Robert E. Lee
and the Civil War

Burke Davis
God alone (perhaps) can explain our fascination with wars and warriors, especially a conflict as cruel as the American Civil War --- where some ten million died (medical help was primitive; a wound almost always led to infection and gangrene and a painful, hideous death.) Gray Fox is supposed to be some sort of a historical classic of that mutilation, but damn if we can figure out why. It was published in 1956, and The Christian Science Monitor said it was "fresh and vivid," but that says as much about Mary Baker Eddy heirs as it does about the Civil War.

Lee went here and there, trying to make order out of chaos, but for the life of us, we could be less interested in this tale as told here: simply, chronologically, with as much pizzazz as a wooden leg. We want history, if the truth be told, and as the old song has it, that will "light our fire." Slogging about in the mud-piles of West Virginia with Lee and his lieutenants just doesn't make it.

The author, they tell us, is getting along in years, but perhaps it isn't too late to give him some late-night sessions with Barbara Tuchman or perhaps, god knows, Herodotus so he can figure out how to put a battle story together with some verve and a little joy (as much joy as one could muster for what Edmund Wilson aptly called "Patriotic Gore.") With seven maps.

Sebastian Junger
It's as good as they say it is, and it's not only about storms --- it's about the culture and the economics of New England fishing, the design of fishing boats, the history of commercial fishing, and, scariest of all --- about the foundering of a boat in a storm and of, gag, dying by drowning (which is called, technically, "involuntary apnea.")

    If a boat rolls or flips over, the men in the wheelhouse are the first to drown...After that, the water rises up the companionway, flooding the galley and berths, and then starts up the inverted engine room hatch...If the boat is hull-up and there are men in the engine room, they are the last to die. They're in absolute darkness, under a landslide of tools and gear, the water rising up the companionway and the roar of the waves probably very muted through the hull...They're up to their waists and then their chests and then their chins and then there's no air at all. Just what's in their lungs, a minute's worth or so.

The author is excellent at putting together the words he needs to get us into the story. For instance, this, on running out of air. "The only thing more unpleasant than running of air," he says, "is breathing in water." He elaborates on the exact stages --- there are several --- of drowning, and if you have claustrophobia, or terror of dying at sea, don't pick this up as I did, at three a.m., on the edge of a panic attack, for Junger knows how to put words together to create high, spooky (and wet) drama.

Reports of
My Death

A Distinguished American Poet
Looks at the Literary Life of
Our Times

Karl Shapiro
(Algonquin of Chapel Hill)
Poetry has taught Shapiro to write a simple declarative sentence. And age has taught him to write with powerful honesty. This is heady reading for those of us who are fascinated with American poetic life, especially from the last fifty years.

This is a man who spent time with the likes of T S Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, W H Auden, and Dylan Thomas. He was editor of Poetry Magazine, worked for the Library of Congress (where he was asked if he was "a queer or a communist"), and the State Department. In other words, no matter how much he protests to his non-involvement, he was the bought-and-paid-for Poet of the Establishment --- but somehow, and despite this, he comes off as interesting, thoughtful, sometimes addle-headed but quite lovable. He has gone swimming in the many cross-currents of American literary art, and he comes away from this bath with an easy feel to him.

This is not to say that Reports of My Death isn't a bit eccentric. For one thing, Shapiro --- like Mailer --- shares a fear (or is it a loathing), of the word "I." The whole of the book is written in the third person, singular --- and the author when he is forced to distinguish himself, calls himself "The Poet." This sounds more obnoxious than it is, because one soon forgets this tic. His touch --- tempered by so many years of forming words --- is sound, his words clear, his observations, often exquisite:

    He had been finishing his semester teaching at Berkeley when the invitation came from the State Department. He was then still the editor of Poetry in Chicago, and they wanted a poet to carry the message of Walt Whitman around the world. It was 1955, the hundredth birthday of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and though he would have preferred to stay in California, which he had fallen for, he agreed to go, not just to India but to several other countries beginning with I --- Ireland, Italy, Israel. He wondered what kind of bureaucratic idiocy this could be. Were they working on the letter I at the State Department? Why not Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, and Borneo.

The strangest section comes at the conclusion of Reports of My Death(it's alluded to in the title). Shapiro panics because he has been named in the press --- not as a communist --- but as a suicide. First The New England Journal of Medicine, then The Saturday Evening Post, list him with other writers who have taken their own lives. (He found the most cutting insult of all was when he appeared in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, under the definition, "Late Poet.") He went though all the signs of breakdown --- erratic eating and sleeping, a case of nerves, weight loss, and depression. (He was so distressed, he tried to sue for mental anguish). The whole episode is a bit unsettling to the reader --- as it must have been to Shapiro --- because he the master of calm before he was fake-pinned as suicidal. Strange things, the psychiatrists tell us, will precipitate mid-life crises, and this one has to beat them all.

Not withstanding all that, it is a fine book, and brings back much nostalgia for those of us who lived in awe of a whole generation of poets.


The Long Search
For Home in the
Pacific Northwest

Sallie Tisdale
(Henry Holt)
We've been in love with Sallie Tisdale since we first read her in The Sun, and, later, found an article she did for Harpers on the pains and pleasures of working in a geriatric ward. It was sly and funny and genuinely humanitarian. So we opened Stepping Westward with pleasure; and ended up bored silly.

Tisdale defines "place" and how we all seek it; she delves into the history of the Pacific Northwest, drawing on the records of early explorers; she tells of her own early experiences there --- and we find ourselves thinking that we hold in our hand a book that has the feel of being produced on order, like one of those otiose reading books that Albert Manguel keeps pumping out, or the creepy history books by Martin Gilbert (or is it Gilbert Martin? --- like his works, the name is interchangeable) the ones for whom the phrase "word processing" was invented. Like sausage.

One of the problems is that Tisdale gets in a snit at --- for instance --- what the miners did to the trees and forests and hills and topsoil, or finds herself enraged at what the whites did to the Indians. Well, we all feel that rage, feel as she does that there were great wrongs done, injustice, as it were, on majestic scale. But once you've gotten over the horror, and are ready to move on, as the shrinks say, you get yet another bleeding heart pushing your nose in things that occurred here 150 years ago. They were tragic, right? --- but we can't do a damn thing about it except feel guilty, and after tens of thousands of books about man's cruelty to man --- I am damned if I can figure out what good my guilt is going to do for the world. Tisdale, we fear, is at her best with the short, personal essay, and whoever decided to let her loose on a 400 pager blew it.

---Lolita Lark

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