Edward Morris

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One could hardly hope for a more scintillating guide through late 20th-century America than historian Arthur W. Schlesinger Jr. He mingled with almost tactile relish among Washington political insiders, the East Coast intelligentsia and Broadway and Hollywood glitterati and he had cogent (and sometimes scorching) opinions about all of them.

Schlesinger, who died in February at the age of 89, tapped his sons Andrew and Stephen to edit the diaries he had compiled in his various roles as university professor, advisor to actual and would-be presidents, political anthropologist and public intellectual. The resulting volume, Journals: 1952-2000, pares 6,000 typewritten pages down to less than 1,000. Andrew Schlesinger, a writer and documentary filmmaker, tells BookPage that despite its wealth of details and insights, the manuscript held no real surprises for him or his brother.

"[My father] had freely shared his opinions around the dining table except for all the details, of course, and all the conversations and interactions. The general story was familiar to us . . . . We knew who he liked and disliked and who he respected and didn't respect." This proud and steadfast liberal adored President Kennedy, had a grudging and diminishing admiration for Johnson, despised Nixon and showed a patrician disgust toward Carter. Readers will search Journals in vain for any overarching political theory, but they will find themselves awash in discussions of political strategy.

Schlesinger had ample disrespect for two people currently in the news: presidential advisor Norman Podhoretz and hawkish Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman. He dismissed the former as odious and despicable and the latter as a sanctimonious prick (to which Hillary Clinton demurred, "Well, he is certainly sanctimonious.") His assessments of people for whom he had some affection could be just as withering. Of his Harvard classmate, Caspar Weinberger, he observed, "Cap was as usual amiable and unruffled, explaining everything with the placid certitude and quiet lucidity of a madman."

During his years with Adlai Stevenson and JFK, Schlesinger barely mentions his finances as he flies about the country, lodging at the best hotels and dining at the most fashionable restaurants. But after his divorce and remarriage and his move from Cambridge to New York, money or the lack of it begins to loom large in his diaries. "The financial pressure is acute," he moans in 1975. In 1982, he rejoices that he has received an exceedingly generous sum for acting as a consultant to ABC on a Franklin D. Roosevelt special. Two years later, he has to sell his vacation house in Florida, noting that Alimony consumes my CUNY salary. In 1986, he flatly declares, "We are broke."

"Living in New York City was much more expensive than living in Cambridge," says his son. "He had to be a professional writer to stay in his lifestyle. There was no margin for error there. Maybe this motivated him. Who knows? He was extremely productive." Indeed, Schlesinger turned out a stream of books and magazine articles and supplemented his writing income with lucrative speaking engagements. According to the younger Schlesinger, "there was very, very little in the journals that was too personal to publish because [t]his stuff had already been filtered through my father's mind." His father makes no mention of falling in love with the woman who would become his second wife, but he does write that "the marriage is one of the [t]wo events of more than routine importance in recent weeks." The other event was the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Schlesinger takes note of his birthdays by writing down matter-of-fact inventories of how he feels and what he's done: At 68, he reflects, "What in the world has happened to all those years? My achievement is so much less than so many writers who were dead before they were 68. I guess they concentrated their energies, while I have dissipated mine." As age wears him down, he faces the additional indignity of seeing his beloved liberal label falling into disrepute. "He couldn't believe it how so many people could be so misinformed and misguided," Andrew says. "But he didn't change his mind that he was correct."

Social butterfly that he was, Schlesinger surely would have reveled in the list of luminaries who spoke at his memorial service. Among these were former President Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actress Lauren Bacall and Norman Mailer. Hardly the usual sendoff for an academic.

If this excerpt from the historian's journals is well received," his son says, more may be published. In any event, they all will eventually be available to scholars. Schlesinger's papers, including the complete journals, have been sold to the New York Public Library.

Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.


One could hardly hope for a more scintillating guide through late 20th-century America than historian Arthur W. Schlesinger Jr. He mingled with almost tactile relish among Washington political insiders, the East Coast intelligentsia and Broadway and Hollywood glitterati and he had cogent (and sometimes scorching) opinions about all of them. Schlesinger, who died in February […]
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As the current administration sputters to an end and a new leader is elected, Americans may find it instructive to look back at the controversial presidency of Andrew Jackson. The man known as Old Hickory developed a sometimes inspirational, sometimes dictatorial style of leadership, in which the legislative and judicial branches were regarded as meddlesome impediments to the executive's grand designs.

"It would be both glib and wrong to say that the Age of Jackson is a mirror of our own time," Jon Meacham writes. "Still, there is much about him and about his America that readers in the early twenty-first century may recognize."

In American Lion, Meacham concentrates on Jackson's two terms in Washington, from 1829 to 1837. During that period, the president from Tennessee shattered the economic power and political influence of the Second Bank of the United States, prevented South Carolina from breaking with the Union, reined in federal expenditures on roads, bridges, canals and other infrastructure (electing instead to pay down the national debt), approved the brutal removal of Indian tribes from the South, practiced political patronage as a natural right and a sensible process, halted efforts to insinuate more religion into government and demanded that other nations treat America with the respect he thought it deserved. In short, he made friends ecstatic and opponents livid.

Meacham, who's the editor of Newsweek, discusses his search for Jackson's presidential soul as he walks to his office in New York, after having dropped off his four-year-old daughter at preschool. "The White House years were so tumultuous," he says. "I found them at once distant and incredibly familiar. It's somewhat depressing, actually, to be a journalist who writes history because you realize that everything has happened before."

This is Meacham's third book-length foray into American history. His other works are the critically acclaimed Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.

Around 2003, Meacham recalls, he noticed there was a flurry of popular histories about America's founders, notably Ben Franklin, John Adams and George Washington. This set him to thinking about exploring Jackson's legacy. "One of the things that occurred to me as I read those wonderful books," he says, "was that Jackson had—oddly for such a dominant figure—receded from the popular imagination. I thought he was a character worth spending five years with, and I've never been disappointed in that."

Although he had not systematically studied Jackson up to that point, Meacham says he "knew the basic outline" from having read Robert V. Remini's and Arthur Schlesinger's classic works on America's seventh president. "So he was a familiar figure," Meacham says, "but not someone with whom I was obsessed."

It took some adroit scheduling on Meacham's part to work on the Jackson book while simultaneously carrying out his duties for Newsweek. "I'm able to read during the week," he says, "but I can't write during the week." That being the case, he did his writing during the summer at his house in remote Sewanee, Tennessee. (A native of Chattanooga, Meacham earned his degree in English literature from the University of the South at Sewanee.)

"I take a month each summer and go to Sewanee," he says. "I'm very rigorous. I sit down [to write] and won't get up for 10 hours. I'm able to get a working draft out of that." When he returns to New York, he edits and fine-tunes his manuscript. That's how American Lion was wrought.

"It seemed to me that trying to figure out how the modern presidency came into being was a useful exercise," he ventures. "I tried to think of new ways to tell the story." One approach was to focus a lot of attention on the White House roles of Andrew and Emily Donelson, Jackson's married nephew and niece (who were first cousins to one another). Because Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel, died between the time he was elected president and the time he was sworn in, he chose the artful and ambitious Emily to be his official White House hostess and Andrew as his private secretary.

Emily's sense of propriety—some might say prissiness—put her at odds with the flamboyant and allegedly adulterous Margaret Eaton, the wife of Jackson's secretary of war and close adviser, John Eaton. This clash vexed and diverted Jackson through much of his tenure. "The Donelson family [of Nashville] became increasingly interesting, and I was able to find new letters that I think added detail and insight into how Jackson operated."

Meacham found the new letters through meeting with the Donelsons and other Jackson descendants during the course of his research. In writing his book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Meacham says he discovered that "presidential families often have things they don't think are that important but which can be. What I learned from that was always ask the question. So I simply said, 'Are there any scrapbooks? Are there any boxes? Is there anything at all that you just think is something you have to move around the garage from time to time that's of any conceivable interest?'Ê" Many of those he spoke with did have such material and gave him free access to it.

"I've yet to do one of these projects where, if you look hard enough, you won't find something," he says. "It may not be paradigm-shifting, but every little bit helps."

Jackson, who never knew his father and lost his mother at the age of 14, cherished the notion of family. Once he became president, Meacham concludes, he tended to look upon those who elected him as an extension of family. Consequently, he was zealous in their defense and convinced he knew what was best for them. The upshot, the author asserts, was that Jackson became "a permanently divisive figure" who "loved the fight."

Meacham says his next book will probably be on James and Dolley Madison. "I'm reading up on them," he reports. "He is truly the forgotten founder. He doesn't have a statue at Epcot. Is writing the Constitution not enough to get you a statue?"

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

As the current administration sputters to an end and a new leader is elected, Americans may find it instructive to look back at the controversial presidency of Andrew Jackson. The man known as Old Hickory developed a sometimes inspirational, sometimes dictatorial style of leadership, in which the legislative and judicial branches were regarded as meddlesome […]
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Theodore Roosevelt’s passion for the rugged outdoor life is widely known. But it remained for historian Douglas Brinkley to document—virtually on a week-by-week basis—the extent to which TR transformed his enthusiasm for nature into America’s gain and glory. The results of Brinkley’s exhaustive research reverberate through The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, a whopping (almost 1,000-page) examination of Roosevelt’s fight to save America’s unique natural spaces.

Elevated to the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt used the power of his office not simply to advocate the conservation of natural resources but also to impose sweeping environmental measures by fiat. “In seven years and sixty-nine days [as president],” Brinkley writes, “Roosevelt . . . saved more than 240 million acres of American wilderness.”

In one sense, Brinkley has been preparing to write this book for most of his life. “My mother and father were high school teachers” in Perrysburg, Ohio, he tells BookPage from his office in Houston, where he is professor of history at Rice University. “We had a 24-foot Coachman trailer, and we would visit presidential sites and national parks. I had been to Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home, when I was a boy, and I was enamored by the study and the library and the big-game trophies. Then we would visit a lot of these parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, the Petrified Forest and other places—I write about [here].

“But what really galvanized this book for me was in 1992 I brought a lot of students [from Hofstra University] on a program I called The Majic Bus. They earned college credits living on the road, visiting presidential sites and national parks like my family vacation. I came upon the town of Medora, North Dakota, where TR spent his Badlands days, and I was transfixed by this quaint, cowboy-like hamlet. I started at that point micro-looking at TR and conservation as a topic.”
Brinkley says he thinks the subject of land use—the question of what to do with the West—was the “big issue” between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. He plans to follow The Wilderness Warrior with two more related volumes that will chronicle the American environmental movement through the administration of President Clinton.

“We’ve created this extraordinary system of wildlife refuges, parks and forests,” says Brinkley, “and we’ve pioneered in saving endangered species and rehabilitating lakes and rivers. We’ve done a lot of things right. In many ways, the conservation story is a triumphal American story, but it’s also filled with warnings about the things we’re not doing properly now.”

Roosevelt left a literary trail Brinkley found easy to follow. In addition to his 30 or so books, most of which dealt with nature, TR wrote an estimated 150,000 letters that capsulated his thoughts and travels. His journeys and utterances were also “good copy” at the time for America’s increasingly influential daily newspapers.

“Roosevelt’s great talent was not manipulating Congress, which he looked on with a fair amount of disdain,” Brinkley says. “He was a genius at manipulating the media. He loved reporters. He was a writer himself and a voracious reader. So any new book by a journalist that came out, he read it. He also read all the newspapers and periodicals of his day and knew the reporters by name. He won over a number of [news] people to the conservation movement.”

Politically, Roosevelt was hard to pin down. He was a rabid America-firster, a believer in westward expansion and in the “civilizing” or displacement of Indians. Yet he steadfastly thwarted the capitalists who sought to exploit the nation’s resources for private advantage. He gleefully slaughtered game animals, even as he fought to protect them and their habitats for posterity.

“The truth is that hunters and fishermen were the first environmentalists in the United States,” Brinkley asserts, noting that Roosevelt shipped many of his kills to scientists to study and to taxidermists to mount. “Before DNA testing or banding of animals,” Brinkley continues, “taxidermy was the way we learned about the natural world.”

As Brinkley sees it, Roosevelt “sold environmentalism by being a cowboy/hunter. That was his great contribution. Without the persona of, ‘Look, I’m a cowboy, I ride on a horse, and I’ve hunted grizzly bear and black bear and elk and buffalo’ then he wouldn’t have had the credibility to say, ‘You know what? We should create a buffalo commons to save the buffalo.’ He was able to sell enough people on that because he wasn’t seen as an effete intellectual talking about biology. . . . He was one part Darwin and one part James Fenimore Cooper.”

In the course of his environmental campaigns, Roosevelt crossed paths—and sometimes swords—with such luminaries as novelist Owen Wister (who dedicated The Virginian to him), painter Frederic Remington (then a relative unknown whom TR would tap to illustrate some of his magazine articles), Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington (with whom Roosevelt dined at the White House, much to the chagrin of many prominent Southerners), Mark Twain (who opposed Roosevelt on the Spanish-American War and later derided him in print for his impulsiveness and bloodlust) Jack London (whose fiction Roosevelt attacked for biological inaccuracy) and folklorist John Lomax (for whom Roosevelt personally secured a grant to enable him to continue his seminal study of American cowboy songs).

Apart from its impressive scholarship, The Wilderness Warrior also has an appealing turn-of-the-20th century design. The illustrations are integrated into the text rather than displayed on separate pages, and each chapter is prefaced by a list of phrases that outline the topics covered within.

Brinkley applauds Roosevelt for his “bold, hubristic moves” to preserve the nation’s most arresting landscapes. “He was the only politician we had in the White House in that period who had a biological sense of the world, who understood the need for species survival and did something about it. . . . When you open up a Rand McNally map and look at all the green on the United States, you’re looking at TR’s America.”

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

Theodore Roosevelt’s passion for the rugged outdoor life is widely known. But it remained for historian Douglas Brinkley to document—virtually on a week-by-week basis—the extent to which TR transformed his enthusiasm for nature into America’s gain and glory. The results of Brinkley’s exhaustive research reverberate through The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for […]
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What if a secret society possessed indisputable proof that Christianity in general—and the Catholic Church in particular—are built on historical error? To what extremes might zealous defenders of the faith go to find and destroy such potentially catastrophic evidence? These are the premises that set Dan Brown's absorbing new novel, The Da Vinci Code, in motion and then send it pinballing through a labyrinth of intricate schemes, sidetracks and deceptions.

Threaded through the story are plot-related codes and cryptograms that impel the reader to brainstorm with the protagonists, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (introduced in Angels & Demons) and French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu. An after-hours murder at the Louvre swirls these two strangers into the middle of an ongoing combat between the Priory of Sion, a shadowy order that dates back to the Crusades, and Opus Dei, a relatively new bastion of Catholic conservatism.

"I first learned of [Leonardo] Da Vinci's affiliation with the Priory of Sion when I was studying art history at the University of Seville," Brown says in a telephone interview from his home in New Hampshire. "One day, the professor showed us a slide of The Last Supper and began to outline all the strange anomalies in the painting. My awareness of Opus Dei came through an entirely different route and much later in my life. After studying the Vatican to write Angels & Demons, I became interested in the secrecy of the Vatican and some of the unseen hierarchy. Through that, I also became interested in Opus Dei and met some of the people in it."

While the characters and storylines of The Da Vinci Code are manifestly his own contrivances, Brown stresses that all the contextual details about history, biography, location and art are true. "One of the aspects that I try very hard to incorporate in my books is that of learning," he says. "When you finish the book—like it or not—you've learned a ton. I had to do an enormous amount of research [for this book]. My wife is an art historian and a Da Vinci fanatic. So I had a leg up on a lot of this, but it involved numerous trips to Europe, study at the Louvre, some in-depth study about the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei and about the art of Da Vinci."

Weighty as it is, Brown's scholarship never slows down the sizzling action. Robert and Sophie stay on the run at a breathless pace as menacing characters pop up in their flight path like silhouettes in a shooting gallery. Unlike a conventional mystery, in which clues become clear only in hindsight, many of the clues here are presented as such: a dying murder victim who arranges his body a particular way, a slip of paper with a phrase scribbled on it that may be a light-shedding anagram, a line of seemingly random numbers.

"For some reason, I was a good math student," Brown says, explaining his involvement with codes and symbols. "And language came easily. Cryptology and symbology are really fusions of math and language. My father is a well-known mathematician. I grew up around codes and ciphers. In The Da Vinci Code, there's a flashback where Sophie recalls her grandfather creating this treasure hunt through the house for a birthday present. That's what my father did for us."

Beyond spinning a good yarn within a richly factual context, Brown admits to yet another aim. "I am fascinated with the gray area between right and wrong and good and evil. Every novel I've written so far has explored that gray area." He reveals that his next novel will deal with "the oldest and largest secret society on earth" and with "the secret history of our nation's capital."

Brown concedes that turning Christianity's most fiercely held beliefs into fictional fodder may spark some controversy. But he says it's a risk worth taking. "I worked very, very hard to make the book fair to all parties. Yes, it's explosive. I think there will be people for whom this book will be—well, 'offensive,' may be too strong a word. But it will probably raise some eyebrows."

What if a secret society possessed indisputable proof that Christianity in general—and the Catholic Church in particular—are built on historical error? To what extremes might zealous defenders of the faith go to find and destroy such potentially catastrophic evidence? These are the premises that set Dan Brown's absorbing new novel, The Da Vinci Code, in […]
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Even before it hit the bookstores, SuperFreakonomics was inciting scorn and outrage. That may have had something to do with its flashing-lights subtitle: “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” This verbal torrent virtually stampeded reviewers toward the juicy parts. The authors couldn’t have hoped for better publicity than seeing Paul Krugman denounce their climatological inferences the New York Times. Which he did.

Like its predecessor, Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics provides great conversational fodder about the immediate and longterm consequences of human actions, both great and small. The point that aroused Krugman’s ire was the book’s implication that the global-warning camp may be a tad alarmist and not always rigorously guided by science. In the same vein, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention assailed the book for questioning the superiority of child safety seats over regular seat belts in shielding children over two from serious injury. (The authors did, however, agree that safety seats are more effective than belts in preventing minor injuries.)

Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Dubner, an author and former editor at The New York Times Magazine, arrived at their conclusions by sifting through a host of research studies to glean insights about human behavior, its causes and effects. Their aim, they say was to “tell stories . . . that rely on accumulated data rather than on individual anecdotes, glaring anomalies, personal opinions, emotional outbursts, or moral leanings.” For example, they venture into why opening up the workplace to women may have led to a measurable decline in teacher quality and why children in utero during Ramadan seem especially susceptible to developmental defects. Accept them or not, the authors’ judgments are consistently thought provoking. BookPage got the chance to ask Stephen Dubner a few questions about the new book.

Early in the book you say, “We are trying to start a conversation, not have the last word?” What ends would you expect such a conversation to serve?
It would be nice if people could think about and discuss and act on things without operating from their preconceived notions.

Why does this book falls under the rubric of economics rather than, say, behavioral psychology? Is it your thesis that all human activity has an economic dimension?
Sure, if you mean by "economic dimension" that we all respond to incentives. But incentives, as we write all over the place, are hardly limited to financial ones.

What was the division of labor for this book? Who did what?
Levitt does the nouns and adverbs, and I do the verbs and adjectives. We quarrel over the prepositions. Well, really: it's a collaboration whose particulars depend very much on the section in question. Some are hybrids of Levitt's empirical research and my reporting and writing. Often we have long talks about how particular sections will be laid out, what works and what doesn't work. The idea is to blend analysis and non-fiction storytelling in a way that short shrifts neither the analysis nor the reading experience.

Given the many variables between outwardly similar situations, do you think history has any predictive power—as opposed to simply being a catalog of possibilities?
I love that question, though I'm not sure my answer is worthwhile. I guess I'd tend toward the "catalog of possibilities" idea, especially if you're talking about economic history. So much of the conversation after the recent financial and economic meltdown centered on predictions based on what had happened in past recessions and depressions—the vast majority of which of course failed to come true (so far, at least).

Are media as sensationalist as you suggest throughout, or are we just more attuned to sensational stories than we are blandly informative ones?
I think they are one and the same. Reporters are humans too, and stories that attract our attention attracted theirs first.

Did you have a system for ferreting out the studies you cite in the book? If so, how did it work?
A lot of the research we write about is, once again, Levitt's academic research, often done in concert with people whom we write about in the book, like John List, Sudhir Venkatesh, Craig Feied, Ian Horsley and others. But we also both spend a lot of time talking to people and hunting down other interesting research.

Did you amass much useful material that didn’t make it into this book?
Yes, quite a bit, but some chapters got too flabby, some stories just didn't gel, and so on.

Do you anticipate that the two of you will collaborate on other projects?
We've talked over a number of things, including future books, but nothing's decided now.

What’s your appraisal of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of the material you cited in your New York Times Magazine article about the “birth date bulge” and the origins of talent?
Malcolm's a wonderful writer. I think he could successfully rewrite the phone book—which, if you think about it, he kind of did in that great section in The Tipping Point about "connectors."

Have the conclusions the two of you reached in writing the Freakonomics books altered your behavior in any way or changed your views on how life should be lived?
Personally, I'd say that it's made me more optimistic in general. One major theme in SuperFreakonomics is that problems that seem virtually unsolvable inevitably do get solved, often by cheap and simple means, and often by someone or something that we weren't expecting.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

Even before it hit the bookstores, SuperFreakonomics was inciting scorn and outrage. That may have had something to do with its flashing-lights subtitle: “Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” This verbal torrent virtually stampeded reviewers toward the juicy parts. The authors couldn’t have hoped for better publicity than seeing […]
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Shangri-La became a synonym for a remote, secluded paradise in 1933 via the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. That name gained much wider currency in 1937 after the book was made into a movie. Little wonder, then, that in the spring of 1944, when a U.S. Army Air Force pilot on a reconnaissance flight “discovered” a wide, fertile valley high in the central mountains of New Guinea, it would be dubbed Shangri-La. Surrounded by jungles and inaccessible by road or water, the valley was dotted with cultivated fields and villages that appeared to be inhabited by tribes from the Stone Age.

During the ensuing year, the discovery generated so much curiosity that it became commonplace for military personnel to arrange for brief flyovers of the valley, even though its high altitude and sudden shifts in weather made the flights potentially hazardous. Nonetheless, on the Sunday afternoon of May 13, 1945, a group of 24 American soldiers—including nine members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs)—boarded a twin-engine C-47 at the American air base in Hollandia (now Jayapura), Dutch New Guinea to embark on the tour. Their plan was to take a quick look at this latest Eden everyone was talking about, watch the tribesmen below react to their sudden and noisy presence and then be back at base in time for dinner.

“My eyes were bulging, my jaw dropped to the floor and my tongue rolled out. By the time I pulled myself together, I knew I couldn’t pursue the other story."

Less than an hour into the flight, the pilot miscalculated the plane’s altitude and flew it into the side of a mountain. Only three of the passengers survived—Lieutenant John McCollom, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker and Corporal Margaret Hastings.  Drawing on Army records, diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper accounts and personal recollections, Mitchell Zuckoff has reconstructed what seems like hour-by-hour account of how the survivors—two of whom were seriously injured—descended from the crash site into the mythical valley, dealt with the warlike natives there and, after would-be rescuers were parachuted in, aided in their own perilous escape. It is a tale rich in adventure and comradeship.

Speaking to BookPage from Boston, where he teaches journalism at Boston University, Zuckoff says he simply stumbled onto the story that became Lost in Shangri-La. “It was about seven years ago. I was searching online newspaper databases, particularly The Chicago Tribune, [reading] a variety of different sources that would yield human stories of World War II. I thought I had one in mind, and I wanted to look around a little bit—to sort of step back from that story [idea] to see what else was happening around the same time.” That’s when he encountered a series of stories on the crash and rescue written by the Tribune’s war correspondent, Walter Simmons. “It was almost comic strip-like,” he recalls. “My eyes were bulging, my jaw dropped to the floor and my tongue rolled out. By the time I pulled myself together, I knew I couldn’t pursue the other story.”

In spite of his enthusiasm for the subject, it took a while for Zuckoff to commit to writing a book about it. “It was an evolving process,” he explains. “When I began searching for the different survivors of the crash and the paratroopers [who were dropped in to rescue them], I found that one after another had already died. It was discouraging. I wasn’t ruling it out, but I was thinking, ‘Gee, it would be great if there was somebody who was in the valley I could talk to.’ My resolution [to write the book] became unshakeable when I found that Earl Walter [who led the rescue] was still alive.”

Although Zuckoff deftly delineates the personalities of all the pivotal characters, it is the luminous and plucky Margaret Hastings from Owego, New York who steals the show. A lot of readers are going to fall in love with her. Zuckoff confesses he kept an enlarged picture of Hastings over his desk when he was writing the book. “I had to tell my wife I was just trying to keep in the moment,” he says with a laugh.

“Margaret was a woman who was 30 years old in 1945 but who could easily be a 30-year-old woman in 2011. She knew what she wanted. She did not want to be dependent upon a man. She wanted to explore her world and the larger world. She didn’t like the fact that she [had reached] the end of her 20s and had never been anywhere more foreign and exciting than Atlantic City. So she took this amazing adventure and joined the WACs when she had endless opportunities to have been married by then, to have done things that were more traditional for a woman in the ’40s. I found her enormously appealing—beyond her beauty.”

Much of the book is based on stenographic diaries Hastings kept, even as she was struggling to stay alive. With Walter as his chief source, Zuckoff also discovered and includes here dozens of black-and-white photographs that chronicled the ordeal and its aftermath.

Zuckoff’s research was so thorough that it enabled him to give vivid thumbnail sketches of even secondary and tertiary characters. “I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain individual deceased personnel records for each one of the victims of the [plane] crash,” he says. “That was a very fundamental resource for me because each IDPF record is as much as an inch thick of data on each person. I also used the Air Force historical resources in various states and at Maxwell Air Force Base. And I used the Library of Congress for some things that had already been declassified.”

The most arduous part of his research occurred early in 2010 when he took a sabbatical from teaching to trace down and interview those tribesmen in the valley who still remembered the incident from their childhood. Even now, getting into the valley is a test of patience and nerves, Zuckoff reports.

“It was hell. But it’s a little easier than it was in ’45. My flight was from Boston to L.A., from L.A. to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Jakarta and two stops from there to Jayapura and then a little puddle-jumper over the mountains and into the valley. So it took me two or three days just to get there. There is a little airport in Wamena [the main town in the valley], but I don’t think this book is going to result in a ton of tourism, I’m sorry to say.”

This particular Shangri-La, Zuckoff notes in his book, has gone the way of all Edens. “The province has the highest rates of poverty and AIDS in Indonesia. Health care is woeful, and aid workers say school is a sometimes thing for the valley children. . . . Elderly native men in penis [-shielding] gourds walk through Wamena begging for change and cigarettes. Some charge a small fee to pose for photos, inserting boar tusks through passages in their nasal septums to look fierce. More often, they look lost.”

Although the U.S. spent an enormous amount of money and endangered numerous lives rescuing survivors of what was essentially a Sunday-afternoon lark, Zuckoff says he found no evidence that anyone was ever reprimanded for it “because it ended happily. . . and there were these wonderful news accounts and photographs.”

Zuckoff, whose other books include Robert Altman: The Oral Biography and Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, says he worked closely with his publisher in developing Lost in Shangri-La. “I had a very clear sense of what the book was going to be. I think I wrote probably about a 30- or 40-page proposal with a few photographs and laid out exactly how I planned to tell it. They bought it from a proposal.”

At the time of this interview, the book had not yet been optioned or purchased for a movie.  “There are talks underway,” Zuckoff says, “but nothing we can announce yet.”

With a figure like Margaret Hastings at its center, how could a movie miss?

Read our review of Lost in Shangri-La.

Shangri-La became a synonym for a remote, secluded paradise in 1933 via the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. That name gained much wider currency in 1937 after the book was made into a movie. Little wonder, then, that in the spring of 1944, when a U.S. Army Air Force pilot on a reconnaissance flight “discovered” […]
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Stuart Dill is more at home hobnobbing with country music stars than he is slogging through the lower depths of humanity where conspiracies are hatched and killers roam. But he’s succeeded in overcoming that cultural limitation via his first crime novel, Murder On Music Row.

For the uninitiated, Music Row is Nashville’s equivalent to New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Here songs are written and recorded that will eventually be sung around the world. And here careers soar and plummet with astounding velocity. While outwardly serene, this talent-laden piece of real estate is honeycombed with explosive pockets of ambition, ego and jealousy, all factors that make it an ideal locale for murder (even though they rarely occur there in real life).

There are four distinct layers to Dill’s story. The top one deals with the fortunes of superstar Ripley Graham, a mercurial artist who’s on the verge of delivering what is certain to be a best-selling album for his record label. The label is in the process of being acquired by an international conglomerate and needs the much-anticipated album to clinch the deal. Everything falls apart, however, when a sniper’s bullet fells Graham’s manager, Simon Stills, while Graham is shooting a music video on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. With Stills critically injured, his ambitious young intern, Judd Nix, finds himself drawn into the intrigue just as he’s beginning to learn how the convoluted music business operates.

That brings the reader to the second layer. In the process of telling its story, Murder On Music Row also offers one of the most lucid but least “teachy” explanations of how popular music is created and marketed. No surprise here, since Dill’s been in the music business for 26 years and currently manages such high-profile acts as Billy Ray Cyrus, Jo Dee Messina and Laura Bell Bundy. There’s virtually no aspect of the industry he hasn’t touched.

Then there’s the historical layer in which Dill describes how Nashville became a commercial music center. The fourth and final layer is the one that implicitly invites those who are familiar with Music Row to speculate who the real life figures are that Dill partially bases his fictional characters on. Graham, for example, is more than a little flavored with the folksy flamboyance of Garth Brooks.

So Dill has much to talk about when BookPage comes calling at his office on 16th Avenue South, the storied central thoroughfare of Music Row. His crisp white dress shirt tucked neatly into pressed khakis, the blond, curly-haired Dill leans back in his chair and recalls the long and circuitous route that ultimately brought his book to publication.

“I wrote the first page in the late 90s,” he says. “I think a paragraph stayed in the final draft. I wrote most of the book from 10 o’clock at night to 2 o’clock in the morning. I would go home exhausted and tired and see a little bit of the news and then start playing with this. The original idea was what would it look like to have an intern get thrown into the crosshairs—and literally the crossfire—of the politics of the music business with a manager and an artist. It may have been [John] Grisham who said that the formula [for writing fiction] is not that complicated. You take an ordinary person, put him in an extraordinary situation and see if he can get out. So that formula had been in my head for 10 years. But I wanted it to be relevant. It’s fiction, but at the same I wanted the backdrop to be very realistic. I wanted the settings to be real and part of it to be very current. I think there were 14 revisions [of the manuscript] over time. With the last one, I decided we were going to base it in 2011. So I spent January and February [of 2011] doing that."

The story is sufficiently current to include references to the disastrous Nashville flood of May 2010 and to the October 2010 induction of The Voice” coach Blake Shelton into the Grand Ole Opry.

“I wanted to pepper the book with some real history,” Dill continues. “At the same time, I really did want to talk about the fact that the music industry has changed more in the last 10 years than it has since the beginning of commercial music. It’s at a crisis, and that’s part of the narrative. It pleases me to no end that someone who knows the business here would enjoy the book. That’s all I really want. I thought I could probably throw a piece of fiction out there that would be entertaining for someone that’s not in the business. The more challenging and more frightening part of it all was whether I could write a book that my peers would read and feel like it was worthy. So many times, we get caught up in the New York or L.A. syndrome of somebody making a movie or a book [about country music], and we know that’s not what it’s really like.”

Dill balances his serious intentions with some wickedly deft humor. In an early chapter, his main character, Judd, pores over a guest list for one of Ripley’s lavish costume parties. Readers with only the slightest awareness of country music will recognize many of the names, from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman. For industry insiders, though, the fun comes in noticing the names that aren’t there—and perhaps in agonizing over why their own names are missing. Naturally, most of Dill’s real clients are on the exclusive list. Elsewhere, Dill writes hilarious and personality-consistent remarks that supposedly issue from the mouths of comedian Jeff Foxworthy and late-night behemoth Jay Leno. He sought permission from neither man for his imagined routines, but they will find nothing to complain about.

Not all of the action takes place in Nashville. Since the requirements of his job have taken him around the world, Dill leads the reader through the streets and into the suites of such other music centers as New York, Los Angeles and London.

“Those are all real places,” he says. “When I began writing the book, I started out with these places [I’d been to] in mind. Then, as I wrote, I started thinking, ‘Did I get that right?’ The Electric Lighting Station in London, where I have the worldwide headquarters of [fictional] Galaxy Records, was where I took a meeting when I was managing Freddy Fender. It was the first time I was in that building, and I was just charmed by it. I didn’t know where it was then. I just got in a cab and went there. Fast forward to almost 10 years later. I’m with Jo Dee Messina in London, and we’re staying at the Royal Garden Hotel. I’m walking down a street and look to my left and there’s that building—just two blocks away. I had no idea that’s where it was. I was excited to find it. In New York at the Carnegie Hall Tower [where other scenes are set], I went up there when the chairman of EMI [Music] worldwide had an office there.”

That Dill made his protagonist an intern was no accident. “I was an intern in the 1111 Building [on Music Row] 26 years ago,” he says. “That’s where I started. So there’s a little bit of romanticism in there for sure. There’s a sense of naivete [in an intern’s perspective] that helps in the telling of the story.”

Dill’s prominence in the music business didn’t give him any leverage in getting his book published. But it did garner him some invaluable advice. “I took it to a couple of agents,” he says. “I was fortunate in that these were friends of mine. So I was lucky in having relationships where I could get real feedback. It wasn’t just a blind submission that got stuck in a pile. Because they were friends, there was probably some obligation [to read the manuscript]. It wasn’t enough obligation to accept it but enough to tell me the truth.”

In the end, Dill served as his own literary agent, acting on a suggestion from his friend, the writer Frye Gaillard. “Frye is from my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and teaches at the University of South Alabama. He was probably the first guy who said that this was no longer a training exercise, that it was publishable. He called me back and said, ‘You need to take this to Blair.’” Dill’s contacts at John F. Blair, Publisher asked for one additional rewrite of his book before they agreed to publish it.

In 2000, Alan Jackson and George Strait released a record called “Murder On Music Row” that indicted the country music industry for straying too far from its traditional rural roots. It wasn’t a new charge, but it gained a lot of publicity because of the singers’ stature. By this time, Dill had already begun writing his book. “I had different versions of the title [by then],” he says, “but once the song came out, I thought, ‘That’s got to be the title.’”

Although Murder On Music Row is Dill’s first published piece of fiction, he’s determined it won’t be his last. “I do have another idea that I’ve been outlining for awhile that I’m excited about,” he says. “I haven’t done much on it yet. It’s the same idea of playing off the music industry as the backdrop. I like the idea now of using real song titles [for my book titles], even though they don’t necessarily have anything to do with what the songs are about. My working title on this one is ‘Angel From Montgomery.’”


Nashville journalist Edward Morris is the former country music editor of Billboard and currently a senior writer for the Viacom website CMT.com. His books on country music include Garth Brooks: Platinum Cowboy and At Carter Stanley's Grave: Musings on Country Music & Musicians.


Stuart Dill is more at home hobnobbing with country music stars than he is slogging through the lower depths of humanity where conspiracies are hatched and killers roam. But he’s succeeded in overcoming that cultural limitation via his first crime novel, Murder On Music Row. For the uninitiated, Music Row is Nashville’s equivalent to New […]
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With the publication of At Canaan's Edge, historian Taylor Branch completes his massive Martin Luther King Jr. trilogy, an undertaking that began in 1989 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters and continued in 1999 with Pillar of Fire. This final volume chronicles King's crusades, virtually on a daily basis, from Feb. 8, 1965, when the civil rights leader returned to Alabama for the start of another perilous voter-registration push, to his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

During those three bloody years, the indomitable King kept up pressure for desegregation in the South, expanded the rights struggle to the North (notably into Chicago), clashed increasingly with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, kept the black power factions at bay within his own camp, crisscrossed the country to raise funds, persevered in the face of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's dirty-tricks campaign against him and, to the end, remained an unshakable exemplar of nonviolent resistance. His moral clarity and physical stamina, as detailed here, were truly marvelous.

There's something to be said for Branch's stamina, too. He embarked on his study with the notion that it could be encompassed in a single book that could be finished within three years. "That was three times longer than I'd ever spent on another book," he tells BookPage from his publisher's office in New York. "I knew it was a big project, but obviously I didn't have any idea about the scope of it. The original proposal, written, I think, at the end of '81 or in early '82, defined it as pretty much what it turned out to be not a standard biography, but a narrative history of the era."

Through much of At Canaan's Edge, Branch has us peering over King's shoulder as he attends to the minutiae of organizing marches, placating contentious staff members and urging Johnson to put the weight and resources of the federal government behind the drive for racial equality. To achieve this level of intimacy, the author relied on a variety of inside sources. "Some of [the details] came from [FBI] wiretap records which are dated right down to the minute," he explains. "Those were very helpful in knowing exactly when things were said. But, also, there were a lot of different biographical records that were pretty detailed as far as what [King's] schedule was. Speakers tend to keep better diaries and better itineraries. Sifting through the reams of FBI transcripts was an ordeal," Branch says. "All you have to do is go to the FBI headquarters and be willing to sit in the basement in a windowless room and endure their security procedures, which are pretty rough. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to ask for a security escort to come and take you to and from to make sure you're not flushing some document down the toilet."

Because relatively few of Johnson's White House tapes had been transcribed when Branch was conducting his research, he had an assistant go to the Johnson Library and screen for relevant material before applying his own ears to the task. Even at a distance of 40 years, it is painful to witness the widening chasm between King and Johnson over the war in Vietnam. Both were men of great promise. Like King, Johnson had a genuine, even passionate, concern for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. But while King pushed on as an idealist, the president bogged down as the political pragmatist who concluded he could not abandon a destructive war he didn't really believe in. We view Johnson's tragic decline with the same chilling fascination with which we watch King's approaching death.

A lesser thorn in King's side was the charismatic Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the concept of black power and increasingly argued for militant rather than nonviolent resistance. As the media-stirring concept caught hold, particularly among younger and more urban blacks, King found it harder to engage adherents to his approach. Branch interviewed Carmichael in the mid-1980s, after he had moved to Africa and changed his name to Kwame Ture. "[He] was very argumentative and ideological," Branch recalls. "To my mind, he'd lost a lot of his charm, although I enjoyed talking to him. He had less historical perspective on himself than anybody else I interviewed. He was completely blind to the notion that he didn't have a coherent philosophy. It was kind of left wing, but not left wing with Marx or any other white leader. It was kind of all black, but then the all-black parties in Africa his mentors over there all turned corrupt. So there was nothing inherently stable or inspiring about a society built around blackness. He was kind of trapped." Carmichael died in Africa in 1998.

Compounding the troubles suffered by the civil rights and peace movements during the last year of King's life, Branch contends, was Israel's dazzling triumph in the Six-Day War. "A lot of utopian processing of thought of what is possible through politics was spearheaded by Jewish intellectuals and had been for a century since the Civil War," Branch says. "After the Six-Day War, a lot of that got diverted into national security. National security policy has proven vital to Israel. I think it became pretty seductive. You had a lot of Jewish intellectual thought going into reconciling Jewish heritage with military policy on the part of the United States."

In the book, Branch observes that, "The Six-Day War accelerated an ideology of progress projected through rather than against the established power of the United States, allied with Israel as the strong model democracy of the Middle East. Black power served as a foil of squandered potential."

The centrality of nonviolence to democracy fascinates Branch. "As I was studying the civil rights era," he says, "one of the things that dawned on me . . . was that I wasn't just studying race relations and I wasn't just studying the interaction of religion and race in politics, but that I was studying democracy in its bare new bones. I have been pondering some project to try to foster more civic dialogue in America about what democracy is."

Branch says he hasn't settled on a topic for his next book. "But," he adds, "I know it will be short."

Edward Morris is a writer in Nashville.

With the publication of At Canaan's Edge, historian Taylor Branch completes his massive Martin Luther King Jr. trilogy, an undertaking that began in 1989 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters and continued in 1999 with Pillar of Fire. This final volume chronicles King's crusades, virtually on a daily basis, from Feb. 8, 1965, when […]
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Dante scholar Joseph Luzzi recounts his immigrant childhood and his complicated relationship with his parents’ homeland in a captivating new memoir, My Two Italies.

Why did you decide to write this book?
I’ve wanted to write My Two Italies for some 20 years now, ever since I began my graduate studies in Italian at Yale in 1994. From the moment I decided to turn my love for Italian into my career path, I felt a strong desire to share my fascination with the immigrant southern Italian world I came from and the cultural treasures from northern Italy I was studying. But, of course, back then I wasn’t nearly knowledgeable or capable enough to write a book of this nature; I had lots of learning ahead of me.

So I kept this project in the back of my mind for many years, until finally, in 2011, the year of Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation from the premiership amid a welter of controversy, the time seemed ripe. I had by then started writing about Italy and culture for non-specialist audiences—mostly essays and reviews—and I sensed that something momentous was happening in Italy, some transition that would fundamentally affect the nation for generations to come. At that point, I felt I had to tell my story and share my understanding of Italian and Italian-American culture because I truly believed that it was impossible to understand the crises that Italy was undergoing—its political struggles under Berlusconi, its ongoing battle with corruption, the tensions between its youth and an aging population—without going back (in some cases way back, all the way to Dante) in Italian history. It was then that I believed my family history could bring readers inside some of the mysteries of Italian culture writ large.

You say that you’re “Italian and American” as opposed to being an “Italian-[hyphen] American.” What’s the distinction—as you see it?
When I was growing up, I wanted nothing to do with either the “Italian” world of my parents and older siblings—all of whom were born in Calabria in the Italian south—or the “Italian-American” world of spaghetti and meatballs, Godfather movies, and bocce tournaments that surrounded me. Like most kids, I just wanted to fit in, blend in with the other americani. It’s impossible to overstate just how not typically “suburban American” my parents were, even though we actually lived in the lovely coastal suburbs of Rhode Island. My parents raised their own livestock (there seemed to be slaughtered chickens everywhere I turned), cured sausage and prosciutto in the cellar, and made me bring to school these horrifying pepper-and-egg sandwiches on homemade rolls that would drip grease on the aluminum foil when I sat down to eat them in the lunchroom. I imagined that all the other kids were staring at my freakish meal—I would have given anything for one of their bland, patriotic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread. So I was in between two worlds: too much a child of my Calabrian parents to fit in with the kids in the cafeteria, yet too attuned to the English language and the American games and sports of my classmates to be as authentically “Italian” as the Calabrian branch of my family. There was no hyphen for me, with its implication of seamlessly blended ethnicities. That feeling of being both a bit—just a bit—Italian and American reminded me that I inhabited an ethnic limbo, separated from my parents’ Italian homeland while also wondering if I would ever truly fit into this new American world.

What was your relationship with your father like during his final years?
It was not an easy one. After I graduated from college in Boston, I moved back home for a while, and he would drive me to my job at a local copy shop on the University of Rhode Island campus. For a full forty-five minutes on the road he wouldn’t say a word to me. He would just stare ahead, grimly focused on the drive, listening to Salty Brine spin the oldies on a crackling AM radio station as we rolled past the turf farms of URI. The ride felt so symbolic: growing up, we never had those normal father-son conversations that, I imagined with wild jealousy, all my other friends enjoyed with their dads (at least that’s the way it appeared to work on TV). And yet I worshiped him. He had an aura about him, with the absolute command he emanated at home, and the astonishing care and perfectionism he put into everything he did, from his manicured garden and oversized vegetables to his legendary homemade wine. Even the waves of his salt-and-pepper hair fell perfectly into place. I realize now what I could not fathom then: we were from completely different worlds, and understanding between us was impossible. By my mid-20s I had graduated from college and held a series of half-baked jobs, just like the one at the copy shop he drove me to; by his mid twenties he had endured soul-crushing poverty, fought for Italy in World War II, and survived years as a military internee—essentially forced labor—in Nazi Germany. I think the ease of my life—which he must have seen as frivolity—embarrassed him.

I remember once, when I played for the number two spot on my high school tennis team, he showed up at the Weekapaug courts in his Chevy Malibu (the same one in which we would ride in silence). He had sworn to me before the match that he was going to pull me off the courts, “davant’ a tutti,” “in front of everyone,” because I was burning expensive holes in my sneakers that we could not afford to replace. He wanted me to play in work shoes. I tried to stare down my archrival, whose wealthy family had a tennis court in their backyard—but I couldn’t focus on his white Rossignol racket with my father haunting the parking lot, just an overhead smash away from the Atlantic Ocean. My father silently raged in the car while I played, my mother expressionless beside him. She must have talked him out of his plan: after the match he just drove away. Needless to say, I lost in straight sets.

Your daughter Isabel will turn 7 this year. Are you teaching her Italian?
I have tried to teach Isabel Italian in fits and starts, but I’m embarrassed to say that thus far I haven’t been able to put together a sustained plan. Part of the blame, I guess, is on my own laziness—since I teach Italian language and culture for a living it is hard for me to stay in work mode when I come home from campus and see Isabel. And I admit I find it somewhat artificial to speak to her in a different language from the English that’s being used all around us.

But there may be a deeper reason that has held me back. Growing up, I desperately wanted my parents, with their heavily accented attempts at English (for example, “she’s a’ no’ home” for “he’s not home”) to speak proper English, and I felt that mastering the language of our new American world would be the most important and effective way of assimilating. Plus, I fell in love with English. Books became a second home to me, as Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Joyce, and other masters of the English language became passports to alternate realms, past and present, that my working-class family could not afford to travel to. Although the Italian language is profoundly important to me, I wonder if the English I speak with Isabel is somehow making up for a connection to the “American” language that I felt was missing from my own childhood all those years ago.

Has your daughter taken on any of the Calabrian traits and values of your mother?

That’s a great question. . . . Yes, I do feel my parents in her in a way that sometimes floors me. Calabrians can be known—not so flatteringly—as teste dure, “hard heads,” capable of some pretty profound stubbornness. But I think it’s more than that. For centuries, life in this impoverished southern Italian region was extremely demanding, so much so that it became synonymous with la miseria, literally “the misery”—a term denoting pervasive hardship and scarcity that bred a fatalistic worldview about the inevitable suffering life entails. To survive in this world, you had to be tough—real tough. And my family had this quality in abundance, especially my father, who endured World War II, Nazi Germany, immigration, and a life of severe labor, both as a factory worker and a landscaper. I feel that, in my own life, when I’ve faced particularly challenging or daunting circumstances, I’ve been able to draw on this instinctual “Calabrian” residue of will, even hard-headedness, in confronting a problem and making it to the other side. My daughter Isabel is a wonderfully sweet and loving kid, but she has this iron will—she simply will not give in on certain things, no matter how much she is asked to do so. This has made for some trying moments as a parent—but I can also sense her Calabrian ancestry speaking through her, and deep down I pray that this “testa dura” quality will stay with her (or at least fully blossom when she’s 18 and away at college!).

Do you view “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” as legitimate expressions of the Italian-American character—or is there such a thing?

Yes, I do believe that in some ways “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” are legitimate expressions of the Italian-American character, and that’s partly why I find them so potentially troubling—and not because I think that they promote dangerous stereotypes about Italian Americans. I believe that most who watch these programs understand that they are not fully representative of the Italian-American “experience.” After all, Italian Americans have produced two Supreme Court justices, four mayors of New York City, a woman vice presidential candidate and a president of Yale, to name just a few of the more prominent. But I do think that “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore” strike a cord deep within the public about Italian-American culture—just as, before them, the Godfather films did. Most Italians are descendants from poor families in the Italian south, and thus were cut off from a lot of the cultural developments in northern Italy. Moreover, many southern Italians viewed Italian unification itself—a belated political process that only took place in 1861—as the spread of northern political power into the south (and thus, no cause for patriotic celebration). I think that many Italian immigrants carried with them, out of Italy and into America, this sense of alienation from both “high” Italian culture and a cohesive sense of Italian national identity. These immigrants—my parents among them—tended to identify more with their region than with Italy as a whole.

I don’t think it’s a surprise, therefore, that so many of the popular programs about Italian-American culture—including “The Sopranos” and “Jersey Shore”—often celebrate the more folkloric and popular aspects of their ancestors’ Italian lives, without going deeply into questions of how the immigrant Italian world relates to Italian history and culture outside of the south. As I write in My Two Italies, Italian-American culture is essentially southern Italian culture imported to the United States. Our southern Italian heritage is something to be celebrated. But I also think it would be interesting for Italian Americans to go beyond the usual pop-cultural clichés about the “Old Country” and ask ourselves what it means to be “Italian” in the context of the troubled relation between the Italian north and south, and how this relates to massively important Italian issues like its centuries-long political fragmentation and quest for a unifying language that stretches back to Dante.

Was there any particular event that prompted you to specialize in Italian studies?
It wasn’t so much a single event as a general awakening I experienced, a few years after college, pushing me in the direction of my parents’ world and all the memories it held. When I decided to get a Ph.D. in literature, there wasn’t any particularly compelling aspect of my background that suggested it should be in Italian. I hadn’t majored in Italian as an undergraduate, and though I did take a few courses in Italian as part of a Master’s program I had enrolled in before my doctorate, it was still an open question as to which path I would pursue. But when it came down to making a career decision, it became clear to me just how much sense it would make to combine my love for literature with the mysteries of the “two Italies” I had grown up with—the customs and traditions of my parents, with their alien acts like the blood pudding they made from pigs they slaughtered, and the dreams that Italy inspired in me, especially during the life-changing junior year abroad I had spent in Florence amid its Renaissance splendor. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was compelled along by a desire to reconcile these two worlds—to show how, for all their differences, they are still part of the same, single Italian culture.

My studies would in fact teach me that the Italian quest for a national tongue that obsessed such authors as Dante and Alessandro Manzoni also shaped the lives of immigrants like my father, who had to abandon his Calabrian dialect after immigrating to the United States, a move that would essentially make him a linguistic orphan (he lost Calabrian, never learned standard Italian, and could barely speak English). So the decision to specialize in Italian studies was one of those rare and wonderful instances where my heart and my head were in sync: rationally, I knew it would be wise to focus on a literary tradition that I both admired and had cultural roots in; emotionally, I felt pulled by my deep love for my parents and their lost homeland, and I wanted to dig into our family’s past and see just where the poetry of Dante and the blood puddings of my people could connect.

Do you ever feel that Italy—apart from its art—has little new to offer you?
Another very good, tough question. Obviously I love Italy, as I have made teaching and writing about it into my life’s work. I’m aware, however, that at times my connection to Italy has been affected by the experiences of my parents and the distance that they set between themselves and Calabria after emigrating from it in the late 1950s. For example, I’m often asked if I would want to apply for dual citizenship in Italy to go along with my American passport, and my answer has always been no, I would not. It’s very difficult for me to imagine myself as a citizen of any country beside the United States, including Italy, because I think of the incredible sacrifices that my parents had to endure to become American. They had to give up their Italian citizenship when they immigrated to the United States; more than that, they had to leave behind all their friends and families, basically their entire lives, so that we, their six children, could have a better life filled with more opportunities in America. And that has certainly been the case: just one generation after my father, who had only the slightest of a grade-school education, I was lucky enough to be able to go on and receive a doctorate. The idea, in a sense, of reversing the vector and reclaiming their lost, abandoned Italian citizenship seems somehow to do an injustice to all that my parents had to sacrifice.

Of course, I realize that one could argue just the exact opposite: by reclaiming the Italian citizenship my parents had lost, I would be restoring to our family a tie to Italy that my mother and father had been forced to sever. Perhaps. But it just doesn’t quite feel that way. . . . As I wrote in my book, my mom said something to me once that truly shocked me: my father, she said, had been happy in Calabria, even carefree. That is decidedly not the image of my overworked, overstressed father that I knew growing up. He and my mother had left a Calabria that, despite its poverty, was a relatively “happy and carefree” place for them, in order to build a new home on the other side of the world. Their journey has always seemed arduous, ferociously demanding, even cruel at times—and yet, more than anything, it has been a remarkable gift. Their gift to me, one that no child can ever repay, has been a life of boundless opportunity free from the hardships of Calabria.

I’ve been surprised by the evolution of My Two Italies. When I started writing it, I imagined it would be exclusively about Italy and Italian America. I now see that it is a book about la famiglia, the family, especially in its connection to the American experience and how profoundly linked that has been to immigration. I’m in awe of my parents’ courage and resolve in embracing immigration and all that it would take from them, and I hope that my book will honor their journey.

A portion of this article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of this book.

Dante scholar Joseph Luzzi recounts his immigrant childhood and his complicated relationship with his parents’ homeland in a captivating new memoir, My Two Italies.
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Ah, the teenage years. It was either the best of times or the worst of times, depending on who you ask. In Popular, Mitch Prinstein looks at one of the biggest factors of those years: popularity. Why are some people prom kings while others can't even get a prom date? Why does one coworker seem to always get the glory while another can barely get a word in? Prinstein looks at the factors behind popularity, both in adolescence and in adulthood, as well as its effects in this fascinating book. We asked Prinstein a few questions about his research into popularity and his surprising findings. 

What led you to undertake a scientific study of the nature and effects of popularity?
Even as a kid, I was always fascinated by popularity. What makes some people so much more popular than others, and how does our childhood popularity affect us for the rest of our lives? Scientists have been investigating popularity for decades, and over the past 20 years in my lab, we have been examining all kinds of ways that our popularity with peers can change how we think, how we behave and even how popularity changes our body’s stress-response systems and DNA—all without us even realizing it!

In your book, you make a distinction between status and likability. What exactly is the difference between these two seemingly interchangeable things?
When we were young children, our most popular peers were those whom we preferred to spend time with, those who were benevolent leaders of our playgroups, and those who made us feel good. This is likability, and when peers like us, it offers a ripple effect benefitting us for the rest of our lives. In adolescence, a new kind of popularity emerges, however, based far more on how visible, dominant, influential, and even “cool” some teens can be. This is status, and it turns out that it can hurt us in the long run.

Is status a more perishable and less dependable quality than likability?
Status is not based on joining with others, but rather dominating those around us. It tends to be maintained by acting aggressively, which ultimately tends to alienate peers. This is probably why most of those with the highest status also are the most disliked people we know. This wasn’t true only in high school, but also in every corporation and community today.

Can a person who’s been unpopular throughout childhood and who has low self-esteem change attitudes to make him or herself more likable?
Likability can absolutely change, but it can be harder than it seems because it requires us to recognize how we are repeating patterns that made us unpopular since grade school. Without us being aware, our prior experiences with popularity are changing the way we observe the word around us, the way we interpret every interpersonal interaction, and all of social decisions.  

Do you think that social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have helped elevate status over likability?
Social media isn’t inherently evil, but it can be misused, and perhaps even promote an obsession with the “wrong” type of popularity. If Facebook offers a chance to catch up with old friends, stay connected, and maintain genuine relationships, then it is helping to maintain likability. But if we start using social media only to amass “followers” or cultivate “likes,” and forget that these tallies anonymous approval are merely markers of status, then we may lose sight of the kind of popularity that really matters. In fact, evidence suggests that an obsession with status is related to a host of psychological difficulties, including substance use, failed relationships, and ultimately unhappiness. 

What are some of the negative effects of unpopularity during childhood? What about the positive effects of unpopularity?
Dozens of scientific studies now have demonstrated that those who are disliked by their peers are at greater risk for a range of mental health difficulties, addiction, poorer quality friendships and romantic relationships, poorer work performance, less educational attainment, lower income, more health problems, and even early mortality. But it is those same unpopular kids who also grow up with superior perspective-taking skills, a more realistic sense of the future, and a greater capacity for empathy. Perhaps most important, childhood unpopularity is most likely to lead to these outcomes only if left unchecked. I hope Popular will allow readers to recognize how their childhood experiences may still be affecting them today, and help them benefit rather than suffer from their pasts.

Is popularity a factor in all the cultures you’ve studied?
Scicentists are still learning about the similarities and differences in popularity around the world. So far, there is good evidence to suggest we all experience our high school years in fundamentally similar ways. However, it may be that Eastern cultures place less emphasis on “status” than we do here in the USA, and in other westernized cultures.  

You say that likability is the “most powerful kind of popularity there is.” Is this true even for those who likability is apparent only to a small circle of acquaintances?
Yes! The effects of likability come from the ways it changes our daily interactions – in a manner than may seem insignificant moment to moment, but as research suggests, tends to snowball across time and contexts to truly change our entire life course. Likable people are afforded extra opportunities to learn new social skills in every interaction, while dislikable people tend to be denied many of those same opportunities.     

In your acknowledgments, you say that your wife, Tina, is the “most likable woman [you’ve] ever met.” Assuming this assessment is more scientific than political, have you traced the roots of her likability?
I admit I may be a bit biased, but she truly is extraordinary! And if you had ever met my wife’s parents, you would not find it hard to trace the roots of her popularity at all! In the book, I talk about the ways that parents can create an environment that calls forth the most likable traits in their children.  

What are some of the mistakes parents make when trying to make their children more popular at school?
Some parents want their children to be popular, but they do not yet understand the difference between the two types of popularity. This can have ill-effects, because we don’t necessarily want our children to be the “most popular” homecoming kings and queens or the alpha males and females – studies show that these folks tend to have worse outcomes than those who were average in popularity.

As you see it, was Trump’s election a triumph of status over likability?
I completed the book before the election, and then watched as so much of the research summarized within it came true. As a scientist who studies popularity, his election was not terribly surprising at all – studies have long demonstrated how status can be a powerful draw, and others will follow those who have this form of popularity. But in the weeks that followed, we witnessed why the pursuit of status can be so unfulfilling, and ultimately lead to profound discontent. Even as president, status-seeking continued (inauguration crowd sizes, popular vote margins, "Celebrity Apprentice" ratings, and so on). There has never been a more powerful demonstration of why a focus on this type of popularity can be perpetually unfulfilling. #Sad.

To what degree is Popular a how to book for achieving popularity?
It’s not really about that at all, actually. Rather, I hope that those who read the book will feel better about whatever experiences they had in high school, recognizing that popular or not – our pasts continue to affect is in the present. Popular also offers a chance to learn about the power of likability and how to use our natural instincts to genuinely connect with others and resist the temptations our modern world will offer to seek status instead.

(Author photo by Somer Hadley at Revolution Studios)

We asked Mitch Prinstein a few questions about his research into popularity and his surprising findings. 

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