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This is another great listen for anyone interested in presidental history. Each review is not too long but you feel you still get a great deal of history about each man.
19 of 21 people found this review helpful
George Washington by Paul Johnson (2 Stars **)
"Washington remains a remote and mysterious figure. He puzzled those who knew and worked with him, and who often disagreed violently about his merits and abilities. He puzzles us. No man's mind is so hard to enter and dwell within."
― Paul Johnson, George Washington
Paul Johnson's micro-biography of George Washington is one of the first in HarperCollins’ “Eminent Lives” series of biographies "by distinguished authors on canonical figures." I first picked this book up with Christopher Hitchens' Eminent Lives biography of Thomas Jefferson. So, essentially I made my way to Mt Vernon because it was on the way to Monticello.
All in all the biography was a very good, very basic biography. I can only say (recognizing what it is, and the limits a book on Washington will face, from the beginning) I was only really seriously disappointed twice. Once when Johnson lectured about how Washington would have felt about the 1st amendment, and for a couple pages the book devolved into a polemic of how X interpretation would have "angered Washington". The second part was when again, later he argues that "an America without religion as the strongest voluntary source of morality was to him an impossibility" and goes on to soft peddle the idea that immigrants were tolerated by and enlightened Washington, but he adds "but new arrivals had to recognize that they were joining a community under God -- or Providence --- ... and the paramount mode of worship of this God was Christian." Here Paul Johnson has fully dropped any pretense of being an historian, and has completely abandoned his introductory statement about the difficulty of entering and dwelling in Washington's mysterious mind. It is here Johnson shows up as a public intellectual with an agenda to indelicately push. I felt a bit like I had fallen into a G.K. Chesterton biography of Washington, but without all the charming puns and paradoxes.
It is natural for those on the left and the right, for those of faith or those without faith, to want to adopt the image and the history of the founding fathers and to use their myths and histories together to support a current position or agenda (whether religious or political) or to argue against a current morality. THAT impulse is one of my biggest complaints against modern, popular history, and the main reason I didn't give this short biography even three stars.
Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens (4 Stars ****)
"Jefferson was to emerge as the republican equivalent of a philosopher king, who was coldly willing to sacrifice all principles and all allegiances to the one great aim of making America permanent.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
***Warning: This part of the review is primarily about Christopher Hitchens:
Christopher Hitchens was a force. He never quietly held opinions. Rather, Hitch preferred to harangue and harpoon his readers with them. He bloodied and sometimes bullied people with words. He smacked the unprepared and unrepentant with his arguments so often, and so beautifully, that -- agree or not with him -- both his critics and fans alike were usually left with the dizzied by dents of his ideas and the rattle of his arguments for the rest of their life.
Hitch was also, as far as imports go, one of those great American imports from England. I think of Thomas Paine and W.H. Auden as great trades the US made with our mother country. He didn't just come to America. He came here, like a baby born screaming. He loved his adopted country and cried loud and hard all the time about it. He was gifted as a writer and gifted as a thinker. He also carried his idols close. He loved Trotsky. He adored Thomas Paine (and wrote a similar sized biography (Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography) on Paine's famous pamphlet. He loved to write books about people he loved (Orwell, Jefferson, Paine) or hated (Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger, the Clintons). He was a man who wrote from a passion that was informed by the head. In many ways, that talent for writing based on passion perfectly matches Thomas Jefferson to Christopher Hitchens.
***OK: This part of the review is a bit more about Jefferson:
Hitchens is able to deliver a fine tribute to the author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, Louisiana purchaser, etc. In this age where Hamilton is getting a lot of love, it is important to go back and remember that both men were pivotal not only in the founding, but on its development and course (for both good and bad).
A couple things I learned from reading Hitch's micro-biography:
* Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha took 'an early mutual delight' with Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. This is an opinion I share, but evidently NOT Christopher Hitchens.
* While I knew that a 22-year-old lieutenant colonel of the Virginia militia named George Washington probably started the fire that would begin the Seven Year's War (or as we call it here in 'Murica - the French and Indian War), Hitch connected the dots that the Seven Year's War also indirectly started the American Revolution when the British decided to recoup their expenses by raising taxes on their "supposedly grateful American subjects". And, "the cost of this expedition to the depleted French treasury, in the opinion of many historians, precipitated the crisis of insolvency that compelled King Louis to summon the Estates General and begin the unraveling of the ancient regime that culminated in the revolution of 1789." Oh, shit, Lt. Col Washington really was a butterfly that set the world on fire.
*** Warning: This part will le me to b!tch about Johnson's biography of Washington again:
Anyway, while this biography of Jefferson by Hitchens appears in the same series (Eminent Lives) as Paul Johnson's biography of George Washington: The Founding Father, and while these were both written by Oxford educated public intellectuals, for some reason Hitchens just read better. Seemed to possess more heft and height (I'd say Johnson's was more hole and hollow). Anyway, if reading Johnson's mini bio of Washington was at the cost of entry to read Hitch's bio of Jefferson, I'd read it twice to just nibble at this book. It wasn't perfect, but that owed more to the fact that Hitch wasn't writing a full biography, but just keeping it within the confines set by James Atlas and HarperCollins.
Michael Korda's Ulysses S. Grant (3 Stars ***)
"...any politician contemplating the use of force should read Grant before doing so."
- Michael Korda
This is my third in the James Atlas (general editor) and HarperCollins' Eminent Lives series dealing with American presidents. I liked Korda's book better than Johnson's biography of George Washington, but not as well as Hitchens' biography of Thomas Jefferson. I read this mainly as a preamble to reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
I'm going to pause here for a second and just push a question out into the universe. Why, when James Atlas was putting together this series, did he pick three public intellectuals who were born in Great Britain and educated at Oxford to write about Washington (Paul Johnson), Jefferson (Christopher Hitchens, and Grant (Michael Korda)? I wonder if he was aiming for some outsider view of the American Presidency? And, just as I write that, I also acknowledge that Christopher Hitchens during the last couple decades of his life was definitely just as much an insider (he became an American citizen and knew our politics and problems as much as any American public intellectual) as an outsider. It just seems too coincidental to be an accident, but I can't discover any big rational for it. Perhaps, it was just that James Atlas was shrewd enough to use writers he knew as an editor at the New York Times and as an editor and publisher at HarpersCollins. Perhaps, it was just the Brits who were more interested in this project. I'm not sure.
Anyway, this micro-biography of Grant was smoothly superficial while still engaging the reader. It was too short to give much detail or depth into the most interesting aspects of Grant's life (the Mexican War, the Civil War, his presidency, scandals, the writing of his memoirs, etc.), but was long enough to make an argument about why Grant is currently under appreciated as an American. After Lincoln, Grant is probably the one man most responsible for ending the Civil War. He also understood the realities of modern, total war generations before the rest of the world would catch up. He was a man with evident weaknesses, but also a man who would never give up, never retreat. He was constantly on the move and had the ability to recognize and adapt to the changing landscape either on the battlefield or his own life. In many ways Grant symbolizes both the greatest aspects of the American myth (anyone can, under the right circumstances, rise to greatness) and the limits too of talent and energy. Grant constantly needed to be surrounded by family and friends who could protect and defend him, or he would sink into drink and despair.
I love too the whole idea of how his memoirs came to be (see Samuel Clemens). I love how Grant was financially and morally restored with his words and by his illness. His memoir seems a fitting epilogue to America's greatest General, the man who isn't buried in Grant's Tomb.
12 of 16 people found this review helpful