Sunday, December 28, 2014

two of the best books I read this year

They're both literary history: that is, they're about literature, but instead of containing the internal analysis of literary criticism, they are organized as histories of their topics, with emphasis on the larger social significance of the stories they tell.

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
This history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Concentrates on proponents of Bacon and Oxford; otherwise it'd be too long and boring. Much on not only the serious advocates of these theories, but also on famous supporters, like Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud, whose biographers have tended to overlook this embarrassing hobby of their renowned subjects.

Shapiro doesn't believe in any of the alternative authors: his interest is in what makes others so eager to embrace them. He attributes it to a gut belief that authors can only really write autobiographically (Mark Twain, who actually did so write, was a pioneer believer in the universality of this notion) and who find William Shakespeare's life too pedestrian or sketchily recorded to suit, so they turn to someone with a more romantic career. Put this way, the fallacy should be obvious; but Shapiro puts the ultimate blame on romantic-minded Stratfordians, who first tried tying the author's life to his works this way. But the premise being fallacious, the results fit so badly that readers who accepted the premise rejected the conclusion.

The book concludes with some more general arguments in the defense: 1) of course it's possible for authors to write convincingly of matters outside their close personal experience; 2) in an era when most plays, if published at all, were issued anonymously, it made no sense for a playwright to adopt a pseudonym; 3) it would have been even more pointless, as well as dangerous, for the author to hide himself from official censure behind the name of a real-life man of the theatre; 4) the plays were designed for the skills of the acting company at the date of writing, so the author had to have been intimately familiar with this, and they couldn't have been stored up for years in advance. It turns out the earliest Oxfordians were dimly aware of the problem caused by Oxford's death long before many of the plays were produced, and proposed that many of them were heavily re-written for production (by whom?) and that some, notably The Tempest, were not by Oxford at all!

Jeff Smith, The Presidents We Imagine (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)
I picked this up at the Popular Culture Association conference. The subtitle is "Two Centuries of White House fictions on the page, on the stage, onscreen, and online," but it's not just a staggeringly comprehensive survey of depictions of fictional presidents and novelization/dramatizations of real presidents, though it is that. Smith may have been the first person in ninety years actually to have read Philip Dru, Administrator, the utopian fantasy of Woodrow Wilson's éminence grise, Col. House, and the description of it here is thorough enough to spare anyone else the trouble.

But that's incidental. Smith is from a business school, not an English department, and his theme is what these stories say about our image of the President, and accordingly he's even more fascinating on the real images of real presidents. A quick survey of that exacting sub-genre, the memoirs of presidential mistresses, is particularly withering, as with Smith's summation of JFK's Judith Campbell Exner: "The impossibility of true love with a powerful, married, and very preoccupied man does not make her wistful so much as just irritated." Even more fascinating are his accounts of vertigo-inducing projects to make presidential reality fit fiction: the pulling up of Lincoln, poorly regarded in his lifetime even by his allies, into a holy martyr after his assassination, and the jury-rigging of his earlier life, so unlike Washingtonian heroics, to fit this new image; and the desperate attempts of the press to fit George W. Bush's actions on 9/11 into the recently-established frame of Action Movie President (Independence Day, Air Force One). Bush himself was quicker than many of his advisers to realize he had to start posturing this way, because it's what people expected.

Which makes it even more interesting that this is not what they used to expect. Smith recounts that in previous grave crises, Americans looked to the government in general to lead them, and not to the President in particular. Andrew Johnson was barely mentioned in news reports of the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, and the first wire stories on Pearl Harbor featured stirring statements by the Attorney General and Congressional leaders; nobody demanded an immediate appearance by the President. This book is history through popular imagery at its finest.

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