are Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. All the owners of these behemoths were and remain anti-Trump. Employees of these corporations were 95% pro-Hillary and 99% of political contributions from Silicon Valley went to Hillary. He fared just as badly with government employees, whose contributions went 95% for Hillary. All major polls and the New York Times and most major city dailies agreed that Clinton would win the election. Every major TV news outlet, with the single exception of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, was openly in support of Hillary. But she lost in one of the biggest upsets in American presidential history.
Trump had tapped into something few had seen or understood: that liberalism in the U.S. was going leftist, a major change in values and goals. Gingrich, in his book, highlighted this change by citing Dennis Prager, from an article written for National Review. Liberalism, Prager wrote, had been “pro-American and deeply committed to the Judeo-Christian foundations of America,” and to “the melting pot” and free speech for all. It strongly embraced and supported Western Civilization (the study of which is now banned in many schools, including Stanford). The New Left, by contrast, “opposed every one of those core principles of Liberalism. Like the Left in every other country, the Left in America sees America as essentially a racist, xenophobic, colonialist, imperialist, war-mongering, money-worshipping, moronically religious nation.”
Many Americans resented and didn’t trust the New Left and Trump understood that, because he didn’t either. To the surprise of many, including me, an emotional populism began to surface in the huge crowds Trump was drawing. He was tapping into something unexpected – a backlash against the New Left, which was having its way in the schools and courts.
Trump understood the resentment many Americans had toward the “Washington apparat and coastal elites.” He also put huge emphasis on two other issues: the economy and immigration. He grasped that the sickly Obama economy, which never made 3% growth in any single year and was often below 2%, could not be sustained. He also publicized what most knew, but few would admit: our present mass immigration policy is not good for the United States because it is overwhelming our systems and bringing in people with low job skills, little education, and small prospect of being assimilated as easily as the 19th century European immigrants were. It was adding crime and welfare dependency, high illegitimacy rates, and providing an entrance to some of the most vicious ethnic criminal gangs on earth. Unlike both Republican and Democrat elites, Trump got it and they didn’t. Hence his call for “a wall,” paid for by Mexico!
Hanson does not endorse Trump’s presidency whole-heartedly, as it existed in late 2018, when his manuscript was nearing completion (oddly, he didn’t wait for the release of the Mueller Report, which makes Trump look better), but he does give him strong credit for reviving the economy, very much as Reagan had – through tax cuts, cuts in regulations, and an openly positive attitude toward capitalism, investment, trade and development of fossil fuels (the exact opposite of Obama). Trump would not accept China’s notorious cheating in trade and currency, and he demanded better deals with Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union. His vast experience in the business world and his “art of the deal,” as Trump put it, worked to good effect. The U.S. economy today is booming, with record low unemployment figures for all, including women and minorities.
Nevertheless, Trump’s “offbrand populist-nationalism” isn’t perfect. Trump is probably a more effective president than any of his GOP rivals in the primaries, but “is far more uncouth,” Hanson writes. “Neither is it yet clear that Trump is a bad man or a good president, or vice versa, or neither or both.” He has been handicapped by the Mueller investigation, which Hanson sharply criticizes, noting its inception in Hillary Clinton’s purchase from Russians of dirt on Trump. He also points out that if LBJ or Harry Truman were subject to the 24/7 Internet and cable news scrutiny of every word and deed and every rumor, that Trump has endured, they might have been hobbled or discredited. He also scolds both Hillary and Obama in later chapters, criticizing their dishonesties and failed policies.
Trump may be a Greek tragic hero, Hanson suggests, which always has a bad ending – the hero either fails the great task and is denigrated, or he succeeds and is sent away unappreciated.
My chief criticism of Hanson’s text is his use of the new term, ‘progressive,” which has been adopted by Democrats to replace “liberal,” tainted from decades of criticism. “Progressive” appears scores of times, and in almost every instance, liberal would have been more accurate – and in a few cases, “radical” or “leftist” would have been a better fit.
This book is well-reasoned and well written. It helps explain Trump’s success, but Trump must finish at least one term as president to be properly assessed. At this point he is, in my view, the most effective president since Bill Clinton, who was a much better president than given credit at the time. The Mueller report is now off Trump’s back and government investigation is now shifting to Hillary, James Comey, Loretta Lynch and Barack Obama, which may give a boost to Trump in his reelection bid.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
2 For Your Reading List
New books offer reflective views of Nazis and the Holocaust
KILLING THE SS: THE HUNT FOR THE WORST WAR CRIMINALS IN HISTORY
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, $30
THE VIRTUE OF NATIONALISM
By Yoram Hazony
Basic Books, $30
By Jim Delmont
Bill O’Reilly’s latest bestseller in the “Killing” series is: “Killing the SS – the Hunt for the Worst War Criminals in History.” With co-author and researcher, Martin Dugard, O’Reilly has hit the jackpot again with a fascinating account of how Israeli officials located, tracked and eventually arrested some of the worst Nazi mass murderers, including Adolf Eichmann, who was whisked from Argentina to stand trial in Israel, where he was sentenced to death. One of the most surprising aspects of the book is the description of international Nazi organizations that remained active for decades after World War II, providing ex-Nazis with papers, transit, protection, shelter, new identities, and relative safety both within Europe and far from it. The chief figures in the book were complicit in various stages of the Holocaust, the deliberate mass murder of more than five million Jewish civilians in death camps. This was one of the greatest crimes in human history and undoubtedly led to the mass migration of Jews to Palestine that eventually led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the first time in nearly 2,000 years that Jewish people had a self-ruling state of their own.
In “The Virtue of Nationalism,” Israeli citizen Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, makes a strong case for the continued existence of national states based on shared values and culture – obviously, he has Israel in mind, but ranges far across history and the globe to make his case that national states (there are about 200 of them now) are a better choice than multi-national entities or “imperial” systems, as he calls them.
The deliberate murder of Jews in Europe - about a third of the victims were children or adolescents – was carried out in a routine fashion by ordinary men following orders from higher-ups who were themselves under orders. Ultimately the responsibility goes back to Adolf Hitler, a paranoid who was careful not to leave written records, but who relied on the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, and others to carry out the sweeping war within a war, the one war he could win. This genocide is not the only one in history, but it is especially sickening because it happened in one of the most advanced countries on earth, an industrialized modern nation famous for its kindergarten through university education systems, its high culture, and its widespread system of newspapers and radio stations, not to mention strong labor unions and a potent political left. What the Nazis did, after sweeping away the previous democratic constitution, was unthinkable. Urban Jewish citizens, many active in the professions, some veterans of the German armed forces in World War I, could not imagine such a course of action: millions herded into box cars and sent to death camps where they were either immediately murdered in gas chambers or worked to death later under the worst possible conditions. The total abrogation of human rights was utterly shocking and reminiscent of ancient invasions by Mongols, Huns or other primitive people. Yet the entire procedure was carried out by ordinary men (and a few women): camp guards, soldiers, SS officers, Nazi Party functionaries.
To the obvious charge that it was German nationalism that created the Holocaust, Hazony, argues the opposite – that imperialism, on the Roman or Napoleonic model, was the cause of World War II as Hitler sought European hegemony with ambitions for a new world order. His book is really a series of essays that argue for national states, creating a rationale for a Jewish national state – a position that used to be called Zionism. He has a low view of the EU, which he sees as a kind of modern Holy Roman Empire, hopelessly bureaucratic and autocratic. He thinks modern liberalism has become “dogmatic and utopian” in its attempts to create UN-centered international norms. Much better is the organic nation state, built on collective interests and shared values, including language and religion.
Hazony, who quotes the Hebrew Bible a lot and sees individual liberties and freedoms in the “constitution of Moses,” and developed to their highest points in the Protestant, Bible-orientated nations of England and America. He is also an admirer of Protestant Holland, which fought a long war for independence from Spain and became one of the great trading nations of the world – and one friendly to Jews and other non-conformists. Interestingly, he doesn’t quote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote that modern democracy required, as a first step, the development of nation states based on shared language and culture. Another authority he might have cited is the brilliant book, “God and Gold,” by Walter Russell Mead, on how Holland, England and the USA built global maritime wealth via religion, capitalism and individual rights.
Hazony mourns that “the Protestant construction that gave the West its extraordinary strength and vitality” is now being degraded by leftists, driven by fanatical political correctness (“the Western democracies are becoming one big university campus…”).
On multiple points, one can disagree with Hazony. It seems obvious that ancient Israel was not “uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its rule.” Jewish tribes fought long wars in Canaan to create their own state and both David and Solomon conquered more territory. The ancient Greeks were continually at war until conquered by Philip of Macedon and later, the Romans. They could have used a universal state much earlier. Many “nations” split apart as Yugoslavia has - having had seven ethnic groups, three religions and two alphabets – and it is often difficult to separate ethnicities, languages and religions, as in British India, Canada, Belgium, Nigeria, Iraq, and many other places. Israel is cohesive because people came to it by the millions to make it cohesive – even so, about 20% of its population is Arab and non-Jewish.
In any event, the horrors of the Holocaust seem to have ebbed for many, as UN and much world opinion shifts in favor of the bedraggled Palestinians, with their dreadful leaders, and against the amazingly disciplined and successful modern state of Israel.
O’Reilly wakes his readers up with horrific descriptions of the crimes of the genocidal Nazis and creates a narrative not unlike that of a thriller as Israeli agents (Fritz Bauer, Rafi Eiton, Benjamin Ferencz and Isser Harel, of the Mossad), tracked Eichmann, kidnapped him, held him for weeks in Buenos Aries, then – via a dangerous 8,000-mile flight by pilot Zvi Tobar – brought him to an Israeli court. Other sadistic criminals tracked down included the infamous Klaus Barbie, torturer and mass killer in France during the war, and the weird SS doctor, Josef Mengele, who did hideous experiments on captives. There is also a detour into the possibility that Hitler’s secretary and right-hand man, Martin Bormann, may have escaped from Berlin at the end of the war. One female camp guard, Elfriede Huth, received American Social Security payments for decades and is still alive; still alive, also, is Eli Rosenbaum, who continues to hunt Nazis.
O’Reilly has heart-breaking anecdotes (Anne Frank died just three weeks before her Bergen-Belsen camp was liberated by the Americans; Simon Weisenthal survived Mauthassen to become a major Nazi hunter after the war). The only humor in the book is a description of what happened to Evita Peron’s body after her Nazi-friendly husband and dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron, was overthrown. It is side-shakingly funny – and grotesque.
Roughly 180 of O’Reilly’s 280 page book is on Eichmann, but all of it is interesting. Hazony’s best sections are the first and the last, with a sophisticated examination of the great thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is an intellectually challenging book and a good read, whether you agree with his many major and minor points or not. Inarguably true is that the Holocaust was one of the most hideous chapters in history and that it directly contributed to the founding of modern Israel, a small nation that is inarguably a brilliant success in every way, but a nation in grave peril as Iran reaches for nuclear weapons.
(Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle).
'Force of Nature'
First class intellect, endlessly curious mind among traits that made Bellow one of the all-time greats
The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005
By Zachary Leader
Knopf, 767 pp (644 pp of text), $40
By Jim Delmont
The second volume of Zachary Leader’s unfailingly readable life of Nobel-winning author, Saul Bellow, is out (the first volume was published in 2015) and it is compelling, entertaining and thoughtful – very much a personal biography and definitely not a critical (literary studies) biography. Not that Bellow’s individual works are ignored: on the contrary, they are presented in detail, but mainly to locate real people, including Bellow, in his fictional characters – not hard to do, as Bellow’s novels and stories were highly autobiographical. In this regard, and in other
areas, Bellow is remindful of Thomas Wolfe, whose protean, Whitmanesque style was not discovered by him until after he gave up his goal of being a playwright. In Bellow’s case, he found his unique voice in “The Adventures of Augie March,” but not until after several attempts at shorter novels in a more conventional mode. Both writers created some composite characters, but the ready identity of most of their characters from real life underlines how intensely autobiographical was their work. Bellow was a Jewish child of immigrant stock and, like Wolfe, was a teacher at the university level. A big difference is that Wolfe taught to keep bread on the table, hoping for release from it, while Bellow was a fastidious, serious scholar and lifelong teacher who approached his academic work as conscientiously as his writing and maintained it into his eighties, long after he had any need of it financiallyBellow was also more of an intellectual than Wolfe - or any major American author of the 20th century. His novels brim with ideas, knowledge of arcane subjects, and the broadest excursions into scientific, theological, psychological and philosophical reflections, questions, and concerns. Bellow also dabbled in plays, with middling success, but the novel was his medium and he was devoted to it well into his eighties (his remarkable novel, “Ravelstein,” a fictional portrait of his friend and teaching colleague, Allan Bloom, was published when Bellow was eighty-four). The autobiographical nature of so much of Bellow’s work lost him some friends and irritated some relatives (and infuriated some ex-wives), but he stuck to it, having Wolfe’s knack for making ordinary life extraordinary and raising friends and relatives to iconic status in fiction.
Leader pays close attention to all of Bellow’s major works, so it is best to have read them before reading this study, as dialogue, plot and the real-life identity of characters (even when composite) is revealed in detail. This book, of course, begins in the middle of Bellow’s life (age 49), so it is also best to have read volume one: “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964.” When this second volume begins, Bellow, 49, is at the height of fame, somewhat resembling Leonard Bernstein at the same age – gray in his hair, confidence in his manner, with some of the swagger that comes with international recognition, endless awards, ongoing celebrity, unexpected wealth, his choice of lovers, and with plenty of energy and many options for the future. Bernstein was three years younger, but Bellow would outlive him by fifteen years, and he sired a final child at age 84.
Leader follows his chronological narrative from the first volume, with no special introductory note or theme at the beginning of the second. “An Intimate Biography,” might have been a good subtitle for the entire 1300-page work, as Bellow is presented as an especially gifted human being, a striving one, and readers join with him on his long life’s journey, taking his side, which is impossible to resist. His life is a life of relationships – an extraordinary number of them – and of literary projects strung along a timeline shared with a very long thread of scholarly dedication, which meant formal employment by institutions of higher education, notably the University of Chicago and Boston University; but, as a struggling young writer – and later as a much sought-after celebrity writer – he taught briefly at a large numbers of colleges and universities, including New York University and the University of Minnesota, where – as volume one details - many of his longtime friends and colleagues congregated at these same locations, helping one another find short-term teaching jobs, fellowships, occasionally even tenured positions.
At age 49, in 1964, Bellow had a new baby, Daniel, and a new book, “Herzog,” which become a bestseller and vaulted him into a world of unprecedented fame, which accelerated as he won more National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, a Booker, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Awash in awards and honorary degrees, plus invitations for speaking engagements that ranged across the globe, Bellow enjoyed or suffered the kind of celebrity status that only a handful of statesmen, movie stars, and famous athletes achieve. In general, he held up rather well, but it was in the area of personal relationships that Bellow stumbled. As to work, Bellow maintained a daily schedule, usually in the morning, wherever he was – this was a strict requirement, and he resented intrusions. He also maintained his position on the faculty of the Committee on Social Thought (an interdisciplinary program) at the University of Chicago, even serving for a time as its elected chairman – a duty he took very seriously. There he maintained long term friendships, including the one with Allan Bloom that brought satisfaction in terms of intellectual stimulation, much badinage and moments of hilarity, and, eventually, inspiration for his last novel, “Ravelstein.”
Daniel was Bellow’s third child (each by a different wife). At age 49, he was somewhat estranged from his first son, Gregg, then 20, and Gregg’s mother, Anita Goshkin, to whom he had been married 19 years (she had recently remarried), and struggled to maintain a relationship with Adam, then seven, the son from his marriage (1956-59) to Sondra (Sasha) Tschacbaser, the ex-wife with whom he had the most post-partem turmoil (she had cheated on him for over a year with his close friend, Jack Ludwig). Daniel was about six months old when “Herzog” topped the New York Times bestseller list, but his parents were already pulling apart into what would become a very long and bitter divorce action that dragged on for years. Anita had been the steady companion of Bellow’s youth, Sondra a fling into eroticism, and Susan Glassman a sensible alliance with a beautiful intelligent companion, who was never a soul mate, but who enjoyed being the wife and hostess for a renowned writer. Present when he began making really big money, Susan fought tooth and nail to part him from as much of it as she could. Bellow had cheated on her with a student, but they were already estranged by that time. In fact, Bellow, well into his sixties had an astonishing number of affairs with attractive women, most of them younger and intelligent. By age 60, even he had to admit he needed psychiatric help, though he despised Freudian analysis. “Bellow’s main problems in the late 1960s were not with art, but with women…” writes Leader, who adds that conflicts with his children, some students, agents and publishers, also were corrosive. “Bellow knew that his [emotional] reactions were often out of control in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” he added. Still, Bellow did not crash and burn as did so many celebrities of the 1970s, never getting into drugs and generally disapproving of the rank rebelliousness of the era.
A fourth, hopefully stabilizing marriage to the brilliant and professionally renowned Romanian mathematician, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea was Bellow’s effort to be a good boy, whose highly disciplined scholar-wife would work as consciously each day on her projects as he did on his, but it eventually became boring (and she was briefly skewered in “Ravelstein”). All of his wives – and many of his relatives and friends – had to contend with the fact that they would appear in one or more of Bellow’s novels and/or short stories. Of the wives, only Anita was without rancor as to her fictional counterpart. Bellow did have a wide range of close male friends, writers and teaching colleagues, with whom he enjoyed good relations over decades and he was widely regarded by them – and by students – as an amiable man with a good sense of humor and a strong instinct toward socialization.
Bellow’s stream-of-consciousness style, sprung on the public in “Augie March,” was unique: garrulous, sophisticated and slangy by turns, breaking the rules of grammar (beginning sentences with conjunctions or offering one-word or verbless sentences), colorful, philosophical, obsessed with detail – Dickensian-like descriptions of facial expressions, tics and twitches. Bellow once described Dickens’ style as “a force of nature,” and the same could be said of his own. While he did admire writers of concision and brevity, he admitted (as Wolfe had) that he couldn’t do it.
The great themes of Bellow’s work were urban America (especially Chicago), the challenges to humanity in the 20th century – the Holocaust hung heavily on his mind and spirit - and what it meant to be a Jew in America. Bellow remained hopeful and flirted throughout his life with the possibility that there may be a larger spiritual dimension to the universe, perhaps even a personal God or life after death. He was not conventionally religious, and generally stayed clear of political engagement (the opposite of writers like Norman Mailer and most French intellectuals). There was wisdom in this as his books could not be merely of their time, but usually had universal , timeless themes. He did oppose the Vietnam War, but wouldn’t join groups about it – and, as a young man in New York City, he was a Trotskyite, as were most young Jewish and many other intellectuals, if they were not Stalinist – an identification discarded in early maturity. Though born and having lived in Canada to age nine, Bellow was adamantly American, very taken with America’s history of immigration tides, dislocation, alienation and the challenges to individuals to sink or swim. He remained fascinated with his childhood and family (an older brother, Maury, ruthlessly successful in business but not especially respectful of Bellow’s literary vocation, is a vivid figure in several novels and stories).
Bellow’s relative poverty in childhood was never a problem and he was into heavy literature at a very young age, as were some of his friends, reading the works of first class philosophers and historians in their teens. Bellow remained throughout life a natty dresser who deplored the jeans and scruffy look of politically alienated 1970s students and bohemians. He finally found stability and happiness with his fifth wife, Janis Freedman, an office assistant and student 43 years younger than he. She was intelligent, expert at reading his moods, always helpful and supportive – especially with manuscripts – and there is every evidence that they genuinely fell in love. Eventually he came to terms with his often-neglected sons, especially the volatile Gregg. They accompanied him to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony.
Zachary Leader interviewed many friends and relatives of Bellow for this biography, digging deep into archives and illustrating an encyclopedic knowledge of Bellow’s fiction and other writings, supplying nearly a hundred pages of notes for this volume alone. It is not an exaggeration to say that every page of this book was interesting to this reader.
Some say that Norman Mailer was perhaps modern America’s greatest “writer,” but not its greatest “novelist.” A strong case can be made for Bellow in the latter category. His output was heavy, his most powerful novel, “Humboldt’s Gift” is almost overwhelming in its scope and intensity, and he garnered endless literary awards – in fact, an unprecedented number. Bellow had a first class intellect, an endlessly curious mind, a capacity for sophisticated reflection aligned with a pungent sense of people up close, a love of humanity, a sense of history, a raucous love of life, and a tantalizing hope for larger meaning in the universe. Like Dickens, he was a force of nature.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Framing Donald Trump
A detailed look at a No. 1 New York Times best-selling book
The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump
By Gregg Jarrett
By Jim Delmont
Before a detailed look at Jarrett’s no. 1 New York Times best-selling book, imagine if Donald Trump arranged the sale of 20% of U.S. uranium to Putin’s Russia, and the instrumental person in the sale was his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Imagine also that Pompeo had a family Pompeo Fund, and the Canadian firm that was middle man in the transaction eventually put $145 million into that fund. Add that Pompeo’s wife, about the same time, made a speech in Moscow for which she was paid half a million dollars. What would be the political reaction? What would be the reaction of the news media?
There would be a hurricane of accusations and condemnations, with calls for impeachment from all Democrats and some Republicans. The corporate news media, which has provided 90% negative coverage of Trump since his inauguration (Harvard study), would be hysterical with demands for Trump’s impeachment and for criminal charges to be brought. But the above wasn’t carried out by Trump – it was effected by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton – and the fund was the Clinton Fund and the Moscow speaker Bill Clinton. Reaction: none from Democrats or the media (with the single exception of Fox on cable).
We seem to be living in alternate universes. The mainstream liberal media is obsessed with Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, though no real evidence has surfaced after a year and a half of the Mueller probe. That Hillary Clinton approved the uranium arrangements (she was the top figure of nine cabinet members who followed Obama’s instructions on the deal) and profited from it, is a non-story. More stunning than that is that Hillary, as Secretary of State, chose to use a private server for all her correspondence as Secretary of State, a multiple illegality that protected her from the scrutiny of her government and Congress. It did not protect her from a fairly easy job of hacking, achieved by multiple foreign entities. To top it off, Hillary – at the end of her term – destroyed slightly over half of all her Secretary of State emails: 33,000 of them – after they were subpoenaed by Congress. Using the server alone violated the Espionage Act in several specifics and destroying the emails, which she claimed as personal, was clearly obstruction of justice, another felony. Result: nothing, no charges. We now know that President Obama knew about the use of the server and approved it, though he lied about it, saying he knew nothing until the press discovered it. In fact, under a false ID, he regularly communicated with Hillary while she was using the illegal server, which put all State Department activities at risk of easy exposure to hostile foreign governments.
Gregg Jarett, a former trial attorney who has been a news figure at Court TV, MSNBC, and Fox News, has a book, The Russia Hoax, straightening out the situation and he lays it out like a legal brief: 1, 2, 3, these statutes were violated. But Jarrett’s outlook is in Alice-in-Wonderland mirror conflict with the liberal media viewpoint. To the political left, Clinton did nothing wrong, despite that if any Republican had done the same deeds, they’d be roasting in media hell. Yet Trump, who did nothing we know of, is the ultimate WWF villain, and must be impeached before sundown. In short, if you are a liberal, you can do no wrong, because your cause is just ( the end justifies the means), but if you are conservative – especially an abrasive one like Trump – you are guilty by definition and a crime must be found as an excuse to oust you. In a lifetime of observing American politics, I cannot remember any situation quite like this one – or any time when the press, print and TV, was so biased (though talk radio remains conservative as does a lone cable outlet). That there is a massive double standard is obvious.
The likely premise for Jarrett’s book is that the losers of the 2016 presidential election can’t accept the loss (Trump won an aggregate of 49 states by a million votes and a whopping 304-172 Electoral College victory; Hillary Clinton won California and all its electoral votes by four million votes! If that doesn’t suggest demography is political destiny, nothing does). In order to be the Democrat candidate, Clinton had to be cleared of all charges in the illegal use of a private server (the uranium issue had already disappeared into political mists). Jarett lays out his arguments for the “fix” on Hillary: “This is a story of corruption,” he begins. That Hillary used the server and lied about it is on the record. That she destroyed evidence is on the record – but she was never held to account.
The FBI did investigate the Hillary server situation, but the fix was obviously in and could have come from no one but Barack Obama (with no paper trail). Jarett shows that James Comey, head of the FBI, who expected to continue in that position under a President Clinton, had already drafted a dismissal of charges before Hillary and 16 other witnesses were even interviewed (p. 34). Five days before Hillary’s FBI interview, the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, met secretly with Bill Clinton at an airport – it would have been secret but for a chance encounter with a newspaper reporter. Lynch said they chatted about their grandchildren. Lynch also recused herself from the investigation and let Comey handle it and its resolution – extremely unusual for the Department of Justice. When Hillary was interviewed by the FBI, on a Sunday afternoon (also unusual), the interview was a farce: no transcript kept, nothing under oath, questions written, and her lawyers present.
To make it worse, nearly Clinton’s entire top staff (five people) were granted immunity. Various sources eventually ferreted out that some of the emails not destroyed were classified – a tiny portion, which should have been enough for conviction - on just 100 emails. It didn’t. In July 2016, Comey went on national TV and read off a list of Hillary’s lies to Congress and of breaches she had made. It sounded like a prelude to charges being sent to a grand jury. Instead, he shocked many listeners by concluding that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges. End of story. However, late in the campaign for president, almost at the last minute, stories broke that classified emails may have been sent by Hillary to her top aid, Huma Abedin. Comey jumped in, but a few days later cleared both Hillary and Abedin of wrongdoing. Democrats were furious, but Comey was acting quickly so that no cloud would hang over her anticipated election – and apparently no wrongdoing was involved, anyway.
Nevertheless, the first half of Jarrett’s subtitle, “The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton,” is well documented here and it is one of the worst presidential scandals in history, probably going back to the 1876 election, which was “fixed” in the House of Representatives. Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, has been fired for lying under oath about the matter, and James Comey was fired by President Trump on the advice of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is no friend of Trump. FBI agent Peter Strzock, lead investigator in the Clinton case, was fired recently, too – by the new Deputy FBI Director David Bowdich, a career agent.
The second half of the subtitle – “framing” Donald Trump - is being overtaken by events, as more information is released almost daily. Already, various high ranking FBI figures have been demoted or fired, but the issue hasn’t coalesced as clearly as it should because of the seemingly permanent rejection of Trump as President by the liberal news media, who find new reasons to impeach him every day, none of which seem to stick. The one issue that could sink Trump hasn’t surfaced, though it conceivably still could: his knowledge of the Wikileaks exposure of 20,000 John Podesta emails (Podesta was Clinton’s campaign chief of staff). If Trump had anything to do with the collection or dispensing of these emails by Julian Assange, he would face probable impeachment in the House of Representatives. If he even knew about it, he could face impeachment, but probably not conviction in the Senate (Bill Clinton’s fate). But it would surely prevent any second term.
What we do know is that the top investigator in the Hillary email investigation, Peter Strzock, was wildly anti-Trump and pro-Hillary, as was an FBI lawyer colleague, Lisa Page –their text messages and emails have made this abundantly clear. Strzock was FBI Counterespionage Chief under McCabe, and he launched the investigation of Trump. Strzock and Page clearly indicate there was a back-up plan in the event the impossible happened – Trump wins the election. Russian hacking had been running wild in the U.S. under Obama, who did little or nothing to stop it – in fact, he released a presidential directive to make it difficult or impossible for American intelligence services to reply in kind. This Russian interference (which included probing of state election sites) provided a handy excuse for launching a Trump investigation as a spying case – that is, on a much higher criminal level, one that could involve a FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), from which a warrant can be issued to establish surveillance of suspected foreign spies. No such foreign influences have yet been established - and especially damning, from Jarrett’s point of view, is that the only real Russian collusion to date was from the Clinton campaign, which paid for dirt on Trump from a Russian source, fed through a British spy (dropped from the FBI for unreliability). This spy (retired from active British service), Christopher Steele, was hired by an outfit called Fusion GPS to get something on Trump. The result, the now famous dossier – which included lurid sexual allegations – has now been discredited by all serious persons, including Steele himself. Alarmingly, we now know (since Jarrett’s book was published) that the fourth ranking member of Obama’s Department of Justice, Bruce Ohr, was orchestrating the Steele information flow, even after the FBI dismissed Steele; worse, Ohr’s wife, Nellie, a strong Clinton supporter, was working for Fusion. Worse even than all of that is the fact that the dossier was the principal material used to persuade a FISA judge to issue a warrant – which would never have been issued if the judge had known the full story of its origins and development. Comey, queried about it, lied repeatedly by claiming that is was not the main source for the FISA warrant. The warrant was used to interfere in the Trump campaign via several spying episodes that included direct invitations to individuals to implicate themselves in what was essentially an invented scandal. Just this week it has been learned that Fusion’s owner, Glen Simpson, met with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya – who had met with Donald Trump Jr. and others briefly in the Trump Tower during the campaign – both before and after the Trump Tower meeting, which suggests a set-up.
On top of that, after more than a year and a half, Bob Mueller of the FBI, the Special Prosecutor and a close friend of Comey, has come up with nothing other than an old tax fraud case against political advisor, Paul Manafort, who was brought in to kick start Trump’s campaign and served for about 100 days.
At about this point, with Mueller’s investigation unravelling from new material almost daily from the publication, The Hill, and from independent journalist-investigators like Sara Carter, the incredible happened. President Trump met in Helsinki with President Putin of Russia, and in a press briefing, provided the worst possible comments and behavior - in view of the context of the Russia/collusion narrative. He seemed deflated and weak and openly stated that not only both sides were responsible for what appears to be a new Cold War, but also that there was no reason to believe that Russia tried to interfere in the election, when everyone – including Trump’s own security team – knew they did, and seriously. The Wikileaks Podesta emails were certainly from a free lance hacker working for Russia (though Assange has tip-toed around the issue by claiming that no “state” or “nation” provided the emails). Trump tried to walk back his comments, but was totally unconvincing.
Why Trump made such an appearance at such a crucial time – just as reporters were doggedly uncovering the extent of fraud in the Hillary-Russian connection to the false dossier, is beyond understanding. Some say he was exhausted after a NATO meeting, a state visit to Britain, and the Putin summit, in quick succession. But it raised questions even Jarrett can’t answer.
The investigation of Trump started within a day or two of Hillary Clinton’s clearance in July, 2016, and seems pre-planned. There are many Strzock/Page comments about “an insurance policy,” and other not so vague references to stopping Trump. More such comments are emerging now involving others in the Obama administration. The Mueller probe has been hanging around Trump’s presidency like the proverbial albatross – and he shows no sign of coming to a conclusion.
Jarett does a fine job of offering in great detail, and with legal precision, the case against Mueller, Comey, the FBI and the entire Russia “hoax,” as he calls it, but his worse witness is Trump himself.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
'Rome' is an accessible, interesting exercise in narrative history
ROME: A HISTORY IN SEVEN SACKINGS
By Matthew Kneale
Simon & Schuster, $30
By Jim Delmont
Now and again a historian reaching for a wider audience comes up with an original idea that makes for enlightenment and entertainment at the same time. Such is “Rome: A History in Seven Sackings,” by novelist/historian, Matthew Kneale. Writing about his present home city, Kneale offers a wonderful tour of the Eternal City from its early origins - when it is attacked by Celtic warriors in 387 BC - to its occupation by Germans in World War II (1943) and its subsequent liberation by Allied Troops in 1944 (it was a bad winter for Romans). In between, Kneale describes five other attacks on Rome: two by Gothic barbarians (410 AD and 537); one by Normans in 1081; the famous and destructive one by soldiers of the Holy Roman (really Spanish-German) Empire in 1527, and a less disturbing one by French troops under the soon-to-be Napoleon III, in 1849 – and there are maps of Rome for each episode. Oddly, the author leaves out the worst sack of all, the one in 455, when the Vandals lived up to their name, running riot for weeks – an experience from which the city and its population never recovered.
In the first century AD, Rome had about a million people, possibly the largest city in the world. It had the finest collection of stone buildings anywhere, including dozens of libraries, a chariot race stadium that sat an incredible 250,000 spectators, gigantic bath houses, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, miles of four and five storey tenements, fabulous homes for the wealthy up the prestigious hills, gigantic temples to Jupiter and other gods, several very large outdoor theaters, multiple aqueducts bringing in enough fresh water to provide 40 gallons per person per day - and more.
The city had perhaps 800,000 people in 400 AD, just a few years before the first of the sackings described in this book. Hundreds of thousands may have left by the time the Vandals showed up in 455; by 530, when the last great Roman Emperor, Justinian – in Constantinople – sent an army to win Italy back from the Goths, the population may have dwindled to 40,000 or so, according to Kneale. A thousand years later, it wasn’t much higher. Consequently, Kneale’s book is not only a chronicle of Rome, but an essay on the collapse of urban civilization.
That civilizations can actually collapse, populations gone, grass growing in the streets, is more pertinent today than ever, with the spread of nuclear weapons, but people living in Rome in 400 couldn’t imagine that their civilization could disappear, but it did. Cities are the birth places of culture, science, art, business, architecture, literature. The Roman Catholic Church, especially certain Popes, brought Rome back – but it took a long time.
In an easy going narrative, Kneale follows a pattern: he introduces Rome at a critical moment, when enemy forces are closing in on the city, then digresses to provide a history of the city – political, social, cultural – up to that moment. Some of these diversions can be quite long, 20 pages in chapter four, as Norman and German forces pose a threat, and a 28-page interregnum as the French army stood ready to invade in the 1840s. But these diversions are the meat of the narrative, providing fascinating details of everyday life (all the aqueducts were gone for about a millennium, until Pope Nicholas V rebuilt a few in the 15th century, giving Rome an advantage no other city in Europe had). Papal politics throughout are astonishing – awful quarrels, murders, adulteries, illegitimate children, bribery, war. Pope Julius III plucked a street boy from the slums, made him wealthy, important and a lover; Clement III, an anti-pope was so hated that the next pope, Paschal II, had his remains dug up and thrown into the Tiber. But other popes put an end to the plundering of ancient monuments for use in new buildings, restored fountains, sponsored art and architectural projects on a plane ancient Romans would have envied (including the magnificent projects of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante and many others in the Renaissance period).
More vital to Italian history is the fact that the popes kept Rome from becoming a backwater. By establishing residence there and building churches (many with relics) they created a tourist business built on pilgrimage. Vast numbers of Europeans came to the heart of the Roman Catholic religion when it was the religion of Europe (unfortunately for the popes, one of them was Martin Luther). By the late 1880s, Kneale writes, Rome was not only the political capital of a new Italy, but much of it was being restored: “192 marble statues had been unearthed along with 266 busts and heads, a thousand inscriptions and more than 36,000 coins.” Slums were cleared and “accretions” removed, exposing the beauty of the Pantheon and the Colosseum. The Forum became a kind of archeological park, as did other areas of the city. Rome became not only a religious and political capital, but again a center for law, business and banking.
Mussolini went further. Before his disastrous war against the democracies, the Fascist leader ordered grand new boulevards, destroying old neighborhoods (the same thing had happened in 19th century Paris, but everyone to this day loves the boulevards), ancient Roman buildings were partially restored and cleaned up, the beautiful Augustan Temple to Peace restored, a new university established, and that much-noted other reform - the trains running on time – was achieved.
Kneale is hard on Fascism and gives a vivid account of the German-ordered persecution of Jews in Rome. The Roman people, at the risk of their lives, gave shelter to most of the Jews, so that 10,000 of the 12,000 resident there were saved from doom in the camps. This modern era gets the longest chapter, 78 pages, and the long-delayed American military arrival is almost anticlimactic. The Nazis arrived first, after Italy deposed Mussolini and dropped out of the war as British and American troops moved laboriously up the peninsula against smart and stout German resistance. Nevertheless, that moment, briefly noted, is one of the book’s best.
Strictly quibbles are the facts that a wrong date is given for the Eastern Roman Empire switching officially from Latin to Greek (it was 610, not early 400s – Justinian spoke Latin in the 500s) and indulgences were for release from purgatory (p. 177) not hell (p. 153). These are nothing compared to the scores of fascinating details and fascinating people in this book.
Overall, “Rome” is a very accessible, interesting exercise in narrative history, a kind of historical travelogue perfect for summer reading.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle
The Throne of Caesar
By Steven Saylor
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99
By Jim Delmont
Steven Saylor’s “The Throne of Caesar” is the 16th book in his “Roma sub Rosa” (“under the rose,” that is, “confidential”) series on Gordianus the Finder (detective to us), set in the first century BC. These very engaging “mystery” books – which go far beyond the usual mystery format - stretch in time from 92 BC, when Gordianus was 18 and went on an exciting trip to visit the Seven Wonders of the World with his poet/tutor, Antipater, to 44 BC, and the month of Julius Caesar’s assassination in this present volume, “The Throne of Caesar.” The story begins five days before the famous Ides of March, when Caesar met his fate, and continues to March 23 (incidentally, Saylor’s own birthday), when another mystery is solved. Obviously, Caesar’s murder was no mystery, not even at the time, so Saylor’s novel has a third to go after Caesar slumps to the floor at the base of a giant statue of his dead rival, Pompey.
This very public murder, with most of the Senate present, is not the mystery of this mystery novel. Instead, Saylor cleverly entwines another story with Caesar’s story and a second murder ensues, this one a real mystery not revealed (as usual) until the end of the novel. Saylor is not the only fiction author mining the first century BC, the age of Sulla, Cicero (and his famous secretary, Tiro), Pompey the Great, Crassus, Cato, Clodius, Antony and Cleopatra, among others. The English writer, Robert Harris, has done a trilogy on Cicero and Tiro, and another American mystery writer, John Maddox Roberts, has done 13 titles, all set in the first century, in which his investigator, a snooty upper class patrician named Decius Caecilius Metellus, investigates foul deeds from a social position very different from that of Gordianus the Finder (son of another Gordianus the Finder). Interestingly, Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, originally a slave and the inventor of shorthand, some of which we still use today – etc., for instance – appears in the works of all three of these authors. Another English author, Lindsey Davis, has a popular series of books on Falco, a detective operating in the first century AD.
One of the many joys of Saylor’s books is that Gordianus is from what we might regard as the lower middle class, yet he eventually rubs elbows with the rich and famous, who are attracted to his good reputation for finding the truth, but revealing it only to his clients. Gordianus does not suffer fools gladly, generally does not say what others want to hear (no matter how famous they may be), takes his work seriously and is loyal and loving to members of his family. He is not given to self-deceit or conceit.
Reading these authors one quickly acquires a good grasp of the urban geography of Rome, a city soon to be the largest in the world, with over a million inhabitants. The historical events and political developments of the day are important to each story, as Gordianus is fond of the Forum and its political gossip and occasional dramatic events. His interaction with celebrities is great fun and Saylor provides his own interpretations of them in his portraits of the great and near-great. Caesar is just as impressive, complex, charming and dangerous as you might imagine. The same is true of Pompey in earlier works. Both Saylor and Roberts have considerable respect for the strong, wealthy and often conniving women behind the great men of the time. Many are unforgettable, including Cleopatra, who is glimpsed early in her life and again in the month of Caesar’s death (having earlier borne his son, Caesarion, doomed to be later hunted down and murdered in young manhood by the agents of Octavian). That Gordianus serves the wealthy and powerful is in itself political, as he is a pivot point among powerful personalities in motion, who weigh their relationships with him against their rivalries with one another.
Gordianus is most likeable and so is his alluring and independent-minded wife (once his slave), Bethesda, a native Egyptian, his adopted sons, Eco, Meto and Rupa, his only natural child, the clever Diana, and two exuberant young slaves, Mopsus and Androcles, whom he saves from an awful life of servitude and eventually passes on to Eco, who becomes a detective himself.
Saylor’s books were not published in the chronology of Gordianus’ life, which gave him the opportunity to provide his readers with three prequels, going back to age 18 for Gordianus – all published after 2008. The first in the “Sub Rosa” series was “Roman Blood,” in 1992, based on a famous murder case argued in the law by Cicero, when Gordianus is about 30. The “Wonders” book (2012), with Gordianus at age 18, is a sheer delight. The second prequel, “Raiders of the Nile,” was published in 2014 and it is hard to imagine any book in any genre as compelling in storytelling charm and its evocation of an exotic time and place as this one is on ancient Alexandria.
The real mystery in “The Throne of Caesar” begins with the word “beware” sketched in Greek on the doorstep of a famous literary man, Helvius Cinna, a drinking companion of Gordianus – who is now 66 and in retirement. Gordianus’ son, Meto, a young military hero, is a confidant of Caesar’s, so Gordianus cannot be as distant from politics as he’d like. He ends up not only joining a dinner party hosted by Caesar, but being an eye witness to both Caesar’s murder and his funeral. Saylor makes clever use of Shakespeare a few times, particularly with the famous warning note of Artemidoris (“Julius Caesar,” act two, scene three) and Antony’s funeral oration, plus another line from “Julius Caesar” in scene three of the play.
Saylor, a graduate of the University of Texas, where he still does research, is a careful scholar who relies on both contemporary and ancient sources (in this case Ovid and Cassis Dio), but his imagination provides life and color, emotions and loyalties, adventures and surprises. The “Sub Rosa” series is a thoroughgoing delight and this latest volume is no disappointment. Now that Gordianus is 66, we may perhaps look forward to more prequels with glimpses of the younger Gordianus. Only the author knows.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle
Interesting, coherent, well-written new book
Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi
By Thomas Weber
Basic Books, $35
By Jim Delmont
How did Hitler become Hitler? Archie Leach once said he wished he was Cary Grant – in fact, he was, but Cary Grant was more than Archie Leach, Grant’s real name. The Adolf Hitler known to history as a moral monster and a destroyer of entire populations, was once a common soldier with no particular political convictions. A few years later he was dictator of Germany, bent on war, and the spokesman for a well-developed National Socialist ideology. In his own two-volume book, “Mein Kampf” (“my struggle”), Hitler lied about the development of his ideas and political convictions, placing his conversion to racism, socialism and nationalism to the years of his military career, 1914-18, and even to time before that, when he was an itinerant “artist” in Vienna.
Building on a previous book, “Hitler’s First War,” (2010), Thomas Weber – German-born professor of history and International affairs at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland - makes a case for Hitler having been an opportunist with no very pronounced political views until after World War I, in which he had served as a dispatch carrier at the rank of corporal. “Expediency” motivated the young Hitler, whose political orientation, to the degree he had any, was on “the moderate left.” The Austrian who had escaped military service in his home country for service in the German army, stayed on the military payroll as long as he could after Germany lost what was known then as The Great War. As a “soldiers’ representative,” his first elected position (in 1919), Hitler – in uniform - served the left-wing revolutionary government of Kurt Eisner, a Jewish socialist who had seized power in Bavaria. At the time, Germany was in disarray – with mobs in the streets in many cities, a weak parliamentary government, no monarchy, and a tendency to regionalism, with many in Munich supporting various shades of local governance.
Weber’s point is that in Hitler’s life, July 1919 was the real turning point, not the Armistice that ended the war in November, 1918, as Hitler claimed, nor anything during or before the war. In July the final terms of the Versailles Treaty, considered unfairly harsh by Germans – who were still suffering from an Allied naval blockade that kept food supplies low for the suffering German population – were announced. Also in 1919, Hitler was exposed to courses taught within the military by various individuals who collectively had a deep-seated anti-British, anti-American and anti-capitalist point of view, in fact conflating British and American interests with a kind of world capitalist conspiracy. At least one instructor, Gottfried Feder, was also an anti-Semite, contributing to a movement beginning to stir in Germany as scapegoats were sought to explain the loss of the war and the humiliations that followed. These courses “would dominate the menu” of Hitler’s political ideas for the rest of his life – and Hitler’s Final Testament, the week he committed suicide as Berlin fell, bear this out. Weber adds, concerning Hitler, that “his anti-Semitic ideas had not been particularly pronounced until the summer of 1919.”
The result of these military taught courses, available at just the right moments of German confusion and despair, was Hitler’s strange brew of ideology in which both capitalism and Communism became Jewish conspiracies. These bizarre conclusions were laid over the genuine German patriotism of an Austrian outlander and eventually would be articulated as the dogmas of the NSDAP, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – or “Nazis” for short. The original German Workers Party was a tiny group of mostly blue collar men led by Anton Drexler, for whom socialism was intensely important. Hitler was an early member, though not with a number as early as he made out in “Mein Kampf.” Joining this tiny political unit coincided with Hitler’s discovery that he had a talent for public speaking – in fact, could excite and move audiences, especially those as angry and disappointed by the general situation as he was (his first speech was in October, 1919). Paranoia was an important element in the outlook of these men, and it may have been an element of Hitler’s personality, as well.
Other weird groups were bourgeoning in Germany, some combining mysticism with right-wing politics – the infamous Thule Society being an example. But the early Nazis stuck with a radical socialism that rejected “Anglo-American capitalism.” This gives the lie to the idea that Hitler was a lackey of big business, when in the long run big business became a lackey to the Nazis (eventually, during World War II, the SS would build an economy within the larger economy just as it was building an SS army within the larger army). Anti-Semitism was mild in the beginning (proposing no citizenship for Jews) but grew in time as the NSDAP developed a point of view: “We fight the Jew because he impedes the fight against capitalism.”
Equally important at this time in the life of Germany and of Adolf Hitler was a growing sense of Messianism – the need for a savior who would be a genius. Hitler slipped such a reference into a speech calling for “a dictator who is also a genius.” Increasingly, he began to see himself as such a figure. A loner in the army and before the war, Hitler was regarded as odd, a bit queer, but once in the German Workers’ Party he could make dynamic moves, especially in raising money and support. Geniuses can be strange people, set apart from the rest of us and Weber adds, “a popular obsession with genius” helped the rise of Hitler, who capitalized on radio, newsreels, rapid flight from city to city, and other modern technologies to make himself appear omnipresent.
Hitler’s first attempt at seizing power was limited to Bavaria, where an armed insurrection by Nazis in 1923, was quashed by police. Hitler used his trial to become a national celebrity/patriot and utilized his eight months in Landsberg prison fortress in 1924 to dictate the first volume of “Mein Kampf.” His conditions were comfortable and he had access to party members and political allies, who visited at will.
Earlier, Hitler had considered Russia a possible ally against the Anglo-American West, if only “Bolshevism” could be overturned and a traditional Russian regime restored. By the 1920s, Hitler was leaning toward genocidal extermination of Russians and Poles, on the model of Turkish genocide against Armenians during the First World War. By 1925 it was all there in Hitler’s head: German nationalism mixed with anti-Semitism, hatred of democracy and the West, genocidal notions of German expansion, anti-capitalism and rejection of Communism. Driven largely by personal ambition, Hitler offered to the German people “revelations about the hidden architecture of the world…proclaiming them in quasi-religious language.” Ten years later he would be dictator. Ten years after that he would join the 50 million other people dead because of his war.
“Becoming Hitler” is interesting, coherent and well written. It makes clear that Hitler became Hitler between 1919 and 1925 as his personal megalomania intensified. Amazingly, others accepted his own definition of himself, though a lost war and a devastating currency inflation helped. Most decisive in Hitler’s rise to power was the Great Depression, which hurt Germany more than any other nation. It was a perfect storm of noxious developments, with the worst possible outcome.
'Air,' 'Earth,' 'Water'
New book takes unique approach to historic wars
THE SECOND WORLD WARS
By Victor Davis Hanson
Basic Books, $40
By Jim Delmont
Historian Victor Davis Hanson, whose specialties include military history and ancient history, here collects all the conflicts from 1939-45 into “the first global conflict” and explains how it “was fought and won.” The clear implication is that the Euro-centric First World War was really not so global, but the Second World War surely was. These wars: Sino-Japanese, Japanese-American, Germany vs. Western Europe (two phases), and Russo-German, are examined in a unique approach – not geographical or even chronological, but in certain categories that include “air,” “water” “earth” and “fire.” Besides these thick chapters on air, naval, and land combat, the “fire’ chapter is on tanks and artillery – both manufacturing and use - a highly technical treatise and a bit of slog for the reader.
Less technical and more fascinating intellectually are the first and last chapters: “Ideas” and “Ends” (“Why and What Did the Allies Win”) and a long chapter on “People” (high and low in social station, but vital to the war effort). The 529 pages of text are heavy with statistics, but invariably the statistics are revelatory and interesting: 60 to 65 million died in the wars, about three per cent of the world’s population in 1939; 3/4 of Russia’s 400,000 tank crewmen lost their lives; the Anglo-American air war against Germany cost the allies 7,000 aircraft and 40,000 men (one third of B-29 crews were lost); millions starved to death in China, but only 20,000 in the Netherlands – yet the latter seems more shocking (in the civilized Netherlands?); Japanese kamikaze attacks killed over 7,000 allied sailors; on the first day of the D-Day invasion, 140,000 allied troops landed, but only 4,000 were killed; the amazing U.S. manufacturing boom – a major theme throughout the book – provided the allies with 40 billion rounds of ammunition, more than 90,000 tanks, 2.4 million transport vehicles, 300,000 aircraft, nearly 1,000 surface ships and 200 submarines, 50 million tons of merchant shipping, and over 2 million machine guns; Canada alone doubled Germany’s military vehicle output; the Normandy landing involved 7,000 ships manned by 200,000 sailors; and, sadly, 70,000 French were killed by allied “friendly fire” as the allied armies fanned out into their country. Another judgment is that Americans were not only good at building machines, but excellent at operating them, whether artillery, tanks, Jeeps, or aircraft. They also had the best surgical and medical care, including antibiotics for their wounded, thus cutting down casualties.
Hanson is a writer who crunches not only numbers but the text itself. He has a gift for brevity, exactness, and clarity. Invariably he brings the wisdom of a lifetime of scholarship, plus his natural intelligence, to bear on judgments about strategy, causes, leadership, and results. Had Japan not attacked the U.S. and Hitler refrained from invading the Soviet Union, both countries could have won their wars; the power of deterrence was abandoned by France and Britain in the late 1930s, making war with an aggressive Hitler inevitable; Germany skillfully used propaganda to create an image of its military power that was overblown (Britain was keeping up with Germany technologically, with aircraft engines, for instance, and was ahead in radar, while France had as many tanks and the allies together about as many aircraft as the Germans). What was lacking on the side of the democracies was “will power,” and that led to appeasement and defeat.
The first chapter offers fascinating lessons in the importance of climate, geography and human nature to the war, echoing the same elements in the wars of ancient times (the reader may be surprised by a quote from Livy on the Greco-Roman wars of the third century BC), but new were certain elements of ideology – the Holocaust was “savagely unique” and didn’t fit into any “historical framework.” Hanson concedes that the German army may have been “the best fighting force in the history of land warfare,” but argues that Germany was not strong enough in industry to compete with the allies and had little or no ability to project its military strength far from home, while the U.S. could span thousands of miles in different directions, transporting enormous numbers of men and weapons.
Hanson’s conciseness is evident on p. 257, when he writes, about the Russo-German war: “June 22 (1941) marked the beginning of the most horrific killing in the history of armed conflict, a date that began a cycle of mass death and destruction over the next four years at the rate of nearly twenty-five thousand fatalities per day until the end of the war.” Some 27 million citizens of the Soviet Union, alive in 1939, were casualties of the war by 1945.
Among major points made in the book is that the Axis powers lacked the resources for world war, while British and American naval strength guaranteed the ability to fight globally; the evolution of weapons was so accelerated by combat that major changes could occur in tank or aircraft design in just a few months; the losing side managed to inflict far more casualties than the winners; among major belligerents, only Russia avoided a two-front war (in large part because Japan took a real beating in the brief undeclared Siberian border war with Russia in the late 1930s); though suffering a devastating loss on land, Britain and France, in the losing campaign of 1940, destroyed 1400 German aircraft, which hurt the Germans the following summer when they attacked the Soviet Union; the March, 1945, napalm bombing of Tokyo was the single most destructive air attack ever, exceeding that of the two atomic bomb attacks – and nearly all Japanese civilian casualties came in the last five months of what had been for them an eight-year war (beginning with the invasion of China in 1937); victory in the air assured victory on the ground as the allies built three times as many aircraft and trained ten times more pilots than the Axis; Hitler put his money and effort into the wrong weapons, such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, when what he really needed was a decent 4-engine bomber and more fighters; Guadalcanal, not Midway, was the turning point of the war in the Pacific; wars are won because of “the primacy of infantry.”
Hanson makes clear how the U.S. had the leadership required to fight and win a global war (“The nature of leaders and the manner in which they mobilized their followers was every bit as important as scientific discovery and technological advance”). It is disconcerting, though, to realize that the impressive array of war leaders, from FDR down (including MacArthur, Eisenhower, Nimitz, Halsey, Patton, Marshall) were all born in the Victorian age, within a different culture. They were equal to or better than their Axis counterparts, writes Hanson, and had “the skill and insight” necessary for victory.
On strategic issues, Hanson stresses that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin “were sophisticated strategic thinkers who knew why they went to war, where to fight it, and how to end it,” while Axis leaders were unrealistic in their expectations and goals, given their limited resources. On the horrors of war, he is blunt, citing many examples of carnage and mass destruction, including the 15 million German and Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-German war, 1941-45. The demographic changes during and after the war, enormous in scale, are detailed. The long term results, including the occupation of Eastern and Central Europe by the Russians for almost half a century, are discussed.
This book is packed with anecdotes, judgments, facts, and often unique insights. World War II buffs will savor every page, but the lessons of the book are for all intelligent readers. The enormous advantages of American industrial production, untouched by Axis attack, are today subject to obliteration in the first minutes of a nuclear war – and one could come from a nation as small as North Korea. About a million English-speaking people died in World War II, roughly the same as in World War I, but in a nuclear war, tens of millions could die, and a democracy so attacked would collapse into economic ruin – worse by far than the Great Depression. If five American cities were hit by nuclear bombs, all the medical facilities of the nation would be inadequate in tending to the wounded and dying. Yet the absolute necessity of stopping the proliferations of nuclear weapons seems not to be grasped by most in government and out. President Trump may be an exception, but his two predecessors failed dismally on this issue. Hitler was a madman and a mass murderer (as were Stalin and Mao). His like exists today – Hitler now has nuclear weapons.
Leadership today is not at the 1940s level, in Congress, in either political party, even in the military. In my view, most presidents after Eisenhower should have been in the White House only as visitors. A war like that so vividly and intelligently analyzed by Professor Hanson, will likely not happen again, because no nuclear-armed tyrant will allow his enemies the opportunity to build and move forces such as those on the winning side in World War II. Perhaps that war, now 72 years in the past, was our heroic age, never to be repeated.
This is a fine book, rich in both facts and ideas. It is a triumph for an author/historian with a clear vision, the necessary imagination, and the intellect to explain the past to us on a vast canvas, with clarity, a sense of values, and common sense.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle
'Machine Gun Bursts'
Writer Camille Paglia offer brilliant collection of essays, articles, lectures, and interviews
“Free Women, Free Men”
By Camille Paglia
By Jim Delmont
First, Camille Paglia is a brilliant writer: like Norman Mailer, she’s a natural with words: pungent, forceful, sensual, wrapping her subject in a verbal embrace from which it cannot escape. Second, she is an amazing source of energy, writing with exuberance, one idea piled on another in a cascade of impressions, opinions, and colorful prose definitions.
She favors truth over dogma: a lesbian feminist Democrat, she rips into her sister feminists and leftist politicians – and rakes college administrators, snowflake students, and women who hate men. An admirer of the feminist pioneers who began their quest for equality deep in the 19th century, she has many quarrels with women authors of “second wave” feminism, which burst on the scene in the turbulent Sixties, with Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller “The Feminine Mystique,” which Paglia admires and which she relates to an earlier breakthrough, “The Second Sex,” by Simone de Beauvoir, who was companion and lover to the Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. These books helped trigger a new feminist movement, which co-mingled and drew energy from the many anti-establishment movements of the Sixties and Seventies, coinciding with the development and distribution of the birth control pill in the early 1960s.
“Free Women, Free men,” subtitled, “Sex-Gender-Feminism,” is a collection of essays, articles, lectures, and interviews – mostly before 2000 – with the first two pulled from her explosive first book, “Sexual Personae” (1990), an intellectual hand grenade whose originality is captured in the first offering here, “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art.” This forceful chapter is like a slap in the face, so bracing is it. Paglia, whose mother was born in Italy, sees the strength in women in older cultures, where they exercised matriarchy from their kitchens, dominating their daughters-in-law and keeping men away from the stove. The anemic nuclear family has put an end to that here, though heavy-armed, heavy-set older women still can be seen in rural Italy, Greece, and other places.
Making Paglia strikingly different from most feminists is her background in the visual arts (she has been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for decades), her appreciation of pop culture, her admiration of men and what they have achieved in science, construction, technology, the arts and politics, and her very different view of nature itself (“nature cares only for species, never for individuals…everything great in human history has come from resisting nature”).
Paglia strikes two powerful discordant notes against the modern liberal and academic mindset: she sees nature as brutal and permanently hostile to civilization, and she rejects the popular leftist notion, derived largely from the writings of Rousseau and Locke, that humans are naturally good, but made wicked by social custom. The latter is the bedrock not only of all the failed utopian movements since the French Revolution, but also of neo-Marxist deconstructionism – including here “poststructuralism,” a wildly intellectual, largely French theory-based response to reality, history, language, religion, certainty, science and tradition. The intensely subversive nature of the ideas of Derrida, Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, among others, was the perfect philosophical rationale for the leftist and feminist rejections of tradition – and just about everything else. Paglia is especially scornful of Foucault (who gave us the multiple gender nonsense so faddish today) and Lacan, the enemy of the Freud who Paglia regards as one of the most important minds in the modern world.
Paglia is far too earthy, realistic, and in touch with people to be much influenced by the fantasies of French philosophy. Men and women are biologically different, she states plainly and it is a delusion to think otherwise. A harsh critic of women studies programs in colleges, she argues that such programs should be based in scientific study, rigorous scholarship of the traditional sort, and intellectual discipline. Whining about men, capitalism, America, is “infantile.” It is foolish to blame everything on white males, “a view of history coming from people who know nothing about history.” Capitalism has been the dynamic, revolutionary force that has freed billions of men and women from poverty and rural toil and made modern personal freedom possible. The takeover of academe by neo-Marxists who impose speech codes is a disaster (“a closed system in which scholarship is inseparable from politics”) which has led to “intimidation wielded by…ruthless forces.” The Sixties was all about free speech, but political correctness is choking it off on college campuses today. College political correctness has become “despotic imperialism” that “has no place in a modern democracy.”
She makes fun of the “nerdy bookworm husbands” college feminists marry because they shy away from masculine men. Colleges have become “nursery schools” for “infantile” young women neglected by their own parents and seeking safe places on campus. College women should take no guff from men, but should verbally hit back and send them retreating. On the other hand, any coed who goes alone to a frat party should have her head examined. Men can be dangerous, especially in drunken groups, and no woman should be naïve about it (“women will always be in sexual danger”). Yet “male domination of art, science, and politics is an undisputed fact of history.” Paglia also warns that civilization exists because men are at the frontiers with weapons of violence. A time when men will again have to fight and die to protect women and children may be on its way. Unlike Barack Obama, who pushed for a draft of young women into the military, she doesn’t seem to think much of women in combat.
“I am an intellectual first and a feminist second,” Paglia writes, underlining what should be the responsibility of journalists and academics – the objective pursuit of truth – but often isn’t these days, as politics swamps the media and scholarship.
In this book, Paglia exhibits an eclectic enthusiasm for art, fashion photography, the early Madonna videos/music, football, gay men and their achievements, pornography, rock music, stiletto heels, Freud, de Sade, and Germaine Greer (especially in her early phase). She blasts Kate Millett, PC, censorship, speech codes, and the feminist war against men, “which is stunting the maturation of both boys and girls.” A principal theme is her argument that women have enormous power in their essential sexuality, which is tied directly to nature and based on fecundity, nurturing, and eroticism.
Oddly, though finding so much sexuality based in biology, she rejects the notion that homosexuality (including her own) is inborn. Rather, it is a response to conditions – which seems to contradict a main theme in her writings. She joyfully recalls her schoolgirl crush on Amelia Earhart, which took up two years of endless study and admiration – and her respect as a young student for Katherine Hepburn, LIFE magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White and other accomplished women whose work predated the Sixties.
A self-described “libertarian feminist,” Camille Paglia writes as she talks – in machine gun bursts. Unlike feminists “who can neither write nor think,” she can do both – with spectacular results. Few will agree with everything in this collection, but it is worth the effort for any intelligent, open-minded reader.
Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
If you are looking for escapist fare – historical fiction, sci fi futurism, or real history, these three books are treats
By Jim Delmont
Captivity by Gyorgy Spiro, a Hungarian novelist.
This is a fabulous, at times astonishing picaresque tale of a Jewish subject, an everyman figure, in first century Rome. The hapless hero, Uri, is smart but clumsy, with bad eyesight, and a predilection for reading despite his handicap. Living at a time when neither electricity nor eyeglasses were available he nevertheless managed to read his way through libraries of classics – books no longer extant, but including many that are, including the Book of Enoch. As a Roman citizen he also managed long physical journeys to Jerusalem, the Judean hinterland, and to the city of his dreams, Alexandria, the intellectual capital of the ancient world. Spiro’s tone is Yiddish-like, if you can imagine a Yiddish Dostoevsky with hints of Woody Allen. Uri’s experiences are mostly misadventures, based on the whimsical narrative tool of misidentification. Taken for someone he is not, he is both persecuted and feted, meeting along the way, Pontius Pilate (after spending a night in a prison cell with Jesus and the two thieves), and the greatest scholar of his time, Philo of Alexandria, who more or less adopts him and protects him. Uri’s youth and poverty in a Jewish ghetto across the Tiber in Rome, and the dreadful women in his life, contrast with his almost comic good fortune at times. Spiro’s narrative is relaxed, gossipy, sometimes harshly vernacular, but always with a keen appreciation of the characters he creates and the physical locales in wondrous ancient urban areas. At 860 pages, this is a long, fascinating and engrossing novel, bright with humor but slogging along, ever mindful of the eternal imperfections in human nature. It is a stunning achievement.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Another blockbuster in length (861 pages), Seveneves is just what the title says: seven Eves. They are the mothers of a new human race, thousands of years in the future. This long, inventive novel opens in the present with one of the best first sentences I’ve ever read: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Everything in the book flows from that portentous first sentence. What becomes quickly understood is that the fragments of the moon will continue to collide until they engender a rain of fiery rock particles to earth, a catastrophe that will last for millennia and wipe out almost all life on earth, certainly all human life. Faced with the unimaginable, the nations of the world frantically cooperate to identify, train and send a relatively small population, under 2,000, to a hastily expanded International Space Station, in hope they can survive the millennial ordeal, generating new human life while harboring and saving vast stores of knowledge, seeds, plants, and some technologies. This is when politics enters to spoil things, as an American female president, not supposed to join the survivors, is rocketed up, anyway, and begins undermining the working order at the space station. One of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is the incredible panoply of future technologies created by its author – explained in minute detail. Whole chunks of narrative are taken up with explaining futuristic technologies and how they are used, maintained, misused. It is a remarkable exercise of the imagination. The pathos inherent in the predicament of those left behind – some seven billion doomed humans – contrasts with the ongoing, desperate hope for surviving human life in space, which eventually comes down to the seven Eves. This bravura science fiction novel is also a political novel, wise about human motivations and able to offer keen character portraits. Read this and sail thousands of years into an uncertain future!
The Rise of Germany 1939-41: The War in the West by James Holland
This is apparently the first book in a series on World War II on the Western Front and it is a lively, unique and original study, shredding many misconceptions about Britain’s situation, pre-war and in the early stages of the war. Holland has a knack for bringing his narrative along on an anecdotal track, in terms of personal experiences by real people, most of them at ordinary levels of society or the military. Unfailingly readable, it offers almost 600 pages of restructured history, arguing that Britain was not hopelessly falling behind Nazi Germany in the pre-war years but was technologically - and in terms of industrial war preparation - keeping up with the Nazis and even moving ahead of them in some categories, such as radar deployment. Many of us, even today, do not realize how vast the resources of Britain were in terms of her still intact global empire: huge shipping fleets brought food, commodities, men and weapons from such far flung states as India and South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. In the same vein, when Germany invaded France in the late spring of 1940, the Allies had tanks as good as those employed by the Germans, superiority in manpower, and rough equality in numbers of aircraft and artillery. Even after the disastrous and rapid fall of France, Britain had the aircraft and shipping factories to keep up with Germany and actually out-produced the Nazi state in aircraft during the air war known as the Battle of Britain. Germany lacked basic resources for a long war and was technically behind Britain in some areas, like code-breaking and integrated radar defenses. The problem was almost entirely one of leadership: both France and Britain had a defensive mindset while Hitler and his generals were gamblers, willing to take huge risks for huge payoffs. Clever use of newsreel propaganda convinced the world that the Nazi war machine was better than it actually was. Even the British defeats in Greece, on Crete, and initially in North Africa, were not as bad as they seemed. The persistent fascination World War II has for many of us may be due to the fact that it was a golden era of Anglo-American military achievement: a crusading war against the most vile opponents, in which extraordinary leaders like Churchill, FDR, Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, MacArthur and the great admirals in both fleets saved democracy in Europe and beyond. Never again will nations be able to muster such enormous numbers of ships and men – miniaturized nuclear weapons have seen to that. Never again will the U.S. be an “arsenal of democracy.” All of our advantages in population, technology and industry can now be knocked out by a midget power such as North Korea – and in half an hour or so. A book like this diverts one’s attention from the unprecedented weakness in leadership today to that Anglo-American golden age of cooperation and mutual victories.
(Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle)
Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Henry Holt, $30
By Jim Delmont
The latest in the “Killing” series from Bill O’Reilly and researcher Martin Dugard, “Killing Reagan,” is a somewhat disappointing mix of high drama and low gossip. As one who thought “Killing Patton” one of the most readable and interesting popular history books in years – and as an admirer of both “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Lincoln,” I found this outing strangely made, often with a stress on the trivial, rather than the historic. The strength of the other books has been a keen sense of time and place, a strong narrative pull, a page-turning urgency. These aspects are not missing here, either: the first sentence reads, “The man with one minute to live is no longer confused.” It is the death of Ronald Reagan.
The book is strongly built on the parallel activities of Reagan and John Hinckley, the woebegone character who tried to murder him, and are well described as they develop in tandem, leading to the actual shooting, in April, 1981.
There is backstory on both men, too – in Reagan’s case early Hollywood years and for Hinckley, unhappy, disjointed years following high school, as emotional illness develops. Hinckley pulls the trigger on p. 177 of a 283-page text. Reagan’s somewhat playboy lifestyle before his first marriage is detailed, as well as some bad boy behavior after Jane Wyman divorced him – which extended, in terms of at least one romantic affair, into his marriage with his second wife, Nancy Davis. Nancy’s sexual availability as a young starlet is mentioned, too, along with quite a bit of trivia (much of it in unnecessary footnotes - e.g., about Bill Holden’s love life, including his fling with Jackie Kennedy years later).
Nevertheless, Ronald Reagan’s activities as head of the Screen Actor’s Guild, where he began a lifelong struggle against Communism and its influences, is well told and necessary to an understanding of the man. The absolutely vital influence on Reagan by Nancy, even before he entered politics, is also well drawn.
One would expect that the near-death of Ronald Reagan, wounded by Hinckley on p. 178, would be the key event in the book: the life-changing moment that led Reagan to greatness in the presidency, as he concluded God had spared him for the work ahead. Historians today rank him among the top dozen presidents, some much higher than that. Like FDR, he faced not one, but two huge challenges – in his case, a moribund economy and a growing threat from a Soviet Union that was completing a decades-long arms buildup, especially in its nuclear arsenal. Reagan met both challenges, moving Congress and our European allies to victory on both counts, a victory that a very few years later included the end of Communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union – outcomes that seemed impossible to nearly everyone at the time, including Henry Kissinger, who remarked in a memoir that he had been wrong on the vulnerability of the Soviets and Reagan right.
This is where “Killing Reagan” begins to stumble. Reading it one gets no sense of the strong leadership and monumental historic changes effected by Reagan – no sense of the powerful renewal of faith in the presidency, in American purpose, in patriotism (the 1984 Olympics being an expression of it), in the shift of psychological and military forces in favor of NATO and the U.S. Instead there are a lot of gossipy and trivial anecdotes about both Nancy and Ronald Reagan – which, even if true - diminish the man and his wife. The portrayal of Nancy throughout the book is consistently unflattering – she is the “ice queen,” superstitious to a fault, given to grudges and interventions with personnel, self-indulgent and cranky. There is also a judgment that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer’s while president – detailing health and mental symptoms as early as 1985, the first year of his second term. Most controversial of all is the assertion on pp. 244-245 that in March, 1987, White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker asked a small group of insiders to observe the president in a kind of test of his attentiveness, with the clear intent of beginning to invoke the 25th Amendment, by which a president can be deposed and replaced by the Vice President. The problem with this scenario is that Reagan’s ineptitude (Nancy was really in charge, the president spent entire days watching soap operas) is based on a report by one man, Jim Cannon, a Baker aide who reportedly later regretted writing the report. Besides, only the Vice President, George H.W. Bush, and a majority of the Cabinet could make such a recommendation to Congress, which would have the last word. It is inconceivable that in 1987 either Bush or Congress would initiate such a move.
Just when the book should be celebrating the great events and accomplishments of Reagan, in the years following the Hinckley attack, it remains mostly negative and gossipy, loaded with footnotes that are often dead ends (like the one on p. 187, in which both Michael and Maureen Reagan are shown in a bad light). Not that these factoids are untrue, rather that selection is the most important exercise of the historian, given the vast library of facts, events, actions and words available for scrutiny. Not until the last 30 pages of “Killing Reagan” is there something like a generous appreciation of Reagan’s accomplishments as an outstanding president.
The drama of the Hinckley events as they unfold in the first half of “Killing Reagan” is the meat of this book and the best it has to offer. For a more thorough appreciation and understanding of Reagan’s presidency, read his own letters and diaries (“Reagan In His Own Hand,” and “Reagan: A Life in Letters”) or studies by Steven Hayward (“The Age of Reagan”), John O’Sullivan (“The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World”), Peter Schweitzer (“Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union”), or the biography by H.W. Brands, “Reagan: The Life.”
(Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle)
This Is No Rant
New Kirsten Powers book investigates modern-day free speech
The Silencing: How the left Is Killing Free Speech
By Kirsten Powers
By Jim Delmont
One of the strangest developments in recent years is the growing intolerance of free speech on college campuses – the one place you’d expect freedom of speech to be enshrined.
With her new book, The Silencing, Kirsten Powers, a liberal Democrat and a supporter of Barack Obama, offers a serious investigation into this phenomenon and its corollaries: charges of racism or sexism for those who dissent from politicized feminist, LBGT, or racial minority causes, and the tendency of most news outlets to be predictably liberal (along with condemnation of Fox News for not being so).
That a Democrat who is a feisty dissenter when appearing with Bill O’Reilly on Fox is disturbed by these developments is instructive. The worst of speech repression, as she documents, is on college campuses, where restrictive speech codes and hate speech rules smother not only dissent but ordinary, normal exchanges of opinion. Powers asks how professors can teach under these conditions – in which a student can bring intimidating charges based on “micro-aggressions” or “triggers” that disturb her, flowing from normal lecture material in classic literature or in conventional surveys of historical events.
However, in my view, if one looks closer, this vocabulary (“triggers,” etc.), borrowed from psychological counseling, is a cover for a quite obvious leftist political indoctrination that is almost Stalinist. Women’s studies and ethnic studies programs (black, Chicano) tend to be overwhelmingly negative about America and its history, while also desperate to show that “white” people, especially white males, really didn’t accomplish all that much – while minorities and women were just as successful, or would have been if not held in chains by white males. The nonsensical Portland Essays and other propagandized materials, widely used in U.S. high schools and colleges, offer a crude and false view of history (Egyptians were the same as black Africans, ancient Greeks stole philosophy and science from “Africans,” Jesus was black and visited Africa, Moses and Beethoven were black, the American Constitution came from Indians not from the European Enlightenment). Millions of dollars are now being spent to indoctrinate students about “white privilege” (that Asian immigrants today are doing better than whites is not considered).
The general tendency of academic and media establishments to be sympathetic to a fault to organized minorities has made these institutions vulnerable to speech code repressions, even as they subsidize on-campus activities that result in visiting speakers being shouted down, professors fired, Christian groups driven from campus, and brutal, slanderous attacks made on dissenters (including, frequently, in-group loyalists who stray on one issue). Gay, feminist and black leftists who dare take a heretical stand on something – anything - are viciously hounded until driven from their jobs. Powers provides many examples, including those of black Republicans who are described as not being black at all.
Herself a supporter of gay marriage, Powers shows how Christians who dissent on biblical grounds are rewarded with character assassination and demonization. If you don’t agree, you are a hater. There is no sense whatever of normal dissent and exchange of opinion on any of these heavily politicized minority positions. The intellectual level of most of this argument is at “agitprop” level, reminiscent of simplistic Nazi, fascist or Communist propaganda. Christians are raked, but Muslims who have similar views are defended from criticism – any criticism of them is described as “Islamophobia.” Likewise, government support of Christianity, in any form, is roundly condemned, but school funds for Islamic foot baths or other activities is supported.
What this proves, again in my view, is that the entire movement (which includes a pacifist wing) is not merely in support of minorities, but is focused on rejecting historic America for being predominantly white, straight, Christian, English-speaking, expansionist, and friendly to capitalism. In other words, the entire history and values of the U.S., a wing of Western Civilization, is rejected by these new counter-culture types. This explains how they can decry Christians, but support Muslims. Anything or anyone that is or was part of the majority history is suspect and must be condemned. Thus the most successful, democratic, and popular nation in world history is trashed.
Other chapters in the book include one defending Fox News from charges that it is not a real news organization – Powers cities several studies including one from the Pew Research Center that rate Fox high for news content and objectivity, just behind CNN (while MSNBC, the openly leftist cable channel, has the lowest rating: 85% opinion, only 15% fact – it also has by far the lowest viewership). Historically, the Democrat Party (FDR, Truman, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, JFK and RFK) has been liberal, not leftist. Liberals, like historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., were strong defenders of freedom of speech. Powers is a liberal, not a leftist. She recounts with sadness a student at an elite college saying she can’t understand why a college has to put up with freedom of speech. She writes that for these people, “disagreement is violence.”
It has gotten so bad that stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock won’t work college campuses. Speech codes and ideological bullying have become noxious, even poisonous, at places as highly regarded as Oberlin, Marquette, Brown, Duke, Columbia. Many of the worst examples in the book are from the year 2014, which is ominous – as Orwellian repression spreads. Famed columnist Peggy Noonan recently took a shot at “The Trigger-Happy Generation,” in the Wall Street Journal, decrying them as “a bunch of frail and sensitive little bullies.” They are also intellectual Luddites who reject Western Civilization and their own country’s splendid history (its faults being no different from those of other nations, but its virtues unique and exemplary). College administrators and department heads carry much of the burden for advancing this new Stalinism - mostly out of fear of offending someone. The University of California system has gone so far as to tell professors never to say such things as, “America is a land of opportunity.” Noonan argues that free speech, especially wit and sarcasm, are the best weapons for rolling back this ugliness. Hopefully, she’s right – but some courage on the part of those at the top will be required.
The Silencing is not a rant or screed – it’s a serious and important book and deserves our attention.
(Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle)
Stirring the Pot
A look at Ann Coulter's latest book
By Ann Coulter
Regnery Publishers $27.99
By Jim Delmont
Ann Coulter does not suffer fools gladly. In ten bestselling books she has ripped and shredded presidents, politicians, academics, liberals of all stripes, media dolts, establishment Republicans and others who have earned her disrespect. In person, in myriad TV appearances, her sharp tongue and mischievous wit have wounded these and other targets. In her new book, “Adios, America!,” totally bereft of political correctness, she takes on the immigration mess, which she dates to the Kennedy reform bill of 1965.
It has been obvious for decades (I did an Omaha World-Herald editorial on it as far back as 1986), that the Kennedy immigration plan has backfired and become a monster. Intended to reverse the 1924 immigration reform act that cut out Eastern Europeans, the ’65 bill, co-sponsored by Senators Robert and Ted Kennedy, was meant to restore Eastern Europeans, open a tiny door to Asians (refused entry by earlier laws) while keeping the annual number - at a modest 300,00 . Hidden in the bill was a “family reunification” clause that expanded family members from the customary spouses and minor children to a broad range of relatives of all ages. This is the main cause of the tidal wave today. Eastern Europeans could not escape Communist countries in any numbers in the ‘60s through ‘80s, so their places were taken by Filipinos, Chinese, other Asians, and – in larger numbers - by Mexican and Central American Latinos. The family chain ballooned total immigration to over a million annually, now sustained over several decades, while illegal immigrants from Mexico flooded our borders so that we now have 12 to 20 or 30 million illegals (dubbed “undocumented immigrants” by a cowardly media). The result of all this almost-all-minority immigration is the bad news that the American majority (black and white Americans, not long ago 95% of the population) could together be a minority in this century. Worse yet, the two-party political system will be as dead as it now is in California.
These obvious disasters are actually welcomed by PC intellectuals and diversity zealots, along with most Democrats and liberals, because they will put Democrats in power indefinitely (and just think of the court appointments that will ensue). Less rational is the cheerleading for these disasters by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, various business moguls, and most of the press. Fourteen Republican Senators voted for the “comprehensive” immigration reform bill that would have added, in just ten years, 40-60 million more minority immigrants, most of them Latino. Citizenship amnesty (backed by Obama and Hillary Clinton) for the present illegal population would kill the two-party system at a stroke of the pen.
Coulter makes all these points and many more. Using Marco Rubio as a recurring target, she offers a scathing indictment of minority immigration often dominated by the unskilled, illiterate, and often the criminal. Her style is blunt, conversational and to the point: “All peasant cultures exhibit non-progressive views on women and children.” She wisely quotes major scholars (Samuel Huntington, David Hackett Fischer) who have pointed out how different Anglo-European cultures have been from others in history (Russell Kirk, author of the classic “America’s British Culture” could have been included). All cultures are not the same – progressive treatment of women and democracy itself are far less evident in Confucian, Latino, African, and Islamic cultures. She devotes six chapters (too many) to immigrant crime, including horrific sexual crimes against women and female children, with Latinos the principal villains. For this she will be accused of racism and fear mongering. Since the examples are anecdotal, some statistics - if any are available- would have helped establish objective levels of crime. Also ripped are the cowardly media who will not ID sex criminals either as illegals or as Latinos. She also hammers judges and police officials who go easy on lawbreakers (like Hmong puppy-killers) because their actions are expressions of different “cultures.”
More Coulter: “75% of immigrant families from Mexico are on government assistance”; half of all Somalis and Hmong people (from Laos) are unemployed and the Hmong practice animal sacrifice and get away with it. George W. Bush famously said that “family values do not stop at the Rio Grande,” but Coulter points out that the Latino illegitimacy rate is high (53% and rising, while abortion rates are also high). Along with vicious drug gangs, nearly all the heroin, meth and cocaine now comes across our porous border with Mexico. She blasts the H1B program as a cheap labor fraud (which it mostly is); excoriates the Sierra Club for taking bribes to keep it quiet on immigration; slams the New York Times with the same complaint after they were rescued financially by a billionaire from Mexico; decries “anchor babies,” blaming their legality on Justice William Brennan; exposes massive fraud in refugee programs; points out that U.S. voting is now by race, and that American blacks are hurt most by Third World immigration.
Coulter’s remedy for what she says will destroy America? A dead stop in immigration at every level. “Third World immigration + massive welfare state + political correctness = The End of America,” she writes.
But she misses a few things: as recently as 1995 Bill Clinton and labor unions supported black Democrat Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s Congressional immigration reform, which would have squeezed the family chain and cut 200,000 legal Latinos per year from acceptance (it was killed by Republicans by one vote in the Senate). Clinton also fenced the San Diego area extensively and successfully. A hopeful note is that the past two years Asians have outnumbered Latino immigrants and Asians have a much higher level of educational and financial success in America – and in 2014 they voted Republican for the first time, according to exit polls.
Illegals can be prevented from voting, Europeans can be brought in from Eastern Europe to stop the majority slide to minority status, standards can be raised – as in Australia and Canada – and overall numbers reduced. Hopefully, Latinos will avoid the welfare pit and make it into the middle class. But it will take leadership and will power for any of this to happen.
In the meantime, this scornful, energetic, painfully truthful account of what is happening and how it came to be will stir the pot, and hopefully lead to reform.
(Jim Delmont is a member of the National Book Critics Circle).