Book Chat #1

I read too many books not to have a few opinions. Once a week I’ll try to include a couple blurbs. A start:

FearItselfFor all I know the Library of Congress created a protected taxonomy of New Deal literature. The 600-page Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time looks as formidable as the NIRA code book. But Ira Katznelson’s remarkable book analyzes one of the New Deal’s paradoxes: racist Southern Democrats in the Congress didn’t just endorse Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s programs, they voted for its most progressive elements. Collective bargaining, power projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Boulder Dam, farmer-labor coalitions, and – crucially after 1940 – lifting the Neutrality Act that in effect kept the United States out of the European conflict were supported, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, by the most reactionary elements in the Senate and House. To get those votes, Roosevelt tailored much of the early New Deal to Southern interests. “None of the early New Deal could have happened had the South not been convinced that the Democratic Party would continue to protect its racial order,” Katznelson notes. But when the war ended and two million Americans went on strike, the South protected the transnational interests it had helped shape, forming a coalition with a resurgent GOP in 1946 to create the Taft-Hartley Act, emasculating labor at the zenith of its power. Katznelson reveals with plenty of evidence that “states rights” meant “leave our Negroes alone.” Labor organizations, he wryly remarks, “stimulated civil rights activism.”

* * *

Friends know I’m a nut on Edith Wharton. Capable of passages of icepick sharpness and phrases of nattering banality, Wharton is one of the few American novelists who understood how women struggle with expectations that would flummox the hardiest of men were these expectations foisted on them. After finishing Summer in 1996, I wondered why it hasn’t replaced the dessicated Ethan Frome as a high school reading list perennial; rereading it last week I remembered why. The western Massachussettes backwater aptly called North Dormer rests at the foot of an edifice called the Mountain, atop which live Charity Royall’s bootlegger relatives, from which her guardian saved her. The improvised father/daughter relationship doesn’t prevent him from hitting on her, in a scene of great delicacy. A romance with a visiting architecture student shows Wharton at her best: a Fourth of July idyll to watch fireworks and eat French food, both of which reveal the limits of Charity’s education. When she gets pregnant she visits possibly the first abortion clinic described in American fiction. The ending shows Charity compromising — capitulating? — to attain a modicum of security.

2 thoughts on “Book Chat #1

  1. Richard Cobeen

    After a long period of not reading much I’ve spent the last three weeks reading books when I can, which is tough with work, Google Reader, and TV, and I’m a slow reader, but I’ve downed Chabon, Lehane, Writing the Record, and Richard Russo’s memoir. I wanted to read something else new next, but Summer is the only major Wharton I’ve only read once, and I may have change that after this reminder. No writer is better at making the reader think she’s going to let a character off, not pay for the choices made by the character or that society has imposed upon them, and then yank them right back into Wharton’s reality.

    1. humanizingthevacuum Post author

      “No writer is better at making the reader think she’s going to let a character off.” Shrewd comment.


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