This weekend’s New York Times Book Review features an informative cover article by Michael Kazin on the ecstatic 19th-century celebrity preacher Henry Ward Beecher. I thought I was well-versed in 19th Century American theology, but I barely knew Beecher’s name, and Kazin’s short piece tells me a whole lot else I didn’t already know about this emphatic figure, who is the subject of a new biography by Debby Applegate. The book is titled The Most Famous Man in America, which is meant to emphasize the fact that this homespun American philosopher was tremendously influential in his time (his admirers included Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman).
With fundamentalist religion on the world’s mind today, it’s enlightening to remember that 150 years ago America’s top Christian preachers were among its most outspoken liberals. Kazin summarizes Applegate’s work with enthusiasm here, and he finds so much to say that he doesn’t even drop the pleasing fact that Henry Ward Beecher was the younger brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe until the article’s final paragraph. It’s nice to learn something I didn’t already know on a Sunday morning.
Okay, so this week’s edition of the Book Review does something good. Now let’s get to the bad, of which there’s at least one big glaring example today.
Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus already has a reputation for allowing critics to carry out private grudge matches in the guise of impartial book reviews (the John Dean/Deep Throat incident is the most recent example). Today he allows critic Edward Rothstein to turn a review of On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain by Edward Said (the late Columbia University professor, author and advocate for Palestinian causes) into a political polemic. Edward Said was a highly respected writer in many fields including music and aesthetics, and his book deserves a thoughtful review on its own terms. Instead, Rothstein points to Said’s observations about playwright Jean Genet’s offensive record of supporting Palestinian terrorism, concludes that Jean Genet’s politics were inhuman, and summarily dismisses Said’s entire book on this account. He spends four long paragraphs pressing the point about Genet as if it represented a major problem for Said’s book.
If Rothstein were writing an article about Jean Genet, this would be entirely appropriate (I find Jean Genet’s quasi-romantic embrace of Palestinian terrorism very offensive myself, and I hope most others do as well). But this is a book by Edward Said, not Jean Genet, and Edward Said is under no compulsion to apologize for every artist he admires. I can’t imagine why Sam Tanenhaus thinks he is serving his readers well by failing to publish a review of Said’s book that discusses Said’s book. I think this is another major screw-up, and a definite sign of bad judgement on the editor’s part.
Elsewhere in the Book Review, there’s an intelligent piece by Liesl Schillinger on Maria Arana’s novel Cellophane, an uninspired spin on Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle by Brad Leithauser, an intriguing summary by Lisa Zeidner of The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas and a halfway decent endpaper by Benjamin Kunkel on the Romantic and Transcendental roots of the literary memoir form.