Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

The fanatical John Brown was a complex mixture, and Horwitz creates a nuanced portrait of a driven man who failed at everything except martyrdom. While waiting a month to be executed, he seemed finally content, the path of righteousness clear before him, and his message finally being heard and disseminated. Horwitz contends, and it seems to be true, that Brown’s failed raid was the flint that sparked the Civil War 18 months later. Horwitz describes a belated but powerful groundswell of support for Brown across the North which hardened the South’s sense of injustice and brought the idea of secession from the fringes to the mainstream. I have to say that Brown’s sacrifice of himself, most of his sons and followers, and his cold-blooded execution of farmers in Kansas was shocking, but not more shocking than the atrocities of slavery. It does make you think about terrorism in a slightly different way, and his willingness to die for the cause brought even theoretical and passivist Northern abolitionists out of the closet, so to speak.

Brown said himself that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and it is hard to see how slavery would have ended without the dreadful conflagration of the Civil War, which his actions may have hastened. This book was not as entertaining as “Confederates in the Attic,” but it added to my knowledge of the intellectual climate and political power-structure in the country before the Civil War. In fact, I think I might have liked it better if it was about all of the pre Civil War factors leading up to the shots fired at Fort Sumter, a kind of “Proud Tower,” for that event. Horwitz added a fascinating literary footnote: Lewis Leary, one of Brown’s doomed followers, left behind a wife, Mary, who remarried and became Mary Langston. She raised her grandson, Langston Hughes, on stories of the raid. His poem, “October 16, 1859” begins: “Perhaps you will remember John Brown…”


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I recently finished “Champlain’s Dream” by David Hackett Fischer. I don’t generally read biographies; (1) because they are too big of a time  commitment, and (2) because they can be a bit tiresome. I don’t really want to know EVERYTHING about a person. Of course, I recently read Elizabeth Hardwick’s biography of Melville, but that was very short and rather quirky.  Another exception that stands out for me is Richardson’s “Emerson: The Mind on Fire” which was more of an intellectual biography, that is, it was largely about what Emerson read and how it influenced him.

In any case, I mostly loved this story of Samuel Champlain and his quest to create a new type of society in what he called “New France”, now Canada.  His humanist vision, especially as compared to the attitudes of other colonizers in the new world, was very appealling to me, and in all things, he seemed to be a man that one might call “big-hearted” in his generosity, tolerance and humility.  I also liked the snippets of French history, about which I know much less than I should as a self-proclaimed francophile, and the description of Henri IV, le vert galant, whose statue is on the island by the pont neuf in Paris, was also very well-done.  The geography of southwestern France on the Bay of Biscay where Champlain was born and grew up is described in a way that reinforces my wish to visit that region.  I also liked the descriptions of the coast of Maine, including Bar Harbor, and Nova Scotia.  My only problem with the book was that it seemed to lose its momentum in the last third or quarter so that the many voyages that Champlain took across the Atlantic, something like 27 in all, as well as the political maneuverings back in France, all started to blur together, and even the infectious enthusiasm of Fischer, who really is an engaging writer, seemed to dim a bit. However, I was invested enough in the topic to forge on and was glad I did as the ending is a nice summing up of Champlain’s life and work.  The cover, which is Vermeer’s “The Geographer”, is an apt choice as Champlain was an inveterate illustrator and mapmaker and many reproductions of his meticulous maps are included in the book.

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