October 1, 2015

Book review: “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” by A. Roger Ekirch

I found A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2004, endlessly fascinating — and endlessly irritating. What Ekirch set out to do in this book was to look at the myriad aspects of life after dark for the people in preindustrial Europe and North America (generally 1500 through 1750). He looks at how people got around (and didn’t) in the dark, how they used moonlight and candlelight to see after sunset, how they acted on the roadways and in their homes at night, and much, much, much more. And he succeeds wonderfully in examining hundreds of ways in which life after dark was different than life in the daylight — and, by implication, the ways in which life at night in the preindustrial world was different than life at night in the present-day. For instance, did you ever wonder what it must have been like to fall ill in a world before electricity and other artificial illumination? Ekirch did, and he reports: Not only was sickness common, but darkness contributed its share of injuries. Families possessed a passing knowledge of remedies and cures, combined with a small inventory of potions, plasters, and possets, some acquired […]
September 23, 2015

Book review: “When God Was a Little Girl” by David R. Weiss, illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman

David R. Weiss tells a sweet story about a father and a young daughter in When God Was a Little Girl, playfully and joyfully illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman. Yet, the power of this 32-page children’s book isn’t that it’s another finely produced work to entertain and inspire young people. This book takes the radical approach of imagining God as a child, not an adult; as a Supreme Being of giggles, not a thundering blame-leveler; and, most significantly as a female, not a male. God transcends time and space, transcends physical characteristics such as gender. You might just as well assert that God has brown skin or red hair or blue eyes. Still, as human beings, we like to picture God as one of us. Jesus, of course, was one of us — is one of us. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that we are required to think of the Creator as an old guy with a long white beard. Or of the Holy Spirit as a little white bird. As human beings, we use our imaginations to fit abstract concepts into physical images. Or maybe it’s better to say that we look at our physical world and develop abstract concepts. […]
September 18, 2015

Book review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax returned home from her work as a witch, the most powerful witch on the Discworld. She took a very short nap — “Granny Weatherwax allowed herself not forty winks but just one” — and then went out and cleaned the privy, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing. Then, looking into the privy’s shimmering water, she realized she could also see her face. And she sighed and said, “Drat, and tomorrow was going to be a much better day.” The next few pages, early as they are in The Shepherd’s Crown, are the core of the novel, the last of Terry Pratchett’s dozens of books about the fantastic flat planet of Discworld where the dwarfs, vampires, humans, goblins, elves, wizards, werewolves, trolls, witches and other odd living being are, well, pretty much like us.     Pure Pratchett But, before I discuss those few pages, let me get a few things out of the way. In December, 2007, Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the face of this dread diagnosis, he redoubled his efforts to get the stories bouncing around in his head onto the pages of his books, producing five and, now posthumously, […]
September 9, 2015

Book review: “Hild” by Nicola Griffith

The Catholic Church is big on books about the Lives of the Saints. There’s even a term for it: “hagiography.” Nicola Griffith’s 2013 novel Hild is the first of a planned trilogy about the life of St. Hilda of Whitby, a major figure in medieval Britain. But it’s definitely not hagiography — at least, hagiography in its traditional Catholic form. The Church uses the lives of saints as tools for teaching morality, ethics and spirituality. There are two general types of traditional lives: (1) relatively simplistic and pious accounts, emphasizing miracles and a kind of religious sweetness, and (2) more rigorous, historically based narratives that grapple with the real-world existence of the saint and his or her theological insights.   Not pious Griffith’s novel, which is peopled almost entirely with characters who are found in the historical record, is certainly not pious. And there is much in it, including words that almost certainly have never appeared before in a written Life of a Saint, to offend or scandalize believers with expectations of what a saint is and isn’t. For one thing, Griffith’s Hild is bisexual, and the novel is spiced with full-blooded sex scenes, including one that follows a rough-and-tumble […]
August 31, 2015

Book review: “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeanette Winterson.

In Sexing the Cheery, her elliptical 1989 novel — equal parts poetry and philosophy — Jeanette Winterson tells of a handful of characters in the complex setting of time and of space. Jordan in 17th century England and his mother called Dog-woman by her neighbors. Fortunata, one of 12 dancing sisters, Another (?) Jordan in the United States of 1990. A 20th century Fortunata-like woman fighting polluters. The narration in the book shimmies and shifts like mercury as paragraph follows paragraph. Fortunata’s 11 sisters have a walk-on part near the midpoint of the novel during which each explains why and how her marriage to a prince failed. “But he never touched me,” one says. “It was a boy he loved. I pierced them both with a single arrow where they lay.” There are numbered LIES that are dropped here and there into the tale, such as LIES 8 which has to do with Fortunata’s report that the first thing she ever saw was a winter landscape, which parallels the opening page of the book on which Jordan (the 17th century one) reports that the first thing he saw was a night scene in a field. LIES 8: It was not […]
August 25, 2015

Book review: “Last Ragged Breath” by Julia Keller

The tone of Last Ragged Breath is set on the book’s first pages when Goldie, a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix, is running joyously along the bank of Old Man’s Creek after “something [that] smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual.” In this fourth installment in her radiant series of Bell Elkins crime novels, Julia Keller writes: The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating…Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees…[T]he smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance… It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn’t get any more wonderful. Goldie finds the source of the smell in a brown mass in the water, exuding the “strong smell [that] was still pleasurable but also perplexing.” She waits as the man who has taken her on this walk climbs down the side of the bank to investigate. What he finds is a body and, separated from it, “like a bobbing beach ball,” a human head. Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of […]
August 17, 2015

Book review: “The Light Fantastic” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld novel The Light Fantastic, a mob of Ankh-Morpork citizens has marched through the streets to the gates of the Unseen University to demand that the wizards there save their flat, round world. That is, most of the mob has. “There were one or two freelance rioters here [in a nearby alley], mostly engaged in wrecking shops.” Also in the alley are Rincewind, a failed wizards, and two friends, planning to sneak onto the University grounds a back way. But, to gain entry, Rincewind needs a knife to pry away some stones so he sends his friends to get one. “All the shops have been smashed open,” one says upon returning. “There were a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?” “Yeah,” says Rincewind. “Luters, I expect.”   Hamlet in Swedish I’m not sure how many times Terry Pratchett’s name has been used in the same sentence as the name of another British writer, William Shakespeare — but here’s one. The two writers share a lot. There is, of course, their love of puns. “Luters” is an example from Pratchett. Here’s one from the Bard of Avon: […]
August 10, 2015

Book review: “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis

Some books are like a lot of magazine articles and newspaper stories. They are so rooted in a present moment that, in the long run, they don’t stand up. Circumstances shift; suppositions are exploded. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, published in 2003, is one of those books. It’s an interesting historical document, one that not only recorded a moment in the evolution of major league baseball but also helped nudge that evolution forward. Twelve years after the publication of Moneyball, it’s impossible to read about baseball or watch coverage on television or the Internet without being aware of the numbers revolution that has occurred. On-base percentage, WHIP (walks and hits per inning), WAR (wins above replacement) and dozens of other arcane but useful statistics are gathered and discussed today with a religious fervor. Moneyball helped make that occur. When published, the book was a sort of manifesto for an analytical approach to the game, and, like all manifestos, it over-stated its case. Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland A’s and their general manager Billy Beane, a can’t-miss prospect who could and did miss and then, at the helm of one of the poorest franchises in the majors, found amazing success. No […]
August 4, 2015

Book Review: “Killers of the King” by Charles Spencer

On the afternoon of January 27, 1649, Charles I, King of England, was told by a court of his subjects that, for committing high treason, he would “be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.” The court, writes Charles Spencer in Killers of the King, was comprised of 59 commissioners, appointed by the Rump Parliament under the control of the nation’s army which, itself, was under the control of Oliver Cromwell. The death warrant was read to the King. Then, in seven columns on the page, each of the commissioners added his signature, pressing his seal into hot wax next to his name. It was a solemn moment, yet not completely: During the signings, Cromwell and Henry Marten were in such high spirits that they flicked ink at one another from their pens, like naughty schoolboys. Three days later, the sentence was carried out, and, Spencer writes, the 59 commissioners were now regicides — “a term that would be extended by the Royalists to include the officers of the court during Charles’s trial, and those involved in the act of execution. In all, there would be around eighty men who were considered directly responsible for […]
July 22, 2015

Book review: “The Long Utopia” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Utopia doesn’t sound much like the late Terry Pratchett, but neither have any of the earlier three novels in the Long Earth series — The Long Earth, The Long War and The Long Mars. I’ve read each because Pratchett’s name was there on the cover as co-author with Stephen Baxter, and, each time, I’ve come away disappointed. Indeed, while reading The Long Utopia, I often find myself asking: “Did Terry Pratchett want to write a dull book?” Well, maybe “dull” isn’t the right word. The Long Utopia, like its predecessors, is cold and hard, exhibiting little emotional depth or psychological sensitivity. In contrast to Pratchett’s delightfully and endlessly interesting Discworld novels, the books in the Long Earth series aren’t really concerned with people. Over the course of more than 1,000 pages so far, its characters remain talking heads and (somewhat) animate plot devices. How very much unlike the people — well, you know what I mean: the werewolves, trolls, dwarfs, humans and other human-ish entities — in the Discworld! One-of-a-kind sort of people such as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Rimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Lord Sir Henry King, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Lord Vetinari, Tiffany Aching, Moist von Lipwig and […]
July 17, 2015

Book review: “BODY,” edited by Anthony Bond

Given our complicated feelings about our bodies, it’s no wonder that most of the art works included in BODY, edited by Anthony Bond, are unsettling. This book — the catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of the same name that was held at The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia — focuses mainly on nudes of one sort or another, but not just any nudes. The curator of the exhibit and the book’s essayists aren’t very concerned with elbows or toes. Rather, the emphasis is on those parts that pack the most emotional impact for us. Lots of penises, breasts, vaginas and butts. Consider BODY’‘s front cover with its image of Auguste Renoir’s “Young Boy with Cat” (1869) and the back cover with Gustave Courbet’s “The Source.” Even those artworks featuring the clothed human body are often unnerving. Indeed, the most disturbing image for me doesn’t exhibit any erotic areas, but a seeming acre of bare skin that suggests them — George Lambert’s “Chesham Street” (1910). A well-to-do, well-muscled, well-whiskered man is holding up his shirt almost to his neck (where he still has on a tie). His pants are open, well below the navel, and a doctor […]
July 10, 2015

Book review: “Searching for Robert Johnson” by Peter Guralnick

There is much that is mysterious and evocative and just plain odd about the life of blues legend Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27, probably murdered with poison. One of the oddest is the idea of him playing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the 1930s country-western song recorded by Gene Autry and later by Bing Crosby and, most memorably, by The Sons of the Pioneers. In Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989, music historian Peter Guralnick writes of Johnson’s life as a musician: You had to be prepared to play what your audience wanted you to play, since you were being paid not by salary but by tips. You might be engaged to play all night at a juke joint for a dollar and a half, but you were liable to make your real money by filling a request for Leroy Carr’s latest release or a Duke Ellington number. By Johnny Shines’s account Robert Johnson was as likely to perform “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or the latest Bing Crosby hit as one of his own compositions. In fact, the bluesman seems to have been a Bing Crosby fan, and, at times, in the 41 recordings that make up all […]
July 7, 2015

Book review: “The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett

Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves. We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time. Over a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works. With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and […]
June 24, 2015

Book review: “Storm” by George R. Stewart

Early in George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941), the new Junior Meteorologist in the San Francisco office of the U.S. Weather Bureau is putting the finishing touches on a map that spans a good portion of the Earth, from the eastern edge of Asia, across the Pacific, across North America, to the western edge of the Atlantic. In these early pre-dawn hours, he has been recording temperatures, wind velocities and barometric pressures on the large piece of paper so that the Chief Meteorologist will be able to use the map to make his forecast for the day. Then, Stewart writes: He laid aside his eraser and colored pencils, and sat back to look at the work. Involuntarily, he breathed a little more deeply. To him, as to some archangel hovering in the ninth heaven, the weather lay revealed. In many ways, this scene captures the whole of Storm. The map that covers such a large swath of the planet is an indication of the great sweep of Stewart’s story of a single January storm that hits San Francisco and its region. Like the weather, Storm is a sprawling saga, ranging across the oceans and land masses of the Junior Meteorologist’s map […]
June 23, 2015

Book review: “Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom

Here’s an experiment: You wake up in the middle of the night, and standing next to your bed is an angel or a devil or a genii or some spirit of some kind. This being tells you that you are going to have to live your life again — exactly as you have already lived it. You will make the same choices, suffer the same pains, say the same words. Everything will be identical. This will not only happen once, but again and again and again on into eternity. What’s your reaction? Do you wail and gnash your teeth? Or do you think that would be just fine?   Shock therapy Friedrich Nietzsche laid out this “mightiest thought” in his late 19th-century book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom includes it in his 2008 book Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death. And he adds: The idea of living your identical life again and again for all eternity can be jarring, a sort of petite existential shock therapy. It often serves as a sobering thought experiment, leading you to consider seriously how you are really living.   This scenario is like shock therapy, he writes, because […]
June 18, 2015

Book Review: “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio” by Andrea E. Mays

There is an image at the end of the glossy photo section in The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea E. Mays. It shows 82 copies of the First Folio — the first full collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623 — resting horizontally on thirteen shelves at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. This group, worth perhaps $100 million, represents more than a third of all the surviving First Folios known to exist, and each was purchased by Henry Folger during his intense four-decade-long career as a collector of all things Shakespeare. But Folger never saw his collection of First Folios together in this way — or together in any way.   “Never enjoyed” From 1889 until his death in 1930, Folger and Emily, his wife and collecting partner, never had their treasures on display. Their rented home in Brooklyn was filled with “books, books, books,” but not for show. The massive number of Shakespeare documents and other relics, purchased through lavish though prudent spending, ended up in crates in warehouses where no one — including the Folgers — ever saw them. Thus, Henry Folger had never enjoyed the collector’s privilege of seeing all his books shelved together […]
June 12, 2015

Book review: “Poetry in the Bible” by Garry Wills

Garry Wills was just 25 years old in 1960 when he completed Poetry in the Bible, a 63-page booklet that was part of the Catholic Know-You-Bible Program. He was at the start of a long career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian and journalist. Poetry in the Bible is rarely mentioned. Few people know that Wills wrote it. Yet, as one would expect, it’s an interesting little book, filled with insights about biblical verse, most from the Old Testament, and with Wills’ palpable joy in poetry and his religious faith. This book was written more than half a century ago, a few years before the start of the Second Vatican Council. Since then, there is much that has changed in the Catholic Church, and also a great deal of biblical research that has been conducted. So, there are some aspects to Wills’ text that he might write differently today. But the core of his book is still vibrant.   “A strange song” The book’s audience was apparently adults and older children new to thinking about the Bible and its meanings. As a result, Wills writes in a simple style, taking his readers by the hand in a careful, instructive way.
June 10, 2015

Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

If someone comes across a copy of Paul Fericano’s book of poems The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, $16, 110 pages) a hundred years from now, I’m not sure what they’ll make of it. I’m not sure what someone today under the age of 40 would made of it. This is a book that seems to be firmly rooted in the American culture and mythology of the 1950s. Consider “Poem for Ralph Edwards” which is a single line: “This is your poem.” That’s hilarious — but only if you know that, during the 1950s, Ralph Edwards was the host of a sappy pseudo-reality show providing well-scrubbed video biographies of celebrities, called “This Is Your Life.” (By the way, in the Notes section of the book, there’s one for this poem that reads in toto, “This is your note.”) Sure, a reader can check the internet for background information about Edwards, but that makes for a clunky reading experience. So Fericano is running the risk of unintelligibility to many potential readers. My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn. After all, here is a guy who, for the central section of his book, has an 11-page poem called “The Howl […]
June 8, 2015

Book review: MOON SINGER SERIES: “Moon of Three Rings,” “Exiles of the Stars,” “Flight in Yiktor” and Dare to Go a-Hunting” by Andre Norton

A year and a half ago, I read Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings (1966) and described it in a review as one of her best novels. I liked it so much that I got copies of its three sequels — Exiles of the Stars (1971), Flight in Yiktor (1986) and Dare to Go a-Hunting (1990) — which I read recently. For a long time, I have tried to figure out why I enjoy reading Norton’s novels. She’s not as good a writer as Robert Heinlein or Edgar Pangborn. Indeed, her characters tend to talk in a stilted, almost fairy-tale like way. “There will be many coming and going — and we shall make us a path through such a gathering to the Faxc entrance — from there it is but a step to the Street of Traders,” says one character in Flight in Yiktor. Neither is she very inventive in the way of science fiction writers. Her books don’t ponder theoretical speculations or try to figure out the physics of space travel. Almost always in her sci-fi books, her characters are landing on planets where the air is breathable and the gravity just fine.   “Hair to clothe her” […]
June 4, 2015

Book review: “Images of the American City” by Anselm L. Strauss

Near the end of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, five-term Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. gave a speech in the Music Hall to a crowd of visiting mayors and other officials. His subject: the “beautiful White City” that had been built in Jackson Park to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas but, even more, to trumpet the greatness of Chicago. When [the Great Chicago Fire of 1871] swept over our city and laid it in ashes in twenty-four hours, then the world said, “Chicago and its boasting is now gone forever.” But Chicago said, “We will rebuild the city better than ever,” and Chicago has done that. (Applause) The White City is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of those walls into our black city….The second city in America! Harrison’s use of the term “black city” was to contrast the busy, crowded, ever-growing, money-making metropolis with the pristine beauty of the temporary fairgrounds where uniformly gleaming white buildings had attracted more than 27 million visitors over a six-month period. For him and for other Chicago boosters, it was the “black city” — which undeniably […]
May 29, 2015

Book review: “Vivian Maier: Street Photographer,” edited by John Maloof

Look. This graceful woman in a stylish black dress is walking across a city street. Her foot is about to step on a trolley rail. She is looking slightly to her left. Or maybe not. She is far away. The image of her is blurred. There is so much of her that is not known, so much hard to read. Yet, I find her compelling. I’m not sure why. This image is blurred because it is part of the background of a photo of a window-washer that is included in the 2011 book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. For the moment, Maier’s story has overwhelmed an evaluation of her art. During the course of a half a century, she took 100,000 photographic negatives, mostly on city streets, but did virtually nothing to find an audience for them. She died. John Maloof, a Chicago writer researching a neighborhood history, discovered one box of her negatives and then more, printed some and then many, and then Vivian Maier, who had lived her life in obscurity, was the talk of the art world.   Disturbing I find her photos disturbing enough to think there’s something there. And maybe that’s why I was drawn to […]
May 27, 2015

Book review: “Quarantine” by Jim Crace

Five people trudged individually yet in an erratic line into the wilderness to spend forty days in quarantine in their individual caves, praying and meditating for their individual reasons. One was a rather fragile, timid young man from Galilee called Jesus, nicknamed Gally for his accent. He was idealistic and somewhat dopey. Parched and footsore — he’d left his sandals with a shepherd — this Jesus came upon a tent where he might get food and drink before beginning his month and a half of fasting. But no one responded to his call. Looking inside the tent, he found water and bread and dates and a dying man — Musa, wheezing his final breaths from the ravages of a fever. “Do not deny me water, cousin,” he said. “Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have forty days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.” He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. “Are you unwell? I am not well myself.” As I said, a little dopey. A carpenter’s son who liked praying better than sleep, this Jesus talked himself into drinking some of the water and eating […]
May 18, 2015

Book review: “Strong Boy: The Life and Time of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero” by Christopher Klein

Over the past 22 years, our History Book Club has read more than 130 books, and three of them have been about boxing and heavyweight champions of the world: • King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick — a wonderfully thoughtful biography of Ali that sets his story in the context of the two fighters who came before (Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston) and of the revolutionary times in which he fought. • Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling, and a World at the Brink by David Margolick — a meaty book that examined the careers of Louis and Schmeling and their titanic fight in 1938 in the context of a key moment in world history. • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward — a well-researched biography of a larger-than-life figure whose career was hampered but not crippled by American racism. None of us is a boxer, as far as I know. We’ve read these books because of what they had to say about race relations over the past century. Sports is a useful lens for such an endeavor. We all knew, to […]
May 15, 2015

Book review: “The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece,” edited by Gary M. Radke

Let’s talk about wonderment. About astonishment, awe. About ecstasy. But, first, let’s talk about feet. Specifically, the feet of Jacob as he approaches blind Isaac for the birthright blessing that rightly should go to his older twin Esau. This scene forms the left side of the Jacob and Esau panel in the east doors of Baptistery of Saint John in Florence. The right side is taken up with Isaac bestowing the blessing. There are ten gilded bronze panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti on these Baptistery doors, five on the right and five on the left, each based on Old Testament narratives. They are known by the name Michelangelo gave them, The Gates of Paradise, and they “rank among the greatest creations of Renaissance art,” according to Andrew Butterfield, a leading scholar of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Butterfield is one of a host of scholars who provided nine essays for The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, edited by Gary M. Radke. The book was published in 2007 in connection with an exhibition of three of newly restored Ghiberti panels, held successively at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in […]
May 12, 2015

Book review: “The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner & the Images That Made a Presidency” by Richard S. Lowry

Near the end of his prose and poetry collection Memoranda During the War, Walt Whitman contemplated the scope of carnage across the national landscape — “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead.” Those words, notes Richard S. Lowry, echo the battlefield photos that Whitman’s friend Alexander Gardner and his assistants made in the aftermath of such monumental Civil War clashes as Antietam and Gettysburg. Photography in mid-19th century was still a new technology, too bulky and slow to record actual firefights. Consequently, the Gardner photos were of unburied bodies littering fields and crumpled amid trees and rocks. As static as they appear to modern eyes, these images, displayed in Matthew Brady’s New York studio and later in Gardner’s own gallery, brought the war home to Americans in a new and visceral way. Gardner’s photographs, writes Lowry, “spoke less about flanking maneuvers and attacks and campaigns and the fate of the Union than about death — not a ‘good death,’ redeemed by noble causes and last words to the family by a sudden, anonymous, and profoundly violent end of life.” (46) In these black and white “views,” as they were called, it was difficult, if not impossible to determine […]