“So different and so alike” is what comes to mind in listening to John Farrell’s biography of Richard Nixon.
President Nixon is characterized as thin skinned, vindictive, and dissembling; a description echoed by today’s President.
Nixon and Trump appear both misogynistic, and anti-intellectual. Both viscerally react to perceived slights. Both have morally corrupt views of society. Both make comments reflecting ethnic racism with reprehensible private comments. Both attack news publishers; particularly the Washington Post and New York Times.
However, Farrell shows Nixon to be clearly unlike Trump. Nixon understands political and public reality while Trump clings to a skewed business and personal reality.
Nixon avoids unfavorable publicity while Trump manufactures it. Nixon exemplifies international, geo-political, and professional foreign policy while Trump follows an amateurish parochial isolationist foreign policy. Nixon is surreptitiously thuggish, while Trump is outwardly thuggish. Nixon operates from a perspective of power-hungry self-interest, while Trump operates from “monied” self-interest.
Farrell recounts Nixon’s early years of overt and benign support of McCarthyism. Nixon justifies his penchant for exposing communist sympathizers with his successful prosecution of Alger Hiss. (Ironically, Hiss is convicted for a cover-up rather than espionage; just as Nixon is impeached for a cover-up rather than a burglary.) It remains to be seen but, like Nixon, Trump may be impeached for a cover-up of Russian interference in the American electoral process.
Nixon’s campaign for President is grounded on an anti-communist platform while pursuing positive relations with the most populated communist country in the world, China. Trump’s campaign for President is based on the big lie; i.e., the overt support of the poor and middle class while acting to promote the wealthy.
Nixon and Trump have little respect for experts. Nixon demeans Henry Kissinger, a Harvard educated intellectual, who became Nixon’s Secretary of State and a principal in the negotiation for the first SALT agreement with Russia and the opening of Communist China. Trump demeans the scientific community by denying global warming and removing America from the Paris Climate Accord. Trump bullys the President of Montenegro who, despite Russian objection, becomes a part of the NATO alliance. Nixon fires a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate burglary while Trump allegedly contemplates the same action regarding Robert Mueller, the special investigator hired to explore Russian influence in American elections.
On balance, Nixon is shown by Farrell to be much more presidential than Trump but the perspective of history weighs heavily on that assessment. Nixon, like all human beings, is flawed. He is not the first President to lie. He is not the first President to kill innocents.
Ending Vietnam at the expense of South Vietnamese is a mixed blessing but Nixon stopped the carnage. Opening China to the world is a great American accomplishment which history fairly attributes to Nixon and Kissinger. Only time will tell if Trump is more than what he seems.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Written by: Ashlee Vance
Narrated by: Fred Sanders
Ashlee Vance writes about launching dragons in a biography of Elon Musk. Like the mythical fire breathing beast that destroys civilizations, Musk’s fire-breathing ambition levels two of the most powerful organizations in the world; e.g. the auto industry and government bureaucracy.
Tesla Motors is the first automobile manufacturer to receive a unanimous vote as the best car of the year. SpaceX is the first private rocket manufacturer to successfully transport satellites and cargo into space. The principal behind these extraordinary feats is Elon Musk, a combination of the fictional Tony Stark and the real Thomas Edison. Not since the 1920s has anyone successfully launched a new automobile manufacturer. Never in history has a private company launched rockets into space to service the international space station.
Vance shows that Musk has an optimistic vision of the future of America and the world. His willingness to risk everything for alternative energy sources, and reduction of carbon-based energy consumption are astounding in this recurrent era of capitalist greed. Musk’s focus is on transition from traditional industrial methods of production to technological innovation. His methodology is a combination of traditional cost-based negotiation, vertical business integration, and hard work. The methods are not new but Musk’s extraordinary intelligence and personal commitment are reminiscent of great inventor/innovators in history.
Vance clearly illustrates that Musk is not perfect but his story will eventually, if not now, be recorded as historically important.
For one thing, Musk exposes the lie of Trump’s vilification of immigrants. Musk is born as a South African who comes to America through Canada. He becomes an American job producer and manufacturer when both are sorely needed to revivify the, largely mythical, American dream. Musk gives America hope.
Musk faces many obstacles in his life; just as all humans do. One advantage for Musk is in being white; oh, and being blessed with a prodigious memory, extraordinary cognitive ability, and an immense drive to succeed. Musk relentlessly pursues what he believes in. Fortunately, Musk’s natural advantages work toward the best interests of humanity; e.g. a cleaner environment, exploration and/or colonization of other worlds.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords is reminiscent of ignorant industrial Luddites. Innovators like Musk pursue an opportune future while Trump and others pursue the mythology of the past.
Both Musk’s and Trump’s errors are human, but their consequences are hugely different. Vance’s biography of Musk shows releasing dragons can benefit society. In contrast, Trump’s dragons only harm society. In history, Musk will be remembered fondly; Trump will be recalled sadly.
Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant
Written by: Tracy Borman
Narrated by: Julian Elfer
While Hilary Mantel wets American appetites for Thomas Cromwell with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, Tracy Borman offers a British perspective.
“Thomas Cromwell” is shown by Mantel and Borman to be a commoner with uncommon intelligence. He rises from a blacksmith’s son to become among the most powerful government administrators of the 16th century. Cromwell is the consummate power behind the throne of King Henry VIII. He manages to reform the Roman Catholic church in England, the power of aristocratic government, and the wealth of the British throne; all the while placating a volatile and often shallow King.
In the 21st century, one wonders if there is an American equivalent to Thomas Cromwell in President Trump’s administration. If there is, he/she is undiscovered. Whether there is a person behind Trump’s erratic pronouncements, Borman shows existence of a modern American Cromwell is a mixed blessing.
Borman characterizes King Henry as one who seeks wealth, power, and prestige in every government policy and action. Wealth is drawn from confiscation of Roman Catholic Church’ s land and wealth. Power is taken with the King’s appointment as head of a newly formed Church of England. Prestige is pursued with King Henry’s six marriages–meant to preserve his royal lineage. It is Borman’s contention that each of these pursuits are largely accomplished through the machination and administration of Thomas Cromwell.
As a commoner, Cromwell is a consummate go-between. With Cromwell’s personal experience and innate intelligence, he caters to aristocracy while placating, and sometimes aiding English commoners. Cromwell is tutored by Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry’s former administrator who is also a commoner. Wolsey is a trusted aide and a Roman Catholic Church Cardinal who acts as a go-between for the Church and the King. Wolsey sets the table for Cromwell’s rise to power.
King Henry becomes disenchanted with Wolsey’s failure to convince the Pope to annul Henry’s first marriage. Though Cromwell does his best to protect Wolsey from the King, Wolsey loses his position, and dies on his way to the Tower of London.
Cromwell cleverly maneuvers his way into the King’s grace by creating a legal justification for the creation of the Church of England.
The King becomes the Catholic Church’s sole leader in England. With that religious schism, the reformation of Catholicism begins. On the one hand, Cromwell exhibits the quality of a true believer in denying the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church; on the other, he hugely increases the wealth and power of King Henry. Henry legally annuls his first marriage. He marries Anne Boleyn. As reward, Cromwell becomes the favorite of the King. Cromwell is given license to reform English Catholicism. In that reform there is a confiscatory process that makes King Henry one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world.
Cromwell is shown to be enlightened and parochially narrow-minded at the same time. Cromwell believes the bible should be available to all. He endorses Tyndales’s New Testament as the first printed edition of the scripture in the English language. Cromwell disavows Roman Catholic Church indulgences that imply followers can buy their way into heaven.
At the same time, Cromwell believes torture reveals the truth and uses it to convict innocent citizens that justifies government policies desired by King Henry.
Through Cromwell’s catalog of lies, King Henry is able to divorce Boleyn and marry for a third time.
Anne Boleyn is beheaded based on torture induced confessions and false testimony of alleged lovers interrogated by Cromwell.
However, Borman notes that Cromwell is a protector of women; even though he is the perpetrator of injustice toward Boleyn. Borman recounts letters of appeal from several women that acknowledge help given by Cromwell. They are letters about abuse by men, or from wives left poor by death or divorce of their husbands.
With the death of Henry’s third wife, Cromwell arranges a marriage for the King to a German Princess, Anne of Cleaves. This becomes, in Borman’s history, the beginning of the end for Cromwell’s tenure as the force behind the throne.
King Henry is no longer young, and his physical being has diminished by less exercise and greater weight. His new queen is not to his liking. Though there may have been some political value to the marriage, there is no physical attraction. These negatives are compounded by evidence that Queen Anne had been married before and her former husband is killed to facilitate her marriage to Henry. Cromwell is alleged to have knowledge of the previous betrothal before Anne’s marriage to Henry.
King Henry becomes enamored with a potential fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who is the niece of the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is a bitter enemy of Cromwell. Though King Henry soon divorces Catherine Howard (she is beheaded for adultery), the Duke of Norfolk begins a campaign to unseat Cromwell from his favored position with the King. Though not mentioned by Borman, Henry marries for a sixth time but the King dies before finding cause for pursuit of a seventh wife.
In Borman’s final assessment, Cromwell is convicted of treason for failing to protect the King from his marriage to Anne of Cleaves. However, Borman suggests the underlying cause for Cromwell’s demise is that he was a commoner among aristocrats who resented his power. In an epilogue Borman notes that authors picture Thomas Cromwell as villain and savior in different revisionist eras. He is a villain for destroying the power of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a savior for reforming the transgressions of the church. He is a Machiavellian terror in some histories; he is a clever lawyer and statesman in others.
Borman’s history of Cromwell resonates to some because it reminds one of Trump’s ascension to the American presidency. Though Trump is no King, he is an aristocrat of wealth surrounded by members of the same aristocracy.
Trump seems to have some of the same shallow characteristics of King Henry. If there is a “Cromwell” in Trump’s administration, he/she should appraise his leadership in the context of loyalty to class. Trump, like King Henry, cares little about commoners; except as they benefit his wealth, power, and prestige.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich
Written by: Eric Metaxas
Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner
Religious rationalism seems an oxymoron but Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story implies otherwise. In Eric Metaxas’ detailed history of Bonhoeffer’s adult life, one becomes acquainted with a pastor who abjures organized religions that choose self-preservation over biblical commandments. The complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in fascism and Nazism in WWII is well documented in Gerald Posner’s “God’s Bankers”.
Bonhoeffer (who is raised as a Christian) covertly and overtly protests Jewish discrimination by the German Nazis while living in Berlin in the late 1920s, early 1930s; until his death in 1945. In contrast to many Christians’ support of Hitler’s genocidal Jewish plans, Bonhoeffer openly challenges Nazi German policy.
Bonhoeffer is born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Breslau. He is the son of a successful neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer. His mother is a teacher and granddaughter of a Protestant theologian. In contrast to his father’s science background, Dietrich is drawn to the church. Though religion is Dietrich’s calling, he never abandons belief in the value and importance of rational thought.
Because of Bonhoeffer’ wealth and aristocratic position, Dietrich acquires an advanced German education and travels the world. He earns the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and goes on to receive a Doctor of Theology from Berlin University in 1927. In concert with family wealth and pursuit of education, Bonhoeffer travels to Italy, England, and America. On many occasions, Dietrich could have abandoned Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, but he chooses to return again and again to the heart of Nazism’s ascension.
In returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer becomes a spokesman for religious leaders who reject Hitler’s antisemitism and discrimination. Just before Hitler becomes Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer gives a radio speech attacking Hitler by warning the public not to be seduced by a leadership cult. Metaxas notes Bonhoeffer calls Hitler a mis-leader, a seducer. Bonhoeffer publicly rejects Jewish persecution, while Hitler moves to co-opt Catholic and Christian Churches by appointing pro-Nazi leaders to their synods. A schism develops in the German religious community with Bonhoeffer on one side and the Nazis on the other. Effectively, the Nazis become the dominant religious force in Germany; i.e. Christianity is co opted during Hitler’s reign.
As Bonhoeffer’s religious beliefs grow, his rationalist view of life demands action based on his interpretation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer recognizes Jesus Christ is a Jew and that intolerance of fellow human beings is a mortal sin. The author suggests Bonhoeffer becomes a spy for Hitler’s opposition and a covert participant in an assassination plot against the Fuhrer. Participation in an assassination plot makes one question Bonhoeffer’s faith.
Metaxas implies Bonhoeffer’s faith is consistent with biblical teaching. Unquestionably, Bonhoeffer’s history is one of self-sacrifice but overt conspiracy to murder seems beyond Bible-based instruction. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Bonhoeffer and many other real and alleged German conspirators are arrested, tortured, and murdered. Bonhoeffer is tried and sentenced to death. He is sent to a concentration camp, moved several times, mis-identified once, and finally murdered on April 8, 1945.
What makes this history interesting is the consequence to one’s life when he/she has great faith in the Bible. On the one hand, Biblical interpretation gives one strength to endure the worst that can happen in life; on the other, Bible interpretation allows one to rationalize murder of another human being. Bonhoeffer is shown to be a pastor of faith, a martyr to a cause, a prophet of a future, and a spy willing to participate in a murder.
A cynic might suggest that Hitler’s assassination plot is vindicated by history as much as by religious faith. Without question, Bonhoeffer is on the right side of history but reason based on Bible interpretation also leads, and has led many Christians astray.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
Written by: Andrea Wulf
Narration by: David Drummond
Humboldt is a widely recognized name in the 21st century. However, knowledge of who carries the name is not well-remembered. Andrea Wulf’s book title, “The Invention of Nature”, gives an inkling of Alexander von Humboldt’s stature as a renowned explorer who recognizes the interconnection of the world in which we live. Humboldt lived among 18th and 19th century conquerors, philosophers, artists, and political leaders. From personal relationships with Goethe, Schiller, the royals of Prussia, the king of Spain, and leaders in Russia and Bolivia, Humboldt observed and categorized nature in its glory and frailty.
Humboldt is born to wealth but eschews its potential for power and prestige to become a mining engineer. As a mining engineer, he falls in love with travel, observation of nature, the adventures of climbing mountains, and inspecting volcanoes. In his travels, he records demographic information; takes area temperatures, altitude measurements, and samples of flora and fauna throughout the world. His early expeditions and detailed records reinforce conclusions of Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle years before Darwin’s seminal work on “The Origin of Species”. After deaths of his mother and father, Humboldt’s entire inheritance is used to finance his consuming interest in the history of the cosmos. Though Humboldt dies penniless, more rivers, mountains, and national landmarks are named after him than any other explorer in history.
Humboldt’s most extensive exploration begins in Latin America in 1799. With authorization from the Spanish royal court, he explores and reports findings on lands owned by Spain. Without financial assistance, Humboldt organizes his greatest expedition. No other foreigner had been given such access to Spain’s land holdings in Latin America. This initial Spanish invitation leads to later expeditions that are financially supported by Charles IV of Spain but the first expedition is at Humboldt’s expense. That exploration, and later expeditions to Russia led Humboldt to his most enduring revelation.
With Russia’s 1829 invitation, Humboldt explores the Eastern frontier. With that expedition, and his many years in Latin America, Humboldt is prepared to draw a (then) startling conclusion. He publishes the first two volumes of “Kosmos” in 1845 and 1847. Humboldt concludes human beings live on a planet that is a part of a greater natural environment; i.e. an environment in which human existence and actions change the world’s eco-system. When forests are cut, when rivers are diverted, when dams are built, there is a cascading number of changes that occur in the world’s eco-system. Until Humboldt’s “Kosmos”, there is little to no understanding of the importance of man’s actions on the world’s eco-system.
Humboldt’s expeditions; his recorded demographic information, and eco-system insights make him famous. His detailed history of Spain’s holdings in the future lands of Texas provide vital demographic information to Thomas Jefferson on the Rio Grande frontier. Humboldt meets with Jefferson at the White House. Humboldt professes to like Jefferson and the history of Jefferson’s role in writing the Declaration of Independence, but he decries the concept of slavery in the United States. Humboldt’s opinions are based on his early observations of slavery in Latin America.
Initially, Humboldt endorses Napoleonic reform in France and the emergence of rule of law that protects the poor as well as the rich. However, Humboldt is not liked by Napoleon, according to Wulf, because Humboldt begins to criticize Napoleon’s increasing dictatorial powers. Humboldt is close friends with Schiller and Goethe, two scions of the age. Bolivar is a young friend of Humboldt before his rise to power in Bolivia and Latin America. Wulf recounts their early relationship and Humboldt’s surprise at Bolivar’s political emergence as a Latin American leader. Though the people of Latin America begin to criticize Bolivar, Humboldt continues to praise his reign.
Darwin meets with Humboldt as Humboldt is nearing the end of his life. Darwin’s written recollection is of adoration for Humboldt’s research and writing in the “Kosmos”. At the same time, Darwin notes that Humboldt is quite forceful in his conversations and of a man who speaks more than listens when discussing a chosen subject. Though Humboldt mesmerizes many, he brooks no interruption on his peregrinations.
Wulf notes that though Humboldt is considered handsome by women, he never marries. Most of his close friends are men. Wulf notes that many of his expeditions were with men of his own age or younger. Humboldt writes of a deep and personal love for many of his male friends. The inference is that Humboldt may be gay but, like Da Vinci, Wulf suggests Humboldt is consumed by a restless imagination that discounts sexuality and directs his energy and attention toward exploration and invention.
Many maps are based on Humboldt’s expeditions. His many travels offer detailed information about mountain ranges, rivers, and underwater sea currents. Humboldt’s last employer is Frederick William IV of Prussia who supports him with a pension. Humboldt remained at Frederick William’s beck and call until the king’s death. Humboldt dies of old age with a history that offers immortality through the naming of national monuments throughout the world.
“The Hemingses of Monticello” is a disappointment because it mixes facts with opinion when corroborating evidence is unavailable. It appears biased by a laudable but misguided agenda.
Though one easily agrees that slavery demeans humanity and distorts the truth of human equality, the Jefferson/Hemings social and emotional relationship is marred by the author’s psychological explanation of Sally Hemings’ thoughts and feelings. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed, is an educated historian, not a trained psychiatrist or psychologist. Gordon-Reed speculates when facts are not evident about Thomas Jefferson’s common-law-wife, Sally Hemings. Neither Jefferson nor Hemings left any written record of their conjugal relationship. The only facts of relationship are the genetic evidence of their progeny.
Gordon-Reed’s research reveals that Sally Hemings joins Thomas Jefferson in France when he is America’s Ambassador. Hemmings arrives in Paris with Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Polly (Mary Jefferson Eppes), two years before the French revolution. Jefferson is in Paris for five years leading up to the 1789 revolution. Hemings is only 14 when she arrives.
Jefferson is in his mid-40s. Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, died in 1782, seven years earlier. Sally leaves Paris in 1789 with Jefferson, his two daughters, and James Hemings (Sally’s older brother). Sally is pregnant with her first child.
Gordon-Reed raises several psycho/social issues about Sally Hemings’ relationship with Jefferson; some of which are corroborated. Sally is characterized in writing by the Captain of the ship that brought her to Paris as a young girl that readily attaches herself to adults. In the captain’s judgement, Sally is too immature to be a guardian for the eight year old Polly (Jefferson’s youngest daughter). Gordon-Reed writes that the nature of slavery, compounded by youth, importunes Sally’s adult attachment. One may agree with that judgment but to know how that exhibits itself in the thoughts and feelings of Hemings is speculative.
Gordon-Reed raises the specter of rape because of Hemings’ youth. The author is not suggesting overt force is used by Jefferson but she develops a cogent argument that the institution of slavery and Hemings’ immaturity place her in a highly vulnerable spot. Hemings is isolated. She has no one to talk to for objective advice; i.e. no mother, and only a brother (who is also a slave). Is it rape? Gordon-Reed fairly explains that women are at the age of consent as early as 14 in the eighteenth century, but the institution of slavery makes a mockery of the word “consent”. The question of rape is left hanging in the air, but its potential as an explanation of Jefferson’s behavior, though palpable, is uncorroborated.
What is “off-putting” about Gordon-Reed’s biography of the Hemingses are speculations about thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings. Sally may have been victimized by Jefferson. Another possibility is that she used Jefferson’s weaknesses to get the best a woman slave could get out of a socio-economic system that depends on slavery. There are no historical facts to support either supposition.
Gordon-Reed cogently reveals some facts that show Jefferson is a non-confrontational person when faced with personal disagreements. Jefferson’s failure to confront the atrocity of terrorists during the French revolution; Jefferson’s clandestine attacks, through James Madison, on Hamilton over national versus states’ rights; Jefferson’s handling of personal family and slavery issues by letter rather than personal appearance and his surreptitious vilification of John Adams when running for President are factual examples of Jefferson’s non-confrontational mien. Sally may have seen that weakness and turned it into leveraged advantage by having Jefferson agree to free her and her children before his death. Gordon-Reed notes that Sally could have gained freedom from slavery earlier by insisting on being left in Paris.
Sally Hemings may have made the most intelligent decision she could make in an unfair situation. Sally may well have been as or more intelligent than Jefferson if one believes “birds of a feather flock together”; i.e. meaning Jefferson became attracted to Sally Hemmings, not only because of her beauty, but because of her intelligence.
What is commendable about Gordeon-Reed’s research is the picture of slavery and its invidious effect on black and white culture. There is no benevolent consequence from any form of slavery; i.e. well meaning slave owners are as damaging to society as virulent masters of the whip and chain.
Gordon-Reed presents facts that reveal Jefferson is racially prejudiced (and in today’s parlance a sexist) human being. In writing “all men are created equal”, Jefferson did not believe black men were the equal of white men, or that women were equal to men. Jefferson is shown to believe–when white blood is mixed with black blood, the black race is made better; i.e. the inference being that black is inherently inferior to white. To Jefferson, women are bearers of children and keepers of the hearth; never the equal of men in intellect or the workplace. To Jefferson, “all men are created equal” is a phrase that belies equal in emotional or intellectual potential unless one is proportionately white and male. To Jefferson, if you are black, you cannot become all you can be until you become whiter; and if you are a woman, you are defined by whom you marry, and how many children you have; not by what you think or do.
On the other hand, Gordon-Reed shows Jefferson to be a man of his word who believes in justice, albeit in a skewed view of equality. James Hemings becomes an accomplished chef as a result of Jefferson’s support. James is freed after he trains his replacement for Jefferson’s kitchen at Monticello. Elizabeth Hemings, the mother of James and Sally, remains with Jefferson until her death while James, a free man, passes on an opportunity to work as a chef for the 1801 President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. James commits suicide for reasons unknown but undoubtedly related to the society in which he is raised.
Gordon-Reed notes that as Jefferson ages, he no longer agrees to free his slaves or allow slaves to earn money outside of his patriarchal care and largess. Though Jefferson agrees to free Sally Hemings, their children, and Sally’s two brothers, no other manumissions are to be provided. Technically, Gordon-Reed finds that Sally is not freed after Jefferson’s death because he chooses not to address her freedom in a last will or testament. Gordon-Reed argues that if Jefferson formally authorizes Sally’s freedom it infers, if not confirms, Jefferson’s rumored conjugal relationship with a non-white person. Jefferson worries about what people will say about him after he dies.
Gordon-Reed suggests Jefferson has a need to feel he is a protector of slaves, a patriarch who believes slaves are like children; without the potential for becoming independent adults. Gordon-Reed’s argument is that this patriarchal belief compels Jefferson to deny freedom to his slaves. Additionally, the author suggests Jefferson feels abandoned by Sally Hemings’ brothers when he frees them as adults. Of course, another interpretation of Jefferson’s decision not to free more slaves is because of his profligate life. He could not afford to offer slaves their freedom. Jefferson had bills to pay, a farm to farm, and a nail factory to run.
Gordon-Reed recounts the substance of a fascinating letter received by Jefferson from William Short (a close friend and former private secretary to Jefferson) who rattles the staid demeanor of his former mentor and employer. Short writes to Jefferson to suggest that he has a solution for racial tensions created by the institution of slavery. He suggests intermarriage of blacks and whites is the answer.
Gordon-Reed believes Short is familiar with Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the origin of the Hemings’ family. Jefferson is soon to be nominated for President and chooses to ignore Short’s letter to avoid igniting the fuse of his relationship to the Hemings’ family. Gordon-Reed notes the irony of Short’s solution in view of Jefferson’s “secret” life as the husband and father of black slaves.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s history is good when it deals with corroborated facts but loses its way when suggesting thoughts and feelings of historic characters. Only when thoughts and feelings are reduced to writing by the originator and others of the time is there a chance of understanding what a person thinks and feels. Even then, it is an interpretation of words by the reader of those writers of the time. For a historian, it is doubly difficult to understand people’s thoughts and feelings in moments of history because the historian is interpreting the past based on experience of the present.
As a reviewer, one empathizes with Gordon-Reed’s biography of the Hemings because sticking to corroborated facts often defeats interest in an author’s writing. Personally, the biography of Washington by Ron Chernow, and Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, were disappointing because they fail to reveal much about the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. Chernow’s and Schiff’s difficulty is related to their desire for corroborating facts. In contrast, Gordon-Reed reads between the lines a little more than is justified by the facts.
By Chet Yarbrough (Blog:awalkingdelight) Website: chetyarbrough.com
On Elizabeth Bishop
Written by: Colm Tóibín
Narration by: John Keating
Colm Tóibín’s “On Elizabeth Bishop” is a brief outline of the life of a poet. It is a poet’s eye view of another’s life and work. For those not enamored with poetry, Colm Tóibín manages to encourage listeners to hear Bishop’s poetry.
Elizabeth Bishop begins life in hardship with the loss of her father when a baby and, as still a child, her mother to an asylum. Shunted from relative to relative with some stability from a grandmother and grandfather, Bishop completes high school and is accepted at Vassar College in 1929, just before the stock market crash. Listening to Tóibín’s analysis of Bishop’s poems, one understands why Bishop’s poetry is classified as cold, somewhat clinical, and only lightly emotional.
Tóibín’s analysis and Keating’s warm narration compel a listener who may have never heard a Bishop’ poem to hear one read. Several poems can be found on YouTube; one of which is “One Art”. Because of accompanying images in this production of the poem, the perfection, meaning, and depth of Bishop’s words are clear; even to the tone deaf.
Tóibín’s writing will encourage those who have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop to hear her poetry and learn more about her life. Though there is little one sees of the inner life of Bishop in her poetry, after listening to Tóibín’s book, the importance of the image of a farm-house in a reading of “Sestina” reminds one of a lonely young daughter being raised by grandparents in rural Massachusetts.
Bishop led an unconventional life. She traveled the world; lived in Brazil for ten years with her lover; corresponded with other poets, and learned more about poetry from a formal education, mentor-ship and collaboration with fellow poets. Though strongly influenced by others, she chooses her own path. Bishop abjures personal emotion but intellectually reveals what life means to her, and often what it means to others.
This is a brief biography of Elizabeth Bishop, but Tóibín’s analysis of her poems offers a window through which one sees the value of poetry.
“At the Fishhouses” YouTube Reading with Pictures of Elizabeth Bishop, the Poem’s Creator: