Commentary Magazine


Topic: biographer

Churchill, Edward VIII, and ‘Arms and the Covenant’

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like The King’s Speech. Not because of its cinematic qualities, which he appreciates, but because of its political ones. According to him, the movie is a “a gross falsification of history” because it shows Churchill as “generally in favor of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis of the abdication” and because it neglects to portray Edward VIII as “a firm admirer of the Third Reich” and George VI as an appeaser and anti-Churchill.

When I first read Hitchens’s piece, my mind flashed back to an article Hitchens contributed to the Atlantic in July/August 2002, an article that, as the subtitle puts it, “takes the Great Man down a peg or two.” It occasioned a characteristically understated and effective response from my adviser Paul Kennedy, who pointed out the “misinformation” that Hitchens appeared to be circulating. Not at all abashed, Hitchens continues to regret that “it seems we shall never reach a time when the Churchill cult is open for honest inspection.”

It’s curious that Hitchens both criticizes the “Churchill cult” for supporting the Great Man, and George VI for supposedly failing to do so. But Hitchens is shooting at several targets simultaneously: Churchill for being a monarchist, and the monarchy for existing. When coupled with his opposition to appeasement, the result is not always convincing.

Of Edward VIII, let us say little. Hitchens may be putting it too strongly when he characterizes him as firmly committed to the Third Reich — Edward was too self-centered and witless to be firmly committed to anything but his own desires, which was why he didn’t last long on the throne — but there’s no doubt he was an embarrassment and a liability. Fortunately, his ability to do mischief was seriously limited by the fact that he was a constitutional monarch. And, regrettably, his opinions were far from unique: in mid-1930s Britain, they were held by many people whose views mattered a good deal more than his.

George VI deserved better than he gets from Hitchens, who believes that the monarch’s supposedly shabby history “can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.” Yes, George supported Chamberlain and initially distrusted Churchill. In this, he was sadly far from unusual. What Hitchens doesn’t point out is that, once Churchill was in charge, George gave him — in the words of David Cannadine, a far from friendly historian — “loyal and increasingly admiring support throughout the war.” If Hitchens wants to call out the monarchy’s errors before May 1940, that’s fine; but there’s no “post-fabricated myth of its participation in ‘Britain’s finest hour.’” The participation was real, and if George had a bad peace, he had a good war. The same can be said of many others. Read More

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like The King’s Speech. Not because of its cinematic qualities, which he appreciates, but because of its political ones. According to him, the movie is a “a gross falsification of history” because it shows Churchill as “generally in favor of a statesmanlike solution to the crisis of the abdication” and because it neglects to portray Edward VIII as “a firm admirer of the Third Reich” and George VI as an appeaser and anti-Churchill.

When I first read Hitchens’s piece, my mind flashed back to an article Hitchens contributed to the Atlantic in July/August 2002, an article that, as the subtitle puts it, “takes the Great Man down a peg or two.” It occasioned a characteristically understated and effective response from my adviser Paul Kennedy, who pointed out the “misinformation” that Hitchens appeared to be circulating. Not at all abashed, Hitchens continues to regret that “it seems we shall never reach a time when the Churchill cult is open for honest inspection.”

It’s curious that Hitchens both criticizes the “Churchill cult” for supporting the Great Man, and George VI for supposedly failing to do so. But Hitchens is shooting at several targets simultaneously: Churchill for being a monarchist, and the monarchy for existing. When coupled with his opposition to appeasement, the result is not always convincing.

Of Edward VIII, let us say little. Hitchens may be putting it too strongly when he characterizes him as firmly committed to the Third Reich — Edward was too self-centered and witless to be firmly committed to anything but his own desires, which was why he didn’t last long on the throne — but there’s no doubt he was an embarrassment and a liability. Fortunately, his ability to do mischief was seriously limited by the fact that he was a constitutional monarch. And, regrettably, his opinions were far from unique: in mid-1930s Britain, they were held by many people whose views mattered a good deal more than his.

George VI deserved better than he gets from Hitchens, who believes that the monarch’s supposedly shabby history “can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.” Yes, George supported Chamberlain and initially distrusted Churchill. In this, he was sadly far from unusual. What Hitchens doesn’t point out is that, once Churchill was in charge, George gave him — in the words of David Cannadine, a far from friendly historian — “loyal and increasingly admiring support throughout the war.” If Hitchens wants to call out the monarchy’s errors before May 1940, that’s fine; but there’s no “post-fabricated myth of its participation in ‘Britain’s finest hour.’” The participation was real, and if George had a bad peace, he had a good war. The same can be said of many others.

And then there’s Churchill. Hitchens’s main charge is that Churchill was unreasonably (even intoxicatedly) loyal to Edward, at the expense of the “Arms and the Covenant” lobby he was building “against Neville Chamberlain’s collusion with European fascism.” It’s a minor point, but at the time of the abdication crisis, Stanley Baldwin, not Neville Chamberlain, was prime minister. More important, Hitchens overrates “Arms and the Covenant” and (strangely for a man who detests the “Churchill cult”) relies on the almost hagiographic Churchill biographer William Manchester for his evidence.

But as Graham Stewart points out in his massive Burying Caesar: The Churchill-Chamberlain Rivalry, while the abdication crisis did hurt Churchill, the potential of “Arms and the Covenant” was limited. To succeed, it had to win substantial support among Tory MPs — and given the traditional loyalty of the Conservative Party to its leaders, and Churchill’s long battle against the Government of India Act, there was almost no chance of this. The left and right were soon divided by their reactions to the Spanish Civil War, and the entire movement faded when quiet seemed to return to most of the continent in early 1937. In short, there is not much reason to believe that Hitler would have been stopped in 1936-37 if only Churchill had dumped Edward.

And what of Churchill’s attitude toward Edward? He was, as Stewart puts it, “emotional and sentimental” about the monarchy. But Stewart also approvingly quotes the New Statesman’s assertion that Churchill’s advice to the king “will be found to have been impeccable from every constitutional point of view.” Churchill’s monarchism did not spring only from sentiment. It sprang also from his belief that constitutional monarchies were a force for stability and democracy. He regarded the end of the German monarchy with regret and argued that, if the German people had been allowed to keep a kaiser — not Wilhelm — as a focus for loyalty, Hitler might never have won power.

Such views are, of course, not subject to proof. But as Churchill said at the time, they are worthy of reflection. It may not be a coincidence that, in spite of the errors of those who occupied the throne, it was the British people who believed in their constitutional monarchy who stood up to Hitler, and the monarchist Churchill who led the fight. Hitchens likes the fight. What he doesn’t like is the stubborn traditionalism that made it possible.

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A Model of Civil Discourse

John is quite right in his post on the unacceptable musings of David Goldman — and his caution that, “The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits.”

President Obama is, many of us believe, doing significant damage to America. At the same time, and thankfully, there is an extraordinary (peaceful) civic uprising against his agenda. There will be, I think, a fearsome price for Democrats to pay in November for what they are doing to this country. But there is still such a thing as a democratic etiquette, and we need to abide by it.

Apropos all this, in response to a piece I wrote on civility and public discourse last week, I received a note from a very intelligent friend scolding me, saying,

American democracy is not a library, and we don’t need shushing. The left will pull it’s Reichstag Fire maneuvers soon enough, and when they do, I worry that they will hold up columns and admonitions from you … and others as “witnesses” of our putative, foreordained in the narrative, and inexpungible, guilt.

This note was an indication to me that in American politics today, things are hot and getting hotter.

What I have in mind is not shushing people in a library; it is, rather, recognizing certain ground rules of democratic discourse. If you violate them, regardless of what your political philosophy is, you do damage to your country — and to your cause.

Of the young Abraham Lincoln, one friend said, “When thoroughly roused and provoked he was capable of terrible passion and invective.” But by the late 1830s, according to the Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan, “he had learned to make his satiric barbs less aggressive, to soften them into deflation rather than destruction, emphasizing ideas and persuasion rather than invective.” Lincoln, in the end, helped bind up the wounds of the nation, which was far more divided than it is today, with words that are nearly as familiar as any in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

That’s not a bad model for those of us in this age, or any age, to follow.

John is quite right in his post on the unacceptable musings of David Goldman — and his caution that, “The opposition to Barack Obama needs to keep its wits.”

President Obama is, many of us believe, doing significant damage to America. At the same time, and thankfully, there is an extraordinary (peaceful) civic uprising against his agenda. There will be, I think, a fearsome price for Democrats to pay in November for what they are doing to this country. But there is still such a thing as a democratic etiquette, and we need to abide by it.

Apropos all this, in response to a piece I wrote on civility and public discourse last week, I received a note from a very intelligent friend scolding me, saying,

American democracy is not a library, and we don’t need shushing. The left will pull it’s Reichstag Fire maneuvers soon enough, and when they do, I worry that they will hold up columns and admonitions from you … and others as “witnesses” of our putative, foreordained in the narrative, and inexpungible, guilt.

This note was an indication to me that in American politics today, things are hot and getting hotter.

What I have in mind is not shushing people in a library; it is, rather, recognizing certain ground rules of democratic discourse. If you violate them, regardless of what your political philosophy is, you do damage to your country — and to your cause.

Of the young Abraham Lincoln, one friend said, “When thoroughly roused and provoked he was capable of terrible passion and invective.” But by the late 1830s, according to the Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan, “he had learned to make his satiric barbs less aggressive, to soften them into deflation rather than destruction, emphasizing ideas and persuasion rather than invective.” Lincoln, in the end, helped bind up the wounds of the nation, which was far more divided than it is today, with words that are nearly as familiar as any in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

That’s not a bad model for those of us in this age, or any age, to follow.

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Bookshelf

• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

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• The similarities of the biographer’s craft and the novelist’s art have often been remarked upon, and several writers of fiction, Henry James foremost among them, have succeeded in making hay out of the activities of the “publishing scoundrels” so vividly sketched in The Aspern Papers. Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man (Doubleday, 305 pp., $23.95), is not primarily about the pair of dueling biographers who set its plot in motion, but speaking as one who has written two biographies and is athwart a third, I can tell you that its author knows far more than she should about the psychology of people like me.

The title character of The Great Man, a much-admired but not quite great painter named Oscar Feldman, is dead when Christensen’s book gets under way. Instead of meeting Feldman, we see him through the eyes of two very different men who, initially unaware of one another, are in the process of interviewing the women in his life. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Feldman’s women—his wife, his mistress, his sister, his twin daughters—are Christensen’s real subjects. All, it seems, continue to be held in thrall by his larger-than-life personality, and The Great Man is at bottom the story of how each one manages to break free of Feldman and start living her own life.

Summed up so baldly, The Great Man sounds like a feminist tract, but in fact it is a well-managed piece of plot-juggling in which Christensen detonates genuinely unexpected surprises at satisfyingly regular intervals, in between writing with impressive intelligence about the art world and its inhabitants (“Maxine’s paintings were intended to punish the viewer for failing to see what they were about”). She is, like Angus Wilson, the sort of novelist who is at pains to let you know that she has everybody’s number, but such knowingness is a venial sin in so smart a writer, especially when it is mixed, as it is here, with real sympathy.

Christensen has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the author of sharp-witted novels in which she frequently tries her hand at literary impersonation. In Jeremy Thrane (2001), for instance, she pulls off the tricky feat of writing in the voice of a gay man. In The Great Man, by contrast, most of the principal characters are women in their seventies and eighties, a difficult age for a youngish author to comprehend, and one that Christensen portrays with what looks to a middle-aged reader like complete understanding:

“Listen, Henry,” she said. “Oscar was my beloved mate. I never had any other or wanted one. But after forty-odd years, the word beloved takes on some fairly perverse complexities. You’re probably too young still to know. To be truly loved is to be . . . known, of course, which also implies despised and even hated.”

Less successful are the bookends of pastiche that frame The Great Man, a New York Times obituary of Oscar Feldman and a Times review of the two biographies of Feldman, whose writing sets the novel in motion. Christensen has no gift for parody, and neither piece sounds remotely believable. (Among other implausible things, the real-life Hilton Kramer would never have described any painter as “ballsy almost to the point of testicular obnoxiousness.”) A good editor would have encouraged Christensen to lop off these superfluous excrescences, and might also have nudged her to pare away some of the excesses in her rich prose style. Still, these are surface flaws in a novel good enough that I was forced by dint of sheer excitement to read it from cover to cover in two lengthy sittings. I don’t follow the work of very many younger novelists, but from now on I plan to keep up with Kate Christensen.

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

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Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Be A Divider, Not A Uniter

Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Senator Barack Obama claims he can move the country out of “ideological gridlock” and bring the country together more effectively than can Senator Hillary Clinton. This declaration is consistent with Obama’s broader claim, which is that he will put an end to “polarizing politics.”

Obama is attempting to tap into something real, which is the reluctance on the part of many Americans to be drawn back into the psychodramas of the Clinton years: Ken Starr and Kathleen Willey; private investigators hired to look into the private lives of women alleged to have had affairs with Bill Clinton; the (still-resonating) charge of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the brass-knuckle tactics of James Carville, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, and others. Most of us would like that chapter of American politics to stay closed.

At the same time, the claim that a divided America is somehow “bad” is itself intellectually sloppy. Most of us prefer social harmony to discord—but unity is not the only, or even the highest good in politics. Was there a more divisive and reviled president than Lincoln, who uprooted the centuries-old institution of slavery? The biographer Robert Jackson wrote that after Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a brief period, “the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the object of bitter hatred.” And in 1984 the pollster Lou Harris claimed that Ronald Reagan was polarizing the country more than any president since FDR.

“Conviction politicians” are often polarizing because they take ideas seriously and are willing to do battle on their behalf. And often the greatest advances in history come about only after contentious political debates led by brave and, yes, polarizing political leaders.

Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Senator Barack Obama claims he can move the country out of “ideological gridlock” and bring the country together more effectively than can Senator Hillary Clinton. This declaration is consistent with Obama’s broader claim, which is that he will put an end to “polarizing politics.”

Obama is attempting to tap into something real, which is the reluctance on the part of many Americans to be drawn back into the psychodramas of the Clinton years: Ken Starr and Kathleen Willey; private investigators hired to look into the private lives of women alleged to have had affairs with Bill Clinton; the (still-resonating) charge of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the brass-knuckle tactics of James Carville, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, and others. Most of us would like that chapter of American politics to stay closed.

At the same time, the claim that a divided America is somehow “bad” is itself intellectually sloppy. Most of us prefer social harmony to discord—but unity is not the only, or even the highest good in politics. Was there a more divisive and reviled president than Lincoln, who uprooted the centuries-old institution of slavery? The biographer Robert Jackson wrote that after Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a brief period, “the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the object of bitter hatred.” And in 1984 the pollster Lou Harris claimed that Ronald Reagan was polarizing the country more than any president since FDR.

“Conviction politicians” are often polarizing because they take ideas seriously and are willing to do battle on their behalf. And often the greatest advances in history come about only after contentious political debates led by brave and, yes, polarizing political leaders.

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No Pomp, Little Circumstance

One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

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One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

These complexities will doubtless be explored at the upcoming Bard Music Festival, “Elgar and His World,” scheduled for a series of weekends this August and October at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The Bard festival features an uneven bunch of musicians, but fortunately it will include such accomplished chamber groups as the Daedalus Quartet and Claremont Trio, as well as the sublime solo violinist Jennifer Koh. Meanwhile, we may relish the many superb Elgar performances on CD, keeping in mind that a poorly performed CD—and there are many such of Elgar—can make any composer seem hard to listen to.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which the composer described as “just an old man’s darling,” was recorded with staunch restraint, flowing grace, and eloquent emotion by the cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, both conducted by Adrian Boult for EMI Classics. Elgar’s orchestral work Enigma Variations communicates a rare personal tenderness—the variations were inspired by some of the composer’s friends—along with a sense of the passionate heights and depths of human relationships.

Enigma requires a conductor of unusual psychological nuance and direct frankness, such as Elgar himself (although his recordings were hampered by primitive sound equipment) or his friend Adrian Boult. There is also a choice of 1950’s recordings by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio; a live radio broadcast; and a surprisingly idiomatic outing with the Orchestre National de France on Music & Arts. And LSO Live recently released one of the best Enigmas ever, led by England’s current dean of conductors, Colin Davis.

Elgar also triumphed in larger-scale works like Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to words by Cardinal Newman about a man accepting his own mortality and the prospect of heaven. As conducted on CD by the composer Benjamin Britten with the tenor Peter Pears in the title role, or on an EMI recording with Janet Baker as the angel who guides Gerontius in his last moments of life, it is a work of brooding majesty. Achievements of this rank certainly ensure Elgar’s artistic immortality—whatever Her Majesty’s Exchequer might think.

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The Hypothetical Atheist

One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

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One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

The second, far more serious problem, is that Laplace never used the words attributed to him by Hitchens. The encounter took place in 1802, before Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, when he was still First Consul of the French Republic, so Laplace would certainly not have addressed him as “Sire.” Laplace was in the company of Sir William Herschel, the English astronomer, who is our only eyewitness source for the meeting with Napoleon. According to Brandon Watson’s science website Houyhnhnm Land, the anecdote is found in Herschel’s diary of his visit to Paris, quoted in Constance Lubbock’s The Herschel Chronicle (Cambridge, 1933), p. 310:

The first Consul then asked a few questions relating to Astronomy and the construction of the heavens to which I made such answers as seemed to give him great satisfaction. He also addressed himself to Mr. Laplace on the same subject, and held a considerable argument with him in which he differed from that eminent mathematician. The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the first Consul, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens): “And who is the author of all this!” Mons. De la Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system. This the first Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to “Nature and nature’s God.”

Where, then, did the bon mot attributed to Laplace by Hitchens and countless others come from? Watson believes that it was invented by the popular historian E.T. Bell, whose well-known book Men of Mathematics appeared in 1937, just four years after Lubbock’s book. Bell gives no source for the Laplace quotation, and it appears to be one of many that he embellished or simply made up. Bell’s scholarship, incidentally, was unreliable in other ways, too: his book contains odious asides about the “aggressive clannishness” of Jewish academics.

Herschel’s account leaves no doubt that he, like Napoleon, believed in God. What, though, did Laplace believe? One of his two recent biographers, Charles Coulston Gillispie, does not even mention the discussion with Napoleon. Perhaps he regarded the question of Laplace’s views on God as a superfluous hypothesis. But Roger Hahn, another biographer of Laplace, found in his papers a 25-page manuscript detailing his objections to Catholicism, in particular to miracles and transubstantiation. (Clearly this manuscript was not intended for publication until after the author’s death.)

Laplace, who looks more and more like the Talleyrand of French science, enjoyed both Bonapartist and Bourbon patronage. Born in 1749, he was able to publish freely throughout the period from the ancien regime, the Republic, and the Empire through to the Restoration. Briefly Napoleon’s interior minister and president of his puppet senate, Laplace never hesitated to sign the warrant for the emperor’s deposition. He died a marquis, and was buried with great pomp, in 1827. If he was an atheist, he was certainly not prepared to risk his position in society by openly expressing his views. Laplace was a great man of science, but he was a great trimmer, as well. Hitchens and other militant atheists should look elsewhere for their heroes.

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Bookshelf

• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Lee believes that Wharton was a great writer—she uses the word unapologetically—and it is a tribute to her persuasiveness that even if you disagree, you will likely put down Edith Wharton wondering whether you might be wrong. I regret to admit that I am more or less the kind of reader she has in mind when she writes dismissively of those who accept “the version of Wharton—which has proved extremely hard to shift—as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society, but with less depth and subtlety.” I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but I’d hitherto considered them exceptional among Wharton’s large and uneven output. Now, though, I’m feeling the itch to go out and read all the Edith Wharton I can get my hands on. Is there anything better to be said about a literary biography than that?

• I never saw Carolyn Brown dance—she retired from the stage in 1972, long before I moved to Manhattan and saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time—but there is plenty of filmed evidence to show that she was one of the finest modern dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, and a great beauty to boot. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that she’s also a very good writer. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 645 pp., $37.50) is nearly as overlong as Edith Wharton. But the first half, in which Brown describes what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodern movement in American art, is both readable and important. No one has written more acutely about Cunningham, John Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg, and even if—like me—you have mixed feelings about their legacy, you will find the story of how they got started to be wholly engrossing.

Brown has some odd gaps in her sensibility—she doesn’t get George Balanchine at all, for instance—but she writes about Cunningham and his choreography with perfect comprehension and a sense of proportion rarely to be found among acolytes. No less acute are her reflections on the act of public performance: “The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body.” I’ve never heard it put better.

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Bookshelf

• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

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• Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (1976): This past winter holiday I did something I do almost every year: I got down my two-volume Raymond Chandler collection from the Library of America and re-read some of his novels. They’re still as good as ever: not only the best detective fiction of all time—better, in my humble opinion, than Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, to say nothing of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.D. James—but also the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles (my hometown). Perhaps not surprisingly, given how good the novels are, the man who produced them was a tortured soul. (Has there ever been a good novelist who was a happy go-lucky sort?)

The picture painted by his biographer Frank MacShane is bleak. Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888, but after his father abandoned him and his mother, she returned to her native England, where Chandler attended the same minor public school as P.G. Wodehouse. Finding that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, he came back to the United States and wound up in L.A. After a hellish experience as a Canadian soldier on the western front in World War I, he entered the oil business and did relatively well until his drinking got out of control. He was fired in 1932, age 44, at the height of the Great Depression. With a wife to support—he had stolen a friend’s wife, who was twenty years older—he had to find some way to make a living. He turned to producing short stories for the pulp magazine Black Mask. He then began turning his stories into novels, beginning with The Big Sleep in 1939. Although the book was an instant success, Chandler was not a bestselling novelist, and he was frustrated to be dismissed by most American critics as a mere “mystery writer.” (He got more respect in England.)

He tried to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter (he co-wrote Double Indemnity, the classic Billy Wilder film noir), but he was too idiosyncratic to fit within the studio system. He wanted to concentrate on his novels, but writing was such a tortuous process for him—he went through draft after draft before he was satisfied—that he finished only seven. He was left utterly bereft by his wife’s death in 1954, following a long illness, and was almost alone in the world (they had no children and he was too prickly to make many friends). He drank himself to death five years later. But his great creation—Philip Marlowe, private eye—lives forever.

• Caryl Phillips (ed.), The Right Set (1999): This is an anthology of writing about tennis spanning the period from the invention of “lawn tennis” in the late 19th century to the modern era of glitzy superstars. The most interesting material is the unfamiliar story of the early days of the game, such as the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877, just four years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had patented a “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Games of Tennis.” Only 22 “gentlemen” entered this first tournament, and the level of play was as low as the level of public interest. By the 1920’s, however, interest had soared.

It is fascinating to read about how much attention was given to an exhibition match played by Helen Wills of America and Suzanne Lenglen of France in 1926 on the French Riviera. Crowds overflowed the tiny grandstand, and reporters rushed off dispatches to vast readerships updating them on the score. Both competitors wore flowing white dresses.

That wasn’t the only anachronism. A couple of years later Helen Wills (she later became Helen Wills Moody), wrote a guide to tennis etiquette that included this concern: “If your opponent slips on his feet, are you to hit the ball easily, so that he will have a chance to return it? This is a difficult question to answer. . . . Of course, if the slips turns out to be a real accident, then the player would not care much what happened to his ball, because he would fear that his opponent was injured.” Of course.

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Bookshelf

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

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