Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



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Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

Two NY Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn

More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.

Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.

The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.

I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.

Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river. 

Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.

Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.

Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.

To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.

We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels. 

But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.

Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.

On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.

Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.

I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.

Melville and Me

My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).

Note our reflections
Miles and My Dad.

It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses. 

Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.

Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.

Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.

In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)

Review: The Civil War (Ken Burns)
The Civil War: An Illustrated History

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I understand what military fame is: to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.

—William Tecumseh Sherman

This documentary was long overdue. Aside from the basic overview, my knowledge of the American Civil War was embarrassingly sketchy; and I had also never seen anything by Ken Burns. Virtually everyone I know who has seen this documentary speaks about it in reverential tones. It lives up to the reputation. The eleven hours are packed with maps, dates, quotes, and most of all—stories. This is a history that focuses on individuals.

A documentary about a war that happened a century and a half ago, beyond all living memory, could easily have become dry and distant. But Ken Burns and his team overcome this obstacle through the dual use of photographs and quotes. The Ken Burns Effect has already entered common parlance, and you can see it displayed to great effect with these old photographs: the slow pan and zoom recreating, somewhat, the feel of watching a film. Combined with quotes of the men and women involved—soldiers, statesmen, generals, diarists—brought to life using voice actors, the watcher enters a bewitchingly immersive experience.

The war becomes, not merely troop movements on the screen, but an enormous catastrophe that our protagonists must live through. This gives the series an emotional force rare in documentaries. The horrors of war are the same as ever: seeing comrades fall, leaving children and widows behind, disease, malnutrition, homesickness, ghastly wounds, and the ever-present drudgery punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Some of the most disturbing images are of Yankee prisoners-of-war, totally emaciated through lack of food. Combined with this are the horrors of slavery, so central to the conflict, and the upheaval of the lives of so many civilians.

Virtually everything is well-done. McCullough brings both seriousness and sadness to the narration. The voice actors are uniformly convincing and effective. The music, too, goes a long way in recreating the mood and atmosphere of the times. Most of the guests were, however, rather unremarkable, with the notable exception of Shelby Foote, who was an endless trove of amusing and touching anecdotes. I can see how the documentary catapulted him to fame.

The series is not above criticism, however. Burns focuses most of his attention on the battlefield. This has the double benefit of being exciting and of avoiding the war’s most controversial issues. But I think the series should have delved far deeper into the causes of the war. I would also have appreciated far more about civilian life during wartime, rather than hearing mainly from soldiers and generals. Even Abraham Lincoln, though he makes his due appearances, is given far less space than a private in the Union Army. Such a wider scope would have made the documentary longer, more controversial, and perhaps more superficially boring; but as it stands the war’s immense political and historical significance is difficult to fathom from the documentary alone.

We are left with a rosy picture of the elderly veterans embracing on Gettysburg, with the war as a bad dream or even a glorious affair. Indeed, our species has been struggling to reconcile the heroic and the barbaric aspects of war since Homer wrote The Iliad. And it seems we still have not been able to face the horrors without including some shades of the bravery, the camaraderie, the brilliant strategy, to brighten up the picture. But the truth is that every war is a moral collapse, and this one was compounded by the taint of slavery. It is an extremely depressing picture, which may get somewhat obscured by the folksiness of this documentary.



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Review: Henry IV

Review: Henry IV
Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

This is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays. In tone and atmosphere it is far more varied and naturalistic than its predecessor, Richard II. The scenes with Hal amid the low-life of London are fetching, and do much to alleviate the stiff and stuffy courtly atmosphere of some of Shakespeare’s histories. The comedy also helps; and this play contains some of Shakespeare’s highest and lowest comedy, both of which are embodied in the corpulent Falstaff.

Most readers will, I suspect, concur with Harold Bloom in deeming Falstaff one of the bard’s great creations—though we may not go so far as to put him on a level with Hamlet. Bloom is correct, however, in seeing one’s opinion of Falstaff as a defining fact in one’s interpretation of the play. There are those who see in Falstaff the spirit of carnival—the ecstatic embrace of all the pleasures of life and the total rejection of all the hypocrisies of society Others see Falstaff as a corrupter and a lout—a lazy and selfish fool.

For my part I vacillate between these two attitudes. There is no denying Falstaff’s wit; and his soliloquy on the futility of honor is wonderfully refreshing, puncturing through all of the political nonsense that motivates the bloody clashes. Still, I cannot help thinking that, if the Falstaffian attitude were embraced too widely, society itself would be impossible. Some social restraint on our pleasure-loving instincts is necessary if we are not to end up fat drunken thieves. On the other hand, a generous dose of the Falstaffian attitude can be a great antidote to the self-righteous nonsense that leads us into war.

In any case, Falstaff is not the only great character in this play. Hotspur is a mass of furious energy, an electrifying presence every time he is on stage. Prince Hal, though less charismatic, is more complex. From the start, he already has an ambivalent relationship with Falstaff, a kind of icy affection or warm disregard. Indeed, Hal holds everyone at a distance, and one senses a skeptical intelligence that is wary of committing until the circumstances are just right. It is hard to read his character’s evolution as that of a wayward youth who learns to embrace his identity. His actions seem far too deliberate, his timing too perfect. Was he hoping to learn something by keeping company with Falstaff and his lot?

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Presume not that I am the thing I was.

Compared with Part 1, this sequel is significantly weaker as a stand-alone play. There is no antagonist to compare with Hotspur. Falstaff wanders about in pointless merrymaking, mostly separated from Hal; and unfortunately his wit is not nearly so sharp outside of his young companion’s company. The same can be said for Hal, whose youthful liveliness fades into a chilling uprightness. And the plot can be frustratingly meandering and abrupt.

The main drama of this play is the progression of Hal from prodigal son to the ideal young king. This transformation is apt to cause some misgivings. On the one hand, I found it genuinely admirable when Hal commends the Justice and bids him to do his work. And even if one loves Falstaff, it is difficult to wish that the King of England would keep such a lawless fellow around, much less lend him influence. On the other hand, the newly-ascended king’s rejection of his former friend and mentor is deeply sad. Perhaps he should have turned Falstaff away, but it need not have been with such cold scorn.

Again, there is a moral conflict here. Falstaff may best be described as amoral: uninhibited, pleasure-loving, devoid of both cruelty and rectitude. He feels no scruples whatsoever at dishonesty and robbery, and acknowledges no ideal as worth pursuing or even respecting. Hal, by contrast, is a moral creature: he wishes to uphold the moral order, but for him this may mean murder or bloody conquest. So one must ask: Which is better, to be a drunken pickpocket or to lead your country on an invasion? Neither the socially subversive nor the socially upstanding can be fully embraced, which is why Hal’s rejection of Falstaff causes such complex reactions.



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Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many on Goodreads, I decided to read this book because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspect of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions; you can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” for special emphasis.

Curiously, no other Germanic languages have these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter.

To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it.

McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point, I admit that I began to have reservations about McWhorter’s method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter’s arguments was to weaken each.

McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago.

This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English’s grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language; I do it all the time, as do my students.

To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place?

Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.



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Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: Treatise on Light

Review: Treatise on Light
Treatise on Light (Illustrated Edition)

Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But sound, as I have said above, only travels 180 toises in the same time of one second: hence the velocity of light is more than six hundred thousand times greater than that of sound.


This little treatise is included in volume 34 of the Great Books of the Western World, which I used to read Newton’s Principia and his Opticks. In this edition the Treatise comes out to about 50 pages, so I decided it was worth combing through. Christiaan Huygens is one of the relatively lesser known figures of the scientific revolution. But even a brief acquaintance with his life and work is enough to convince one that he was a thinker of gigantic proportion, in a league with Descartes and Leibniz. His work in mechanics prefigured Newton’s laws, and his detailed understanding of the physics of pendulums (building from Galileo’s work) allowed him to invent the pendulum clock. His knowledge of optics also improved the technology of telescope lenses, which in turn allowed him to describe the rings of Saturn and discover the first of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

Apart from all this, Huygens was the progenitor of the wave theory of light. This is in contrast with the corpuscular theory of light (in which light is conceived of as little particles), put forward 14 years later in Isaac Newton’s Opticks. Newton’s theory quickly became more popular, partially because of its inherent strength, and partially because it was Isaac Newton who proposed it. But Huygens’s wave theory was revived and seemingly confirmed in the 19th century by Thomas Young and Augustin-Jean Fresnel.

Essentially, Huygens’s idea was to use sound as an analogy for light. Just as sound consists of longitudinal waves (vibrating in the direction they travel) propagated by air, so light must consist of much faster waves propagated by some other, finer medium, which Huygens calls the ether. He conceives of a luminous object, such as a burning coal, as emitting circular waves at every point in its surface, spreading in every direction throughout a space.

Like Newton, Huygens was aware of Ole Rømer’s calculation of the speed of light. It had long been debated whether light is instantaneous or merely moves very quickly. Aristotle rejected the second option, thinking it inconceivable that something could move so fast. Little progress had been made since then, because making a determination of light’s speed presents serious challenges: not only is light several orders of magnitude faster than anything in our experience, but since light is the fastest thing there is, and the bearer of our information, we have nothing to measure it against.

This changed once astronomers began measuring the movement of the Jovian moons. Specifically, the moon Io is eclipsed by Jupiter every 42.5 hours; but as Rømer measured this cycle at different points in the year, he noticed that it varied somewhat. Realizing that this likely wasn’t due to the moon’s orbit itself, he hypothesized that it was caused by the varying distance of Earth to Jupiter, and he used this as the basis for the first roughly accurate calculation of the speed of light. Newton and Huygens both accepted the principle and refined the results.

Huygens gets through his wave theory, reflection, and refraction fairly quickly; and in fact the bulk of this book is dedicated to an analysis of Icelandic spar—or, as Huygens calls it, “The Strange Refraction of Icelandic Crystal.” This is a type of crystal that is distinctive for its birefringence, which means that it refracts light of different polarizations at different angles, causing a kind of double image to appear through the crystal. Huygens delves into a detailed geometrical analysis of the crystal, which I admit I could not follow in the least; nevertheless, the defining property of polarization eludes him, since to understand it one must conceive of light as a transverse, not a longitudinal, wave (that is, unlike a sound wave, which cannot be polarized). In the end, he leaves this puzzling property of the crystal for future scientists, but not without laying the groundwork of observation and theory that we still rely upon.

All together, this little treatise is a deeply impressive work of science: combining sophisticated mathematical modeling with careful experimentation to reach surprising new conclusions. Huygens illustrates perfectly the rare mix of gifts that a scientist must have in order to be successful: a sharp logical mind, careful attention to detail, and a creative imagination. The world is full of those with only one or two of these qualities—brilliant mathematicians with no interest in the real world, obsessive recorders and cataloguers with no imagination, brilliant artists with no gift for logic—but it takes the combination to make a scientist of the caliber of Huygens.



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