A somewhat lite but always engaging account of the modernist movement’s development in America, as seen through the prism of a great American opera. Modernism first arrived in the US via the highly influential and controversial Armory show of 1913, but didn—t gain mainstream appeal until the late 1920s and early 1930s—when it was picked up and promoted by a group of young Harvard graduates who styled themselves “The Friends” or “The Family.” Including the architect Philip Johnson, museum curator Chick Austin, and balletomane Lincoln Kirstein, “The Family” consisted of a brotherhood of wealthy, well-connected, largely homosexual boy geniuses whose support and patronage of fellow alum Virgil Thomson led to the 1933 staging of his opera Four Saints in Three Acts on Broadway. Watson (The Birth of the Beat Generation, 1995, etc.) argues that Four Saints helped to foster mass American acceptance of modernist modalities. Certainly, the opera brought together a glittering assemblage of collaborators. Gertrude Stein wrote the lyrics, Frederick Ashton choreographed, John Houseman directed, and Florine Stettheimer created the set and costumes. Watson provides brief biographies of all concerned. But he focuses on the tumultuous relationship of Stein and Thomson. She was 22 years older, prickly, less famous than she wished to be, while Thomson was a promising unknown. Even with his powerful allies, it took nearly six years to get the opera produced. The ruptures and reconciliations with Stein made things even more difficult. The opera is rarely revived today, but the beauty of its staging, the novelty of its all-black cast, and its general newness made it a landmark when it opened. Despite the opera’s success and its influence, Thomson and Stein only collaborated once more (on the lesser-known The Mother of Us All). The occasional shallows of his wide-ranging account are surpassed by the depth of Watson’s presentation of a pivotal cultural moment. (100 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-679-44139-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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