Prolific historian and University of Texas professor H.W. Brands continues his project of retelling the American national story through its principal actors in "Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants."
The author’s return to the “great man” school of history is somewhat problematic, since those presumed great men of American history are mostly white and seldom women. Still, the approach has virtues in making for a neat, character-driven history of the sort that nonspecialist readers like to read, in the manner of Douglas Brinkley, Steven Ambrose and other popularizers. Brands goes a little further afield to deal with three contemporaries who were rivals and occasional allies in the business of deciding what America was going to become at the time when the Founding Fathers were leaving the political field. Daniel Webster, by the author’s account, was a mesmerizing orator and debater, a man who “had a way with words that seemed almost supernatural.” John Calhoun of South Carolina was almost as gifted as his Massachusetts peer, with a fiery devotion to his home state, while plain-spun Henry Clay of Kentucky had his eyes on the opening West. None of the “great triumvirate,” as they were known, lived long enough to reckon with the Civil War and its aftermath, but all were principal players in the great post-Jacksonian debate over slavery and states’ rights. The greatest contribution of this book, full of historical set pieces and debates, is the author’s parsing of the regional and sectional differences that would lead to conflict, with the South enjoying undue influence. “The South,” writes Brands, “acting through the national government, had repeatedly secured the admission of new slave states: nine since the ratification of the Constitution, with Texas likely to spawn more.” Given the sectional and ideological divides at work today, the book is oddly timely — and unlikely in the moments when the three politicians managed to forge compromises.
"Heirs of the Founders" is a lesser work from Brands but a solid introduction to a post-revolutionary generation whose members, great and small, are little remembered today.
(Brands will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Nov. 26 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Author lives in pages of posthumous collection
"Evening in Paradise" is a collection of 22 stories from Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004 and made it big in 2015.
Berlin ("A Manual for Cleaning Women," 2015, etc.) published 76 stories in her lifetime in a number of small-press books. Three years ago, a collection that reprinted 43 of them took the literary world by storm, with placement on top-10 lists and comparisons to Carver, Paley, Munro and Chekhov abounding. (The book was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.) Blessedly, a second volume with 22 more stories is in no way second rate but rather features more seductive, sparkling autofiction with narrators whose names echo the author's in settings and situations that come from her roller-coaster biography (which is summarized in an appendix). The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with two set in El Paso, about a little troublemaker named Lucha, followed by three in Chile. In "Andado: A Gothic Romance," Laura's family is invited to spend four days at the country estate of a man named Don Andrés. Her parents can't make it, so they send her by herself. "Ted said his child would be coming, not a lovely woman," comments the former ambassador to France, one of the wealthiest men in Chile. "I'm fourteen," Laura replies. "I'm just all dressed up for this party." This information will not have much effect on Don Andrés' conduct. The title story takes its inspiration from the period when the author was married to Buddy Berlin, a jazz player and sometime heroin addict, and the two lived with their kids outside Puerto Vallarta. It features cameos by Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner and John Huston, whose appearance in that area during the filming of "Night of the Iguana" is legendary. Its lightheartedness is immediately balanced by "La Barca de la Ilusión," which finds its protagonist in a palapa with a floor of sand on the Mexican coast, home-schooling her boys, hoping that living in the middle of nowhere will keep her husband off drugs. (What she does to his dealer is probably fictional, but we'll never know.) For black humor and alcoholism, go straight to "The Wives," in which two exes of the same man get together to chug rum and reminisce, spilling drinks and burning holes in their clothes.
No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark and so in love with the world.