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Current Books In Brief

June 2024
6min read

The Lowering Clouds: the Secret Diary of Harold Ickes . Simon and Schuster. 695 pp.

This third volume of the seemingly interminable Ickes diary makes clear a couple of things which were dimly visible earlier—that Ickes had a high opinion of his own capacities, and that one of his dominant motivations was an insatiable desire for power. The man was an extremely able administrator and a devoted and incorruptible public servant, whose work as Secretary of the Interior left the national domain better than it was before, yet the picture that emerges from this volume is not precisely pleasant. For his fellow Cabinet members—especially those who seemed to be rising in public favor and presidential influence—there is hardly a pleasant word. For his own endless struggle to get more authority centered in his own department, there are pages and pages and pages. The steady retreat of the New Deal from its old liberal principles in the face of the threat of war is clearly indicated, but the story is told very largely in terms of Ickes’ own frustrations. All in all, it is a strange book, more revealing than the author probably intended.

The Dalton Brothers and Their Astounding Career of Crime , by an Eye Witness; introduction by Burton Rascoe. Frederick Fell, Inc. 251 pp.

Here we have a reprint of an old yellow-back, originally printed in 1892, describing the brief career and disastrous end of a once-famous gang of western bank and train robbers. The anonymous writer seems to have made a scrupulous effort to get his facts straight, and—for whatever it may be worth—this account of the Dalton boys’ exploits is, as Mr. Rascoe points out, about as close to the real truth as we are ever likely to get. The Daltons appear to have been long on muscle but very short on brains. As a gang they lasted less than two years, and when they tried to take two banks on the same day in Coffeyville, Kansas, an impromptu posse of angry citizens shot them all to pieces. The amateur of frontier crime will find this a well-flavored account, properly keyed to a “crime does not pay” motif.

Down on the Farm: a Picture Treasury of Country Life in America in the Good Old Days . Commentary by Stewart H. Holbrook. Pictures assembled and collated by Milton Rugoff. Crown Publishers, Inc. 188 pp.

We are an urbanized, highly industrialized nation nowadays, but somehow the old-time farm seems to have its claim on all of us, and this gently nostalgic book will make the claim stronger. “Our memory,” says Mr. Holbrook, “is of a day when the world was young, the sky was blue and, despite its tribulations, the most wonderful place on earth was down on the farm. That is what the many pictures in this book are about.” Taken together, the pictures and text go far to recreate the haunting memory Mr. Holbrook is talking about.

The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents . Edited by William B. Willcox. Yale University Press. 658 pp.

This book might well be subtitled, “How Great Britain lost the war for American Independence.” It is composed of the labored self-justificatory narrative and letters written by Sir Henry Clinton, who commanded the British forces in America from 1778 to 1782, and it makes clear that ineptitude in command cost the British a war which they might well have won. Much of this ineptitude belonged to Sir Henry himself. As the editor points out in his admirable introduction, Clinton had an excellent grasp of strategy and made a number of first-rate plans; his chief trouble was that he was quite incapable of carrying them out, and temperamentally unable to get along with the naval officers and junior generals with whom he had to work. He was, in short, quite typical of the generalship Britain was producing at the time, and his ingrained reluctance to accept responsibility and take the initiative seems to have been partly personal and partly a product of the military system that produced him.

Stephen R. Mallory: Confederate Navy Chief , by Joseph T. Durkin, S.J. The University of North Carolina Press. 446 pp.

Mallory was one of the two men appointed to the Confederate Cabinet in 1861 who still held their jobs when the curtain came down in 1865, yet he tends to be one of the forgotten men of the Confederacy. Actually, as Father Durkin demonstrates in this solid biography, he was one of Jefferson Davis’ ablest co-adjutors. As Secretary of the Navy, he accomplished a great deal more than his contemporaries were ready to admit, particularly in view of the fact that most of the time he was obliged to make bricks without straw. Under his regime the Confederacy built formidable iron-clad ships, made very effective use of mines, and brought forth the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in action. If the famous commerce raiders failed to win the war, they did represent a gambit worth accepting, and the ultimate Confederate naval failure was due to the force of circumstances rather than to any failure on Mallory’s part.

Black Cotton Stockings , by Ron Ryder and Jim Fynmore, foreword by Walter D. Edmonds. Country Books.

This unpretentious book is made up of pictures and text depicting the good old days (and a certain number of more modern ones) in the upstate town of Boonville, N. Y., and it turns out to be a very pleasing job. If the authors slightly overwork the “cotton stockings” motif occasionally, they keep their attention fixed for the most part on the attempt to evoke the feeling and the flavor of the American small town in the pre-automobile age, and by and large their attempt is successful.

Grierson’s Raid , by D. Alexander Brown. The University of Illinois Press. 261 pp.

On April 17, 1863, Colonel Benjamin Henry Grierson led 1,700 Federal cavalrymen out of the Federal base at La Grange, Tennessee, on a raid that ended more than a fortnight later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 600 miles to the south. The raid was a spectacular affair, with Colonel Grierson consistently outsmarting the Confederate columns that set out to catch him, and it had considerable strategic importance in that it diverted the Confederates’ attention from Grant just at the moment when that officer was launching his eminently successful final thrust against Vicksburg. Mr. Brown has gone to unpublished diaries and letters for material from which he has written a graphic and entertaining story.

A Long Line of Ships: Mare Island’s Century of Naval Activity in California , by Arnold S. Lott, Lieutenant Commander, U.S.N. United States Naval Institute. 268 pp.

In the fall of 1854 Commander David Glasgow Farragut (who was a decade away from his “damn the torpedoes” fame) strolled across the windy wastes of Mare Island at the upper end of San Francisco Bay and set about the business of creating the U.S. Navy’s first permanent base on the Pacific Ocean. It was a long job, and there were years when it looked as if the project would die of sheer inanition, but in the end the yard was established—and became one of the world’s great naval bases. Commander Lott has told the story entertainingly, and there is a wealth of pictures.

The Self-Made Man in America: the Myth of Rags to Riches , by Irvin G. Wyllie. Rutgers University Press. 210 pp.

At the heart of the American creed there has always been the faith that the able and ambitious young man could rise to the very top of the business world even if he had to start at the very bottom. In this book Professor Wyllie examines this cherished article of belief, traces its ups and downs over the years, and concludes that in spite of many changes it still has wide acceptance. The changes, to be sure, have been curious. A century ago “the top” meant ownership of one’s own business; by the 1920’s it had come to mean occupancy of a high place in someone else’s business. In the 1860’s and 1870’s college training was held nonessential if not actually detrimental; half a century later the ambitious youth was urged to get educated as fast as possible and at any cost. The era of the muckrakers dimmed the credo somewhat, and the 1929 depression dimmed it even more, but it survives to this day—perhaps because, as the author concludes, “faith is simply the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The Face of New York: The City as it Was and Is . Photographs by Andreas Feininger, text by Susan E. Lyman. Crown Publishers, Inc.

Combining the resources of an excellent picture collection at the Museum of the City of New York and the translation of many of the same scenes of the city by photographer Andreas Feininger, this book is bound to interest both the “native” and those who find New York a nice place to visit but nothing they would care for permanently. Feininger is a very special interpreter of New York. He likes to photograph it from miles away on a hill in New Jersey, through the cables of bridges spanning its rivers, out of skyscrapers’ windows—giving a breathless sense of the city’s immensity—and then to shoot it from behind a broad-beamed window-shopper’s back, from under a theater marquee, in the aisle of a department store—which forces an awareness of the stifling closeness of its polyglot peoples.

To those who undertook the massive Columbia Historical Portrait of New York , this book may be a little late and a little thin. But its price is more modest and its format concise; and the talent of the photographer fairly leaps from its pages.

Pictorial History of the Wild West , by James D. Horan and Paul Sann. Crown Publishers, Inc. 254 pp.

The word to be emphasized in describing this book is wild , for it is less a history of the West than of the outlaws, desperadoes, cattle rustlers and bank robbers, and of the men who fought them to bring order out of lawlessness. The subject matter is pretty sure-fire. All the bad old familiar faces are here—Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Brothers—and a large group of lesser-known charmers who notched their guns with equal regularity. There is a wealth of pictorial material, including a fine old rogues’ gallery from the archives of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which is printed here for the first time. Unfortunately, the reproduction of the pictures is uniformly wretched.

American Science and Invention: A Pictorial History , by Mitchell Wilson. Simon and Schuster. 437 pp.

The scope of this hefty volume is awe-inspiring, for it translates into words and pictures 175 years of American science and invention, from Ben Franklin down to the atomic physicists. Mitchell Wilson is qualified for this ambitious undertaking both as a novelist ( Live With Lightning ) who can make the men behind the inexorable progress exciting and human, and as a physicist (he was an assistant to the late Enrico Fermi) who knows his subject well. He calls his book “a collaboration between my two professional selves,” and the collaboration seems to have gone very nicely. More than a thousand drawings, engravings, photographs and paintings accompany the text. Paul Jensen, the layout editor, has done a masterful job.

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