Are you ready for all Lincoln all the time? Do you worry that you’ll need some help in cutting through the bicentennial blather? If you’re looking for a quick refresher (as opposed, say, to the two-part, six volume mythologizing biography Carl Sandburg completed in 1939), try The Best American History Essays on Lincoln (Palgrave Macmillan, $16.95), a selection of 11 essays from the past 60 years edited by Sean Wilentz for the Organization of American Historians. All the essays (with the exception of a chapter from Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore) are by eminent professors of history, among them Richard Hofstadter, David Herbert Donald, John Hope Franklin and James M. McPherson. In addition to the impeccable scholarship and deliberate judgment on display throughout, there’s the fun of watching the professionals diss the amateurs.
The action begins in Mr. Wilentz’s introduction, where he sneers at the “picturesque costume dramas that commonly appear under the heading of popular history and biography.” Perhaps the sharpest put-down comes from Edmund Wilson, who deplores the “romantic and sentimental rubbish” written about the Great Emancipator and wonders whether “the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
FRANK RICH BEGINS HIS most recent column (www.nytimes.com) with a literary allusion that’s very nearly a perfect fit. Mr. Rich compares George W. Bush to “the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan,” Daisy’s bad boy husband in The Great Gatsby. Tom and W. are both Yalies, true, and it’s also true that both are arrogant, narcissistic hypocrites, children of privilege and victims of arrested development with zero self-awareness and a supercilious manner. It might be a stretch to call Tom “the entitled scion of one of America’s aristocratic dynasties” (all we know about his pedigree is that his family were “enormously wealthy” Midwesterners), but we can surely agree that Tom and Mr. Bush share the carelessness that smashes up things and creatures and lets other people clean up the mess. Fitzgerald’s famous condemnation of the Buchanans must be the point of the comparison. So far, so good.
But here’s what Mr. Rich actually wrote: “He’s the reckless Yalie Tom Buchanan, not Gatsby. He is smaller than life.” That last sentence spoils it. Tom may be stunted in a moral and intellectual sense (when Tom and Nick Carraway run into each other at the end of the novel, Nick feels as though he were “talking to a child”), but the image of Tom that sticks in every reader’s mind is of overpowering animal force. Fitzgerald insists on it from the first: “Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.” Daisy complains that she has married “a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen.” Tom protests that he hates “that word hulking,” but Daisy has nailed it. Physically, he’s larger than life, a hulk in every sense.
A QUICK GLANCE AT the contents page of Ali Smith’s disappointing new collection, The First Person (Pantheon, $23.95), is enough to confirm the suspicion aroused by the title that this is going to be a self-reflexive wallow. “True Short Story,” “The Third Person,” “The History of History,” The Second Person,” “Writ”—what are the chance of finding a good yarn in there? None.
Here’s proof, from the title story:
“You’re not the first person to spin me a yarn, I say.
“I’m pre-yarn, you say. I’m post-yarn. Yarn.
“You say the word yarn like you said the word yawn this morning. I try not to laugh.”
Yes—I think we can manage to repress our laughter.
A pity, because Ms. Smith truly is “a skilled, majestically confident writer”—that’s from a blurb on the back of The First Person attributed to The Observer. I confess that I wrote those words (about Ms. Smith’s prize-winning novel, The Accidental). Now that I’ve read her latest short stories, I’d like to amend my judgment: Ms. Smith is a skilled, majestically confident writer who must in the future work very hard to avoid solipsistic self-indulgence.