What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Pair of Brilliant Books About the Perils of Idealism

It's hard enough to find one fabulous and compelling book about a given subject, but to discover two that focus on roughly the same material in a short period of time; and then to have one of those be a novel that's been out for several years and the second a work of narrative non-fiction that won't be published for another month or two -- well, that's astonishing. The fact that the authors are a couple -- Geraldine Brooks (author of March) and Tony Horwitz (author of Midnight Rising) just makes it even more exciting, and left me longing to hang out at their dinner table and just listen to the conversation for, oh, a couple of weeks every year.

I had enjoyed Brooks's non-fiction writing so much that I had somehow convinced myself that her novels couldn't measure up -- yes, despite the Pulitzer that she won for March. Thank God I finally succumbed and picked up this novel, as it has gone straight on to my list of best books of the year. It's that rare bird -- a literary hommage that is neither slavishly devoted to the original (and thus nothing more than a tedious echo) nor untrue to it (making it nothing more than a modern day yarn in crinolines). In it, Brooks fills in the gaps in Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel, Little Women, by telling the story of what happened to their husband and father, Captain March, during his absence from the family. Alcott's March is an idealized paterfamilias; Brooks portrays him as a fallible dreamer forced to confront his own limitations and imperfect nature as he struggles to minister and teach in the midst of war. She does this so well, making him both sympathetic in his idealism and yet frustratingly irritating in his failure to understand the consequences of his inability to be practical or to compromise. At times while reading this novel I admit I sympathized with those March notices giving him "a look of the kind that I had become all too familiar with in the course of my life, a look that combined pity and exasperation."

Brooks's March is a utopian idealist, a vegetarian, someone who struggles to live out his dreams and fails to realize the impact of his dreams on those around him, whether it is his wife and children or the "contraband of war" (aka, the liberated slaves) whom he is sent to teach by the army when he proves demoralizing to the men to whom he had been trying to provide spiritual comfort. In the novel, she effortlessly blends the narrative as we know it from Little Women, giving the reader a plausible back story for Captain March that explains his personality and his actions, and leads right up to the point in Alcott's narrative where Marmee must travel urgently to Washington, where her husband is near death.
I think March blends perfectly with Little Women, although the former is the kind of nuanced book that could only have been written today. Nonetheless, I think it captures the ambivalence of those like March who believe absolutely in emancipation and yet have little idea of how to remake the world in a way that will be as welcoming to black as to white.

Intriguingly, Brooks's husband, Tony Horwitz, has written a non-fiction account of the efforts of another utopian idealist, John Brown, to eliminate the same evils of slavery that Captain March finds so abhorrent. (Indeed, in Brooks's novel, March impoverishes himself supporting some of Brown's projects and campaigns, at least in part to win the admiration of Marmee, portrayed in the novel as an even more ardent abolitionist.) But if March has little concept of what an egalitarian society might look like, Horwitz shows us that John Brown was one of the few abolitionists of his time who didn't just believe in wiping slavery from the face of the earth but acted in a truly egalitarian manner; he was, it seems, color-blind in a way that is still too rare today.

Horwitz's chronicle of events leading up to the doomed insurrection at Harper's Ferry is compelling, reminding us of the context in which he acted. Too often, looking aback at the Civil War, we forget that up until the time he and his tiny band of followers resorted to violence, the status quo was accepted, however reluctantly, across much of the North. Any conflict about slavery was largely confined to the issue of whether it would be allowed to spread to new territories and states in the West -- a conflict in which Brown participated and where his family experienced losses of their own. Arguably, John Brown's failure at Harper's Ferry paved the way for Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the southern states, civil war and -- ultimately -- abolition.

Was Brown a madman? A monomaniac? Or a Messiah? Horwitz deals only tangentially with those questions, chronicling his life and experiences right up until his final days but letting readers draw their own conclusions. What I found more compelling about this book was Horwitz's ability to knit together not only Brown's tale but that of his companions at Harper's Ferry -- some of his sons, other idealists, drifters, free African-Americans and escaped slaves -- an oddball assortment who tried to force America to live up to the ideals enshrined in its own constitution and other founding documents. When the climax arrives and Brown's small troupe marches on Harper's Ferry, this becomes a book that is absolutely impossible to put down until the final outcome becomes clear. Even then, the final pages hold a poignant message, as Horwitz documents the link between one of John Brown's raiders and African-American poet Langston Hughes.

This is a more straightforward historical narrative than Horwitz has crafted to date -- most of his prior books have featured himself as a character, whether it's following in the footsteps of Captain Cook or becoming a Civil War re-enactor for Confederates in the Attic. He emerges as a thoughtful and articulate historian, who has crafted an impressive and immensely readable chronicle of John Brown, the history of slavery in the fledgling United States and -- above all -- the deserved return to the spotlight of all those who made possible the Harper's Ferry crusade, from financial supporters in Boston to the motley crew in the Virginia farmhouse waiting for the sign to risk their lives in support of an ideal. In the years to come, millions more men would do just that, most with far less pure motives, and I finished this impressive book wondering what John Brown would have made of the world that followed the Civil War, Reconstruction and, tragically, the rise of "Jim Crow" in the South.

I'd recommend both books very highly indeed; while you're waiting for Midnight Rising to appear in bookstores and libraries (it's due out October 25), go check out March and read or re-read it. They fit together in a way that is almost eerie, as Horwitz's imagined version of Captain March struggles to implement the ideals of the real John Brown. Certainly I found reading the novel made the history richer -- a tribute to Brooks's story-telling ability. I'm giving both books 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Midnight Rising from Amazon.com as part of its Amazon Vine program.

1 comment:

  1. If you like Geraldine Brooks, you should try People of the Book, about the discovery and preservation of an Ancient Jewish manuscript in war-torn Sarajevo.

    I have to admit that I don't know too much about American history (although I am learning more whilst I am on holiday here!), so Midnight Rising sounds very interesting.