13 April, 2013

History, Times Two

Esmond Wright

I still don't have the almost instinctive grasp of American history that i find in myself over the British variety; i suppose this is because the one was not put into my brain through stories, books, classes, while i was young enough to take it in without realising it, whereas the other most certainly was. Influenced, i suppose, by my many years of living in the United States, i feel strongly that this lack of grasp is a weakness in me, though i am well aware that the average American probably doesn't know as much of their own history as do i, and it is a weakness i am always willing to correct; Wright's book was the latest venture in that direction.

I have learned some, though of course the outlines were familiar to me previously, of both Washington's biography and the course of the Revolution ~ as well as some of its causes; more, though, i have taken pleasure in the quality of the writing, which is never preachy, nor overly rhetorical, but simple and easy to follow (i only recall one name i had to chase down for a previous reference, despite taking some weeks to read the book), clear and good prose. I shall, which i don't often do with history, see if i can find more of Wright's writings to pursue.

Gordon Brown

I was a little disappointed in this book, i have to confess. I could not help comparing it, even unconsciously, with JFK's Portraits of Courage, which comparison must have been in the back of Brown's mind when he conceived of and produced the work; and i am not sure that the comparison is to Brown's benefit.

Kennedy's book has its drawbacks or weaknesses, not least the suspicion that it was largely written by someone else, but it was and is an enjoyable book; though this one is, i would suspect, more completely “All my own work!” than Kennedy's, Brown does not have a sparkling prose style. A highly successful Chancellor, in part because he had the earned reputation of being able to destroy his detractors in Parliament or the press, the iron fist style is not so useful in writing what was surely conceived as a collection of popular biographies. Writing for the public, one does not want to bludgeon one's readers into appreciation; that way lies an ever diminishing audience.

A further problem i found was that Brown tries to analyse what he means by “courage”, and i'm not sure that i followed him properly; either that or i just disagree with his definition. He seems to be using a definition different from the usual, and it appears that it is on occasion flexible to the point of not really meaning anything other than “something i admire”; the chapter on Cicely Saunders, for example, completely puzzles me, because i don't understand what about her or her actions was courageous: Admirable, certainly, needed, appropriate, difficult, each of these would be apposite adjectives, but courageous

I was ready to be pleased by Brown's choices of portrayers of courage, a modern continuation of JFK's book in some sense, and was pleased to see Mandela (obvious choice), Cavell (a uniquely British heroine), and Wallenberg (unbelievably heroic, and not well-known enough) on the cover. King and Kennedy (RFK, not his brother) and even Bonhoeffer i imagined were particular and personal choices for Brown. Saunders i knew nothing about, not even the name, so i had no opinion; i have to say, having read the book, i can only imagine that she is a personal hero of Brown's for some reason he feels unable to bring out, or she is a cultural hero i haven't heard of (not an uncommon thing), and he felt he couldn't miss her out, even though she doesn't fit the scheme.

All in all, not a successful book, by my criterion. Certainly, if i come across it, i am quite likely to read another book by Brown; it won't be on the basis of my pleasure in this one, though, so much as who he is.

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