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One nation, not exactly under God.

Eye

 

NATURE’S GOD: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (W.W. Norton, 2014), 566 pp. This review was originally published in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, July 19, 2014.

“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” So begins Article XI of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was read aloud in the US Senate and ratified unanimously. Our second president, John Adams, who detested the “spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity” and regarded the resurrection of Jesus as “an absurdity,” promptly signed the treaty into law. It was no big deal then. So why does it all sound so surprising now?

Matthew Stewart’s enthralling and important new book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,’’ argues that we misremember the philosophical and religious origins of the American Revolution. Stewart, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, is the author of previous books on the history of Western philosophy, and once again he happily rips into the original sources of Enlightenment thought, this time discovering a radical and profoundly humanistic worldview underlying the American Revolution.

The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’

The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

Does it matter in what or in whom the men who wrote our nation’s founding documents believed? After all, we still have the documents; surely those speak for themselves. Yet over 200 years later we are more absorbed with questions about original intent than ever, and the debate in particular over religious freedom — and freedom from religion — grows louder every day. “Nature’s God’’ makes significant new contributions to our understanding of what the founders had in mind.

As Stewart points out, the “broad plurality of people in America remained active and observant within some variety or other of relatively orthodox religion,” and the radical humanism of the Revolutionary leaders “was simply not representative of its people in this respect.” Jefferson nevertheless believed that the Declaration of Independence would inspire people “to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” His views on religion may have differed from most of his countrymen, but in the end he was the one planning and writing the Declaration.

It was Jefferson, too, who invoked “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence’s first sentence. But this was not “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination but . . . nature itself or the universe comprehended as a whole. It is a way of talking about God long after God is dead.” This is Nature as God, the “presiding deity of the American Revolution.”

To uncover the origins of this revolutionary philosophy, Stewart embarks on a deep investigation into the history of ideas. Just as Stephen Greenblatt argued in 2011’s historical blockbuster, “The Swerve,’’ Stewart cites the the “revival of Epicurean philosophy that followed upon the rediscovery of Lucretius in early modern Europe” as “the decisive episode in the history of modern thought.” He then follows “Epicurus’s dangerous idea” to the 13 Colonies, where its inherently secular, materialist message focused on the importance of attaining a peaceful, happy life during this lifetime, not after death, and inspired a vision of a nation founded on reason, not on faith.

He finds ample evidence of Epicurean influence in the writings of known intellectuals such as Jefferson and Franklin and in some unexpected places, too. “Oracles of Reason’’ (1784), the almost completely forgotten philosophical manifesto of the American revolutionary Ethan Allen, “testifies to the presence in the remotest regions of revolutionary America of modes of thought that have almost universally been regarded as too old, too radical, and too continental to have played a role in the foundation of the American republic.” The thrill Stewart feels upon its discovery is infectious. “Opening its pages,” he exults, “is like discovering an empty bottle of whisky on the moon.”

When he stepped down from his position as commander of the Continental Army in 1783, Washington made a point of reminding his countrymen: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition.” The question “Nature’s God’’ implicitly asks is whether we ought to take Washington at his word.

"The Most Charming of Despots": Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters, by Philip Eade

Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom, by Philip Eade (Picador, June 2014), 362 pp.

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(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Books section, June 30, 2014)

Sylvia Brett (1885-1971) and her siblings were born to an aristocratic English family, the kind whose parents who were so consumed with their own social lives that when her father Reggie Brett encountered three children waving at him in the park, he was confused until a friend suggested, “Perhaps they are yours.” [1] It’s an apt beginning to the biography of Sylvia Brett. Unloved and overlooked as a child, Sylvia was determined to “live flamingly and electrify the world” as an adult. [21] And after marrying Vyner Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, in 1912 she acquired a nation of subjects whom she would neglect in turn.

This is a tale of British colonialism in its waning days. Sarawak, a region in the northwest section of the island of Borneo (now part of Malaysia), fell into the hands of Vyner Brooke’s ancestor James Brooke (1803-1868), who instituted a monarchy in a mild version of the classic British colonial style: three parts paternalism mixed with one part railroad-building and a liberal splash of gin to keep its British administrators cheerful. Luckily for the Brookes, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful place that required little political oversight.

A narcissistic, dramatic young woman, Sylvia was called “a female Iago” [95] by her own brother and marrying the scion of the Sarawak dynasty proved to be an ideal golden ticket. She was described by one Sarawak official as “one of the most superficial people I have met… with a firm eye on the main chance.” [158] Had she remained in England she may have remained just another foolish debutante obsessed with lunch dates and nightclubs, but thanks to her status as the Ranee she became, in one American newspaper’s words, “the most charming of despots.” [151]

While Vyner busied himself with matters of state, including keeping the peace with the infamous local Dayak headhunters who give the book its title, Sylvia wrote novels based on her childhood, played tennis, drank gin slings, and received visitors. Although she seemed to be genuinely touched by the beauty of Sarawak and the kindness of its people, the notion that she should make any personal sacrifice in her service as their queen never occurred to her. Sylvia (and Vyner to a lesser extent) spent more than half of every year away from Sarawak during her nearly thirty-year rule, going “home” to England or on trips to the USA the rest of the time (she adored Hollywood).

And the Brookes chose to leave Sarawak when it really counted. In the autumn of 1941, threat of war with Japan in the Pacific was imminent and it was at this point that both Sylvia and Vyner decided to go on vacation. [226] At least one Sarawak official balked at the Rajah’s departure, writing that it suggested a lack of a “sense of duty toward [his country] that would have been expected from a ruler really interested in the welfare of his people.” [226] Vyner had left his chief secretary Cyril Le Gros Clark in charge of things while he was away; during the war Clark was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed by the Japanese. [273]

What effect this news had on Sylvia and Vyner, Eade doesn’t say, but they were certainly sad to give up their royal status when the war ended and Sarawak was ceded to Great Britain, “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors,” as Sylvia wrote. [285]

There is undoubtedly an important story to be told about the Brookes and their kingdom of Sarawak: How did the native population of Sarawak really feel about the Brookes, one wonders? What was the daily life of a Sarawak citizen like? As a biographer, Eade focuses solely on Sylvia, and since Sylvia focused solely on herself, a deeper understanding of the people, culture, and history of Sarawak is not to be found in these pages. Perhaps it’s not fair to ask for more about the common folk in a book devoted to their queen. But had her life been more connected to the lives of her citizens, her biography and her legacy would be more worthy of remembrance.

"Take This Man" by Brando Skyhorse

Sacheen Littlefeather

Above: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards Ceremony

TAKE THIS MAN: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 259 pp.

(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, June 18, 2014).

“I was a full-blooded Indian boy in a Mexican neighborhood who now had a white older sister that live on another coast,” [55] writes Brando Skyhorse in his memoir, Take This Man. Only one of those biographical facts turned out to be true: Echo Park was, in fact, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s where the author grew up. But he wasn’t full-blooded Indian, nor did he have a white older sister. If the young Brando Skyhorse was constantly searching for a stable sense of identity in his Southern California home, his mother – the source of all information true and imagined – was the San Andreas Fault.

  What was it like to grow up the son of Maria Teresa Bonaga/Ulloa/Skyhorse/Zamora, et cetera (she was married five times, though she never divorced her first husband, and Skyhorse omits the surnames of most of his short-time stepfathers)? To put it a different way: What was it like to grow up the son of a pathological liar? “Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way each time she spoke them,” Skyhorse writes. “Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe.” [17]

 

A young, beautiful Mexican-American woman with long black hair, Maria Bonaga grew up in Echo Park with a mother who was obsessed with Hollywood. “A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles,” [26] Skyhorse writes, so it follows that Maria would first get the idea to adopt a wholly invented racial identity while watching the Oscars. When the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for “The Godfather” in 1973, the pregnant Maria turned to her Mexican husband Candido Ulloa and declared that their baby’s name would be Brando. It was “a great way to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage,” Skyhorse notes in a rare moment of humor. Then again, a childhood filled with psychological and physical abuse isn’t very funny – or prolonged. [23] “You’re already five years old,” his mother once admonished him: “You’re not a child anymore.” [39]

  When Brando was three Maria finally ditched not only her husband, but her own name and her Mexican identity, too. Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse Johnson, adopted son of an imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist whom she met after placing a (dishonest) personal ad: “Young, single Indian mother searching for a good Indian father and devoted husband.” [29] Maria became Running Deer Skyhorse and she and her son suddenly became Indians. Skyhorse’s memoir is structured as a succession of portraits of would-be fathers, some sweet, some surly, all hapless and ultimately doomed to dismissal by his mother’s insanity and abuse. “First I was forced to accept” each new father figure, Skyhorse writes, “then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.” [2] The repetition of this theme, while essential to understanding the troubled young man he became, can sometimes be wearing for the reader. We, too, know that each new father, however exciting at first – Frank, the bumbling straight man; Robert, the sexy Aleutian thief – will eventually misstep and then suddenly disappear.

  Yet Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalogue of misery. He writes of his family: “The difference between a leap of faith and a leap of madness depends on where you land.” [48]

  Brando Skyhorse never stops loving his mother. If anything, he’s angrier with his biological father for leaving the family; his mother was maddening but she was also always present in his life. And they shared something else, too. “My mother lied in her stories for the same reason I’ve told the truth in this one… stories sustain us,” he writes. Like his mother, Brando became a storyteller. He understands why she couldn’t stop reinventing her own life. “[Stories] carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape,” he writes, “to get to the lives we need to live instead.” [239]

The Goldfinch and the Griping

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (New York: Little, Brown, 2013). 784 pages.

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so many words.

You've heard about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's big blockbuster of a novel, her third. Yes, I heard about it, too. People were digging it, they were loving it, they were staying up all night to read it. I wasn't sure I was ready to commit. BECAUSE IT'S 784 PAGES LONG, PEOPLE. But then one day I noticed it was only $2.99 for the Kindle version (and even 784 pages can't add more than a few Kindle ounces, I figured) so I took the plunge.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, a boy in Manhattan whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he is 13. "Things would have turned out better if she had lived," Theo tells us right up front. And he's right: the novel tells the story of all the bad choices, bad luck, and some good luck, he finds in the decade or so after her death. Sheltered by strangers, some kind and some odd; exploited by his ne'er-do-well father; befriended by freaks and hustlers, Theo somehow manages to keep his head just above water and survive the storm that takes over his life after his mother dies. Just barely.

There's a lot to like and even love in The Goldfinch. Tartt is a meticulous observer of detail, from the way paint covers a canvas to the subtle interior monologues we have with ourselves, minute by minute each day. "Was it wrong," Theo wonders, "wanting to sleep late with the covers over my head and wander around a peaceful house with old seashells in drawers and wicker baskets of folded upholstery fabric stored under the parlor secretary, sunset falling in drastic coral spokes through the fanlight over the front door?" Those "drastic coral spikes:" those are so nice.

But the interested reader has heard what's great about The Goldfinch already: it's a ripping yarn; it's a Dickensian tale of morality for our time; it pulls you into its own special world. Fine, if it does that for you. At times, it did for me. But the more I read of The Goldfinch, the longer my list of questions and grievances grew. I didn't even know I had a list at first, but looking back over my notes, question marks, and increasingly agitated exlamations, I realized I had some Goldfinch Gripes. They boil down to three things: Why Are They Talking Like That?; Snobs; Plot vs. Action.

1. Why Are They Talking Like That?

Tartt is terrific at getting visual details right but not so great at the aural. This is especially the case with the way her characters speak. Theo... Theo's fine. It's Theo's friends who drove me crazy.

Boris, for instance. It makes sense that Theo's Russian friend Boris would named in honor of the mustache-twirling bad guy of "Bullwinkle" fame, Boris Badenov, because that's exactly how he talks. "Allow me to introducing myself. I am Boris Badenov, world's greatest no-goodnik." This is not a quote from The Goldfinch (it's from Rocky and Bullwinkle) but that's what I heard every time Boris opened his mouth. "Likely you will end up in jail, Potter," is a typical Boris comment. "Loose morals, slave to the economy. Very bad citizen, you." Pottsylvania is not named as one of the dozen countries in which Boris had lived, but I wouldn't be surprised; all the Badenovs come from there.

Then there's Hobie. I can't tell you how many times I stopped while reading his dialogue and asked myself (and the book): Wait, did Tartt say Hobie's from upstate New York? She did, didn't she? She did. And yet everything Hobie says sounds like something my favorite Leeds-born, London-living writer Alan Bennett would say. "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it," Hobie tells Theo. I have no idea what that means, not being British myself, but then again NEITHER IS HOBIE.

Nor, for that matter, are the Barbours, the wealthy family that shelters Theo after his mother's death. Are they supposed to be some 21st-century version of Salinger's Glass family? I guess not, because the Glass family did not say thing like: “Well, you know, I slightly think she’s out there playing golf today.” (Kitsey Barbour) or "We none of us drink it—Daddy always ordered this kind” (Kitsey again). Keep in mind, Kitsey is supposed to be a twentysomething young woman born sometime during the  Clinton administration and raised in New York City, not in an interwar British girls' school run by Lord Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear. “You seem in a really dire mood," Kitsey says. YES, IT'S BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU'RE TALKING, KITSEY.

2. Snobs.

Kitsey's a nice lead-in to the next issue: snobs and snobbishness. When Theo, who is from a lower middle-class family, is orphaned and then taken in by the Barbours, he's stunned by their wealth. The huge antique-filled apartment on the Upper East Side, the art, the chauffers, the staff... it's as much of an aesthetic thrill for him as the painting of the goldfinch. Tartt is terrific at describing the textures of life with the ultra-WASPs. But try as she might, she can't quite make them into the bad guys they really are. At first I thought this was Theo's issue and it made sense: they did take him in when his mother died, after all. Then they coldly cast him aside as we always suspected they would. Later, he's brought back into the fold, but only because it suits their purposes and eases their guilt. They're not good people and yet Theo -- and more importantly, Tartt -- can't bring themselves to walk away from the Barbours and their money, their glamor, and most importantly, their status. THE BARBOURS ARE A**HOLES, OK? They're snobs. But somehow we're supposed to like them, or if not like them, forgive them, or if not forgive them, find them fascinating?

Meanwhile the poorest people in the novel, Theo's deadbeat dad and his girlfriend, a stripper named Xandra, are simply pathetic; every aspect of Xandra, from her profession to her self-styled name (it's really Sandra) to the fact that she hails from Florida are neon signs flashing "CHEAP" and attached to characters about whom we're not expected to care. Xandra in particular is immediately recognizable as the kind of bimbo usually only seen in Woody Allen movies (think Mighty Aphrodite). We're supposed to think she's lame. But a working-class girl from Florida who decides to juice up her name by adding an X to it is light years less phony than someone like Kitsey Barbour--or any of the cold-blooded social-climbing Barbours. An adult woman (Kitsey) who refers to high heels as "Hurty-hurty shoes!" and calls her boyfriend "Meanypants" is not a glamorous ditz. She's not even a manic pixie dream girl (that honor goes to Pippa--but let's not even go there). She's just a fake. While eventually even Theo manages to escape her thrall, one senses that Tartt is never fully out of love with the Barbours. Xandra can be tossed out with yesterday's newspapers but the Barbours somehow deserve a better fate."I was only one step away from some trailer park loner," thinks Theo, musing about his obsession with Pippa, "stalking a girl he’d spotted in the mall." No, not a trailer park! Not a... a... mall! The horror, folks. The horror.

Moving on.

3. Plot vs. Action

No question, a lot of stuff happens in The Goldfinch; that's the "ripping" part of the yarn. But action is not the same as plot. And this novel's plot is beside the point. There's one MacGuffin that emerges in the beginning of the novel and is never satisfactorily resolved: Theo's possession of the stolen Goldfinch painting. Yes, he took the painting from the Metropolitan Museum in the aftermath of the explosion. And yes, it would require some explaining on his part to make the authorities understand why a teenaged boy has this masterpiece stored in a pillowcase, but HE COULD JUST RETURN THE PAINTING TO THE AUTHORITIES AT ANY POINT WITHOUT ANY REAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. They're not going to throw him in jail or torture him or.. anything! They'll just be happy to get the painting back. So when, after 780 (!!) pages HE DOES EXACTLY THIS I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room. But as I mentioned, I was reading it on a Kindle and I didn't want to dent the precious gadget.

With only 5 pages to go, I finished the novel. There's a lot to admire in this book. But it would have been much better had it been edited more carefully and its length cut by, say, 40 perecent. That would have cut lines like this description of people in Amsterdam: "rosy housewives with armloads of flowers, tobacco-stained hippies in wire-rimmed glasses"-- what, no flaxen-braided milkmaids wearing wooden clogs in this Dutch cartoon?--or this internal monologue of Theo's: "I wanted to say goodbye to Pippa but she was nowhere in sight. Where was she? The library? The loo?" Again: NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE BRITISH. Sigh.

A 315-page Goldfinch? Yes, pelase. As Hobie says, it might have been a "Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it."