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.

The Rise and Fall of the Karzai Dynasty

A recent New York Times headline says it all: “15 Years Into Afghan War, Americans Would Rather Not Talk About It.” A Kingdom of Their Own by Joshua Partlow, who was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Kabul from 2009-2012, explains in agonizing detail why. He has told the story of America’s involvement in Afghanistan since 9/11 by telling the story of the Karzai family, many of whom were working in their own restaurants and living in America when 9/11 happened.

Hamid Karzai was not, though; he was living in Pakistan in modest circumstances. At first, U. S. officials did not want him to be president of Afghanistan—he was not a significant player in the region—but he knew the different tribes and spoke the languages, including a British-accented English.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

The very long subtitle of this biography seems a bit like overkill; on the other hand, Alicia Patterson, whom I had never heard of before reading this book, was all of the things stated, the sort of larger-than-life figure the first half of the twentieth century seems to have specialized in.

Her niece, Alice Arlen (who died in March 2016), co-screenwriter of Silkwood and other films, and Michael J. Arlen, a former New Yorker staff writer and television critic, have written an entertaining and thoughtful biography of this perplexing yet fascinating woman.

Her Own Woman

Germaine de Staël

According to Biancamaria Fontana, professor of the history of political ideas at University of Lausanne, most of the histories of the French Revolution fail the Bechdel test when discussing Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), the daughter of Jacques Necker. He was one of a series of France’s financial controllers who tried to right the severely listing ship of the state but could not convince the royals, the nobles, or the clergy to pay any taxes.

Not that Fontana ever mentions the Bechdel test, but she does write that Staël, novelist, literary critic, and political theorist, is usually mentioned either for her allegedly scandalous behavior or in connection with the famous men in her life—Necker, Louis de Narbonne, and Benjamin Constant, among others.

The Battles of Julia Ward Howe

To tell the truth, I was not prepared to enjoy this book as much as I did. I knew it was about Julia Ward Howe, who had written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and I had read she did not get along with her husband, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I also presumed that this would be the story of a creative woman oppressed by a male-dominated world, and that women would therefore be shown to be the “good guys” and men the “bad guys.”