“James Madison” By Garry Wills

I checked this book out from the library because I had very much enjoyed Wills’ Inventing America, which was about Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. He’s a fine stylist, though this slim volume on James Madison is not the best introduction to him (though a decent introduction to Madison).

Part of a series of books on American presidents (to which Arthur Schlesinger placed his imprimatur), Wills struggles manfully to write an introduction to one of the most intellectually interesting men to ever be president that is simultaneously under 150 pages, covers the major points, and is new/interesting. To he credit, he doesn’t like the middle prerogative interfere too much.

He tries to put more of emphasis on Madison’s presidency, which he suggests has been given short shrift in the past and treated as an embarrassing interlude, rather than the highpoint. While not necessarily revisionist, he argues that the War of 1812 didn’t end as badly as most of us think and that Madison, though not a natural executive, was more successful that he is given credit for.

Interesting fact I learned from this book: A young Benjamin Franklin, attempting to make a name for himself in London, decides to return to America where geniuses are less thick on the ground, so more likely to be rewarded; he expresses this sentiment as part of his correspondence with David Hume!

Original Intents: Hamilton, “Jefferson, Madison And The American Founding” By Andrew Shankman

The good: learned some interesting things. Was not up on the conflict between Madison and Hamilton on paying the domestic debt. Hamilton wanted to pay the wealthy Americans who had bought up Revolutionary era debt at a discount, whereas Madison wanted to give them a small profit on their below face value purchase, but also make sure the the original holder, who received a promissory note for $100 (for example) for $100 worth of grain, would, if not made whole, at least receive some part of it. Suffice to say, I’m on Madison’s side. Also interesting to read how a man named William Duer, a one-time lieutenant in Hamilton’s treasury department, almost singlehandedly (according to Shankman) created dangerous investment bubbles and subsequent crashes in 1791 and 1792, which feels downright contemporary, except that Duer went to prison and we never seem to hold the rentier class accountable.

The bad: AP style gone awry. The dreadfully boring style and monotonous sentence structure makes this a real slog to read. AP style is not meant to create boring prose, but to set a floor which the writer can choose to rise above. This writer, ahem, does not appear to have made that choice.

I’m probably being too harsh. It’s a fine monograph, limited in scope, but covering an important issue (debt and credit) in the early years of the United States, through the lenses of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, though Jefferson is, surprisingly, the least important of the three (possibly because Madison, as his de facto political lieutenant, was more active in the national conversation, while Jefferson kept his image as the retiring philosopher).

King Solomon’s Mines

I love this sort of book and hate myself a little for loving them. Featuring the surprisingly not indefatigable Allan Quatermain, King Solomon’s Mines is what the term “rip-roaring adventure” was made for. Brisk and exciting, but also depressingly racist.

Quatermain is actually a somewhat nervous elephant hunter in his middle age, living in Africa, with a son in medical school back in England. He is recruited to help a wealthy aristocrat find his lost brother – lost looking for – can you guess? – the biblical King Solomon’s lost African diamond mines. Accompanied by Naval officer, recently mustered out, and an African man, they cross mountains, nearly starve (the description of the journey is pretty exciting), and then discover a sort of lost civilization. A militaristic African nation in a hidden valley, past nearly impassable mountains. Of course, they find the mines, but only after their friend reveals himself to be exiled son of the nation’s former king and they win a subsequent civil war.

They find the mines, of course, grab some diamonds and… well, you see, the naval officer had fallen in love with a beautiful woman and she dies saving them and Quatermain utters one of the most disgusting things I’ve heard since someone said that there were good people on both sides of clash around the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. He thinks that it might be good thing she died, since it could never have worked, her being African and him being White. Just… really unnecessary.

They return and randomly happen upon the long lost brother, living in shack in the middle of nowhere after he hurt his leg and couldn’t complete his journey.

H. Rider Haggard also wrote She, another rip-roaring adventure. It’s in the same vein as A. Merritt (using a first initial seemed to be a thing) and Edgar Rice Burroughs and even Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock adventures and is in this tradition of late nineteenth and early twentieth century pulp adventures, some edging closer to horror and others towards science fiction and others are just fun adventures. This genre is one of my delights, despite the flaws.

Uncle Silas: A Tale Of Bartram-Haugh

My first Sheridan Le Fanu novel and, uh, it was okay. Uncle Silas promised to be a sort of locked door mystery, but ended up a low-rent Ann Radcliffe. The privileged daughter and only child of a slightly reclusive rich man is sent to live with her ne’er do well uncle after said rich man dies. Oh, and her uncle is now a reformed man after having been a gambler and womanizer who also maybe killed a man, but it couldn’t be proved.

For a moment, it seemed like it might be a sort of closed door mystery as a plucky young lady manages to prove her uncle innocent.

But no. It’s a just another 19th century novel, with a neck-breakingly acceleration into a gothic turn as a bald and bewigged evil French governess (re)appears and her uncle’s grammatically challenged and obviously dangerous son try to kill her. And would you believe the uncle was a bad guy after all? And we learned the solution of the locked door mystery, but it’s a single sentence throwaway.


Review: The Transcendentalists And Their World

What a great book, really.

I borrowed it from the library, but with everything I had going on, especially the other reading I needed to do, it was clear I wasn’t going to have time to finish it before the due date (there was a long-ish waiting list for it). So, I pre-ordered the softcover version (because, as much as I want good books to succeed, that doesn’t mean I have to pay for a hardback copy; especially since it was so much less awkward to hold and read the paperback, even an oversized one).

It is not about Transcendentalism, but about the town of Concord, Massachusetts from the 1790s to mid 1840s. The opening history is about the town figuring out how to memorialize its role in the Revolutionary War and it closes with Henry David Thoreau giving the lectures that would make up Walden. It’s a close reading of the history and archives of a particular place that happened to have been very important in American history.

The structure is a thing of magic. It manages to move chronologically through time, while, at the same time, being arranged thematically. There is a section about religious change, as the long-time minister of the official church moves towards Unitarianism and rival churches are formed. There is a section about the rise of manufacturing. And, of course, there is a great deal about Ralph Waldo Emerson, though he does not dominate the book, because it is, ultimately, social history, not intellectual history.

Highly recommended.

Stop Talking About The Philosophy Of Socrates, Please

Stop talking about the philosophy of Socrates, please. We don’t know what it is. We have three writers who put words into his mouth – Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes – all of whom had clear and different agendas for which they were using the idea and memory of Socrates. I would suggest that Xenophon might be the most accurate, because his Socratic dialogues seem to have the least personal agenda. Aristophanes was mocking the future hemlock drinker and Plato was building his own metaphysical structure, but Xenophon’s agenda seems little more than to show that he was a basic, but positive moral influence and not, as he was accused, a corrupter of the youth. But we don’t really know what he said and thought, beyond clearly having irritated many people.

Poetry Is Just Fine, Thank You

Please check out my latest essay, now up at the Decadent Review, “Poetry Is Just Fine, Thank You.”

And check out the whole magazine, they are publishing some great articles and reviews; I would suggest that they are a European equivalent to something like The Los Angeles Review of Books, which is to say a place for intelligent essays and reviews (many of them, more intelligent than mine, I am freely willing to admit).

The Hatred Of Poetry

I do not like the provocative title. I don’t think it is particularly useful. Years ago, before I became a father, I read Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (I have not read any of his poetry, or rather, any of his poetry collections; I have probably read one of his poems in a magazine), but Hatred is my first time returning to him.

The actual contents are much less provocative than the title and perhaps the publisher picked it, so let’s give him some benefit of the doubt.

He makes some nice points and has a very interesting analysis of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. He has a great deal to say about implicit bias in poetry criticism that, while not new, is important to say.

But overall, the book is interesting rather than captivating and also meanders a bit, which increases the sense that the title wrote a figurative check that the copy can’t cover.

Defense Of Poesy

The ur-text for all arguments for poetry in the English tradition, Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is better than you think. Don’t let that archaic spelling in the title throw you off.

I have heard it described as being very Aristotleian, though I confess I don’t see it myself, except insofar as both are operating under the shadow of Plato and both attempt to answer Plato’s challenges with more practical than theoretical answers.

After first reading it, one of my thoughts was its timelessness. In both a good and bad way. If you made the language blander and more modern, you could slap David Brooks name on it and claim it had been published in The Atlantic under the title “Poetry is dying: I have a plan to save it.”

The plan is reject literary theory and focus on how poetry is of practical value, as a moral and pedagogical tool. Which isn’t wrong, but feels inadequate.

Pomona Valley Review

Please check out issue 16 of the Pomona Valley Review for my poem, Sleepwalking.