This Week's Hot Reads: April 15, 2012
A people's history of liberalism from FDR to Obama and a novel about the ascendance of Seattle. By Jimmy So.
The Cause: The Fight For American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950. Is that still true?
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to 1950’s The Liberal Imagination. That does not mean there’s no conservatism—just that its impulses do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” A look at the current Republican landscape, and you’ll see this is still perfectly true. But The Cause shows why this is also completely false. Eric Alterman, a columnist for such publications as The Nation and The Daily Beast, wrote the book with the help of academic Kevin Mattson, and the two chronicle an intellectual (and actual) history of liberalism that even Trilling would approve of. Alterman follows this story leftward with his keen compound eye for the schemes that mattered in the last 70-odd years (FDR’s legacy, civil rights, feminism), and what perhaps shouldn’t matter (Reaganomics, neocon), as the world increasingly mistakes the gestures that “resemble ideas” to be actual ideas. But Alterman’s greatest strength is pointing out the failures of liberalism. As you read this coherent and excellent version of our recent past, keep in mind what Alterman believes is Trilling’s biggest flaw: not only the liberal imagination but ideas in general are cursed to “proceed not with excitement or enthusiasm, but with caution and modesty.” Look around—we have arrived at today.
The tales of first-class passengers Maj. Archie Butt, military adviser to Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest man on board.
When on April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and took with it 45,000 table napkins, 5 grand pianos, and 22,000 bottles of alcohol, it also swallowed 1,514 lives. And even the immortalization of those people’s stories follows a class division, it being rather difficult to know about the lives of those in steerage. We make due with the tales of first-class passengers like Benjamin Guggenheim, son of the mining mogul, or Maj. Archie Butt, military adviser to Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. Or John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest man on board. Brewster, an editor and publisher who worked with explorer Robert Ballard to produce The Discovery of the Titanic, pays loving tribute to these gilded lives in a handsome series of reconstructions that recall their days before the fatal voyage, their actions on the night itself, and their grief in the aftermath. (Brewster includes two letters in the appendices that will bring a tear to your eyes.) Let’s hope a writer as good as Brewster would come along to tell the tales of those in steerage, many of whom surely endured a lifetime of struggles and were coming to America with hopes for a better future.
Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore
A fun read that satirizes the blue notes of the high arts as well as cashes in on the nostalgia of the Belle Époque.
Nobody would accuse Moore of being a great writer. He claims that “this is a story about the color blue.” It is no such thing. Even the ink the text is printed with is more deep violet than sacré bleu. Yet there is an irresistible charm about this book, if you think of it as a fun read that both satirizes the blue notes of the high arts as well as cashes in on the nostalgia of the Belle Époque. Imagine transplanting the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes to Paris, with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and young, struggling artist Lucien Lessard—the detective and his Dr. Watson—as they bromance their way to investigating a pigment supplier called The Colorman, who might or might not be stealing the paintings of Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, etc., with van Gogh being the chief victim. The way such efforts as Midnight in Paris choose to filter the Parisian air to our own times tells us a lot about how we want to live our lives today.
David Hockney: A Rake's Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes
Sykes places particular importance on Hockney as a supreme draughtsman, A Rake’s Progress being a series of eight paintings by English printmaker William Hogarth.
For a man famous for, among other things, joining Polaroids taken from multiple angles to form one mosaic portrait, à la neocubism, one would hope for a biography of David Hockney in the stop-and-go, schizophrenic style employed in “Forty-One False Starts,” Janet Malcolm’s classic composite profile of the artist David Salle. No such audacity here, but we do get a very thorough, smoothly conventional take on Hockney’s life from his birth in the drab northern English town of Bradford in 1937 to the verge of his superstardom in 1975. Sykes places particular importance on Hockney as a supreme draughtsman—A Rake's Progress being a series of eight paintings by English printmaker William Hogarth—and that focus will surely return in the second volume of this two-part biography, when much can be said about Hockney’s late-period flowering of iPad drawings. One wishes for a bit more color in Syke’s narrative, but one look at a Hockney would give you the zest needed.
Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
A handsome novel, soaked with the voice and attitude of a laid-back Seattleite, part holier-than-thou grunge, part dot-com convenience.
Three eras define the city of Seattle: the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, Boeing's peak and the World's Fair in 1962, and the Microsoft-Starbucks-Amazon corporatism of the 1990s to 2000s. The latter two are bridged by the characters Roger Morgan and Helen Gulanos in Truth Like the Sun as they peel apart the corruption that built a city—in the last place in America that could still see one built. And along the way, LBJ, John Glenn, Edward R. Murrow, and even Elvis make appearances, lightening a serious exploration of pioneer politics. Which is to say that this is a handsome Pacific Northwest novel, soaked with the voice and attitude of a laid-back Seattleite, part holier-than-thou grunge, part dot-com convenience.