Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lears on TR, Biskupic on Scalia, and more in the book reviews

"In Rebirth of a Nation, Jackson Lears treats as tragedy what Hofstadter viewed as farce," Christopher Benfey writes in a review of Lears' Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 in the January 14 New York Review of Books. Lears considers Theodore Roosevelt

a far more sinister figure than he appears in Hoftstadter's lenient and occasionally affectionate assessment. Lears explicitly attacks Hofstadter, among the most influential American interpreters of the post–Civil War decades, for "writing the history of winners." Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers and the editor of the journal Raritan, has written incisively about the period before. In his landmark study No Place of Grace (1981), he examined what he called "antimodern" traits during the Gilded Age: the tendency in such developments as the Arts and Crafts movement and Henry Adams's embrace of medieval France to adopt cultural values from an earlier and seemingly more "authentic" time and place....

His new book draws on kindred concerns, with a more indignant edge regarding the sufferings of ordinary people. In his view, what he calls the "Age of Roosevelt," with all its collective fantasies of regeneration and national greatness, was conspicuous for its losers: blacks, Indians, immigrants, workers, and victims of American military adventures abroad. If Hofstadter contrasted Roosevelt with Hitler and Mussolini, with some confidence that "it can't happen here," Lears has in mind a more immediate comparison with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and the ways in which the "war on terrorism" has "revived all the old, destructive fantasies—the belief in America's capacity to save the world; the faith in the revitalizing powers of combat; the cult of manly toughness in foreign policy."
Continue reading here (subscription required).

Jeffrey Rosen writes in the New York Times that "it’s hard to write a fair-minded biography of such a polarizing figure" as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, "but that’s what Joan Biskupic has done" with AMERICAN ORIGINAL: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

By letting Scalia describe himself in his own words, Biskupic offers a profile of a man who, at the age of 73, sometimes appears smug and self-satisfied — adjectives he has used to describe critics of using torture in the war on terror — but not especially self-aware. Scalia thinks of himself as a pleasant fellow, and Biskupic reports that he was dumbfounded when Jon Stewart, in response to a Daily Show guest who suggested that John Roberts was nicer than Scalia, replied, “Aren’t we all nicer than Scalia?”
Read the rest here.

Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew is "as complete and thorough as such a history may be and as engrossing as any spy novel," writes Tim Rutten in this week's Los Angeles Times.

CHURCHILL by Paul Johnson is "a slim but worshipful new biography," writes James Mann in the Washington Post. Also in the Post, Susie Linfield offers critical reviews of WORSE THAN WAR: Genocide, Eliminationism, And the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and STRIPPING BARE THE BODY: Politics Violence War by Mark Danner.

Finally, BEYOND VIETNAM The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990 By Robert Surbrug Jr. is reviewed in the Boston Globe.

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