Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Service of Book Reviews: Is it Fair to Select a Reviewer with an Ax to Grind?

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

Photo: myeducomer.com

Could Bernie Sanders write a fair review of a book about Donald Trump or President George H. W. Bush, known to dislike broccoli, a balanced opinion of a cookbook about that vegetable? I read Joseph Epstein’s review of Richard Aldous’s new book “Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian,” in The Wall Street Journal and learned more about Epstein’s dislikes—Harvard, the Kennedys and Schlesinger’s career choices—than about the book.

He started by sharing his resentment of the importance of Harvard in its heyday as a stepping stone to a successful career no matter how ineffectual a person turned out to be. He gave as an example a friend with a Harvard sheepskin who went higher and higher in job after job, and who “improved none of these institutions in any way I could determine, which did not stop his relentless progress in the world.” Next he criticized the University today for “having committed intellectual hara-kiri through multiculturalism, political correctness and the general surrender to victimology.”

Why Harvard? The university impacted the first half of Schlesinger’s life. Epstein wrote: “Richard Aldous frequently notes the services that a Harvard connection afforded Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.” His father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., “was on the Harvard history faculty and, along with being an historian of originality, was a clever academic politician.” He then shared a long list of how Jr. benefited in Cambridge, subsequently landing an interesting job during WWII thanks to connections. Epstein acknowledged Junior’s many talents during this period. Schlesinger, Jr. returned to Harvard after the war but subsequently made a frightful career choice, according to Epstein, who was clear in his disdain for the Kennedy family.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr Photo: anb.org

According to Epstein, “Few young men could have seemed more promising than the younger Schlesinger, until he met a Waterloo named the Kennedys. Once that fatal encounter occurred, Schlesinger went from boundlessly promising brilliant historian—with three volumes of an anticipated five of his never-finished Franklin Delano Roosevelt biography already completed—to a man variously called ‘a servant,’ ‘a stooge,’ a ‘poodle’ and ‘a hagiographer.’”

“During World War II, with its rationing and shortages of gasoline, a popular poster asked, ‘Is This Trip Necessary?’ The same question might be asked of this biography. Is its subject worthy of the full-dress biographical effort Mr. Aldous, a professor of history at Bard College, gives him? No one would claim great-man status for Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.”

Epstein described how ineffectual Schlesinger, Jr. was in influencing President Kennedy: “In taking his White House job, Schlesinger saw it as his duty to steer Kennedy onto a liberal track and keep him there. His success at the task, we learn from Mr. Aldous, was slightly less than minimal.”

Photo: Amazon.com

Epstein disliked the award winning book about President Kennedy, “A Thousand Days,” for his pandering. As for “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” wrote Epstein: “the jig, you might say, was up. Reviewers called it ‘a 916 page promotional pamphlet of exculpation and eulogy.’ …Even Mr. Aldous, who strains to be fair to Schlesinger, reviews his various coverups of Bobby Kennedy’s more egregious behavior and concludes that ‘it is difficult for the reader not to wince.’”

Epstein gave the author credit for keeping his political views out of the book, [which is more than I can say for the reviewer]. And he complimented Aldous for describing the “inner conflicts of presidential politics.”

There is one political commentator on Cable who asks questions of his panelists and doesn’t give them a chance to answer because he then bellows his opinions and talks over them. I felt this review was like that. It reminds me of a restaurant review I read eons ago in which a perfectly good restaurant was trashed by a sainted reviewer because a couple next to her table argued loudly throughout dinner. She interspersed their uncivil conversation in her copy and blamed the owner for not kicking them out and gave the place a bad mark because her neighbors spoiled the meal.

Do you think that a person with an ax to grind should be chosen to write a review even if, like Epstein, he’s a crackerjack writer with sharp wit? Might Epstein be irritated that Schlesinger became the darling of café society and the publishing world as a result of his political connections made after he sold out and dropped the life of academia and a promising career writing serious history?

Photo: youtube.com

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