While reading Money, the novel by his son Martin, Kingsley Amis suddenly reached a point where he could no longer continue. When Martin wrote himself into the novel—via a character named Martin Amis—Kingsley threw the book across the room. “He wasn’t having any of that,” Martin recounted in an interview. “No buggering around with the reader.”
I had a similar urge about halfway through Harvey Cox’s The Market as God. In a discussion comparing Adam Smith to Christian saints, Cox asks whether the free market has performed any miracles. He notes that postwar Germany had an economic miracle of sorts, but only in the capitalist West. Some people, he writes, “attributed the miracle to the faithful application of free market principles, and liked to contrast West Germany’s recovery with the very different experience of the command economy of East Germany.”
Reading the Parallel Lives of Plutarch used to be required reading for educated elites. For many, many centuries they were “a Bible for heroes,” Emerson wrote, and evidently he enjoyed the agreement of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hamilton, and Jay among others. Yet today, save a few classicists, Plutarch is largely ignored inside the academy and outside in popular culture. Why is that?
Well, the 46 lives of Greeks and Romans were considered in the 19th century as either propaganda for the Great Man theory of history, or moralism for schoolboys. “Saturate your soul with Plutarch,” Nietzsche said, “and when you believe in his heroes dare at the same time to believe in yourself.”
This is a book by a Princeton University professor published by Harvard University Press—with all that such Ivy League sources imply. Who would be surprised that This Vast Southern Empire proves competently written, professionally footnoted, and capably organized? An account of American history before the Civil War focused on the national influence of the Southern slaveholders, the book is exactly the kind of text that America’s superior university presses aim to produce: a work sufficiently scholarly to be taken seriously by academics, but with some hope of being read by a general audience.
Curiously, This Vast Southern Empire also proves to be something of a postmodern construction, climbing toward an anti-modern and anti-constitutional conclusion about the history of America.