Kirkus Reviews QR Code
AMERICAN GOTHIC by Gene Smith

AMERICAN GOTHIC

The Story of America's Legendary Theatrical Family--Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth

By Gene Smith

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-671-76713-5
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 The Booth family's important place in theater history has often been overshadowed or obscured by the notoriety of John Wilkes. This anecdotal group-biography, by the author of When the Cheering Stopped and other popular history/biography, doesn't help matters much--since nearly half the book is devoted to the largely familiar assassination saga. As a personality, father Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) seems the most interesting figure here. The son of a well-to-do London lawyer, young wastrel Junius was unprepossessing offstage but, more than a little mad, became a quick success in frenzied acting roles. He soon ran off to America with his pregnant mistress, abandoning a wife and child; within a year, he was considered the country's most prominent actor and, settling in Maryland, he fathered more children, cultivated many eccentricities, and succumbed frequently to alcoholism. Somber teenaged son Edwin was pushed onstage early; he went through a libertine phase, roughed it on the mining-camp vaudeville circuit, suffered from depression and alcoholism--but emerged, in his unextravagant way, as the era's greatest Hamlet, the ``Prince of Players.'' His little brother Johnny had it easier; with legendary good looks and natural exuberance, his acting fame came without much effort. But, for reasons never made clear, John Wilkes became obsessed with the South's defeat, with the idea of kidnapping and, later, with killing Lincoln. Smith savors every detail of the assassination melodrama, even those--like Mrs. Lincoln's neuroses--that have nothing to do with Booth. By contrast, Edwin's life from 1865 to 1893 (blighted by shame but busy nonetheless) is covered in two sketchy chapters. And the book is limited throughout by Smith's failure to probe or interpret, by his willingness to give equal weight to stories of varying credibility. Readable but only half-satisfying pop-history--more for assassination buffs (Smith brings together many sources) than for fanciers of theater history. (B&w photos--not seen.)