On July 8, 1879, cheering throngs watched as the USS Jeannette set out from San Francisco and sailed off like a “long dark pencil of shadow standing straight up against the vivid sunset.” Under the command of officer George Washington De Long, the steamer and its crew were attempting to reach the North Pole and confirm a then--popular theory that the polar sea remained ice-free and open north of the Bering Strait. The expedition was funded by James Gordon Bennett Jr., the wealthy and eccentric owner of the New York Herald, who had also financed Stanley’s mission to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone.
Leonardo da Vinci was an outlier in so many ways: a peripatetic polymath, handsome, unmarried, an innovator, unquestionably an artistic genius. He doesn’t typify his era any more than geniuses ever do. Leonardo was a party of one.
Ah, the metric system—the logical way of meting out the world that confounds most Americans. Readers who have failed to crack its code will find comfort in John Bemelmans Marciano’s Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet, an intriguing look at why the system failed to take hold here.
The 1970s were a tumultuous time in the U.S, defined by such events as the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; the Arab oil boycott; serious economic problems; and shocking revelations about illegal activities by our intelligence agencies. At one point, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans believed the government lied to them. All of this happened as the nation, somewhat dispirited, celebrated its bicentennial. Drawing on a vast array of sources, Rick Perlstein captures all of this and more in his sweeping, insightful and richly rewarding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
If we choose, we can avoid most forms of art. Architecture is not one of them. It is all around us. In his wide-ranging and stimulating new book, Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made, Tom Wilkinson explores many of the aspects—morality, power, economics, psychology, politics and sex are some—that help us better understand how architecture “shapes people’s lives and vice versa,” from ancient times to the present. His diverse selection of buildings includes Nero’s Golden House in Rome and the Festival Theatre in Beyreuth, as well as the Finsbury Health Centre in London and the Footbridge in Rio de Janeiro. Ten buildings are covered in detail, serving as springboards to discussions of related subjects.
At the age of 12, when his father was imprisoned for not paying his debts, Charles Dickens was sent to work in a factory. He walked to his job, to his meager lodgings, to find his dinner in a market stall and to visit Marshalsea prison, where the rest of his family was living. Dickens never lost this habit of walking. And as Judith Flanders reveals in her stunning new book, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, the sights, sounds and smells of the city that infuse his novels were not simply the work of a brilliant imagination but “the reportage of a great observer.”
French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is best characterized by the following passage: “He was an egoist in human affairs; a humble man in the scale of the cosmos.” This elegant writing comes from Elizabeth Mitchell in Liberty’s Torch, the tale of how Bartholdi proposed the creation of the Statue of Liberty and spent much of his life making it happen. He knew that the statue’s completion would bring him fame. But he also knew that it would become a lasting symbol of what America represents: freedom and opportunity.
Who fired the first shot on Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, remains in dispute. Both the British regulars and the American rebels vehemently denied that it came from their side. What is agreed on is that after that first shot was heard, there was immediately sporadic and then volley fire from the British regulars. In June, there was the catastrophic Battle of Bunker Hill. While the result was indecisive, it was a self-proclaimed British victory at a staggering cost.
Like the Vietnam War a generation or so later, the Spanish Civil War was a localized conflict that took on global resonance. Major Western powers adopted an official hands-off policy toward the Iberian struggle between socialists and fascists, afraid to upset the fragile diplomatic balance in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Still, the bloody hostilities gained the wider public’s attention and sympathies, in no small part due to a coterie of impassioned journalists and intellectuals who took up the cause of Spain. In her meticulously researched and beautifully told new book, Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill refracts the turbulent events that took place between July 1936 and March 1939 through a prism of six such determined believers.
It is far easier to be morally outraged by a situation than morally engaged in confronting it. We look back at the horrors of slavery or the Holocaust and exclaim, “How could they have let this happen,” even as we effectively ignore the current waves of human miseries washing around our feet. Gil and Eleanor Kraus were no such antiseptic moralists.