Review: ‘The Club: Johnson, Boswell, And The Friends Who Shaped An Age

What began as an admirable effort to show the wide ranging influence of an eighteenth century London club whose members included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon rapidly devolved into an unsatisfying biography of Boswell and Johnson.

On the other hand, I learned that the classic nursery rhyme, ‘Do you know the muffin man,’ likely has salacious organization and I was inspired to do some googling and found that you can rent Boswell’s ancestral Scottish manse for your holiday.

‘The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future’ Is Marvelous Example Of Post-Colonial, Neo-Imperialist Condescension

Apparently, and I didn’t know this before, no one really explored the Mekong River until intrepid white folks arrived. Sure, many of them were racist, cruel, and exploitative, but we should admire them for… reasons.

I mean, I get it. They were courageous. But for what good g——-d reason?

There is a nice but underwritten section about medieval Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But mostly it’s just infuriating.

And did you know that the author has many friends who are Asian? He does. We should admire him for that, is the implied lesson.

The only good bit is a lengthy discussion of various proposed infrastructure projects, especially dams, on the river. A little boring, but well worth publication in a specialty outlet focusing on foreign affairs.

The Metaphysical Club

What might be most interesting about The Metaphysical Club is that it purports to be about how figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey (among others) created a new and modern American from the ashes of the Civil War, it manages to never explicate James’ nor Peirce’s nor Dewey’s philosophy nor that the first two are both considered the founders of American pragmatism (James association with it is mentioned once or twice; Pierce never) nor that Dewey’s has work might be connected to it over the course of three fourths of the book. Instead I found a series of frustrating threads, connecting Holmes to James and James to Peirce but not Peirce to Holmes in any meaningful sense. Supposed schools of thought like the Burlington transcendentalists (shouldn’t transcendentalist be capitalized, too, in this case, if it’s a legitimate, albeit no longer extant, school of American thought?) appear, are discussed in not insignificant length and then noted to be almost entirely meaningless to the topic and not influential at all. Jane Addams is the only woman noted beyond her relationship to a man and she gets briefly shoehorned into a lengthy rumination on Dewey’s Chicago.

With just over one hundred pages remaining (out of almost 450, not including end notes), there is finally a chapter entitled ‘Pragmatisms’ that returns us to Holmes and James and other characters I had almost forgot at this point.

I will concede that this chapter, if expanded upon, would make a wonderful book.

The chapters which follow, less so. New figures are briefly introduced and no one gets enough attention (poor Alain Locke).

As a former unionist, I appreciate Menand giving us some examples of union organizing and actions, but it’s just another example of the maddening lack of a coherent narrative. American Philosophy discussed many of the same (and many more disparate) thinkers while still managing to make it all seem tied together (thankfully, not by the author’s apparent odiousness).

Important, Too

So, I am still returning to Thomas Jefferson, this time with Ta-Nehisi Coates or, at least, with his recent congressional testimony on the issue of reparations. I am not going to go into that issue, which may represent a kind of cowardice on my part, but I do want to flag one line that I can’t shake:

That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings.

‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power’ By Jon Meacham

Did I need to read another Jefferson book? Probably not. My fifth in the last two years, though the first traditional biography (the others being guided by conceits or else by Christopher Hitchens and so read to understand him rather than Jefferson).

No. What I need to do and what I have started to do is read Jefferson’s own writings.

It’s a good biography, don’t mistake me, but my interest is in his thinking and as the founder or spiritual godfather of a certain Americans intellectual tradition, not in his use of power. Though, it should be noted that I am not sure that this book actually does all that much to explain Jefferson’s view of the art of power. I think it was settled upon more because it was a cool title than a genuine descriptor of the book’s unique contribution. But an important though not unique note: …we see that Jefferson the practical politician was a more powerful persona than Jefferson the moral theorist. [478]

In terms of things I gained from the reading, I did appreciate hearing Meacham’s perspective, such as his defense of Jefferson’s behavior as governor of Virginia for a few years during the Revolution.

PS – Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

Williamsburg & Yorktown

A lovely bookstore on the Yorktown riverfront. I bought a copy of Jefferson’s selected writings.

From the Yorktown Battlefield visitor’s center; according to tradition, the campaign table of General Lord Cornwallis.

The Yorktown Victory Monument

The rather martial foyer of the Governor’s Palace

I just enjoyed seeing a book edited by the notable leftist historians, Eric Foner, in a government building in the Age of Trump (not that Foner does not deserve his place; his multivolume history of Reconstruction is still the gold standard).

My continued dialogue with the idea of Jefferson

The Charlton Coffeehouse is my favorite stop in Colonial Williamsburg. When I asked about this (initially thinking that Mr. Mercer might have been engaging in some civil disobedience), the “player” turned out to be quite knowledgeable and told me about how Mercer was accosted and assaulted by an angry mob and then submitted this the next day; she also told me about another, similar incident involving a tax collector in Pennsylvania.

The coffeehouse

Outside the Governor’s Palace

Inside the Governor’s Palace

We visited Colonial Williamsburg and made a brief stop in Yorktown to visit the Yorktown Battlefield and to, ahem, check out a bookstore. I have continued to read (and feel conflicted) about Thomas Jefferson and was disappointed that the Raleigh Tavern wasn’t open, because it featured prominently in Jefferson’s life while studying in Williamsburg, including being where the Virginia House of Burgesses met after being officially dissolved by the Royal Governor.