Painting the American Identity

Paul Staiti, Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College, has written a book about the lives and works of five painters who juggled the demands of art and the demands of history during the American Revolution and afterwards.

The first painter Staiti portrays is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), a native of Maryland, who apprenticed as a saddle-maker, and then, to make more money, decided to learn to paint. He did well, studied with Benjamin West, an American painter living in London who connects all the painters in this book, then returned to America to become embroiled in the Revolution. He fought with Washington’s forces in 1776 along the Delaware; fought but also painted, as the war continued, portraits of Washington.

Managing an Ancient Empire

In Pax Romana, Adrian Goldsworthy takes us inside the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire to show us how Rome seized territory, held territory, and then kept the peace within its vast borders.

Goldsworthy begins with the Roman army under the republic. From the start, a strong sense of civic purpose gave soldiers the ideological grounding for hard, expansionist battles. Rome’s drive was not unusual, but its martial dominance surely was. “There is no doubt that the Republic was an aggressive imperial power, but as soon as we look more closely at contemporary states it becomes obvious that this was equally true of almost every other kingdom, state or people.” Throughout Roman history, peace rested more on Rome’s potential for massive retribution and its empowerment of regional allies than in vast garrisons stationed in the far reaches of its territory. “Fear, and a sense that Roman rule was usually tolerable even if it was more or less oppressive, may well have convinced most provincials against rebellion.”

Safe Spaces

If you can’t read Chaucer without a translation, or puzzle your way through a page of Cicero’s Latin, you aren’t educated. If you don’t have a few dozen tags of Homer within easy reach in your mind, or a few hundred lines of Shakespeare, you lack part of what high schools and colleges were created to teach. If you can’t name the books of the Bible, or the circles of Dante’s Hell, there are pieces missing from what we once assumed learned people should know.

For that matter, if you can’t say how the Romans lost at Cannae, or how the Ten Thousand marched from Persia, or how Troy was defeated, then what was all your schooling for?

Words Matter, Whatever Stanley Fish Says

I wish publishers could be sued for false advertising. They, and not the authors, are typically the ones that slap titles on books in an attempt to make them market-friendly. Yet frequently the titles seem like a bait-and-switch, enticing you to buy an entirely different book than the one you brought home. Such a bait-and-switch is Stanley Fish’s newest turn as a public intellectual. His career as a bad boy academic began in the 1970s and 80s (after a more predictable start with work on Milton, to whom he returns in the book in hand) with something called Is There a Text in This Class? that everybody, just everybody, in academic circles was talking about, and that made the intellectually squishy notion of “interpretive communities” one of the phrases du jour in English professor circles.

Stealing Judaism

In Who Stole My Religion? Richard H. Schwartz accuses his fellow Orthodox Jews of stealing Judaism—even as he attempts to hijack it for his own environmentalist creed.

A man who fell in love with progressive politics first and Orthodox Judaism second, Schwartz married the two in his mind and is now frustrated that the shidduch—or love match—won’t take hold in the larger community. The roughly 10 percent of Jews who are Orthodox are stubbornly conservative. Schwartz laments that, while an overwhelming 78 percent of all Jews went for Barack Obama in 2008, an almost identical percentage of Orthodox Jews voted for John McCain. Given that Schwartz praises Judaism for its heritage of non-conformity (starting with Abraham), he might have celebrated the Orthodox for going their own way. But no, Schwartz seeks 100 percent Jewish support for the current pieties of the left wing of the Democratic Party.