THE DEATH OF ADAM

ESSAYS ON MODERN THOUGHT

The author of Housekeeping (1980) and Mother Country (1989) challenges the accepted views of Calvin, Darwin, and others to invigorate intellectual discourse and, by extension, change our days and minds. As with her earlier works, Robinson’s essays are marked by her uneasiness with the workings of society and human consciousness. Here she attempts to counter people’s disturbingly easy acceptance of the “prevailing view of things” by taking a “contrarian” approach that assumes any side—in fact, each—may be wrong. Her aim is not to ridicule but to provide alternatives: “Put aside what we know, and it will start to speak to us again,” she says. Her essays on John Calvin revisit his contributions to modern government and religion, disputing Max Weber’s views of Protestantism and uncovering the influence of Renaissance writer Marguerite de Navarre. With the Mencken-inspired title “Puritans and Prigs” she traces the “generalized disapproval” of Puritanism to today’s self-congratulatory priggish eating of fish and correcting of offensive diction. The book’s title refers to the consequence of Darwinism, that is, the usurpation of God and human impulses by hard-wiring. As with all good philosophical essays, these pieces do more than shape thinking. They—re about life as it’s lived now. Like the 19th-century reformers she so appreciates in “McGuffey and the Abolitionists,” the author wants to engender good faith. When what passes for social criticism these days is issue-bound journalism, and when intellectual debate is largely confined to ivy halls, Robinson’s laboriously researched, inclusively presented opinions are welcome. They serve scholarship well, enlarging the audience for dialogue on broad questions of how to live. Her dogged textual dissections (e.g., of Lord Acton and other critics of Calvin) illuminate her readings; her epigrammatic observations (e.g., ’spiritual agoraphobes—) vividly capture our states of mind. Set aside Robinson’s occasional sober prolixity and find a moral gauntlet. This is a book written in hope.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 1998

ISBN: 0-395-92692-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1999

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

THIS IS SHAKESPEARE

A brisk study of 20 of the Bard’s plays, focused on stripping off four centuries of overcooked analysis and tangled reinterpretations.

“I don’t really care what he might have meant, nor should you,” writes Smith (Shakespeare Studies/Oxford Univ.; Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, 2016, etc.) in the introduction to this collection. Noting the “gappy” quality of many of his plays—i.e., the dearth of stage directions, the odd tonal and plot twists—the author strives to fill those gaps not with psychological analyses but rather historical context for the ambiguities. She’s less concerned, for instance, with whether Hamlet represents the first flower of the modern mind and instead keys into how the melancholy Dane and his father share a name, making it a study of “cumulative nostalgia” and our difficulty in escaping our pasts. Falstaff’s repeated appearances in multiple plays speak to Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing tendencies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a bawdier and darker exploration of marriage than its teen-friendly interpretations suggest. Smith’s strict-constructionist analyses of the plays can be illuminating: Her understanding of British mores and theater culture in the Elizabethan era explains why Richard III only half-heartedly abandons its charismatic title character, and she is insightful in her discussion of how Twelfth Night labors to return to heterosexual convention after introducing a host of queer tropes. Smith's Shakespeare is eminently fallible, collaborative, and innovative, deliberately warping play structures and then sorting out how much he needs to un-warp them. Yet the book is neither scholarly nor as patiently introductory as works by experts like Stephen Greenblatt. Attempts to goose the language with hipper references—Much Ado About Nothing highlights the “ ‘bros before hoes’ ethic of the military,” and Falstaff is likened to Homer Simpson—mostly fall flat.

A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4854-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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