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'The Lincolns' ()

Timeless Narratives From Turbulent Eras

Jul 30, 2008 (Fresh Air)

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'Alfred & Emily' 'Furious Improvisation' Historic Narratives

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Here are the sure signs of summer in the publishing world: a heat-rash eruption of suspense novels; a few waggish dog tales hoping to leash on to the continuing success of Marley and Me; and, as dependable as the days are long, some sweaty Bob's Big Boy-sized biographies of Lincoln and FDR. Other presidents seem more suited to the gloom of winter, but there's something about Lincoln and FDR — their steadiness shining through in adversity — that qualifies them as good company on vacation.

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'The Lincolns'

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein, hardcover, 576 pages
Presidential biographies are classified as "boy books" by the publishing industry; that's another reason why the sagas of Lincoln and FDR (with an occasional Founding Father thrown in) oftentimes come out at the start of summer — Father's Day. But early summer this year saw the publication of an unusual Lincoln book designed to appeal to both sexes — a kind of a chick-lit Lincoln book, replete with shopping, sex and scandal. The Lincolns by Daniel Mark Epstein is subtitled "Portrait of a Marriage," and it excavates the character of poor Mary Todd Lincoln and her marriage of 22 years to the Great Man. Epstein is a respected biographer and this is probably as well-researched as any account of the couple's life together could be, given the fact that so many letters between the two were lost or destroyed. Although Epstein has a quease-inducing tendency to ascribe thoughts and feelings to his subjects that he couldn't possibly know, whenever he does quote from existing letters, the voices are riveting. Here's Lincoln, writing to Mary in April 1848, after he'd been elected to Congress and she had taken their two little boys and gone back to her father's house in Kentucky. Lincoln writes to her from Washington D.C.:
Dear Mary,
In this troublesome world, we are never quite satisfied. When you were here, I thought you hindered me in attending to business; but now, having nothing but business — no variety — it has grown exceedingly tasteless to me. I hate to sit down in this old room by myself.
The Lincolns gives readers insight into Mary Todd's notorious rages (an eyewitness described her whacking her husband with a piece of cordwood), as well as her shopping sprees and Lucy Ricardo-like schemes to "borrow" money from the Treasury Department to help deck out the White House. Most poignantly, though, Epstein's biography offers a nuanced portrait of a relatively simple woman, unmoored by the sudden death of two young sons and by the necessary neglect of a husband called to an appointment with destiny.

'Alfred & Emily'

Alfred & Emily, by Doris Lessing, hardcover, 288 pages
The troubled marriage at the center of Doris Lessing's autobiography/biography/novel, called Alfred & Emily, was certainly much less melodramatic than the Lincolns, but it was devastating nonetheless to the daughter who observed it. Lessing explains in a foreword to this odd, mixed-genre book that she wanted to give her parents the lives they might have enjoyed if World War I hadn't intervened. Lessing, who was born in 1919, says:

"That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free."

Part One of Lessing's book imagines her parents, Alfred and Emily, in separate but happier lives: Alfred as a farmer in England married to a cheery blond; Emily as an educational pioneer. Part Two of the book describes the hardscrabble lives the couple actually led. A writer less chilly than Lessing would have made this book a sentimental "what if" fantasy; but her fans know that although Lessing writes sci-fi, she never writes fairy tales. Alfred & Emily is a book to read for the insight it gives into Lessing's own background and into the pitiless precision that distinguishes her prose.

'Furious Improvisation'

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn, hardcover, 325 pages
Marriage seems to be the prevailing subject of this review roundup, so I'll complete the theme by recommending a fascinating new book that describes a rare happy marriage between art and government. Susan Quinn's Furious Improvisation details the history of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, a relief effort begun in the depths of the Great Depression to put thousands of actors and playwrights back to work and lift the spirits of down-and-out Americans by putting on high-quality theater. From its inception in 1935 to its demise as a victim of The Red Scare, the Federal Theatre Project helped launch the careers of Orson Welles and Arthur Miller, defiantly integrated theater audiences, and silenced naysayers who worried about government censorship of the theater. Quinn focuses on the two guiding spirits of the Federal Theatre — Hallie Flanagan, its diminutive 46-year-old director, and blunt Harry Hopkins, one of FDR's top advisers — and her book is stuffed with goose-bump-raising anecdotes. Listen, for instance, to how Hopkins responded in 1935 to a hostile audience in Iowa City that demanded to know who was going to foot the bill for the WPA programs:

" 'You are,' [Hopkins told the crowd]. And who better? Who can better afford to pay for it? ... This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it."

It's hard to imagine that kind of tough talk from any politician — on the left or right — these days. I guess that since Quinn's book deals with the WPA, it distantly qualifies as a Roosevelt history. Lincoln and Roosevelt — the summer reading presidents. In a few months, we'll no doubt be turning our attention to the wintry likes of Harding and Coolidge.

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