An informed look at Southern history refracted through the lens of fiction.

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ATTICUS FINCH

THE BIOGRAPHY

The creation and evolution of a fictional character serves as a mirror of racial politics.

Atticus Finch appeared in two novels written by Harper Lee: as the hero of the Pulitzer Prize–winning To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960; and as a more complex character—hardly a “touchstone of decency and goodness”—in Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, not published until 2015. Crespino (History/Emory Univ.; Strom Thurmond’s America, 2012, etc.) makes the fictional Atticus central to his study of Lee’s father, lawyer and newspaper editor A.C. Lee; Harper’s career as a writer; and, what gives the book heft, a close look at the Southern politics and civil rights struggles in the 1950s and ’60s from which Lee’s fiction emerged. When Mockingbird first appeared, A.C. was surprised when his neighbors in Monroeville, Alabama, greeted him as Atticus Finch. “He hadn’t recognized himself in the book at all,” writes the author. Nor would he have recognized himself in the “shrewd lawyer” with racist views of Go Set a Watchman. Lee’s first book was unsettling to many of Mockingbird’s fans precisely because Atticus was both a “principled southerner” and “a pragmatic segregationist.” While biographers have assumed A.C. was the inspiration for Atticus in Mockingbird, Crespino probes the extent to which Lee portrayed her father in the darker Watchman. Besides drawing on newly available correspondence, he examines hundreds of editorials in which A.C. expressed opinions on local and national issues to offer a nuanced portrait of a man of “paternalistic sensibilities” who “saw no profit in inflaming racial passions on either side of the color line.” The Atticus of Mockingbird, who exuded “moral courage, tolerance, and understanding,” evolved, Crespino asserts, from the portrayal in Watchman of a man who abided the “hypocrisy and injustice” of his own generation. Lee’s Atticus was himself transformed by Gregory Peck in a movie adaptation that underscored stalwart virtue.

An informed look at Southern history refracted through the lens of fiction.

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5416-4494-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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