Spring 2019 reading roundup

Here’s an incomplete list of the books I read from January to yesterday.

Evan Thomas – First: Sandra Day O’Connor

As nuanced as a Reader’s Digest article, the veteran reporter shows no interest in studying the Supreme Court justice’s jurisprudence, not when he has access to four dozen former clerks ready to discuss Sandra Day O’Connor’s taste in chili and how well she and husband John took to the DC party circuit during the High Reagan Era. Implicit in his thesis: she had no ideology, she was a compromiser, a trick learned during a stint as majority leader of the Arizona Senate. Thomas’ views dominate Beltway talk shows whose guests shudder at “extremes” on “both sides.” Although in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) she joined the majority to preserve the central holding of Roe v. Wade, and in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) to use race-conscious admissions process among others so long as universities avoided so-called quotas, O’Connor remained a conservative, just not part of the Clarence Thomas or the late Antonin Scalia (with whom she had a tense relationship) death cult — a political conservative who had no problem awarding the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 on specious equal protection grounds because she wanted a Republican president nominating her successor. She expresses some regret that Samuel Alito replaced her. If she was so shrewd an observer, then how couldn’t she see that the GOP in 2005 thought Republicans like her were squishes?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

Recent books by Douglas R. Egerton and Richard White have documented how quickly the vanquished South exploited Northern weariness to quash Reconstruction. Gates’ beautifully arranged book — text and a compendium of vintage photographs and postcards, some horrifying in their racism — adds to Eric Foner’s pioneering scholarship. Until the Supreme Court vindicated Southern intransigence in the 1870s, the Reconstruction era captured a remarkable flowering of black political consciousness at the state and federal level and a concomitant rise in literacy. “The process of Reconstruction involved nothing less than the monumental effort to create a biracial democracy out of the wreckage of the rebellion,” Gates notes.

Andrew Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Co-editor of the first systemic collection of knowledge. Intellectual companion to Catherine the Great. In a popular biography of charm and distinction that doesn’t stint on explications of once widely read texts like Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew, Andrew Curran situates the philosophe as a polymath, a workhorse whose intrinsic skepticism about hierarchy provided much of the theoretical foundation for the Revolution of 1798 — and for the sexual liberation almost two centuries later, Curran argues, thanks to his relatively benign views on homosexuality and his convictions on the importance of educational parity between the sexes.

Jack Kelly – The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, The Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America

In a decade rife with confrontations between labor and capital, the Pullman strike of 1895 stands out for the unprecedented manner in which the American Railway Union paralyzed the country and the force of the White House’s account. Jack Kelly’s account also stars Eugene Debs, at first reluctant to join the strike and to the end more moderate than his reputation suggests. No man, he ordered, could disturb a train carrying mail so long as it wasn’t connected to a Pullman car. The villain: George Pullman, who ran his company town as a fiefdom; a man so committed to his will that, according to Kelly, he was “willing to allow the whole population of the country to be inconvenienced, willing to watch railroad property burn and men die violent deaths rather than waver.” He had help from Grover Cleveland, until Calvin Coolidge the most conservative president in American history. Cleveland had run a decade ago as a states’ rights candidate. Now, Kelly writes, “He was, at the behest of corporations, trampling state prerogatives and assuming police powers usually exercised by local officials.”

At the direction of the odious Richard Olney, handsomely recompensed with the ten grand he earned as counsel to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad while serving as attorney general, Cleveland’s Justice Department obtained an injunction on the flimsiest of reasons: the strike obstructed mail delivery. To back it up, Cleveland ordered 20,000 federal troops to break the strike. Thirty men died. Debs was arrested and sent to prison. And Olney still managed to be upset by the results. If General Miles, who led the federal troops, would do “less talking to newspapers and more shooting at strikers he’d come nearer fulfilling his mission on earth and earning his pay,” Olney harrumphed.

Richard Stern – Other Men’s Daughters

I often wonder whether the “writer’s writer” moniker is shorthand for a non-existent threat.” As if Chekhov had written Lolita,” Philip Roth avers in the introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the beloved cult novel, about the affair between a Harvard science professor and a student during the late sixties. Cynthia Ryder is not a girl, though, so I have no idea what Roth was on about. The Chekhov comparison, shorthand for a weighing of motive whose detachment borders on the cosmic, is better. Flitting in and out of Robert Merriwether’s intelligent liberal sensibilities, Richard Stern allows him his reasons while stressing his buffoonery and quiet cruel entitlement; Stern is also writer enough to abjure “exposing” these sides since Merriweather’s limitations reveal themselves in the first chapter.

Other titles:

Rebecca Makkai – The Great Believers
* Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure
William Dean Howells – Annie Kilburn
* Gertrude Stein – Three Lives
Elizabeth Bowen – The Hotel
Elizabeth Bowen – The Death of the Heart
Ursula K. Le Guin – The Word for World is Forest
Irving Howe – Leon Trotsky
Zachary Leader – The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005
David A. Kaplan – The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution
Geoffrey Wall – Flaubert: A Life

* Reread

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