Friday, August 30, 2013

Killer instincts

Stephen King spins another great yarn in his pulpy summer novel Joyland.

The following review will be posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

Good Labor Day weekend reading: Stephen King's new novel Joyland has spent most of the summer ensconced on the upper reaches of the New York Times Bestseller list, where most of his books enjoy long stays. What's interesting about this one is that it's a paperback original issued as part of Charles Ardai's Hard Case imprint, a series that reissues old crime classics (from James M. Cain to Donald Westlake) as well as original fiction (including that of Ardai himself). Hard Case is also distinguished by it pulpy covers depicting alluring women in various states of undress, many of them by artist Glen Orbik. They're not politically correct, but the resonate with the spirit of their pulp predecessors.

King published an early Hard Case title, The Colorado Kid, back in 2005, a deeply haunting book but not one of his classic horror stories. Actually, King's oeuvre has been been notable for its versatility; he's written in a variety of genres, and his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a marvelous primer for students of fiction, broadly construed.

Joyland is a story narrated by the melancholy Devin Jones, a man in his sixties recalling his youth working at the North Carolina amusement part of the title back in the summer and fall of 1973. Struggling to get over the girlfriend who ditched him, he becomes increasingly absorbed by a mysterious murder four years earlier at Joyland, which may have been part of a set of serial killings of young women. He also becomes involved in the lives of a seriously ill boy and his single mother. The two sets of storylines converge as Hurricane Gilda approaches the eastern seaboard. As is true of many King novels stretching back to his now-classic debut novel Carrie (1974), there is a paranormal element to the plot. But King has a light touch and leaves his readers with an interpretive margin, even if he resists easy explanations. He also weighs in occasionally with a meta-narrative comment. "If you read a whodunit or see a mystery movie, you can whistle gaily past whole heaps of corpses, only interested in finding out if it was the butler or the evil stepmother. But these had been real young women. Crows had probably ripped their flesh; maggots would have infested their eyes and squirmed up their noses and into the gray meat of their brains." (He challenges you even as he delivers the goods.)

There's something deeply likable about King's utter immersion in pop culture genres and his ability to entertain readers. There's also something admirable about his sense of loyalty. A writer of his commercial clout could have published this book with any number of major houses. Choosing to do so with a small paperback house is a way of honoring his pulp roots (this is also true of his pioneering efforts with electronic publishing, where he distributed his work in serial form, sometimes for free). In recent years, King has begun to enjoy critical esteem; he was recently the subject, with his family, of an admiring cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Whether or not his work survives his age, we have been lucky to have him.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Picturing the photographer

In Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, magazine editor Robert Wilson offers a focused portrait of a sketchy life

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mathew Brady, who spent most of his adult life at the center of an emergent modern celebrity culture, is how little is known about him. His date of birth is unknown, as is much of his family life. Many of the most famous photographs associated with him are of uncertain provenance; his relationship with his peers have long been debated. And yet there is little question that Brady shaped the visual imagination of the nineteenth century. Amid ongoing uncertainty over exactly what he did, there is nevertheless substantial consensus that he was a major artist. That was true in his time, and remains true in ours.

In this relatively short, readable and incisive biography, American Scholar editor Robert Wilson deals with the dearth of information about Brady's life in two principal ways. The first is to mine the documentary record about which there is confidence with care and flair, analyzing the visual choices Brady made in the photographs he produced or supervised, and the context in which he chose to present them. (Many Brady photographs are reproduced in the book, though one can't help but wish there were more.) The other is compensate for the lack of record of Brady's inner life by situating in him in his time. To a great extent, this means looking at the careers of figures like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan, who began their careers as Brady's proteges but later became his rivals. (At times the book reads like it should have been titled Brady's Boys, a nod to Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson's 1996 book The Murrow Boys, about the pioneers of broadcast journalism.) Wilson acknowledges arguments that Brady exploited these people and that his relationships with them were marked by hard feelings, but regards them as exaggerations at best. In his telling Brady was no saint, but at worst he worked within the mores of people in his profession at the time.

The son of Irish immigrants from upstate New York, Brady moved to Manhattan as a young man and apparently benefited from the tutelage of Samuel Morse, who dabbled in early photography on the road to inventing the telegraph. He opened a gallery in downtown New York in the 1840s, shrewdly exploiting what were apparently excellent social skills and building a reputation by offering to photograph prominent people for free as a means of building up his business. Before the Civil War he was already established as a leading figure in the field, a portraitist known for his images of figures ranging from presidents to the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, whose 1850s tour of the United States made her the Taylor Swift of her time. 

What it actually means to call such portraits his is a little complicated, however. Brady rarely operated cameras himself. He made technical decisions about matters like lighting, and he thought carefully about how his subjects would be posed and framed. He sometimes made his imprint by literally entering the picture. His studio -- he sometimes had two, one in New York and another in Washington -- was a bustling commercial operation employing a relatively large staff. He was like  modern film director, producer and studio head rolled up into one -- like, say, Steven Spielberg.

Brady of course is best known for his role in documenting the American Civil War. Again, however, he was rarely in the middle of the action; as Wilson notes, Brady's presence at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 was apparently a sufficiently harrowing experience that he worked hard to avoid repeating, even if he did return to the front in subsequent years, notably to Gettysburg in the aftermath of that battle. Wilson notes that even stipulating the obvious technical and logistical obstacles facing Civil War photographers, there are surprisingly few images of actual warfare. Photographers like Gardner, who actually worked for the U.S. government (doing things like copying maps) even while he worked for Brady, preferred to focus on more static subjects like the dead, and even here there appears to have been a more limited appetite for such images by the public than is commonly acknowledged. Wilson makes a compelling case for the quality of Brady's own photography, notably in his exceptional portrait of Robert E. Lee, taken days after he surrendered at Appomattox, a professional coup rooted in connections he had forged decades before.

Brady's postwar life is marked by ebbing prominence and mounting financial difficulties. He continued to enjoy the esteem of figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, even as he found himself in increasingly narrow personal straits. With great difficulty, he convinced the U.S. government to buy his work, but mismanagement and possible graft undermined the value of the sale, both in terms of the compensation Brady reaped and the way his work was handled. Wilson has slightly more of a documentary record to work with in this phase of Brady's life. The story he tells is a melancholy one.

But it is nevertheless a valuable one. Amid a Civil War centennial and a prominent exhibition of Civil War photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring and summer, Wilson's book is a welcome and overdue tribute to a man whose achievements are often noted but rarely plumbed. It's one that's likely to last.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Uneasy Riders

In Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, journalist Brett Martin captures a moment that (for now) is still unfolding

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Historians of popular culture know the pattern: every so often a confluence of developments -- technological change, new revenue sources, emerging audiences, and last (and, mythology notwithstanding, very possibly least), artistic innovation -- converge to create an unexpected cultural flowering in an established medium. It happened in the publishing industry circa 1850, radio circa 1930, the record business in the 1950s, and in Hollywood in the 1970s. As we're all aware, we seem to be living through such a moment now with cable television, reflected in the excitement of dramas like The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Mad Men (2007-), and Breaking Bad (2008-). One difference that may distinguish this particular efflorescence from previous ones is the degree of self-consciousness in the breadth and depth of the cultural commentary. It usually took a while, for instance, for good books to show up on even as recent a phenomenon as the rise of independent cinema. But in the case of cable, we have Alan Sepinwall's highly regarded The Revolution Was Televised, which came out last year. And we now have Brett Martin's newly published Difficult Men as well.

The most obvious model for Difficult Men is Peter Biskind's now-classic 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock & Roll Generation saved Hollywood. As befitting the different cultural moments, Martin's subjects -- notably Sopranos creator David Chase, The Wire's David Simon, and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner -- are a notably more dour, business-savvy crowd than the manic Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese. But they're comparably driven personalities able to take advantage of a relative vacuum in a medium and realize passionate artistic visions. In the case of Hollywood in the seventies, this was a matter of an industry that had lost its way commercially. In the case of a network like HBO, it was a matter of very low, if not confused, expectations about how to proceed. In both cases, early success pushed open a door for others to follow -- in movies, it was a figure like Steven Spielberg; in the case of cable, Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame). Both were more mild personalities who seem to be able to work within the system (in Gilligan's case, the once-benighted world of basic cable like AMC, which acquired Mad Men as well as his show).

Unlike The Revolution Will Be Televised, which is organized around particular shows, Difficult Men is constructed in a more complex, woven structure driven by personalities. Though it occasionally makes forays into usually very good textual reading of individual episodes, notably the "College" episode from the first decade of The Sopranos, its core is interviews with the showrunners of these programs. Here Martin's strength as a reporter -- he writes for GQ, among other magazines -- shines through. One nevertheless wishes the documentation had been a little more careful, at least in terms of secondary sources. Still, the sense of craft here is impressive; Martin may owe a debt here to master editor Colin Dickerman at Penguin. He avoids the sense of irritating idiosyncrasy that sometimes attends such books (why so much Sopranos and so little Big Love?) by making a reasonably good case for the distinctive significance of the shows he focuses on in terms of their impact on the television industry.

The most striking strength of this book, though, is the overarching argument that animates Martin's narrative. He makes a compelling case that this television renaissance -- he calls it the "Third Golden Age" after those of the early years of TV and the Hill Street Blues era of the eighties -- was driven by a notably gendered male angst rooted in a post-feminist zeitgeist, both in terms of the way these shows were made and in what they depicted. As with the breakdown of network dominance of the television industry in the 1990s, the more diversity-minded milieu of the 21st century paradoxically legitimated the art of of mostly white men -- though Martin makes a good case that HBO became an unexpected venue for African American culture -- because it could be seen as simply one subculture among many in a broadcast world where cable audiences for even the most successful shows were a fraction of those of the network era. Notwithstanding the rise of recent female-centered dramas like Homeland and The Americans, I suspect this moment may be viewed with more distaste in the coming years as cultural undercurrents shift, and the auteurist-minded sensibility of autocratic figures like Chase and Weiner, who pride themselves on the degree to which the exercise control over their creations, are subjected to ongoing critical scrutiny. But the place of their shows will be secure as historical phenomena, if not necessarily in terms of their artistry.

One also suspects -- as one suspects Martin suspects -- that this particular flowering may be close to running its course. As a younger generation with far less willingness to pay inflated (and, ironically, socialistic) bundled fees for multiple networks refuses to pay for cable television at all, much less a package of channels subscribers don't necessarily want, the financial model that sustains these uniformly expensive enterprises may disappear. Quality television -- no, make that quality shows, which may or may not show up on television -- will not disappear. But they're likely to be fewer and farther between, and show up in different venues. Someday someone will long to be David Chase, just as Chase longed to be Martin Scorsese. The intensity of that desire will a precondition for success. The rest of it will involve recognizing the emergence of new worlds and figuring out ways to capitalize on them. Such is the stuff our moneyed (and recyclable) dreams are made of.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jim is vacationing, as he has for a number of years now, in northern Vermont with his family. The agenda includes swimming, hiking, shopping, and improving his napping skills. Vacation reading includes the latest Archer Mayor novel, Paradise City. This installment finds salt-of-the-earth-cop-extraordinaire Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation chasing down the source of a complicated string of crimes that stretch from Boston to Burlington, centered on the the fashionable art scene of Northampton, Massachusetts, the so-called Paradise City of the title. Reading Mayor's novels this time of year is as comfortable as slipping into an old shoe.

Also on the docket is Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Being deprived of the most recent episode of the latter makes the book a source of comfort amid some decidedly relative deprivation. (Tracking down the latest misadventures of Walter White will be at the top of the docket upon returning to home.) A full review of the book of the Martin book is likely to be up by early next week.

Best all as we head into the home stretch of summer.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Framing the collapse

In The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, Scottish intellectual extraordinaire Niall Ferguson offers a provocative, if flawed, overview as to why the Western world is fading

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.  

I'm a sucker for lecture series books. For many years, Harvard University Press has published the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, which have included wonderful titles like Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988), Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country (1998), and Andrew Delbanco's The Real American Dream (1999). Louisiana State University Press's Walter Lynwood Fleming Lecture series is also very good, notable for Drew Gilpin Faust's The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1989), among other titles. What's nice about these books is that they often distill a cast of mind into highly readable, short volumes that can be digested in chunks. They're typically small in terms of trim size and their number of pages.

What's not typical is for a major commercial press like Penguin to publish a series of lectures. But then Niall Ferguson is not exactly a typical author -- he's an academic superstar with appointments Harvard, Oxford and Stanford and a veritable journalism and television brand. In The Great Degeneration, he offers a précis of his libertarian brand of thinking with an expansive view of Anglo-American society -- and why it's falling apart. It rests on a key insight, and a questionable prescription.

The insight -- a usefully provocative one -- is to view the United States and Britain (with occasional references to the rest of the West) through the lens of institutions. Actually, it's a little surprising this isn't done more often. In recent years we've tended to focus on things like climate/geography, brilliantly argued in works like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) or culture (the orientation of neoconservative intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell). Ferguson instead focuses his four chapters, bounded by an introduction and conclusion, by four institutional forces in everyday life: government, the marketplace, the legal system, and civil society (he's a big Tocqueville fan). In each case, he locates the triumph of Anglo-American life in the last three centuries to the way England and the United States have organized these institutions relative to their rivals. And in each case, he also cites the degeneration of the title, which he captures with brief, vivid strokes (and a few graphs). In diagnosing a problem, he's fairly persuasive.

It's when he starts prescribing a solution that Ferguson runs into trouble. The underlying cause of these maladies, as he sees it, is excessive regulation. It leads to government tyranny, market decay, legal shenanigans (he describes the replacement of the rule of law with "the rule of lawyers"), and the evisceration of the voluntarism that provided the sinews of greatness. The problem is not exactly that he's wrong -- though he certainly has his critics -- so much is that he can't resist potshots that undercut his credibility. So, for example, he complains that the creeping socialistic mentality in the West has led to demands for rights to things like education and healthcare, which he regards as unsustainable. But when he asks as an aside, "Why not a right to a drinkable wine, too?" he trivializes understandable longings with a bon mot that suggests glibness, if not heartlessness.

Other times Ferguson is simply too selective to be taken seriously. When describing his legitimate concern about cost of entitlements for future generations, Ferguson asserts that "if young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be fans of Paul Ryan." Ryan does indeed want to cut social programs. But since his ardor for cutting taxes and offering benefits to large corporations ultimately outstrips his desire to balance the U.S. budget, it's hard to accept that he's thinking in the long-term way Ferguson advocates. Ferguson fairly notes that deregulation of financial markets has led to substantial growth relative to countries -- notably Canada -- that have been less aggressive in this regard. But he fails to mention that whatever its defects, Canada has not suffered the spectacular failures seen by U.S. and British financial institutions in the last decade. He has some legitimate, even amusing, anecdotes to offer about silly attempts by the government to micromanage the economy. But he never acknowledges that such efforts, however misguided, do not emerge in a vacuum -- they're often a response to the often unrelenting efforts of large corporations to accept any form of accountability, especially in the realm of paying taxes.

 Still, Ferguson can't be dismissed out of hand. The vigor and economy of his prose has always been a strength, and they're in sharp focus in a book that began its life as part of a radio series for the British Broadcasting Company in 2012. Ferguson notes in his acknowledgments that he produced the book in the seven months after a newborn son (one wonders how much a distraction the child proved to be). A reference to President Obama's notorious "you didn't build that" speech of last summer suggests the book's perishability. Still, as an introduction to Ferguson's work and a lively, if boilerplate, presentation of libertarian ideology, The Great Degeneration is not a bad place to start. If nothing else, Ferguson frames the problems of our time with the simplicity that is the hallmark of a powerful mind that even his complacency can't completely undercut.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

An eerily modern old-fashioned war

In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark refashions an old story and makes is startlingly new

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.  

At one point early on in The Sleepwalkers, University of Cambridge Professor Christopher Clark cites a perception -- certainly one I had growing up -- of the First World War taking place on the far side of a historical divide. "It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe's 'last summer' as an Edwardian costume drama," he writes, attributing this view to Barbara Tuchman books. "The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the 'ornamentalism' of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world."

The Sleepwalkers -- particularly the first of the book's three parts -- bracingly, even joltingly, revises this view. We are introduced to a shadowy world of fanatical terrorist cells engaged in plots that range across state borders, funded and armed by secret organizations that are connected, with carefully constructed plausible deniability, to official government ministries. The fanatics in this case are Serbian nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists (though it should be said that Serbian nationalism has long had strong religious overtones), but their outlook and methodology seem startlingly modern. So too are the polarizing pressures and media attention their activities generate, especially in terms of a positive feedback loop in which even presumably moderate figures feel compelled to emphasize their militancy for fear of appearing weak. When, after a series of botched attempts, one youthful member of an organization known as the Black Hand finally succeeds in murdering the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it triggers a war in which many of the participants have only a peripheral relationship to its proximate cause. Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly don't seem so far away from the Balkans.

The second part of The Sleepwalkers is a traditional diplomatic history reminiscent of A.J.P. Taylor's classic 1954 study The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914. Clark reconstructs the realignment of European great-power politics in the four decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The hallmark of his approach is pluralism: he demonstrates that for every national player in this drama, decision-making power was decentralized. In parliamentary societies, there were considerations of party politics, as well as the relationships between the military, the diplomatic corps, and a nation's political leadership. But even in presumably autocratic societies like Russia, policymaking was hardly straightforward; figures like Tsar Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm were often managed by their ministers rather than leading their countries, and public opinion could influence strategic considerations no less than it did in France or England.

The final segment of The Sleepwalkers returns to Sarajevo in 1914, opening with a depiction of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that spools with cinematic clarity. Clark then proceeds to chart the sequence of decisions -- more like miscalculations -- that culminated in catastrophe. In light of his preceding analysis, it's clear that he rejects the notion of an overriding cause or a principal villain. As he explains in his conclusion, "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over the corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol."

And yet the weight of his own analysis makes clear that Clark blames some figures more than others. Serbian nationalists were not only irresponsible in the intensity of their fervor, but in their insistence on the legitimacy of territorial claims flatly denied the realities of history and the presence of non-Serbs in places like Albania and Bosnia. (Serbian conquests in the Balkans in 1912-13 were followed by atrocities strongly reminiscent of ethnic cleansing.)  Russia's support of the Serbs was part of a larger pan-Slavic strategy that had less to do with mystic chords of memory than trying to realize a long-term goal of succeeding Ottoman Turkey as the master of the Straits of Bosphorus, one that led the Russians to take dangerous risks. And French desperation for a strong partner to counter Germany virtually goaded the Russians to take those risks.

Conversely, Clark rejects the view that Austria-Hungary was an empty husk of an empire lurching toward collapse -- indeed, Franz Ferdinand had a plausible scenario for a reformed and federalized polity that reduced the disproportionate influence of of Hungary and gave more representation for Slavs, including Serbians (one reason why radicals wishing to see the empire break up were so intent on killing him). Vienna's demands in the aftermath of the assassination were not unrealistic, though its delay in issuing them -- here again the baleful influence of internal divisions, one of which were foot-dragging Hungarians -- led rivals to mobilize their opposition. Germany is often portrayed as ratcheting up the pressure by giving the Austrians the notorious "blank check," but Clark depicts Berlin as believing the crisis could be resolved locally long after everyone else had concluded otherwise. British Conservatives welcomed war as a means of preventing Irish Home Rule, since fighting Germany would deprive Liberals of the military tools to implement a policy that had vocal, and possibly violent, opponents. More generally, there's a motif about anxieties surrounding masculinity being a factor for some of the characters he portrays, a nod toward cultural history that isn't really developed.

None of which is to say that The Sleepwalkers is a polemic in the vein of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (1999), which considers Britain the culprit for the war. Clark's mode is tragic; his title refers to politicians who, "watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams," blindly led their peoples toward an outcome that no one wanted. Which makes for one more piece of revisionism worth noting here: Clark rejects the idea that jingoistic Europeans blithely leapt into the void in 1914. Instead he offers evidence that a great many people, both inside and outside government, were deeply worried about what was to come (he also gives us examples of diplomats who were literally sickened by the prospect). This may well be the most troubling aspect of this riveting, sobering book: in the end, good will and intelligence may simply not be enough to prevent disasters. Even those who remember the past may be condemned to repeat it.