"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rebels and Their Biographers

The always-readable Terry Eagleton (whose recent book on sacrifice I discussed here) has a rather savage review in the current London Review of Books of a biography by Claire Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard. Eagleton's major complaint is that the biographer indulges too much in what Melanie Klein might call projective identification with her subject, turning him into an emotionally overwrought nice guy when, Eagleton says, he was anything but.

Elsewhere in the same issue the well-known historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has a critical review of Roy Flechner's St. Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. MacCulloch notes that there are numerous strengths to the book, but that it sometimes gets tripped up with the same historiographical problems that tend to bedevil treatments of Patrick and others from that era, some of which will probably never be resolved no matter how many times this ground is retrod and the story retold.

Colin Grant offers a fascinating review of David Blight's recent book, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster, 2018), 892pp. The book has already won a number of awards since publication last October. About it the publisher tells us this:
As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.
Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, using his own story to condemn slavery. By the Civil War, Douglass had become the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. After the war he sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.
In this “cinematic and deeply engaging” (The New York Times Book Review) biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. “Absorbing and even moving…a brilliant book that speaks to our own time as well as Douglass’s” (The Wall Street Journal), Blight’s biography tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. “David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass…a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the nineteenth century” (The Boston Globe).

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