Autumn is the most ambiguous of seasons. Throughout the centuries poets have used it as a symbol for either maturity or decay, much like a good news-bad news joke. But rather than wear oneself out trying to resolve this ambiguity, it seems wiser to submit to perplexity and agree with the 11th-century Irish poet who said simply, Autumn is an excellent reason for staying at home, and just leave it at that. But not entirely. Why not add for staying at home and reading, thereby highlighting the hearth’s comforting companion?
Fortunately, this season’s crop of books offers plump pickings for the Common Reader, a tasteful variety to whet the appetite and cushion the easy chair. So in that homey spirit, allow me to recommend a few that survived the winnowing of the 20 or more sent to me; all are readable, jargon-free and, though different in topic and texture, nourishing for the non-expert.
Topping the list is a family biography that originally appeared in 1977 before the author, Penelope Fitzgerald, began to compose a masterly series (all after the age of 60!) of outstanding novels, notably the major award winners The Blue Flower and Offshore. Fitzgerald, who died last spring at the age of 83, was the daughter of Edmund Knox (1881-1971), the noted satirist (Evoe was his pseudonym) and famous editor of Britain’s Punch, England’s predecessor and equivalent to our The New Yorker. Her biography, a treasure unearthed and now handsomely republished, bears the simple title The Knox Brothers (Counterpoint, 288p, $26, hardcover), but with that all simplicity ends.
The brothers, four in all with her father the eldest, were all exceptionally brilliant, fascinating men, so distinctive in their gifts and character that even their (very) British eccentricities charm. Their father, a low-church Victorian clergyman with a keen social conscience, after raising his children in the slums of Birmingham, became the bishop of Manchester. The second son, Dillwyn (known as Dilly), was a noted classical scholar at Cambridge University but achieved his greatest, though belated (owing to the Official Secrets Act) fame as Britain’s top cryptographer during both world wars and was responsible for the herculean task of cracking Germany’s Enigma code. The third brother, Wilfred, though as brilliant as his siblings, dedicated his life to the poor and, as a full-time Anglican priest and part-time teacher, became something akin to a British version of Dorothy Day. The runt of this glorious litter was Ronald Knox (1888-1957), whose conversion to Catholicism deeply dismayed his father and his brother, Wilfred, and who went on to become the most famous Roman Catholic priest in England. His detective stories, witty essays and apologetical writings made him a Catholic favorite on two continents; but likely his most startling achievement was his translation into readable English of both the Old and New Testament (though, alas, The Knox Bible is no longer in print). What a family! And what a storyhere recounted with wit, casual elegance and affection.
Permit me to add a brief coda for those who might be inspired by the Knox family saga to explore further the sceptered isle and points east and south. Houghton-Mifflin has just published a posthumous collection of 12 short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald, titled The Means of Escape (Houghton-Mifflin, 128p, $20, hardcover). These are short-short stories, each a gem in miniature, as comical as they are concise, with settings as far apart as Turkey and New Zealand, peopled by deftly summoned characters. And if her loving portrait of her uncle Ronald Knox induces nostalgic interest in English Catholicism during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Roland Hill’s biography, Lord Acton (Yale, 548p, $39.95, hardcover) is the book for you. Today Lord Acton is chiefly remembered for the aphorism Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but in the 19th century he, along with Cardinal Newman, was likely the most prominent and different English-speaking Catholic in the world. Different in that Acton was a British aristocrat with continental tastes, a liberal in an age of conservative nationalisms, a Catholic liberal and Papist who wheeled and dealed behind the scenes at the First Vatican Council to thwart the council’s acceptance of papal infallibility. A splendid biography about a fascinating subject.
One must cross the pond to delight in the next books on my list. First is the historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s gripping account of the epic (in energy, not in years) struggle to build the U.S. transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Sacramento, entitled Nothing Like It in the World (Simon & Schuster, 431p $28, hardcover). The title is not only apt but indicative of the book’s laudatory tone and grunt’s perspective, so characteristic of Ambrose’s previous studies on General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the G.I.’s in World War II. The style is exuberant and chatty, like that of an eager storyteller loath to bog down in over-niceties, but the style quickens the pace of the narrative and keeps the reader on track in ways appropriate to the subject itself.
Ambrose asserts that Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century, and by the time we reach the Golden Spike ceremony at the Promontory Summit, Utah, linking 2000 miles of track, we are more than persuaded. The logistical problems were staggering. The Central Pacific, starting from the west in California, had to get all its materials by boat via either Panama or around South America; then its work-teams, haphazardly thus equipped, had to ascend and punch through the high Sierra mountains. The Union Pacific from the east had lower elevations to contend with, but its teams had to cross almost a thousand miles of barren plains before reaching them, all the while fending off hostile Indians as they awaited material dragged from the East Coast to the prairie.
The effort took six long years (1863-69) and 15,000 men for each line (mostly Chinese in the west; mostly Irish Civil war veterans in the east), and their ingenuity, grit and valor were, well, monumental. Moreover, the effort was a race (the U.S. government deliberately pitted both lines against each other), and the competitive spirit (though now considered true-blood American when more accurately Chinese) energized both sides not only to build it fast but also (miraculously) build it right. The cast of characters is immense and surprising. For example, I had no idea that Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Brigham Young were key figures in the accomplishment. The financiersLeland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, the Ames Brothers et al.are treated by Ambrose with more gentleness than they deserve, but he was right to concentrate on the brawny and brainy people who labored or surveyed or engineered the project. A good read, indeed, and also time travel.
If that is not Americana enough, there are other delights in store and in the stores. One is a very short, excellent biography of Woodrow Wilson (Penguin, 125p, $19.95, hardcover), written by the noted novelist Louis Auchincloss. It is one of the latest in the new Penguin series of Brief Lives, handsome distillations for the reader daunted by bloated biographies. Auchincloss dazzles you in subtle, disarming fashion. He is able to recount Wilson’s life and capture his complex personality, offer precise personal judgments or reservations, all the while establishing context and circumstance without any sense of hurry or abbreviation. And yet, on finishing it, the book seems full and fair, as satisfying as a 500-page tome.
For a more vigorous, academically orientated work on American politics, let me recommend the historian John Patrick Diggins’s On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History (Yale, 321p, $27.95, hardcover). This is a wide-ranging series of essays, some highly critical of politically extreme positions, that is impossible to summarize briefly. Yet its central thesis consoles and persuades: that it is Lincoln’s political and moral theory, with its faith in the redemptive values of labor and self-determination, (and not our current emphasis on divisions according to gender, race and class) that has in the past best expressed American values and united the nation and can do so again.
The final two books are last in order, not in merit. One is Robert McClory’s Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church (Orbis Books, 182p, $16, paperback original). This is an easy but educative-to-read book, an interesting blend of biography, church history, theology and intramural politics. As the title indicates, it is about some of those who, down through the centuries of Catholicism, have dared to contradict and criticize the voice of authority. Many in one way or another were charged with arrogance, disrespect of authority, or worse. But in the light of subsequent events they have been vindicated. And the reader shouts, Boy, have they ever! The lineup of such faithful dissenters includes most of the stars of church history: Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, John Henry Newman, Matteo Ricci, Mary Ward and, closer to our own time, John Courtney Murray and Yves Congar. Each had a dust-up with the papacy or hierarchy; each was either censured, silenced or ignored; each was not only eventually vindicated, but no one (unless McClory reminds us) would ever remember the names of their adversaries, now forever destined to the oblivion they richly deserved. A very consoling book, this, and an ironic twist to the adage that history belongs to the victors.
Stephen Carter, author of The Culture of Disbelief, has composed another sensible, intelligent book on the tensions between faith and politics. His latest is entitled God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic Books, 266p, $26, hardcover), and its argument proceeds with the care, clarity and balance one expects from a chaired professor of law at Yale University. As a good lawyer will, he states his case immediately: This book argues two interrelated theses. First, that there is nothing wrong, and much right, with the robust participation of the nation’s many religious voices in debate over matters of public moment. Second, that religionsalthough not democracywill almost always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they choose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of our politics. Carter, a trustworthy advocate, stays true to his word as he presents the evidence for both theses, pointing up their tensions in dialectical fashion, re-examining counterarguments, catching contradictions missed by witnesses, gently admonishing wrongheaded opponents. The result is an admirable essay respectful of the relative strengths of religion and politics and the importance of their interaction, but ever aware of their respective limitations and critical of romantically hasty marriages between them. A thoughtful, helpful book on a neuralgic subject since our nation’s founding.
With so many good books to be thankful for, consider this a Happy Thanksgiving in preview. Then dig in with gusto.