- Historic Sites
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Hanson’s title must be a dark joke, for while Thucydides wrote that his was a war like no other, Hanson writes because he knows that it echoes as we think of our own wars. This is a very good book about one war, and about many wars, and about the American history that is being written by living generations. — Fredric SmolerMovie History CHOICE CRITICS
Movie history resists sweeping generalizations, probably because the best films, especially the American ones, so often stand at odds with the major trends of their times. For that reason, I’ve never read a broad-gauged history of the medium that strikes me as more than a dutiful slog.
The best writing about films is critical writing, the product of a single sensibility engaging, one on one, one by one, with the films of a particular period. I’m thinking here of collections by the likes of Andrew Sarris, Graham Greene, Pare Lorentz, all of which go on giving pleasure long after most of the movies they wrote about have surrendered their claims on us. My favorite among these volumes is The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson , a posthumous gathering of the reviews he wrote for The New Republic from 1934 through 1941 (a merchant seaman, Ferguson was killed, at 35, when his ship was bombed in the Bay of Salerno in 1942).
Ferguson was a sensible, skeptical, cheeky writer in the vernacular mode, whose style obviously influenced many who came after him (James Agee, Pauline Kael) and whose great virtue was, perhaps, a negative one: He resisted moralizing, which is the besetting sin of movie reviewers. He took movies as he found them, often discovering qualities in Hollywood products that his contemporaries did not see but which, as time passed, have become more obvious to us. The book, first published 35 years ago by a university press, remains in print, though it is listed at 1,163,839 on Amazon. But Ferguson is the great discovery in Phillip Lopate’s recent American Movie Critics anthology; Lopate reprints more pieces by Ferguson than by any other reviewer. With good reason. Anyone who can end his consideration of Citizen Kane with the remarkable (and I think prescient) comment that it made him “doubt that Orson Welles really wants to make pictures” (as opposed to striking the thwarted genius pose) remains a writer to be happily reckoned with. — Richard SchickelHistory Living America’s Worst Riot
The best work of American history I have read in the past year would be Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (Walker & Company). Over the decades there have been a number of fine histories written about this critical moment in our nation’s past, most notably Iver Bernstein’s The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War , Ernest McKay’s The Civil War and New York City , and Adrian Cook’s The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 , as well as Peter Quinn’s excellent historical novel Banished Children of Eve .
Yet Schecter’s book surpasses all of them not only in bringing the terrible days of the riots to life but in illustrating their full significance within the context of both New York and American history. As such it inevitably raises questions about the role of war in American society today: what sacrifices it requires and who should be shouldering the burden. The Devil’s Own Work is everything a history should be, both relevant and relentlessly cognizant of the past as a different country, written with care, passion, and expertise.— Kevin BakerHistorical Novel Patriotic Fury
The best historical fiction I’ve come across this year is a powerful first novel by Thomas Mullen, The Last Town on Earth .
Its literary ancestors are European: Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Camus’s La Peste , but its subject matter is thoroughly American. The town of the title is faintly modeled on Gunnison, Colorado, one of several Western cities that in the closing months of World War I declared a self-imposed quarantine to keep out the Spanish influenza. In Mullen’s fictional version, as apparently in real life, no one is permitted to enter or pass through the city limits; anyone who leaves cannot return. Armed guards are stationed around its perimeter to discourage intruders.
But Commonwealth, as Mullen ironically calls it, is a town created in accordance with American progressive and socialist ideas, an early-twentieth-century version of those solemn utopias that have spotlighted our history since the days of the Mayflower and Brook Farm. Its fierce quarantine runs deeply counter to its founding ideals.