A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

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ON JUNETEENTH

The Harvard historian and Texas native demonstrates what the holiday means to her and to the rest of the nation.

Initially celebrated primarily by Black Texans, Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived in Galveston to proclaim the end of slavery with the defeat of the Confederacy. If only history were that simple. In her latest, Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and numerous other honors, describes how Whites raged and committed violence against celebratory Blacks as racism in Texas and across the country continued to spread through segregation, Jim Crow laws, and separate-but-equal rationalizations. As Gordon-Reed amply shows in this smooth combination of memoir, essay, and history, such racism is by no means a thing of the past, even as Juneteenth has come to be celebrated by all of Texas and throughout the U.S. The Galveston announcement, notes the author, came well after the Emancipation Proclamation but before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Though Gordon-Reed writes fondly of her native state, especially the strong familial ties and sense of community, she acknowledges her challenges as a woman of color in a state where “the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” The author astutely explores “what that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man.” With all of its diversity and geographic expanse, Texas also has a singular history—as part of Mexico, as its own republic from 1836 to 1846, and as a place that “has connections to people of African descent that go back centuries.” All of this provides context for the uniqueness of this historical moment, which Gordon-Reed explores with her characteristic rigor and insight.

A concise personal and scholarly history that avoids academic jargon as it illuminates emotional truths.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63149-883-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of...

ALEXANDER HAMILTON

A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father.

“In all probability,” writes financial historian/biographer Chernow (Titan, 1998, etc.), “Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and lasting impact than many who did.” Indeed, we live in a Hamiltonian republic through and through, and not a Jeffersonian democracy. Many of the financial and tax systems that Hamilton proposed and put in place as the nation’s first treasury secretary are with us today, if in evolved form, as Chernow shows; and though Hamilton was derided in his time as being pro-British and even a secret monarchist, Chernow writes, he was second only to George Washington in political prominence, at least on the practical, day-to-day front. The author wisely acknowledges but does not dwell unduly on Washington’s quasi-paternal role in Hamilton’s life and fortunes; unlike many biographies that consider Hamilton only in Washington’s shadow, this one grants him a life of his own—and a stirring one at that, for Hamilton was both intensely cerebral and a man of action. He was, Chernow writes, a brilliant ancestor of the abolitionist cause; a native of the slave island of Nevis, he came to hate “the tyranny embodied by the planters and their authoritarian rule, while also fearing the potential uprisings of the disaffected slaves”—a dichotomy that influenced his views of ordinary politics. He was also constantly in opposition to things as they were, particularly where those things were Jeffersonian; as Chernow shows, Hamilton had early on been “an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, Native Americans, and Jews,” but became a crusty conservative near the end of his brief life (1755–1804), perhaps as a result of one too many personal setbacks at the hands of the Jeffersonians.

Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art.

Pub Date: April 26, 2004

ISBN: 1-59420-009-2

Page Count: 802

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2004

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A marvelous exploration by an author steeped in the craft of his subject’s elastic, elusive work.

THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS

The mystery of the iconic novelist’s divided self as beautifully parsed by accomplished English biographer and novelist Wilson.

In this utterly satisfying investigative narrative, the author moves from Dickens’ death in 1870 back through his career and childhood trauma being sent to work in a blacking factory at age 12. It’s clear that Wilson fully comprehends the many complexities of the wily novelist, public performer, and secret lover. Beginning with the mystery of his death, the author re-creates the last day of the famous novelist’s life as he made the habitual hour’s journey from his home at Gad’s Hill, Kent, to his mistress’s house in Peckham (places have major significance in Dickens’ work). There, he suffered a seizure and was returned to his home to die a respectable death, surrounded by his estranged wife—tortured, as Wilson calls her—and some of his many adult children. Wilson gradually, engagingly unravels the circumstances surrounding his death. “Dickens was good at dying,” he writes. “If you want a good death, go to the novels of Dickens.” The novelist had been consumed by his love affair with the former actress Nelly Ternan for the previous 13 years and had bought the house where she lived with her mother and sisters. Just that morning, Dickens had been working toward the conclusion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a book that was destined to be left incomplete, and was saturated with a sense of raging passion for a young, unobtainable girl. (Wilson ably dispels the myth that Dickens did not write about sex.) Wilson writes with precision, intuition, and enormous compassion for Dickens’ senses of social justice and outrage, especially regarding children in the mercilessly materialist Victorian era. The author also charmingly conveys his own early enchantment with Dickens’ books.

A marvelous exploration by an author steeped in the craft of his subject’s elastic, elusive work.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-295494-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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