Part 2 of Stan’s interview with historian John Ferling on Jefferson, Paine, and Monroe, as well a lightning round of “Rate that Founding Father.”
Stan talks to author John Ferling about his new book, Apostles of Revolution: Jefferson, Paine, Monroe and the Struggle Against the Old Order in America and Europe.
Last November, I attended a GHS historical marker dedication for former Savannah mayor Malcolm Maclean and afterwards an attendee approached and pulled me aside. Could she kindly make a suggestion? Of course, I replied, bracing for what might be next.
To my surprise, her suggestion was about my blog. Being somewhat technologically challenged, as she put it, she requested more written content and less of my podcast. Podcasts were all well and good, but she missed the essays about history and books and hoped that I’d get back to those.
I thought about her request when I started this column nearly six months ago, intending to see if I could meet the demands of a weekly deadline while at the same time having fun writing about whatever I was reading. The idea came last spring while perusing through back issues of the Saturday Review of Literature, the venerable weekly that was published between 1924 and 1971 that carried a similar essay.
My goal was to keep it short—less than 500 words—and to devote no more than an hour to writing it every week. Alas, I almost always exceeded the word limit and sometimes felt like the preacher Abraham Lincoln famously told a story about. He could have written shorter sermons, the parson confessed, but once he started writing he was too lazy to stop. The truth is, despite what you may believe, it’s much harder and takes more discipline to write 500 words about something you’re interested in than it is to write 1,000. But since I set the rules for this blog, I saw no problem in occasionally breaking them. You, dear reader, were the one who had to pay the price. I also usually spent more than the allotted time, but it was always and always fun.
Why, you ask, am I telling you all of this? This marks my 25th offering over nearly six months, and with this entry, “What I’m Reading Now” will go on a temporary sabbatical to make way for the second season of Off the Deaton Path podcasts. This will no doubt be a great relief to many long-suffering readers who will be spared this weekly agony, while horrifying others who dread the prospect of hearing my voice. Just remember, you’ve been warned.
My other goal here was to see if I could pass along even a fraction of the great passion I have for the printed word and the singular joy that comes from reading a good book. If I’ve succeeded in doing either of those things—even for just one person—then mission accomplished. We’ll lift a glass and declare victory. To quote my old friend Mr. Pickwick: “If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm.”
I hope the column will appear intermittently over the next six months as time and other duties allow. To everyone who took a moment to read a few words or who provided feedback, I hope you’ll stay for the podcast and come back for more next spring.
To one and all, a heartfelt and sincere Thank You.
What creates our identity and makes us the person that we are? Our gender? Our sexual organs? Our DNA and our parents? Our country of origin? Religion and History?
Award-winning journalist Susan Faludi received in 2004 an email from her father, with whom she’d barely spoken for 25 years, with the subject line, “Changes.” Her father Steven—at the age of 76—had become Stefanie: “Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”
Her Hungarian father had undergone sexual reassignment surgery, and Susan would spend the next 10 years trying to get to know her father and uncover his long-hidden Jewish past during the Holocaust in Hungary: “As a child I had resented and, later, feared him, and when I was a teenager he had left the family—or rather been forced to leave, by my mother and by the police, after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father’s character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound. I had none.”
This book is the story of her journey to understand her father’s real identity. The title comes from her father’s fascination with photography, and his lifelong habit of using a camera lens to obscure not only the reality in front of him but also his own murky past—and ultimately who he really was. I didn’t think it possible to mix a study of transsexuality with the history of the Holocaust, but Faludi has done it superbly, uncovering layer by layer pieces of her father’s history.
The result is a fascinating journey into the meaning of gender, sexuality, history, and ultimately identity. Can we re-invent ourselves and escape who we really are by changing our name and our sexual organs? Is biology destiny? Is that ultimately what creates our identity? Or is the past unescapable, both for individuals and for nations?
Faludi the journalist tells a larger story here as well. As her father reinvents himself, so does modern-day Hungary. She deftly details the rise of the modern authoritarian government there and its quest to “restore” Hungary to its “true” identity, a frightening “pure” Hungarianism that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT. The clashes on the streets of Budapest reverberate far beyond its borders, across Europe and America.
The questions Faludi poses about identity and history are more pertinent and troubling than ever, both for ourselves individually and for our society collectively. Individually, social media allows us to reinvent ourselves as we choose and present a public brand of our own creation, while collectively we are seemingly at war over the meaning of our own history and the story it tells in the public arena. Some of those who decry the removal of Confederate monuments as “erasing history” applauded when Communist statues came down in Eastern Europe and approve now the erasure of slavery from American history textbooks.
The answers to the questions about history, memory, and identity remain elusive but astoundingly important. What, ultimately, creates our identity and makes us who we are?
I first discovered Clifton “Kip” Fadiman 30 years ago through a battered copy of his 1960 book, The Lifetime Reading Plan, found while prowling the stacks at Oxford Too, that beloved now-defunct used bookstore in Atlanta’s Peachtree Battle Shopping Center.
Fadiman became one of the 20th century’s most public of public intellectuals after anti-Semitism kept him out of the academy. The head of the English department at Columbia noxiously informed him in the 1920s, “We have room for only one Jew,” and the seat was filled.
Instead, Fadiman extolled the virtues of reading everywhere he could in the public arena, from books to newspaper essays to 10 years as book editor of the New Yorker. For nearly 50 years he served on the board of the Book of the Month Club, which played an outsized role in determining post-war America’s reading tastes. He was on the board of the Encyclopedia Britannica for 40 years and became one of its most public faces in that pre-Google age when it held unchecked authority for all things factual. In radio’s latter days and in television’s infancy he hosted a highly popular program called “Information Please” (not unlike NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”), where he might ask the panelists to close their eyes and try to remember the color of their ties. He wrote countless forewords, anthologies, and book reviews, co-wrote the mammoth The Joys of Wine, and published four editions of The Lifetime Reading Plan before his death at age 95 in 1999.
The Lifetime Reading Plan celebrated unashamedly the Western Literary Canon, though to his credit the 4th edition of the Plan, written with John S. Major, included for the first time many volumes of the Eastern Canon as well.
Fadiman’s advice was sound: The Great Books could enrich our lives and help us “avoid mental bankruptcy.” Take your time, he advised: “They should not be read in a hurry, any more than friends are made in a hurry. This list is not something to be ‘got through.’ It is a mine of such richness of assay as to last a lifetime.” I’m still reading the books on Kip’s list and plan to have a bookmark in one on my last day.
The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a moving tribute to Fadiman the father, reader, and yes, wine lover, from his daughter Anne, no slouch herself. Kip was enormously proud of his daughter and rightfully so. Her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award, and I devoured her collections of bookish essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) and At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007).
There’s much more about wine here than books (disappointing to this bibliophile), but we do learn that Kip read 80 pages an hour in his prime. No wonder he could read so many books. Tragically, his last decade brought near-blindness, but—reader to the end—he happily embraced the joys of audiobooks.
After her father’s death—on Father’s Day, no less—Anne Fadiman lovingly scattered his ashes on “a few carefully chosen graves” in Concord, Massachusetts—those of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott.
It was a beautiful gesture, a fitting closure to the life of a Great Reader.