James Summerville

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek, appears regularly on “Meet the Press,” “Larry King Live” and “Today,” and that background is apparent in his new book, The War Lovers. Readers who enjoy made-for-television history are most likely to appreciate this rehash of the events that led to the Spanish-American War and what the jacket copy calls our nation’s “ferocious drive toward empire.” The explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, was almost certainly an accident, but newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst charged that Spanish saboteurs had planted explosives on the craft. Hearst’s headlines in his New York Journal pressured Congress to declare war, a step favored by powerful Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. The third “war lover,” Theodore Roosevelt, actually fought in the war, and his charge up San Juan Heights under enemy fire made him a national hero—and ultimately President of the United States. Yet Thomas accuses the trio of fabricating evidence to support the theory of an act of terrorism.

Thomas’ own heroes are two doves: Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed and William James, psychologist, philosopher, religious thinker and Harvard professor. Although Lodge and Roosevelt had once planned how to win the presidency for Reed, the speaker broke with his former friends over the war, and James pronounced the United States “now as dangerous to the world as anything since Bonaparte’s time.” He understood that Spain had oppressed the Cuban people, he said—but he could not excuse President McKinley’s demand for the Philippines in the name of freedom and uplift.

Thomas clearly means the reader to see parallels between U.S. foreign policy of the late 19th century and the early 21st century. In both eras, did America invent enemies and rush to war?

A cropped portrait of Theodore Roosevelt serves as the cover illustration for The War Lovers. Thomas notes that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby hung Roosevelt’s likeness over his desk, “drawing inspiration from it” as he toiled for his boss, Vice President Richard Cheney. That’s just the sort of anecdote that Larry King fans will love to hear Thomas tell.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek, appears regularly on “Meet the Press,” “Larry King Live” and “Today,” and that background is apparent in his new book, The War Lovers. Readers who enjoy made-for-television history are most likely to appreciate this rehash of the events that led to the Spanish-American War and what the jacket […]

Once, back when conservation was taught in schools, every youngster heard the teacher say, “To see what man has wrought, go to Europe. But to see what God has wrought, come to America.” While the Old World has its palaces and cathedrals, Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone and the nearly 60 other national parks that comprise our “empire of grandeur.” A sumptuous new book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, recounts the history and preservation of these treasured places.

The book is a visual adventure, like its companion, the recently aired PBS production of the same name. Ken Burns and crew shot 150 hours of film and collected 12,000 archival photographs, distilling their work here. Of course they include such iconic places as the sun-splashed Grand Tetons of Wyoming and the valley of the Colorado River. Less well known but equally breathtaking are Oregon’s Crater Lake in winter and the Dakota badlands. Some of the historic pictures—chiaroscuro studies—feel nearly three-dimensional. Others touch the heart, including one of John Muir as an old man, broken by the loss of his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, flooded for a reservoir.

Filmmaker Burns’ works are abundant with characters. This story of “America’s best idea” is likewise a story of people: those who first saw these spirit-lifting landscapes, reported on them to the world and fought for their protection—or tried to destroy them for profit. Theodore Roosevelt inevitably bestrides these pages. Muir, a close friend, called him “the most vital man on the continent,” and with good reason: during his presidency (1901-09), more than 280,000 square miles—a total area larger than Texas—were placed under protection of some kind.

Less famous heroes also gave their working lives to the conservation cause, writing articles, making speeches and lobbying politicians to save places with canyons, glaciers and giant trees. After an early life of dissolution, Horace Kephart took refuge in the mountain fastness of eastern Tennessee in 1904, where he witnessed logging companies laying waste to vast tracts of ancient timber. Owing his life to the wilderness, he joined the movement to save what was left. He was rewarded in 1934, when another President Roosevelt signed the law creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When the authors refer to “the scripture of nature,” it becomes clear that their journey to make this stunning book was very much like a pilgrimage—and we are the richer for it. 

Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Once, back when conservation was taught in schools, every youngster heard the teacher say, “To see what man has wrought, go to Europe. But to see what God has wrought, come to America.” While the Old World has its palaces and cathedrals, Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone and the nearly 60 other national parks that comprise […]

Hers is a face recognized around the world, 65 years after her death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Because her picture survived, she stands for the faceless millions who were herded, stripped, whipped and forced into the gas chambers. Her personal struggle came to life in the journal she kept while her family hid in a cramped attic from the Nazi patrols.

In Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, novelist Francine Prose aims to rescue Anne Frank from the mythmakers of Broadway and Hollywood, who turned her story into a “universal” one about tolerance and human goodness. She excoriates the play and the film, which portrayed a naïve nitwit and downplayed Anne’s Jewishness.

Prose sends us back instead to Anne’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, insisting on Anne’s prodigious literary gifts, her religious faith and her understanding of the devils who had taken over Europe. With extensive quotes and paraphrases from the attic chronicle, she calls attention to the teen’s powers of observation. Especially noteworthy are the depiction of her parents and others who shared the closed cramped space, Anne’s blooming puberty—and the fear of discovery, arrest and death.

Still, says Prose, the proof of Frank’s genius is her capacity for revision. Anne reworked her daily entries to sharpen, clarify or set in relief details of the quotidian life under the eaves. Prose writes, “Anne can render a moment in which everyone is talking simultaneously, acting or reacting, an example of barely contained chaos that poses a challenge for even the practiced writer.”

The most compelling chapters of this study are “the afterlife.” Otto Frank, Anne’s father, recovered the diary and saw it into publication, which made him a wealthy man. But the saccharine adaptations from it falsified the profundity of Anne’s work, according to Prose. The book, and only the book, can depict a brilliant young writer’s acute observation of a world gone mad.

Jim Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Hers is a face recognized around the world, 65 years after her death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Because her picture survived, she stands for the faceless millions who were herded, stripped, whipped and forced into the gas chambers. Her personal struggle came to life in the journal she kept while her family hid […]

The Paris World’s Fair of 1889, held to mark the centennial of the French Revolution, also looked to the future. Gustave Eiffel’s Tour en Fer was and remains an engineering marvel, in part because the builder had only minimal technical training in engineering and architecture. What he possessed can’t be fully explained, as genius cannot be. But in Eiffel’s Tower, Jill Jonnes (Empires of Light, Conquering Gotham) presents an engaging story of a great engineer, one with an “attractive boldness, impetuosity, and natural courage.” His triumphant creation marked the beginning of the age of technology.

Eiffel “loved designing and erecting gigantic practical structures,” Jonnes writes. His career as a builder of railroad bridges had demonstrated his meta-cognitive skills in mathematics and logistics. In winning the commission for the fair’s centerpiece, he stood against the arts and cultural establishment of his day, who reviled the proposed tower. Jonnes’ account of its construction is thrilling. Eiffel’s plans sometimes depended on measurements with a margin of error no greater than one-tenth of a millimeter. His cranes hoisted large plates of metal high into the sky, and each level depended on the solidity and integrity of those below it. The builders worked their hammers and stoked their forges hundreds of feet above the ground in the icy winds of Paris winters, driven by a fiendish schedule so the tower would be ready when the fair opened. At 984 feet it was done, on March 31, 1889, then and forever a symbol of French grandeur.

Returning throughout to the tower, Jonnes tells the rest of the story of the Paris exposition through the lives of others drawn there dreaming big dreams. William (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody took his Wild West Show to the fair, and Parisians overflowed the stands. James McNeill Whistler’s exhibit enjoyed a brief adulation, while Paul Gauguin’s exhibits garnered less enthusiasm. As the years passed, other lives revolved around the great structure, including the soldiers determined to raise the tricolor above Paris when the Nazis were defeated. That moving story fittingly closes this absorbing, wonderfully crafted and well-told tale.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

The Paris World’s Fair of 1889, held to mark the centennial of the French Revolution, also looked to the future. Gustave Eiffel’s Tour en Fer was and remains an engineering marvel, in part because the builder had only minimal technical training in engineering and architecture. What he possessed can’t be fully explained, as genius cannot […]

The 51-mile link between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean across the Panamanian isthmus stands as one of the great engineering feats of all human history, comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Apollo moon landings. In The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal, labor historian Julie Greene asks: Was it the princes or presidents who did those things? What about the compass bearers, the joiners and those who fed the horses and cooked the meals?

The central figures in Greene's story—the "builders‚" referred to in her title—are the 35,000 ordinary people who traveled to Panama, and, from 1906 to 1914, raised new towns, built houses, ran railroads, operated commissaries, set up a constabulary and judiciary and, above all, moved dirt. Greene examines how the U.S. government, determined to build the canal as fast as possible, managed this force of working people from all over the world.

"The engineering and constructional difficulties melt into insignificance compared with labor‚" she quotes chief engineer John Stevens as saying. Indeed, Greene finds that project director Col. George W. Goethals tried to apply the ideal of Progressivism: that by regulating environments one could improve human behavior. While the jungle gave way before steam shovels, this social engineering faltered and often failed. Goethals could not control appetites for drink, sex and money; eliminate racial or ethnic prejudice; make people fair or honest; or come close to perfecting the human character. The undeniable success of the project even left an indelible stain on the Republic of Panama, which the U.S. had brought into being: that country's sovereignty over its own territory was not retuned to it until 2000, when the U.S. ceded the Canal.

The great adventure might have taught Americans to take people and nations not as we might wish them to be but as they often are: perverse, selfish, nationalistic. Yet somehow the overtopping idealism and magnificent vision inspired this multitude to build the great Canal.

James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

The 51-mile link between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean across the Panamanian isthmus stands as one of the great engineering feats of all human history, comparable to the Great Wall of China or the Apollo moon landings. In The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal, labor historian Julie Greene asks: Was […]

Seventy-five years ago, in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president amid the gravest economic crisis in the nation's history. The Depression that began with, but was not necessarily caused by, the collapse of the stock market in 1929 was now pulling banks, farms and businesses into a swirling vortex. Unemployment ratcheted up to 25 percent.

FDR's response was to try something, anything, to get people working again. Congress agreed to put the federal government in debt to create jobs, and in 1935, the Works Progress Administration started to “make the dirt fly,” in the president's words. Before it officially closed in 1943, the workers hired and paid by the WPA built countless roads, stadiums, libraries, parks, New York's LaGuardia Airport and San Antonio's River Walk.

In American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work, writer Nick Taylor revels in the sprawling construction statistics. Nonetheless, he gives space in this story to the WPA's critics in Congress, who insisted that those initials stood for “We Piddle Around” and that Communists had infiltrated the agency. He also touches on the continued rate of joblessness, which persisted despite Roosevelt's efforts.

The New Deal's job creation, if it failed in the aggregate, succeeded in the particular. Taylor, a writer of popular nonfiction and co-author of John Glenn's memoir, puts a human face on the WPA through interviews with the folks who got government paychecks and their dignity back. “It wasn't no different than no other job,” said Johnny Mills, who dug out embankments and shoveled gravel to widen roads in the North Carolina mountains. “You earned the money. I always tried to make a living for my family. And it was help to us.” Taylor's second hero, after President Roosevelt, is Harry Hopkins, who ran the New Deal relief efforts for almost six years. Taylor gives a rich portrait of this great public servant, a rare bureaucrat who spoke his mind against his relentless critics. His resignation at the end of 1938 is as good a place as any to declare the New Deal over, as Taylor does. Nine months later, Hitler's armies marched into Poland and began the conquest of Europe. Taylor acknowledges that the economic engine of manufacture for World War II brought unemployment down to single digits.

Taylor does not enter the debate over whether the New Deal amounted to another American revolution by intruding federal powers into political, social and personal matters. But in his sketches of New Deal relief programs, one can readily find the idea of government responsibility for individual well-being and welfare. Did the government's involvement in a job creation program lead to today's federal presence in education? Should the crisis of 1933-1943 have made the federal government what it later became – a regulator in the banking and securities business, as well as the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy? Those aren't Taylor's questions. Instead, he chronicles with engaging detail the work of one New Deal agency that “placed its faith in ordinary men and women [who] proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectations.” James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.

Seventy-five years ago, in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president amid the gravest economic crisis in the nation's history. The Depression that began with, but was not necessarily caused by, the collapse of the stock market in 1929 was now pulling banks, farms and businesses into a swirling vortex. Unemployment ratcheted up to 25 […]

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