Regular magazines must appear, come rain or shine, on their stated schedules – and so it will always fall to some poor sap to have his hard-worked prose appearing before haggard and staggeringly distracted reading public on December 30th or 31st, or some such ungodly date. And surely only deepening the depression of such writers that their articles will fall on the hard, barren ground of the Christmas season is the fear that the lateness of the date will render their efforts ineligible for consideration in what must surely now be the most-anticipated literary lottery of them all: the annual Stevereads Year’s Best – and Worst – of the Year, which now includes a long-overdue category for the Best of the Penny Press.
But such unfortunate writers need not fear! The writing-year doesn’t run from January to January but rather from Stevereads roundup to Stevereads roundup – so all johnny-come-lately pieces still have their shot. For instance, I came across a bunch of good stuff in the political magazines just recently, all still technically dated 2013.
In The National Review, for instance, there was a piece by Richard Brookhiser on Myron Magnet’s The Founders at Home. The book will be unfamiliar to you devoted Stevereads followers because it was neither bad enough nor good enough to make any of my year-end lists, and it will be unfamiliar to those of you who follow my reviews of new books at Open Letters Weekly (and if you don’t you should, since I’m planning on once again having a whale of a good time over there, writing about books you might stand a chance of actually encountering in a bookstore), since although I read it, I thought it was utterly without what Sherlock Holmes would call points of interest. Which makes Brookhiser’s piece on it yet another little proof of my long-standing contention that a good writer can make a treat out of even the flattest, most rote book – and Brookhiser, despite his flagrant admiration for that Poltroon-in-Chief George Washington, is a good writer, especially on the Founding Fathers, whose lives and careers and significances he knows backwards and forwards … even those Founding Fathers who don’t share Washington’s level of fame:
Perhaps the best of Magnet’s portraits is that of his man in the middle, John Jay. There he is, on the cover of your college paperback of The Federalist Papers. Yet when you open it, as you surely do, you notice that he wrote only five of the 85 essays (he fell sick early on, then was knocked unconscious in a New York City riot). You may remember that he negotiated a treaty that bears his name, and for which half the country execrated him.
“What does this man have to offer us?” Brookhiser asks about Jay, and then – to my enormous delight – he answers: “A lot that needed doing and was not pretty.”
Much as I love the work of some of my brainy contemporaries who excel at the interweaving of estimation and counter-estimation, I do love it when a well-read and sanely-opinionated reviewer simply lays down the law from time to time (I’ve been known to make the rare categorical statement myself – it’s remarkable how it clears out the sinuses). That “A lot that needed doing and was not pretty” is choice.
It happens again over in The Weekly Standard, in fact, delivered by yet another really good writer, Andrew Ferguson. In this case he’s writing about that perennial underdog of American letters, Ambrose Bierce, and the piece is a treat from start to finish. But the law is laid down in the section on the American Civil War and American authors, which just soars:
As the best of his [Bierce’s] biographers, Roy Morris Jr., has pointed out, he was the only American writer of any consequence to fight in the war. The future men of letters of his generation managed somehow to be elsewhere when the bodies began piling up. William Dean Howells spent the 1860s in Venice. Twain, after a fortnight with the Confederate Army, went as far west as he could get. And the two Henrys, James and Adams, watched the carnage from afar, Adams from London, and James from the killing fields of Harvard Yard.
Then Ferguson adds one concluding line, and I smiled from ear to ear:
Anyone hoping for an artist’s first-hand view of the Civil War, then, is left with Bierce, and he’s enough.
“And he’s enough.” I entirely agree, and even if I didn’t (as I don’t, for instance, about the detested John Jay), I’d still be smiling. Such good stuff must not be lost amidst the discarded wrapping paper and earthquake hangovers!
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