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Current Books In Brief

March 2023
4min read

The Great Reconnaissance , by Edward S. Wallace. Little, Brown & Co. 288 pp. $5.

This book is principally a retelling of the exploratory expeditions made in the Far West by that nowvanished organization, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The work began with a lengthy survey of the U.S.-Mexican border as it was established by the war with Mexico, continued on with various attempts to chart routes for transcontinental railroads, included the first surveys of the Grand Canyon region, and wound up with the entertaining and potentially valuable attempt to make the camel a beast of burden on the southwestern deserts. Altogether, these explorations were done competently and with a minimum of the kind of accidents that make headlines, and Mr. Wallace has provided a readable account of an interesting and little-known chapter in American history.

Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt , by Helmut de Terra. Alfred A. Knopf. 386 pp. $5.75.

Baron von Humboldt was a fantastic character—a scientist whose range went from geology through meteorology and botany to ethnology, terrestrial magnetism and archaeology—and in the first half of the Nineteenth Century he made himself one of the world’s best-known and must useful citizens. Since he concerned himself with almost everything, roamed from Peru to Tibet and wrote voluminously about his travels, his studies and his casual thoughts, this attempt to get all of the man into one volume occasionally makes him sound like a dilettante. But as a one-man academy of science he had genuine stature, he sparked the imagination of men like Darwin and Jefferson, and he deserved the title Emerson bestowed on him—a “wonder of the world.” This volume offers a compact and exceedingly readable introduction to one of the most influential characters of the Nineteenth Century.

The Assassins , by Robert J. Donovan. Harper & Brothers. 300 pp. $4.

In this book a competent newspaperman considers the seven occasions on which men have either killed or have tried to kill a President of the United States. (The list includes one attack on an ex-President, Theodore Roosevelt, and one on a President-elect, Franklin Roosevelt.) The result is an instructive book, which makes it clear that the Secret Service is fully justified in the elaborate safeguards it throws around our Presidents. It is clear, likewise, that the threat to a President’s life usually comes from lone-wolf crackpots rather than from political conspirators. The Booth conspiracy (itself an addle-brained plot if there ever was one) and the effort of the Puerto Rican terrorists to kill President Truman appear to have been the only cases with real political motivation; the real danger usually comes from the deranged fancies of some individual.

Wilderness Messiah: The Story of Hiawatha and the Iroquois , by Thomas R. Henry. William Sloane Associates, Inc. 274 pp. $4.

A veteran newspaperman and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Mr. Henry here turns his attention to the remarkable people who made up the famous Iroquois federation and produces a highly informative and interesting book for the general reader. He gives these Indians substantially higher marks for cultural attainments and general behavior than tradition usually gives them, considers that their amazing confederation actually had substantial influence on the men who devised the Constitution of the United States, and paints a highly sympathetic picture of them. The aboriginal Iroquois must have made highly uncomfortable neighbors, but they rank among the most fascinating of all the Indian tribes and Mr. Henry has written a solid, readable book about them.

The Indian and the Horse , by Frank Gilbert Roe. The University of Oklahoma Press. 434 pp. $5.

In this volume, directed at the student rather than at the general reader, Dr. Roe conducts an exhaustive examination of the relationship between horse and Indian, particularly on the Western Plains, with especial attention to the questions: When and how did the Indians acquire horses, and what did that acquisition do to them? They got them, of course, from the stocks the Spaniards brought over early in the Sixteenth Century; Indians in New Mexico had them by 1600 or thereabouts, and tribes in the Dakotas, Montana and Canada appear to have obtained them before 1750. Dr. Roe dissents vigorously from certain accepted theories about the results of this development. The horse, he insists, did not make nomads out of the Plains Indians; they were nomads to begin with, and the horse merely extended their range. Nor did the horse, in his opinion, cause the inter-tribal wars that marked plains life; like the habit of wandering, the habit of raiding one’s neighbor and contesting for good hunting grounds was already in existence, and possession of the horse merely stepped up a practice of long standing.

The Great Crash: 1929 , by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin Company. 212 pp. $3.

In this sprightly re-examination of the great 1929 crash, Mr. Galbraith conducts a study of the speculative mania which from time to time takes possession of human society, and while he does put Wall Street under the microscope he is not hunting for any particular villain or set of villains who led America astray. As he remarks, the world is inhabited, “not by people who have to be persuaded to believe, but by people who want an excuse to believe.” In 1929 and the years just before, general economic conditions provided the excuse. There was a solid industrial boom; and, as Mr. Galbraith notes, “at some point in the growth of a boom all aspects of property ownership become irrelevant except the prospect for an early rise in price.” So the speculative mania ran wild, there was a market crash, and—as the author insists—it took place in an economy which was fundamentally unsound, and hence was vulnerable to sudden shocks. The great depression was a logical result.

The Parkman Reader , selected and edited, with an introduction and notes, by Samuel Eliot Morison. Little, Brown & Co. 532 pp. $6.

Francis Parkman was perhaps the greatest historian America has produced. In this book Dr. Morison has selected chapters from his books, given them unobtrusive editing and annotation, and presented them so that the general reader may get a solid and cohesive sampling of the man’s work. The result is a book of very substantial value and interest, not the least appealing portion of which is Dr. Morison’s introduction, which sketches in Parkman’s career and provides a brief critique of his writings. Plagued with frail health and extremely defective eyesight, and (by his own statement) loathing “the drudgery of historical research,” Parkman traveled the West at a time when such a trip was arduous, uncomfortable and not altogether safe, burrowed relentlessly into his sources, and came up with a marvelous account of the early American Indian tribes and the struggle between the French and British for North America—an account which is still authoritative and which present-day readers will find eminently readable.

Doc Holliday , by John Myers Myers. Little, Brown & Co. 287 pp. $4.50.

The western gunman was undoubtedly one of those American creations whose entertainment value increases with the distance. Seen at close range, he must have been a highly difficult person to get along with; a generation or two removed, however, he appears as an amusing and glamorous fellow, a fit subject for novels, moving pictures and straight biographies. Here is one of the gaudiest of the lot—Doc Holliday, the wispy and consumptive little dentist who went west when the West was really wild, turned from dentistry to gambling, and became one of the most accomplished killers of an era that boasted some real artists in that line. He was equally at home with the revolver, sawed-off shotgun and bowie knife, he was vaguely on the side of the law in some of his more startling adventures, and in the end he died quietly in beddowning a water glass full of whiskey, smiling, remarking “This is funny,” and then passing on in peace. Whatever his contemporaries may have thought of him, from this distance he seems to have been an engaging sort of killer.

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