James Summerville

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek, appears regularly on “Meet the Press,” “Larry King Live” and “Today,” and that background is apparent in his new book, The War Lovers. Readers who enjoy made-for-television history are most likely to appreciate this rehash of the events that led to the Spanish-American War and what the jacket copy calls our nation’s “ferocious drive toward empire.” The explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, was almost certainly an accident, but newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst charged that Spanish saboteurs had planted explosives on the craft. Hearst’s headlines in his New York Journal pressured Congress to declare war, a step favored by powerful Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. The third “war lover,” Theodore Roosevelt, actually fought in the war, and his charge up San Juan Heights under enemy fire made him a national hero—and ultimately President of the United States. Yet Thomas accuses the trio of fabricating evidence to support the theory of an act of terrorism.

Thomas’ own heroes are two doves: Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed and William James, psychologist, philosopher, religious thinker and Harvard professor. Although Lodge and Roosevelt had once planned how to win the presidency for Reed, the speaker broke with his former friends over the war, and James pronounced the United States “now as dangerous to the world as anything since Bonaparte’s time.” He understood that Spain had oppressed the Cuban people, he said—but he could not excuse President McKinley’s demand for the Philippines in the name of freedom and uplift.

Thomas clearly means the reader to see parallels between U.S. foreign policy of the late 19th century and the early 21st century. In both eras, did America invent enemies and rush to war?

A cropped portrait of Theodore Roosevelt serves as the cover illustration for The War Lovers. Thomas notes that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby hung Roosevelt’s likeness over his desk, “drawing inspiration from it” as he toiled for his boss, Vice President Richard Cheney. That’s just the sort of anecdote that Larry King fans will love to hear Thomas tell.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek, appears regularly on “Meet the Press,” “Larry King Live” and “Today,” and that background is apparent in his new book, The War Lovers. Readers who enjoy made-for-television history are most likely to appreciate this rehash of the events that led to the Spanish-American War and what the jacket […]

Once, back when conservation was taught in schools, every youngster heard the teacher say, “To see what man has wrought, go to Europe. But to see what God has wrought, come to America.” While the Old World has its palaces and cathedrals, Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone and the nearly 60 other national parks that comprise our “empire of grandeur.” A sumptuous new book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, recounts the history and preservation of these treasured places.

The book is a visual adventure, like its companion, the recently aired PBS production of the same name. Ken Burns and crew shot 150 hours of film and collected 12,000 archival photographs, distilling their work here. Of course they include such iconic places as the sun-splashed Grand Tetons of Wyoming and the valley of the Colorado River. Less well known but equally breathtaking are Oregon’s Crater Lake in winter and the Dakota badlands. Some of the historic pictures—chiaroscuro studies—feel nearly three-dimensional. Others touch the heart, including one of John Muir as an old man, broken by the loss of his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, flooded for a reservoir.

Filmmaker Burns’ works are abundant with characters. This story of “America’s best idea” is likewise a story of people: those who first saw these spirit-lifting landscapes, reported on them to the world and fought for their protection—or tried to destroy them for profit. Theodore Roosevelt inevitably bestrides these pages. Muir, a close friend, called him “the most vital man on the continent,” and with good reason: during his presidency (1901-09), more than 280,000 square miles—a total area larger than Texas—were placed under protection of some kind.

Less famous heroes also gave their working lives to the conservation cause, writing articles, making speeches and lobbying politicians to save places with canyons, glaciers and giant trees. After an early life of dissolution, Horace Kephart took refuge in the mountain fastness of eastern Tennessee in 1904, where he witnessed logging companies laying waste to vast tracts of ancient timber. Owing his life to the wilderness, he joined the movement to save what was left. He was rewarded in 1934, when another President Roosevelt signed the law creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When the authors refer to “the scripture of nature,” it becomes clear that their journey to make this stunning book was very much like a pilgrimage—and we are the richer for it. 

Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Once, back when conservation was taught in schools, every youngster heard the teacher say, “To see what man has wrought, go to Europe. But to see what God has wrought, come to America.” While the Old World has its palaces and cathedrals, Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone and the nearly 60 other national parks that comprise […]

Hers is a face recognized around the world, 65 years after her death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Because her picture survived, she stands for the faceless millions who were herded, stripped, whipped and forced into the gas chambers. Her personal struggle came to life in the journal she kept while her family hid in a cramped attic from the Nazi patrols.

In Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, novelist Francine Prose aims to rescue Anne Frank from the mythmakers of Broadway and Hollywood, who turned her story into a “universal” one about tolerance and human goodness. She excoriates the play and the film, which portrayed a naïve nitwit and downplayed Anne’s Jewishness.

Prose sends us back instead to Anne’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, insisting on Anne’s prodigious literary gifts, her religious faith and her understanding of the devils who had taken over Europe. With extensive quotes and paraphrases from the attic chronicle, she calls attention to the teen’s powers of observation. Especially noteworthy are the depiction of her parents and others who shared the closed cramped space, Anne’s blooming puberty—and the fear of discovery, arrest and death.

Still, says Prose, the proof of Frank’s genius is her capacity for revision. Anne reworked her daily entries to sharpen, clarify or set in relief details of the quotidian life under the eaves. Prose writes, “Anne can render a moment in which everyone is talking simultaneously, acting or reacting, an example of barely contained chaos that poses a challenge for even the practiced writer.”

The most compelling chapters of this study are “the afterlife.” Otto Frank, Anne’s father, recovered the diary and saw it into publication, which made him a wealthy man. But the saccharine adaptations from it falsified the profundity of Anne’s work, according to Prose. The book, and only the book, can depict a brilliant young writer’s acute observation of a world gone mad.

Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Hers is a face recognized around the world, 65 years after her death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Because her picture survived, she stands for the faceless millions who were herded, stripped, whipped and forced into the gas chambers. Her personal struggle came to life in the journal she kept while her family hid […]

The 51-mile link between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean across the Panamanian isthmus stands as one of the great engineering feats of all human history, comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Apollo moon landings. In The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal, labor historian Julie Greene asks: Was it the princes or presidents who did those things? What about the compass bearers, the joiners and those who fed the horses and cooked the meals?

The central figures in Greene's story—the "builders‚" referred to in her title—are the 35,000 ordinary people who traveled to Panama, and, from 1906 to 1914, raised new towns, built houses, ran railroads, operated commissaries, set up a constabulary and judiciary and, above all, moved dirt. Greene examines how the U.S. government, determined to build the canal as fast as possible, managed this force of working people from all over the world.

"The engineering and constructional difficulties melt into insignificance compared with labor‚" she quotes chief engineer John Stevens as saying. Indeed, Greene finds that project director Col. George W. Goethals tried to apply the ideal of Progressivism: that by regulating environments one could improve human behavior. While the jungle gave way before steam shovels, this social engineering faltered and often failed. Goethals could not control appetites for drink, sex and money; eliminate racial or ethnic prejudice; make people fair or honest; or come close to perfecting the human character. The undeniable success of the project even left an indelible stain on the Republic of Panama, which the U.S. had brought into being: that country's sovereignty over its own territory was not retuned to it until 2000, when the U.S. ceded the Canal.

The great adventure might have taught Americans to take people and nations not as we might wish them to be but as they often are: perverse, selfish, nationalistic. Yet somehow the overtopping idealism and magnificent vision inspired this multitude to build the great Canal.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

The 51-mile link between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean across the Panamanian isthmus stands as one of the great engineering feats of all human history, comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Apollo moon landings. In The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal, labor historian Julie Greene asks: Was […]

The children raised during the 1930s are facing the end of life. Among them, you'll find many who revere the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal brought a Social Security check to the house. A government agency employed a dad to cut grass. But come now the grandchildren of that generation. A gentleman would not ask a lady her age, but I suspect that Amity Shlaes, a financial journalist and the author of The Greedy Hand, grew up during the years when FDR's statist liberalism was roundly discredited by critics from William Buckley Jr. to Ronald Reagan. In her latest book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, she pronounces the New Deal an economic failure, which it largely was, and a cultural calamity. More on that last below.

The reader will require some facility with math to follow the author's arguments about measures of misery. But the gross proofs, with which she prefaces each chapter, undercut any claim that the Roosevelt Administration beat the crisis of unemployment. Only preparation for war did that. Shlaes faults one bad decision after another of the New Deal planners. Their greatest mistake, she insists, was to undercut the powerful economic engine that had built the wealth of the 1920s. Playing a significant role were the entrepreneurs who took advantage of open markets, like Samuel Insull and Wendell Wilkie. These two, according to Shlaes, had in their capability the most bountiful industry of all, electrical power generation and distribution. Another hero of this book is Andrew Mellon, whose wealth he turned back to establish a research center for innovation in business and a national art gallery for the United States.

Roosevelt's New Deal sought to punish financiers for the Crash, and so looked with favor on the prosecution of Insull for shareholders' losses. Wilkie and his privately held Commonwealth and Southern Corp. were driven out of business by the taxpayer-funded TVA; Mellon constantly had his income audited by the federal government.

And there is the forgotten man of the title, which is verbally ironic. This does not refer to the victim of hard times, but the unwitting average citizens whom the New Deal coerced into funding dubious social projects. Here, Shlaes profiles the comical but determined Schecters, poultry middlemen of Brooklyn, who just wanted to sell their chickens to whomever would buy until an NRA Codes enforcer intervened. They sued and the humble bird brought down the Blue Eagle, when the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act with its police powers unconstitutional.

According to Shlaes, Roosevelt redeemed his failed policies by putting together a coalition of interest groups which certain New Deal actions did indeed reward: farmers, organized labor, black Americans. Although the author does not say so, she clearly invites us to consider the New Deal as the forerunner of today's America, split along lines of race, gender and class.

A short review hardly does justice to a book of this complexity and depth. None will read this book for the felicity of its prose style. But everyone who thinks and studies and writes about these traumatic years what some have called another American revolution will have to take The Forgotten Man into account.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

The children raised during the 1930s are facing the end of life. Among them, you'll find many who revere the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal brought a Social Security check to the house. A government agency employed a dad to cut grass. But come now the grandchildren of that generation. A gentleman […]

Theodore Roosevelt's scientific trek through the Amazon wilderness in 1913-14 is not as well known as many other explorations of the Americas. In Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, his trip has finally found a chronicler equal to this astonishing story of horror and triumph. Millard understands Roosevelt as a man who always needed a challenge, especially after any personal loss or public defeat, such as he had suffered in losing the presidential election of 1912. Hence, Roosevelt agreed to lead a dangerous expedition down the unexplored 950-mile River of Doubt.

The former president left the details to two ignorant and ambitious men aiming to redeem their checkered careers with a triumphant venture using his famous name. They sent the party unprepared into a terrifying wilderness. Millard offers a powerful depiction of the merciless rain forest, where the expedition met festering insects that rent their skins, wild rapids requiring long portages and native tribes hostile to intruders. One calamity followed another. TR's darkest hour began when he jumped into the black river to save a loose boat. An injury turned into infection. He told the others to go on, planning to meet death with the vial of poison he had packed for use in such circumstances. Son Kermit, one of the heroes of this tale, defied his father, declaring that they would all stay together. Finally, they came upon settlements of poor folk who eked out a living tapping rubber trees, but shared what they had with TR's crew. Other heroes in this stirring story include Candido Rondon, the Brazilian who co-commanded the expedition. He had laid telegraph wires through the rain forest and his experience helped save the ill-charted enterprise. Today, Brazil honors him for his work to bring the Amazon's aboriginal people into the life of the nation.

 

James Summerville serves as a trustee of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

Theodore Roosevelt's scientific trek through the Amazon wilderness in 1913-14 is not as well known as many other explorations of the Americas. In Candice Millard's The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, his trip has finally found a chronicler equal to this astonishing story of horror and triumph. Millard understands Roosevelt as a man […]

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