Four books on Lincoln, all old, all good.
1. Crisis of the House Divided, by Harry V. Jaffa.
Maybe the best Lincoln book of the second half of the 20th century. Jaffa joins the skills of a political philosopher with the insights of a political reporter. He occasionally ladles in the Aristotle with a heavy hand. But Lincoln wasn’t Aristotle — he was a hick lawyer who turned out to be smarter than Aristotle. A brilliant book all the same.
2. Abraham Lincoln, by Lord Charnwood.
Maybe the best Lincoln book of the entire 20th century. Lots of Englishmen like Americans, but hardly any of them understand us, the national temptation being to treat us as entertaining animals. Charnwood got Lincoln and his political environment cold. Teaser (a description of John Calhoun): “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth.”
3. Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, edited by Paul M. Angle.
Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner, acolyte, and industrious biographer. All the materials of the Lincoln myth are here. Henry Steele Commager thought Herndon was a great psychobiographer, a genre he identified with Plutarch, Saint-Simon, Boswell, Parson Weems, and the autobiographies of Franklin, Davy Crockett, and Frederick Douglass.
4. Herndon’s Informants, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis.
Herndon did not just record his own lively impressions, he interviewed everyone he could collar about Lincoln’s early life. Here are his raw notes — letters and interviews, polished, illiterate, all over the lot. A case study of how we stumble around great men, feeling a foot here, a proboscis there.
— Richard Brookhiser is senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of Madison.
I don’t know whether I’d go quite so far as Ann Coulter, who blurbed it as “the greatest book since the Bible,” but M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies (Random House) is pretty close to the top of the list. Though it was published five years ago, I am only just catching up with it and marveling with almost every page at the light it casts on a chapter of American history that once seemed hopelessly obscure. It also frequently brings to mind Coventry Patmore’s great lines in the conclusion of his poem “Magna Est Veritas” — “The truth is great, and shall prevail/When none cares whether it prevail or not.”
Peter Collier’s Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (Encounter) is beautifully written and full of insight not only into the life of his subject but into the political culture of America during the Reagan years.
Another new book, and one that will delight Jane-ites, is Elizabeth Kantor’s The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After (Regnery). It would make a great gift for literary-minded young women who otherwise might not think of taking dating advice from Jane Austen.
But apart from Stan Evans’s masterpiece, the best book I have read so far this year is Simon Raven’s The English Gentleman: An Essay in Attitudes. Though it was published in 1961 and is long out of print, it is still possible to find this on one of the used-books sites, and as an account from the inside of what happened to the old honor-culture in Britain, it can’t be beaten. Like Jane Austen, Raven understands the uses of hypocrisy, which, but for their elucidation in books like this one, may soon be a lost art for all but the most ungentlemanly.
— James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Honor: A History.
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The sequel to Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall. For lovers of fiction about the Tudor era, these books are a treat — meticulously researched and gorgeously written. Mantel takes the road less traveled by making Thomas Cromwell into a sympathetic character, but so skillful and complex is her portrayal that she simultaneously manages to show how his pragmatism and well-developed survival instincts lead to his corruption.
The Jane Austen Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman, by Lori Smith. In the interest of full disclosure, Lori is a personal friend. But I would enjoy and recommend this book even if she weren’t. At a time when too many girls and women equate maturity with sexual looseness or even exhibitionism, Lori uses the well-loved stories and heroines of Jane Austen to make a convincing case for dignity, modesty, and good character in general.
God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author, by Gary Colledge. Anyone who has even the faintest interest in Charles Dickens — who happens to be celebrating his bicentennial — should read this book. I’m reviewing it for another publication, so I can’t say too much here, but I will say that I believe it to be one of the most important books about Dickens to come along in recent years.
— Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
CHARLES A. DONOVAN
Against the idea that summer reading should be light or at least brief, The Letters of T.S. Eliot: 1898–1922 (Yale University Press, 2011) will keep the edges of any beach blanket from furling up in the wind. It’s a massive volume and gives one’s conscience, as letter collections do, a tweak of thrilled regret at peering over another human being’s shoulder as they set private words to paper. But the private words here, in addition to the usual “revelations” about where the author will dine or vacation next week, provide insight into the tensions that swirled around Eliot’s career, the launch of The Criterion, his relationships with his first wife and with colleagues, and the publication of The Waste Land in the year where this first volume breaks off. Ninety years on, our world remains very much mired in Margate Sands.
Of more inspiriting character for this time is Jeffrey Bell’s new book on the benefits (for the survival of American ideas of liberty) of social-issue controversies, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter, 2012). Bell is both a political analyst and an historian of ideas, and in this book he makes a compelling case for the success of conservative coalitions — economic, social, and defense-oriented — when they overcome their internal antagonisms and work together. The data he produces from modern presidential campaigns is persuasive, as is the sharp contrast he draws between the strength of U.S. conservatism versus the faltering European brands. To top everything off, Bell writes with, well, bell-like clarity. His message and his evidence are more important than ever in 2012.
Another political book that demands attention is Robert Zubrin’s Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis, 2012). Zubrin thoroughly documents the depredations of the neo-Malthusians who have dominated the West’s campaigns of population control, often by forcible means, against the people of developing nations. He makes quite clear that, far from fading from the scene, the grim forecasters of doom are still with us and hard at work deploying their profound pessimism in human affairs. Whatever one thinks of global warming, as Zubrin meticulously reports, the inhumanity of these elites is poisoning the West and making the modern world a colder and crueler place.
Finally, no summer reading list would be complete without a mystery. I remain partial to Arthur Upfield, a mid-20th-century Aussie writer, born in England, whose stories always plant the reader firmly in another time and place remote from personal experience. His hero-detective is the half-aborigine, half-white Napoleon Bonaparte, or “Bony,” whose gift for tracking and knowledge of the bush country advantage him over malefactors of all kinds. Almost any Bony will do, but in honor of the season, try Death of a Lake (Doubleday, 1954), where the main character is literally a body of water that is steadily drying up in searing heat, slowly revealing the clues and the answer to an improbable murder.
— Charles A. Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.