In The Quiet Man, John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, writes affectionately of the presidency of George HW Bush. As Bush’s chief of staff, Sununu was with the president for all of the significant moments of his consequential term in office. Though admittedly biased, this assessment of Mr. Bush’s record is made worthwhile by the new details it brings to old stories.
On July 4th, 1826, a Washington newspaper published one of the most poignant letters penned in American history. An ailing Thomas Jefferson regretfully declined an invitation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American independence with the citizens of the nation’s capital. “[T]o be present with them,” he wrote, “as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself. . . [I]t adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day.”
And in those days, a genius arose among the people, and she taught them greatly the ways of … um, well, the writing of mystery novels. However much it was clearly a breakthrough of small but real genius, what Agatha Christie achieved in 1920 with her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, is hard to describe with any precision.
The typical science fiction writer will take a concept he finds interesting—say, nanotechnology—explore and build an architecture of plot around the theme and if it all goes well something entertaining will be the end product. Not so with Neal Stephenson. Everything he has written is a heady mix of half a dozen complex ideas: cryptography, currency, philosophy, the history of science, memetics, computer viruses, and so on. (Stephenson brought our present meaning for the word “avatar” into common usage.) If he weren’t often seen in public, it would be possible to argue that Stephenson was some sort of composite, a synthesis of assorted futurists, historians, philosophers, and fiction writers, all writing as a team.
In September 1962, Sonny Liston fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title before a crowd of 19,000 in Chicago.This confrontation was preceded two days earlier by another marquee event, less kinetic but no less momentous. “The debate of the year” at Chicago’s grand Medinah Temple drew a crowd of 3,000. Playboy magazine published the full transcript of the event and sold 1.5 million copies, a publication record. The debaters were Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr., rising stars of the left and right.
It is nowadays fashionable to say that one is “on the right side of history.” Such a statement of one’s own sanctity wins arguments by demonstrating the speaker’s piety. What remains unclear is the character of the great force or being toward which the speaker is pious: what is history? What makes history a force? Is the force the individuals who live or is there a logic to history that transcends the individuals? And how can there be a right and a wrong side to it?
Midway through her memoir, Hold Still, photographer Sally Mann recounts the first of several journeys she took through the Deep South with her portable photograph studio, seeking, “To whatever extent it is possible to photograph air… To whatever extent photographs can reveal the dark mysteries of a haunted landscape.” Using the archaic process of wet-plate collodion, which requires enough explosive, ether-based chemicals that her Suburban was “effectively a rolling bomb,” Mann produced massive landscapes, sometimes 40 x 50 inches in size, whose washed-out ethereality and mystery can stir the viewer much like the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady or Michael Miley (whose work Mann discovered in an attic, and later saved, while working as the campus photographer at Washington and Lee University).
In a draft of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), Moses Herzog, a failed academic in the throws of a personal crisis following the breakdown of his second marriage, says that according to “the latest from Paris and London, there is no person…‘I’ is a grammatical expression.” For Herzog, however, the “human soul” is a mystery, an “amphibian,” which is cause for intellectual humility. “It lives in more elements,” he tells himself, “than I will ever know.”